Building A Liquid-Cooled MicroATX Gaming Monster

Getting More Performance From A Smaller PC

Our experiment in microATX performance illustrates a few concepts that seam to have escaped many enthusiasts in recent years. The first of these is that you don’t really need a big case to achieve stellar performance.

Of course, we didn’t stop there. Every time our System Builder Marathon’s $2000 build sheet crosses its budget limit, I drop down to Antec’s Three Hundred Illusion case to save money. The rationale for that decision is that the case is sturdy enough, and ventilated  better than many competing products priced the same or even more.

The idea is to achieve high-end performance without the accompanying high-end price, and the most technically-charged argument against those builds has always been that bigger cases allow higher CPU overclocks. And yet, today we achieved a higher overclock using similar ventilation in an even smaller case.

Now, you could argue that the CPU in the smaller machine received an unfair benefit in this comparison from its liquid cooler, but we’ve already proven that liquid coolers this small have no benefit over big air coolers (on several occasions). The processor in this liquid-cooled machine is further forced to share its cooling with a graphics card, and the real cooling benefits were reserved for that high-end GPU.

In our recent System Builder Marathon, we concluded that the $2000 machine's overclocking issues were most likely caused by an improperly cooled and/or undersized CPU voltage regulator. Today, we showed that a similarly-priced microATX motherboard is capable of both hosting a larger voltage regulator and using it effectively. We also showed that any GPU overclocking deficiencies we ran into in the System Builder Marathon were a result of the lower-binned cards we chose. Picking more overclocking-friendly cards for today’s test opened up quite a bit of headroom.

We also heard some negative feedback about our previous-build’s SSD. But today’s test showed a top competing model providing only 2% better performance. While we love the upgraded SSD's increased capacity and performance, we wouldn’t sacrifice other parts of the machine to keep it within a reasonable budget. Like the DDR3-2200 memory we used in our microATX machine, a large, high-end SSD should be reserved for builders without budgetary restrictions.

Finally, several readers voiced concerns about the 850 W power supply we chose, which we readily admit isn’t the most efficient part in the world. It’s hard to argue against its 80 PLUS Silver rating for a mere $110, but we did experiment with an 80 PLUS Gold unit as well.

This is the same Seasonic X760 used in many of our reference builds, and we expected it to run at approximately 100% load in this follow-up piece. The 80 PLUS organization says that it pulls 863.6 W at full load and 88% efficiency. Our full-load test showed 875 W wall load with both GPUs and the CPU overclocked and maxed-out, so we’re pushing roughly 10 W beyond its rating.

The X760 saved 19 W at full load compared to the less efficient, lower-cost 850 W part. While that is enough power to light a small room in fluorescent glory, it’s not much by performance PC standards. We’d pick a more efficient model only if we had the money to burn. Though 850 W is our minimum recommendation for similar builds, this microATX configuration is already pushing the case’s maximum capacity with the parts we used. Anyone making room for big upgrades should upsize both their case and power supply accordingly.

All of these careful tests and considerations lead us to two conclusions. First, we were spot-on by stating that the only deficiency in the SBM $2000 PC was the motherboard’s voltage regulator, which only limited its overclocking capability. Second, it’s now obvious that most power uses can get even more performance in an even smaller size through careful parts selection.

We’d like to thank Asus, Crucial, Fractal Design, PNY, and Seagate for supplying the extra parts needed to test all of the concepts proven today. While we’re at it, we’d also like to know which of today’s parts you’d like to see in future builds.

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  • tranzz
    The final power rating seems a little out. Drawing 875 at 88% gives 770w used. If you use 98% efficiency it gives a similar number to as stated.
  • PsychoBat
    I really love this build and would like to build my own rig with Maximus IV Gene-Z and Fractal Design ARC Mini but I'd be getting 2xGTX 580 without liquid cooling. Would it be possible to sufficiently aircool these cards or should I drop the idea and go for a larger case?
  • graemevermeulen