We didn’t need to build compact systems to know that cooling limits translate into overclocking limits, but we were shocked to find that the $2,500 system’s case didn’t provide enough ventilation, even at default CPU settings. The distance between the motherboard and power supply is inadequate to support a high-performance cooler, and the stock Intel fan was too weak to function properly within the low-pressure area below the power supply fan. The only solution we could immediately find was to reduce CPU core voltage below the default setting.
An alternative solution is to start the build with a lower-wattage processor, and the results from our $625 system’s E5200 were phenomenal for its price class. Efficiency wasn’t the only strength of this low-cost system, as it even won a performance benchmark and was fast enough to power through games at a 1680x1050 pixel resolution. At 3.50 GHz, we’re sure the overclocked dual-core processor was strong enough to support an even better graphics solution, although finding the limit of CPU power across multiple graphics configurations is beyond the scope of today’s competition.
The $1,250 build offers a second solution to the CPU-cooling conundrum in its tried-and-true combination of a larger case and cooler. The fact that this overclocked configuration won today’s performance shootout is enough to diminish builder complaints about inadequate space, especially since Micro-ATX supports the same area around the CPU as the full-ATX standard does. Blame Xigmatek for the CPU cooler clearance problem, since the chipset sink is far enough away from the socket to support Intel’s large-round boxed cooler. We even test mounted the similarly-monstrous Cogage True Spirit to confirm that Xigmatek shouldn't have encountered such serious mounting issues, and the True Spirit fits in the proper orientation with around 6 mm clearance. A change from Xigmatek to Cogage cooling would be enough for us to recommend the remaining parts to anyone who can live with a mid-sized mini-tower system.
While inadequate cooling beset our $2,500 build, we can still endorse the use of compact cases with some performance processors, but they should be limited to dual-core versions. Rather than build a box that can do everything, a viable compact performance system could focus on gaming by maximizing graphics power within the limits of Intel’s Core 2 architecture. Anyone seeking even more CPU power should choose either a larger case or one with an integrated cooling system that functions better in tight constraints than Intel’s boxed cooler.
But heat management wasn’t the biggest disappointment of the $2,500 build. Instead, it was the inability of its Quad-SLI graphics to pull ahead at resolutions below 1920x1200 pixels. This combination of cards really only leads at 2560x1600 pixels, with the exception of an AA issue at this resolution in Crysis and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. And while most gamers probably don’t need AA at such high graphics resolutions, the fact that other systems were tested only up to 1920x1200 pixels means that Quad-SLI’s raison d’être was never examined in this Day 4 comparison. Thus, while some users will demand that we put the most powerful graphics solution in our most powerful system, this author is seriously considering dropping it from our next SBM. Your thoughts are welcome.