Okay so we have our base components all setup now lets turn to some fine tuning. We will begin with keeping our system cool.
The stock Node 304 (the case for our build) comes with some pretty solid cooling out of the box. It has dual 92mm fans for intake and a 140mm fan for exhaust. Add to this the fact that with a stock Intel cooler we can get our overclock of 3.9 GHz on our 3450, we should be all set right? Well doing good is okay for most but I hate mediocrity so I want to push this a little.
Lets being by addressing our CPU cooler, I HATE stock coolers and am not a huge fan of after market tower coolers. So that leaves me with my cooler of choice, the all in one liquid cooling solutions.
Now because of the size of our case and the fan layouts our choices are limited to a standard 120mm cooler, a 140mm cooler or a double width 120mm cooler. For our build I wanted some decent cooling power but I wanted to keep things small as well so I chose a standard 120mm cooler.
For this build our friends over at Thermaltake sent me a Water 2.0 Performer, a cooler we reviewed in August of last year. This is a very good water cooling solution for anyone not wanting to deal with a full customer water cooling rig. It comes stock with dual 120mm fans for a push/pull configuration meaning at it’s price point it is the best at keep a CPU with an all in one unit. However I was concerned about how thick we move out from the back of the case. As you can see the radiator is direct connected to the case, a fan in between would have pushed the radiator back quite a bit over the board and potentially hindering the air flow on the rest of the motherboard.
With this in mind I elected to go with a single cooling fan in a push configuration, the most efficient setup for a single fan. The stock fans from Thermaltake can get the fan done an using the stock fan generated some good cooling numbers but I wanted something a bit more. To kick things up a notched I turn to the fine folks at Noctua, a company known for making some of the best fans in the world for your PC.
The Noctua fan we chose was the NF-F12 PWM. This fan has a very high static pressure which is a must for work with a radiator. The fan also has a very low operating noise and has PWM control. PWM means the fan is able to receive instructions from the motherboard and control it’s speed based on the temperature of the CPU across a very broad range of speeds.
The result was exactly what I hoped, under gaming loads the overclocked CPU is usually around 55C topping at about 60C, under super stress testing we lock down at 70C and do not move. At low usage and even gaming the system is practically silent and under heavy load the noise is so low as not to matter. Using a second fan or a double width radiator solution we could have gotten the numbers even lower but in the end lower CPU temps would not make any difference in our system and the other solutions would have been louder under load.
Now as I said from the start the Node comes with three good cooling fans and it has in the back a small switch to let you set the fans at low, medium or high speed. I have found the medium setting gave the best balance of noise to cooling. However I HATE switch fan controllers. The computer has a solid, built in, method of telling a fan to speed up or slow down and we should make use of that. So lets look at the front fans.
As we showed in our review of the Node 304, the case comes stock with dual 92mm fans. These fans are great, very quiet and move a good amount of air. However they are speed locked and must use the switch controller on the back of the case to change their speed. YUCK. So again I have turned to Noctua for a solution and found the solution with the NF-B9 PWM. There are actually two Noctua fans that could work, the second is the NF-A9x14 PWM which is a thinner 90mm fan. The low profile design of the A9 really intrigued me but in the end the B9 has the better air flow and so was the fan of choice.
The dual Noctua will allow for complete control of the cases airflow to be handled based on the system needs, no fan in the case will just be always blasting at a set speed. However to do this we need a way to make two of the B9 fans work off a single motherboard fan header. The fan for the CPU cooler has the CPU header and the Z77N only has one additional header. The solution is actually very simple, a PWM splitter. The header can handle two fans easily so we just need to split the power. You can buy these for about $5 easily enough but the good news is the Noctua fans come with the splitter we need.
So with all our little tweaking done what did we gain? The CPU with a stock cooler at stock speeds under gaming conditions and stock case fans set to medium. we saw the CPU hover around 70C to 75C and at idle around 40C. With the new cooling system in place the CPU is overclocked to 3.9GHz. At idle the CPU hovers around 30C under gaming conditions around 55C. Now in fairness the majority of that cooling comes from the water cooling unit but the 92mm change works in other areas. For example at idle with the stock setup the computer room was measuring around 33db and under load around 44db. The new cooler setup drops that idle noise level to 31db and under load to 39db.
The fan replacements and cooler upgrade did a lot to make our system quieter and cooler. Now let me be clear, the system is a gaming brute at stock and the stock cooling setup will easily keep your system running through your marathon gaming sessions. However if you want to up things a notch making a few changes to the cooling setup can give you lower temps and quieter operation.
Thank you to the folks at Thermaltake for providing us the Water 2.0 Performer used in our build and to the folks at Noctua for sending us a number of different fans to look at for this build.
Show segment from show airing the weekend of April 27th, 2013
Okay lets get this out of the way before we get started. Yes, I work for Sapphire and they make AMD based video cards. Yes my final build is using a Sapphire video card. Yes I know the someone will cry that I am not able to be fair in my evaluation of graphics cards, however my advice is get over it. Over the years I have been accused of being a fan boy for both sides. I have always striven to give our audience the best information I have at hand and will not stop now. So now that we have that full disclosure out of the way can we get on with a discussion?
Choosing a graphics card today is tough and the reason why is both nVidia and AMD have given us some GREAT cards to choose from. Okay let me rephrase that, both have given us great chips. Neither company actually makes the cards, that is up to the various partners. If you read or listen to our past shows you know that I have always recommended that if you want an AMD card choose Sapphire and if you want an nVidia card then EVGA is your first choice. The opinion was formed years ago after dealing with many video cards from many venders and it has not changed today. We have a lot of options for our video needs and I am going to try to help you narrow those choices down.
For the purposes of our build we are setting our sights at game play with the resolution of 1080 and details levels in the high to ultra range. With this in mind we can quickly narrow down our choices and walk through them from the lowest cost to the most expensive.
The lowest cost card I would look at is the HD 7790, a relatively new card on the market. Priced at around $150 this card can do a solid job of gaming at 1080 and with most games set on high. A few of the more intense games might require the detail level to be lowered but they are the exception. A little further up the food chain we have the GTX 650Ti Boost. This card offers a nice step up in performance from the 7790 with only a mild cost increase but if you want a little extra umph, it is worth a look.
Next we come HD 7850, our 2012 Golden Mic Winner. If you thought it was an attractive buy when we named it for our award, now it is practically a steal. At under $200 is offers a great gaming experience for the money and many games will run at 1080 with the detail set to ultra, about an even mix will need to back off to high. For an ITX build the card is small, the Sapphire model we award cools amazing and is super silent. A perfect fit for an ITX build. Up the run around the $200 mark is the GTX 660, again, as in the last rung this card gives a bump in performance over the 7850 but that bump comes with a price. From a size point of view the GTX 660 is a little larger physically, but still easily fits in our ITX build.
With the next card up things begin to spread out a bit, priced at around $220 the HD 7870 gives a nice bump over the GTX 660 in performance. Only a tiny bit longer than the HD 7850 this card is a great size for the ITX build and packs a lot of gaming horsepower, chugging through most games at ultra detail and a few needing to step back to high.
The final rung we hit is the top of the cards we will talk about. The reason for this is simple, at the 7870 we have pretty much made every game we play smooth and with great detail, anything after this is gravy.
For our first entry at the top of our ITX build list is the GTX 660ti. This card packs a lot of horsepower into an package costing around $280. It can run any game we threw at it at ultra levels and does so with seeming ease. The top dog card for this build is the HD 7950, tipping the price scale at around $290. The 7950 is physically bigger than it’s actually a little longer than the 660ti however it still fits well in our ITX build. The 7950 brings more horsepower than the 660ti as well as a large memory buffer, 3GB instead of 2GB along with more memory bandwidth. Now at 1080 this is not a big deal as 2GB is plenty and both cards haven enough horse power to push the pixels around with ease. The advantage of the 7950 comes in when you push a ton of HD mods on a game like Skyrim or decide to go for a 1440 display or bigger instead of the 1080.
In this look we have covered a range of $150 and looked at 7 video cards. This is what meant when I said choosing a card was tough. All 7 cards mentioned will give a great gaming experience and each step up gives a little more detail to your games and horsepower for the future. The choice you make is based on balancing your budget against the gaming experience you desire.
The good news is that ANY of the cards mentioned here will give you a great experience, but there can be only one as the saying goes. Based on the cost, performance and our stated goal of 1080, the HD 7870 is the best bang for our buck in this build. It will give you amazing game play as well as being reasonably priced.
Be sure to join us on the March 27th at Rend Lake College, Doug and I will be there to talk to everyone, give some stuff away as well as show off the ITX rig we have been talking about the last few weeks. Come on by and see it in action first hand.
We would like to thank the folks at EVGA and SAPPHIRE for providing the card samples we used in our testing. All discussion of card pricing was based on EVGA and SAPPHIRE cards on Newegg at the date of this article.
Show segments from show airing the weekend of April 20th, 2013
With our case, PSU and motherboard firmly behind us we turn our attention now to the CPU and RAM for our build. These are actually some of the easiest choices of our build ad in the case of the CPU, the choice is made for us when we choose the motherboard, well at least for the brand.
With the choice of a Z77 based motherboard we are looking at using an Intel for the CPU. We could go down the food chain and pick an i3 or jump to the top and grab an i7 but extremes are something we have sought to avoid and I feel so should you. Extremes in computer hardware carry little in the way of true benefit. The lowest extreme means that you have fewer cores for any multi-threaded work you might be doing and the highest extreme is great performance but no true benefit for 99% of consumers when taking the cost vs. experience into account.
From the i5 processors we get a solid quad core CPU and at a reasonable price point. The question now is which one?
If you look back a bit there is an article I did that explored the i5 processor lineup when we are looking at real world gaming experience and performance. In this article I noted that from top to bottom of the i5 lineup there is only about an average performance boost of 4.7%. Now let me be clear in the world of PC gaming a difference of 5% means ZIP when it comes to your gaming experience.
With this information in hand it should be clear that at stock speeds there is no real advantage at buying at the top of the i5 rack over the bottom. However as some will note, we picked a Z77 motherboard for our build and this gives overclocking options. With this motherboard surely the i5 3570K is the better choice, right?
Well when you consider that we had a professional overclocking , Shannon Robb, explain to use that anything over about 4 GHz is not going to be worth the effort in a single GPU gaming setup. There is really no reason to seek a high end overclocking chip for this build, since gaming is our goal and an ITX build will only be a single card. (Okay technically you can extreme this and get a dual chip card but again that is the extreme)
This information BTW is further muddled with the fact that in our own testing, pushing a CPU to 4.1 GHz only gave us a bump of 6.1% above the low end stock i5. Again 6% is not anything amazing when it comes to the gaming experience. Pushing much past 4.1 we see the increase in performance vs. clock speed begin to fall off, as Shannon said we would.
What this tells me is the upper extreme is not going to offer enough to justify an extra
This chip is near the bottom of the i5 lineup in price. At stock speeds it delivers a great gaming experience and despite being a locked chip, our Z77 board can eek a little more kick out of her, we were able to to push up to 3.9 GHz. Now true this is not going to give us a huge boost but it puts us past the high end of the i5 lineup at stock and puts us very close to a moderate overclock of that higher end i5.
With the CPU choice made we turn our attention toward the RAM. ITX motherboards have a premium on space so gone are the 4 stick options we have with a typical socket 1155 motherboard. With our limit at 2 sticks the amount of memory we choose is also limited. While the system can go up to 16 gig using a 2×8 configuration, none of our testing showed a performance boost over 8 gigs in any games or in day to day use.
Since we are pretty sure we want 8 gig for the RAM, what about the speed. I mean logic would dictate that faster RAM would make a faster system. In our testing the folks at Kingston sent us a set of their HyperX BEAST memory. The particular model they sent is us a 16 gig (2×8) kit with speeds as high as 2133. We also have some Kingston HyperX ram with speeds of 2400.
For our testing I used the RAM at all the speed options I was given by the XMS settings on the motherboard, as well default of no setting which is 1333 on our board of choice. The BEAST had 1600 and 2133 for it’s two XMS settings but we also tested the 2400 speed vs 1600 using an 8 gig kit. The result was not what we expected. It seems that while there is a boost in benchmarking the memory, in the actually gaming the speed difference did not make all that much difference.
Checking with some other people I found that the general consensus is that with the Intel platform anything past 1600 seems to have little real benefit to the user. Our own testing bore this out. With a price premium of roughly $20 for the higher speed RAM at an 8 gig configuration and no real performance boost I think we will suggest that the good 8 gig (2×4) kit of DDR3 1600 is the best choice for our build. As for which specifically, well Kingston has a number of great choices in the HyperX lineup at all roughly the same price point right now on Newegg. I would say find the color that best fits your build style and enjoy. We have never been disappointed with buy ANY Kingston RAM.
So there we have it, we will be using an i5 3450 and Kingston HyperX DDR3 1600 RAM for our build and suggest you do the same.
Thank you to the folks at Intel for the processors they have provided as well as Kingston for our RAM selection.
Show segments from show airing the weekend of April 6th, 2013
The part that truly makes an ITX build what it is, the motherboard. mITX is a form factor for motherboards that measures 17cmx17cm and was introduced in 2001 by VIA. These small motherboards have over the years evolved from a very basic computer for such things as signage control and simple, low powered computers to what we have today. A motherboard that can support a full featured gaming system.
For this build series we wanted to take a truly broad look at the possible build methods so we approached six different motherboard producers that made boards for the AMD F2 platform as well as the Intel 1155 platform. We had three of those companies promises us 1155 based systems, no one was interested in letting us review their AMD solutions. Of the three that actual told us they would take part only one sent a board, the others have all since stopped returning emails.
Our friends at Gigabyte were the first to express an interested in taking part and literally within a few days of speaking to them an H77N-WiFi board was at my door. We wanted to give you more than one sample so I went shopping at the local Microcenter and bought a Z77 solution so we could look at overclocking as well. While there I was surprised when the associates there steered me away from a more expensive solution to the less expensive board for my Z77 ITX needs, I was however happy to see our friends at Gigabyte are regarded as one of the best options and the most cost effective. So while our review sample may be limited it was not from lack of trying.
The H77N is a solid ITX motherboard to build from. Gigabyte has always taken the more budget oriented chips and delivered them on a board that packs some solid, high end features and this board follows that trend. The board is constructed using their Ultra-Durable design which means the board itself is very well made with a solid capacitor system in place and a great deal of general durability. Our experiences with the Ultra-Durable design over the years has been outstanding with boards that are stable and have never seen a failure to date.
The board is tiny, but that is just a fact of life in the world of ITX building. However, while it might lack some expansion options it is not lacking in features. the H77N allows for up to 16 gig of DDR3 using two sticks in dual channel. Has connections for 4 SATA devices, 2 of which are SATA 3. There is also an internal header for a front USB 3 port as well as USB 2. For video you have the choice of making use of the IGPU on the Intel chips or you have a full PCIe3 expansion slot for adding a more powerful video option or any other PCIe expansion you might want to make use of.
On the rear I/O we have four USB 2.0 ports along with two USB 3.0. We also find a PS2 port that can be used for a mouse or keyboard as well as sound jacks for up to 7.1 surround provided by the Realtek ALC892.
The onboard video comes with an interesting connection setup allowing for DVI and dual HDMI. You also some interesting networking options. The board comes with an Intel wireless solution that provides for B/G/N connectivity as well as makes use of Intel’s WiDi display system. This is a wireless display option to allow you to send your computers signal across the room or across the house. (We will be looking at this more closely in a future article) To this we also have Bluetooth connectivity and dual gigabit LAN that can be used as a team for some really incredible LAN transfer rates.
Of course with the motherboard you get your manuals, drives, SATA cables and so on. You also get a really nice I/O shield that is one of the new padded designs which makes it just nicer at every level to use. For our WiFi connection you get two antenna that connect via a coax connection. These come with some pretty long wires, a little over 3’ in length. This allows for a good size separation of the antenna and results in some strong signal reception ability. I tested in a few rooms in our home, including rooms that do not get good signal with out laptop and found no place that I did not get max signal. These antenna have a rubberized coating and a weighted base so they will not scratch surfaces and stand very stable.
No you are not seeing double, the H77 and Z77 are twins that were separated at birth it would seem. When I looked at the two boxes together I was amazed, they are identical, well with a few letters changed. When I pulled out the board I considered for a second returning it, figuring I got the wrong board in the box. The H77 and Z77 boards have identical feature sets, the same build quality, the same layout and even close to the same price with the Z77 only costing $20 more. The only difference in the two boards is that the Z77 allows for overclocking the H77 does not.
I can tell you that when I first saw this I was confused but after using the two boards I am not disappointed. Both boards have outstanding build quality and provided a very stable platform for our build.
For purposes of our build we used each but at the end of the day we spent a little more time with the Z77 so we could see what overclocking options it would allow. The two boards have solid power subsystems but they are not heavy duty so overclocking on the Z77 seems to top out quicker than most full size Z77 motherboards. This is shown as well in the HIOS which has no way, that I could find to easily overvolt the CPU. This means you will be limited in your overclocking to stock voltages but that is not a big deal as this also limits the heat increase of the overclock, a good thing for the ITX build. My own overclocking experience with a 3570 was getting to 4.3 GHz on stock voltage, I was able to max out a 3450 at 3.9 as well. This might not be sexy to the uber overclocking crowd but for the real world and for a gaming rig this is outstanding.
With a $20 price difference and the Z77N being the lowest priced Z77 ITX solution we could find the competition between these two boards is a bigger deal than anything brought on by another company. If you are not going to overclock then the H77N is the board to buy. It is in every way except overclocking identical to the Z77N and delivers identical performance along with features, stability and build quality. The WiDi offers a great option not found in other H77 based boards or anything close to it’s price point, other than the Z77N of course. In fact the H77N feature set is closer to that of much more expensive boards. So if you do not plan to overclock then save the $20 and invest it elsewhere in your build.
The Z77N comes in with a feature set as good as pretty much any other Z77 based ITX board out there. It is a bit limited in overclocking potential but the ITX form factor makes that less of an issue due to limitations in cooling options. With exactly the same feature set as the H77N it is full featured and well made, the $20 price bump is minor enough that you really wonder if it is not worth the extra money for the overclocking options. This was the thought that kept running through my head as I looked at these two boards.
In the end I think we will be going with the Z77N for our build. The ability to basically get free performance from our CPU is wroth the $20 to me. It allows me to go to a local microcenter and pay $150 for the 3450 and the crank it up to 3.9GHz with minimal effort. Now our own testing has shown that the increase is not really something that will have a heavy impact on our gaming but the geek in me does it because I can.
For anyone building an ITX based system either of these boards show why I have always made use of Gigabyte boards. The outstanding build quality, stability and feature set, even at the lower cost model.
Thank you to the folks at Gigabyte for sending us the H77N-WiFi for review.
Show segments from show airing the weekend of March 30th, 2013
So we are now at week two of our building of an ITX gaming rig and we have made our decision on the case. For the focus of this build we will be looking at the Fractal Node 304 case, so without further ado lets move on the our next component, the Power Supply.
When most people build a PC and think of the power supply they focus on the wattage of the unit. In the case of an ITX build, even one with a high end gaming card Wattage is less of an issue than you might imagine. Even a Core i7 3770 @ stock speeds with a HD 7970 for video will come in under 400 watts during gaming load in an basic ITX build. So for a moment we can spend less time on Wattage and more time on other factors.
Two factors play a roll in picking a good PSU for an ITX, the first is the depth of the PSU. Depth it the measurement from the back of the PSU, where the external power hooks up, to the front of the PSU where the cables for the inside of the PC are. Most PSUs come in wither 160mm or 140mm depths, usually the lower wattage ones at 140mm. When looking at ITX cases that will fit our gamer build theme we find that the 140mm depth is the most recommended. The reason for this is that the smaller case space often leaves the PSU crammed against a case wall of some sort on the inside and the shorter depth means the cables have to make less drastic bends to route, in some situations even fit.
You can see in the picture on the right where we have put a 140mm PSU into the Lian Li Q25 case. The cables at the end are bunched up and barely fit in the case, a bit of pressure had to be applied to the PSU to make sure it screwed into the case mount correctly. I also attempted with a 160mm PSU and was unable to make it mount without risking bending the HD rack or damaging the cabling, if it would have fit at all. While many of the ITX cases out there for gaming builds say they can fit a 160mm case, including our case of choice the Node 304, my suggestion is to look at 140mm and be safe. (Actually there is one other option but more on that in a moment.
The second factor to consider is modular cabling. Now at first thought this should be a no brainer, a modular PSU means you only have to use cables you need and thus can eliminate un-needed cabling and make cable management in the case much easier. This initial thought is right but becomes a bit more complex when you take into account factor one, Depth. You see by their nature most modular cables need an end piece that will stick out of the PSU end to allow you to easily remove it or add it. This module adds depth to the PSU design, a depth that is often not taken into account my manufacturer specs. This added depth could make a PSU that otherwise would have fit no longer fit or at the very least make it very difficult to work with.
Now I mentioned there are two factors and in many cases these are the primary concerns. However some cases, such as the Node add a third factor, the cable placement on the PSU. Most non-modular PSUs have a bundle location where the cables come out of the PSU for you to use in the computer. Depending on the way the PSU is meant to be mounted in the case for it’s air flow and the case layout you could find the cable bundle in an awkward place. For most non-modular this is not an issue as all the ones I have looked at come out the same side. However modular cables are a very different story. Many modular PSUs spread the modular connections across the back of the PSU, this could put some of the connection a place that is awkward to work with or could even make them impossible to use.
To understand what I mean about cable placement, look at the picture on the right and you will see the Node 304 case with a PSU in it. As you can see the cables for the bundle are exiting the PSU from a single side and in this example that side is farthest from the motherboard. In this particular setup this is important because if you are using a long video card it will be coming down that motherboard edge and if your cabling is across the back or for some weird reason coming out the other side, it could interfere with if not out right limit your choices on a video card.
So now that we know what we need to look for, lets look at a couple of PSUs. First up lets look at the Fractal Design Integra R2. Fractal sent us the 650 watt model of the PSU with their case and putting them together it is easy to see why, these are built for each other. With a 140mm depth the Integra is short enough to work well in pretty much any case you throw at it. While it lacks modular cables, it still brings a solid package for an ITX build with a small size and good wattage, more than enough power for most builds. The cooling for the PSU is provided by a very quiet 120mm fan. The only real draw back is the PSU comes with regular length cables and an extra long 4/8 pin motherboard cable. This means you will spend extra time with cable management.
Our second PSU was provided by the folks at Silverstone, for this build they wanted to show us their SFX lineup, a truly build for ITX PSU. Now normally here I would have a picture of the PSU for you to look at but for this PSU you need some perspective to understand what you are seeing. On the left is a Thermaltake EVO Blue 2 Modular PSU and on the right is the Silverstone SFX 450 Watt Gold. As you can see this is not just smaller in depth than a traditional PSU, it is smaller in all dimensions. Also unlike the EVO and for that matter most modular PSUs that have at least some of the cables as none modular the SFX is 100% modular.
With 450 watts of power and a tiny size this sounds like a great PSU for an ITX build and it is but it gets even better when you realize that all the cables for this PSU are shorter than normal cabling, making cable management in an ITX build much easier. This smaller size however does come with two draw backs, the first is price. The SFX comes in at around $100, making this a fairly expensive option. The second is that it has a smaller fan, a limit based on it’s size. The 80 mm does the job well enough but under load can get noisy. However from a pure build point of view it is a great PSU.
These two PSUs are obviously not the only ones that could work, in fact I found that in the Node case Thermaltake’s EVO actually is a great choice. In the picture on the left you can see that the EVO does fit in the case and the way Thermaltake kept the modular connections close to one end of the PSU results in the EVO being able to allow a 10” video card with ALL the power ports in use. Further testing however showed that the flat cabling used by the EVO made cable management easier that the traditional wrap on PSU cables and thus even with longer cards in the PSU still caused no issues and made cable routing easy. As I mentioned before it is about exploring the various factors and find which combination best fits the build you are doing.
If the two PSUs we were sent specifically for this series, the SFX and the Integra, we have extreme polar opposites in almost every way. This total opposite methodologies make this choice a lot tougher. If I was building in the Lian Li case then the SFX would win hands down because it’s small form allows the case to gain some cooling options it otherwise could not have. In the Node the PSU has no real effect on the cooling options so that comes off the table. Most people would say the Integra would win because it offers more power at 650 watts over the SFX at 450. That however is not a huge issue since a 450 will easily power even a powerful gaming ITX rig. The modular design on the SFX is big selling point and the fact that it is small enough that the modular setup does not create issues is a real bonus. In the end however it was a strength of the SFX that was it’s downfall, at least for our final build.
The SFX because of it’s small size comes with an adapter to make it fit in standard PSU mounts. This adapter pulls the PSU to the center of the mounting location, the issue arose with the short cabling that comes with the SFX. This is a strength of many ITX builds because it makes cable management easier. Because of the position of our motherboards 4 pin connection the short cable could not routed in any manner that would make me happy with the finish product. It required a more direct route and even with the more direct route was tighter than I liked. Also while the 450 watt PSU is enough to power the system while gaming the fan that cools it kicks in more that the fan does on the Integra, in fact I never heard the fan on the Integra once. The increased noise and the build circumstances we are facing made the Integra our choice of PSU. As we have said, finding an IXT build component is about studying what you are building.
Now reading this you might think I settled on the Integra and that is not the case, it is a great PSU. It has been totally silent under all testing, even when pushed for hours at a time the fan just cannot be heard. While the Integra is only a Plus Bronze and the SFX is a Plus Gold the difference in power draw from the wall is only around 1.3 watts during gaming, not nearly enough to matter in long term use. The Integra is a solid PSU that will work well in an ITX or more traditionally sized computer build.
I said earlier in this article that the Integra R2 felt like it was built for the Node 304 and after using it in many builds I can tell you that this impression still holds true today. Perfectly sized for our case, enough power for any level build and overclock in an ITX system and priced at about $80 the Integra truly seems to be built just for this build.
Thank you to the folks at Silverstone and Fractal Design for providing a PSU for our build.
Show segments from show airing the weekend of March 23rd, 2013
When most people build a PC they get a case with have little regard for the size of the case. I mean lets face it most cases will easily fit a full size motherboard, multiple drives, a large video card and liquid cooling with still having room to spare. However with an ITX build things are not that simple, planning needs to go into how you want to build the system and all that planning starts with the case.
For purposes of our build series we had two cases provided to us, a Lian Li Q25 and a Fractal Node 304. Both cases are very compact in size and are priced around a $100 price point. The two cases, as you can see in the picture, are of similar size. But lets take a moment and look at each.
First up we will look at the Lian Li Q25B. This is our first look at a Lian Li case and to be honest I was excited about this. Lian Li is well known among the enthusiast communities for their simple elegance and all aluminum construction. The Q25 is a traditional styling computer case in that is had a tower style to it, however in a diminutive size. This case only comes in at 11” tall. To put this into perspective, the Level 10 GT, which is a full tower case hits 23”, over double the height. A typical mid tower, like Corsair C70 is almost 20”, so this case is about half the size of a typical case.
Externally the Q25 looks like a simple box, the case has no opening at the front for fans or even an optical drive. The air intake for the front of the case is done through cutouts on the left and right side panel. At the top rear is a 120mm exhaust fan and there are no front panel connectors. In fact the only things on the front of the case is the Lian Li label and a power button that doubles as a power light. The result, along with the smooth brushed aluminum surface is a very clean and elegant look.
The case opens in a very unique manner with the side panels not sliding or swinging off but rather popping off. This means no thumb screws or awkward efforts to put the panels back on. When you look inside the case, it is mostly dominated by the large HD drive bay bracket. This has has a hot swap system in place and allows for 5 hard drives to be mounted in this bay. In front of the HD bay is a single 140mm fan that is used for intake. The fan has a filter mounted to it and the filter requires the fan be removed for cleaning. The mounting system however makes this easy to do with no tools required.
At the bottom of the case there is a bracket that can be used to mount additional HDs is desired and under it is a 120mm opening for air intake. Unlike the main HD bay this lower bracket can be removed. At the back of the case is the motherboard try, this is removable with just taking out 4 screws making motherboard mounting easy.
In the picture to the left you can see the motherboard and video card (this test we used a GTX 660 Ti) in place. The PSU has not yet been installed, it will sit in the case with it’s fan on the side pointed at the motherboard and will draw case air in and through then exhaust out of the case. This position makes picking a PSU very important if this is the case you choose for your build.
Using stock cooling this case was the coolest of the cases we looked at for the CPU but was also the loudest. The case stock fans use a 3 pin header or a molex adapter. The noise is mostly from the 120mm fan at the top of the case. Because of the position of the PSU this case limits your options for cooling the CPU unless you plan to do a lot of modding to the case.
The second case up on the list is the Fractal Node 304. Where the Lian Li took it’s space vertically, the Node took it horizontally. Coming in at only around 8” tall but is wider, coming in at about 10” wide while the Q25 was only 8”.
Like the Q25 the front of the Node is a blank slate of brushed aluminum. There is no optical drive or fan openings and the only markings at the front is a small Fractal logo with a blue power light. Unlike the Q25 the Node does have front port access with 2x USB3 ports, headphone and mic ports as well as a power button on the right side of case.
The air intake for the case is at the top and bottom of the front panel, with a mesh area at the top and an opening at the bottom that is also used for you to pull off the front panel. This gives you access to the cases front intake filter and its two 92mm fans. The side panels on the Node however are not a blank slate. The right side panel has a small grilled area on it and the left a much larger one. The left grill is there to provide a way for a large video card to intake cool air. The one on the right we will talk about in a moment. Speaking of the side panels, there is really only one panel that is taken off by removing 4 thumb screws and then the entire case outer body, the top/left/right panels, slide off.
The case opens to show a large 140mm fan at the rear for exhaust and the motherboard sits flat in the case at the rear. Those large white brackets at the front are for HD mounting and can hold a total of 6 drives if you wanted to have that many. They are removable and the one on the left of the case has to be removed to use a full size video card. The area under the drive bays is where the PSU sits. There is a power cord from the back of the case to this location for the external power plug. The PSU will draw air from a filtered opening at the bottom of the case and exhaust air out the right side of the case using that small opening I spoke of.
This design works really well and allows easy system building and gives some PSU flexibility compared to the Lian Li. At the top rear of the case on the left side is a three position fan controller so you can set the three fans in the case to low, medium and high.
The picture on the right shows the motherboard in the case along with a PSU, as you can see there is actually a decent amount of room to work with. The design means that you have a lot of options when it comes to a CPU cooler. Most tower coolers will fit in the case, on the motherboard is a different story but more on that in a few weeks. You are also able to fit a self contained liquid cooler in this case if you desire.
When it came to using this case with stock cooling it was the worst at CPU temp of the cases we looked at but the quietest when it came to noise. Even at high the Fractal fans were fairly quiet. The difference in cooling between high, medium and low was not enough to really be concerned with and the noise between low and medium was to close to call, this means medium was the optimal setting.
Now while only these two cases were sent to us I did not think we could discuss building an ITX gaming rig without discussing the case the entire ITX community is abuzz about, the Bitfenix Prodigy. So I went out and purchased a Prodigy for us to look at. As you can see the Prodigy case I got was the black model, this comes with a mesh front for better air flow. The Prodigy is a large case compared to the Node of the Q25, measuring 16” tall this makes it almost 50% taller than the Q25. While still smaller than a mid tower case the difference is less dramatic than the Q25 or Node.
The front of the case is a large grill area with a place for an optical drive if you want to add one. The USB, audio jacks and lights are all on the right side panel. The left side panel has a grilled area for a video card to intake cool air. The top opens to allow the use of a 240mm radiator if desired for cooling. The front comes stock with a 120mm fan but can add a second 120mm, a 200mm or a 230mm fan for intake. The rear supports a 120mm or a 140mm fan.
Inside the case had dual HD bays, both of which can be removed, but even removed the case has mounting for 5 SSDs or 2.5” HDs. The optical drive bay at the top of the case is removable and must be taken out to use a radiator at the top for cooling.
At the end of the day all three cases offer a great build for an ITX gaming system. The Prodigy is a very versatile case but I was surprised as I read reviews how no one pointed out the flaws of this case. The size first just makes this a brute compared to other ITX cases and makes it a poor choice for a living room PC. The handles are awesome if you are going to LAN Parties, in fact for that purpose I would say this case is a clear winner. However using the handles as feet for the case, was to me a questionable design decision. The shape of the feet means the case has stability issues left to right, it is easy to rock the case. Also the material and design of the feet means the case slides easily on most surfaces we tested the case on.
The Lian Li case at first glance is the least versatile of the cases we looked at and this assessment is correct. The case offers very limited cooling options but in our testing we found that even with stock cooling we could get an i5 overclocked to 3.9GHz and not have temps get so high as to be an issue. The all aluminum body is drop dead sexy and very light weight. I wish they had however made the HD bracket removable, this would have given extra cooling options and made the case design more versatile.
The Node 304 is a middle ground case when comparing versatility in building. While not able to add the cooling options that Prodigy brings to the table, you can fit a wide range of coolers including some basic liquid cooling. The design of the Node is actually the easiest of the three to work in. The Prodigy has more room but putting in the motherboard screws can be awkward unless you have a short screwdriver. The Lian Li is a close second to the Node in this regard.
The pricing on these cases are actually fairly close, the Prodigy can typically be gotten for around $80, the Node for around $90 and the Q25 for $109. I have built in all three cases and made use of them for a few days to test noise, heat and features. In the end the decision was tough because all three cases have appealing features. I dismissed the Prodigy first due to the wobble in the footing as well as the fact it slides around the desk. What however was the killer for me was the attitude of the people at Bitfenix when I asked tech support about options in regards to this and if they might make a trim kit for those that wanted to remove the handles.
The Lian Li is a case I keep coming back to, it is just a pure sexy case in it’s simplicity and I love the side panel system they used. The cooling options being limited is actually a minor issue as I have been able to find coolers that allow for some really decent temperatures, even with an overclock. However I had to do some work to fix the noise issue. I had two choices, using a step down on the power of the fan to lower the speed or replace the fan.
The Node in the end was able to hold off the Lian Li’s push for the finish. The Node shares the same brushed aluminum look at the front of the case, making it a very attractive piece that can be placed anywhere in a home. Is is wider than the Lian Li and seems a little bit “fat” compared to the Q25 however the this is a minor appearance effect and gives the Node a kind of sub woofer look. The wide stance means the case is shorter and this works in the fact it allows me a number of placement options the Lian did not, such as in my entertainment center or the DVD shelves next to the TV. This in addition to versatile cooling options and having front panel access was to me enough to name this the case we are choosing for this build.
Now you may have noticed that in the Lian Li and the Fractal case, both do not offer an optical drive. For a modern gaming PC this is a none option since gamers will be using STEAM or one of the other digital services to get their games. If you decide you do need an optical drive with one of these cases, there are a number of good USB options.
Compact, versatile cooling, great looks and a reasonable price, the Node is a winner for any ITX build and specifically for this build.
Thank you to the folks at Lian Li and Fractal Design for providing a case for our build.
Show segments from show airing the weekend of March 16th, 2013.
As we have discussed we are going to do a build series this year and we are starting today with why we made the choice of doing an ITX system. When most people think of a computer they thing of a large box sitting next to or under their desk. I look at my wife’s desk right now and see a full tower case sitting under it and I myself had a full tower system sitting on a table next to my desk for the last year. Doug has a full tower sitting on a table next to his desk and both of his boys have mid towers setting next to and under their desks respectively. The tower case is the typical DIYer go do design.
The reasons for that are many but the primary ones are well known to us all. Larger cases are easier to work in. You do not need to squeeze components in, there is a lot of room. This also prevents bumping of knuckles and gives more room for air flow. Larger cases also give us more component options. You can fit in more in the way of multiple video cards, large cooling setups, tons of hard drives and so on. Bigger just means more room to spread out.
However bigger also means more space taken from your work or play area. A quick look under Lisa’s desk shows that she has lost almost 30% of her foot space under the desk. The tower will typically not fit on a desk shelf or the desk itself except in the case of the largest desks. This means losing some of the floor space around the desk and if that is limited can create some interesting issues. The worst is having the computer under the desk and it get inadvertently kicked. Also bigger cases are harder to fit into the rooms décor. Yeah I know some of the hardcore geeks out there are laughing but if you are married and your wife is not a tech head she is not going to want a large computer case with a ton of LEDs setup in any public room.
There are smaller ATX styles (ATX is the basic computer style/size) and you can actually get down to a pretty small system but still bigger than can be easily put anyplace you would like, some thought would have to go into putting the system in, such as a really large shelf, or even again a loot at floor space.
ITX has been around for a while and is actually used more often than people realize. The problem with ITX was that we had to give up a lot for the reduction in size. Well not anymore, there is an ITX build movement working through the enthusiast and DIY crowds and manufacturers are starting to take notice. We now have access to ITX cases ranging from tiny, just a motherboard and hard drive, to being large enough for water cooling. (Still smaller than a typical case) We have motherboards that allow us to make use of high powered gaming video cards, RAIDs and even overclocking.
ITX however also gives us a lot of flexibility, we can now use ITX builds for anything from a basic web browser / work machine to a file server or even a full gamers rig. The small cases allow us a wealth of options on where we can put these computers. They are small enough in most cases to fit on a shelf or even on a desk next to your PC, no more using up floor space or needing to add a table just for the PC. Also many of these cases come with a very subdued look, they look good on that shelf, desk or even in the living room setup in the entertainment center.
It is this flexibility in the space requirements and ability to make use of it in any room environment that drew me to this build style. For purposes of our build we will be focusing on building a full gaming rig. When we are done we will have built a system that can play most games at 1080 resolutions at very high detail levels. This means you will able to enjoy your gaming experience on your computer monitor or your large screen TV and the computers small size will make it fit where ever you need it.
While our build goal is a gaming rig we understand not everyone wants that kind of system. This means we will be talking about other build options as we work through your choices for each component. So even if you are not looking for a gaming rig, there will be something for every level of PC builder. With that in mind we will dive right in next week and begin by taking a look at three ITX cases and talking about picking an ITX case in general.
The personal computer era has been around for a while, for those that have missed the memo, and during that time the consumers have had very little say in the direction this industry has headed. What I mean by that is that we, as consumers did not get a say as to when advancements were needed or even wanted. We would make our purchase and suddenly 6 months to a year later find out that we “needed” to buy again. The good news for consumers however, is that over the last couple of years that has changed. The technology has been forced to slow down by more clearly defined consumer demands and software jumping off the hardware bandwagon and working with consumers instead of hardware companies to figure out what the next product needs to have.
The good news is many of the tech companies out there have figure out this shift in the way business is done and have begun to adapt. They have changed the business model from telling consumers what they want to instead listing to what consumers want. However a few old die-hards have decided that they know best and we should listen to them, drink what they tell us as it were.
We can see some of this in todays offerings for consumer level computers. We could start with Apple and spend the entire article there, this is basically their business model and always has been. However I think we should instead focus on Microsoft. Windows 8 is an old story so I am not going to spend a lot of time talking about the OS itself. I have covered that pretty well I think and if you missed the three articles I did on it feel free to browse the archives and read them. However I will focus on their efforts to change the way we look at a computer.
Now let me explain this a bit before I make my point. You see Microsoft has always made an effort to help define the image of a what people see as a personal computer. It was after all in their best interest to exercise some level of control in this area. However up until recently that control has been a quiet guiding hand. To use the popular phrase, they led us to water but never forced us to drink. That however has begun to change.
Microsoft has launched a number of sites that are supposed to be designed to help the lay people, such as many of you, make a good choice when it comes to getting a new PC. On the surface this sounds like a great idea, something to help people see the choices they have and help them make solid decisions. We do this all the time on the show and people find it helpful. That would be good it did offer real choices. Every one of these setups I have looked at only offer laptops, tablets or all in one systems. Now this would not be bad except many of these recommendations are being listed as good for gaming. NONE of the recommendations I saw would make a good gaming PC for any but the most casual gamer. Also what about other form factors?
Thing this is just because of the move to Windows 8? You would be wrong, this started before that. Go back and look at the various Windows commercials were Microsoft talks about helping people buy a new PC. Every one of them were laptop and all in one models. You did not even seen an HTPC or tower configuration system in the videos.
One of the things I have always loved about the PC and the PC world is the freedom of choice. You can have a PC that is HUGE or tiny. One that is designed for pure hard core gaming or design for only light web browsing. Companies would offer us a range of choices, often to our dismay because we had so many but still we had choices. Over the years as the focus has shifted from hardware to software we have seen those choices diminish, not in a bad way. We have found that the budget system, at least the cost of it we used to pay, now buys us a more powerful machine. This has caused some overlap in the type of PC we buy but that is a natural progression. A natural change to the way we see PCs might not be something we like but I for one can accept it. However when we see companies that have traditionally let the market direct the path with them offering gentle nudges, switch to heavy handed tactics of forcing a direction, this is a problem to me.
Is our hobby moving to smaller form factors, well of course it is, I mean why do you think our build series is looking at ITX designs? However we can make this move in a way that does not limit our choices. Small Form factor of today is not the same as yesterday. Heck even yesterday was not that bad. Back in 2008 when enthusiasts said you needed a full tower to build a “real” gaming rig, I did a build we called the Itsy Bitsy Might Spider. This was a full powered gaming rig built in a micro ATX case. Now we see the move to even smaller, but the key here is that we can make this move without making a sacrifice. That is not the choice given to us today by some in the industry.
This of course is all my opinion and I would love to hear your opinions on this subject. Email in your comments or post them here under comments for this entry. Any comments of course might be used on the air for further discussion on this topic.