Colliding Interests Shape Our Mini-ITX Effort
System Builder Marathon, Q2 2013: The Articles
Here are links to each of the four articles in this quarter’s System Builder Marathon (we’ll update them as each story is published). And remember, these systems are all being given away at the end of the marathon.
To enter the giveaway, please fill out this SurveyGizmo form, and be sure to read the complete rules before entering!
At the very heart of our System Builder Marathon series, the embers of competition glow hotly. Each builder has an obligation to squeeze the most performance possible from his budget, or else be prepared to defend his alternate path.
But staff and readers alike also hold our builds to various other standards. Thomas' high-end rig undergoes the most scrutiny. It's expected to not only perform exceptionally well, but to also look and feel the part. Don’s enthusiast-oriented PC gets away with more sacrifices, and its lower price might even justify somewhat flat performance right out of the box. However, it still has to be tweaking-friendly and put up big numbers when it gets overclocked. As for my budget-oriented build, I try to earn that gaming PC moniker first and foremost, rather than trying to compete across the productivity-oriented apps that push my less expensive hardware around.
Last quarter, we upped the stakes in our first System Builder Marathon of 2013, by pursuing the most performance possible from three tightly-grouped budgets: $600, $800, and $1000. In essence, we were looking to identify the sweet spot where bang-for-the-buck value is maximized. Surprisingly, the early favorite and reigning champion, Don's mid-priced enthusiast PC, wound up in last place overall, despite winning the hearts of gamers with an unlocked Core i5-3570K processor and powerful Tahiti LE-based Radeon HD 7870 graphics card. On the other hand, my $600 gaming PC successfully captured the overall gold medal once I overclocked it.
But keeping the mainstream Radeon HD 7850 graphics card from the previous two $500 efforts was a disappointment to many, who expected a more generous $600 budget to pack more graphics muscle.
Convinced that a Core i5-3350P a Radeon HD 7850 was a winning combo for overall value, this round I justified shifting funds from the CPU to graphics to see how much better a more focused $600 machine might game. At the same time, we'd also figure out how much performance we'd lose in threaded content creation and productivity apps.
Thoughts of pairing AMD’s FX-6300 with the biggest and baddest GPU I could afford ended when the crew started talking about mini-ITX configurations. As a personal fan of small form factor systems, I was immediately on-board. But I also expressed my concern about the premiums on small parts, along with a desire to make optical drives optional. Some of the most attractive cases, such as Fractal Design's Node 304, don't even include an external drive bay, while many smaller enclosures require a pricier slim drive.
As I waited for the team's input, I priced out a mini-ITX gaming box with a Core i3-3220 and the least-expensive 7-series motherboard, GeForce GTX 660, and 4 GB kit I could find. I would have loved to go even smaller, but I just couldn't deny that Cooler Master's $40 Elite 120 chassis met our value expectations best, while allowing enough left over for a 430 W modular power supply. The build rounded up to exactly $600, shedding the optical drive many folks consider optional anyway.
The talks evolved, though, and in the end we settled on $650, $1300, and $2600 as our final budgets. With an extra $50 burning a hole in my pocket, I was torn between conflicting interests. How would we judge what makes the best mini-ITX gaming box? Should I stay true to the roots of our SBM and augment performance, or build something a little more in tune with what I'd personally want to own? The ultimate small form factor box would either be hidden or attractive enough for my family room. Of course I'd still want it to deliver a solid 1920x1080 gaming experience. I could now shrink down to a SilverStone Sugo SG05 with its 450 W SFX power supply, and use the leftover budget to double my system memory. Or, some folks might add back the optical drive. But I knew that neither route would bolster performance.
|$650 Gaming PC System Components|
|CPU||Intel Core i3-3220||$130|
|CPU Cooler||Intel boxed heatsink/fan||-|
|RAM||Crucial Ballistix Tactical Tracer 4 GB (2 x 2 GB) DDR3-1600 BLT2KIT2G3D1608DT2TXRG||$33|
|Graphics||PowerColor PCS+ AX7870 Myst Radeon HD 7870 2 GB||$250|
|Hard Drive||Western Digital WD Blue WD5000AAKX 500 GB||$60|
|Case||Cooler Master Elite 120 Mini-ITX Tower||$40|
|Power||Corsair Builder Series CX500 500 W ATX12V v2.3||$50|
A $10 price increase on the GTX 660, coupled with the least-expensive 8 GB memory kit disappearing, narrowed my upgrade options to a Pitcairn- or Tahiti LE-based Radeon HD 7870 card. The former would run cooler, consume less power, and leave enough left over for a Rosewill Capstone 80 PLUS Gold modular power supply.
In the end, staying true to the SBM at this budget meant a performance-oriented build. And, in this competition, I still hoped to game right up there with the big boys. Knowing that my machine would have to benchmark at 4800x900 across three screens, it was obvious that a Tahiti-based Radeon HD 7870 gave me the best bang within my price range. From there, the choice was simple. Only one model was in stock and the lack of a bundled power adapter forced me away from the module power supply in favor of a more potent unit.