Water walking with Ryzen
Zak Storey walks you through the trials and tribulations of building one of the world’s most compact liquid-cooled rigs.
This month’s PC build differs from most of our usual projects: it’s devised with a single person in mind, as opposed to trying to hit a specific price point, use case... or just pushing everything to the max, like we do with our most aspirational builds.
This machine is designed around the whims of our crackpot editor. ITX builds are a passion, and pushing as much power as possible into as small a form factor as possible is incredibly enticing. In fact, it’s arguably what this industry has been all about for the last 60 years — enabling more and more performance out of less and less space.
That said, this build project didn’t actually start out with ITX in mind. There have been numerous revisions, countless spec list changes, and a whole heap of adjustments made before even getting to this point. Originally, we planned to take advantage of Intel’s perfectly balanced Core i9-7900X — delidded, of course — housed in an Enthoo Evolv ATX. Then, with the advent of Spectre and Meltdown, we transferred our proposition over to the notion of Ryzen once more — a Ryzen+ build, to be exact — but still taking advantage of that ATX form factor, and with an SLI ASUS GTX 1080 Ti configuration. Fast-forward to this month and that notion was finally shrunk down to an ITX system, and a second look at a custom-modded NZXT Manta, a chassis we’d worked on in the past. After we realised our custom case ideas couldn’t be brought to fruition in time for getting the issue to print, we finally settled on working with Lian Li’s PC-Q37 — only for the spec to then get shaken up once again, with the launches of Samsung’s 970 Pro drives and ASUS’s X470-I motherboard.
In the run-up to this issue, it’s been hectic, to say the least. The organisational side of things has been turned on its head so many times, it’s been enough to drive the chief colour picker insane, and for the design team at APC to put out hits on all of us — the editor in particular. Stress, upon stress, upon stress. Why do we do this again?
Every time we hit up the drawing board for a build like this, there’s a sense of apprehension. The degree of organisation and luck required is Herculean, and even with all our experience, it never comes easy.
From planning the spec list, to requesting hardware, arranging photography, and more, it can take months for everything to come together, only for a new product to launch, or a shipping deadline to fall through, and scupper the entire thing.
Unlike our regular builds, these one-off specials are not about absolute power, and pushing everything to the bleeding edge of technology, but about crafting a PC that’s perfect for the individual it’s designed for.
Let’s be realistic: you can probably get the same performance for half the cost, or twice the performance for less than double the price. But you rarely find someone who’s invested this much time and effort into a rig and regrets it. It’s a real labour of love.
This time around, we’ll be crafting a super-small liquid-cooled ITX Ryzen 2 rig, packing some incredible hardware into as small a chassis as possible. On top of that, we’ll be divulging all our tips and tricks to make the micro manageable, giving up our secrets on exactly which manufacturers and products we chose to make our system build as easy as can be, and hopefully inspiring you to create your own slice of silicon perfection, on any budget, in any chassis.
Step one: the doozy — the strip-down. It’s so, so, so important you get this right, especially in a liquid-cooled build, particularly when it’s as tight and cramped as this, because it’s the perfect opportunity to see where your radiators fit, and try to figure out your tubing runs, and where you might need pass-throughs. In our case, we knew ahead of time we’d need every edge we could get. That meant reducing physical drives, cable clutter, anything that might cause an issue. The hard drive cage and grommet covers were all removed prior to the build shoot. Once we began, we got the motherboard set up ASAP — that meant CPU in, block on, memory in, and M.2 storage in. Once that was all secured, we quickly installed it to see exactly where we’d need to fit everything else.
We knew this build was going to struggle with airflow. Having no traditional front panel meant air access came from the bottom and top — and that was it. Problem is, there isn’t enough space to mount fans in the bottom if you’re using an additional radiator there as well. To get around this, we decided to invest in two slim 120mm Noctuas, and mount them on the underside of the chassis. We also had to move the radiator as far forward as we could to make sure the fittings wouldn’t be blocked by the GPU. We used rubber washers with the screws, to secure the fans to the radiator, as they’re 10mm slimmer than their standard counterparts, and we needed to make that up somehow. There’s a few adjustments we can still make. In an ideal world, we would replace the feet with aftermarket custom-cut acrylic ones, to give the chassis more height, and allow us to use full-sized, more powerful Noctuas instead. Couple that with some fan guards, and we’d be good to go.
More radiator challenges: this time from the top thick-as-hell 45mm rad. By default, the bigger 45s come with a massive reservoir at the end, alongside six individual G1/4-inch mounting holes (seven if you include the one at the other end), all of which need plugging. It’s great for choices in loop orientation, less so when you’re mounting them to flush radiator brackets, like the one on the PCQ37. As these stop fittings were pushing the rad down, we took the radiator mounting bracket out of the chassis, marked up where the fittings were going to go, found the centre using a rule, drilled a pilot hole, then used a mandrel to take out the rest, allowing the fitting to pass through unhindered, and reducing our clearance issues. There’s another removable brushed aluminium panel that sits on top of this, so our handiwork is hidden, but it’ll also act as a drain valve or fill port when we have to do some loop maintenance.
This part was possibly the most frustrating. From past experience, we knew soft tubing in the rear of the case was going to make our lives easier. Unfortunately, due to the lack of room and the need for pass-throughs in places for the reservoir, the tight curves led to the most obvious tubing runs kinking, which is bad. In the end, just to fit the pump in the chassis, we had to remove one of the plastic grommets that hold the side panel in place (there are seven in total, so losing one isn’t the end of the world), then run four 90-degree fittings, with the smallest slither of soft tubing between to reach the pump inlet. To finish the loop, we ran an additional length of soft tubing straight up from the left-hand side of the pump to a second passthrough in the roof, connecting to the radiator on the other side.
RESERVOIR MOUNTING BRACKET
Next up on the list of modifications to the chassis (and the first appearance of our bearded modding assistant) is a reservoir mounting bracket. We didn’t really need to add this bracket, as the reservoir is secured by two 15mm-long extension fittings coming off the bottom radiator, and a second fitting coming out of the bottom-right of the res, connecting to a future drilled pass-through, going through the motherboard panel and into the pump, hidden on the other side. That said, to keep our res sitting proud and level, adding this bracket (included with the res) makes sense. Using a permanent marker, and some extra hands to hold the res in place, we marked the holes we needed to drill, before pumping through that soft gooey aluminium with a standard 4mm drill bit. You might notice the use of a sticky note here; fold it to create a tray, and attach it below where you intend to drill, to catch all the metal filings.
We know what you’re thinking: no guide, no securing tool, cutting straight down on a table, with a hacksaw? What? Don’t worry. You can be super-anal about cutting tubing, but you don’t need to be. It doesn’t even need to be that straight a cut. The best way to cut tubing is to work out how long a length you need, and cut it with a hacksaw, in as comfortable a position as possible. Make sure you stay safe, of course, and cut off more than you think you’ll need, but if you mess up the end, don’t sweat it. If the cut is wonky, use sandpaper or needle files to smooth the rough edges and make it level. Next, use a deburring tool to give your tube some soft edges, making it easier to fit, then sand it some more to get rid of the grit, blow it out, and bam! Job done: one straight, level, chamfered, clean tube.
90 DEGREES 4 LYF
There’s a phrase we always repeat to ourselves whenever it comes to building liquid-cooled rigs: “Keep it simple, stupid.” This is especially relevant with tubing runs, where it’s almost always a better decision to use a fitting in place of a bend, unless there’s no other option. If you do want bends in your tubing, the best way to integrate them is through pure 90-degree angles. They’re the simplest and quickest bend to create — you don’t need any carefully crafted angle templates or anything weird, because the whole world is literally filled with 90-degree angles. Us humans, we love square edges. In this case, to make our bends, we’re using the edge of the chassis itself to line up our 90-degree angle, mid-bend, to make sure it’s the perfect shape. This particular tube will go on to become our CPU-to-GPU line.
THE LITTLE DETAILS
The smallest parts in a liquid-cooled build are the most difficult to work with. This little length of tubing, connecting the pump to the pass-through and into the radiator, took us 45 minutes to get right, perpetually sanding and shortening it to get it to fit correctly. Even then, we realised the pass-through itself needed to be moved ever so slightly to the left, purely to keep the tubing run straight and level. That’s not an absolute necessity, more of an aesthetic design decision, if anything. But because aluminium is so soft to work with, as metals go, it’s easy enough to take a needle file to it, and just shift the pass-through ever so slightly to perfect the tubing run. On top of that, the smaller you go, the more troublesome it becomes to secure the compression fitting tops, because you start running out of space.
FITTINGS WITH STYLE
This is what we were talking about. You can see we’ve used a rotary S-fitting (acting as two 90-degree fittings) to connect a 90-degree length of tubing from the GPU to the CPU block. This way, we can keep the tubing looking clean, straight into the GPU block, without harming the overall aesthetics. The other 90-degree line coming out of the GPU is a combination of two 90-degree fittings, followed by a length of tubing with a 90-degree bend, which goes down into the radiator below. This allows the coolant to pass into the rad, then up through a male-to-male rotary connector and two extensions, which then go into the reservoir. The smart thing about having those rotary extension fittings below the reservoir is that we can rotate the res, without losing compression on the rubber o-rings, which lets us test other tubing runs without unscrewing the reservoir entirely.
Decisions, decisions. Once all our tubing runs were complete, there was one last decision to make: coolant colour. We decided to go with the Mayhems Clear X1 as opposed to the UV Black we also had, because the frosted tubing Alphacool sent us looked so sexy on its own. Running black coolant through it would take away some of the aesthetic love. That, however, was the least of our worries, because we had to fill and prime the loop first, which is a daunting task with even a simple loop, never mind ours. For this rig, we had to tip the entire system sideways, unscrew the cap on the side of the reservoir facing upward, then partially fill the res as high as we could, screw the cap back on, turn it back up, power cycle the pump until the res was empty, then repeat until done.