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

Can Less Equal More?

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.

  • ingtar33
    great article. this type of look at how a low end "budget" build handles modern titles was perfect. Loved it. I think you got about the most you could hope for out of a $400 budget. Frankly i can't find a way to make something better at that price point. spot on really. nicely done.

    I do like how most of those games were "playable" on high settings at 1080p with that tiny rig... very cool.
    Reply
  • Crashman
    Nice build, makes me wonder how it would stack up to my old 4.0 GHz overclocked Core 2 Duo office PC. Which gets gamed on occasionally using its HD 6850 graphics card.
    Reply
  • envy14tpe
    Enjoy the $400 build. Kinda hoped for an A10-5800k build to compare to.
    Reply
  • rmpumper
    250 bucks makes HUGE difference. Unlike 2500 vs 1300 systems.
    Reply
  • allanitomwesh
    FINALLY! I agree this whole system builder was almost a fail.
    Also, I can't believe you had a SG05 and didn't build with it,it has an awesome power supply. Again,if you weren't getting a disk drive the V3+ was the smaller, higher quality case than CM 120 ( though they're finished on newegg)
    The obsession with ginormous cards in tiny places made your cases not tiny.Clearly,a more sensible build,like with a 670,would fit in a much smaller footprint.
    The lack of the FT03 Mini is a fail. It's a Mac killing case,and should've been the go to case for the $2500 build, because at that price,my case better look it.
    Otherwise I like that you were at least up to the challenge, and I applaud this last build.
    Reply
  • Crashman
    11047601 said:
    FINALLY! I agree this whole system builder was almost a fail.
    Also, I can't believe you had a SG05 and didn't build with it,it has an awesome power supply. Again,if you weren't getting a disk drive the V3+ was the smaller, higher quality case than CM 120 ( though they're finished on newegg)
    The obsession with ginormous cards in tiny places made your cases not tiny.Clearly,a more sensible build,like with a 670,would fit in a much smaller footprint.
    The lack of the FT03 Mini is a fail. It's a Mac killing case,and should've been the go to case for the $2500 build, because at that price,my case better look it.
    Otherwise I like that you were at least up to the challenge, and I applaud this last build.
    The FT03 Mini would have probably caused the $2500 PC's graphics card to overheat, or caused the graphics card to overheat the CPU. And a 670 might have worked, but then it wouldn't have been a $2500 PC. But please don't let the facts get in the way of your opinion.

    You could say that nobody should even bother spending $2500 on an ITX-based system, or that a system with ITX limitations should never be expected to provide top performance. At least those opinions would make more sense than the stuff you said above.

    Reply
  • brucek2
    My favorite of the builds. Feels congruent to me in that budget, form factor and system capabilities all align to each other and to my personal sensibilities. I could see making a system like this for a bedroom or den.
    Reply
  • Crashman
    11047721 said:
    My favorite of the builds. Feels congruent to me in that budget, form factor and system capabilities all align to each other and to my personal sensibilities. I could see making a system like this for a bedroom or den.
    Or even an office! Really. I might not build one of these for a performance competition, but it looks like a solid alternative to my retired-gaming office PC.

    Reply
  • CommentariesAnd More
    PCPartPicker part list / Price breakdown by merchant / Benchmarks
    CPU: Intel Pentium G860 3.0GHz Dual-Core Processor ($69.99 @ Newegg)
    Motherboard: Foxconn H61S Mini ITX LGA1155 Motherboard ($49.99 @ Amazon)
    Memory: Corsair 4GB (1 x 4GB) DDR3-1333 Memory ($29.99 @ NCIX US)
    Storage: Samsung Spinpoint M8 500GB 2.5" 5400RPM Internal Hard Drive ($54.99 @ Newegg)
    Video Card: Sapphire Radeon HD 7750 1GB Video Card ($99.99 @ Newegg)
    Wireless Network Adapter: Rosewill RNX-N180UB 802.11b/g/n USB 2.0 Wi-Fi Adapter ($9.99 @ Newegg)
    Case: Rosewill RS-MI-01 BK Mini ITX Tower Case w/250W Power Supply ($49.99 @ Amazon)
    Optical Drive: LG GH24NS95 DVD/CD Writer ($17.99 @ Newegg)
    Total: $371.92
    (Prices include shipping, taxes, and discounts when available.)(Generated by PCPartPicker 2013-06-27 03:06 EDT-0400)

    Some improvements I would like to suggest , Maybe I am crazy , but felt I should do this.
    Reply
  • silverblue
    Even this diminutive little machine would significantly outpace my old Phenom II X3 710, XFX HD 4830 and 4x1GB DDR2-800 (4-4-4-12) for a pretty decent price.
    Reply