Build It: The Midsize Menace

Nathan Edwards

Pound for pound, you know the sound: Here’s a Kepler-powered microATX gaming rig that won’t break the bank—or your back

Note: This feature originally ran in the June issue of Maximum PC--some pricing may have changed since then.

The Mission

Oh, microATX. You’re the awkward middle child of motherboard form factors: neither as fully powered as a regular ATX board nor as compact as Mini-ITX. On the other hand, it’s possible to build a hell of a rig with microATX in a relatively small footprint without compromising power, and I’ve been intending to do so for a while. I took a shine to the X79-powered microATX mobo Gordon Mah Ung reviewed in the April 2012 issue, and when the sky angels slipped a Kepler GPU into my rucksack, I knew what I had to do.

It’s not going to be easy fitting all these high-powered parts into a minuscule chassis, but if you want easy, build a full-size machine. When I’m done, I’ll have a box just 14.5 inches tall, 15.2 inches deep, and 8.25 inches wide—one that kicks a disproportionate amount of ass, no matter how tricky we have to get with the zip ties.

CHOOSING THE HARDWARE

I’ve had my eye on Silverstone’s TJ08-E microATX case since we reviewed it in March 2012. It’s a bit cramped, but it has good airflow and a sleek aesthetic—as well as an unusual motherboard orientation—and it has plenty of room for long videocards and a few drives.

Now, most microATX motherboards suffer from budget-itis: They’re cheap and underpowered compared to full ATX boards. The Asus Rampage IV Gene? Not so much. It has LGA2011 support, quad-channel memory (though only four DIMM slots), 6Gb/s SATA ports, three 16x PCIe slots, great onboard audio, and ground-effect LEDs. Just for fun.

Intel’s Core i7-3820 is a great processor, and an obvious choice for an LGA2011 CPU under $300. It’s a quad-core part at 3.6GHz stock and includes HyperThreading. Plus, if you want to upgrade to a six-core CPU later, LGA2011 is the only way to fly.

The Rampage IV’s RAM slots are close to the CPU socket, so I can’t use an enormous CPU cooler. NZXT’s Havik 120 features dual fans and excellent performance, but I’m still using RAM with low-profile heat spreaders to avoid bumping up against the fans.

For storage, I’m sticking with my personal price/performance sweet spot: a 120GB 6Gb/s SATA SSD and a 3TB storage drive.

There’s not much room in the TJ08-E for excess cabling or lengthy PSUs, so I’m using the Silverstone Strider Plus 750W, which is fully modular and only 6.3 inches deep. This should help me keep my wiring tidy.

Oh, and I’ll be using Nvidia’s brand-new GeForce GTX 680, which is faster than the GeForce GTX 580 and competitive with the Radeon HD 7970 but uses just two 6-pin power cables (see Loyd Case’s detailed Kepler breakdown on page 42). At $500, this card is a hell of a deal, sips power (for a high-end GPU), and fires a pretty big shot directly across AMD’s bow.

INGREDIENTS

PART
URL
PRICE
Case
Silverstone TJ08-E www.silverstonetek.com $95
PSU Silverstone Strider Plus 750 www.silverstonetek.com $140
Mobo Asus ROG Rampage IV Gene www.asus.com $290
CPU
Intel Core i7-3820 www.intel.com $285
Cooler NZXT Havik 120 www.nzxt.com $55
GPU Nvidia GeForce GTX 680 www.nvidia.com $500
RAM 16GB Corsair Vengeance LP www.corsair.com $130
Optical Drive
Plextor CD/DVD burner www.plextor.com $20
Hard Drive
3TB Seagate Barracuda www.seagate.com $190
SSD
Corsair Force GT 120 www.corsair.com
$170
OS
Windows 7 Professional 64-bit (OEM) www.microsoft.com
$139
Total

$2,014

UNDER THE MAGNIFYING GLASS

The TJ08-E’s cramped quarters and unusual layout mean I can’t follow a typical build order. Instead, the steps are optimized for cable management as well as, well, component management. Here are the highlights.

1. First, Add Power

Remove the TJ08-E’s side panels, then remove the six screws securing the top panel and take that off, too. Make sure the following cables are attached to the PSU: 24-pin and 8-pin ATX, two 6-pin PCIe power, and two SATA power cable strands. Remove the rest of the modular cables and slide the PSU into the top of the case, fan side up. Secure it with four screws (I used the PSU’s included thumbscrews) and pull the cables through the opening that leads behind the motherboard tray.

2. What Drives You

Next, we’ll install the drives. Lay the case on its side and remove the four screws securing the drive cages to the bottom of the case. Remove the trays and secure the SSD directly to the bottom of the case.

3. Word to Your Motherboard

Mount the RAM and CPU into the motherboard, install the I/O shield into the case, then mount the motherboard into the chassis. Bring your 8- and 24-pin motherboard power connections behind the motherboard tray toward their respective connectors and plug them in. Now is also a good time to start connecting front-panel connectors, like USB 3.0, audio, power and reset switches, and LEDs.

4. Drives Part DEUX

With the motherboard in place, it’s time to add the storage drive. Take the lower hard drive cage (the one-bay one) and mount the hard drive into it with four screws in the mounting holes marked HDD. Reattach the hard drive cage to the bottom of the case. You can either remove the empty top three-drive cage for a less cluttered case or leave it in, to channel air from the intake fan toward the CPU fans. It also includes a pad to support the GPU, if you’re into that.

Run a three-port SATA power cable from the PSU to the drives. Plug the last power adapter on the string into the hard drive, then tuck the cable under the drive and plug the second plug into the SSD. Attach SATA data cables to both drives and plug them into the middle red ports on the motherboard. Those are the native Intel 6Gb/s SATA ports.

Install the optical drive in the top 5.25-inch bay and secure it with four screws, then connect SATA power and data.

5. Cool (And The Gang)

Now that all the fiddly bits are ready, it’s time to install the CPU cooler. Install the four double-sided mounting thumbscrews, add the mounting bars, secure them with nuts, and apply a small dot of thermal paste to the CPU. Mount the heatsink with the crossbar and tighten the screws evenly, alternating every few turns until the CPU is secure. Secure the fans onto the heatsink, making sure they are drawing air from the front of the chassis and exhausting it toward the rear. Plug both fans into the included Y-connector and attach them to the CPU_FAN header on your board.

6. Game On

Last, you’ll install your GPU. Remove the metal cover that blocks access to the expansion slots, then remove the lower two expansion slot covers (what would be the top two, if the case’s motherboard orientation weren’t upside down.) Install the GPU into the PCIe slot closest to the CPU cooler. If you left the top drive cage in, the end of the GPU should rest atop the cage. Secure the card into the expansion slots and plug in the two 6-pin power cables. Double-check your power and data connections, replace the metal cover, and turn the case upright. Reattach the top and side panels, and power on!

1. The TJ08-E’s front fan, an 18cm Air Penetrator, is powerful enough to cool everything in the rig, thanks to the case’s simplified airflow 2. I left the empty drive cage in place to help channel air to the CPU cooler, but you can remove it if you prefer a less cluttered interior 3. The last-minute addition of an Nvidia GTX 680 gives my rig more oomph but ruins the nice black-and-red color scheme I was going for.

Punching Above its Weight Class

The Midsize Menace is small, yet mighty. It’s functionally equivalent to our Tax Refund PC from last month, but in a smaller package. It uses the same CPU and amount of RAM, as well as a similar GPU. The SSD in the Midsize Menace is a little faster, and the storage drive is larger and faster, but the Tax Refund PC has a Blu-ray drive and a higher-wattage PSU.

So how much smaller is the Midsize Menace than the Tax Refund PC, which we housed in an NZXT Phantom 410 midtower chassis? The Midsize Menace, in a Silverstone TJ08-E, is just under six inches shorter than the TRPC, five inches shallower, and about a quarter-inch narrower. That makes for a lot less bulk on your desk.

Using the Rampage IV’s Gamer OC BIOS setting, it took about two seconds to get a stable 4.4GHz overclock on the 3820, and Gordon Mah Ung’s experience last month shows that the 3820 can be easily overclocked to 4.7GHz on air. At 4.4GHz, though, it’s within spitting distance of last month’s Tax Refund machine, and the differences are attributable to the clock speed. More time with the Midsize Menace, and it’d be just as fast as last month’s high-end box.

If you don’t mind a cramped build process and the loss of some elbow room (as well as expandability down the line), you can get a machine that’s just as fast as the Tax Refund PC but more compact, for the same amount of money—or even a little less.

Benchmarks

ZERO POINT

Vegas Pro (sec)
3,049 2,319
Lightroom 2.6 (sec)
356 270
ProShow 4 (sec)
1,112 915
MainConcept 1.6 (sec)
2,113 1,707
STALKER: CoP (fps) 42.0 62.3
Far Cry 2 (fps) 114.4 151.1

Our current desktop test bed consists of a quad-core 2.66GHz Core i7-920 overclocked to 3.5GHz, 6GB of Corsair DDR3/1333 overclocked to 1,750MHz, on a Gigabyte X58 motherboard. We are running an ATI Radeon HD 5970 graphics card, a 160GB Intel X25-M SSD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Ultimate.

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