BUILD A MINI GAMING PC
MASSIVE SPEC– TINY SIZE
Mini-ITX motherboard group test
Component buying guide
Building tips and tricks
Even use an 18-core CPU
Ten years ago, the mini-ITX form factor was limited to low-end CPUs, and there were only a handful of socketed motherboards, as most of them had low-power CPUs embedded onto the PCB. They were useful as home servers or general-purpose PCs, thanks to their small size and low power consumption, but even then, there was considerable interest in using more powerful CPUs, especially from modders. Eventually, the first socketed boards that supported mainstream, powerful CPUs appeared, and eventually PCI-E 2 slots were offered too, allowing for fully fledged mini-ITX gaming PCs.
Zotac and DFI were the early pioneers, while Asus joined the party relatively recently, with the P8Z77-I Deluxe. Since then, however, every other major manufacturer has dabbled with mini-ITX and offered at least one model for Intel’s overclocking-capable chipsets with every generation.
Despite the fact that mini-ITX motherboards perform just as well as their larger siblings, and most PCs only need a single PCI-E slot anyway, the form factor is still a niche area. However, increasing numbers of excellent cases, many with great air cooling and water-cooling support, plus boards that even support Intel’s high-end 18-core desktop processors, mean that mini-ITX is now definitely here to stay.
If you fancy cutting down your PC’s size without sacrificing performance, then this feature will offer plenty of tips and tricks for building a mini PC, whether it’s a budget gaming rig or an overclocked, water-cooled power machine.
Your choice of case will dictate your PC’s final size, and it’s the most important consideration when choosing your hardware. Unlike other form factors, mini-ITX cases vary hugely in their design and layout, so you should be able to choose a case that specifically meets your needs. However, smaller or more outlandish designs often involve more compromises than larger, standard designs.
The cube case
The first mini-ITX cases were cubeshaped, and the style remains popular thanks to their low profile and compact dimensions. They cover a wide range of cooling options too, from extremely compact chassis limited to low-profile air coolers or all-in-one liquid coolers, to cases offering several storage bays and space for custom water-cooling gear. Cube cases typically mount the motherboard horizontally.
Starting at the small end are cases such as the Cooler Master Elite 110, which is just 28cm deep and 26cm high and exhibits all the compromises of a super-small cube case. You’ll be limited to graphics cards no longer than 210mm, CPU coolers no taller than 76mm and you’ll be faced with a challenging build and a PSU that overhangs the motherboard. However, it’s fantastically small and still offers enough space and cooling for a highend system, especially if you make use of short-PCB graphics cards, such as Gigabyte’s ITX models.
Step up to a case such as Fractal Design’s Core 500, which currently occupies our Elite list, and you’ll get a much more capable case in terms of cooling, as well as room for more normal-sized hardware. For example, the Core 500 can house a 310mm long graphics card – 10cm longer than the Elite 110, plus it has space for a double 120mm-fan radiator and has a CPU cooler height limit of 170mm. This is all partly due to it being a larger case – it’s 10cm longer than the Elite 110 and is slightly taller too, but it’s also thanks to the PSU being moved from the rear to the front, allowing for more room for cooling hardware in the roof and rear.
Other similar cases include Corsair’s Obsidian 250D, Thermaltake’s Core V1 and various models from Lian Li and SilverStone. One of the larger cubeshaped cases is the BitFenix Prodigy, which spawned a range of similar or identical-layout cases, offering a big space for building a PC with ample room for large graphics cards. It was so large, in fact, that BitFenix managed to alter the interior with subsequent models to allow for micro-ATX motherboards to be installed. It offers excellent water-cooling support, has 170mm of clearance for CPU coolers and working with it is easy, but it’s also arguably too large for a mini PC.
The tower case
Mini-ITX tower cases typically sit the motherboard vertically in the same way as ATX tower cases. Like their cube counterparts, they also occupy a range of sizes, starting as small as the Raijintek Metis. It mounts the motherboard on one side with the graphics card above it and the PSU at the front of the case, giving the whole length of 240mm for graphics cards, plus 160mm of CPU cooler headroom.
It also has a useful 120mm rear fan mount for all-in-one liquid coolers, and supports full-sized ATX PSUs, although installing one results in the interior quickly getting cramped – it benefits hugely from the use of SFX PSUs instead, as well as M.2 SSDs. We’ve even managed to fit a custom water-cooling system inside the Metis,
albeit by moving the motherboard tray.
Mid-sized tower cases continue to include innovative design features to maximise internal space. Lian Li’s PC-Q38 is limited to SFX PSUs and is just 18cm wide, but offers enough space for 315mm graphics cards and double 120mm-fan radiators.
Meanwhile, the large tower case category offers a considerable number of models. The Phanteks Enthoo Evolv ITX, Fractal Design Define Nano S, NZXT Manta and Lian Li PC-Q37WX all support large graphics cards, radiators and, with the exception of the PC-Q37WX, support ATX PSUs too. They offer similar layouts to larger towers, which means their use of space isn’t quite as efficient as smaller cases.
There are two main types of mini-ITX cases that don’t fall into these categories - slim cases such as SilverStone’s Fortress FTZ01, and vertically stacked towers such as Phanteks’ Evolv Shift and Shift X. Slim cases often make the best use of space of any PC case, and regularly use riser cards and cables to allow the graphics card to sit flat next to the motherboard. Alternatively, they may do away with the graphics card entirely, as with In Win’s Chopin, which is extremely small, but limited to CPUs that offer on-board graphics as a result.
Vertically stacked cases are popular at the moment too, thanks to Corsair’s One Pro PC and the very similar-looking but larger Phanteks Shift and Shift X, which also sport tempered glass and striking looks. The idea behind stacked cases is that they can house large hardware components, but with a very small footprint. They basically use the same principle as skyscrapers, extending the vertical dimensions to allow for better cooling potential or graphics card clearance, but maintaining a similar footprint to the smallest miniITX cases.
The Phanteks Shift has a smaller footprint than Raijintek’s tiny Metis, but can house more fans and radiators, as well as much longer graphics cards. It’s also worth considering micro-ATX cases and motherboards. They aren’t as small as mini-ITX parts, but the cases are still much smaller than ATX ones, so they still offer noticeable space savings.
The only current mainstream CPU socket that isn’t featured on mini-ITX or micro-ATX boards is AMD’s Socket TR4 for its Thread ripper CPUs. Thanks to ASRock and its support for LGA2011, and more recently LGA2066, with mini-ITX motherboards, it’s been possible to use Intel’s high-end desktop CPUs, including its 18-core Core i9-7980XE. You also have the option of Intel’s Coffee Lake CPUs and AMD’s Ryzen chips when it comes to mini-ITX.
At the lower end of the spectrum, AMD has the upper hand in terms of price, thanks to Intel delaying the launch of any Coffee Lake-supporting chipsets other than the premium Z370 chipset. As a result, Intel Z370 mini-ITX motherboards start at around £130 inc VAT, whereas AMD B350 boards cost around £20 less and include better audio. If you want premium features, though, such as multiple M.2 ports, SSD heatsinks and RGB lighting, as well as CPU power circuitry cooling, you’ll need to pay
Fractal Design’s Core 500 can house a 310mm-long graphics card
Cooler Master’s cube-shaped Elite 110 is tiny, measuring just 28cm deep and 26cm high
Mini-ITX motherboards are available for most mainstream CPU sockets, including AM4, LGA2066 and LGA1151
Raijintek’s Metis and Lian Li’s PC-Q38 benefit hugely from the use of SFX PSUs
Phanteks’ Evolv Shift builds upwards, like a skyscraper, enabling you to squeeze more hardware into a small desktop footprint