How to Build a Compact Gaming PC

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.

Yes, that’s a GTX 570 that requires three slots.
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.

GPU Tweak is much better than the default overclocking tool.
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.

Adding Storage

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.

PERFORMANCE TESTResult
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?

COMPONENTPrice
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
Total $1650

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.

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