Build It: Half-Height Gaming PCs For The Living Room

PowerColor’s half-height Radeon HD 5750 launched a quest to build a tiny gaming PC. But things didn't work out the way we planned. We ended up building two half-height machines capable of cranking out playable frame rates, and put them both to the test.

Tiny nettop HTPCs are great for playing back HD video, but they aren’t able to tackle demanding games at high resolutions because they lean too heavily on integrated graphics. We've always been intrigued by the possibility of a tiny PC that can handle media playback in addition to late-night frag fests, so when PowerColor introduced a half-height flavor of its Radeon HD 5750, we got excited about the possibility of squishing significant graphics power into a tiny PC.

With 700/1150 MHz core/memory speeds, PowerColor's Radeon HD 5750 runs at AMD's full reference specification, despite its half-sized PCB. The only physical feature that betrays its power within is a dual-slot cooler.

We’re well aware of powerful gaming PCs that use the small cube form factor, but we want to see if we can push the size limit even harder. Can we build a machine capable of gaming at 1080p as small and thin as the new, slimmer Xbox 360?

We know that smaller systems require careful planning. Even when we put our System Builder Marathon machines together, we run into compatibility issues--and that's with full-sized ATX platforms. The smaller you go, the more complicated things can get, though. What we didn’t know--until we tried--is that a successful half-height build can be far more involved than you might otherwise imagine.

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  • Poisoner
    This is an interesting article and goes a direction where nVidia has no way to compete.
  • nevertell
    I'd mod a case and mount my videocard horizontally.
  • dirtmountain
    Good article and an interesting read. You can get a half height GTS450.
  • fatkid35
    awesome article. i love small pc's! my silverstone sg05 is modded with a 600 watt psu and 6870 stuffed inside.
  • shovenose
    the antec sp-400 has issues! it has lousy fuhjyyu capactiros that fail even just sitting there. i suggest you find a different psu!
  • cleeve
    shovenosethe antec sp-400 has issues! it has lousy fuhjyyu capactiros that fail even just sitting there. i suggest you find a different psu!

    I've been using this one in my main HTPC for a couple years now at least. Haven't had any problems.
  • Mr_x
    Typo on Test Systems And Benchmarks
    AMD Phenom II X4 705e isn't it x3???
  • carlhenry
    that's weird, a 160w power supply powering up a 5570? (and you also intended to slap in the 5750 there?) did i miss something?
  • dEAne
    Looking for a case like that is next to impossible - but for a 160W wow I never have though of that, it gives me another idea. thanks tom.
  • Th-z
    Thanks for the article. I have a question, where do you find quality small PSU? If you want to go as small as you can, one would need to use small PSU. But it seems they are scarce in terms of wattage selection and brand, no where comparing to standard ATX PSU.

    Many small mini-ITX cases do include a small PSU, but what if you want to mod the PSU, or the included one breaks down? Falling back to standard ATX PSU would have to use a bigger mini-ITX case.
  • Onus
    Lian Li makes some very nice mini-itx cases that are not limited to half-height cards. I have a GTX460 in my PC-Q08R, using the ECS mobo that Tom's included in a value roundup of LGA1156 boards.
    Too big? The PC-Q07 only has a single slot for the video card, but that would take the single-slot HD5770 that XFX makes: . Both cases will take a full sized ATX PSU; I would suggest a modular one, such as the 550W Antec Truepower New I am using in mine.
  • skora
    Forget small and make an aquarium mineral oil HTPC with fake fish and all.
  • ethaniel
    You should try some PCI Express risers next time, see if there's any performance penalty by using them...
  • Onus
    By the way, I found this article very interesting. Anyone can build a tower that is a reasonably competent gamer. "Smaller, quieter, less power" don't get the attention they deserve; these are ways to differentiate a PC.
  • fozzie76
    I wonder if your mini-ITX wavey case has fewer square inches then my Silverstone SG05? Yes the wavey is shorter, but it's also wider and longer, so which really has the smaller footprint?
  • fozzie76
    Tom's really needs a modder on staff. Are you all afraid of dremel's and wiring your own plugs or something? You could have totally shaved down that plug and made it fit! Mini-ITX systems take work and hours of modding. SFF systems take lots of time and love. Link to my baby below.. Mini-ITX SG05 with an i3-530 capable of 4.4ghz (currently at 4.0), a Corsair H50, 4gb of crucial tracer, a HIS IceQ 5770, modded a window and an UV light kit. Had to mod the CD bezel to get the H50 in also. Just give them a little time and don't be afraid to void some warranties!
    Link to by baby
  • K2N hater
    Don, maybe you could get a good video card with passive heatsink and try to build a silent (or really quiet) box? I'm after a new gaming PC but I'm tired of noisy fans and huge cases...
  • wiyosaya
    PoisonerThis is an interesting article and goes a direction where nVidia has no way to compete.

    dirtmountainGood article and an interesting read. You can get a half height GTS450. [...] 6814261078

    There are also plenty of half-height NVidia GT 430s out there
  • mister g
    We're talking about how the 450 can somehow fit in an HTPC and still work with the small PSU, of course 430s are available in low-profile form their the lowest 400 series card available.
  • scook9
    Antec has a few great cases for this purpose.....

    Personally, I went full height and have my "gaming" htpc in a Fusion 430 Black

    That case takes full height cards and full ATX power supplies. I have a 4890 in it with a Corsair HX650 and an Asus P5Q-EM with a Q9550. You could easily get one of the x58/p55 motherboards that supports SLI/CF too to get some considerable power into that footprint
  • tommysch
    Whats the point, I have a HAF-932 in my living room and I couldnt be more happier with it. For those who dont know its a huge full-tower. The smaller the case is the harder it is to keep it cool, so you have to crank the fans. Pushing the fans becomes noisy, fast.

    For the living room

    Silent powerful full-tower > Noisy underpowered cube.
  • mliska1
    I was just considering a microATX slim case and crossfiring two of these Powercolor half-height 5750's. Maybe you could try that for a future article?
  • Onus
    The Lian Li PC-Q08 has two quiet fans; a front 140mm intake and a top 120mm exhaust. It is whisper-quiet, stays cool, and can fit any one double-slot card, even most of the longer ones. With its drive cage, you'll run out of SATA ports on your mobo before you run out of spaces to mount drives.
  • fullcircle_bflo
    Something I noticed is that the power brick for the Xbox is external and huge. Now I am not sure if this is the same as a PCs power supply, but if they are the same, are external power supplies available? And if not, I'm going to need a capitol investor. : )