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System Builder Marathon, May '09: $1,300 Enthusiast PC
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Let me start off by saying that I don’t put a lot of Micro-ATX machines together, and now I remember why; it’s a lot less fun and takes a lot more planning, a lot more time, and can be a lot more frustrating if things don’t go as planned. In general, there has to be a lot more attention paid to cable management, because there just simply isn't much space in which to squeeze everything. Having said that, the results can be more rewarding as well.

Let’s begin with our first challenge: simply inserting the PC power-and-cooling PSU into the case. Initially, the power cables were too tight against the optical drive bay to allow the power supply to be mounted inside the small case.

A little bit of simple case modification was able to solve this issue. Specifically, we used some tin snips to cut part of the optical drive cage so we could fold it out of the way of the PSU cables.

With this issue out of the way, everything else fell into place without any more "hardware editing." But this doesn’t mean that we didn’t suffer from any more unexpected issues. Our next challenge was installing the Xigmatek Dark Knight CPU cooler.

There was no specific problem with the cooler itself. The included retention bracket worked like a charm and would securely mount the large cooler to the motherboard. The problem was that the cooler’s heatpipes would interfere with the DFI LANParty Jr. motherboard’s heat sinks, making it impossible to mount the CPU cooler in such a way that would force CPU-heated air towards the rear case fan, and therefore, out of the case.

We were left with no choice except to channel heated air upwards (toward the PSU) or downwards (toward the video cards). Given these choices, we would prefer to force it upwards toward the PSU so that it could be channeled through the power supply and out of the rear of the case.

Unfortunately, in this specific application, the PC Power and Cooling S75QB PSU does not pull air from below like a lot of ATX PSUs do–one fan pulls air in from the front of the PSU, and then another fan forces it out the rear. The bottom of the PSU is solid, and pushing CPU heated air upwards into a brick wall isn’t our idea of a good time.

We were left with no choice at all, really: we had to push the CPU-heated air downward, towards the graphics cards. This is, admittedly, far from ideal.

This amounts to a perfect storm of bad luck. If we were able to position the CPU cooler to push heated air out of the back of the case, this wouldn’t have been an issue, and if the PSU had an intake fan on the bottom, it wouldn't have been a problem either. I’ll take some of the responsibility for this as well, as I could have been more diligent in anticipating these issues. I’ve been spoiled working with full ATX cases with plenty of room for moving air around. So, let this be a lesson to you folks who are planning on building a portable Micro-ATX system. Pay attention to the cooling details and anticipate how your cooler, motherboard, case, and PSU will work together, as sometimes choosing what appear to be ideal components for the price isn’t enough.

In any case, the system came together well despite the less-than-ideal cooling situation. We were a little concerned about how little space the graphics cards had to pull in air. The GeForce GTX 260 mounted at the bottom of the case is particularly concerning as its intake fan pressed closely to the floor of the case, restricting the amount of air it could draw. It was as tight as a can of sardines, but it booted and ran without problems. At least at first…

We experienced some instability when running game benchmarks at 1920x1200 with 4x anti-aliasing (AA) applied. Despite GPU temperatures being reported in what seemed a reasonable 75 degree Celsius range under load, we wondered if the graphics cards were overheating.

To test our theory, we used Nvidia’s System Tools utility to manually increase the graphics cards fan speed to 100%. Our fears were confirmed when the benchmarks ran without a hitch, indicating that the cards were overheating at stock fan speeds. Would this have happened if we were able to push the CPU-heated air out of the back of the case? It’s hard to say.

Without any real way out, we let the graphics card fans spin at 100% duty cycle to continue the benchmarks and keep the system running smoothly. We’ll address the increased noise and a method for minimizing the impact of this problem a little later in the benchmark section.

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Top Comments
  • 17 Hide
    ohim , May 26, 2009 8:20 AM
    This article would be great if you could do : what you can buy for 1300 Intel parts and what you can by for 1300 AMD parts ... and put the 2 PCs to compeat to eachother :p  it would be a more interesting article than just buy a pc and ... show what ?
Other Comments
  • 0 Hide
    jtnstnt , May 26, 2009 6:22 AM
    It looks like you guys have a fetish for silverstone sff cases, and small motherboards. You guys probably like other small things...
  • 1 Hide
    one-shot , May 26, 2009 6:48 AM
    Was the peak power draw measured from the wall? If so, do you know the efficiency of the PSU to determine the approximate power draw from the components at a given level of output? Overall, great article. I hope my 650Watt PSU with 3 X 19A 12V rails can handle another GTX 260 Core 216.
  • -3 Hide
    serifus , May 26, 2009 6:52 AM
    if you wanted to go SFF it would be nice to see one done in an LIAN-LI PC-A05NB. at least you still get the full atx boards in those.
  • 4 Hide
    SpadeM , May 26, 2009 6:58 AM
    Quote:
    This system is no slouch and cuts through our new gaming benchmarks like a hot knife through butter.

    I wonder how exactly does the selection of components go. I mean it seems that there's some attention given to the forums to be politically correct, but that's kind of it. For $1300 a Phenom 2 + micro AM3 board + 2x4890 in crossfire is a much better solution so .. why not choose the better option?
    [img=http://img32.imageshack.us/img32/594/systemg.th.jpg]
  • 2 Hide
    capttylor34 , May 26, 2009 7:25 AM
    That system looks quite crowded on the inside, and that Dark Knight is big for a regular sized system, I'm actually kind of impressed you managed to fit it in a Micro ATX at all. I suppose as long as it runs stable, theres really no problem. Still think the articles should be titled "Micro System Build-off" just to let people know off the bat what they're about to read.
  • 3 Hide
    IzzyCraft , May 26, 2009 7:33 AM
    No space at all between those 2 cards. poor cards have no choice but to overheat.
  • 1 Hide
    IzzyCraft , May 26, 2009 7:35 AM
    SpadeMI wonder how exactly does the selection of components go. I mean it seems that there's some attention given to the forums to be politically correct, but that's kind of it. For $1300 a Phenom 2 + micro AM3 board + 2x4890 in crossfire is a much better solution so .. why not choose the better option?[img=http://img32.imageshack.us/img32/594/systemg.th.jpg]

    That's not a better solution it's just an AMD ATI themed solution

    Although i guess it would be stronger in the fps in games it wouldn't be nearly as rounded system i rather have i7 because i do cpu heavy tasks just my view;)

    I mean if they just wanted max fps they could have gone LGA775 with E8500 and shove 2 4890's in there i'm sure that would produce the highest fps.
  • -6 Hide
    armistitiu , May 26, 2009 8:15 AM
    I'm tired of seeing I7 920 in every damn "recommended" PC. I'm not saying go AMD but please just try to vary them a bit it's getting stupid. Also try building your own benchmarks or at least change them once in a while.
    Btw i\m getting tired of people picking up I7 and saying "because i do heavy CPU tasks" (not necessarily IzzyCraft ) and in fact all they need is a browser,OpenOffice and WoW minimized in the taskbar.
    The article is well done no doubts but try using other brands also. It\s starting to sound biased.

  • 17 Hide
    ohim , May 26, 2009 8:20 AM
    This article would be great if you could do : what you can buy for 1300 Intel parts and what you can by for 1300 AMD parts ... and put the 2 PCs to compeat to eachother :p  it would be a more interesting article than just buy a pc and ... show what ?
  • 2 Hide
    nerrawg , May 26, 2009 8:29 AM
    Nice slick system this - looks like 2 x 260's is pretty good value at 1920 x 1200 for those that want to max out the settings in the most demanding games. Was wondering however if there is a good technical explanation for the power consumption results because they seem pretty strange?
  • 5 Hide
    scrumworks , May 26, 2009 8:31 AM
    Unsuprisingly Intel/nvidia line continues. I went AMD/ATI so take that Tom!
  • -7 Hide
    ohim , May 26, 2009 8:37 AM
    About nvidia still surprised that they didn`t removed the 185.85 forceware drivers since that`s a total failure of drivers and it`s still being posted as the latest drivers even on windows update. Guess once you get the crown you get to piss on your customers as well.
  • 1 Hide
    BaC-80 , May 26, 2009 8:50 AM
    I can not believe how much we get screwed on computer bits here in the UK
    I priced up the parts in this system and it comes out at £1098.00 on 26th May 2009 that means it comes out at $1740 a big difference
    Motherboard
    DFI LANParty Jr X58-T3H6 Micro-ATX
    Intel X58/ICH10R, LGA1366
    $220 uk £189.99

    Processor
    Intel Core i7-920
    Four Cores, 2.66 GHz, 8 MB Cache
    $289 UK £225

    Memory
    G.Skill 10666CL7T 6GBPK
    Triple-channel memory kit 3 x 2 GB
    $90 UK £80.73

    Graphics
    2 x BFG GeForce GTX 260 OC in SLI
    896 MB GDDR3-1998 Per Card
    590 MHz GPU, 1,296 MHz Shader
    $340 UK £343

    Hard Drive
    Western Digital Caviar Black
    640GD, 640 GB, 32 MB cache
    $75 UK £51.60

    Optical
    Lite-On iHAS422 DVD±R
    DVD Burner SATA
    $28 UK £22

    Case
    SilverStone TJ08-B Micro-ATX Mini-Tower
    $99 UK £59

    Power
    PC Power and Cooling Silencer 750 Quad S75QB, ATX12V 2.2, 80-Plus Certified
    $120 UK £88

    CPU Cooler
    Xigmatek Dark Knight S1283
    $40 UK £38
  • 0 Hide
    SpadeM , May 26, 2009 9:14 AM
    IzzyCraftThat's not a better solution it's just an AMD ATI themed solutionAlthough i guess it would be stronger in the fps in games it wouldn't be nearly as rounded system i rather have i7 because i do cpu heavy tasks just my viewI mean if they just wanted max fps they could have gone LGA775 with E8500 and shove 2 4890's in there i'm sure that would produce the highest fps.


    The system builder marathon was always, in my mind at least, a competition between value and performance and they tended to pick the latest technologies. Sure even now for $1300 or even $2500 you can go with a Q600 or a q9650 .. it would be cheaper and the performance is similar to that of a i7 but without the bragging rights. And so paying $500+ just for a motherboard that doesn't do much since it's not used to overclock in a extreme fashion, and a processor that's 10% maybe 20% faster then it's previous Quad generations isn't going to cut it for me. That's why i was expecting a different quad core of another flavour, just to spice things up. And of course to top things off some new 4890. All in all it would have been a more balanced system that caters to the wishes of the enthusiast.

    With all that said i can hardly wait for tomorrows $600 system, i wonder what GPU, RAM, PSU and HDD got picked to go with the ... i7+X58 combo
  • 5 Hide
    ifko_pifko , May 26, 2009 9:29 AM
    I just don't understand why the $2500 PC is equiped with intel stock cooler and this one with much better xigmatek...
    Also higher overclock of this system vs $2500 PC seems silly if you actually intend to compare them and calculate price/performance ratio.
  • 2 Hide
    skora , May 26, 2009 9:44 AM
    While I agree that a small water system would do wonders for the cooling solution, isn't a rear mounted radiator the first ingredient for a disastrous PORTABLE system? The last thing I want if I'm lugging my case in and out of a trunk is exposed parts that can leak.
  • 0 Hide
    NaNoSoLdIeR , May 26, 2009 10:12 AM
    wouldn't Scythe Ninja 2 be a better cooler for this system? I think it's the same price as the one used... And judging by my own experience with it it would have made the airflow from front to back possible.
    If u had cut holes in the bottom near the fan for the graphics cards wouldn't it help?
    I would have cut a hole big enough to fit a fan put a net over the fan, that would seriously cut those temperatures (I think)...
  • 0 Hide
    Proximon , May 26, 2009 10:18 AM
    This one is a bit of a nightmare. I can say that, I hope, because I contributed to the parts selection thread and feel partly responsible. The case is too cramped for the system. Who could have guessed on the cooler though?
    Maybe one of the top-down Scythes would have been better.
    The 650W draw was a bit of a surprise. Good thing it's a PC P&C.
  • 0 Hide
    JeanLuc , May 26, 2009 10:20 AM
    The noise table - If I was casually looking at the graphs I might be inclined to think that the default GPU fan ran at a fraction of the noise of the fan at full speed but when you look at the numbers it's more like a 20% increase. A bit misleading.

    Good choice of CPU cooler although I might have gone with a the Titan Fenrir instead. However as ifko_pifko points out why did the more expensive $2500 system use a stock cooler yet you had the budget in the cheaper system for 3rd party cooling, very odd.
  • 0 Hide
    enterco , May 26, 2009 10:52 AM
    Quote:
    Now, we can get to the heart of things: game benchmarks. This is what a portable LAN-party-sized system is made for in the first place, and is unfortunately where the CPU overclock will likely deliver diminishing gains as the resolution is raised and the graphics cards become the bottleneck.

    If it were 'portable lan-party-sized', it wouldn't contain two dual-slot graphics cards on a micro-atx case, because of improper cooling. The choice of CPU heatsink it's also bad, and it may pose problems when the system is moved if handled improperly.
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