Of all the various types of PCs you can build, one of the most difficult is the small form factor gaming system. Gaming PCs require high performance components that draw tremendous amounts of power, get very hot, and require high speed fans to ensure stable operation. All of these issues are exacerbated when these parts are stuffed into compact, somewhat portable enclosures. The smaller size also creates compatibility issues; most SFF cases do not support long graphics cards (or the power supplies required to drive them), big heatsinks, and multiple hard drives.
So why would anyone want a SFF gaming system? The most obvious reason is the LAN party, a physical gathering of gamers that allows you to compete against other gamers in person on large lag-free wired networks. The LAN party has come along way since they began in the '90s with small groups sneaking into college campus computer labs or bringing their towers and CRT monitors to ratty basements to play 2D real-time strategy games. They are now often large, organized, sponsored events with hundreds of players, door prizes, vending machines, and even resting areas for those who burn out after marathon gaming sessions. While some LAN party attendees prefer to show off their highly customized desktop towers to their comrades, others couldn't care less and just want a gaming PC that is quickly and easily transported to these events.
Our target audience is probably closer to those who prefer to play PC games on a big flat screen TV in their living rooms where a big bulky tower is simply too much of an eyesore. A small out-of-the-way box would be preferable in this case and could double as a home theater PC if the noise level was low enough. In this guide we will we build a reasonable SFF gaming rig with midrange to high-end components that are both adequately cooled and most importantly, quiet.
Before we can begin, we must point out an article published by The Tech Report while we were working on this guide. They wrote a combined case/motherboard/system review using similar components to those we selected. Their system's main differences include a lower end processor and a more power hungry graphics card with a decent stock cooling solution. Unfortunately they did little to tame the system's noise level which ended up being in the 40 dBA range measured from a distance of six inches. Obviously our system turned out to be acoustically superior, but it's worth reading as a reference/companion piece to ours.
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