Build It: Radeon R9 290X in a Shoebox PC

Maximum PC Staff

We know the Radeon R9 290X can go head-to-head with a GTX Titan, but can this extra-long, hot-running GPU hang in a small form factor chassis like a Titan can?

For a while now, we’ve considered doing another Build It with a "shoebox" case like the Silverstone Sugo SG08 we used previously . If you recall, we wedged Nvidia's GeForce GTX Titan into a mini-ITX system, and it provided a surprising amount of firepower to a system that was remarkably small. The Titan is able to hang in a tiny chassis due to Kepler’s efficiency, making it highly effective in close quarters. Fast forward to the present, and AMD has its own powerful Radeon R9 290X , which performs about as well as a Titan but costs around nearly half the price. However, the R9 290X runs a bit hot under the collar, typically at 94 C, and is a half-inch longer than the Titan, as well. Though it’s certainly competitive with Titan in benchmarks, we wondered whether the R9 290X can withstand the rigors of a small form factor build. To find out, we stuffed it into a new shoebox chassis from Cooler Master, and added a new Corsair closed-loop cooler designed specifically for small enclosures. We added a modular power supply from Seasonic that is also designed for SFF builds, so this should be one badass box

Seeing Red

Cooler Master sent us an Elite 120 Advanced Mini-ITX case a while back. It looked intriguing, but we had concerns about the lack of clearance underneath the power supply. The company seemingly read our minds when it produced the sequel, the Elite 130. This one has a recessed 120mm fan mount in the front, and you can slap a radiator on the back of it, with room to spare. There’s so much room, in fact, that we decided to crank it to 11 and add a push-pull closed-loop CPU cooler, and Corsair's all-new H75 fit the bill. We'd used several of CM’s other liquid coolers at this point, so we were familiar with their designs and we knew they worked well in these small enclosures. The H75 was also a new product as this issue went to press, so we were curious to test it for the first time. Since this is a high-end build with an Intel Core-i7 4770K CPU and a Z87 motherboard, we wanted an appropriately high-grade power supply. We chose Seasonic's "G-Series," which is a gold-rated model, and as you may know, Seasonic also makes well-regarded PSUs for Corsair, Antec, XFX, and NZXT. It also has modular cables, which is a must for a system of this size.

Our motherboard is a Gigabyte Z87N-WIFI, which is fully loaded despite its size, and includes Bluetooth 4.0, dual Gigabit LAN, four USB 3.0 ports, dual-link DVI, and 802.11n Wi-Fi. All four of its SATA ports are SATA 6Gb/s, too. We also grabbed some low-profile Corsair Vengeance RAM, to stay out of the way of our cables.


Case Cooler Master Elite 130


PSU Seasonic G Series 550W $85 (street)
Mobo Gigabyte Z87N-WIFI
CPU Intel Core i7-4770K $325 (street)
Cooler Corsair Hydro H75
GPU AMD Radeon R9 290X $550
RAM 2x 8GB Corsair Vengeance LP $160 (street)
SSD Seagate 600 240GB $190 (street)
HDD 1TB Western Digital Caviar Black $90
Fans Windows 8.1 64-bit OEM $90
OS Windows 7 Professional 64-bit $140
Total $1,760

1. An Airtight Case

If we'd gone with an air cooler in this build, we were pretty much stuck with low-profile units, because the design of the Elite 130 case puts the power supply right above the motherboard. Using a liquid cooler allows us to move the bulk of our CPU cooling system to the front of the case. Since the case's bundled 120mm intake fan sits in a recessed mount, there is enough space when it's removed to use both of the Corsair H75’s fans. We just had to keep the tubes on the right-hand side of the case, out of the way of the video card. We needed a flashlight to properly guide the cooler's long bolts through the mounting holes, but installation was painless otherwise.

2. If the Shoe Fits

With its “shoebox” style Elite 130 chassis, Cooler Master has embraced builders who want a PC but don't want a stereotypical tower design. It’s about 14.5 inches long, 7.5 inches tall, and 9 inches wide, which might sound roomy but is quite compact for all the gear we're stuffing inside of it. On the other hand, Silverstone's SG08 is about one inch smaller on every side, and after building inside that unit, we know we prefer something a little bigger, mainly to make cable routing easier. Cooler Master's case can also fit a full-size optical drive and power supply (and the 5.25-inch bay can be converted to fit a hard drive or a control panel). The Elite 130 also costs $50 instead of the SG08’s $200, mostly because it doesn't have that case’s custom 600W "bronze" PSU pre-installed. We figured we could get a decent power supply for less than $150, and we succeeded. The Elite 130 also offers several spots to mount SSDs and HDDs, giving us more leeway in how to arrange our cabling.

3. All Tied Up

Our power supply's SATA cables terminate at right angles, which is increasingly common these days. Normally this isn’t a problem, but since we're using a 3.5-inch drive and a radiator with two fans, we couldn’t attach the power supply cable to the SSD given the aforementioned cable angle, so we flipped the drive upside down. There are no screw holes on the top of an SSD, so we threaded zip ties through the holes on the side and bottom, and passed those through the holes in the case. There are no moving parts in an SSD, so there’s no risk of data corruption in doing this. We chose a removable side panel for the mounting plate (pictured).

4. Dressed to the R-Nines

We've seen Cooler Master demonstrate this case with a Radeon HD 7990 video card installed, and that guy is 12 inches long. Since AMD's R9 290X is just 11 inches long, we figured there would be no surprises, and we were correct—installing it turned out to be the easiest part of the build. Granted, Seasonic deserves a lot of credit for endowing its PSU with highly flexible and flat PCI Express cables. Conventional rounded and braided PCIe cables would have been a different story. (For reference, the HD 7990 just barely fits; it touches the radiator's chamber, but there's no electricity going through the rad, so it won't cause a short.) The PCIe slot's retention clip is a little tough to reach once the card is installed, but a long screwdriver should do the trick. We threaded the front-panel audio cable underneath the card, since it was already running alongside it toward the rear of the case.

5. Enabling Cabling

Even with our low-profile cooling installed, you can see that there isn't a lot of room to party underneath the power supply. We had to connect pretty much all the cabling first, then slide in the PSU. The USB 3.0 cable was thankfully bendable enough, and the fan headers, SATA ports, and front-panel connectors are all positioned within easy reach. The system comes with a 60mm fan that installs in the back-right of the case, but we left it out because we were already using the motherboard's two fan headers for the Corsair H75. Since this video card ejects almost all of its heat outside of the case, and the power supply is drawing in air through a mesh grill in the top, we weren't worried about heat buildup. (The video card would ordinarily block this entire shot, so we took it out temporarily.) Since we had just two storage devices and one video card, we didn't expect things to get too messy. Still, we put a chrome grill on the H75's internal fan, to prevent snags. You can pick up a similar grill for a few bucks online or at your local computer store.

6. Seasonic Boom

You probably noticed the boxy area that extends from the back of the case. This compartment gives builders additional space to use standard-size power supplies. Our Seasonic unit is 160mm long and the box gave us plenty of room on the other end to manage its modular cables. The box is attached with four screws, so you take those out, slap the box on the back of the power supply, screw the box onto the power supply (using a different set of holes), then re-install the box on the back of the case. There's a large meshed grill above this area for ventilation, so the PSU went in upside-down to take advantage of that as an intake. This PSU is not fully modular, so the 24-pin and 8-pin power cables are permanently attached. We snaked those through first and tucked their spare length in the space in front of the CPU cooler. Because we had the SSD and HDD located close to each other, we were able to use just one SATA power cable to connect both storage devices. This PSU even comes with a short SATA power cable with two connectors on it, so it was like PB&J.

Better Off Red?

The system idled very quietly, partly because it has no case fans. We were able to get the Core i7-4770K up to a stable 4.4GHz just by increasing the Turbo clock ratio and increasing the core voltage in the UEFI. Mouse tracking in the UEFI was really laggy though, and keyboard navigation was a bit unclear, so we switched to "Classic" mode and used the keyboard instead. Prime95's CPU torture test got the CPU up to 80 C, but it ran much cooler during the other benchmarks, rarely going over 70 degrees. The Hydro H75 was also very quiet. When it's idling, you basically have to put your ear up against the front of the case to even hear air circulating through it. It doesn't integrate with Corsair's Link software, but there's something to be said for the simplicity of UEFI controls. It also makes the cabling simpler; just attach the fans to the bundled splitter cable, and attach the splitter to the CPU fan header. The pump plugs into any spare case fan header.

The Radeon R9 290X hits 94 C at its stock “quiet mode” setting and begins to throttle the GPU’s core clock, so there was no overclocking to be done. It wasn't any noisier than usual in this case since there's a large grill on the side that acts as an intake for cool exterior air. We let it loop the Heaven 4.0 benchmark overnight, and it was still running when we came back the next morning. When the GPU was cranked up to full speed, you could definitely hear it above the background noise of the office, but it wasn't bothersome.

Overall, this system was surprisingly non-tedious to put together despite its compact dimensions and high-end parts. Its small size also made it easy to move around and fiddle with. All in all, we must say this is one killer little rig. If you’re looking for a water-cooled, quiet-yet-extremely powerful SFF machine, you can’t do much better than this build, unless you go with a bigger case and budget.




Premiere Pro CS6 (sec) 2,000 2,296 (-12.9%)
Stitch.Efx 2.0 (sec) 831 734
ProShow Producer 5.0 (sec) 1,446 1,246
x264 HD 5.0 (fps) 21.1 19
Batman: Arkham City (fps) 76 76
3DMark11 Extreme 5,847 4,585 (-21.6%)

The zero-point machine compared here consists of a 3.2GHz Core i7-3930K and 16GB of Corsair DDR3/1600 on an Asus P9X79 Deluxe motherboard. It has a GeForce GTX 690, a Corsair Neutron GTX SSD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Professional.

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