Quiet Mini-ITX Gaming Build Guide #2: NCASE M1 Edition

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Quiet Mini-ITX Gaming Build Guide #2

December 24, 2014 by Lawrence Lee with Mike Chin

Earlier this month we built a high-end mini-ITX gaming system that produced just 13 [email protected] at idle and 20 [email protected] on full load. It featured an ASUS STRIX GTX 980, which has an excellent stock cooling solution, and the Rosewill Legacy W1-S, a somewhat spacious case with a good feature-set. The W1-S has room for a large tower heatsink, a segregated power supply compartment, a pair of silky smooth 140 mm fans, and a built-in fan controller. However, with a total volume of 31.2 Liters, it's hardly small. In fact, it's larger than a couple of microATX models we've examined, the Rosewill Legacy U3, and SilverStone Sugo SG09.


Components used in this build.

For our second mini-ITX attempt, we aspire to a greater challenge, to assemble a similar high performance gaming PC in a much smaller case, one that is less than half the size. Anyone can accomplish this with off the shelf parts but the tricky part is to do it without compromising on noise. Muffling hot-running components in a tiny, cramped box is no easy task, but it's certainly possible with the right components. Given the criteria we've set for ourselves, it's going to be a pricey endeavor.

COMPONENT SELECTION

Case: NCASE M1 - US$185 + US$30~$55 shipping


The NCASE M1.

The NCASE M1 is not only the first high profile, crowd-funded PC case, it's perfect for this challenge. In fact, if the M1 didn't exist this build probably wouldn't come together at all. The M1 is the end-result of a project initiated by users unsatisfied with the selection of mini-ITX offerings on the market. Designed by enthusiasts for enthusiasts, it has a clean yet striking appearance, a delightfully compact form, excellent ventilation, and supports various hardware configurations. On the downside, it's quite expensive due to the aluminum panels and the small scale of manufacturing. There are also significant delays between production runs and long shipping times unless you pay extra.


Layout.

The dimensions are just 25.1 x 33.3 x 16.0 cm or 9.9 x 13.1 x 6.3 inches (H x D x W), so the M1 occupies a space of just 12.6 Liters. Despite its size, it supports both SFX and some ATX power supplies, a slot-loading slim optical drive, up to four 120 mm fans, CPU coolers up to 13.0 cm (5.1 in) in height, and video cards up to 31.8 cm (12.5 in) in length.

Power Supply: SilverStone SX600-G 600W - US$130


The SX600-G.

For this build, an ATX power supply is out of the question as it makes one of the side 120 mm fan mounts unusable. This position is being reserved to mount a radiator to water cool the graphics card. There are fewer choices for the smaller SFX form factor as SilverStone seems to be the only big name manufacturer producing 400W+ units. Luckily their SX600-G fits the bill nicely, a highly efficient, modular SFX model with a reasonably quiet fan that only makes its presence known under heavy load.

GPU: Zotac GeForce GTX 970 - $330

Alternatives:


The Zotac GTX 970 (vanilla version).


Back panel.

The graphics card is the heart and soul of any gaming PC but it's also the biggest challenge from an acoustic perspective, consuming more power and generating more heat than any other component. Energy efficiency is ultimately the key to producing quiet operation, so naturally we turned to Nvidia's latest GeForce GTX 900 series. The 980 is the fastest single GPU graphics card available but the 970 delivers about 80%~90% of the same performance and its thermal envelope is lower, 145W vs. 165W. In a build like this, every watt counts, so the lower tier card gets the nod. It's also more than US$200 cheaper which helps offset the expense of the other parts required to reach our lofty goals.

Of the four different 970's offered in their catalogue, Zotac has graciously provided us with their most basic model which interestingly has an unusually short PCB. According to the specifications, it doesn't cut any corners from the reference design aside from a slightly lower maximum GPU Boost frequency of 1216 MHz rather than 1250 MHz, a rather small difference. Users with smaller cases should delight in this compact form factor, especially its standard board width. During the course of fleshing out smaller gaming builds, we've run into compatibility issues due to wider than usual PCBs and/or cooling solutions.

Unfortunately, this particular card is equipped with a rather modest dual fan heatsink, but with what we're trying to accomplish, any traditional cooler isn't going to cut it in such tight quarters. For our purposes, the stock cooling solution is irrelevant, unless it happens to be water cooled.



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