System Builder Marathon Q2 2015: $1600 Mini Gaming PC

Because you asked for it, we put an Intel Core i5 and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 into a mini-ITX case. But how does it perform compared to its larger twin?

Introduction

System Builder Marathon Q2 2015

Here are links to each of the five articles in this quarter’s System Builder Marathon (we’ll update them as each story is published). And remember, these systems are all being given away at the end of the marathon.

To enter the giveaway, please fill out this SurveyGizmo form, and be sure to read the complete rules before entering!

  1. $1600 Performance PC
  2. $1600 Mini Performance PC
  3. $1600 Gaming PC
  4. $1600 Mini Gaming PC
  5. System Value Compared

$1600 Mini Gaming PC

I’m back, this time with a smaller mini-ITX gaming machine. And, in following the naming convention of the first machine, which I called Big Build, I’d like to introduce “Mini Build”. Yes, the creativity runs strong in someone else’s veins, not mine.

Working on this quarter’s System Builders Marathon (SBM) was quite an experience. The biggest lesson learned from my first machine was to allocate a lot more time for this project. Piecing together the system isn't the hard part. It’s the testing that can take a while.

As I mentioned before, Thomas and I were handed a budget of $3200 each for this quarter’s System Builder Marathon, which we took to build a pair of $1600 PCs. Thomas was asked to focus on CPU-driven builds, while my machines were more graphics-heavy.

Working with mini-ITX is always challenging and if you don’t do the right research, you’ll end up sending back plenty of return items because you misjudged a measurement somewhere. I know this especially since most of my previous builds were small form factor machines I built at home. Fortunately, I learned and didn’t have return anything this time. Actually…I did return something, but I’ll save that for the Component Installation section below.

Here’s what I used for my Mini Build:

  • Platform Cost: $1402
  • Total Hardware Cost: $1495
  • Complete System Price: $1595

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Component Selection

Hardware Installation

Overall

For the most part, Mini Build was assembled without too many issues. The mini-ITX motherboard’s compact size and the dimensions of the case didn’t leave much room for my hands, but they were workable. One constant issue I had was accidentally pulling cable connectors off of a motherboard pin every time I had to nudge a tight harness out of the way. Since the pins for the case’s front-panel electronics were underneath the heat sink, reconnecting a loose wire usually required unscrewing the motherboard tray from the chassis and pushing it away from the case’s back wall. Rosewill definitely put some thought into this case because it added a couple of rails that the motherboard tray sits on, making it easy to access the back of the platform in loosened cable situations like the ones I had.

The rails sitting horizontally below the graphics card and above the hard drive cage came in really handy when I had to work on the back end of the motherboard without having to completely remove it.

Motherboard Problems

When I said that I got pretty good at not having to return items due to bad judgment calls, I was telling the truth. In the case of my returned MSI Z97I AC motherboard, it was different matter.

Once the machine was built, I let it run for a while just to make sure it stayed powered on. Mini Build worked fine fFor the first few days, until one night when I went to reboot it. I kept getting a “no signal detected” error on the 4K display that was connected to the EVGA card. I confirmed that the cable was fine and that the monitor's DisplayPort interface was functional. I even swapped out the EVGA graphics card with Big Build’s Gigabyte card and confirmed that it wasn’t a graphics card problem; the EVGA card worked when I put it in Big Build, while the Gigabyte card couldn’t send out any signal on behalf of Mini Build.

At this point, the problem was either the motherboard or the Rosewill power supply. I pulled a be quiet! Dark Power Pro from one of our reference systems, connected it to the MSI board and its components, and still had the “no signal detected” message come up. Just to be sure, I also grabbed my multimeter and checked the two power leads that plug into the GPU, confirming that voltage was there.

At this point, my guess was a bad PCIe slot. I did have some extra cards to test with, and the only ones that worked were smaller ones like Sapphire's R7 240.

After all of that, I gave in and sent the motherboard back to the vendor for replacement.

Cooling

The Rosewill Neutron case really grew on me, especially when it came to having a nice cooling configuration. You can fit up to six fans: two on top, two in front and two in back. For this build, I ended up using five fans since the DVD writer I added takes up the space where a sixth top fan would have gone. The two fans in front blow air into the case, with the bottom fan blowing air straight to the storage drives and out the back through the rear-lower fan. The top-front fan blows air over the motherboard and exhausts out of the computer through the rear-upper fan.

The Rosewill Neutron’s split-level design helps the case keep heat-producing elements separated. Even the PSU had vents on the case's side panel.

Overclocking

Since I haven’t overclocked an MSI motherboard before, I did a little digging and found that I can use MSI’s Control Center software to help set the necessary parameters. I was curious about the software, so I downloaded and installed it on Mini Build. However, that little experiment lasted about ten minutes, since it crashed whenever I started making changes to the core voltage. So, off into the BIOS I went. 

This time I went hunting for the magic numbers from high to low. I started at 4.4GHz, but Mini Build wasn’t as giving as Big Build. After some stress testing with Prime95, I ended up with a Core i5-4690K running at 4.2GHz and 1.24V.

CPU settings for Mini Build's overclocking.CPU settings for Mini Build's overclocking.

For the graphics card overclocking, I had to register on EVGA’s website to download and install PrecisionX. Using the program, I went a little extreme with the settings at first, thinking that 3D Mark’s Fire Strike benchmark would be a good indicator for overclocking stability.

The highest overall score I got in Fire Strike was 12013, and that was thanks to some tinkering and a little advice from our other techs. At this level, the fans on Mini Build were running all-out and I was ready to start the first round of testing, including the multimedia, productivity and synthetic apps. Games were last.

EVGA's GPU overclocking tool, Precision X. Note that these settings are the original numbers used before toning for game testing.EVGA's GPU overclocking tool, Precision X. Note that these settings are the original numbers used before toning for game testing.

Loud as it was, Mini Build finished most of the testing without a hitch. However, things turned the other way as I started to go through the game benchmarks. I ran into some major problems, especially after exiting Far Cry 3, Battlefield 4 and Arma 3. I saw driver crashes and restarts, along with an occasional blue screen and reboot. The reality of the situation reared its ugly head when I was trying to test Grid 2 and couldn’t pass the first 30 seconds of our benchmark without one of the three monitors going out on me, a precursor to a full system reboot.

At this point in the game, I chose to address the graphics overclocking and rerun all the game testing with more conservative settings. For example, where I once tried to pull off a graphics memory overclock of 600MHz, I dropped down to just 53MHz just to finish my testing.

So, what’s the lesson here? Choose how you interpret your benchmarking validation tools wisely.

Synthetics

Out of the gate, we see that Mini Build’s competition is tough. Keep in mind that the $1750 rig built in Q1 has two graphic cards in it, giving it the expected boost over Mini Build. We see this in the 3DMark graph. I'm not worried though; we‘re just getting started.

Now, when you look at the PCMark results, you may not see a complete win. However, Mini Build’s Creative score isn’t too far behind the rest.

Also, keep in mind that we’re comparing an i5 to a couple of Core i7-based PCs. The i7 may have more horsepower than Mini Build’s i5, but we're trying to look at the whole package.

Gaming

Looking at the scores in the gaming sections, we don’t see anything too amazing. Mini Build’s competition is tough and working off of bigger architectures. It’s interesting to see that in the Grid 2 and Battlefield 4 charts, Mini Build’s EVGA graphics card performed pretty well when it came to serving up 5760x1080 graphics.

Media, Productivity And Compression

We definitely see the deficiencies of Mini Build’s Core i5 compared to the other machines' i7s. Based on typical home- and work-related tasks, we can see that Mini Build wouldn’t be comfortable as a work PC. Its scores are based on a certain amount of time it takes to do something, and in some cases, those times may be too long.

Power, Heat, Efficiency And Value

Using a combination of a programs like Prime95 and RealTemp, we get to see and measure the amount of stress a CPU encounters through its temperature. This technique came in really handy during overclocking, as we were able to see how close we were getting to the Intel CPU's 100-degree threshold.

We also get to see the power drawn by the GPU as Mini Build’s measured wattage shows us the impact of running a gaming PC in a home. It’s also interesting to note that the combined power drawn by the $1750 Q1 2015 overclocked PC is over 10 times the amount of the same machine when it’s idle.

Looking at the overall performance stats, we already know that Mini Build was working with a critical deficiency, its CPU, but that its only real saving grace is its gaming performance. You also see this similar scenario in the 5760x1080 chart at the very end.

While it's definitely not an overall high-performing home/business PC, Mini Build was designed for one thing in mind: gaming. Looking back, maybe I was too generous in going with a computer using a Core i5 processor. Had I gone with a slower i7, we would see better scores in some of the non-graphics-related charts.

Still, it was a lot of fun building both Big Build and Mini Build for you. The experience was great, and it brought back a lot of memories from this old IT guy's system building days.

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Julio Urquidi is a Senior Staff Editor at Tom's Hardware, covering Networking, Notebooks and Systems. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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