Build It Yourself: A Mini-ITX Gaming System For Just Over $500

Low-cost, low-power, small form factor PCs are popular right now. With Intel’s Ivy Bridge architecture available in the low-end Pentium family, you can now build a living room gaming PC with discrete graphics to beat any modern console for just over $500.

We’ve seen how AMD’s Llano-based APUs stack up against Intel’s Sandy Bridge-based Pentiums in Better with Time? The A8-3870 And Pentium G630, One Year Later. That story generated quite a big of feedback, much of it asking how Intel's Ivy Bridge architecture might fare. Today, we’re putting together a new build with an Ivy Bridge-based Pentium at its core.

Of course, simply building an entry-level gaming PC on a budget is a pretty tired topic, so we chose to tackle a more formidable challenge. Could we fit a budget-oriented configuration inside a mini-ITX chassis? Would it still accommodate an optical drive for us to install all of our favorite titles? Might there be room for the hard drive needed to house those games? Perhaps most important, is there room in a cheap mini-ITX case for a discrete graphics card able to deliver smooth, stutter-free frame rates? Surely, we couldn't expect something so specific to also look good, right?

Falcon Northwest showed us what a boutique builder can do with months of R&D and aspirations of supporting high-end hardware in Meet The Tiki: Core i7-3770K And GeForce GTX 680 In A Mini-ITX Box? This isn't the same thing though, our goal here is to tackle small, attractive, and inexpensive. Although that seems almost impossible, we promise you it's doable. You just need to track down the right parts. A high degree of manual dexterity helps, too.

Finding A Good Deal On A Mini-ITX Case And Power Supply

I lost a lot of hair trying to find the right mini-ITX chassis and power supply. There simply isn't much out there to choose from, much less with a bundled PSU around the $60 price range. Our power supply choices were between the TFX form factor and a picoPSU, so we had to choose between output and size. We calculated that we'd need no less than 120 W, which is actually quite a lot for a picoPSU, especially given the limited selection in that product segment. If we went that route, our choices would have cost about $140 for a case, the picoPSU, and a notebook power brick. Too expensive, we decided.

What remained were cases with bundled PSUs. Generally, they lack the level of quality we're willing to accept, they're larger than what we want, or they come with older, much less efficient power supplies. After a mission of online shopping and calling around to various vendors, we finally discovered a gem of an enclosure featuring an integrated TFX power supply and selling for about $60. Could it be the chassis we were looking for all along?

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  • xkm1948
    What about putting in an APU instead?
    That case almost looks like a Wii.
  • zooted
    Would be nice if they included benchmarks, but overall a nice review.
  • A Bad Day
    We have Mini-ITX gaming mobos that support OCing and 120mm closed loop water cooling...

    I demand a proper Mini-ITX case from the manufacturers!
  • FormatC
    I have a "Zero dB PC" as one of the next projects, complete based on a AMD APU (A10 5700). We should stay a little parity, all last Mini-PCs were AMDs ;)

    The performance of a HD 7750 is wellknown and this little card is in the most cases the slower part. This is from the other project:
  • sempifi99
    If I did not already have more desktops than I am currently using I would definitely consider building something like this...
  • Hando567
    Wish you would have done a bitfenix Prodigy build with an i7 and GTX690, mini ITX machine that can play anything? Yes please!

    I would like to know why there is no real SFF love in the AMD camp for non APU's, I really want a new mATX mobo with 3 PCI-e slots, so I can do a tri-fire setup with LC in my mini P180, 2x7970's just are not enough. I also want to replace my aging 890gxm-g65 so I can OC my FX8350, this board has known issues with its power circuitry beyond stock (I would know, I have cooked 3 of them, 2 from trying to OC, and one from a long gaming session)
  • itzsnypah
    It always seems like Toms put's out recommendation builds right after new hardware comes out. Also I think you failed to research enough, mITX H77 boards have been cheaper than mITX B75 boards for months while having better features.
  • photonboy
    Laptop instead?

    At the $500 price range, I've seen many laptops that perform similarly to builds like this.

    The laptops also have the advantage of:
    - screen (don't have to use)
    - battery (for power outage)
    - size

    One disadvantage with gaming laptops is that under load the little fan tends to be annoying. It would be really cool if you could easily plug in an external cooling unit that bypasses that fan.

    INTERESTING BUILD, though I would strongly disagree with the "good enough for an HDTV" comment about the graphics card. It's a gaming PC. Just because it's hooked up to an HDTV instead of a monitor doesn't make it "good enough"; Far Cry 3 still won't run great.

    I'd like to see a little more CPU and GPU processing power while keeping noise in check. Let's see what can be done with $700?
  • bak0n
    That was my basic setup until recently when I upgraded the cpu from a i3 2100 to an i5 3570k. The GPU from the 7750 to a 7870 and the case to a prodigy which supports larger cooling fans and dual slot GPU's. The lower frame rates or settings turned down wasn't cutting it for games like borderlands 2. But if you are into games like LoL the recommend build will be more than enough.
  • DjEaZy
    xkm1948What about putting in an APU instead?

    ... my first idea too...
  • jestersage
    Beautiful! Love it! Mini ITX System Builder Marathon, please.
  • jestersage
    I also found this bit thought provoking -

    Overall, you should see good performance right up until the platform reaches its limit. Then performance will fall apart completely.

    Something to keep us readers grounded on reality.
  • palladin9479
    DjEaZy... my first idea too...

    The A10-5800K would be slower then a 7750 GDDR5 even with DDR3-2133 memory, though it would definitely be cheaper.

    What Toms was doing was combining SB/IB's better performance at single player timed games with a very specific dGPU. The dGPU is doing most of the heavy lifting which lets them get away with a weak CPU in single threaded environments. Since the purpose was to create a pseudo "console" then it'll work.
  • grumbledook
    These tfx psus are typically noisy so I seriously doubt you'd hear the stock cooler over it. I sure haven't with my g850 in a similar itx chassis (In-Win bp655) with 2 different ones (got a 300w bequiet tfx psu to replace the overtly noisy one that came with the case. Much better but still audible).
    Why no mention of how loud the gpu is under load?
    Also, "no gaming pc is really complete without an optical drive"..... just no.
  • ta152h
    The case looks like crap. Cheap crap. It doesn't look great.

    You should have gone with the train case, or something that didn't look like such chinsy garbage.
  • seanpull
    There should have been no optical drive, and the stock CPU cooler. Take that saved money to buy a 7770 GHz Edition instead of that not even gaming graphics card.
  • The_Trutherizer
    The A10 6800K should dual nicely with this graphics card. I dare say it will be a better option then.
  • emad_ramlawi
    Good work, can i please know the temps inside the system, like the AMD 7750 on Load and idle and the CPU as well, why no temps page
  • crisan_tiberiu
    photonboyLaptop instead??

    i was thinking on building a htpc /gaming PC and i was thinking to get a laptop aswell...but lets see, the only thing that you win with a laptop is mobility. In a htpc you can upgrade the video card with newer solution, you can upgrade the CPU (you can alwas insert an i3 there when prices are lower), the htpc is silenter, you can add SSD +HDD ... so the HTPC wins by far. The laptop is doomed, you will trow it away in 4 years (@ 500$, you will trow it away in 2 :))), and @ 500$ your best deal in a laptopis the intel HD graphics orthe nvidia gt 610 witchboth are crap...
  • Onus
    Bravo! This was a good article, needing only a few benchmarks (definitely including heat and noise) to be GREAT. As much interest as I have in small systems, and encounter in the forums, I think this has been a very neglected topic. There seems to be a perception that "enthusiast" focus needs to be on multi-GPU, monster rigs able to play every game on "UltraMaxOhWOW" settings, without regard to space or budget.
    I'd like to toss out some questions, and request some alternatives that may answer them.
    You've addressed the "slim" case; can we see a "shoebox" build? While also limited to a single slot, can they fit a graphics card wider than just one slot, or do the coolers hit the case sides? Without going to something big like a Prodigy, can a more powerful graphics card be readily fitted into such a build, or is the HD7750 the best we can expect for now? How about an APU+HD6670 in Crossfire, or does the APU get too hot? What's the smallest case that will fit one of those little GTX650Ti cards?
    Given the lack of a fan other than the PSU, what's the beefiest build that can be done in a Lian Li PC-Q07 without encountering thermal issues?
    STORAGE OPTIONS! How about a laptop HDD + 2.5" SSD mounted in one of those 3.5" frames? Or, mount multiple 3.5" drives where a 5.25" optical drive would go, and make the optical drive external (when/if needed).
    I've got an ASRock Z77E-ITX mobo just waiting for a brain. It has a mSATA slot on its underside, really opening up storage possibilities.
    Finally, I hope you can really dig into mini-ITX builds. With at least two form factors available (three if you count big cases like the Prodigy), there are a lot of variables I'd like to see explored. Even if a HD7750 turns out to be a frequent limit, isn't that actually quite good when you look at average or typical hardware configurations on Steam?
  • GazP172
    I built more or less the same machine over a year ago.

    I used a Jou Jye 568i case which is the same as the case used here with a different front/badge.
    Zotac z68 itx board
    Intel 620t CPU
    8gb Ram
    AMD 6670LP graphics card.

    With the above setup the system was functional for everyday processes but chuck a game in there and the graphics card would all but set on fire. The hi temp results in the graphics card fan running at full and the PSU fan buzzing away but the CPU was fine.

    As soon as the AMD 7750 came out I replaced the 6670 with one (sapphire) but this didnt help the temp problems. In my tried and tested opinion this case cannot house any serious graphics card and would be no good for a AMD APU as the optical drive seriously limits clearance for CPU heatsink. A much better option is the Antec ISK 150 which I have now.

    Spec now

    Antec ISK 150
    Zotac z68 itx board
    Intel 2500k CPU
    8gb Ram 1600
    AMD Saphire 7750LP graphics card.

    Temperatures are fine on the card now aswell as noise (not silent thougth).
  • jeffgedgaud
    I would really be interested in seeing some results of heat and any potential probelms with overheating, how about a few charts on temperatures?
  • alvine
    i switched from full tower /atx mobo to micro atx case/mobo and its awesome :) more space on my desk