How to Build a Compact Gaming PC
Going to a LAN party? You don't have to choose between lugging around your desktop or settling for a subpar gaming laptop. I'll show you how to cram the guts of a gaming PC into a slim case with a MicroATX motherboard.
For years I’ve tried to build systems in small cases based on a MicroATX motherboard, always with mixed results. The limiting factor has most often been the case itself; most MicroATX case designers assume you want as tiny a package as possible, which usually restricts how much storage you can have, the size of the power supply, and the maximum length of the graphics card--and you can just forget about a custom cooler.
A few minitower cases are a little bigger, but they’re oriented toward small-office PCs. I’ve also looked at the Antec Mini P180, but it’s almost as heavy as a standard P183, so it wasn't worth my time for this kind of project.
Nevertheless, I’ve yearned to build a system that is small enough to transport but has enough airflow and space for larger components. And this time, I've done it.
Choosing the Case and Power Supply
I used In Win cases years ago, but moved on as other companies produced more interesting designs. Recently, though, In Win has been shipping some seriously good cases suitable for gaming PCs. The In Win Dragon Slayer is one example: The Dragon Slayer looks like a full tower case that someone has shot with a shrink ray, yet it’s still deep enough for large graphics cards.
This chassis suffers from the same drawbacks of most small cases: Working inside it is a pain due to the restricted space. This limitation is particularly irksome around the hard-drive bay. If the case has a flaw, it’s the placement of the main hard-drive bay, directly across from the power supply. This positioning effectively limits the physical size of the PSU to a 6-inch depth, eliminating some deeper, premium power supplies. For example, I tried installing an Antec High Current Pro 750W PSU, but at a depth of 7.125 inches, it blocked the hard drive's data and power-cable connections.
Instead I went with a Corsair AX750, another 750W, 80-plus gold certified power supply with a standard size of 6 by 6 by 3.5 inches. Even with a standard power supply, however, routing cables is something of a chore. Fortunately, the Dragon Slayer is wide enough to allow effective cable routing behind the motherboard tray, so that mitigates the clutter a bit.
One other minor issue is that the front-panel USB 3.0 connector requires you to route a cable out the back of the case and plug it into a USB 3.0 back-panel connector on the motherboard.
Now that I've laid the foundation of the system, it’s time to take a look at the motherboard, CPU, and memory.
Selecting the Motherboard
When I set out on this project, I didn’t have a fixed budget in mind. The idea was to build a high-performance gaming system in a compact package, so the limiting factors were size and power consumption, not cost. I also wanted an overclocking-friendly, gamer-oriented motherboard. That turned out to be the Asus Maximus IV Gene-Z, a premium-quality MicroATX board built around an Intel Z68 chipset, four memory sockets, and the usual host of features you’d expect in a high-end gaming motherboard--except size.
As it turns out, the Gene-Z wasn’t terribly pricey, either. Typical prices for the board hover around $170, which is more than most MicroATX boards cost, but less than standard ATX boards of the same class do. The Gene-Z offers the typical amenities you'd want on an overclocker’s board, including on-board reset and power switches, a robust BIOS, and a high-end power-supply section.
Also on the board is a rich set of connectors, including digital video outputs if you want to take advantage of the Intel Z68’s graphics virtualization, developed by LucidLogix. Virtu, as the feature is called, allows you to use a high-end discrete graphics card but connect the display to the integrated graphics built into Intel Sandy Bridge CPUs. As a result, the system will run the low-power-consumption Intel HD Graphics for normal desktop use, but the high-end GPU will kick in for gaming. The one drawback is that the integrated graphics don’t support dual-link DVI, so you won’t be able to run 30-inch, 2560-by-1600-pixel displays at full resolution. (You poor thing.)
Audio output is a touch more robust than on many motherboards, due to the Gene-Z's inclusion of Creative Labs THX TruStudio Pro software audio enhancement. TruStudio Pro is one of the few software-based audio enhancements I find pleasing, and it offers a somewhat broader sound stage.
The board also has room for a large aftermarket CPU cooler, four memory sockets, and plenty of USB ports, including USB 3.0 support. I didn’t use a high-end cooler with the system, but that’s because I planned on only modest overclocking.
Choosing the CPU and RAM
While the sweet spot for most gaming systems is an Intel Core i7-2500K, I went with a slightly higher-end Core i7-2600K. The additional base clock, plus Intel's Hyper-Threading, makes this system useful for more than just play--and it’s certainly no slouch on the gaming front.
High-performance memory is a must in a gaming system, so maximizing memory bandwidth is the name of the game. On the other hand, since I'm building into a fairly small chassis, the airflow will be constrained. While the Dragon Slayer case offers more robust airflow than many cases in the class do, internal cable clutter and components inevitably restrict airflow somewhat. That’s another reason I stuck with the relatively low-profile Intel CPU cooler.
A good motherboard and a good CPU deserve good memory. I wanted DDR3 that I could rely on to run at 1600MHz, since I wasn’t planning on higher memory clocks. Corsair’s 8GB Vengeance DDR3 kit fit the bill nicely, and it costs less than $60. Fast DDR3 is an incredible value these days.
Next page: The graphics card and storage, plus performance and price
Picking the Graphics Card
Although I wanted to build this system with no set budget, my goal wasn’t to construct a machine with an unlimited budget. Given that it’s a MicroATX system, other constraints also fed into my choices, including those for power and cooling. And I wanted a graphics card that didn’t make a lot of noise, didn’t consume excessive power, and could handle most modern games.
Enter the Asus GTX 570 DirectCU II.
You can find the Asus GTX 570 DirectCU II for around $350; if you’re willing to deal with rebates, it’s about $320. That’s only a small price premium over a stock GTX 570.
This is a seriously over-the-top card. The first thing you notice is that it’s three slots wide. That’s due to the extra-beefy cooling section, with dual fans, extremely robust capacitors, and an eight-phase design. Asus has also removed one integrated circuit (included in most GTX designs) that limits maximum power draw. That tweak allows users to set the voltage to whatever they deem appropriate. Bear in mind, however, that without the voltage limiter you can wind up killing the card, so proceed with caution.
Asus supplies a simplistic overclocking utility called SmartDoctor, but it’s pretty crude. If you really want to overclock this card, go to the Asus website for the company's high-end Matrix GPU series, select the downloads for your Windows version, and look for GPU Tweak under 'Utilities'. Although this tool was designed for the Matrix GTX 580 series, it will work just fine with your 570.
If you simply want to push the clock speed higher, GPU Tweak automatically adjusts the voltage to what it determines is the best setting. Of course, the system will end up consuming more power, but that’s why you build in a 750W PSU; you'll have lots of power wiggle room.
Of course, you need plenty of fast storage for all those games.
On the optical side, all that you really require for a gaming rig is an inexpensive DVD burner. The Lite-On iHAS124 gets the job done, and costs a scant $20.
As for the bulk of the storage, my first inclination was to go with a pure solid-state drive configuration, but having enough space for a number of games would have almost doubled the price of the system. Thankfully, one of the coolest aspects of Intel’s Z68 chipset is its support for Intel’s Rapid Storage Technology SSD caching. You drop in a small SSD and configure the system for RAID support, and the SSD acts as a huge cache for the hard drive.
So I combined a fast, 10,000-rpm Western Digital 600GB VelociRaptor hard drive with a 20GB Intel 311 SLC-based SSD. The net result is a substantial performance improvement over a stand-alone Raptor, including much faster boot and application-load times. The whole affair costs $335 ($115 for the SSD and $220 for the hard drive). If I had built in 600GB worth of SSDs, the storage alone would have cost me $800 or more.
If you crave more capacity, a 2TB, 7200-rpm drive costs about $150, and you’ll see nearly the same performance due to the SSD cache.
Performance and Overclocking
Overclocking is easier than ever these days, but remember that overclocking remains a crapshoot. I’ve always been content to run my systems at standard clock speeds. I’ve been known to pump up memory clocks beyond defaults, though, since DDR3-1600 is so inexpensive now--memory bandwidth is sometimes more useful than bumping up CPU clock speeds.
First, it’s worthwhile to look at the benchmark results for my system based on the standard clock speeds for the CPU and GPU.
|3DMark 2011 Performance||5745|
|3DMark 2011 Extreme||1841|
|3DMark Vantage (Performance, PPU disabled)||22,979|
|3DMark Vantage (Extreme, PPU disabled)||11,421|
|PCMark 7 score||3928|
|PCMark, Computation test||5239|
|PCMark, Storage test||2400|
|Unigine Heaven 2.1 (1920 by 1200, 4xAA)||28 fps|
|Dirt 3 (1920 by 1200, 4xAA)||54 fps|
|Dawn of War II: Retribution (1920 by 1200, 4xAA)||81 fps|
|Far Cry 2 (Ranch Long; 1920 by 1200, 4xAA)||109 fps|
|Metro 2033 (1920 by 1200, 4xAA)||19 fps|
|S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat (1920 by 1200, tesselation, 4xAA, shadows, SSAO)||60 fps|
|Just Cause 2 (Concrete Jungle; 1920 by 1200, 4xAA)||54 fps|
|Aliens vs. Predator (1920 by 1200, 4xAA)||36 fps|
|Power idle (system)||71 watts|
|Power max (system)||231 watts|
Metro 2033 is a demanding game, so hitting almost 20 frames per second in DirectX 11 mode with 4x antialiasing and all detail levels pumped up is pretty impressive. In most games, the system runs in excess of 30 fps, and over 60 fps in some titles.
The BIOS setup for the Gene-Z makes the system very easy to overclock, with one-click settings for one or two speed bumps. When I pushed the system up one speed grade, the 3DMark 2011 performance number rose to 5921 (from 5745). Pushing the GPU core clock from 742MHz (the DirectCU II’s default) to 776MHz bumped the score to 6132. The 3DMark Vantage score hit 23,848 with just a single CPU bump, while the GPU core increase elevated it to 24,130.
In practical terms you might see a 2 to 4 percent increase in the frames-per-second performance of most games; whether that’s worth risking an overclock depends on your situation. If my system always resided in my home, in a controlled environment, I’d probably keep the overclocks. If I wanted to carry it around to LAN parties, though, I’d stick with default clock speeds for safety.
The Price of Glory
So how much does this system cost?
|Intel Core i7-2600K CPU||$315|
|Asus Maximus IV Gene-Z motherboard||$170|
|Corsair Vengeance 8GB DDR3 RAM||$60|
|Corsair AX750 750W power supply||$170|
|Western Digital VelociRaptor 600GB hard drive||$220|
|Intel 311 solid-state drive||$115|
|Lite-On iHAS124 DVD-RW drive||$20|
|Asus GTX 570 DirectCU II graphics card||$350|
|In Win Dragon Slayer case||$65|
|Windows 7 Ultimate||$165|
That $1650 price tag includes Windows 7 Ultimate OEM. I chose Win 7 Ultimate mainly because the 16GB limitation of Windows 7 Home Premium is starting to sound a little restrictive. With 8GB memory modules starting to ship, the Gene-Z motherboard could theoretically support 32GB, though 16GB is probably a more practical ceiling.
Note that the cost doesn’t include shipping and sales tax. And depending on where you buy, prices may be a little higher or lower.
This system has some legs. The power-supply section of the Gene-Z will likely support future LGA 1155 CPUs, and the system already supports USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gb/s. And that $1650 total is pretty good, given that I set out to build a high-performance rig that can handle modern games and overclock fairly easily. I can even carry it around without straining my back.