BUILD A MINI GAMING PC

MAS­SIVE SPEC– TINY SIZE

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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.

Which case?

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.

Other 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.

Moth­er­boards

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

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