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Getting More Performance From A Smaller PC

Building A Liquid-Cooled MicroATX Gaming Monster
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Our experiment in microATX performance illustrates a few concepts that seam to have escaped many enthusiasts in recent years. The first of these is that you don’t really need a big case to achieve stellar performance.

Of course, we didn’t stop there. Every time our System Builder Marathon’s $2000 build sheet crosses its budget limit, I drop down to Antec’s Three Hundred Illusion case to save money. The rationale for that decision is that the case is sturdy enough, and ventilated  better than many competing products priced the same or even more.

The idea is to achieve high-end performance without the accompanying high-end price, and the most technically-charged argument against those builds has always been that bigger cases allow higher CPU overclocks. And yet, today we achieved a higher overclock using similar ventilation in an even smaller case.

Now, you could argue that the CPU in the smaller machine received an unfair benefit in this comparison from its liquid cooler, but we’ve already proven that liquid coolers this small have no benefit over big air coolers (on several occasions). The processor in this liquid-cooled machine is further forced to share its cooling with a graphics card, and the real cooling benefits were reserved for that high-end GPU.

In our recent System Builder Marathon, we concluded that the $2000 machine's overclocking issues were most likely caused by an improperly cooled and/or undersized CPU voltage regulator. Today, we showed that a similarly-priced microATX motherboard is capable of both hosting a larger voltage regulator and using it effectively. We also showed that any GPU overclocking deficiencies we ran into in the System Builder Marathon were a result of the lower-binned cards we chose. Picking more overclocking-friendly cards for today’s test opened up quite a bit of headroom.

We also heard some negative feedback about our previous-build’s SSD. But today’s test showed a top competing model providing only 2% better performance. While we love the upgraded SSD's increased capacity and performance, we wouldn’t sacrifice other parts of the machine to keep it within a reasonable budget. Like the DDR3-2200 memory we used in our microATX machine, a large, high-end SSD should be reserved for builders without budgetary restrictions.

Finally, several readers voiced concerns about the 850 W power supply we chose, which we readily admit isn’t the most efficient part in the world. It’s hard to argue against its 80 PLUS Silver rating for a mere $110, but we did experiment with an 80 PLUS Gold unit as well.

This is the same Seasonic X760 used in many of our reference builds, and we expected it to run at approximately 100% load in this follow-up piece. The 80 PLUS organization says that it pulls 863.6 W at full load and 88% efficiency. Our full-load test showed 875 W wall load with both GPUs and the CPU overclocked and maxed-out, so we’re pushing roughly 10 W beyond its rating.

The X760 saved 19 W at full load compared to the less efficient, lower-cost 850 W part. While that is enough power to light a small room in fluorescent glory, it’s not much by performance PC standards. We’d pick a more efficient model only if we had the money to burn. Though 850 W is our minimum recommendation for similar builds, this microATX configuration is already pushing the case’s maximum capacity with the parts we used. Anyone making room for big upgrades should upsize both their case and power supply accordingly.

All of these careful tests and considerations lead us to two conclusions. First, we were spot-on by stating that the only deficiency in the SBM $2000 PC was the motherboard’s voltage regulator, which only limited its overclocking capability. Second, it’s now obvious that most power uses can get even more performance in an even smaller size through careful parts selection.

We’d like to thank Asus, Crucial, Fractal Design, PNY, and Seagate for supplying the extra parts needed to test all of the concepts proven today. While we’re at it, we’d also like to know which of today’s parts you’d like to see in future builds.

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Top Comments
  • 12 Hide
    gti88 , October 5, 2011 8:47 AM
    What about noise?
    I didn't find any mention about it.
    At least, at what speed fans are running while the gaming test is being done?
  • 12 Hide
    dan103 , October 5, 2011 8:00 AM
    You paid 300$!!! for RAM?
  • 12 Hide
    compton , October 5, 2011 4:32 AM
    I really like this setup. The Maximus Gene-Z is very swank, and it's on my short list even though the last thing I need is more motherboards laying around.

    I was a huge proponent of uATX cases until I needed space for an Asus Essence STX and a Killer Networks 2100 NIC. I found a compromise with the Lian Li PC A05NB -- it's one of the smallest ATX cases around, not much larger than the uATX enclosure I was using prevously. The diminutive Gene-Z is perfection for uATX boards, and wouldn't be out of place in larger cases -- but it's nice that you were able to cram so much into such a modest enclosure.
Other Comments
  • 12 Hide
    compton , October 5, 2011 4:32 AM
    I really like this setup. The Maximus Gene-Z is very swank, and it's on my short list even though the last thing I need is more motherboards laying around.

    I was a huge proponent of uATX cases until I needed space for an Asus Essence STX and a Killer Networks 2100 NIC. I found a compromise with the Lian Li PC A05NB -- it's one of the smallest ATX cases around, not much larger than the uATX enclosure I was using prevously. The diminutive Gene-Z is perfection for uATX boards, and wouldn't be out of place in larger cases -- but it's nice that you were able to cram so much into such a modest enclosure.
  • 3 Hide
    dogman_1234 , October 5, 2011 4:48 AM
    Question: why does the Mobo choice have a 'bad voltage regulator?'

    Anyways. Love these kind of articles. Helps other users get more of what they assume. Keep it up Tom's.
  • 6 Hide
    iam2thecrowe , October 5, 2011 5:02 AM
    dogman_1234Question: why does the Mobo choice have a 'bad voltage regulator?'Anyways. Love these kind of articles. Helps other users get more of what they assume. Keep it up Tom's.

    it doesnt have a BAD voltage regulator, it just doesn't deliver enough stable power for overclocking much, nor do the VRM's have good cooling on them in that gigabtyte board. This was the assumption for the poor overclcking perfromance in the SBM.
  • 0 Hide
    dogman_1234 , October 5, 2011 5:17 AM
    iam2thecroweit doesnt have a BAD voltage regulator, it just doesn't deliver enough stable power for overclocking much, nor do the VRM's have good cooling on them in that gigabtyte board. This was the assumption for the poor overclcking perfromance in the SBM.

    How does one avoid this?
  • -1 Hide
    aznshinobi , October 5, 2011 5:21 AM
    Man... I was thinking custom water cooling loop when I saw this. I guess not. Not a huge fan of manufacturer pre-made loops, I find them expensive for their price. I.E All the Corsair Hydro series products.
  • 5 Hide
    crisan_tiberiu , October 5, 2011 5:30 AM
    Question: is the overclocked i7 passing the Intel Burn Test @ Extreme Preset? I am asking this because my 2600k cant pass this test @ 4,4 Ghz, it simply shuts down (thermal protection kicks in, no errors :) )
  • 5 Hide
    ceps , October 5, 2011 5:40 AM
    Love this build, i love mATX builds, maybe the most interesting build I've seen here. Good Job!!
  • 2 Hide
    Crashman , October 5, 2011 5:47 AM
    crisan_tiberiuQuestion: is the overclocked i7 passing the Intel Burn Test @ Extreme Preset? I am asking this because my 2600k cant pass this test @ 4,4 Ghz, it simply shuts down (thermal protection kicks in, no errors )

    Eight threads Prime95 small FFTs for max CPU.
    dogman_1234How does one avoid this?

    On the Gigabyte board you could probably see that half of the voltage regulator had no heat sink, but some crap boards have sinks so it's only a little helpful. Otherwise you have to pick a board you like, then use your search engine to find out what other people are getting from their overclocks.

    In the case of that board, it was stable at 1.35V, fluctuated quite a bit at 1.36V, and dropped all the way down to 1.36V when it was set to 1.38V.
  • 0 Hide
    crisan_tiberiu , October 5, 2011 6:07 AM
    CrashmanEight threads Prime95 small FFTs for max CPU.On the Gigabyte board you could probably see that half of the voltage regulator had no heat sink, but some crap boards have sinks so it's only a little helpful. Otherwise you have to pick a board you like, then use your search engine to find out what other people are getting from their overclocks.In the case of that board, it was stable at 1.35V, fluctuated quite a bit at 1.36V, and dropped all the way down to 1.36V when it was set to 1.38V.

    sry, i retract what i was saying :(  i tried Burn Test again (with 20C room temp not with 30 :p  ) and it passed @ 4,5 GHz). I have an AsRock MB and used "Load optimized overclock settings for 4,4Ghz, and i dont know why, it sets the PLL voltage to 1,75V, witch is very high. I have set the PLL to 1,55 V and now it works great @ 4,5 GHz ... What can i say, i am always learning something :p 
  • -1 Hide
    AppleBlowsDonkeyBalls , October 5, 2011 6:25 AM
    A Core i7-3930K sounds good for the next $2000 build if it's out by then. GTX 580s are horrible bang-for-buck, so I'd step down to two Radeon HD 6970s for 2560x1600 gaming. It should be comparable in gaming to this one and much faster in multi-threaded. It remains to be seen how much X79 motherboards will cost, but I think a great system could be made on that 'budget'.
  • 1 Hide
    amk-aka-Phantom , October 5, 2011 6:26 AM
    Sweet rig. I hope I'll be able to build something like that one day - never had a WC setup :) 
  • 0 Hide
    Rizlla , October 5, 2011 7:09 AM
    I take it the 750Gb HDD's were some of the parts just lying around, coz I think it would be better to use 1TB HDD's. Great article I loved it. I would like to see you work in the PNY setup in future SBM builds if it is not stupidly priced.
  • 9 Hide
    tacoslave , October 5, 2011 7:19 AM
    i hope they give it away .
  • 3 Hide
    f-14 , October 5, 2011 7:36 AM
    perhaps the best conscientious decision making of parts and build Tom's has made in years.
    loved the whole build despite the micro atx form factor
    really love the heatsinks being built and used from the board to the memory to the water coolers.
    if some one could come up with a sli/crossfire dual card set up that flipped one cards gpu's so both cards could share 1 gpu pump and sink mount sandwiched between them i do not think there could be any improvement in this build at all.
    (it could be argued that a dual burner drive could add some small benefit depending on how many back up movie discs you make every week.)
  • 12 Hide
    dan103 , October 5, 2011 8:00 AM
    You paid 300$!!! for RAM?
  • 1 Hide
    archange , October 5, 2011 8:46 AM
    The article is spot-on! Kudos Tom's.

    BTW, I was eyeing the exact same Fractal Design case for my home server, because it was small, cheap and well-ventilated. Besides, I really dig its sober design; I had enough with frills, bells & whistles. If it copes with this setup, then I guess it must be safe with my required ~35 W server power footprint XD
  • 12 Hide
    gti88 , October 5, 2011 8:47 AM
    What about noise?
    I didn't find any mention about it.
    At least, at what speed fans are running while the gaming test is being done?
  • 3 Hide
    mkrijt , October 5, 2011 9:18 AM
    This is one sweet build imho.
    Btw, I'm with gti88, I would really like to know about noise.
  • 1 Hide
    frostweaver , October 5, 2011 9:27 AM
    Does the article says the load temp for both gpu and cpu? would love to take a look and noise too!
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