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Building A Liquid-Cooled MicroATX Gaming Monster

Building A Liquid-Cooled MicroATX Gaming Monster
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You don't need a massive case to cram in tons of computing muscle. With a little help from a few manufacturers, our excessively-overclocked GeForce GTX 580 SLI build is small enough to sit atop most desks (and smoke our $2000 SBM machine).

It's not uncommon for PC enthusiasts to gravitate toward enormous cases that sit under their desks. Not only do those enclosures command attention, but they also have the extra space for installing add-ins and keeping them nice and cool.

And yet, our own case comparisons prove that extra space doesn't always translate into better airflow. Moreover, even a majority of enthusiasts don’t add more than a trio of three hard drives to their potent builds.

With that in mind, we're going to try something different today.

Harangued by lovers of multifaceted fascias, bright lights, and big windows, we decided to see how far we could push performance, while keeping our box's footprint as unassuming as possible.

As a frame of reference, we're comparing today's effort to our recent $2000 System Builder Marathon configuration. And like that build, we begin today's tale with a lovingly-chosen shopping list.

Ultimate Performance Mini PC Components
MotherboardAsus Maximus IV Gene-Z: LGA 1155 Intel Z68 Express $170
GraphicsPNY XLR8 VCGGTX580XPB-LC-CPU GeForce GTX 580
PNY XLR8 VCGGTX580XPB-LC GeForce GTX 580 (for SLI)
 $1080
ProcessorIntel Core i7-2600K: 3.4 GHz-3.8 GHz, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache $315
MemoryG.Skill F3-17600CL9D-8GBXLD: DDR3-2200 C9, 4 GB x2 (8 GB) $300
System DriveCrucial CT256M4SSD2CCA 256 GB, SATA 6Gb/s SSD $380
Storage Drive2 x Seagate Momentus ST9750420AS 750 GB, 7200 RPM Hard Drive
 $80
OpticalLG WH12LS30: 12x BD-R 2x BD-RE 16x DVD±R 8x DVD+RW $80
CaseFractal Design Arc Mini $100
PowerSeasonic SS-850HT: 850 W, ATX12V v2.31, 80 PLUS Silver $120
Heat SinkPNY XLR8 / Asetek Integrated Liquid Cooling   
  Total Cost  $2625


Unlike our System Builder Marathon machines, which are all sponsored by Newegg, this build was “off the books.” We pieced it together through some very helpful press contacts and and used a few parts we simply had laying around.

Our test results prove that we still didn’t cut any corners, even if some of the parts we picked aren't for everyone.

Display 125 Comments.
Top 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.
  • 12 Hide
    dan103 , October 5, 2011 8:00 AM
    You paid 300$!!! for RAM?
  • 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?
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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