Back in July, we showed you a crazy small form factor gaming rig with enough power to play the latest games in 4K or VR. One problem: it cost upwards of $5000. Origin PC has made its own version called the Chronos, and it's exactly the kind of machine we'd love to hide away in a home theatre cabinet or a slick minimalist desktop gaming setup.
What Is It?
The $2499-plus Origin PC Chronos is a desktop gaming PC, but it's not. Not really. It's small enough that you don't have to stick it on your desktop next to your monitor and keyboard and mouse. It's just 100mm thick -- thinner than a desktop grade graphics card, which is interesting -- but still has powerful components under the hood. If you've got the cash, you can spec this baby up with an overclockable Intel Core i7-6700K and Nvidia's ridiculously powerful Titan X Pascal GPU. It's watercooled, it has more than enough grunt to push 4K resolution titles like Battlefront or Titanfall 2 or Battlefield 1 to their max, but you could hide it away behind your TV if you wanted.
Part of the smart design that Origin has put into the Chronos involves laterally mounting the system's full-size, desktop-grade graphics card onto a PCI-E riser; that means that instead of measuring at least the height and width of a mini-ITX motherboard plus the depth of a graphics card, it's the height and width of motherboard plus GPU. The Chronos' 100mm depth comes mostly from the dimensions of the internal power supply and the thickness, not the height, of the graphics card, There's also a minimum safe distance for the fan-forced watercooling radiator that sits above the system's CPU and motherboard that can't be designed around.
Inside the particular, mid-spec Origin PC Chronos rig that I tested you'll find components familiar if you've built a desktop gaming PC before. The motherboard is an Asus Z170I Pro Gaming, the graphics card is a Gigabyte GTX 1080 Founders Edition, the power supply is a 600-Watt Corsair SF600. Everything is quality, and if you happen to take the side off the Chronos' case you'll appreciate the time and effort that has gone into routing cables and ensuring clean airflow. It just looks nice.
What's It Good At?
The amount of power you're getting in a machine that measures just 350x300x100mm is ridiculous. This is a desktop-grade gaming PC that you could travel with. You could take this to a LAN or down to PAX Aus' bring your own PC day in a backpack. Sure, it's heavy, but so is a hardcore gaming laptop, and the Chronos is a properly cooled system that won't choke under load and that won't throttle its components when the going gets tough after a couple of hours of high-res gaming. You can position the Chronos either upright or flat with the four magnetic feet that are included in the box, too, so it'll hide away behind your 4K TV or in your home theatre cabinet if you need it to.
One of the advantages of buying a rig from a bespoke system builder like Origin PC is that you can go all-out -- within physical and financial reason, at least -- with the components inside the Chronos. The $2499 base configuration is a moderate 1080p gaming machine; Core i5, 8GB of RAM, a single SSD, an AMD Radeon RX 470 GPU. Not a phenomenal amount of power, not a phenomenal amount of heat output: you're not pushing this design to its full potential. Spec up to that overclockable i7-6700K from Intel and a GeForce GTX 1080 or a Titan X Pascal. You can even go for Intel's prosumer X99 chipset and the ridiculous 8- and 10-core CPUs that that unlocks.
For a case that hasn't come out of one of the big PC component design houses like Antec or Fractal Design or NZXT, Origin PC's Chronos is very well built. The front panel, which has two USB 3.0 ports and headphone/microphone jacks, is unobtrusive and simple, and otherwise the rig's light-up power button and Origin PC's Oculus-esque logo are the only standouts on an otherwise simple satin black case. The front panel has a nice geometric effect to it, but otherwise everything is straightforward and squared off with stamped hexagonal holes for cooling where air intake and exhaust are necessary. No over-the-top Alienware frippery, either; just a couple of splashes of red to show that this is a fast machine.
What's It Not Good At?
By virtue of the fact that it's small and contains some powerful components, Origin's Chronos system runs warm. Cooling comes courtesy of a single side-mounted 140mm fan, the factory blower cooler on the GTX 1080 graphics card, and the 80mm fan inside the Corsair SF600 power supply. These are all working in tandem to draw heat away from the three most energy-intensive parts of the system -- CPU, graphics, power -- and do a good job to the point that nothing ever gets hot, but if you push the system to its absolute limit you will hear those fans working hard while you're gaming. But hey -- it's a small system and you can hide it away in your TV cabinet, right?
And, of course, there's the price. You could put yourself together a basic mini-ITX gaming rig with a Core i7 and a GeForce GTX 1080 for around about $2000 and a bit of change, which is a solid saving of around $1000 off what Origin asks for a similarly specced system in the Chronos' extremely customisable configurrator. But Origin has clearly put effort into designing the Chronos' case and internal component setup -- the power supply positioning with its own airflow, the lateral mounting of the graphics card on a PCI-Express riser, the watercooling and 140mm fan over the CPU socket and mini-ITX motherboard components -- and this goes a long way to justify that extra cost. That, and the fact that you get warranty rather than relying on your own PC building experience.
One of the downsides of small form factor computing -- unless it's highly, highly customised like we've seen with MSI's Vortex G65 -- it's not really possible to fit two graphics cards into a mini-ITX sized gaming rig. The 4K-ready PC I wrote about was a one-off custom design with a case that cost $5000 to build; that's out of the realms of we mere mortals. A GTX 1080 is a damn gutsy graphics card -- definitely my card of choice for 1440p or 4K single-GPU gaming -- but it's just a pity that you can't customise the Chronos with SLI 1080s and go completely nuts.
Should You Buy It?
If you're the kind of buyer that's looking for a pre-built gaming rig in the first place, you're probably already aware that that convenience comes with a cost. The price of the Chronos starts at $2499 for a relatively simple small form factor Core i5-6500 and AMD RX 470 or Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060-grade mid-range gaming graphics card built for 1080p use; if you want to ramp it up to the 4K-friendly levels you can easily add another $1500 to that price tag. But you're paying for someone else to do the grunt work and the warranty work for you, and Origin isn't charging through the nose for the Chronos here.
In our tested configuration, the Chronos utterly flies through the tasks we asked of it. As long as you pick a Core i7 processor and a GeForce GTX 1080, you'll handle modern games at 4K at smooth frame rates. 1080p and 1440p are no match for it unles you're ramping graphics quality up to ridiculous levels in very demanding games. You can get a Titan X Pascal for even more outlay, but it's not really a rational upgrade in terms of dollars versus frames; therein lies the one big complaint that we have with all small systems in that the Chronos can't ever be upgraded to dual graphics cards.
Despite all the iterative improvements in Nvidia and AMD's graphics cards and Intel's own sixth-gen Core processor family, there's still a lot of joules of exhaust heat being pushed around inside the Chronos' small case, and that means its internal fans need to do a fair bit of work -- and that means a little bit of noise while you're playing games, more noise than you'd have in a properly ventilated mid- or full-tower ATX case. This is the compromise inherent in small form factor computing. Origin PC has handled it better than just about any off-the-shelf PC enthusiast builder could thanks to the smart placement of the graphics card on a riser, and my recommendation is to just hide the case away from your line of sight and hearing.
Origin PC's Chronos is an excellent piece of engineering. There's no doubting that if you're an enthusiast, you could build an equal or better machine for less money with enough time and effort, but that's not who the Chronos is aimed at. In the same way that we can appreciate a ridiculously overpowered gaming laptop like MSI's GT83VR, the technological achievement of fitting All That Good Stuff into the Chronos' sub-compact computer case, and making a machine that runs consistently and doesn't throttle its internal components during extended periods of high-def gameplay, is impressive.