Gaming PCs Are Getting Smaller, And That's Awesome

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]



    Yeah I have the previous Gen. MSI Z97i board that is basically a Haswell version of this. I still firmly believe it was the best motherboard you could buy for less than $250. A build quality you don't get in most manufacturers plus great features with beautiful design, absolutely love it.

    My previous build:
    CM Elite 110 case
    Asus Z97 m-ITX board with unlocked i5
    MSi GTX760 ITX video card
    8GB of DDR3 RAM
    CM Seidon 120 liquid AIO cooler (set to push air through the front of the case)
    Corsair semi-modular PSU, set to suck air from the motherboard (so can stash cables above the PSU, didn't have the cash for a full modular PSU)
    120GB SSD + 1TB WD Black hard drive (mounted above the PSU, can't mount SSD on the side as it impedes airflow to GPU)

    Have to run MSi Afterburner with just the fans turned up (the GTX760 ITX caps/throttles itself at 80┬░C, so no overclocking), no space in that little case hahaha. But it churned out Battlefield 4 @ 1080p pretty well (med-high settings from memory).

    Yeah, I want them to use less power and fit in a backpack... the only way walk-around VR will really become a thing.

    The only problem with the R9 Nano as pointed out by I think it was Luke over at LinusTechTips in his review or might have been on The WAN Show last week he & Linus pointed out that the power connector could seriously impede in small cases being at the rear like that and probably would've been better having been placed on the side.

    I kinda wish Nvidia would come back at AMD and bring out an ITX version of the 980 or 980Ti.

      I think next year they will be able to have a Mini ITX flagship when they go HBM.

      I actually prefer it because it looks cleaner, but if the case was really small it could definitely be an issue.

        I totally agree with you. I much prefer the power connector to be in that spot on cards, just so much easier for tidy cable management. But saying that some SFF cases accommodate for cards as big as the Titan X & GTX980/980Ti so for the most part it's a moot point I think.

    This coupled with the new AMD kernel driver in Linux 4.3 will be great for SteamOS machines

    Yes recently built an i7 for a family member in a EVGA Hadron Air case. Very small, very powerful PC, can easily run modern games. Apparently there is a Hadron Hydro.

    Last edited 16/09/15 2:08 pm

    Will be very interested to see how your build goes @campbellsimpson!
    I hadn't thought about the possibilities of a small form factor gaming PC.
    Could be my next PC.

    For itx builds I'm all the the use of a xeon over the i7, saves heaps of cash(cheaper mobo+cpu), doesn't lose any real performance...
    Because you ain't going to get much overclocking potential in a tiny case anyway, sure if you are using a bitfenix prodigy or one of the other oversized ITX cases you will get some good potential... But at that size you may as well have just built an M-ATX set up and have room for an additional GPU down the road.

    And really there is no real need for an overclocked chip unless you are running CF/SLI and/or 120hz+ screens.

    Last edited 16/09/15 5:45 pm

      Xeon tends to have worse performance for cost than the main i7 series though. Xeons are designed for servers, they have ECC support, more cores and a larger L3 cache than the i7 and those detract from the value somewhat. None of those things are really useful in a gaming PC either, where multicore support is still scarce even today.

        Xeons clocked the same as an i7 will perform the exact same as an equivalent locked i7, but for less than the price of an unlocked i5.
        Only difference being ECC support(it is supported, not needed), no igpu and sometimes + or - a few instructions such as FMA3/EM64T/F16C(that are not needed for gaming) there isn't higher core count or larger L3 cache if you are comparing equivalent chips.

        Yes multi core support is still not the norm it is drastically on the rise... and if you don't care for multi core support why buy an i7 over an i5 at all?

        Also if you don't care about multi core support there are also 4 core non hyperthreaded xeons that are also cheaper than their locked i5 counterparts(if previous gen sometimes cheaper than an i3).

        So unless you plan on overclocking or need an internal GPU there is no need to fork out the extra cash.

          I did some comparisons at a few different stores before I replied to you in case it had changed since I last looked at CPUs for a rack server. For equivalent price the i7 usually has a higher clock speed than the Xeon.

          As for instruction sets, Intel64 (absent from many Xeons like the popular E3-1241) does have a pretty decent effect on performance against CPUs running bare x86-64, and it's particularly relevant for gaming where the binaries are still mostly 32-bit.

          Last edited 19/09/15 10:41 pm

    Love small form factor, didn't go quite as far as to get a mini graphics card, but running a silverstone RVZ-01 with a full size GTX970 :). Assembly with a large quiet CPU fan is a bit of a challenge though depending on mobo.

    Couldn't stand the idea of going back to a full tower.

    Last edited 16/09/15 9:11 pm

    I am using the ASUS ROG Maximus VIII Gene in my build next month, unless something comparable comes out from MSI before then. I think mini-ITX is too small for my needs but it is good that powerful systems can be made that small

    When nvidia start shrinking their top end gaming cards I'll be all over the form factor. It's certainly more appealing to have a lighter smaller powerhouse. Unfortunately for now I'm stuck because of SLi and the additional PCI slot for my high gain sound card Asus Xonar STX. Onboard sound just doesn't work with my AKG Q701 headphones..Not that I would use it anyway.

    Last edited 17/09/15 1:08 pm

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