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Can Less Equal More?

System Builder Marathon, Q2 2013: The $400 Spirit Of Mini-ITX

Armed with the most potent graphics card our budget and chassis would allow, all of these builds were designed for PC gaming. It makes sense, then, to evaluate performance weighed most heavily toward the titles we tested and not on productivity.

Of course, based on average performance, the overall ranking is obvious. But the lingering question is which of these machines offers the most performance for what we spent on them?

The $650 machine captures this crown also, its big benchmark numbers outweighing the extra bit its parts ran us. Today’s $400 PC takes second place, but only because we massaged the weighting a bit and based the outcome on one-third application performance. Note also that the losing $500 PC is the only one that incurs the cost of an optical drive, but doesn't enjoy any speed-up from it. In that way, the comparison isn't perfectly fair.

Overall value isn't based just on benchmark results though, and any of these machines can subjectively be crowned a winner or loser once your own needs are taken into account. The mini-ITX form factor might not be a priority for you. After all, there are price premiums and hardware limitations associated with cramming components into such a compact space.

Combining a fairly tame processor with enthusiast-class graphics, this quarter’s $650 mini-ITX gaming box ripped through our highest game settings at 1920x1080, even driving three screens at 4800x900 at reduced settings. It is by far the most potent gaming machine we measured today. However, its size, shape, and noisy overclocked graphics card wouldn't fly in every environment. We anticipated this to some degree, and chalked it up to the price you pay to play with the big boys, while spending as little as possible.

I called today's build the True Spirit of Mini-ITX because I wanted it to be smaller, quieter, and more affordable. Achieving success in those three metrics wouldn't have mattered if this thing flopped in the tests. But as it turns out, we saw great gaming performance in F1 2012 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim at 1920x1080 using Ultra details. Battlefield 3‘s single-player campaign was quite a bit more taxing, but lower quality settings got us through it.

Moving forward, processors able to schedule four threads are a safer recommendation, especially in systems with powerful GPUs. But the Pentium G860 continues proving it's a capable value-oriented chip, especially paired to mainstream graphics. Shifting any further to the CPU would have hurt our gaming benchmarks. When our little rig did fall short, its Radeon HD 7750 was to blame and not the Pentium processor.

We’re eager to hear which of these builds best serves your needs. Would you rather have a mini-ITX box that's as small as possible, or just small enough to cram in a GeForce GTX 780 or something like that? Given the number of PCs my family owns, I'm still partial to the little $400 box. Yes, there are several upgrades I'd like to perform with more money. But as it was built, this machine is still a respectable little gaming platform in a kid's room.

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