Build Small or Don’t Build

Yes, it's really that small.

Yes, it’s really that small.

I’d like to touch on something I ranted about a bit in the April 19 Improbable Insights podcast. The full-tower case is a dinosaur.

Look, I know some of you out there love your triple-GPU, overclocked, liquid-cooled monster PCs. I love htat you love building and using these lumbering beasts, and more power to you. However, most people don’t game on triple-4K displays, and the headaches of managing SLI and CrossFire to get a good gaming experience gives me heartburn thinking about it. I know, because I’ve run SLI rigs, only to be disappointed with lackluster game support, awful image artifacts, and all that heat. I suppose it’s a good thing that DX12 offers improved support for multiple GPUs, but game publishers still see multi-GPU setups as fringe cases. (Haha, see what I did there?)

Unless you’re dead set on running three GPUs, you don’t need a full-size ATX motherboard. Most higher-end micro-ATX boards implement SLI and CrossFireX support, so you can run your twin graphics cards if you so desire. Micro-ATX mobos typically have four expansion slots; with the right slot setup, you could have your dual GPUs plus another card, be it a PCIe SSD or sound card. You can find a rich selection of micro-ATX motherboards offering serious overclocking support, amenities for liquid cooling, and other high-end features. Only a few years ago, only a few paltry micro ATX boards existed, mainly serving price-conscious buyers. Not so today.

Mini-ITX motherboards allow you to build even smaller systems, as I did with my itty-bitty gaming rig. As with micro-ATX boards, the selection of mini-ITX boards expanded substantially over the past few years, and even include boards aimed at high end gaming — though you’re still limited to one graphics card.

I jumped on the small system bandwagon after moving some big towers systems around the office and straining my back in the process. That injury cost me a week off my bicycle, and I’m not gonna let that happen again.  In truth, most of my LAN party rigs are mid-towers or smaller, but I still have one or two full towers. Well, I had one or two full towers. Those are gone now.

Valid needs exist for full-tower systems that aren’t overclocked, water-breathing monsters. Professional graphics systems which may require multiple CPUs, room for big RAID arrays,  and lots of expansion cards for handling video would be one example. (Even those now tend to offload RAID subsystems to exernal boxes these days, however). But those are pretty rare, and most of us don’t need those.

I see that thoughtful expression on your face, and I hear you ask, “But what do you use.”


This is my last time! Honest!

Okay, I’m a miserable hypocrite, but only for this last system, damnit.

Right now, I’m running a full-size ATX board in a mid-tower case. I only have one graphics card and a Creative Labs ZXR sound card, so I don’t need a full-size board. I became hooked on Corsair’s Obsidian 550D quiet case several years ago, and can barely hear my PC when it’s running.

I’m building a gaming rig for my daughter to cart off to graduate school, and it’s going to be built using a Gigabyte Z170MX Gaming 5 micro-ATX motherboard into a micro-ATX chassis. She’ll be able to more easily move it around, and placement in small apartments should be easier, too.

I’m also categorically stating that my next production system will be smaller. I may need to give up on Corsair cases, because they don’t seem to build a micro-ATX quiet case — though the Carbide 400Q is a mid-tower that’s several inches shorter. Fractal Design makes several quiet micro-ATX cases, and I’ll take a hard look at those for my next production system. I still need more than one slot, though, so a mini-ITX system is out.

Build small or don’t build. That’s my new motto. It should be yours, too.



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  1. After more reading, I’m undecided, per usual…

    I like this combo: Asus Mini-ITX Z170I Pro Gaming MB/i7-6700k/use current 980Ti/new mem/smaller PS/with Fractal or Phanteks case.

    BUT, buddy suggesting I wait end/2016-early ’17 for the Kaby Lake i7-7700k & 200 series chipset… but I’m wondering will that fit the smaller Mini-ITX form factor?

    Have to admit, my current rig running Battlefield 4 at very good framerates on high settings…. HMM………………………….

    Whatever I do, get new rig now or wait for newer stuff, I’m really leaning to getting the Acer Predator 27″ XB271HU monitor….. SOON…. I’m such a weak, consumer/lemming….

    1. One thing that might mitigate your decision is that Kaby Lake will be compatible with LGA1151. So you could always upgrade the CPU if you felt a burning need. Then again, the 200 series chipset sure does look interesting, doesn’t it?

      Heck, if you’re going to delay your upgrade and want to go all-in on displays, get the 34-inch, 3440×1440 Predator display instead. 😉

      1. Prob be getting the Asus 27″ (PG279Q) monitor, Asus Z170I Pro Gaming MB, Corsair 16GB LPX Mem, i7-6700k, Corsair H75 or H100i AOI cooler, Phanteks Evolv case (small, but more room than the Fractal 500), external dvd/rw drive, my existing Samsung 850 EVO 1TB, existing EVGA 980Ti (well… might get the 1080… ), another HD, the 2TB Spinpoint or the Toshiba 3TB/7200rpm-backup, EVGA TerraNova 650GS PS,…

        What do you think? I will oc the cpu… nothing radical…

        1. It all sounds good to me. I’d go with a 1080 or maybe wait a couple of weeks for a 1070. The 1080 is a pretty bug jump in performance.

    2. Thinking this is the Mini-ITX rig I want to build….> Asus Z170I Pro Gaming / i7-6700k / Arctic Liquid Freezer 120 AIO cpu cooler / my current EVGA 980Ti( ‘4995-KR’ model) / Corsair 2x8GB LPX3200 Mem / EVGA SuperNova GS650 PS / in either the Fractal Core 500 or Phanteks Evolv case.

      Thinking the smaller 1200mm AIO easier to install in either of these 2 small cases……

      Your impressions/suggestions appreciated… Thx, bud.

      1. Oh, and why do you need (your article quote)… ” I still need more than one slot, though, so a mini-ITX system is out.” for your build?

        1. I still use a sound card (Creative Labs Sound Blaster ZXR), so need at least on extra slot in addition to graphics.

      2. I’ve not worked with either of those cases, but I personally like the looks of the Evolv better. I’ve tended to use Corsair liquid coolers, but all of these sealed coolers are based on designs from either CoolIt or Asetek, so are quite similar.

    3. Going w/ Asus Z170I Pro Gaming MB, Fractal Core 500 case, Corsair H75 AIO, i7-6700k, Corsair LPX 2x8GB, EVGA 650GS PS, Samsung 1TB SSD….. Soon, I hope … Got the rare IRS refund, the Boss and I split it… SWEET…

  2. Which micro-ATX MB, as of now, has the best gaming performance, WiFi, and enough slots to run my EVGA 980Ti vid card and an add-in, discreet sound card (like a Xonar Essence ST or the ZXR)?


    1. I’m currently building a micro-ATX system for my daughter, using the Gigabyte GA-Z170mx-Gaming 5. It even has four memory sockets.

      Other boards that would work include the Asus Maximum VII GENE and the Asrock Z170M Extreme4.

    • Mauro on April 22, 2016 at 12:34 am
    • Reply

    I have the 400Q! I built my X99 build in it and it’s super quiet while smaller than average cases.

    I caught the mini ITX bug a few years ago with the Zotac H67 for an HTPC and then the ASUS Impact Z87 for my gaming PC. I LOVE my Silverstone SG08 and was so disappointed when ASUS chose U.2 over M.2 for their Z170 Impact spec this year. The Impact Z87 and Z97 were identical in wiring so I assumed the Z170 would be, too, and it is(!), but the lack of m.2 makes it useless.

    I’m also getting tired of large builds and will soon move my setup from my X99-A to my SG08 with an ASRock X99 mini ITX mobo.

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