Computing

How To Build A Small Gaming PC

Way back in December 2010, we built an awesome Mini-ITX gaming PC dubbed the Wee Ass-Kicking Machine. It featured a Core i7-870 CPU, a GeForce GTX 460 GPU, 4GB of DDR3, a 1TB hard drive, and a 120GB SSD-all crammed into a Silverstone SG07 chassis not much larger than a shoebox. The total cost? Around $US1600 (at the time).

It’s, uh, been a while since then, though, and I thought it was high time we built another Mini-ITX gaming PC. This one’s not quite as small, but it’s got a lot more oomph. We’re using the BitFenix Prodigy, which has room for a full-size ATX PSU, scads of hard drives, and even a 240mm radiator (if you swing that way), while still being small enough to be lugged around by its convenient carrying handles.

Let’s See What Fits

Just because this is a Mini-ITX build doesn’t mean we’re messing around with integrated graphics. Pah. Pshaw. And other expressions of contempt. Nope, when we build a gaming rig, we use a real discrete graphics card. This time we’re going with an MSI GTX 670 Power Edition, which is factory overclocked but still sips power like the rest of the Kepler lineup.

We’ll use our sweet-spot Ivy Bridge CPU, the 3.4GHz Core i5-3570K, on a Zotac Z77 WiFi Mini-ITX board. The board has one full-size x16 PCIe 3.0 slot, two DIMM slots, USB 3.0, and 6Gb/s SATA. We’ll fill those DIMM slots with two 4GB Corsair Vengeance DDR3/1600 DIMMs, and use a 240GB Corsair Force GS SSD and a 3TB HGST Deskstar for mass storage.

The most important part of the build is the case. The BitFenix Prodigy is large for a Mini-ITX chassis, but that just means there’s room for more stuff. It can accommodate a full-size PSU (although 140mm is really the maximum depth), up to six hard drives and six SSDs, a long videocard, and, thanks to its big main compartment, a full-size air cooler or even a liquid cooler.

Because most of our favourite air coolers would interfere with the PCIe slot, and we didn’t want to give up the lone 5.25-inch bay just so we could install a 240mm radiator, we opted for an all-in-one liquid‑cooling loop: Thermaltake’s Water 2.0 Performer. This will give us plenty of headroom for overclocking the 3570K to a steady 4.4GHz.

Building It

The Prodigy is roomy for a Mini-ITX case, but that still means it’s a bit of a complicated build. Here’s what I had to do.

1. Prep the Case

Remove the four thumbscrews holding the side panels in place and remove the panels. Pop the four clips holding the front panel in place, and remove that too. Grip the top hard drive cage by its top and bottom clips and slide it out of the case. Turn the case on its side and remove the six screws holding the lower cage to the chassis and remove that cage.

2. Add the SSD

Attach the SSD to one of the case’s six mounting points-either at the bottom of the case, the inside of the left side panel, or the side of the PSU compartment. It doesn’t really matter which of the many SSD mount points you use. You could just mount the SSD into one of the hard drive trays, but it’d be nice to leave those free for additional hard drives later on. Replace the hard drive cage. Stand the case upright.

3. Opening the Case

Flip over the front panel and remove the two screws holding the optical drive bezel in place. On the front of the chassis, pry off the metal bezel in front of the optical drive tray. Replace the front panel and slide the optical drive into the bay, stopping when it’s flush. Secure with the same M3 screws you used for the SSD.

4. Add the PSU

Unscrew the four thumbscrews securing the PSU backplate. You’ll want as short a PSU as you can get for this: anything longer than 140mm and you’ll have a hard time routing the cables. As tempting as it is to go modular, a nonmodular PSU will be easier to deal with here. Attach the backplate to the PSU and install into the chassis, but don’t put all four thumbscrews back in, as you may want to be able to slide the PSU out later for ease of wiring.

5. CPU and Cooling

Remove the CPU socket protector and install the CPU. Lower the gate arm to secure it. Add the RAM. Although the Prodigy has room for the large skyscraper-style air coolers we like in our builds, those coolers don’t play nice with our solitary PCIe slot, so we’re going with a water cooler.

Thermaltake’s Water 2.0 Performer (catchy!) is an Asetek-built dual-fan 120mm all-in-one cooler that should keep our CPU nice and chilly. But first we have to install the backplate. Find the Intel backplate and assemble it for Socket 1155 per Thermaltake’s instructions. Attach it to the rear of the motherboard. Assemble the retaining clips and screws in the socket ring.

Take the motherboard I/O shield, pop off the tabs covering the Wi-Fi antenna ports, and install it into the case back. Unscrew the case’s 12cm exhaust fan and set it aside. Install the motherboard into the case using four screws (image F).

6. Add the Cooler

Take the all-in-one cooler and one of the 12cm fans, as well as four of the mounting screws and four washers. Run the screws through the washers, through the mounting holes at the back of the case, through the fan (making sure it’s oriented to exhaust out of the case), and into the mounting holes on the radiator. Attach the pump unit to the CPU with the socket ring. Turn to tighten, alternating in an X pattern.

Take the other fan, positioned to blow air through the radiator out of the case just like the first, and install it on the side of the radiator. Plug the fans into the included Y cable and into the CPU_FAN header, and plug the pump unit into the SYS_FAN header near the SATA ports.

7. Route the Power

Now is a good time to route some power-supply cables. Bring the 8-pin and 24-pin ATX power cables and one PCIe cable around the front of the PSU to the right side of the case. Route a SATA power cable along the left side to the hard drive bays, connect one port to the hard drive, then terminate it at the SSD, leaving the middle port for a future second drive.

Route the other SATA power cable along the bottom of the case, up the front panel, and into the routing hole just above the optical drive. Pop the top fan filter off and route the cable above the optical drive and plug it in. Route SATA data cables from the blue 6Gb/s SATA ports to the SSD and HDD, and route one from a red 3Gb/s port to the optical drive.

8. More Routing

Disconnect the HD_Audio cable from the side panel and connect the motherboard end to the mobo, as the port will be impossible to access once the GPU is in place. Run the 24-pin motherboard power cable through the front of the PSU casing and into the port on the motherboard. Run the 8-pin through the cutout toward the rear of the casing and plug it in. At this point you can reattach the top hard drive cage if you want; I’ve left it out to improve airflow.

9. Attach Front-Panel Connectors

Plug the USB 3.0 header into its place below the radiator. Connect the front 12cm fan to a 3-pin-to-Molex adaptor and connect that to one of the Molex adapters. Re-attach the other end of the HD_Audio cable to the left side cover and put the cover back on the side, pulling the front-panel headers through toward the GPU slot and plugging them in.

10. Install the GPU

Unscrew the expansion-slot cover plate and the expansion-slot covers, and remove them. Install the GPU, making sure the 8-pin ATX power cable can still reach its plug. Replace the cover plate and secure both it and the GPU with the three thumbscrews. Run the PCIe power cable through the same hole as the ATX power cable and plug both 6-pin plugs into the GPU. Secure the PSU plate to the chassis with its four thumbscrews, double-check your wiring, and close the case back up. Screw the Wi-Fi antennae into their posts on the I/O ports.

Firing it up

The first thing I did with the mini machine was boot into the BIOS and do a simple multiplier overclock on the CPU. I left the stock voltages and bclock the same but cranked up the turbo multipliers on all the cores to 44 for a single core, 43 for two cores, and 42 for more. This gave me a nice, stable conservative overclock of up to 4.4GHz for single-threaded tasks. The MSI GTX 670 is factory-overclocked, so I resisted further overclocking in an attempt to keep the noise from its fans down.

Against our zero-point, the mini-rig loses in every benchmark save ProShow Producer, where its high clock speeds are more important than the zero-point’s 12 threads. But our zero-point has a hexa-core CPU , a dual GPU, and costs a lot more money-and it’s not nearly as portable. For the price, we get a hell of a lot of rig in a small footprint, and we even get carrying handles. Besides, the fast CPU and GPU on this baby mean that it’s still blisteringly good.

The downside of Mini-ITX is that you only get one PCIe slot and two RAM slots, so you’ve got to be judicious with your build. The good news is that this machine still has room for all the essentials and no wasted space, while still being upgradeable. We’d gladly build into the Prodigy again, and we’re pleased we can build a kick-ass (and luggable) rig in such a small package.

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