Charming Compactness: Mini-ITX Cases Roundup

Today we are going to talk about five mini-ITX system cases from Cooler Master, Foxconn, InWin, Silverstone and SuperPower. How easy is it to put together a simple computer system inside them? And what about something more powerful? Will the enclosed power supplies be powerful enough for that challenge?

by Oleg Artamonov , Aleksey Meyev
01/14/2010 | 03:45 PM

Compact system cases tend to be undeservedly ignored. Most reviews are dedicated to full-size PC enclosures whereas compact ones are left beyond the scope. Consequently, many users do not even think of them as of an option when they go shopping for a new computer case. It is only when talking about an Internet-enabled digital typewriter or a home-made NAS that people ever really recall them. So, today we want to break those stereotypes by showing that a compact PC can be something more than a simple typewriter or a home theater box. In fact, it can accommodate an advanced enough gaming configuration. One factor contributing to this is that modern mainboards come with such a vast selection of integrated devices that many users will only have to add a graphics card to satisfy all their needs. So, if you are not planning to fill your computer up with lots of hard disks and add-on cards, a compact system case can make an interesting option as we have already shown in our earlier reviews of the GMC AVC-S7, GMC R4 Bulldozer, Antec NSK1380 and Aerocool M40.

 

Yet in this review we want to be as minimalistic as we can and talk about system cases designed for mini-ITX rather than micro-ATX mainboards. This form-factor is considerably different. A mini-ITX mainboard is a square with a side of only 170 millimeters as opposed to a micro-ATX mainboard’s 244 millimeters. The assortment of mini-ITX products used to be limited to VIA’s mainboards with integrated processor (VIA C3 and C7) but now it has become much broader. You can buy a mini-ITX mainboard with an integrated Intel Atom or AMD Geode processor or with a socket for installing nearly any modern CPU (Socket 775 or AM2/AM3). Some of them are only compatible with CPUs that have a power consumption of up to 65W, i.e. dual-core or power-efficient quad-core models, but others support CPUs consuming up to 90W. Thus, you should have no problems even with rather advanced quad-core CPUs. Considering that some of these mainboards come with a PCI Express x16 slot for a graphics card, you can assemble a decent gaming computer in them. The resulting performance should be more than satisfactory if you are not into gaming: today’s chipset-integrated graphics cores cope well with hardware decoding of HD video which is another typical load besides 3D games.

In this review we will discuss five mini-ITX system cases, from just small (those that allow installing a serious dual-slot gaming card) to absolutely tiny (for a low-profile graphics card or even not providing any room for a discrete graphics card at all).


Click to enlarge

Such system cases are bundled with special power supplies (it is hard to find a compact power supply selling apart from a system case just because such power supplies come in various shapes and sizes as opposed to the standardized ATX power supply), so we will also wind up the description of each by testing its power supply.

Testbed Configurations and Methodology

The assembled system case is tested at a constant ambient temperature of 23°C maintained by an air conditioner. As we assume that most users prefer low-noise computers, we set the speed of all fans into the quietest mode available in the mainboard’s BIOS. The following components are installed into each system case:

You may have noticed that our selection of components has changed somewhat since our previous reviews. We changed the mainboard due to the nature of the tested products and we also changed the CPU to check out if the compact system cases would cope with the cold (thanks to 54nm tech process) yet powerful quad-core processor clocked at 2.5GHz. This CPU model has become quite affordable, by the way. Installing a faster CPU wouldn’t have made much sense whereas dual-core models did not appeal to us.

It is simple with the graphics cards: our traditional HIS IceQ3 Radeon HD 3870 fitted into the Silverstone Sugo while the single slot of the SuperPower Mustiff MX31 was occupied by the reference Radeon HD 4850. The rest of the system cases worked with the graphics core integrated into the mainboard’s chipset.

We used several coolers as we wanted to ensure the best cooling possible for the CPU and also check out different options. Here are the resulting combinations:

Every system case was tested with its bundled power supply except for the SuperPower Mustiff MX31 which worked with an Enermax MODU82+ EMD625AWT (625W).

The temperatures of the CPU (of the hottest of its cores) and integrated graphics core were read with SpeedFan. The temperature of the HDDs was measured with HDD Thermometer. The graphics card’s temperature was reported by its driver’s control panel. The fan speeds were measured with an optical tachometer Velleman DTO2234.

There were the following test modes:

Every temperature was read after the system had worked for half an hour in the specific test mode. The noise level was evaluated subjectively.

Power Consumption

Before we proceed to our tests, we’d like to discuss the power consumption issue. You can hear all manner of opinions about how much watts a particular PC configuration needs and most of those opinions are going to be obviously exaggerated. Many people doubt that 120- and 160-watt power supplies typical of such compact systems can handle a computer with anything more than an entry-level CPU. And when a graphics card like ours is added, a 500W power supply is considered necessary because the basic 250-300 watts won’t be enough. Well, let’s just check this out. That’s not difficult. We just took our test configuration (with one hard disk) and connected it to our tool we described thoroughly in our special article on the power consumption of modern computers called PC Power Consumption: How Many Watts Do We Need?.

First, let’s see how much power a system without a discrete graphics card needs in idle mode and under high load. The high load is provided by Prime95 running in In-Place Large FFTs mode. We do not additionally load the mainboard’s integrated core as its power consumption is very low.

The numbers in the last column are most expressive, we guess. The system needs no more than 42 watts when idle, its average power draw being a mere 30 watts.

When the CPU is heavily loaded, the system begins to consume more from the +12V rail: the peak power draw is almost as high as 6A, the average increasing from 1.8A to 4.5A. What about the system’s total power consumption? The average is about 64 watts and the peak value is 80 watts. The numbers are higher than in the idle mode but even notebooks’ power adapters can provide that much power. The power supplies of our system cases are going to cope easily with that load.

And now let’s add a graphics card. A Radeon HD 3870 comes first.

We are interested in the peaks of power consumption although you should keep it in mind that the average is going to be lower.

The overall consumption of the system under the hardest load possible (FurMark fully loads the graphics card and Prime95 does the same for the CPU) is just a little higher than 160 watts. Compare this to the previous results and you can see what a difference the discrete graphics card makes. Yet we can also see that even a 300W power supply is going to cope with this load. The peak power draw is 10W lower under 3DMark 2006 which is closer to real-life games than the synthetic FurMark.

Next, let’s replace the card with a newer and faster Radeon HD 4850. Is it going to be hungrier as well?

The new card is far more voracious indeed. It adds 25W to the system’s overall consumption in both test modes. Anyway, the total power draw of the system is never higher than 200W, which means that a 300W power supply would ensure a large margin of safety.

So, do the bundled power supplies suffice? Yes. They are all right unless you are going to overclock your CPU or graphics card (in which case the computer’s power draw may easily double). The power supply just has to comply with its specs. And we will check this compliance out in this review, too.

We will also mark the peak power consumption of the configuration assembled in each system case in the cross-load diagrams.

Cooler Master Elite 100 RC-100-KKP1-GP

We will start off with a system case from Cooler Master. This company’s large cases have earned users’ recognition through a lucky combination of price and consumer properties. Now, let’s see how Cooler Master is doing in the sector of compact products.

Perhaps it is hard to see in the photo how small this system case is but it is a mere 262 millimeters wide, i.e. just some 15 millimeters wider than a microATX board. And its height is a mere 7 centimeters. The exterior design is nice. This computer is going to look appropriate both on an office desk and at home.

Easy to guess, the Elite 100 is designed to lie flat as is indicated by the vent holes in its side and top panels. There is no stand in the kit for positioning it upright, either, although it would be handy to place this compact system case upright. A simple plastic stand wouldn’t make this product much more expensive.

All the I/O connectors are grouped at the side of the front panel to the left of the Power button located in the center. There is no Reset button here. The connectors are two audio ports and two USB ports. Judging by the blank square nearby, this system case may also come with four USB ports.

The back panel is ready to impress with its minimalism. There is no room on it for anything other than an I/O shield and power supply. You won’t be able to install an expansion card even if your mainboard has an expansion slot.

The feet of this system case may provoke a laugh as they look like a piece of ribbon with four rubber cylinders. It’s pure do-it-yourself. Their places are not even marked on the case. On the other hand, such feet are better than those punched out of the metal of the case or made from stiff plastic.

After full-size enclosures, it seems that you can install nothing into the Cooler Master Elite 100, so small it is. Most of the interior is for a mainboard next to which there is a power supply. A flat plate for installing disk drives goes along the front panel. The metal is not thick. Most of the elements are 0.7mm steel and the drives mounting plate is 0.5mm steel, but the case is rigid thanks to its small dimensions. The top panel is the only one to undulate just a little.

The small height of the case imposes tough restrictions on optical and hard disk drives you can use in it. Particularly, it only supports slim optical drives like the ones you find in notebooks.

Our kit (KKP2) did not contain a power adapter for a slim SATA optical drive (they use a shortened power plug) which is only included with the KKP1 version of the system case (and the KKP3 version also comes with a VESA mount to hang the case on the back of your monitor). So, you should be ready to purchase that adapter separately. It is a cheap but rather rare item.

Let’s get back to the drives, though. The abundantly perforated mounting plate offers broad installation opportunities. You can install one 3.5-inch drive and two 2.5-inch ones (there are two SSDs from Intel in the photos installed for the sake of illustration). The large drive can be replaced with a 2.5-inch one, too. The only small problem is the order of installation. It looks like you should first attach the bottom small drive, then the top one, then the second bottom drive (a 3.5-inch or a 2.5-inch one), and finally the optical drive. If you follow any other order, some mounting holes are going to be blocked.

Three disk drives, even of 2.5-inch form-factor, is quite a lot for such a small enclosure!

The component layout is indeed amazing as the tiny Elite 100 can accommodate not only a mini-ITX but even a micro-ATX mainboard! You can see this as soon as you remove the power supply (one of the mainboard’s mounting screws is right below the latter). A large part of a micro-ATX mainboard, where expansion slots are usually located, just hides beneath the power supply. This is especially valuable as mini-ITX mainboards are scanty and more expensive than their micro-ATX counterparts. Of course, there are a lot of various micro-ATX cases but the Elite 100 is smaller. Indeed, it is hard to suspect when you are looking at this tiny thing that it can accommodate something as large as a micro-ATX mainboard.

This opportunity is provided by means of an elegant trick. The power supply is fastened to the bottom panel of the case by means of composite poles.

You take the power supply off together with the top, longer, part of the poles with nuts. Then you place your mainboard down on the bottom parts of the poles, fasten it with the top part of the poles (without the nut as the mainboard’s PCB will serve instead it), and you have your micro-ATX mainboard installed into this very compact system enclosure! Cooler Master’s engineers should be praised for coming up with such an effective and ingenious component layout.

Unfortunately, some mainboards may prove incompatible with the Elite 100 as the photo above suggests. The mainboard’s memory slots are too close to the mounting hole and will be right beneath the power supply in this system case. As the result, you won’t be able to lock the memory modules in the slots. On the other hand, it is quite easy to select an appropriate mainboard. You just have to visually check out the position of memory slots and other elements that might prevent you from installing the power supply in the Elite 100.

Another downside of your installing a micro-ATX mainboard is that you won’t be able to use a 3.5-inch hard disk. Micro-ATX mainboards are not only wider but also longer than mini-ITX ones, so the hard disk will hang above the mainboard where the latter’s 24-pin power connector is usually found. There just won’t be enough room for the power cord. You’ll have to put up with 2.5-inch drives then. 

As our test session is dedicated to mini-ITX systems, we fitted a mini-ITX mainboard and a 3.5-inch hard disk into this system case (but an author of this review eventually assembled a PC in a Cooler Master Elite 100 using a micro-ATX mainboard Gigabyte GA-73PVM-S2H and was perfectly happy with the result).

The seven centimeters of height present a serious problem when it comes to choosing a CPU cooler. Subtracting about 1.5 centimeters for the mainboard’s poles and the CPU with its socket, we end up with a mere 5.5 centimeters of space. Even the popular low-profile Scythe Shuriken we had initially wanted to use is 6.5 centimeters tall and does not fit into this enclosure.

Perhaps Cooler Master should have done like GMC that includes a special cooler as an accessory to its AVC S-7 that has a comparable height. Anyway, we took an ordinary boxed cooler from Intel supplied with junior CPU models. It is rather quiet at a maximum speed of 1700rpm.

Otherwise, we had no problems assembling our test configuration. The cables are small and short. We only wished we had had SATA cables as short as 5-10 centimeters. Standard SATA cables are exceedingly long for such enclosures as the Elite 100.

Cooler Master RS-150-FSGA-J3 Power Supply (150W)

The first system case discussed in this review comes with a 150W power supply which is a very low wattage rating by today’s standards. But considering the limited capabilities of the mini-ITX platform (and this particular system case does not permit to install expansion cards altogether), this should be enough to power up a quad-core CPU even.

It goes without saying that power supplies in such system cases are mostly non-ATX. There are over half a dozen standardized form-factors of compact power supplies and some manufacturers even order absolutely nonstandard PSUs for their products. We can understand the manufacturer who finds it hard to fit a PSU into the dimensions of a super-compact computer enclosure, but this variegation means that it is next to impossible to find a replacement power supply if the default one fails.

By the way, many mini-ITX cases come with external power supplies of the notebook variety with an output voltage of 12V, the rest of the necessary voltages being produced by a small switching DC-DC converter card located inside the case. There are no such models in this review, though.

So, the Cooler Master RS-150-FSGA-J3 has a narrow and long case with a small cooling fan at one butt-end.

The PSU can yield up to 120W out of its full wattage of 150W via the +12V rail. The specified compliance with the ATX12V 2.2 standard should not be taken seriously as this standard does not describe such wattages and dimensions. The author of the label must have decided to use what abbreviations would be most familiar to the end-user.

The real maker of this PSU is FSP Group.

Despite the small size, the component density is not higher than in modern full-size products (considering that the latter have much higher wattage). This is due to the modest heatsinks on the power elements which are aluminum plates without any ribbing. You will see shortly how effective they are in terms of cooling.

The PSU has an active PFC device and supports a full input voltage range from 100 to 240V. It has joint voltage regulation and the following cables and connectors:

The floppy-drive plug seems unnecessary at first. However, it can be used for a DVD drive with PATA interface. Power adapters for such drives are connected to a floppy-drive power connector.

The output voltages are stable enough. They violate the required limits only at a strong misbalance towards the +5V and +3.3V tails which can hardly occur in today’s computers. The PSU yields its full specified power without problems.

The high-frequency voltage ripple is very low and far within the required limits.

The PSU is 83-85% efficient but its efficiency plummets under low loads although such loads are typical of configurations that are likely to be assembled in super-slim system cases (if not an Atom, it is going to be a Celeron E3xxx or Pentium Dual-Core E5xxx processor).

As mentioned above, the PSU is cooled with a 40x40x15mm fan from Yate Loon.

The fan speed is adjusted depending on the temperature sensor located on one of the heatsinks. The sensor does not sit tight and can easily move back and forth, so the adjustment may vary depending on the specific PSU sample.

Here, the fan starts out at 4650rpm. It increases its speed slowly up to a load of 100W and then accelerates more quickly.

Unfortunately, the fan (and, consequently, the whole system case) is not good acoustically. It produces a distinct whistling sound which is far more irritating than any hiss of air. Under low loads the whistling is soft enough for an office, but you may not like it at home.

If you are not afraid of losing your power supply warranty and doing some manual work, you can replace the default fan with a slower, quieter and rather powerful (thanks to a thicker frame) Scythe Mini Kaze Ultra SY124020L.

The fan has to be installed outside the power supply, but the system case allows doing that easily. After this modification, the power supply becomes much quieter and the whistling disappears completely. However, this method of solving the noise problem won’t suit all consumers.

The standby source is rated for a current up to 2A and copes easily with its job.

Summary

While we don’t have any complaints as to the electrical parameters of this power supply, its noise (the spectrum of the noise, to be specific) makes it unsuitable for home. The problem can be solved by replacing the default fan with a quieter one, but it is sad that the manufacturer has not done this modification back at the factory.

Foxconn RS-224

The Foxconn RS-224 is yet another representative of the class of flat system cases. Foxconn actually offers a whole series of similar products differing with the numbers in their model names. For example, the RS-233 is identical to the RS-224 in everything save for the front panel.

The Foxconn RS-224 looks big in comparison with the Cooler Master Elite 100 even though it is about 2 centimeters longer in each dimension. The difference between 7 and 9.5 centimeters is quite conspicuous after all. But anyway, the RS-224 is going to look really small compared to popular micro-ATX system cases. As for its exterior design, the combination of the black glossy plastic of the front panel crossed by a white stripe and the ordinary painted iron of the rest of the case is hardly an original solution. The case is not ugly, either. It is just a typical box for office work.

 

Surprisingly enough, the case looks better when you position it upright. Perhaps this is due to the neat feet. The supports take quite a lot of space at the sides of the case and do not allow to place it right next to a wall, but they do keep it steady.

The feet are included into the kit. You just put the case down on them and move the halves of the feet to fit the case tightly.

The RS-224 is really supposed to stand upright as is indicated by the position of its power button. While the I/O connectors (two USB ports and two audio connectors) are placed on the front panel, the power button is at the end of the white stripe on the narrower side panel. The reset button is on the front panel, next to the connectors. It is very small and inconspicuous.

The back panel resembles the one of the previous model we have discussed above, but the power supply is oriented vertically and there are two brackets for low-profile expansion cards. The mini-ITX form-factor supports only one expansion slot, but this system case is also compatible with the scarcely known DTX format developed by AMD which describes 203x170mm mainboards with up to two expansion slots. As opposed to the Cooler Master Elite 100, the RS-224 does not support micro-ATX mainboards.

Take note that the fastening of expansion cards is outside the system case in order to reduce the latter’s length. This is quite a popular solution in compact computer enclosures.

Foxconn’s case looks even smaller than Cooler Master’s inside due to the massive mounting plate for drives. The metal is 0.5mm thick but the chassis is rigid enough thanks to its small dimensions.

Under the mounting plate there is a single compartment for a 3.5-inch hard disk drive which is fastened with screws to the front panel and to a small protrusion inside the case.

You can install two external devices into the plate: a full-size optical drive and a small card-reader. Why not something else? There is a power supply right behind and the compartment is not long enough for a hard disk or a floppy drive.

Included with the case is a small accessory – this angle-shaped connector - that helps change the direction in which the cables are connected to a DVD-drive. It allows “rotating” them by 90 degrees.

Our Scythe Shuriken fitted easily into this system case, so there should be no problems choosing a CPU cooler for it. If you think that a compact boxed CPU cooler is going to be too loud, you can buy the above mentioned model from Scythe or any other similar low-profile efficient cooler.

Yet we found a problem as soon as we tried to put the drives’ mounting plate in. The case is just a little shorter than needed. As a result, the back part of the optical drive (we took the shortest model measuring only 170 millimeters in length) is so close to the CPU area that it starts to fight with the CPU cooler for the free space. This problem is not a mere nuisance, by the way. Even a very compact boxed cooler from Intel does not fit into this system case together with an optical drive, hitting with its fan blades against the cables.

This is where the above mentioned angle-shaped connector comes in handy. When we install it onto the drive, we can redirect its cables away from the CPU cooler:

Of course, in this case a relatively large cooler like Scythe Shuriken won’t fit inside RS-224 together with a DVD burner, but cooling solutions using 80 mm or 92 mm fans will go in nicely. The only thing to keep in mind in this situation: it would be best to have a cooler with a covered fan frame (like the Glacialtech cooler on the photo above), because without it, like by Intel boxed coolers, for example, the cables from the DVD burner may get caught into the fan blades.

The rest of the assembly (there’s not much to be done, actually; you only have to hide away some cables) goes easily.

Channel Well DSI250P Power Supply (250W)

Although Foxconn’s system case is a rather typical mini-ITX product that not only prevents you from installing a graphics card but even doesn’t allow using a DVD drive together with a large CPU cooler, its power supply is quite serious at 250W of output power.

The power supply is rather large for the mini-ITX form-factor and has a large-diameter fan.

The PSU has two +12V lines, which is quite a surprise for mini-ITX. The purpose of this separation is totally obscure, though. It had been introduced to limit the possible strength of short circuit on user-accessible contacts to 240VA, but as you can see, the two available lines of the DSI250P do not sum up to 240VA.

The interior design is standard enough for the power supplies discussed in this review. The component density is not high and the heatsinks are just thick aluminum bars with “fingers” at the top. The PSU is assembled neatly except for the look of the 5V wires: the assembler must have cut them with some reserve and then preferred to hide the excess into the compact bunch rather than to cut them more.

The PSU has the following cables and connectors:

There are no Molex connectors for PATA drives here, but we don’t think they are necessary in a modern computer.

The PSU yields the specified output power easily, but its output voltages are not exactly stable. Particularly, the DSI250P is not good when there is a high load on the +12V line and a low load on the +5V and +3.3V lines simultaneously. On the other hand, the discussed system case does not allow installing a discrete graphics card and limits your choice of CPUs, so this problem is not going to show up in practice.

The high-frequency pulsation at the PSU’s output is very low even under full load.

The PSU is about 80% efficient at the peak and just over 70% efficient at low loads. This is an acceptable performance.

The PSU is cooled by an 80mm ADDA fan. The fan’s blades are oddly narrow and nearly square-shaped.

The fan speed depends directly on the PSU temperature. It is quiet under low loads, but becomes noisy at higher loads. The noisiness is acceptable overall, especially as the fan’s voice lacks distinct pure tones like what we heard with Cooler Master’s product.

The standby source is rated for a load up to 2 amperes and copes with it just fine.

Summary

Channel Well’s power supply has average characteristics. It does not differ from other such products for better or worse with its voltage stability, efficiency and noise. Its wattage is rather excessive for this class of system cases. A model with a 100W lower wattage would be just fine. On the other hand, there is nothing bad in having some reserve of output power.

InWin IW-BM648

The IW-BM648 is a mini-ITX system case from InWin, a well-known maker of simple and practical products such as the BT, BL and BK series for micro-ATX mainboards. The new BM series is designed for mini-ITX and includes models that differ with the design of the front panel.

 

The IW-BM648 looks kind of stocky after the two previous flat system cases. It is considerably taller but shorter and narrower. Like with the Foxconn case, the front panel is made from glossy plastic (this is going to look nice and appropriate next to a glossy monitor). The I/O ports are hidden, and the neat white strip, ending in vent openings, makes this system case quite good-looking.

Hidden below the cover, there are two USB ports and two audio connectors. We just don’t get it why are they so close to each other if there is a lot of room nearby?

The Power and Reset buttons are fitted nicely into the design: the Power button ends the white strip on the front panel, being located under its edge. And the Reset button is hidden below the silvery square. Two activity indicators reside nearby.

There is an 80mm fan on one of the narrow side panels. Another, smaller, fan can be glimpsed through the vent grid nearby. This is not some special cooling system. The power supply is just located near the front panel in this system case.

The IW-BM648 can be placed flat or upright as is indicated by the round pressed-out spots for feet on the side panels.

The feet are small circles made from some rubber-like material with a sticky base.

You can only see a power connector but not a power supply at the back panel. The vent grid confirms that there is no power supply here. There are two expansion slot brackets (not reusable) with external card fasteners. The system case supports low-profile cards only.

The fastening plate for expansion cards turns on a screw which is handier than a detachable plate.

Removing the side panel of the case, you can see a massive contraption for installing a full-size optical drive. It goes through the whole case and is fastened to the chassis with screws, making the latter more rigid. And the chassis needs this as its steel is a mere 0.5 millimeters thick. But again, the compact dimensions save the day: there is no rippling or vibration.

The installation device for an optical drive is massive and provokes our suspicions that we are going to have problems installing our CPU cooler.

This is indeed so. Our Scythe Shuriken rises above the power supply the drive’s mounting plate rests upon. As a result, even Intel’s boxed cooler is too tall to be installed together with a DVD drive. Like with the Foxconn case, the user has to face a hard choice: not to install an optical drive (which is not so necessary for an office machine) or to use a mainboard with an Atom processor and passive cooling, or look for a cooler about 4 centimeters tall.

The system case has an unusual layout: a narrow and long power supply lies next to the front panel. A 3.5-inch rack is near the side panel.

The HDD rack is detachable. You only have to find its fastening screw hidden on the exterior of the back panel. The rack is also supported by guides in the chassis.

 

Everything is neat and tidy when assembled but our configuration does not allow installing an optical drive.

P.S.: I have to point out that one of the optional IW-BM648 configurations comes with a tray for a slim notebook DVD drive. In this case you can obviously also install a drive as well as a CPU with a compact but not very tiny cooler into this system case.

InWin IP-AD160-2 Power Supply

Although InWin’s system case resembles the above-discussed Foxconn in its component layout and capabilities, its power supply is only half the Foxconn’s size and wattage.

It looks most unusual like a long brick with a nearly square section. A cord with a 220V connector sticks out of its butt-end. There is no room for a socket here. It would take most of the panel, leaving no place for vents.

The component density is expectedly high as it is hard to fit a modern power supply, even though a 160W one, into such a small system case, especially as, like the other power supplies in this review except for the Codegen 200XA, the IP-AD160-2 is equipped with active PFC.

The high component density has the obvious downside of poor ventilation. The roomier Cooler Master has a same-size fan and proved to be loud, so what can we expect from the cramped InWin? On the other hand, the InWin power supply has larger heatsinks, so its fan may cope with its job without speeding up much. We’ll check this out shortly.

Having a full output power of 160 watts, the power supply can yield 120W via its +12V power rail. The combined load on the +5V and +3.3V rails is rather low at less than 50 watts.

The PSU has the following cables and connectors:

This suits our configuration perfectly. As you can see, the voltages are stable. The +12V voltage goes beyond the permissible limits when most of the load is on the +5V and +3.3V rails, which cannot occur in a modern computer.

The output voltage ripple at maximum load is within the acceptable limits. The oscillograms are smooth, without spikes or anything.

The PSU’s efficiency is over 84%, which is very high. Moreover, this power supply is the only one in this test session to deliver an efficiency of 80% even at a load of 50W (this is typical power consumption of a mini-ITX computer; it even may be high for some configurations).

A 40x40x10mm fan from ARX is installed on the PSU. It is secured with exceptionally large screws.

As opposed to the power supply from the Cooler Master case, the fan starts out at a very low speed of 1200rpm. The speed grows up along with the load, reaching 3600rpm at the maximum. To remind you, the Cooler Master’s fan speed was over 4600rpm at the minimum. Besides, the fan of the InWin case does not produce any whistle. Its noise is just the hiss of airflow.

As a result, the IP-AD160-2 is a very quiet power supply that is suitable for both office and home use without any modifications.

The standby source is rated for a current up to 1.5A and copes with its job well.

Summary

To our surprise, the InWin power supply proves to be one of the quietest in this review notwithstanding its 40mm fan. It may be due to high efficiency or well-ribbed heatsinks or something else, but it is a fact. Besides, this power supply has good electrical parameters. You shouldn’t have any problems using it.

Silverstone Sugo SG-06B

As opposed to the previous products, the SliverStone Sugo SG-06B is not flat but cubic, resembling barebone platforms but smaller than most of them. Despite its compact size, this system case can do much more than serve as a simple electronic typewriter.

There is a lot of vent holes here. Both side panels, the top part of the back panel and the sides of the front one are all perforated. It looks like this system case is supposed to accommodate components with a much higher level of power consumption than the Atom platform. Interestingly, the top panel of the U-shaped cover proves to be rather rigid thanks to the figured profile whereas the 0.5mm thickness of metal shows up in the side panels. The closed system case is rigid, though, and the chassis is robust.

The exterior design is stern and minimalistic. There are no embellishments save for the manufacturer’s logo. The aluminum front panel looks good by itself, though. It is not spoiled by the extra components grouped along the right edge: two USB ports, two audio connectors, two indicators and a Power button. Everything is neat and tidy but some people may find this a bit boring.

There are full-size expansion slot brackets at the back. The case is cubic and the power supply is below the mainboard, so you can install a full-size card easily. The support for the DTX form-factor means that there are two expansion slots available or that we can install our dual-slot HIS Radeon HD 3870 IceQ 3 into the single slot of our mini-ITX mainboard.

Take note of the small black button on the back panel. It is a Reset button and its unusual position is quite okay. You won’t be able to press it accidentally.

The fastening of expansion cards is implemented by means of an external plate. This is not as handy as the solution we have seen in the InWin case.

The case has small but sturdy feet made of rubber.

The interior layout resembles cubic-shaped cases of larger sizes. The drives rack is at the top front and the power supply is behind it. The mainboard is below the power supply.

Silverstone’s engineers have taken a sensible approach to designing the interior and installed a 120mm fan on the front panel. We guess its benefits are clear without explanations. The drives and mainboard all get better cooling from it. By the way, you can get a notion of the size of the system case from the fact that the 120mm fan occupies almost the entire front panel of it.

There are two racks for drives in this system case. The top rack, shown in the photo above, is for a slim optical drive and a 2.5-inch hard disk.

You can also attach one more rack for a 3.5-inch HDD to the bottom part of the top rack and to the chassis. Thus, you can install two HDDs into this system case, even though of two different form-factors. Take note that the 3.5-inch HDD blocks the fan partially, so if you don’t need a large-capacity HDD, you may want to use a 2.5-inch model and remove the 3.5-inch rack altogether.

The PATA interface is outdated but Silverstone has somehow forgotten this fact. Instead of an adapter for optical SATA drives, they have included an adapter bar for connecting PATA devices.

Fortunately, they did not forget that fans tend to suck in not only the air but also dust. Therefore, there is an easily removable filter behind the front panel. Manufacturers of compact system cases seldom care about keeping them clean.

Be careful when you remove the bracket of the optical drive bay. It is nonstandard and should be pushed into the case rather than otherwise.

Now a few words about the fastening of the power supply. In many inexpensive system cases the power supply just hangs on the back panel made of a thin sheet of metal and is not attached to anything else. Here, we’ve got a better solution: the small and light power supply of the SFX form-factor is fastened to the back panel as well as to a special supporting plate which increases the overall rigidity of the chassis. The power supply is originally installed with the fan facing downwards, but you can turn it upside down. Receiving cool air through the vent grid in the top panel of the case, it will be colder and quieter then.

There is only one small problem with the assembly procedure. There are surprisingly many cables for such a compact computer and you can find it difficult to tuck them all up somewhere. We found a place for them in a nook near the power supply and above the graphics card, leaving the center of the system case free.

Our graphics card fitted easily. There is 260 millimeters of free room for it, so the longest top-end graphics cards cannot be installed. Less advanced products usually have a length of 245 millimeters and the difference is just enough for the power connectors. You only have to be careful when moving the card into the case.

And what about the CPU cooler? Well, this system case is just perfect in this respect. There is 9 centimeters of free space from the mainboard to the bottom of the power supply. Moreover, the mainboard is positioned closer to the center of the case (as there is no power supply next to it), so we could install not only a Scythe Shuriken but also a Scythe Big Shuriken with 120mm fan. No other mini-ITX case we have tested can accommodate that cooler. The bigger cooler is shown in the photo above and will be used in the practical test.

The airflows are very good here: the front fan is driving the air along the tunnel formed by the HDD, the graphics card and the mainboard with CPU cooler. This is an almost ideal situation especially as the dual-slot graphics card is exhausting the hot air out of the system case.

P.S.: We tested this system case with our HIS Radeon HD 3870 IceQ 3 but we also tried to install the more advanced Radeon HD 5850 into the Sugo SG06. As you can see in the photo above, the case allows doing that and the power supply ensured stable operation.

FSP FSP300-60GHS Power Supply (300W)

Of course, a system case like the SilverStone Sugo SG06 needs a high-wattage power supply. After all, it is the only product in this review to support dual-slot graphics cards and a CPU with rather large cooler. The wattage of 300W is only high by the standards of mini-ITX. Owners of larger system cases can hardly be impressed with that number.

The power supply follows one variant of the SFX form-factor that resembles a full-size ATX power supply zoomed in to 200%. Such power supplies can occasionally be found in shops, so you can even replace it with a higher-wattage model. The FSP300-60GHS is the only compact PSU in this review to have a regular On/Off switch.

The SFX format suggests that a cooling fan (20 or even 25 millimeters thick) be installed outside the power supply. But here, the manufacturer did not use that opportunity, probably to permit the installation of rather large CPU coolers into the system case.

The interior design resembles a diminished ATX unit. There are three heatsinks that carry (from left to right): the power elements of active PFC, inverter’s transistors, and output diode packs. Take note that the last heatsink is not only screwed up to the external panel of the PSU but also has a layer of thermal grease there. Therefore you shouldn’t be surprised that the case becomes too hot at work.

The real manufacturer of this power supply is FSP Group. Having a rated output power of 300W, this PSU can yield up to 264W via its +12V rail split into two virtual output lines.

It is equipped with the following cables and connectors:

Like with Cooler Master’s power supply, the floppy-drive plug is only needed for a DVD drive with PATA interface (to connect a power adapter). We have no complaints about the selection of cables. Moreover, the native 6-pin graphics card connector is noteworthy.

The output voltages are stable enough. The +5V voltage sags under high load, but this should not be a problem in a modern PC where most of the load is on the +12V power rail.

The voltage ripple on the PSU’s low-voltage rails is close to the permissible limits at full load but does not go beyond them. The ripple is far within the acceptable limits on the +12V rail.

The PSU is over 85% efficient at the maximum and its efficiency does not sink as much under low loads as with the other power supplies discussed in this review. The power factor plummets at loads below 100W, down to 0.6.

The PSU is cooled by an 80x80x15mm fan from Protechnic Electric. It can be replaced if necessary. An 80x80x25mm fan can be installed on the outside of the PSU.

The fan speed depends on the PSU temperature. The fan starts at 1200rpm and reaches 2400rpm under full load. The PSU is not silent under real-life loads but quiet enough. Its noise spectrum is free from distinct high-frequency tones or buzzing and is rather agreeable to the ear.

The standby source is rated for a current up to 2.5A and copes with its job just fine.

Summary

The power supply bundled with the Sugo SG06 is absolutely adequate to the purpose of the system case as intended by its manufacturer: a super-compact home gaming PC. The FSP300-60GHS delivers the power necessary for a good graphics card and a robust CPU, being stable and rather quiet, especially under loads below 100W.

SuperPower Mustiff MX-31

The SuperPower Mustiff MX31 is one more cubic- or rather brick-shaped system case. It is too long for a true cube.

The exterior design of the Mustiff MX31 is somewhat ambiguous. The plastic front panel painted like polished aluminum must have been intended as a way to create a noble appearance but it doesn’t look very good. Simple silvery plastic would be better. The round protrusions in the corners are not neat, either. SuperPower’s products are known as low-quality ones, and this system case provides a few examples. On the other hand, the Mustiff MX31 looks better than many other entry-level system cases. And it is cheap indeed.

The large Power button in the center of the front panel catches the eye immediately.

I/O connectors can be found at the front part of the left side panel: a couple of USB ports and two audio connectors. The USB ports are placed far from each other.

Both side panels have large vent grids. Like the Silverstone Sugo, this system case seems to be designed for rather advanced components.

The case stands on nice rubber feet.

The back panel resembles the previous cube but there is only one expansion slot bracket, which means you cannot use a dual-slot graphics card here. So, we had to replace the dual-slot card with a single-slot Radeon HD 4850. There is also no power supply at the top part of the back panel. You can only see a seat for an 80mm fan and a power connector there.

Like in the IW-BM648, the power supply lies along the front panel and the mainboard is behind it. It is a standard ATX unit, 140 millimeters long, which explains the dimensions of the system case. The benefits of this solution are obvious. The user can install any standard power supply (save for high-wattage models that are longer than standard). We used this opportunity and replaced the default power supply with our quiet Enermax MODU82+ EMD625AWT. The downside is clear, too. Whatever the position of the fan in the power supply, there will always be panels in front of it, blocking the flow of air. The PSU is going to have a higher temperature than in an ordinary case and some of the hot air it exhausts will linger inside the system case.

The power cord leading from the back panel to the power supply’s connector has two plugs, so you can connect a PSU with any type of the power plug. This care about the user is nice but one of the connectors will be unused.

There are three drive bays in this system case. One of them supports slim optical drives and we guess the manufacturer should have made the case just a little bit taller to allow installing full-size 5.25-inch devices. It is good that a SATA adapter is included into the kit, though.

A small rack for a single 3.5-inch drive is located at the back panel below the fan seat. A place for an external 3.5-inch drive is between the optical drive bay and the power supply but we decided to install a second hard disk in there. We just couldn’t help testing the system case with two 3.5-inch HDDs.

The assembly process wasn’t trivial. There is enough room for a large cooler but installing a mainboard with cooler is a problem. The photo above shows that our mainboard with a Scythe Shuriken just barely fits into the system case. You won’t be able to install the mainboard first and then the power supply as the mainboard would get in the power supply’s way. So, if you’ve got a larger cooler than ours, you will have to fasten it to the mainboard already installed in the case. That is, your choice will be limited to coolers that are fastened with latches.

Laying out the cables was an expectedly serious problem with this power supply. Even with our modular PSU we had too many cables for this system case. Purchasing a new power supply for the Mustiff MX-31, you should consider products with shorter and thinner cables, without extra sleeves, unless you want to have problems even fitting them to the side of the PSU and over the drives as we did.

Installing the graphics card was even more of a trouble. There is enough space for any single-slot card but it was difficult to install it into the mainboard’s PCI Express slot and into the mounting bracket’s fastener simultaneously as the power cord was getting in the way. Take note that the long card partially blocks the power supply’s output vent grid, so both are going to have harsher thermal conditions than usual.

Anyway, we assembled our test configuration and ended up with a rather advanced computer in a compact (and cheap) case.

SuperPower RealPower 200XA (250W)

Unfortunately, we could not test this power supply. For some reason, it refused to work with our testbed, shutting down immediately. It worked normally within a computer, though.

One look at its photo is enough to get rid of any illusions, though. This power supply is kind of a dummy or demo sample rather than a power source for a gaming PC with a fast graphics card and CPU. Its design is extremely simplified to cut the manufacturing cost. The capacitors have low ratings and the transformers’ cores are as small as possible. There is no output noise filter and no power factor correction. The +3.3V regulator is based on a cheap and low-efficiency linear circuit instead of a magnetic amplifier. And finally, the real output power of the PSU, as is indicated in the small print on the label, is 200W whereas 250W is its peak output power.

All of this means that the RealPower 200XA is a power supply of an extremely simplified design akin to no-name products from mainland China. You should not risk using it unless you don’t care a bit about your PC components.

Here is one illustrative photo that shows the total weight of the power supply with all its cables and connectors. We guess it is a record low weight among all PSUs we have ever tested in our labs.

Test Results

The configurations assembled in each system case differ a lot, so we will not build comparative diagrams for each test mode. First we will show you the results of our system on an open testbed. Here is how the variant with a Scythe Shuriken and a Radeon HD 3870 performs:

Everything is good here. The cooler copes with the CPU perfectly even at minimum speed. The CPU temperature is never higher than 45°C even under Prime95. Under minimum loads the CPU is only two degrees hotter than the ambient temperature. Such an excellent temperature is due to the effective cooler as well as to the 45nm tech process coupled with the Core 2 architecture.

And what if we replace the cooler with Intel’s boxed one and the graphics card with a Radeon HD 4850?

So, the CPU doesn’t feel so comfortable now. Yet if you don’t load it by 100%, it is only 39°C hot. The temperature grows up by 10°C at full load and the cooler’s fan speeds up somewhat (but this acceleration cannot be caught by the ear).

The graphics card feels all right but at the expense of your acoustic comfort. While the HD 3870 was hardly audible even under maximum load, the HD 4850 increases its fan speed in 3DMark06 instantly and becomes very loud in a highly unpleasant tone that can be described as wailing. Well, top-end graphics cards with a single-slot cooler have never been truly quiet.

And the last piece of data about the performance of the open testbed is the result of the boxed cooler together with the integrated graphics core.

Yes, the single chip incorporating a chipset bridge and a graphics core gets scorching hot at work. We guess the passive cooling it has just barely copes with its job and some ventilation inside the system case would come in handy.

Now, let’s see what the system cases can show.

The lack of a system fan affects the cooling of the components in the Cooler Master Elite 100. The CPU feels most uncomfortable, its temperature reaching up to 60°C and its cooler’s fan speeding up to an audible level. On the other hand, the CPU is still a long way to begin skipping clock cycles, so we are absolutely sure that this computer will work just fine. The HDD is not really comfortable, either. Its temperature is over 50°C under high load. But when there is no such load, the HDD has an acceptable temperature. Take note that when the computer is working long under a high load on the CPU and graphics core (even though such a modest one), the HDD gets some of the heat, too. It is easy to improve this situation. You should use modern power-efficient HDDs with a spindle rotation speed of 5400rpm. They are going to dissipate only half that amount of heat under load.

The main disappointment about the Elite 100 is the default fan in the power supply. Its whistling is perfectly audible and louder than any other sound under typical loads. Describing this system case above, we mentioned the option of replacing the power supply’s fan. Without such a modification, the Elite 100 may only be good for office work. It will be uncomfortably noisy for home.

The Foxconn produces a picture similar to what we’ve seen with the previous product. The temperatures are not low, but the system does not overheat, either. Take note that the different CPU cooler only makes a difference when there is a high load on the CPU: 54°C instead of 60°C. And the cooler goes on working in the near-silent minimum speed mode. This system case is quiet overall.

The InWin cools the components better than the Foxconn. The nonstandard layout with the power supply located at the front of the chassis seems to be good for this extremely compact system case. This is especially clear when it comes to the HDD: the rack at the side of the chassis helps the HDD always remains within a comfortable temperature range. The temperature of the integrated graphics core is better, too. Thus, this system case is a nice surprise for us, but this is only true if you don’t install an optical drive. If you do, you have the cooler problem again.

The InWin is good in terms of noisiness. And if you replace or slow down the excessively powerful 80mm system fan, the IW-BM648 will be very quiet.

We were highly interested in the performance of the Sugo SG06 as it is not a simple electronic typewriter but an advanced enough gaming configuration. The numbers speak for themselves, actually. The computer feels all right, every component having a comfortable temperature in every test mode. This is all due to the 120mm fan rotating at 1000rpm. By the way, you can only hear it if you put your ear next to the front panel. The system is very quiet overall.

Alas, the SuperPower cannot match the Silverstone Sugo. Its CPU cooler is gasping for air. The HDDs suffer from the same problem, both heating up above 50°C under load. The graphics card contributes to their temperature, too. It obviously fries the HDDs up under serious load. So, the overall picture is quite gloomy.

But then, we’ve got a seat for an 80mm fan. We quickly installed what fan we had at hand (it was a GlacialTech SilentBlade II GT8025-BDLA1) and repeated our cycle of tests.

Here, the system case looks far more appealing. Every component is colder, including the graphics card, and the HDDs are all within a comfortable temperature range. So, our supposition proved to be true: the case had been lacking ventilation indeed.

As for the noise factor, the system case itself is silent and most of the components in our configuration are very quiet. However, it is going to be a problem to find a fast and quiet graphics card with a single-slot cooler, which negates the very idea of assembling a home gaming station in a super-compact enclosure. The extremely low quality of the bundled power supply must be noted, too. The Mustiff MX31 won’t look cheap if you add the cost of a new power supply to it.

Conclusion

We hope this roundup has given you an idea of what trends and problems there are in the world of compact mini-ITX systems. It is hard to name a winner or loser among the tested products. Each of them is good in some specific usage scenario. For example, the InWin IW-BM648 will make a good office or simple home computer. Its main advantage is that it allows using an ordinary, not slim, optical drive but there is one serious problem. Installing an optical drive into it prevents you from using a large CPU cooler. Even the boxed coolers supplied by Intel for its low-end CPUs won’t do. On the other hand, if you don’t need a DVD drive, you can assemble a computer with a dual- or even quad-core CPU in this enclosure just as we did in our test.

As opposed to the InWin, the Foxconn RS-224 permits to install both a good cooler (not a Shuriken, but a large enough cooler for effectively coping with a quad-core CPU) and a DVD drive thanks to an adapter that takes the drive’s cables away from the fan’s impeller. As a result, this system case can make a good foundation for a media center with an optical drive as well as for a good home computer with an entry-level graphics card.

The Cooler Master Elite 100 allows installing a DVD drive and a full-featured CPU cooler, too. But the drive has to be of the slim form-factor (like the ones installed into notebooks). Besides, the Elite 100 allows using more popular and cheaper mainboards of the micro-ATX form-factor while being comparable to most competing mini-ITX models with its exterior dimensions. On the downside of the Elite 100 is that you cannot use even low-profile expansion cards with it and that the power supply’s fan produces an irritating whistle. Still, this system case may be interesting for people who want to build a super-compact computer with a fast processor and a DVD drive simultaneously.

The Silverstone Sugo SG06B and the SuperPower Mustiff MX31 come from a different category of system cases. These cubes are designed for building compact, yet fast gaming systems. The former offers broader opportunities and looks better but the latter is cheaper and supports two 3.5-inch HDDs. Thus, their applications differ: the Sugo SG06 may be interesting for users who want to have a fast graphics card whereas the Mustiff MX31 for those who want a few terabytes of disk storage. And one more thing. We don’t have any complaints about the quality of the SilverStone product, but you should buy a high-quality power supply for the SuperPower (its bundled power supply is too bad and cannot be recommended for use with a gaming configuration).

We hope we have proved that a fast computer can be assembled in a compact system case. If you don’t have any room for a gigantic full-tower, there are interesting alternatives for building an office or home computer (even a full-featured gaming station with a good graphics card and CPU) in a system case that can easily fit into a bookshelf.