Our second mini-ITX gaming build guide is centered around creating a powerful yet quiet system inside the ultra small, limited edition NCASE M1 case. Don’t let the wee photo fool you; the M1 is less than half the size of the Rosewill W1-S case you’ve seen recently in a similar photo on these snippet pages.
December 24, 2014 by Lawrence Lee with Mike Chin
Earlier this month we built a high-end
mini-ITX gaming system that produced just 13 dBA@1m at idle and 20 dBA@1m
on full load. It featured an ASUS STRIX GTX 980, which has an excellent stock
cooling solution, and the Rosewill Legacy W1-S, a somewhat spacious case with
a good feature-set. The W1-S has room for a large tower heatsink, a segregated
power supply compartment, a pair of silky smooth 140 mm fans, and a built-in
fan controller. However, with a total volume of 31.2 Liters, it’s hardly small.
In fact, it’s larger than a couple of microATX models we’ve examined, the Rosewill
Legacy U3, and SilverStone
For our second mini-ITX attempt, we aspire to a greater challenge, to assemble
a similar high performance gaming PC in a much smaller case, one that is less
than half the size. Anyone can accomplish this with off the shelf parts but
the tricky part is to do it without compromising on noise. Muffling hot-running
components in a tiny, cramped box is no easy task, but it’s certainly possible
with the right components. Given the criteria we’ve set for ourselves, it’s
going to be a pricey endeavor.
Case: NCASE M1 – US$185 + US$30~$55 shipping
The NCASE M1 is
not only the first high profile, crowd-funded PC case, it’s perfect for this
challenge. In fact, if the M1 didn’t exist this build probably wouldn’t come
together at all. The M1 is the end-result of a project initiated by users unsatisfied
with the selection of mini-ITX offerings on the market. Designed by enthusiasts
for enthusiasts, it has a clean yet striking appearance, a delightfully compact
form, excellent ventilation, and supports various hardware configurations. On
the downside, it’s quite expensive due to the aluminum panels and the small
scale of manufacturing. There are also significant delays between production
runs and long shipping times unless you pay extra.
The dimensions are just 25.1 x 33.3 x 16.0 cm or 9.9 x 13.1 x 6.3 inches (H x D x W), so the M1 occupies a space of just 12.6 Liters. Despite its size, it supports both SFX and some ATX power supplies, a slot-loading slim optical drive, up to four 120 mm fans, CPU coolers up to 13.0 cm (5.1 in) in height, and video cards up to 31.8 cm (12.5 in) in length.
Power Supply: SilverStone SX600-G 600W – US$130
For this build, an ATX power supply is out of the question as it makes one of the side 120 mm fan mounts unusable. This position is being reserved to mount a radiator to water cool the graphics card. There are fewer choices for the smaller SFX form factor as SilverStone seems to be the only big name manufacturer producing 400W+ units. Luckily their SX600-G fits the bill nicely, a highly efficient, modular SFX model with a reasonably quiet fan that only makes its presence known under heavy load.
GPU: Zotac GeForce GTX 970 – $330
The graphics card is the heart and soul of any gaming PC but it’s also the
biggest challenge from an acoustic perspective, consuming more power and generating
more heat than any other component. Energy efficiency is ultimately the key
to producing quiet operation, so naturally we turned to Nvidia’s latest GeForce
GTX 900 series. The 980 is the fastest single GPU graphics card available but
the 970 delivers about 80%~90% of the same performance and its thermal envelope
is lower, 145W vs. 165W. In a build like this, every watt counts, so the lower
tier card gets the nod. It’s also more than US$200 cheaper which helps
offset the expense of the other parts required to reach our lofty goals.
Of the four different 970’s offered in their catalogue, Zotac has graciously
provided us with their most basic model which interestingly has an unusually
short PCB. According to the specifications, it doesn’t cut any corners from
the reference design aside from a slightly lower maximum GPU Boost frequency
of 1216 MHz rather than 1250 MHz, a rather small difference. Users with smaller
cases should delight in this compact form factor, especially its standard board
width. During the course of fleshing out smaller gaming builds, we’ve run into
compatibility issues due to wider than usual PCBs and/or cooling solutions.
Unfortunately, this particular card is equipped with a rather modest dual fan heatsink, but with what we’re trying to accomplish, any traditional cooler isn’t going to cut it in such tight quarters. For our purposes, the stock cooling solution is irrelevant, unless it happens to be water cooled.
COMPONENT SELECTION (Con’t)
GPU Cooler: Arctic Accelero Hybrid II-120
With all the components inside the M1 being in close proximity to one another,
the key to making it quiet will be getting the heat out as efficiently as possible.
The best way to do this is with liquid cooling as it transfers the heat to a
radiator at a vent where it is quickly expelled out of the PC with an exhaust
fan. The Arctic Accelero
Hybrid II-120 performed admirably when we tested it on a factory-overclocked
GTX 680, which has a much higher power draw than the GTX 970. As a bonus, both
the stock fan and the pump are very quiet compared to most AIO cooling units.
The only issue is the chunky backside heatsink which creates interference issues.
It’s designed to cool the VRMs and memory chips passively but blocks a considerable
amount of space above the graphics card.
The best alternative is the NZXT
G10 GPU bracket which adapts any water cooling unit with an Asetek design
(round pump/base) for video card use. It ships with its own fan to cool the
VRMs but unfortunately in our case, the fan would have been positioned on the
wrong side of the card. Third party air cooling solutions are certainly feasible
in larger, better spaced out cases, but our tiny box is too cramped to make
this an effective option.
Radiator Fan: Scythe GlideStream 120-MP – US$12
System Fan: Noiseblocker B12-2 – £14
On paper it doesn’t appear that we require any case fans but how often does
everything go according to plan? The stock fan that ships with the Hybrid II-120
inexplicably died so the PWM model of the Scythe GlideStream 120 will
act as its replacement. The GlideStream series is imbued with above average
performance and acoustics according
to our testing. The heatsink portion of the GPU cooler eventually hit the
chopping block as well, so a Noiseblocker B12-2 fan will be used to
help cool down the VRMs of the video card. The Noiseblocker is thus far our
most efficient tested fan, and while its noise profile is less impressive
than GlideStream, we only plan on running it at very low speeds, so it should
be drowned out by the rest of the system.
Other members of the GlideStream and older Slip Stream family perform admirably,
as does the classic Nexus Real Silent case fan which still holds up even after
many years of service as our 120 mm reference fan. European users should take
note of the Noiseblocker
M12-S1 as a possible alternative as it offers almost as much cooling
capability as the B12, but with a much smoother sound
Core i5-4690K – US$220
Intel’s superior energy efficiency has us going back to their Haswell processors
time and time again. Even if AMD were an option, no manufacturer is currently
selling a mini-ITX version using their flagship AM3+ socket. Quad core Haswell
deliver excellent all-around performance, both in single and multi-threaded
applications/games. An ideal choice is the Core i5-4690K, a quad core chip running
at 3.4 GHz (up to 3.8 GHz with Turbo Boost) with an unlocked multiplier for
easy overclocking to improve overall performance further. Honestly, any of the
4xxx series would perform similarly in terms of gaming as CPU bottlenecking
isn’t much of an issue with GTX 970, so which particular model isn’t overly
CPU Cooler: Noctua NH-D9L
– US$57 (MSRP)
While the CPU is easier to cool and doesn’t generate nearly as much heat as the GPU during a gaming session, the tight confines of this case means that everything will run hotter, so a strong performer is ideal. The M1 has a CPU heatsink height limit of 130 mm with the side fan bracket installed (which we need). This isn’t bad for a smaller case, but it rules out a plethora of tower models, including many with 92 mm fans like the SilverStone Argon AR02. We initially wanted to use the Noctua NH-C14, a large top-down heatsink, but it’s so wide that it interferes with the radiator. Most larger top-down coolers have too large a footprint, while the smaller models may be insufficient.
Luckily Noctua recently released a short tower cooler standing only 110 mm
tall due to hit store shelves soon. With its dual tower design, the NH-D9L is
essentially a miniature version of their flagship NH-D15,
but with just one low-sitting 92 mm fan in the center. While we have yet to
test this model, we have no reason to doubt its capabilities given Noctua’s
track record. The down-blowing NH-L12
is a suitably sized replacement but nothing beats a side-blowing tower to dump
heat out of the case, aside from water cooling that is. We could use a second
AIO cooler for the CPU as well but it’s difficult to achieve a low idle noise
level with two pumps running simultaneously.
CPU Fan #2: Noctua NF-A9 PWM – US$18
As the NH-D9L ships with a second set of fan clips and a PWM splitter, to ensure
success, we’ll arm it with a second fan. The cooler is equipped with an NF-A9
PWM, so a second of the same model will create a symmetric push-pull dynamic.
COMPONENT SELECTION (Con’t)
Z97I-PLUS – US$150
The motherboard isn’t usually a factor in gaming performance as long as it
has a full-sized PCI-E slot, but it’s still not a component that you want to skimp on. With this build, we don’t need a ton of features but it should be noted that we’re going to have four fans in total, and our configuration prevents us from using almost all the available drive bays.
The ASUS Z97I-PLUS is just what the doctor ordered, a mini-ITX board with three controllable fan headers and a M.2 storage option on the back of the board. The ASRock Z97E-ITX/ac is the only other Z97 mini-ITX model we could find with an M.2/mSATA option.
The three fan headers are capable of both PWM and DC (voltage control) so it doesn’t matter what type of fans are used. Fan speed behavior can be
configured in the UEFI BIOS or via the ASUS Fan Xpert utility and each individual
header can be set to react to any of the onboard temperature sensors, making
it a more dynamic system than most. The only negative is the headers are located near the I/O panel so they’re difficult to reach once the CPU heatsink and motherboard has been installed. We suggest connecting the fans before securing the board to the standoffs.
SSD: Kingston M.2 2280 240GB – US$160
2.5-inch SATA Alternatives:
Solid-state storage may be the most significant advance in the last decade
for silent computing. With no moving parts, they generate zero noise, but also
have ridiculously low latency, resulting in fast loading times. As games continue
to grow in complexity, having an SSD becomes increasingly advantageous. A 240~256GB
model should be considered a starting point; with Windows and a few triple-A
gaming titles installed, a smaller drive could be filled close to capacity.
Also, with ever increasing memory density, fewer dies are needed, which can
mean fewer read/write channels being used and slower performance for SSDs of lower capacity.
The way we have the cooling setup in the system leaves limited storage options
as there is only one official 2.5 inch drive mount open at the front of the
case, next to the radiator. An M.2 drive, the Kingston 2280 240GB, is a budget
model with a Phison controller that doesn’t have the horsepower to take advantage
of the extra bandwidth provided by the form factor, but when it comes to differences
in loading times between various SSDs, we’re usually talking about fractions
of a second. Tucked on the backside of the motherboard, this choice leaves the
remaining 2.5 inch bay free for a mechanical hard drive if cheaper high capacity
storage is required.
HyperX Genesis Kit 2x4GB 1866MHz DDR3 –
Precisely what RAM is used as system memory is not critical, although other
web sites have identified DDR1600 to DDR1833 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 of money unless
you have a specific need for it, and RAM is one of the easiest things to upgrade later in a system, if you really need it for some new application. We 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. Kingston HyperX RAM has been
solid for us, and it sports lower profile heatspreaders that don’t get in the
way of big heatsinks.
Putting together a packed mini-ITX system can be frustrating but our build proceeded with relatively little stress. The most difficult part of the procedure is ensuring all the headers in difficult to reach spots are connected before installing the larger components and keeping all the cables from impeding the radiator fan. Wire clutter can be a serious issue in the M1 as there are few spots to tie down cabling.
Measurement and Analysis Tools
Stress Testing: CPU-centric
Sitting idle with only the Accelero Hybrid II-120’s pump and the power supply fan turned on, the system measured 15~16 dBA@1m and this increased to 17 dBA@1m once the remaining fans were set to modest speeds. The noise level is low but could be quieter by utilizing a video card with a stock heatsink with the ability to shut its fans down completely when the GPU isn’t being stressed. A higher idle noise level is unavoidable when an closed-loop cooler is employed in a fairly open case like the M1, but the benefit will become clear later on.
System Power (AC)
CPU and system fans at 550 RPM.
Radiator fan at 700 RPM.
System noise level: 17 dBA@1m.
Ambient temperature: 22°C.
We begin by testing the system with CPU-centric applications to see how it
performs with non-gaming tasks. Of course the machine runs quite cool under light load, with CPU, motherboard, and GPU temperatures under 35°C. Video encoding with TMPGEnc heats up the CPU by an additional 23°C, but surprisingly, the motherboard temperature increases by 10°C as well. This isn’t something we typically see in larger cases so we speculate that it’s simply a matter of proximity. Everything inside the M1 is so close together so the heat put out by the processor more greatly affects everything around it. The GPU is liquid cooled but the chipset doesn’t receive any direct help, so it bears the brunt of it. A full run of Prime95 pushes the CPU to 69°C, a mark we really don’t want to exceed as our i5-4690K begins to throttle at 72~73°C.
Stress Testing: GPU-centric
For our GPU-intensive states, we use the Resident Evil 6 Benchmark Tool which benchmarks for a couple of minutes, displays the result, pauses for a short interval, and repeats. We tried a few other games but this one seemed to put the most demand on the GPU. The other test is a more demanding combination of Prime95 and FurMark, an incredibly stressful utility that pushes the GPU to its limit. For this state, we run Prime95 with only two threads instead of the maximum four, as most games run with less than 50% CPU utilization. The two combined still produces much more heat than any PC game title. When we torture-tested the ASUS STRIX GTX 980, a fan override activated at a GPU temperature of about 90°C so we settled on 85°C as a target, and we’ll do the same here for the GTX 970.
Resident Evil 6 Benchmark
Prime95x2 + FurMark
CPU Fan Speed
Radiator Fan Speed
System Power (AC)
System fan at 550 RPM.
Ambient temperature: 22°C.
Despite almost doubling the system power draw compared to a full blast of Prime95,
the Resident Evil 6 test doesn’t prove to be much of a challenge. The same modest
fan speeds result in acceptable CPU and GPU temperatures but the noise increases
by 4 dB to 21 dBA@1m. As the fan speeds are identical, the cause can be attributed
to the power supply fan ramping up and a considerable amount of coil whine emanating
from the graphics card. When the benchmark is running, the GPU produces a steady,
moderately high-pitched buzzed which is easily audible over the rest of the
components. However, this effect only becomes annoying between runs and while
sitting at the loading screen, when the buzzing turns into a full-on screech.
More consistent stress on the GPU actually makes the whine go away completely,
as is the case when Prime95 and FurMark are run concurrently. This higher load
state actually lowers the noise level slightly despite a 5°C spike in GPU
temperature. Unfortunately, the extra demand is too much for the CPU which hits
72°C, so it begins to throttle off and on. Increasing the CPU fan speed
quickly solves the problem, dropping the temperature back to the mid-60’s. Speeding
up the radiator fan by just 200 RPM results in a 9°C GPU temperature drop
in exchange for a modest SPL increase. If you can tolerate a noisier system,
there’s plenty of headroom available if you prefer lower temperatures or want
to try your hand at video card overclocking.
Unfortunately our GTX 970 lacks a VRM temperature sensor so we can’t be certain
how well the 120 mm equipped on the case floor helps in that regard, but our
system is completely stable without any odd behavior or artifacting so it can
be assumed the VRMs are adequately cool.
The sound of water sloshing inside the Accelero Hybrid II is audible when the PC is first turned on, but after a few minutes of warming up, it calms down. At idle, the system we built has a pleasant acoustic profile with a mostly broadband frequency distribution. On full load, the machine mostly sounds the same except for some tonality at ~160 and ~200 Hz but it’s not really audible.
The Prime95+FurMark test puts more stress on the whole system, producing more
low frequency noise (probably caused by the power supply fan), while the Resident
Evil 6 causes high frequency coil whine in the 2~20 KHz range — the difference
is plain as day.
Editor’s Note Upon reading about the buzzing video card
Naturally we have had no chance to try this yet but will report back
As the Accelero Hybrid II-120’s stock fan is swapped out with a regular case
fan, there is little need for a GPU utility like GPU Tweak or MSI Afterburner
unless overclocking is on the table. The ASUS Fan Xpert 3 can control all the
fans and monitor temperatures but the version that ships with our ASUS Z97I-PLUS
has a previously unknown fault.
After about five minutes on the full load test, all the connected fans inexplicably
ramp up. In this state, according to Fan Xpert, all the fans should be running
at their designated reduced speeds, but in actuality, they kick up to full speed.
While no such option is available in the utility or in the UEFI BIOS, there
seems to be built-in fail-safe that kicks in when the temperatures reached a
certain point. Closing Fan Xpert before loading the system prevented this from
happening. This is very odd as we did not encounter this type of behavior with
the Z97-PRO or with the older
versions of the ASUS software.
As a result, we go back to old standby, SpeedFan. It takes some extra time to setup properly but it offers most of the same functionality, only in a less attractive (though also less complicated) form. For some odd reason the only sensor missing is the speed of CHA_FAN1, which is powering the fan on the bottom of the case used to help cool the VRMs on the graphics card. If you’re new to this application, our SpeedFan article will guide you through the configuration process and how to setup dynamic temperature-based control.
AIDA64 is more reliable in the sensor department, displaying all the relevant information including a more detailed breakdown of CPU temperatures. Unfortunately it lacks SpeedFan’s fan controls and charting feature, so there isn’t one comprehensive replacement for the ASUS utility.
These recordings were 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 WAV files to these MP3s. They represent
a quick snapshot of what we heard during the review.
Each recording starts with ambient noise, then 5~10 second segments of product
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 comparing all the sound files.
SPCR’s Silent Mini-ITX Gaming PC #2 Component List
SPCR Build Components
Noctua NH-L12 – $65
ASRock Z97E-ITX/ac – $135
Zotac GeForce GTX 970
NZXT Kraken X31 + NZXT Kraken G10 Adapter – $100
SilverStone SX600-G 600W
Noctua NF-A9 PWM
Scythe Kama PWM 92mm – $7
Scythe GlideStream 120-MP
Noiseblocker M12-S1 – £16
Nexus Real Silent – $12
Scythe GlideStream 120-LM – $12
Scythe Slip Stream 120-M – $10
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.
Building a high performance compact gaming PC isn’t a cheap endeavor, especially
if you’re shooting for something both supremely small and quiet. Our total cost
comes out to ~US$1514 which is actually slightly more expensive than
our earlier, more powerful build with the Rosewill Legacy W1-S and GTX 980.
You can cut the budget a bit by opting for cheaper alternatives but a few of
the components are indispensable.
While overpriced for what you physically get, nothing compares to NCASE M1
when you take into account its super compact form. Of all the cases we’ve looked
at, only the SilverStone
RVZ01 comes close in volume, but its cooling options are comparably
limited. The Accelero Hybrid II-120 is also critical to the success of our build,
preventing all the heat produced by the GPU from lingering inside creating extra
thermal stress on all the other components while emitting a limited amount of
noise. CPU cooling can’t be ignore either and the Noctua NH-D9L gets the job
done with quite modest fan speeds.
Overall we are quite pleased with the final result. The noise levels we achieved aren’t quite as low as previous builds but they’re pretty darn good for a system of this size, and perfectly acceptable even by our lofty standards. Compared to an average gaming tower, this box is in an entirely different league, coming very close to meeting the requirements of an SPCR
Certified Silent PC (noise levels of 15/20 dBA@1m
or lower at idle/load).
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Articles of Related Interest
Journey to a Silent MicroATX Gamer
Arctic Accelero Hybrid II-120 Liquid GPU Cooler
Quiet Mini-ITX Gamer Build Guide
Quiet ATX Gamer, R5 Version
SPCR’s Quiet ATX Gaming Build Guide
Basics & Recommendations
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