Why a Mini-ITX?
One reason is that as a student on visa I wanted to be as free as possible rather than having too many belongings. It makes traveling around difficult. A side “benefit” – I did not realize this until I started picking the parts – a small case prevents me from spending money on fancy components, such as high-end video cards, because they would not fit.
Another reason is I have a weird obsession with “smaller”. I like Audi A4 more than the A6, 11-inch MacBook Air more than the 13-inch, Airbus A318 more than the A320. I am never really a big fan of what others consider “best” or “most”. In the computer world, this is embodied by my preference of LGA1156 platform over LGA1366 platform, HD6970 over GTX580, etc.
The build would not be possible if not the industry started to take Mini-ITX as a serious matter. Intel released desktop processors with mobile-level TDP. Asus and Gigabyte began to make fully equipped Mini-ITX motherboards. Zotac was even more aggressive in that market. High-performance low-profile coolers emerged. Faster graphic chips were being put on PCBs that once belonged to low-end cards. And most important, you began to see more and more Mini-ITX cases that targeted mainstream customers.
That being said, it was just the beginning of a trend. Once I decided to go with Mini-ITX, there weren’t many options for the case. PC-Q07 was the most affordable aluminum Lian Li, and one of the most aesthetically pleasing Mini-ITX cases in my opinion. PC-Q07 had an enormous contribution in popularizing both Lian Li and the form factor. Based on my experience from various websites and forums, it is easily the most popular aluminum mini-ITX. On Newegg the PC-Q07 ranks second in all Mini-ITX cases in terms of the total number of reviews. Among all Lian Li’s it ranks the 6th. Among all aluminum Lian Li’s it ranks the 3rd. At $69.99 it has done incredibly well. For the same amount of money you get an Antec Three Hundred Illusion with free shipping, or Lian Li PC-7B plus II, an all-aluminum ATX mid tower.
The computer would be primarily used for not-very-intense gaming, such as the NBA 2K series, so it didn’t have to be super fast. Sometimes I also played Need For Speed, which was probably more demanding than NBA 2K but still quite manageable for a mid-range card. This was something I evaluated at the very beginning. No matter how much I like smaller stuff, if the system can’t deliver the performance I need, then I should not use a small case.
The Intel Core i3-530 was fast enough, though I would certainly go for an i7-875k if not a limited budget. Interestingly this actually helped me when I had 18 credit hours one semester and wanted to take out the discrete video card to stop myself from gaming. With Clarkdale this left me a computer with integrated graphics — still a complete, working machine and a nice addition to my laptop. If I had gone with Lynnfield I would not be as lucky. Today you don’t need to worry about this since most consumer processors in the Intel lineup have integrated graphics.
Choosing the right video card was hard. This is the beauty of small cases because their size makes the build challenging. I had to find a single slot video card less than 18cm in length, and ideally the cooler must occupy only one slot, too. The card must deliver decent performance, at least fast enough for me to play NBA 2K under high settings. Lian Li listed 18cm as the maximum video card allowance, although based on my own measurement this is a little bit conservative. The actual maximum value also depends on how you measure the length of the video card, whether the card required external power supply, and if so, which way the power connector faces. But I believe 18cm is safest bet that will certainly work out under all conditions.
The Powercolor HD5750 I picked was 182mm long, and fit perfectly in the PC-Q07. 190mm was probably the absolute longest you could put in this case if the card had rear facing power connectors. Add another 15mm if not. Due to the size of the board and the overall dimension, this version of HD5750 was among the cheaper tier of HD5750s: reference clock speeds, aluminum heatsink, mediocre voltage regulator circuit. My other option, a XFX HD5770, was much more desirable except the price. It seemed to have better build quality; and it was entirely single-slot while the HD5750 had a double-slot cooler which ate up the space for a 3.5’’ hard drive. In my initial setup this wasn’t a problem because I used the 2.5’’ Hitachi drive from XPS 1340.
As for CPU heat sink I started with Intel stock cooler and later I switched to a Prolimatech Samuel 17, probably the most popular in this category due to its excellent compatibility. On many mini-ITX motherboards including my Gigabyte H55N-USB3, the CPU socket is positioned so close to the PCIe and memory slots that any performance heatsink would block those slots unless properly designed. The Prolimatech Samuel 17, however, is actually in a league of its own. It features 6 heat pipes in a 45mm profile. You can find decent low-profile coolers very easily, like the Scythe Big Shuriken, but they aren’t optimized for Mini-ITX. Others like Thermaltake Slim X3 and Silverstone NT07 are ideal in terms of dimensions, but only offer performance comparable to the stock cooler.
In the PC-Q07, the power supply is placed in parallel to the motherboard, which helps a lot in making the whole case compact but in the meantime leaves only 70mm for the CPU cooler. This unique structure makes the case very, very playable. Lian Li makes quite a lot of ventilating holes on the side panel, and the only component that can efficiently utilize them is the power supply unit. So, intuitively I assumed the PSU fan should face the side so that it can take air from the side and output to the back, completing the cycle fully independently. The Prolimatech Samuel 17 can be paired with either a 12025 or a 12012 fan, the difference being the thickness. Prolimatech kindly provided screws for both. However, if a 12025 is used, there will be only 0.4cm of clearance left above the fan (http://www.expreview.com/10226-3.html), and air intake is greatly inhibited. Thus if you are going to use a fan in this setup, you have to get a 12012, and this is what I did. But 12012 fans are rarer, and very few support PWM control. This is one of the reasons that later I added a 5.25’’ panel.
However, as it turned out, this is not best configuration. Maybe it’s best for the PSU, but the CPU will suffer quite a bit as there is no way to take the hot air out of the case. The better solution is to turn the PSU around and let the fan face the motherboard/CPU. In this way, the hot air dissipated by the CPU heatsink is soon absorbed by the PSU fan and outputs to the back. In my own testing, the new configuration brings more than 10 C drop in CPU temperature under load. I was able to run fanless without a hitch. The Samuel 17 does a great job and keeps the i3-530 under 60 C most of the time, while the CPU can easily go above 100 C under load in the old setup. For the complete story about these tests, see my other post.