Build It: Mini Dream Machine

Maximum PC Staff

Not everyone can afford to build their very own Dream Machine, so we also created a scaled-down version that’s half the size, but still packs one hell of a punch

Note: This article was originally featured in the September 2013 issue of the magazine

A while back, we made the decision to use Corsair 's towering 900D case for this year's Dream Machine , and we knew we wanted to complement it with a Build It article. When the 900D’s little bro, the Corsair 350D , arrived in our offices a few weeks later, a plan started to form. About the same time as the case arrived, we also received Nvidia's GeForce GTX 700-series cards. With those, plus a Haswell CPU already in the Lab, the plan became fully realized: We’d just make a smaller version of the Dream Machine. The 350D wouldn’t take a full-size motherboard, but we could still pack it with full-size badassery like dual Nvidia GTX 780 cards, an unlocked Intel Core i7 CPU, a primo mATX motherboard (they do exist), a jumbo radiator, and other tasty accoutrements. Our goal was to build a rig that can game to the hilt just like the Dream Machine—only scaled back so it’s easier to assemble and a lot easier on your credit line.

Not the Size of the Boat

You're not hallucinating. We really did get a custom beige paint job for the 350D that mirrors the 900D used in our Dream Machine. It’s not just some plastic shroud either, but very high-quality automotive-grade work, courtesy of Smooth Creations . The caliber of the work doesn't show up that well in these photos, but trust us, it's impressive in the flesh. Possibly even more impressive is the fact that even though it’s a microATX tower, the case has a combination of features that we're used to seeing in much larger cases, like space for a 280mm radiator, removable drive cages, a 14cm intake fan, rubber grommets for cable routing, and a dust filter under the power-supply mount.

On the mobo side of things, we needed one that was just like our case—smaller than normal but able to hold a ton of hardware, so we called in Gigabyte's G1.Sniper M5 . It’s a microATX board, but able to handle three GPUs, liquid cooling, and plenty of storage. Since the Dream Machine is rocking GTX Titans, its bambino got the next-best thing: a pair of EVGA GTX 780 GPUs with the non-reference "ACX" coolers. We finished it off by strapping a massive 280mm NZXT Kraken X60 water cooler to the Core i7-4770K to see how much we could overclock it. Powering the whole shebang is an 800W Cooler Master Silent Pro Gold, to which we've also hooked up a 512GB OCZ Vector solid-state drive, a 2TB WD Caviar Black , and two Noctua case fans. For RAM, we went to Mushkin for a pair of 8GB "Ridgeback" sticks that are rated for 2,133MHz.


Case Corsair Obsidian 350D


PSU Cooler Master Silent Pro Gold 800W $160 (street)
Mobo Gigabyte G1.Sniper M5 $210 (street)
CPU Intel Core i7-4770K $335
Cooler NZXT Kraken X60
$110 (street)
GPU 2x EVGA GeForce GTX 780 3GB
RAM 2x 8GB Mushkin Ridgeback 2,133Mhz $150 (street)
SSD 512GB OCZ Vector
$550 (street)
Hard Drive 2TB WD Caviar Black $135
OS Windows 8 64-bit $100
Total $3,185

1. The Seven Seas

We recently snagged an Intel Core i5-4670K Haswell CPU, but this “mini Dream” rig called for the upgraded Core i7-4770K, which has Hyper-Threading (HT), a larger L3 cache, and slightly higher clock speeds. Games don't make much use of HT, but it's handy for encoding HD video, streaming live video from your PC, or running virtual machines. Haswell uses the new LGA1150 motherboard socket, which is incompatible with the LGA1155 CPUs used in the previous generation, but the insertion holes in the motherboard are exactly the same, so older CPU coolers will bolt right on with no problems. The Kraken X60's support ring didn’t line up totally square on our motherboard, so the slightly rotated look is normal.

Click the next page to read more about how we assembled the mini Dream Machine!

2. The Engine Room

When writing down our wish list for this project’s mobo, we scrawled the following: a Z87 chipset, microATX form factor, full SLI support with 8x PCIe lanes for each slot, and respectable overclocking. That made our list pretty short, and right at the top was the Gigabyte G1.Sniper M5. The Sniper series has been around for several years, and the "M" in the name designates the microATX version, since there’s an ATX version, too. The Sniper series in general has built a reputation for stability, features, and high performance, and is one of the most popular boards for overclockers who like to build small, tidy rigs.

Despite its smaller dimensions, the M5 doesn't lose much in the way of features, as it still offers Creative Labs sound with isolated circuitry to reduce background noise, a headphone amp, three PCI Express slots for two-way SLI and CrossFire, power and reset buttons on the board itself (pictured), fat heatsinks, six SATA 6Gb/s ports, eight-phase voltage regulator modules, five fan headers, and four digital display outputs.

3. Stowing Away

Since our goal is maximum horsepower, we wanted a kick-ass SSD, but one that didn’t appear in the DM itself. So, we went with an OCZ Vector 512GB since it’s blazing fast and regularly does battle with the Samsung 840 Pro. We also went with a WD Caviar Black 2TB drive for data storage since we like its speed and long warranty.

The 350D comes with one removable two-tray drive cage at the bottom, and a three-tray SSD cage tucked underneath the 5.25-inch bays. The SSD cage is tool-free—you just slide the SSD in from behind, and it clicks into place (pictured). The area between the drive cages is empty to leave room for extra-long GPUs.

4. Double Hulls

The Nvidia GeForce GTX 780 is a junior version of the GTX Titan ; it has two fewer SMX units, no double-precision compute, and 3GB of VRAM instead of 6GB. However, the EVGA version uses a dual-fan design instead of the stock cooler’s single fan, which offers slightly better performance. Since this is a Mini Dream Machine, we put two of these cards in the system, and with a good overclock, they should get damn close to Titan-level performance.

The G1 Sniper motherboard has three PCI Express 3.0 x16 slots, and it doesn't seem to care which ones you use for SLI. We went with the first slot and the third slot to provide some breathing room for the first card’s intakes. The 350D's bottom drive cage is short enough to provide room for a two-slot video card in the motherboard's third PCIe slot. Finally, we added a blue SLI bridge to give the interior a little color.

Click the next page to see how it scored in our benchmarks and more!

5. An Olympic GPU

The Corsair 900D is a little over 27 inches high, a bit more than 25 inches long, and about 10 inches wide. The 350D is about 17 inches high, 17 inches long, and 8 inches wide, roughly one-third smaller overall. Despite the shrinkage, it will fit a 280mm radiator at the top, so we installed a Kraken X60. We also replaced the stock Corsair AF120L fans because we had two beige Noctua fans that mirrored the aesthetic of our custom paint job, and the Noctuas move a lot of air silently. We also added a chrome grill to the rear fan, to reinforce the retro look.

Because of its smaller dimensions and reduced weight, the 350D was easy to lift and rotate during the build. You do that a lot when routing cables around a case. Unfortunately, the motherboard tray's cable grommets are surprisingly narrow, making it a tight squeeze for the 24-pin power supply cable, but we got it to fit just barely. The radiator also blocked the grommets above the motherboard tray, which hampered our cable-routing efforts somewhat, making the interior wiring a bit more messy than we would have liked it to be.

6. Naval Power

We had to install the 280mm radiator with the tubes coming through the 5.25-inch drive cage, because going the other direction would not have left enough room to keep the rear fan, and we needed it to move some air around the CPU socket. We removed the rubber grommets that came pre-installed in the radiator’s screw holes on the top of the case, because they made the X60’s installation screws too short. Also, four of the eight mounting holes on top of the case allow for both 15mm and 20mm fan spacing for large radiators. We installed the fans between the radiator and the exterior of the case, in an exhaust/pull orientation. That's what NZXT recommends, and we've found that it works well in smaller cases.

We went with an 800-watt Cooler Master Silent Pro Gold in this build because it's a high-caliber unit that offers more than enough wattage and would let us overclock. We did have to install the 8-pin CPU power cable before the radiator, otherwise the hole above the motherboard would have been blocked. The PSU has a second 8-pin CPU power cable that we didn’t need, and it was a little tricky to tuck it away in a microATX case.

Dream a Little Dream

This system showed us that we're finally getting to the point where we can build a machine that challenges our zero-point system without taking out a bank loan or causing blackouts in the vicinity of the office. This is in part thanks to steadily improved drivers from Nvidia , but also because the GTX 780 is a relatively affordable card given its performance. The dual-GPU GTX 690 in the zero-point is still the fastest single-GPU card available, but this system’s dual GTX 780s were a lot faster in all of our tests. We didn't have any trouble staying around 60fps at 2560x1600 in benchmarks like Hitman: Absolution, the new Tomb Raider, and Heaven 4.0, even with all settings totally maxed out.

Also of interest this time around is that we saw Intel's new Haswell CPU architecture not only catch up to the Sandy Bridge-E used in the zero-point, but surpass it on occasion. However, the zero-point’s Core i7-3930K is not overclocked, and we had cranked the Core i7-4770 up to 4.5GHz to get on the same playing field as a 12-core 3930K running at 3.2GHz. On the bright side, the Kraken X60 never got noticeably loud or hot, hitting just 70 C under full load at 4.5GHz.

As far as the build itself goes, we’ll admit that the reduced amount of room in a microATX case introduced some challenges, especially since we were packing in a full ATX tower's worth of hardware. Despite the one-inch gap between the two GPUs, the lower card was just a couple millimeters above the power supply, which was not ideal for air intake. Power and SATA cables coming out of the SSD cage are difficult to tuck out of the way since they have literally nowhere to go, and a lot of real estate behind the mobo is taken up by the 24-pin power cable and two PCIe cables. We also had to connect the front panel, internal USB headers, and SATA cables to the motherboard before installing the lower video card, because the GTX 780 hid all of those connections.

But overall, we were pleased with the results. The 350D handled SLI and a 280mm radiator without too much trouble. If you build this system, we'd recommend a 240mm or even 120mm radiator though, just to give you room for cable routing and an optical drive if you’re into that kind of thing. So yeah, it was a little tough, but this month we weren’t going for the easy way out. We wanted dreamy performance.




Premiere Pro CS6 (sec) 2,000
2,280 (-12%)
Stitch.Efx 2.0 (sec) 831
ProShow Producer 5.0 (sec) 1,446 1,215
x264 HD 5.0 (fps) 21.1 19.6 (-12%)
Batman: Arkham City (fps) 76 138
3DMark11 Extreme 5,847 9,568

The zero-point machine compared here consists of a 3.2GHz Core i7-3930K, 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.

Note: This article originally appeared in the September issue of the magazine.

Around the web