It's Real: High-Performance Gaming PC in Micro-ATX!

We usually assemble high-performance computer systems in tower cases with pretty significant internal volume. However, not all traditions are worth honoring forever. Today we decided to break the common stereotypes and show that a pretty high-performance system with a Core i7 CPU may be put together in a compact micro-ATX form-factor.

by Oleg Artamonov
05/13/2009 | 11:56 AM

We have just recently studied and tested DFI LanParty JR X58-T3H6 mainboard in one of our previous reviews. The unique distinguishing feature of this solution is its form-factor: this DFI product became the microATX mainboard for LGA1366 processors that we received in our lab.

 

Therefore, it would be wrong to consider it only out of context: microATX mainboards are purchased for a specific purpose – namely, for compact computer systems. Therefore, it very important to find out how fit the board is for this particular application. It may even matter more than overclocking potential.

Why did we have our doubts about DFI LanParty JR X58-T3H6 being able to serve well as a basis for a small PC system? It is no secret that LGA1366 processors are not the most energy-efficient solutions, to put it mildly, which means that they require a good cooling solution. However, when you assemble a compact computer system inside a small case, it is really hard to fit a large CPU cooler into it as well as arrange proper airflow and ventilation inside it because of very small internal space.

So, we decided to check out ourselves if this extremely interesting mainboard could serve us well as a basis for a compact system and how small this system can actually be.

Theory and Practice: Building a Compact PC

As we know, the difference between theory and practice is in reality much greater than you may think it is. Therefore, even though DFI LanParty JR X58-T3H6 made a very good impression on us, there is one more question to be answered: does it really make sense to try assembling a Core i7 based platform in a compact microATX system case?

The simplest answer would be: yes, you can do it, if you take a big microATX case. For example, Antec Mini P180, which is extremely popular among those users who value quiet operation. Even though it is designed only for microATX mainboards, it is of almost the same size as small full-size system cases. There will barely be any problems with system assembly in it: you can install almost any power supply unit, consider quite a few CPU super-coolers as possible options, shouldn’t have any problems with graphics cards installation (solutions longer than 245mm can be installed at the expense of one HDD chassis), and a 200-mm fan will make sure the system remains cool enough.

However, we were much more curious to check out less trivial configurations. We didn’t dare exploit one of the smallest microATX cases, Antec NSK1380, this time. There is very limited internal space and the CPU cooler cannot be taller than 65mm. Therefore, you won’t be able to assemble a quiet Core i7 based system in it. Besides, the 350W PSU won’t be enough for a powerful graphics accelerator anyway.

Our choice lay between Aerocool M40 and Thermaltake LanBox Lite (these are not the only “cubic” cases out there, but we only had them at our disposal at the time of tests). Although they look very similar, they are still pretty different: the M40 can only accommodate a 140mm PSU, while LanBox is a little longer, so it allows using a little larger power supply units. On the other hand, LanBox has only two 60-mm fans on the back panel cooling its internal space, while M40 is equipped with a single 120-mm fan on the front panel and has three additional spots for 80-mm fans on the back. The latter actually determined our choice for today: Aerocool M40.

The system we used for our experiments was configured as follows:

As you see, we decided to play big and installed the most powerful graphics card we could find at the time in retail – GeForce GTX 295.

The only difficult choice to make was about the CPU cooler. We gave up the boxed cooler that came bundled with our Intel CPU almost immediately – after the first 15 minutes of tests: it wasn’t efficient enough in quiet mode, and was too noisy in performance mode. After that we tried Scythe Shuriken Rev. B – a new version of the popular low-profile cooling solution that is bundled with LGA1366 retention brackets. Unfortunately, Shuriken also failed: the cooler equipped with its default fan couldn’t cool our CPU loaded heavily in Prime95, so the processor would overheat and enable thermal throttling. We replaced the fan with Scythe DFM952512M-PWM and eliminated critical overheating; however, the CPU packaging still registered 68-70°C temperature, which is more than the acceptable maximum of 67.9°C (according to Intel specifications). Finally we decided to go with an inexpensive, quiet, relatively compact and very efficient Cooler Master GeminII S cooler. It ensured that CPU temperature stayed around 60°C under any workload.

We installed two additional 80x80x20mm fans on the case rear panel. All case fans were connected to the mainboard, the automatic fan rotation speed adjustment was enabled in the BIOS and all settings were at their defaults (fans started at 30°C and reached their maximum rotation speed at 60°C).

 

We completed the system assembly quickly and without any problems. The graphics card fit in on first attempt. Aerocool engineers provided a very convenient opening in the horizontal panel separating the case internally right where the additional power supply connectors for the graphics card are located. Note that if the graphics card cooling system is taller than the reference standard, it will not fit into this case.

The interesting thing is that M40 can even accommodate two GeForce GTX 295 graphics cards, although you will have to remove the upper HDD chassis in this case. One HDD may be installed in the lower part of the case instead of the floppy drive or card-reader. If you are trying to put together an SLI/CrossFire configuration of graphics cards with power supply connectors laid out horizontally, then you won’t need to sacrifice anything at all.

Enermax Liberty ECO power supply unit was a perfect fit for this project. Despite removable cables, it is 140mm long and hence fits perfectly into Aerocool M40 case. Besides, other 140-mm PSUs will also suit this system case quite well, such as: Corsair CX400, Ikonik Gaia, Enermax MODU82+ and PRO82+, etc. Of course, you should pick a PSU with the capacity corresponding to your system’s appetites.

By the way, if you remove the upper HDD chassis, you will be able to install and even bigger PSU. In this case there will be only one slot available for a hard drive, and none for a 3.5” card-reader or floppy drive. In our case the only hard disk drive was installed in the upper chassis.

Despite pretty densely packed case, power cables were arranged easily inside it: the mainboard power cable went beneath the DVD drive, and video and HDD power cables ran between the DVD drive and the HDD chassis.

 

The gear thing about M40 case is that it opens in two separate halves. This way you get easy access to the mainboard and everything on it. As a result, installing our mainboard and doing the cable management took us about the same time it would with a full-size case.

Additional 80-mm fans were attached to the default retention frames “on the ground floor” of the system case, next to the CPU. The 120-mm fan remained in its original spot on the case front panel.

Testing Environment and Results

When we assembled the system, we installed Microsoft Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 on it with all necessary drivers. Further testing was performed in a closed system case with all system components running at their nominal frequencies with automatic fan rotation speed adjustment enabled in the mainboard BIOS for all system fans.

The ambient temperature stayed at 24°C throughout the entire test session. All system component temperatures were read with SpeedFan utility. For your convenience, the results charts show only the temperatures for the first graphics card GPU, first CPU core and CPU packaging.

We used Ondico Shanghai PM-300 wattmeter to register the system power consumption and make sure that we selected an appropriate power supply unit for our system.

Idle Mode

In idle mode our system wasn’t totally silent, but it was quiet enough: it only produced quiet hissing sound mostly generated by the graphics card cooler joined by the case fans. I think we may have spent a little more time on finding the best 80-mm fans, but it is a secondary matter. First of all we wanted to see, if the relatively low-power fans we picked would be enough to cool down our system.

The total system power consumption was about 150W, the CPU temperature didn’t exceed 50°C, the graphics card temperature - 60°C.

FurMark

The heaviest possible workload created by FurMark test heated our graphics card almost to 100°C, which is, however, quite acceptable for a powerful graphics solution like ours, especially keeping in mind that FurMark is a synthetic benchmark that created much heavier workload than any of the contemporary gaming titles. The CPU heated up not as dramatically, because FurMark doesn’t load it too much.

The maximum registered power consumption of our entire system was 453W. In other words, f we take into consideration the efficiency factor of about 90%, the power supply unit was loaded as 45 x 0.9 = 407.7W.the level of generated noise increased dramatically and of course, the graphics card made the biggest contribution here. However, those of you who have tried running FurMark at least once shouldn’t be surprised about it: this benchmark can speed up pretty much any graphics card fan to its maximum. Nevertheless, the acoustic range was comfortable enough, with air hissing being the prevailing sound.

Prime95

Another test, Prime95, doesn’t touch the graphics card, but loads the CPU to its maximum. We ran it in “In-place large FFTs” mode with eight computational threads.

As you see, the CPU temperature stays within acceptable range: the CPU package heated up to 58°C during the first 15 minutes (this time interval is shown on the chart), then its temperature increased by another 2°C and stalled at 60°C over the next 30 minutes. The hottest CPU core registered 75°C.

Unlike a more compact Antec  NSK1380, Aerocool M40 case allows using coolers up to 110mm tall. It means that Cooler Master GeminII S is not the only possible choice here. You can also use Thermalright AXP-140 and even Cooler Master GeminII that doesn’t look little at all.

Nevertheless, even with GeminII S the noise generated by this system under heavy load increased acceptably. We couldn’t call the system too noisy, although the air hissing became more noticeable. The CPU cooler and 80-mm case fans contributed almost equally in this case.

The maximum power consumption read 280W.

3DMark 2006 Canyon Flight

Earlier we launched resource-hungry synthetic applications that were not so typical for most users out there. Now we are going to see how our system performs in 3DMark 2006 “Canyon Flight” gaming test.

Well, this is a pretty good result: the CPU heated up about the same as in FurMark and the graphics card temperature didn’t even reach 90°C. The system didn’t suffer from any overheating issues, and even though the noise was higher than in idle mode in terms of volume as well as spectrally, it shouldn’t be too annoying, since no one really plays games in absolute silence.

The maximum system power consumption in 3DMark 2006 was 356W.

The conclusion is evident: yes, we can use DFI LanParty JR X58-T3H6 as a basis for a very compact and very powerful system, which we did in our Aerocool M40 case. Without any special effort we managed to achieve relatively comfortable acoustic level and absolute operational stability. Although assembling a system like that sets certain requirements to the CPU cooler, graphics card and power supply unit, we could easily meet them.

In conclusion we would like to show you what our new compact system looks like side by side with a traditional tower case represented by XClio Blackhawk. And this is not the largest ATX case out there…

Conclusion

Well, summing up everything we know about assembling a compact system on the DFI LanParty JR X58-T3H6 mainboard (otherwise, what else do we need microATX form-factor for?) we can conclude the following: