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System Builder Marathon, Q2 2013: System Value Compared

Mini-ITX, Done Three Ways

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!

Day 1: The $650 Mini-ITX Gaming PC
Day 2: The $1300 Mini-ITX Enthusiast PC
Day 3: The $2500 Mini-Performance PC
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected
Day 5: The $400 "True Spirit of Mini-ITX" PC

Introduction

When it comes to compact PCs, the boutique companies that can afford to commission their own designs are often the ones pushing the performance envelope hardest. And yet, enthusiasts still believe that adopting a form factor like mini-ITX necessarily means making severe compromises. But we showed in Meet The Tiki: Core i7-3770K And GeForce GTX 680 In A Mini-ITX Box? why this doesn't have to be true.

Of course, the only way to get Falcon Northwest's enclosure is buying the company's PC. So, for this quarter's System Builder Marathon, we wanted to give fans of speed in small spaces a handful of do-it-yourself options. Although none of the boxes we built are as small as the Tiki, they represent a healthy cross-section of what can be constructed using today's most efficient components.

Formerly a love-it or hate-it form factor reserved for boring little office PCs, mini-ITX gained gaming cred thanks in part to AMD’s DTX efforts, perhaps almost ironically given the power consumption figures of modern components. All three of our builds employ ITX motherboards, yet all three cases have the DTX-mandated second slot required for double-wide graphics cards. Similarly, all three builds use full-sized power supplies to feed those hungry cards.

Having thoroughly deviated from VIA’s ITX specification, we’ve now moved into an era of semi-compact, open-architecture, full-performance computing.

We already proved that our smaller builds can perform like their full-sized predecessors, and now we’re ready to see how they compare to each other in terms of performance and value.

Q2 2013 System Builder Marathon
$650 Gaming PC$1300 Enthusiast PC$2500 Performance PC
ProcessorIntel Core i3-3220: 3.3 GHz, Dual-Core, 3 MB Shared L3 CacheIntel Core i5-3570K: 3.4 GHz Base, 3.8 GHz Max. Turbo Boost, Quad-Core, 6 MB Shared L3 CacheIntel Core i7-3770K: 3.5 GHz Base, 3.9 GHz Max. Turbo Boost, Quad-Core, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache
GraphicsPowerColor PCS+ AX7870 2 GB 256-bit GDDR5Sparkle GeForce GTX 680 2 GB 256-bit GDDR5Asus GTX690-4GD5 GTX 690 4 GB
MotherboardASRock B75M-ITX: LGA 1155, Intel B75 ExpressMSI Z77IA-E53: LGA 1155, Intel Z77 ExpressAsus P8Z77-I Deluxe: LGA 1155, Intel Z77 Express
MemoryCrucial Ballistix Tactical Tracer BLT2KIT2G3D1608DT2TXRG: DDR3-1600 C8, 4 GB (2x 2GB)G.Skill Ripjaws X F3-14900CL8D-8GBXM: DDR3-1866 8 GB (2 x 4 GB)Crucial Ballistix Tactical BLT2K8G3D1608ET3LX0: DDR3-1600 C8, 16 GB (2 x 8 GB)
System DriveWestern Digital WD5000AAKX: 500 GB, SATA 6Gb/s Hard DriveAdata XPG ASX900S3-64GM-C: 64 GB, SATA 6Gb/s SSDMushkin MKNSSDCR240GB-DX: 240 GB, SATA 6Gb/s SSD
Storage DriveUses System DriveWestern Digital WD1002FAEX: 1 TB, SATA 6Gb/s Hard DriveWestern Digital WD2002FAEX: 2 TB, SATA 6Gb/s Hard Drive
OpticalNoneLite-On iHAS124-04: 24x DVD±R, 48x CD-RAsus DRW-24B1ST: 14x BD-R, 16x DVD±R
CaseCooler Master Elite 120 AdvancedLian Li PC-Q08BBitFenix Prodigy BFC-PRO-300-RRXKR-RP
Prodigy Mesh Front Panel C-PRO-300-KRFXA-RP
BitFenix 140 mm Fan BFF-SCF-14025WW-RP
SilverStone FF143B 140 mm Dust Filter
PowerCorsair CX500:  500 W,  ATX12V v2.3, 80 PLUS BronzeCorsair CX750M: 750 W Modular, ATX12V v2.3 80 PLUS BronzeSeasonic SS-660XP2: 660 W Modular, ATX12V v2.3, 80 PLUS Platinum
CPU CoolerIntel boxed heatsink/fanAntec Kuhler H2O 620 Liquid Cooling SystemNZXT Kraken X40 RL-KRX40-01
Build Cost$653 $1354 $2451

The comment I made about paying $50 bucks extra for $50 fewer features to enable a mini-ITX configuration still stands. Paul's $650 gaming PC had to give up its optical drive to approach its now-theoretical budget limit. That’s alright for many people who have second machines to rip images that they can then drop onto USB thumb drives. But it's something you'll need to keep in mind before committing to such an approach.

At the opposite end of the pricing scale, a somewhat-costly Blu-ray burner gets my $2500 closer to its budget while adding convenience and expanding its capabilities. I simply couldn’t find a compelling performance upgrade on which to spend my left-over loot, and instead decided to focus on features.

In the middle, Don’s enthusiast build breaks the bank to add a 60 GB SSD to its 1 TB hard drive. He gets an artificially-inflated storage score, since the boot drive really can't hold all of the applications he's benchmarking. Even still, on a budget, we'd rather see a small SSD than no solid-state storage at all.

With Paul dropping his optical drive to stay within budget and Don almost ignoring his budget to keep his SSD, the fact that I was adding features to my machine simply to burn through the budget is going to come back and bite me on the rear, I just know it.

  • swordrage
    Finally some builds that cost nearly the same in my country India. Thanks..
    Reply
  • manitoublack
    Great to see M-ITX in a SBM. The days of needing a full sized ATX are mostly over for 90% of people. M-ATO or M-ITX is the way forward.
    Reply
  • slomo4sho
    The extra $1200 from the $1300 doesn't add much value in this form factor.
    Reply
  • DarkSable
    Sigh. This is why I really, really dislike the system builder marathons; they do nothing but perpetuate the fallacies that already are far too common.

    Someone looking at just this article, which isn't that unlikely, would be lead to believe that an i7 is something that an "ultimate" gaming computer has, that an expensive motherboard helps, and that a $2500 PC is going to be far better than a $1500 one.
    Reply
  • slomo4sho
    11041161 said:
    Sigh. This is why I really, really dislike the system builder marathons; they do nothing but perpetuate the fallacies that already are far too common.

    Someone looking at just this article, which isn't that unlikely, would be lead to believe that an i7 is something that an "ultimate" gaming computer has, that an expensive motherboard helps, and that a $2500 PC is going to be far better than a $1500 one.

    They really should include performance per dollar figures in this writeup.
    Reply
  • DarkSable
    11041186 said:
    They really should include performance per dollar figures in this writeup.

    For the parts, or for the computers themselves? Either would be nice, actually.

    One thing that would go a long way is stressing how wonky their testing is - most people reading this as advice for building a computer are going to be building a gaming computer purely, rendering 70% of the test bench pointless.
    Reply
  • slicedtoad
    I still don't like the bf3 benchmarks. They in no way represent the online experience and really, people that play bf3 spend at least 95% of their time on mp. I realize it's nearly impossible to generate a fair benchmark for online play but the current benchmarks are very misleading.

    And I'm not griping at tom's, all review sites seem to do this. There should be some way to create a better benchmark. Maybe host a custom server and load it up with scripted "players" or something.
    Reply
  • allanitomwesh
    Cheaper is better basically :) Where's that $400 rig?
    Reply
  • Achoo22
    11041210 said:
    most people reading this as advice for building a computer are going to be building a gaming computer purely, rendering 70% of the test bench pointless.

    I feel like they've modified the benchmarking suite to favor AMD as much as possible.
    Reply
  • slomo4sho
    11041382 said:
    I feel like they've modified the benchmarking suite to favor AMD as much as possible.

    And when was the last time an AMD CPU made it into a SBM? Modifying benchmarks to favor a product that is never showcased is a moot point.
    Reply