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Quiet Mini-ITX Gamer Build Guide

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A quiet system in a smaller form factor is our followup to the Quiet ATX Gaming Build Guide posted in the last couple of weeks. It is another high performance rig, one quiet enough to be just about inaudible even atop your desk. Your family will never know that you’re gaming on this machine unless your sound effects are on speaker and they can see the action on your monitor.

A quiet system in a smaller form factor is our followup to the Quiet ATX Gaming
Build Guides (the first
here
, the R5 version
here
) posted in the last couple of weeks. Jumping straight into component
options, the big question is, “Which case?” This is
the single most important choice when planning any quiet/silent PC, and it becomes
increasingly important with smaller cases. This is because airflow in smaller
cases is usually more restricted than in larger ones, while hot components are
packed together more closely. A small case needs very good ventilation, yet
there is less space in which to put ventilation holes, and almost no space for
any noise blocking panel liners. In general, it is much harder to achiever low
noise with hot small systems than with larger ones. It’s ironic and unfortunate
because smaller PCs usually get placed closer to the user, most often atop the
desk where its noise has a more direct path to the user’s ears.

You cannot usually expect a small system to achieve the same level of ultra
low noise as a larger one like SPCR’s Fractal Design R4 and R5 ATX Gaming Systems
if similar components are employed. The R5 revision of the ATX gamer was able
to stay at a smooth and near-silent 17 dBA@1m even at full load. However, our
first mini-ITX Gamer actually betters those systems at idle (admittedly by only
a dBA), and comes very close at load, running virtually identical heat-producing
components: A GTX 980 video card and a Core i5-4690K CPU. Yes, this is another
high performance gaming rig.

COMPONENT SELECTION

CASE: Many were considered seriously, and a handful were provided by
suppliers in time for us to examine firsthand before making our decision. The
smallest mITX cases were ruled out simply because they generally could not house
the larger VGA cards and CPU heatsinks being considered. Most of the prospects are
some 30 litres or larger in volume, which makes them almost as large as standard ATX
cases.

nCase M1 is
petite 12.6 liters, very attractive, cleverly designed, pricey at US$190 before
shipping and taxes (including duties in many cases), and truly a limited edition
product. We are about the only hardware site to have reviewed
the nCase
and we have a sample on hand. Try as we might, we could not
turn it into a SPCR-quiet serious gaming rig. One final cooling solution is
on its way, but until it arrives, the M1 is out of the running.

Silverstone Sugo SG07
is a larger breadbox style case but still small compared to most gaming-oriented
mITX cases at under 15 liers. It also tackles a foot-long video card, ATX
PSU, 2 SSDs and a HDD, and features a 180mm fan. The Sugo SG08 and
Sugo SG08-LITE are newer version of the same case. Combined with Silverstone’s
600W SFX 80+ Gold PSU, these could be formidable gaming cases.

Fractal Design Node 304 is the largest breadbox style case considered
here at 19.5 liters, with room for up to 6 HDDs, dual 92mm intake fans and
140mm exhaust fan, a standard ATX PSU and a 165mm tall CPU cooler. Ditch two
of the HDD bays and a video card nearly a foot long can be accommodated. Our
review
did not explore its gaming potential but we believe it could be
a good performer with a hot VGA card.

Silverstone Sugo SG09
is a crafty marriage of breadbox and mini-tower style of just 23 liter volume
that manages to fit up to Micro-ATX boards, full length graphics cards, multiple
SSDs and HDDs, ATX PSUs, and a 180mm cooling fan. The Sugo SG10
has a more attractive brushed aluminum fascia, a sample of which we’re awaiting.

Bitfenix Prodigy has become one of the most popular cases for gamers
using mini-ITX boards. Even if you exclude the extra height of the top and
bottom handles, the Prodigy takes up nearly 31 liters. But its interior layout
allows the use of tall CPU tower heatsinks, graphics card over a foot in length,
a standard ATX12V PSU and still have room for a couple of SSDs or HDDs. It’s
also priced modestly at ~US$80 and a pethora of customization features like
colored facis and handles are offered. Unfortunately, Bitfenix did not get
us a sample in time for this guide.

Corsair Carbide Air 240 is a cube-style 33-liter micro-ATX case with
side-by-side separate thermal zones that struck us as innovative and inventive.
No limit in PSu size, room for lots of SSDs and HDDs. The catch is that the
height of both VGA card and CPU cooler is limited. This excludes the big,
quiet, heatsink-equipped ASUS Strix GTX 970/980 and equivalent MSI GTX 970/980
cards, as well as all 120mm fan tower CPU heatsinks. We have a build in this
case that’s very close to complete, but it still requires some tweaks to bring
the acoustics in line with our standards. No go for this round.

In the end, availability and style won out: A sample of the ROSEWILL LEGACY W1-S was already on hand, and despite its 31 liter size, its style is strikingly
similar to the nCase M1. The basic configuration is like the Bifenix Prodigy,
with the interior divided into two levels, the upper 3/4 (roughly) for the motherboard
and drives, and the lower quarter for a power supply and cables. It is large
compared to traditional mini-ITX systems without discrete VGA cards, but the
footprint is only marginally wider than the classic breadbox style small PC.


Shrink it >50% and the Rosewill Legacy W1-S could be an nCase M1
subtitute, at least on the outside…


…except from the back, where a 14cm exhaust fan resides. This case has
room enough for big CPU coolers and at least a 2-slot VGA card.

MOTHERBOARD

There are many socket 1150 mITX boards to choose from. To narrow down the choices,
we limited it to the Z97 chip, brands known to offer pretty good onboard fan
control and a price under $200. CPU socket placement on mITX boards can be critical
as the tight fit with smaller cases means a much tighter fit for CPU coolers.
A cooler might fit with one mobo and case combo, but not another. However, all
the Z97 board we considered seem to have similar CPU socket placement, close
to center, though a bit close to both the “top” edge and the memory
slots.

  • MSI Z97I Gaming
  • MSI Z97I AC
  • Gigabyte GA-Z97N-WIFI
  • Gigabyte GA-Z97N-Gaming 5
  • ASRock Z97E-ITX/ac
  • ASRock Z97M-ITX/AC

Prices for these boards vary in the US from a high of around $180 to a low
of ~$120. Features vary somewhat, but given the small form factor to work with
and the Z97 chip which dictates much of what is possible, base performance is
unlikely to differ much. ASRock boards probably represent the best value, given
their pricing, and they reputedly have good fan control We can’t testify to
this, as ASRock has been stingy with samples for SPCR. Ditto MSI, though their
boards are considerably pricier and have a good reputation for fan control.
Gigabyte is usually generous with samples for SPCR, but not in time for this
round; their motherboard fan control is improving but they’ve been lagging behind
both MSI and Gigabyte. Our choice ended up being the one we received in time
for this build: ASUS Z97I-PLUS. It is also one of the best, on paper,
among the bunch.


ASUS Z97I-PLUS comes with wireless LAN card and M.2 SSD card slot on
the underside.

CPU

Intel came through on our request for more 1150 socket processors for these
build guides. A CORE i5-4690K (3.9 GHz, 4-cores, 88W TDP) was chosen
for this build. For all practical purposes, any of the following 4th Gen Core
processors would provide similar performance. In gaming, it’s usually the GPU
which sets performance level.

  • Intel Core i5-4690S (3.9 GHz, 65W TDP)
  • Intel Core i5-4670 (3.8 GHz, 84W TDP)
  • Intel Core i5-4670K (3.8 GHz, 84W TDP, unlocked)
  • Intel Core i5-4670S (3.8 GHz, 65W TDP)
  • Intel Core i5-4570 (3.6 GHz, 84W TDP)
  • Intel Core i5-4570S (3.6 GHz, 84W TDP)
  • Intel Core i5-4590 (3.7 GHz, 84W TDP)
  • Intel Core i5-4590S (3.7 GHz, 65W TDP)

FYI, even though the S versions with their near-20W lower TDP looks attractive
from a quiet cooling point of view, in practise, the thermal and acoustic savings
is not usually notable. Our advice is to buy on price.


Core i5-4690k installed in the ASUS Z97I-PLUS motherboard.

 

CPU COOLER

Any number of coolers could work; it is a matter of choosing one that works
well from the components available to us. Among effective coolers that aren’t
too wide (so as not to get too close to the graphics card) the best options
we’ve reviewed are:

  • Coolermaster Hyper 212 Plus Universal
  • Scythe Mugen 4
  • Be Quiet! Shadow Rock Slim
  • Silverstone Argon AR03
  • Scythe Kotetsu

We chose the SILVERSTONE ARGON AR03 this time, another slimmer 120mm
fan tower heatsink that provides good performance at a modest price. (See our
Recommended Heatsinks
article for a complete listing of all the reviewed CPU coolers.)


Silverstone Argon AR03 shown here on our CPU cooler test platform.

GRAPHICS CARD

This one is simple: The ASUS STRIX GTX 980 card we used in the Quiet
ATX Gaming Build is amazingly quiet, the GTX 980 is arguably the best single
GPU card today, and this sample remains the only GTX 980 we have on hand. If
it works, don’t break it, right? We were fairly sure it could made to run pretty
quiet in this setup. The Strix GTX 980 does fit in the Rosewill W1-S with a
bit of room to spare for both length and height. Its fans get pretty close to
the side panel, though; good thing that panel is vented along its entire length.


ASUS Strix GeForce GTX 980.

Other options:

  • ASUS Strix GTX 970 – We’re pretty sure this card performs simlarly
    to the Strix 980.
  • MSI GTX 970 Gaming 4G – This card and its pricier brother are said
    to be as quiet as the ASUS, although we still don’t have samples to verify.
  • MSI GTX 980 Gaming 4G

SOLID STATE DRIVE

An SSD has become the default drive of choice for the operating system of virtually
all computer users in the know. We mentioned earlier that the ASUS Z97I-PLUS
board is equipped with a lightning-fast 10Gb/s M.2 slot. It supports both SATA
& PCIE mode (2280 & 2260), which makes it compatible will all current
M.2 SSDs. We requested M.2 SSDs from many vendors; one alone came through in
time, the KINGSTON SSDNOW M.2 2280 (SATA) 240G. Kingston
offers a 120 GB version, and a 480 GB model is in the works. Kingston specifies
the performance of this SATA-mode SSD to be on par with their Hyper X 3K 240GB
SATA 3.0 SSDs, which we’ve been using in large numbers around the lab. The M.2
2280 uses a Phison PS3108-S8 SATA 3 eight channel controller. The SSD features
firmware-based power loss protection for maintaining data integrity in unexpected
shutdown. DevSleep allows more efficient power management (mostly for mobile
devices). TRIM and S.M.A.R.T. are supported, of course, along with Intel Smart
Response Technology (SSD caching).


Kingston M.2 2280 240G SSD about to be secured
with single screw into slot on underside of ASUS Z97I-PLUS motherboard.

Other M.2 SSD options:

  • Crucial M550 M.2 Type 2280 512GB Great value!
  • Transcend MTS800 M.2 512GB
  • Samsung XP941 512GB M.2 SSD PCIe mode, 4 express lanes: Probably
    the fastest consumer SSD today. Will you notice the improvement it brings
    in this or any other gaming rig? Probably not. lol!

POWER SUPPLY

Since the Rosewill Legacy W1-S has a separate compartment for the power
supply which can keep whatever heat it generates from adding to the heat of
the other components, a fanless power supply is a viable option. A handful of
options come to mind.

  • Seasonic X-520 Platinum Possibly the premier fanless ATX12V
    in the world, with completely modular cables.
  • Silverstone Nightjar SST-NJ520 Rebadge of the Seasonic 80+ Platinum
    520W
  • Rosewill Silent Night 500 Platinum 80 Plus Similar to the Seasonic
    but not complete modular, as main ATX cable is attached.
  • Kingwin STR-500 Another Platinum efficiency model.
  • Seasonic X-460 and X-400 Lower rated versions of the fanless
    Seasonic

It’s a tossup: All are super efficient, fanless and noiseless. The Seasonics
have the small advantage of completely detachable output cables, useful during
assembly. We can match the power demand of the system closer to the PSU with
a Seasonic X-400 Platinum; we already know that the total system power draw
will be no more than ~260W (in DC). Unfortunately the X-400 is supplied
with only one PCIe connector, and two are needed for the GTX 980. The Seasonic
X-460
does come with two cables with dual PCIe 8/6 pin connectors on each
(a separate cable per PCIe power plug is a plus for stable power delivery),
as does the Seasonic X-520 and the Silverstone Nightjar 520W.
The price differences among them is small, and any of these models will work
fine for this system. There is little chance of much more power demand in a
system where all the motherboard’s peripheral slots are already filled. Even
adding a bunch of HDDs would not exceed the power limit of even the 460W. We
know they’re rugged; an X-400
survived unscathed a full power load torture test
we ran for the better
part of a whole day. We used a SEASONIC X-520 FANLESS sample we already
had on hand.


The entire Seasonic X series fanless PSUs are now 80+ Platinum and
completely modular.

MEMORY

Precisely what RAM is used as system memory is not critical, although other
web sites have identified DDR1600 to DDR1866 as the sweet spot, somewhat dependent
on the particular game. Within this clock speed range, small variations in timing
have minuscule effect on overall performance. 8GB is more than sufficient for
any single game and general purpose multitasking. 16GB is a waste unless you
have a specific need, and RAM is one of the easiest things to add later to a
system, if you need more for some new application. Two DIMMs are ideal as it
allows for dual-channel operation, while limiting the chances of getting a bad
stick. Memory is one of the most common components to fail over time, so the
fewer the better. We also recommend choosing a brand with a good lifetime warranty
and to avoid models with overly large heatspreaders as they can interfere with
larger CPU coolers. The Kingston HyperX Genesis 2x4GB 1866MHz DDR3
RAM
has been solid for us, and it sports lower profile heatspreaders that don’t
get in the way of big heatsinks.

Alternatives:

  • Kingston HyperX Fury 8GB Kit (2x4GB) 1600MHz DDR3
  • Patriot Viper 8GB Kit (2x4GB) 1866MHz DDR3

HyperX Genesis memory kit.

SYSTEM ASSEMBLY

Since we haven’t done a formal review of the Rosewill Legacy W1-S, let’s begin
with a closer look at this case. For those who are intersted in such things,
the W1-S is actually a rebadge of a Jonsbo
case of the same name: Jonsbo W1-S. The S stands for silver; there are black
and red variants under the Jonsbo name, but the red is not available from Rosewill.
As mentioned earlier, it’s divided into separate top and bottom compartments.
The upper part can fit tower heatsinks up to 165mm tall, enough for the vast
majority, giving a great range of options.


Power and reset buttons, power & HDD LEDs, and USB 3.0 ports are
on the side, near the front and bottom.

The PSU was already installed when this photo was taken.

This innocuous almost invisible switch on the back panel to the left of
the exhaust fan is a built-in 2-speed fan controller with leads for three
fans.

A single 140mm exhaust fan is visible in the rear, and there are vent holes
on the top and left side panels, the latter obviously for a graphics card. An
intake vent with dust filter is also below the PSU.

All the aluminum panels pop off with a slight tug; they feature ball-and-socket
type fittings which have not become loose even after two weeks of constant popping
on and off for system building and tweaking. This latching system is a nice
change from the usually thumbscrews and screws, but it probably works well only
with smaller panels. Bigger panels would lack the rigidity of smaller ones and
need more secure support.


The aluminum panels pop open with a slight tug and close easily with
a similarly positive push along the perimeter.

Panel thickness is 2mm: Enough to be reasonably rigid for aluminum
but still quite light.


All panels removed, view from left side…


…and the right. Note cables from fan controller on back panel.

The inside chassis is made of steel. A nice touch: The side and top edges of
the interior frame are lined with a strip of material resembling thin weatherstripping
to act as damping when the aluminum panels are in place. The drive cage is not
terribly restrictive for airrflow from the intake fan, but since no HDD or optical
drive is planned for this build, it’s coming out. Luckily, it’s all secured
with screws, so the task is simple.

An Aside: Take note that if you plan to install
a optical drive in this case, the drive cage must remain, and only slim
optical drives can be used. Sometimes an optical drive is needed, especially
for older software, but since the vast majority of current games are sold
via direct download, we suggest an external USB-powered slim optical drive
as the better option. An external Bluray drive like this Samsung might be
handy, but if you’re into lots of Bluray movies, then a built-in drive makes
more sense.

ASSEMBLY CONTINUED

The filter and grill over the front fan looks rather restrictive, so a preemptive
removal of the unnecessary grill was done. Just the filter remains.


Unnecessary grill over front fan.

With grill removed, the filter remains. Note that although the aluminum
front panel has generous openings for airflow on the top and bottom, only
the bottom is open when the top panel is in place.

After drive cage removal.

Oddly, the vent holes on the side panel are much smaller than those on
the top panel. Side panel venting is much more important when cooling
a video card, so this could turn out to be a problem.

Both top and side panels are lined with a dust filter more restrictive
than that used over the front fan.

The heatsink, its fan, the RAM and the Kingston M.2 SSD were all installed
on the motherboard before it was put in the case. With such an open frame, the
procedure was easy as pie. Putting the VGA card into its slot was also easy,
with enough room all around. Initially, the CPU cooler fan and the case fans
were all plugged into the ASUS Z97I-PLUS fan headers.


Extra lengths of cables stuffed behind PSU compartment where they
have no effect on cooling. Lots of room above the CPU cooler, but a taller
heatsink with a bigger 140mm fan would have got very close the back of
the video card. (The back case fan was removed for testing at this stage.)
Note the rubber feet, much taller than usual: Of this we approve. Often
the feet on cases are too short and leave too little room for airflow
under the PSU. There is a vent with intake dust filter (unnecessary for
our fanless PSU) underneath the PSU.


The front area is bare without HDD cage and extra cabling hidden. Perhaps
2cm separates CPU cooler and back of graphics card. There’s no more than
1cm between side panel and VGA fans.

The LEDs on the case are soft and muted, appropos for a Silent PC.

TESTING

System Configuration:

  • Intel Core i5-4690K processor – 3.5 GHz (3.9 GHz with Turbo
    Boost), 22nm, 88W, integrated HD 4600 graphics
  • Silverstone Argon AR03 CPU cooler
  • ASUS Z97I-PLUS – Intel Z97 chipset, mini-ITX
  • ASUS
    Strix GeForce GTX 980
    graphics card – 2048 CUDA cores, 1178
    MHz clock (1279 MHz with GPU Boost), 7010 MHz memory
  • Kingston
    HyperX Genesis
    memory – 2x4GB, DDR3-1600, C10
  • Kingston SSDNow M.2 2280 240GB solid-state drive
  • Rosewill Legacy W1-S case – mini-ITX
  • Seasonic X-520 Platinum 80+ fanless power supply – ATX, modular,
    520W
  • Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate operating system, 64-bit

Measurement and Analysis Tools

Baseline Noise

Before any load testing, a quick look at the noise produced by each part was
considered. The only noise sources at idle are the two case fans, the VGA cooler
fans and the fan on the Silverstone AR03 CPU heatsink. The system was powered
up and left in idle, and fans stopped/unplugged in turn. The ASUS Z97I-PLUS
is a full featured board with an excellent BIOS that is worthy of a stand-alone
review, but we discovered a major impediment: Its two non-CPU 4-pin fan headers
run the fans in the Rosewill W1-S case only at full speed. We did not have time
to check whether the ASUS fan headers had the same limitation with other 3-pin
fans, but with the Rosewill fans, no adjustments in the BIOS or the FanExpert
utility helped.


The 14cm case fan proved to be a tough nut. The FanExpert utilities in
the Z97I-Plus board and our fan control reference ASUS P8Z77-V Pro board
could not glean any useful information, not even maximum speed (unless
you mistakenly accept the ~6000 or ~9000 RPM readings).

We resorted to our old tried-and-true method of RPM measurement on light
colored fan blades: Blacken the ends of all but one blade with a felt
pen so our optical tachometer can count the reflection off that one light
colored blade. The back panel fan is shown here in the case, behind the
similarly-treated fan of the Silverstone AR03.

By using a black felt pen and optical tachmeter as described in the caption
above, we finally determined that the full speed of the case fan is ~1100 RPM,
and its start voltage/speed is around 3.5V/330RPM. Both the front and the back
fan have very nice sound quality: Smooth, mostly broadband, even at maximum
speed, and very little in extraneous noises like ticking or buzzing as speed
is lowered.

Since the W1-S case is equipped with a fan controller apparently designed to
control the included fans, it was pressed into service. It is the way most buyers
of the Rosewill case will connect and control these fans.

GTX 980 Mini-ITX Gamer PC
Rosewill Legacy W1-S case
Component Noise Levels
Noise Sources
RPM
SPL @1m
Baseline
N/A
11 dBA
GPU fan
740 (min)
16 dBA
CPU fan
700 (min)
11 dBA
1200 (~6V)
17 dBA
1400 (~7V)
22 dBA
1700 (~9V)
29 dBA
2140 (max)
35 dBA
Case fans
520 (low)
12 dBA
1100 (high)
24.5 dBA
Measuring mic positioned 1m at diagonal angle left/front
of case.
Ambient noise level 10~11 dBA@1m.

The case fans at low are extremely quiet. They stand up well against any 140mm
fans we’ve tested, at least for low noise. Together with the Silverstone AR03
fan at its minimum speed, the total SPL of the system is just 13 dBA@1m. But
with both fans on high, the 24.5 dBA@1m SPL is too loud at idle to be a SPCR-quiet
PC.

It becomes very clear what our challenge will be here. Since the case fans
on the high setting reach nearly 25 dBA, we must use them on low. (Of course,
with an on-board or external fan controller that provides a wider range of fan
speeds, we’d have more flexibility.) At the same time, the CPU fan must not
be allowed to go over 1200~1300 RPM to keep its output to under 20 dBA. Finally,
the fans on the ASUS Strix GTX 980 must be kept under 1000 RPM, yet its GPU
temperature must not reach 90°C, beyond which its fail-safe 100% fan speed
kicks in.

It is, as so often is the case, a matter of finely balancing cooling and noise:
Keep the fans spinning slowly enough for them to remain very quiet, yet still
pushing enough airflow to keep the components from getting too hot.

STRESS TESTING: CPU-CENTRIC

System Measurements
System State
Idle
x264 Playback
Video Encoding
Prime95x4
CPU Fan
720 RPM
CPU
27°C
28°C
39°C
44°C
MB
33°C
37°C
SSD
n/a
GPU
36°C
38°C
SPL@1m
13 dBA
Power (AC)
35W
39W
81W
98W
Case fans at 500 RPM (low), GPU fans off (auto).
Ambient temperature: 21°C.

We began by testing the system with CPU-centric applications to see how it
performs with non-gaming tasks. It’s clear that despite its higher TDP (88W
vs 84W) this Core i5-4690K is considerably less power hungry CPU than the i7-4770K
we used in the Quiet ATX Gamer. Even when you consider the absence of a 3.5″
HDD and the use of an 80+ Platinum efficiency PSU in this rig, the 131W AC with
Prime95 (x8) in the ATX Gamer versus 98W in this system with Prime95 (x4) is
striking. As you’ll see in the later tests with the full load tests where the
CPU and GPU had exactly the same load (Furmark + Prime95x2) as in the Quiet
ATX Gaming system, AC power consumption remained lower by 15~20W throughout.
This i5-4690K may be an exceptionally efficient sample, or perhaps it’s the
result of improving yields in Intel manufacturing.* Whatever the reasons, with
this modest thermal load, the Silverstone AR03 CPU cooler just cruises at with
its fan 700 RPM; there’s no need to run the fan speed any higher, even if the
ambient room temperature jumps to tropical levels.

*CA Steve, one of our trusty forum mods, comments: “The Devil’s Canyon
parts use a different TIM which should lower the temps a bit. The lower temps
might lead to a couple of the watts saved vs the earlier i7. The majority
of the savings is most likely yield and process improvements.”

STRESS TESTING: GPU-CENTRIC

A. FAILED RUNS

We won’t clutter this article with all the information about our initial failed
trials. They were failures for one key reason: The GPU exceeded 90°C and
its fans kicked into high gear, with SPL going over 30 dBA@1m. The GPU would
then cool down over the next minute or two, and once temperatures dropped a
few degrees below 90°C, the preset fan profile would take over (39% or ~990
RPM), bringing the noise down to under 20 dBA. But with continued Furmark load,
the temperature would exceed 90°C again. As long as Furmark was running,
the Strix GTX 980 fans cycled between pretty darn quiet to fail-safe loud over
about a 3~4 minute period. Putting the case fans to high speed only stretched
the cycling time, and it pushed the default SPL of the system to 25 dBA, so
this was no solution, anyway.

The only thing that helped was to open up the case. Removing the left side
panel kept GPU temperature under 80°C even at full load, with the GPU fans
at just 38%. (All this was at 20~23°C room ambient.) The price? The noise
of the fans, especially the rougher GPU cooler fans, became finely audible.
The overall SPL was still modest, just around 20 dBA@1m, but the noise of the
fans was a bit too richly detailed for us. This exercise told us that the only
way to keep the GPU under 90°C with its fans running at <1000 RPM is
to increase cool airflow to the GPU fans.

How could this be done without removing the side panel altogether or individually
enlarging each of the small vent holes in the panel? The latter would be a messy,
tedious job, and most user would shy away from this case if that kind of mod
proved necessary.

There is one small detail mentioned in our look through the case: The side
panel has a dust filter, a sheet of perforated plastic glued on the inside of
the side panel vent holes. In case you’ve forgotten, here’s that pic again.

Side panel with plastic film dust filter over VGA vent holes.


Side panel after “mod”.

You knew this mod was coming, didn’t you? A utility knife was used to pry under
the plastic sheet to carefully peel it off. The adhesive is only under the non-perforated
side strips. The end result is the bare unadored metal in the second photo above.
Would this make a difference? As it turns out, yes, just enough.

B. SUCCESS

System Measurements
(After side dust filter removal)
System State
Prime95x4
Resident Evil 6 Benchmark
Prime95x2 + FurMark
GPU Fan RPM
off (auto)
870 (38%)
990 (39%)
1630 RPM (auto)
CPU
44°C
51°C
54°C
51°C
MB
37°C
44°C
46°C
44°C
SSD
n/a
GPU
38°C
79°C
86°C
72°C
SPL@1m
13 dBA
18 dBA
19.6 dBA
25 dBA
System Power (AC)
98W
237 W
275W
272W
*Custom fan profile used on ASUS GPU Tweak:
Fans turn on at 60°C at 35%, switch to 39% at 75°C then 40% at
87°C. These settings were established through a lengthy iterative
process of tweaking. CPU fan constant at 700 RPM, system fans at 520 RPM
(low). Ambient temperature: 22°C.

 


Quiet Mini-ITX GamerI at idle.


Quiet Mini-ITX GamerI at full load.

Once the GPU is fully loaded, it heats up the whole interior, causing a 7~10°C
increase in CPU and motherboard temperatures. But with the slightly lowered
airflow impedance of the side panel vents, our custom GPU Tweak fan profile
kept the GPU from reaching 90°C. At this point in the fan curve, a 1% change
in CPU Tweak’s fan speed setting is equal to about 1 dBA@1m.

We were quite pleased to finally get the maximum load noise to under 20 dBA@1m.
It took a full day of experimentation to achieve it. With the 13 dBA@1m noise
level at idle, the system is quiet enough to be barely audible in a quiet room
when placed atop your desk close to the monitor.

If room ambient temperature goes up to, say, 27°C, these setting might
not work; if the GPU exceeds 90°C then the cooler fans would ramp up. At
that point, it would be quieter to just leave that side panel off, and position
yourself to the right of the system. That would still be just 20 dBA@1m with
our settings.

On the other hand, Furmark + Prime95x2 is still at least 10% (more often 15~20%)
higher power load than any game, and unlike games whose power varies dynamically,
this stress load is constant. So there’s a decent chance that even with a warmer
ambient, this system as it is configured would remain under 20 dBA@1m.

AUDIO RECORDING

This recording was made with a high resolution, lab quality, digital recording
system inside SPCR’s own 11 dBA ambient anechoic chamber, then converted to
LAME 128kbps encoded MP3s. We’ve listened long and hard to ensure there is no
audible degradation from the original 24/88 WAV files to these MP3s. They represent
a quick snapshot of what we heard during the review.

The recording starts with 7 seconds of ambient noise, then ~10 second segments
of the system at various states. For the most realistic
results, set the volume so that the starting ambient level is just barely audible,
then don’t change the volume setting again while listening.

OTHER OPTIONS

More storage would be an obvious want for many users. For those seeking the
lowest noise, find a good price on a 2.5″ 1TB SSD.

You can mount it in front of the PSU in the lower compartment, or on the floor
of the upper compartment where the drive cage used to be. All you really need
is one screw hole, but be careful of the connectors to the drive. They often
protrude beyond the thickness of the drive and if the SSD is screwed down hard
against a wide flat surface, those connectors can break the plastic sockets
on the drive. Grommet spacers to leave a bit of space between SSD and the chassis
panel will prevent this.

For those seeking more capacity, a hard drive is the obvious option, whether
it’s inside the PC or external, either in a NAS or something like an eSATA/USB 3.0 External Drive. The external options are pretty obvious, so let’s focus
on how to install a 3.5″ HDD in the Rosewill W1-S case.

The simple way is to leave the hard drive cage in place and mount your drive(s)
in it conventionally. This will increase the noise by mechanical conduction
of the drive vibrations into the case and its panels. Just how much noise is
created depends on the specifics of your HDD. In general, the slower RPM (5400/5900)
drives are quieter and vibrate less than higher speed models. The drive(s) and
the cage may also impede the airflow from the front fan enough to cause component
temperatures to rise bit. That’s OK at modest loads but it could upset the thermal/noise
balance when the system is under load.

The silent HDD mounting technique long espoused by SPCR is suspension with
elastic cord. It can dramatically reduce HDD noise. The effect is especially
noticeable when the rest of the system is already super quiet. There’s a myriad
of ways to accomplish this, limited only by your imagination and DIY skills.
In the W1 case, the top U-section side bars of the inner frame are obvious candidates
for stringing up elastic cord, but you may have to drill. If you use a high
capacity 2.5″ HDD, then it can be easily suspended in the existing HDD
cage. If you’re determined to have silent large capacity storage in this system,
read or at least scan through the following articles, then formulate your approach.

CONCLUSIONS

This Mini-ITX Build was successfully completed despite our initial struggles
keeping the VGA card’s fans from scrambling into fire emergency mode. The end
result is a handsome system small enough to put atop most desks, be quiet enough
to be aurally unnoticeable there, and only become audible under intense gaming
load when you’re least likely to notice. The 13 dBA@1m at idle/low load translates
to a slightly higher 14~15 dBA when the machine is closer to you as it would
be on the desktop, but we can assure you this is an extremely quiet system,
with a smooth broadband signature that’s barely audible even from just a foot
away. If your hearing is so sensitive that this noise actually bothers you, typing on any keyboard will completely drown it out.

SPCR’s Quiet Mini-ITX Gaming PC Component List
SPCR Build Components
Street Price
Alternatives
Rosewill Legacy W1-S
$110
Fractal Design Node 304
Silverstone Sugo SG09
Bitfenix Prodigy
ASUS Strix GTX 980
$580
ASUS Strix GTX 970
MSI GTX 980
MSI GTX 970
ASUS Z97I-Plus
$160
MSI Z97I Gaming
Gigabyte GA-Z97N-Gaming 5
ASRock Z97E-ITX/ac
Intel Core i5-4690K
$190
Core i5-4690S
Core i5-4670
Core i5-4670K
Core i5-4570
Core i5-4590
Silverstone Argon AR03
$50
Coolermaster Hyper 212 Plus Universal
Scythe Mugen 4
Be Quiet! Shadow Rock Slim
Scythe Kotetsu
Kingston SSDNow M.2 2280 240GB
$160
Crucial M550 M.2 Type 2280 512GB
Transcend MTS800 M.2 512GB
Samsung XP941 512GB M.2
Seasonic X-520 Fanless
$140
Silverstone Nightjar NJ520
Rosewill Silent Night 500
Kingwin STR-500
Seasonic X-460
Kingston HyperX Genesis 2x4GB 1866MHz
DDR3
$95
Kingston HyperX Fury 8GB Kit (2x4GB) 1600MHz
DDR3
Patriot Viper 8GB Kit (2x4GB) 1866MHz DDR3
TOTAL
$1485
Options
Samsung 840 EVO 1TB 2.5″
Crucial M550 1TB 2.5″
WD Red 4TB 3.5″
WD Green 4TB 3.5″
Samsung External Bluray Drive
Retail prices are subject to constant fluctuations.
Please use the shopping links to check on current pricing; don’t rely
on the prices cited in non-linked text.

Again, the ASUS Strix GTX 980 is the hero of the build, with its remarkable
efficiency and canny fan control system. The new Core i5-4690K used in this
build provided both thermal and monetary savings, with little if any impact
on gaming performance compared to the 4770K used in our ATX Gamer rig. There
are probably better mini-ITX cases for a quiet gaming build than the Rosewill
Legacy W1-S, which suffers a bit from restricted airflow for the graphics card.
We’ve shown here that with the right choice of components and the minor “mod”
of removing the dust filter for the VGA intake vent, this case works perfectly
well. You may need to dust off the interior a little more often without that
filter, but the Legacy W1-S has easily removed outer panels that make such routines
a cinch.

All the other components in the build played their parts, too. The Seasonic
X-520 80+ Platinum fanless PSU never made a peep throughout the testing and
tweaking, hardly getting even warm to the touch while providing perfectly stable
voltages. The Silverstone Argon AR03 did a great job of keep the CPU well cooled
at near-inaudible fan speed, even when the upper chamber was cooking with the
heat from the GTX 980. Aside from its inability to control the somewhat mysterious
fans in the Rosewill case, the ASUS Z97I-Plus motherboard was a pleasure to
work with. Kingston’s tiny M.2 SSD helped to keep cabling to a minimum, while
its HyperX RAM did yeoman duty.

The total cost of the build comes to ~US$1,500 and if you choose some of the
more value-conscious alternatives, like the GTX 970, you can cut that by about
US$300 while still maintaining a high quality gaming experience. This concludes
the third of our Silent Gaming PC Build Guides. Please support SPCR and help
us present many more build guides by using our sponsor advertising links for
your shopping.

Many thanks to Intel,
ASUS, Kingston,
Silverstone,
Seasonic, and
Rosewill for sponsoring
the components in this build guide.

* * *

Articles of Related Interest
Quiet ATX Gamer, R5 Version
SPCR’s Quiet ATX
Gaming Build Guide

Crucial MX100 512GB
& Samsung 850 Pro 256GB SSDs

Silent Mid Gaming PC Build Guide

Recommended Power Supplies
Recommended
Hard Drives

Case
Basics & Recommendations

Recommended Heatsinks

* * *

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