Processor, CPU Cooler & Motherboard

CPU: Intel Core i5-760

The graphics card is the star of show, the main factor in gaming performance, but it is pointless having a high performance GPU without a CPU that can keep up. While a large proportion of PC games don't benefit from having a quad core processor compared to a dual, the latest titles are increasingly CPU bound and can take full advantage of four or more threads. We realize there is no such thing as future-proofing when it comes to PCs, but we feel if you can afford a quad, you will see better performance as newer games come out. It also doesn't hurt that Intel and AMD's latest chips have features that overclock the CPU if any cores are sitting idle.

As there are no LGA1366 mini-ITX boards, the top Intel chips available for this build are LGA1156 Core i5 and i7s. The LGA1156 platform isn't quite as fast, but it is significantly cheaper and incredibly energy efficient. The 2.8GHz Core i5-760 is currently the best bang-for-your-buck Intel quad core CPU, retailing for about US$205. Unfortunately we didn't have one on hand, so we slightly overclocked an i5-750 instead; the difference should be negligible. The next best buy is the Core i7-870 which offers a few improvements for an extra US$75. It runs at 2.93 GHz, has a slightly higher TurboBoost speed, and supports Hyper-threading. If you feel the urge to splurge, it's worth considering but we didn't feel it was worth the extra money.

AMD boards can also be found in mini-ITX form, but we were unable to to find any that support processors with TDPs of higher than 95W. That rules out most of AMD's high-end chips, the Phenom X4's and X6's, the only ones that can compete with an i5-760. Even if they were supported, better CPU cooling would be required and we wanted to keep this build as quiet as possible. Cooling would be less of an issue in a big tower case but it's different story when using a cramped cube-style chassis.

The other alternative socket is LGA775. Surprisingly, high-end Intel Core 2's are still formidable competitors to more contemporary offerings but they are priced fairly high. A Core 2 Quad of 3 GHz or higher would be required to match the performance level of a Core i5-760, meaning an investment of well over US$300 for the processor alone. Only the lower-end LGA775 CPUS are cost-effective for budget dual core systems.

Use the SPCR/Pricegrabber Shopping Engine to help you get the best deal on an Intel Core i5 processor.

CPU COOLER: Scythe Samurai ZZ

The one bad thing about going with LGA1156 is the mini-ITX boards have the CPU socket placed right above the PCI Express slot. Even though the case we chose can take a 117 mm tall cooler, most moderately sized aftermarket heatsinks are too wide and would overlap the video card slot. With limited options we went again with the Scythe Samurai ZZ which was used in the SFF configuration of our Silent Home Server Build. It costs about US$30, is a solid performer and ships with an excellent fan. A down-blowing cooler is also preferred to compliment the SG07's large top intake fan.

Some of our forum users have successfully used the Thermalright AXP-140 RT in similar systems. It's a high performance cooler with six heatpipes and a big 140 mm fan, but the package costs twice that of the Samurai ZZ. If CPU cooling is a top priority, removing the case's ceiling fan opens up the possibility for a myriad of beefier heatsinks. The extra inch of clearance would allow the use of larger down-blowers and tower heatsinks with side-blowing 92 mm fans.

Use the SPCR/Pricegrabber Shopping Engine to help you get the best deal on the right CPU cooler.

MOTHERBOARD: Gigabyte H55N-USB3

We compared a few LGA1156 mini-ITX boards when deciding on parts for our SFF Home Server and ended up using the Zotac H55-ITX. This time around Gigabyte's H55N-USB3 seems to be the best of what's available. It's a middle-of-the-road option with a good feature-set including eSATA and USB 3.0, all for a reasonable US$105 price-tag.

The Zotac H55-ITX carries a price premium offer the H55N and its main strengths, its extra SATA ports and WiFi adapter will probably go unused in a serious gaming machine. Such a system only needs two drives at most and a wired ethernet connection is much more reliable than WiFi for online gaming.

The other board to look at is the ultra energy efficient Intel DG57JG. It lacks USB 3.0 despite being more expensive, but the main deal-breaker for us is its restrictive BIOS. The H55N's BIOS is liberal, allowing tweakers to get the voltage down a bit and/or overclock depending on how hot things get inside the case.

Relevant Specifications: Gigabyte H55N-USB3
CPU LGA1156 Pentium, Core i3, Core i5, Core i7
Chipset Intel® H55 Express Chipset
Memory Up to 8GB
DDR3 1600 (OC)
Extreme Memory Profile modules
Audio High Definition 2/4/5.1/7.1-channel
S/PDIF Out
LAN Realtek RTL8111E chip (10/100/1000 Mbit)
Expansion PCI Express 2.0 x16 slot, running at x16
Storage 4 x SATA 3Gb/s
1 x eSATA 3Gb/s
USB 3.0 NEC D720200F1 chip, 2 x USB 3.0/2.0 ports on the back panel

BIOS Summary: Gigabyte H55N-USB3
Setting
Options
CPU Clock
100 to 600 MHz
CPU Core Voltage
0.50000V to 1.90000V in 0.00625V increments
QPI/VTT Voltage
1.050V to 1.490V in varying increments (1.100V default)
PCH Voltage 0.950V to 1.500V (1.050V default)
Memory Voltage
1.30V to 2.60V in varying increments
Memory Multiplier
6, 8, 10
Memory Timing Control
Intermediate
Smart Fan Control 1 x PWM/DC

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