PC motherboards are getting more and more powerful and supporting faster CPUs and RAM, gaming-grade graphics cards are getting smaller and more energy efficient, next-gen storage is getting smaller and faster. If you like building gaming PCs, and you like putting them in the middle of your living room and playing games on your big-screen TV, you are witnessing the start of a golden age.
This is MSI's Z170I Gaming Pro AC — a motherboard that will entirely happily house a top-of-the-line Intel Skylake Core i7, 16GB of super-fast DDR4 RAM at up to 3200MHz, and a ridiculously fast graphics card. It'll be out in Australia soon, and I'm sorely tempted to buy one as the basis for what would be the smallest hardcore gaming PC I've ever built.
And these days, you can get a graphics card that's no bigger than this mini-ITX standard, but that still packs enough power to run modern games like Star Wars: Battlefront or Need for Speed at 1080p or 1440p resolutions. Tack on a sufficiently fast and energy-efficient power supply, et voila — you're ready to go. (All you gotta do is find a half-decent CPU cooler and an exhaust fan or two.)
Add a solid-state drive to this little 17x17cm board and you have a full PC. Seriously, that's everything you need. You don't even need a SATA SSD, though, because high-end mITX motherboards — like the Z170I Gaming Pro AC and Asus' upcoming Z170 mini-ITX ROG board — are adopting the M.2 storage standard like their full-ATX cousins. On the MSI board, the M.2 slot is even hidden away on the rear of the silicon, so you don't even see it.
M.2 does away with the SATA data and power connectors (two less cables to worry about routing around a miniature case) and brings your super-fast flash storage in a single stick-of-gum-sized piece of silicon; a M.2 drive like Samsung's SM951 is capable of 2150MBps read and 1500MBps write speeds, way faster than even the fastest SATA solid-state drive out there.
On the topic of graphics cards; they're getting smaller, too, and they're getting more energy efficient. AMD's new, miniature, excellent Radeon R9 Nano is the best proof of this. But even the flagship Radeon R9 Fury X is only 7.5 inches long. The R9 is small enough to run alongside a mini-ITX 'board's edge without extending beyond, keeping potential case sizes down.
Even bigger cards are getting better at using the power they have. Nvidia's flagship GeForce GTX 980 Ti consumes 250 Watts of power at full speed ahead, a significant improvement from the 300-odd Watts of the previous generation. The miniscule R9 Nano is paced well by Nvidia's GTX 970 Mini. And these are all cards that'll handle 1080p and 1440p gaming; they'll even breeze through 4K (though not Crysis 3).
Sure, these small but powerful components don't run cheap. Tack on a $100 80-Plus Gold or Platinum power supply to the list of things to buy (c'mon, you gotta power the thing), and the list of fast Core i7 ($500), 16GB DDR4 ($200), Radeon R9 Nano ($1000, ugh) and 256GB M.2 SSD ($200) reaches around about $2000. That's a lot of money for the privilege of having a really, really small computer that can run the latest games while hidden in your entertainment unit.
Sure, you could probably cut that down by half (i5, 8GB of DDR4, GTX 970 Mini, and a 128GB SSD) but who likes to do these things by halves? I think I'll make it a project for the rest of this year to build the smallest possible gaming PC that I can. Stay tuned, and I'll let you know how I go. [MSI / ASUS / Intel / RamCity]