How To Build The Ultimate Small-Form-Factor Gaming PC

Cody Cardarelli

You don't need a full-size motherboard and plus-size chassis to build a great gaming rig. Here's how to build a tiny computer with a huge punch.

Forget big. For this challenge, I’m going small. My goal: to create a kick-ass gaming rig on a Mini-ITX motherboard. That means I need a discrete graphics card, a mobo with a full PCI-E x16 slot, a desktop processor, and plenty of storage. I also need a case that can hold it all elegantly, a PSU to power it, and enough airflow to make sure the rig doesn’t melt. Finally, it has to look good.

Why a Mini-ITX gaming rig vs. a traditional desktop? For starters, I wanted to see what kind of performance is possible from a small formfactor PC. More importantly, why wouldn’t I (or anyone else) want a rig that’s easy to move from room to room, or take on the road for a LAN party?

Ingredients

Total: $1, 653

Picking the Essential Elements

In many ways, building a small formfactor PC is a distillation process. You can’t afford to include anything nonessential, but you can’t strip away anything you’re going to need.

Choosing the right kind of chassis for an SFF build is paramount. I chose Silverstone’s SG07 case because it offers plenty of cooling, an integrated 600W PSU, and room for two 2.5-inch drives, one 3.5-inch drive, a slimline optical drive, a Mini-ITX motherboard, and a full-size GPU, all in a package that measures just 7.5x8.65x13.75 inches. Plus it looks great.

I paired this enclosure with a Socket 1156 Zotac H55 motherboard with a PCI-E x16 slot, integrated Wi-Fi, and plenty of USB and SATA ports. This gives me room for a quad-core Core i7 CPU with Hyper-Threading, up to 8GB of RAM, one kick-ass GPU, an SSD or two, and a big ol’ storage drive. That’s all you need for a kick-ass gaming machine.

Because of the SG07’s cramped quarters, it’s trickier to build in than a more conventional chassis. Certain steps are out of order compared to a traditional build; others are skipped entirely. For this build you’ll need the parts listed above, plus a Philips-head screwdriver, some zip ties (optional), and a 2.5mm hex-head wrench (recommended for the last step).

1. Prep the Case

The SG07 requires significant disassembly before you can start your build (below). Start with the rear of the case facing you. Remove the three screws holding the top cover on, and then pull toward your body and up to remove the cover.

Silerstone's SG07, fully disassembled and ready for our build.

Remove the large case fan by unscrewing the three screws that keep it in position. Lift away. (Note that it will still be attached to the rear fan switch via a cable—you can remove the switch mechanism by unscrewing its two mounting screws). Remove the optical drive bracket by unscrewing the four screws holding it in place. The optical bezel is held on by a screw on the left side; remove it also. Take out the two screws holding the hard drive bracket, and then remove the bracket by lifting up and clockwise. We’re going to pull out the integrated PSU’s power cables so they’re ready to use when we need them.

Last step: the motherboard I/O shield. Remove all the little metal port protectors from the outside of the shield. Once all the ports are freed, insert the motherboard I/O shield into the case. Remember, it goes on the inside of the case, facing out. Press it firmly outward until it is seated evenly. Now, you’re ready to
start building.

2. Install the CPU

Since the inside of the SG07 is so cramped, you’ll want to install the CPU, heatsink, and RAM onto the motherboard before you put it in the case. Place the motherboard on a flat surface, then unclip the CPU retention bar and flip it back. This will lift up the load plate. Carefully remove the plastic socket cover, being careful not to touch any of the pins in the socket.

Hold the CPU parallel to the socket and carefully lower it into place. The notches on the CPU should line up with the corresponding ones on the socket. When the CPU is in place, lower the load plate over it, then secure the arm in its clip (below).

If the load plate doesn't close smoothly, don't force it. Make sure the CPU is oriented correctly.


3. Install the Cooler

For this build, we’re using the stock Intel cooler that comes with the CPU. Although it’s not as overclocker-friendly as an aftermarket cooler, it doesn’t have any compatibility issues with our mobo/case combo. The stock cooler should have thermal pads preinstalled; you can use those or replace them with your own favored thermal paste. (We prefer Arctic Silver 5.) For this demonstration, we’re using the stock pads (below).

Make sure all four of the heatsink’s pushpins are prepared by turning them away from the direction indicated by the arrows. Align the pushpins with the four mounting holes on the motherboard and guide the pins into their respective mounting holes. Once the heatsink is sitting loosely on the CPU with pins in place, press down firmly on two pushpins on opposite corners of the heatsink until each clicks and the cooler is secure. Repeat for the other two pins (below). The heatsink should be firmly attached without wiggling. Connect the cooler’s power connector to the motherboard’s CPU_FAN header.

4. Install the RAM

The H55-based Zotac board supports dual-channel DDR3/1066 or DDR3/1333 in its two DIMM slots. For this build, we’re using two 2GB DDR3/1333 DIMMS, for 4GB total. Since you’re populating both slots, you don’t have to worry about setting things up incorrectly.

Just open the two brackets on each slot, and make sure the RAM is oriented correctly—match the notch in the DIMM with the notch in the slot. Press down on the corners of the DIMM until it seats and the retention brackets lock into place (below).

5. Install the Motherboard

By now, you should have your motherboard prepped with a CPU, heatsink, and RAM. Align the I/O ports with the I/O shield and the four mounting holes on the motherboard with the standoffs preinstalled in the case. Secure with screws in each of the standoffs (below).



Now is a good time to connect your 24-pin and 4-pin ATX power connectors (top, below) as well as your front-panel connectors (middle, below). Since space is so limited, keep careful track of your cables. Wrap excess front-panel connectors in twist ties or zip ties and secure them to the bottom of the case (bottom, below). We’ll tidy up the power cables later, but we can take care of the front-panel connectors now.

6. Mount the HDD/SSD

The SG07 can accommodate two 2.5-inch drives and one 3.5-inch drive. With the hard drive cage’s retention bar on the left, slide in the 1TB hard drive so that its power and SATA ports are on the lower left facing you (above) and secure it with the four hard drive screws. Use two SSD screws to attach the SSD to the underside of the drive cage. Before you reinstall the cage, be sure to pull the SATA power cable between where the cage will be and the front wall of the case, then reinstall the cage and connect the SATA power and data cables (below). Because the case is so cramped, you’ll need to use right-angle SATA cables for the SSD and any other 2.5-inch drive you install. The HDD can use a standard cable, like the ones that come with the motherboard.

7. Install the GPU

Unscrew the retention bar holding the PCI slot covers and remove the covers (above). Hold the GPU vertically in line with the slot and press down firmly, aligning the rear of the card with the expansion slots. Replace the retention bar. Take the two PCI-E power cables from the tangle and connect them. Fold the remaining wiring and place it to the right of the GPU, out of the way (below).

8. Install the Optical Drive

We’re almost done! This is one of the trickiest steps, due to the stupid-tiny screws involved. Place the slimline optical drive in the optical drive bay as shown (above). Secure with tiny screws. Connect the SATA adapter cable and attach the 4-pin power connector to the PSU’s 4-pin Molex power connector (below).

9. Wiring and Reassembly

Now is a good time to tidy up your wiring. Every cable from the PSU should be attached to something: The 24-pin and 4-pin ATX power cables should be attached to the motherboard, the two PCI-E power cables should be plugged into the GPU, the SATA power cable should be connected to the SSD and HDD, and the 4-pin Molex cable should be attached to the optical drive’s power cable. Use twist ties or zip ties to secure cabling (below).

Remount the optical drive tray using the four screws you removed in the first step. Connect the 18cm fan’s cable to the motherboard (below) and reinstall the top fan enclosure, reversing the process from the first step.

One last thing: Because of the intake-fan placement on our GPU, we’re going to want to rotate the SG07’s side-panel window and vent. Use a 2.5mm hex-head screwdriver to reverse the orientation of the side panel (below). Reinstall the case cover. Connect your keyboard, mouse, monitor, and speakers. All set!

Here we're removing and re-orienting the SG07 side-panel window to accomodate the fan on our GPU.

Packed with Power


Onboard Wi-Fi It means never having to say, “Could you find me a 100-foot Ethernet cable?”

CPU Cooler Though we used the stock cooler, the SG07/Zotac combo can accommodate several coolers, like the Thermaltake Slim X3 and Prolimatech Samuel 17.

Wiring Believe it or not, this is a pretty cleanly wired case. The SATA cords are secured to a tie-down beneath the hard drive cage.


Airflow A two-speed 18cm intake fan keeps the SG07’s internals well-ventilated.

Torture Testing the Wee PC

So, how does our new Mini-ITX rig stand up to the Maximum PC Lab’s zero-point configuration? Not well, at first blush. The wee PC ran 44 percent lower frame rates in the gaming benchmarks, and 17–24 percent slower everywhere else.

Hardly stellar, but a quick glance at last month’s $1,400 gaming machine build (“Builder’s Creed”) buoyed my spirits, at least where gaming is concerned. As we pointed out then, our zero-point machine is designed to go toe-to-toe with $7,500 multi-GPU gaming rigs, not budget builds. Plus, that box has the advantage of using a standard ATX motherboard, with plenty of room for expansion—something we eschewed in favor of smallitude.

Our small formfactor PC is svelte and powerful.

This mini-rig is indeed svelte: It’s just 7.5 inches tall, 8.65 inches wide, and 13.75 inches deep. You could stack three of ’em on top of each other and still take up less room than most of the systems we test in the Lab. And considering that the motherboard only has one PCI-E slot and two DDR3 channels, we think it holds up damn well. Just look at last month’s Acer Predator—that multi-GPU machine is less than 10 percent faster than my mini-rig, and it’s 20 percent more expensive, twice the size, and three times as ugly (in my opinion).

Alternate Configurations

Is my configuration the only possible one? Of course not. You could cut $300 by skipping the SSD, or go the other direction and add an aftermarket cooler and experiment with overclocking, opt for a different GPU or more RAM, or even add Blu-ray playback. And although I used the area between the GPU and the front of the case for cable storage, there’s plenty of room for longer GPUs, as long as they don’t consume too much power—our 600W power supply can’t handle a 5970, for example.

Finally, it’s worth noting that there are a few other Mini-ITX gaming boards out there. I happen to like the Zotac board used in this build because of its onboard Wi-Fi and plethora of USB and SATA ports, but Gigabyte’s GA-H55N, which adds USB 3.0—albeit at the expense of Wi-Fi and some of the other ports—is another option. Both boards feature full PCI-E x16 slots and the Gigabyte’s layout allows for a few more aftermarket cooler options.

The goal of this build was to prove to myself that a hand-built Mini-ITX gaming rig (as opposed to a more-expensive boutique SFF rig) was a probable—even reasonable—option. I believe I’ve done that, by building a $1,650 machine that performs well for the price, and is compact, quiet, and good-looking to boot.

BENCHMARKS

WEE PC VS. ZERO-POINT

Zero Point
Wee PC
Vegas Pro 9 (sec)
3,049
4,028 (-24%)
Lightroom 2.6 (sec)
356
428 (-17%)
ProShow 4 (sec)
1,112
1,418 (-22%)
Reference 1.6 (sec)
2,113 2,703 (-22%)
STALKER: CoP (fps)
42 23.5 (-44%)
Far Cry 2 (fps)
114.4 64.4 (-44%)

Our current desktop test bed consists of a quad-core 2.66GHz Core i7-920 overclocked to 3.5GHz, 6GB of Corsair DD3/1333 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.

WEE PC VS. BUILDER'S CREED

Builder's Creed
Wee PC
Vegas Pro 9 (sec)
3,660 4,028 (-9%)
Lightroom 2.6 (sec)
253
428 (-41%)
ProShow 4 (sec)
1,071
1,418 (-24%)
Reference 1.6 (sec)
2,250 2,703(-17%)
STALKER: CoP (fps)
27.9 23.5 (-16%)
Far Cry 2 (fps)
72.6 64.4 (-11%)

Our Builder's Creed rig consists of a quad-core 2.8GHz Core i5-760 overclocked to 4GHz, 4GB of Corsair DD3/1333, on an Asus P7P55D-E Pro motherboard. We are running an Asus ENGTX 470 GPU, a 60GB Corsair Force F60 SSD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium.

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