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

An Inexpensive Console-Sized Gaming PC

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

As PC builders, all of us fine-tune our parts lists to satisfy certain goals, and generally under the limits of a budget. Often, our goals are at odds with each other, at times bordering on mutual exclusivity. For instance, what happens when we try to do the impossible, combining small size and big performance? Bound by today's technology, we end up compromising both areas to some degree.

Mini-ITX motherboards themselves are good examples. There are smaller form factors out there. But standard-sized processor interfaces, slots, and ports allow us to fit conventional desktop hardware into more compact spaces. But these boards are far more limited in features, and they simply cannot enable the PCI Express connectivity needed for multi-card graphics configurations.

And unlike a couple of enthusiasts who took measures into their own hands and designed the NCASE M1, we are generally limited to available retail parts that require the appropriate amount of space to work together, while remaining adequately cool. When the perfect solution doesn’t (yet) exist, or is just out of reach financially, it becomes all about finding the right balance of compromises.

This quarter, we set out in search of big performance from small boxes. Our rules were fairly relaxed, aside from the use of mini-ITX motherboards and enclosures designed around the form factor. There would be no cheating-up to microATX or larger. All three of us even pushed our budgets a little higher and leave out unessential parts, like the optical drive.

Whether we were driven by competition or beholden to reader feedback, Don, Thomas, and I stayed true to the System Builder Marathon series by maximizing performance at each price point. The trio of configurations packed huge graphics for high-resolution gaming. And, in the end, we all ended up with boxes that were probably bigger than what we originally intended. It's probable that many Tom's Hardware readers would do the very same thing, facing the same limitations. Others would find our stubby-looking cases only somewhat more inconspicuous than the full ATX chassis we usually end up with.

We couldn't help but measure our top two builds against Falcon Northwest's Tiki and pit our gaming PC against Alienware’s X51. Those pre-built systems pack Ivy Bridge-based Core i7 processors and dual-slot graphics cards (albeit through the use of a PCIe riser) into slim enclosures measuring no more than four inches wide. Without access to that same level of engineering, we either had to choose boxier cases that claimed more desktop real estate or give up on high-end gaming entirely.

As the spending limited increased to cover the mini-ITX premiums, I became concerned that my $650 gaming machine was no longer a budget-friendly option for many folks. Add in an operating system, monitor, and peripherals, and you're looking at closer to a $1000 setup. Then, when I read over all three system orders and realized my configuration would be the smallest, I couldn't help but feel that the whole team had missed its mark.

So, for fun, I decided to price out a budget-friendly slim PC and shoot it over to our editor-in-chief and Tiki-owner, Chris Angelini. He was more than happy to get this one ordered as a fourth bonus build. I knew I couldn't replicate a Tiki, or even an X51. But enthusiasts willing to sacrifice graphics performance can still build a tiny machine to serve numerous computing needs (including the potential for decent gaming). Enter our budget-oriented "True Spirit of Mini-ITX PC."

$400 Mini-ITX System Components
ComponentPurchase Price
CPUIntel Pentium G860 (Sandy Bridge): 3.0 GHz, 3 MB Shared L3 cache$70
CPU CoolerIntel Boxed Heat Sink and Fan-
MotherboardFoxconn H61S: LGA 1155, Intel H61 Express$50
RAMCrucial Ballistix Tactical Tracer 4 GB (2 x 2 GB) DDR3-1600 BLT2KIT2G3D1608DT2TXRG$33
GraphicsSapphire 100357LP: Radeon HD 7750 1 GB$110
Hard DriveSamsung Spinpoint M8 ST320LM001: 320 GB, 5400 RPM, SATA 3.0Gb/s, 2.5" Hard Drive$50
CaseAntec ISK300-150 Black Mini-ITX Desktop$80
PowerAntec FP-150-8 Flex (included with case)-
OpticalNone-
Total Price$393

This was still meant to be a gaming machine, so I wanted to avoid AMD's APUs in favor of discrete graphics. That necessitated an enclosure with at least one expansion slot. I chose Antec’s ISK300-150 as a starting point, offering the desired balance of small size, ventilation, and hardware support. It's smaller than the Tiki in every dimension, and at roughly 426 cubic inches, it cuts more than 40% of the volume (32% less than the X51, which itself relies on an external power brick).

Our console-sized PC certainly has small covered. But its single half-height expansion slot caps us to far lower 3D performance than most of the gaming PCs we build, while the included 150 W custom Flex-ATX power supply further limits the platforms we can use.

Newegg never stocked the niche Afox Radeon HD 7850, which, to our knowledge is still the fastest low-profile desktop graphics card on the market. Even if it sold in the U.S., it'd still be too expensive, and we'd have to worry about its power consumption. Rather, Sapphire’s 100357LP, a low profile reference-clocked Radeon HD 7750 with a quiet, effective, single-slot cooler, stands in for what we're doing. Complementary hardware comes in well under budget.