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Quiet Mini-ITX Gaming Build Guide #3: BitFenix Prodigy Edition

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Our third quiet mini-ITX gaming build guide features the widely acclaimed BitFenix Prodigy, a largish chassis that can accommodate a variety of larger components.

Quiet Mini-ITX Gaming Build Guide #3: BitFenix Prodigy Edition

December 30, 2014 by Lawrence Lee

Assembling a quiet yet high performance gaming PC in a small case is a challenge,
but we’ve proven it can be done. Earlier this month we built a
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, a somewhat spacious case with
a good feature-set.

Our latest build reuses most of the same components from our first mini-ITX
gaming build guide, but the case has been switched out for a BitFenix Prodigy.
This popular mini-ITX case is well-regarded in enthusiast circles. We’ve finally
gotten our hands on one and are anxious to see if it truly lives up to all the
hype.

COMPONENT SELECTION

Case: BitFenix Prodigy (Black)US$80

Alternatives:


The BitFenix Prodigy (black).

It’s easy to see why the Prodigy is one of the most popular mini-ITX cases on the market. It’s a bit oversized for the form factor, with a body measuring 25.0 x 31.0 x 34.0 cm or 9.8 x 12.2 x 13.4 inches (W x H x D) for a total volume of 26.4 Liters, but with this girth comes excellent compatibility. Almost any component you can put in an ATX tower fits in the Prodigy as well, whether it be a large tower heatsink, a 240 mm radiator, a long graphics card, an ATX power supply, a standard-sized optical drive, or even an oversized 18~23 cm intake fan. The left side, where the graphics card resides is well ventilated, providing an ample supply of fresh cool air from outside the chassis. It’s available in an assortment of colors as well, but the black variant is of particular interest as it has a slightly different design that gives it a significant edge in performance.


The BitFenix Prodigy, black vs. white version.


Front mesh grill.

For unknown reasons, the black model is the only iteration of the Prodigy to
have a fully ventilated front bezel; the other versions are only equipped with
a series of small slits running along the perimeter of the front panel. The
more open design from bezel of the black version allows for much better airflow,
which is essential for a hot-running compact system. That said, the vent is
still more restrictive than we’d like, as there are several layers of impedance.
There’s a metal grill on the chassis itself, a thick plastic honeycomb one on
the bezel with each comb lined with an additional grill of large circular holes
and also a layer of fine rectangular mesh. That’s four layers of airflow impedance
in total.


Layout.

The motherboard sits horizontally with the power supply partially segregated underneath. At the front of the case is an array of drive bays, two 3.5 inch mounts on the bottom, three 3.5 inch mounts in the center, and a 5.25 inch mount at the top. All of these can be removed, with the center cage being the most likely candidate as it limits graphics card compatibility. Two 120 mm fans are provided but the front fan should be moved higher to create better front to back airflow for both the CPU and GPU. There’s are also two 120 mm fan placements at the top, an ideal spot for mounting a large radiator.


Power supply bracket.

To ease assembly, the power supply is installed by mounting it to a metal bracket
and pushing it in through the back.


Right side panel.

The most surprising aspect of the Prodigy is the unusually high build quality
of the main chassis. The side panels are refreshingly thick and sturdy, something
you wouldn’t expect in a sub-US$100 chassis. It’s a throwback to cases
from a decade ago. Two USB 3.0 ports, audio connectors, and power and reset
buttons are offered on the right side panel. There’s also a plastic mounting
grid for 2.5 inch drives.

Unfortunately the quality of construction doesn’t extend to the external plastic
structures at the top and bottom. The top piece acts as dual handles but the
area near one of the tabs that hold it in place cracked with ordinary handling
even before assembly/testing began.



Crack in the handle.

The contours also means the case the doesn’t sit flat, so the entire chassis wobbles from side to side at the slightest touch. We didn’t feel comfortable with either, so both the handle and feet were removed prior to testing, though this did ruin the case’s aesthetics.

COMPONENT SELECTION (Con’t)

GPU: ASUS
STRIX GTX 980

– US$575

Alternatives:


The STRIX GTX 980.

The ample space in the Prodigy means it can fit the largest graphics card,
including the non-reference cooler equiipped versions of the GeForce GTX 980,
regarded as the fastest single GPU card on the market today. The ASUS STRIX
GTX 980 used previously in our ATX
and first mini-ITX
build
will do nicely as it’s energy efficient, and the stock cooler
is very quiet. This card is an ideal single GPU solution for driving resolutions
beyond 1080p. If you can’t bring yourself to pony up US$500+ on a graphics
card, or are aiming for lower resolutions, a GTX 970 is a fine alternative.


Back panel.

The card has an usually wide PCB and the stock cooler has a section of thick
heatpipe jutting out the side as well, so it extends past the edge of the expansion
slot by 3.4 cm, making it incompatible with some narrower cases. (See our discussion
about this issue in Journey
to a Silent MicroATX Gamer
.) Thankfully, this isn’t an issue for the Prodigy
as its designed with the video card oriented vertically.

CPU: Intel
Core i5-4690K
– US$220

Alternatives:


Intel Core i5-4690K.

Intel’s superior energy efficiency has us coming 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 980, so which particular model isn’t overly
important.

CPU Cooler: Scythe Mugen MAXUS$55

Alternatives:


The Mugen MAX.

The latest iteration of Scythe’s successful Mugen tower coolers is the MAX,
a hefty heatsink built in the same vein as the Thermalright
HR-02
. We haven’t officially tested this model yet, but Scythe’s latest
offerings haven’t let us down, and their stock fans are consistently above average
acoustically. As the graphics card is not directly under the processor in this
case, We don’t anticipate CPU cooling to be a big issue, so really any decently
sized heatsink should be more than capable. Height isn’t a problem as the maximum
clearance is listed as 17.5 cm, but dual tower/fan models should probably be
avoided as they are overkill and may not fit if a 5.25 inch drive is utilized.


Side shot.

The Mugen MAX is asymmetric model that places the fan closer to the center and shifts the rest of the fin mass toward the other side. This allows the cooler to completely clear the memory slots in LGA115x motherboards, so RAM modules (even those with tall heatspreaders) can be swapped in/out without removing the fan.

COMPONENT SELECTION (Con’t)

Motherboard: ASUS
Z97I-PLUS
– US$150

Alternatives:


The ASUS Z97I-PLUS

Once again we press the ASUS Z97I-PLUS into action, as we have done in our last two mini-ITX build guides. A ton of features aren’t necessary, but this board happens to be well-stocked, with three controllable fan headers, an M.2 storage option on the back of the board, a built-in wireless adapter, and a boatload of overclocking options if you’re into that.


Fan headers.

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.

Power Supply: Seasonic G Series 550WUS$85

Alternatives:


SSR-550RM.

One of our previous mini-ITX gaming system with similar components drew just
under 280W AC at full load, so a high capacity power supply isn’t necessary.
The Seasonic G Series 550W is a popular modular model with 80 PLUS Gold certification
and it was used recently in our microATX
gaming build
.

While even a 500W model would suffice for this build, 650W units currently offer the best bang for your buck. The Corsair CSM/RM and Seasonic X series are good alternatives if you’re looking for quiet operation. A fanless unit is also certainly an option, though it will likely heat up the rest of the components more than an actively cooled model.

SSD: Kingston M.2 2280 240GB – US$160

2.5-inch SATA Alternatives:


Kingston HyperX 3K 240GB.

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.

For convenience, we’ll stick with the M.2 drive from the last mini-ITX build.
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. A 2.5 inch model will
provide more bang for your buck but does cause more cable clutter.

RAM: Kingston
HyperX Genesis Kit 2x4GB 1866MHz DDR3

US$95

Alternatives:


HyperX Genesis memory kit.

Precisely what RAM is used as system memory is not critical, although other
web sites have identified DDR3-1600 to DDR3-1833 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.

ASSEMBLY

As the Prodigy has modular hard drive cages and internal layout similar to that of an ATX tower, assembly can be accomplished with relatively little stress. The only issues we ran into were minor: the Mugen MAX’s fan had to be mounted after the motherboard was installed, and cable management was a bit sloppy due to I/O panel being located on the right side panel.


As there are no hard drives in this build, both drive cages were pulled out and the front fan moved further up to better match the airflow path of the exhaust fan.


The upper fan mount is located partially in the 5.25 inch bay, but removing it is a bit of an inconvenience. Alternatively, it can be installed at an angle on the honeycomb grill. As you can see, there is room for a much larger fan, as large as 23 cm.


The CPU fan doesn’t overlap the memory slots, even on this cramped mini-ITX board.


A small screwdriver is required to get the board mounted as access through the top of the chassis is quite limited.


Fully assembled. As there are holes on the case floor for standard case feet, we borrowed some from the Fractal Design Define R4.


Unfortunately, taking out the plastic bottom piece leaves behind
a series of ugly holes.


The plastic shroud of the GPU cooler almost touches the 5.25 inch bay so the PCI-E power cables can’t be routed between the gap without putting pressure on the slot.


Tying up cables is tricky business as enough slack has to be provided for the right side panel to be comfortably removed.

TESTING

System Configuration:

Measurement and Analysis Tools

SOFTWARE

Due to a bug in the ASUS Fan Xpert implementation for this board which can
sometimes override designated custom fan speeds during load, we used a third
party utility to control the speed of the various fans in our system. SpeedFan
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. 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 on the left, SpeedFan on the right (with the sensors and fan controls properly renamed).

The board’s three controllable fan headers are just the right amount for this system. The GPU’s cooler has its own fan control of course, while the CPU and case fans were hooked up to the motherboard on individual headers. For some odd reason is a missing sensor in SpeedFan, the one for CHA_FAN1, which was powering the intake fan. 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.


GPU Tweak.

For the graphics card, the provided ASUS utility, GPU Tweak is fairly solid. It offers a nice monitoring system on the left with charting available for every item imaginable pertaining to the graphics card, and basic clock and fan speed adjustment on the right with the ability to quickly save and switch profiles.


GPU Tweak: user-defined fan settings.

You’re not limited to a single fan speed as there is a dynamic method hidden
inside. Here you can tailor the fan speed curve to your personal preference,
whether it be a simple linear progression or something more complex. For an
alternative, check out MSI
Afterburner
as it provides most of the same features. Both utilities work
with other brands of cards.

BASELINE NOISE

Before any stress testing let’s take a quick look at the noise produced by each part. We did this by leaving the system on but idle, and stopping/unplugging all the fans (except for the power supply) to isolate individual components.

GTX 980 + BitFenix Prodigy System
Component Noise Levels (idle, power supply on)
Noise-producing Components
Fan Speed
SPL @1m
CPU fan
500 RPM
13~14 dBA
650 RPM
15~16 dBA
800 RPM
19~20 dBA
1000 RPM
26 dBA
Case fans
500 RPM
13~14 dBA
650 RPM
14 dBA
800 RPM
16~17 dBA
1080 (max)
23 dBA
GPU fans
730 RPM (min)
16~17 dBA
1000 RPM
21 dBA
1200 RPM
25 dBA
Measuring mic positioned 1m at diagonal angle left/front
of case.
Baseline noise level (PSU on only): 13~14 dBA@1m
Ambient noise level: 10~11 dBA@1m.

Our ultra-quiet hemi-anechoic chamber has a noise floor of 10~11 dBA@1m, and
the baseline of this system, with just the PSU on, measures 13~14 dBA@1m. The
power supply plus either the CPU fan or the two system fans running at 500 RPM
produces the same result, so both are apparently quieter than the PSU itself.
However, at higher speeds, the CPU fan starts to generate more noise than the
two case fans combined. The GPU fans actually don’t spin up at low temperatures,
so the card is completely silent much of the time. In conjunction with the PSU
fan, they emit 16~17 dBA@1m when running at 730 RPM, the starting speed. Once
a heavy graphical load is applied, the video card quickly becomes the loudest
component.

Of the three sets of fans we’re focusing on, the GPU fans are easily worst sounding. They produce multiple tonal peaks in the 200~900 Hz range, giving off a somewhat harsh, grinding type sound, so the video card fans should be kept at as low a speed as possible. The case fans are a bit of a mixed bag, with the sample at the front sounding mostly benign while the sample at the rear seems to be faulty as it generates a bit of a rattle at higher speeds. If the exhaust fan needs to be sped up during the course of testing, depending on the overall sound, it may need to be replaced to maintain acoustic integrity. The CPU fan on the other hand, has a relatively smooth acoustic profile and any negative qualities its saddled with aren’t audible from outside the case.

STRESS TESTING: CPU-centric

Testing begins with CPU-centric applications to see how it performs with non-gaming
tasks. CPU and system fans are set to a mere 500 RPM, a speed which barely has
an effect on the overall noise level, and the GPU fans are turned off as the
automatic control dictates. The machine measures just 14 dBA@1m which is just
barely audible in our anechoic chamber.

System Measurements
System State
Idle
x264 Playback
Video Encoding
Prime95x4
CPU Temp
30°C
30°C
39°C
44°C
MB Temp
31°C
31°C
36°C
39°C
GPU Temp
37°C
38°C
39°C
40°C
GPU VRM
39°C
44°C
41°C
42°C
System Power (AC)
36W
41W
84W
102W
CPU and system fans at 500 RPM. GPU fans off.
Ambient temperature: 22°C.

The system runs quite cool as one would expect, with CPU and GPU temperatures staying below the 40°C mark on lighter workloads. Video encoding and Prime95 creates much greater demand on the processor but only produces a CPU temperature rise of 9°C and 14°C respectively for the two tests. The board temperature experience moderate increases as well but the GPU for the most part is unaffected.

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 stress 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. The ASUS STRIX GTX 980 has a fan override that comes into effect at a GPU temperature of about 90°C so we’re shooting for 85°C or lower as our target.

System Measurements
System State
Prime95x4
Resident Evil 6 Benchmark
Prime95x2 + FurMark
GPU Fan
off
730 RPM
880 RPM
CPU
44°C
52°C
55°C
MB
39°C
48°C
50°C
GPU
40°C
84°C
85°C
GPU VRM
42°C
106°C
114°C
SPL@1m
14 dBA
19 dBA
20~21 dBA
Power (AC)
102W
260W
278W
CPU and system fans at 500 RPM.
Ambient temperature: 22°C.

Despite more than doubling the system power draw compared to a full four thread
blast of Prime95, the Resident Evil 6 test doesn’t prove to be much of a challenge.
The modest 500 RPM CPU/system fan speeds are still adequate and the minimum
GPU fan speed is enough to keep the graphics card under the target temperature.
The overall SPL does spike by 5 dB, with the GPU fans contributing most of the
extra noise. The Prime95 + FurMark test is much more stressful, requiring an
GPU fan speed increase of about 150 RPM, just enough to exceed the 20 dBA@1m
level. Even though neither of these two states fully load the CPU, the processor
was noticeably warmer than the Prime95-only test, a result of all the heat coming
off the graphics card.

At this point we tried to tweak the fan speeds to produce better overall performance but modest increases resulted only in slightly better temperatures and ultimately we weren’t able to drop the SPL while maintaining the same GPU temperature standard. Popping off the dust filter off the top of the case had a similar effect, giving the heat a less restrictive exhaust point but its presence helps mask some of the noise being produced. The measured noise level does change depending on where the mic is positioned in relation to the system though, as the main noise producer, the GPU fans, are located on the left side. Angling the mic more toward the front of the case can get it down to 20 dBA@1m, while aiming it straight-on to the side panel bumps it up to 22 dBA@1m.

We mentioned earlier during the baseline noise tests that the GPU fans have
an unpleasant acoustic character but thankfully it’s not as pronounced when
the rest of the fans in the system are turned on. It’s not exactly smooth as
there is an audible low-pitched hum, but overall it sounds relatively innocuous.
The system is noisier than our Rosewill Legacy W1 build by 1~2 dB, but that
machine was assembled with a fanless power supply, so it may be that the Seasonic
G Series 550W’s fan is responsible for this difference. Still, it’s very quiet
even by our standards, and we’d be more than happy to use it as a gaming PC.

AUDIO RECORDINGS

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.

FINAL THOUGHTS

SPCR’s Silent Mini-ITX Gaming PC #2 Component List
SPCR Build Components
Street Price
Alternatives
$220
$55
$150
$95
$575
$160
$80
$85
TOTAL
$1420
 
*MSRP
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, with
this particular configuration coming out to US$1420. Compared to the
build we showed
you earlier
with the Rosewill Legacy W1, it’s a bit cheaper and only
slightly louder as a fanless power supply wasn’t used. The end result is still
an exemplary gaming machine that almost satisfies the requirements of an SPCR
Certified Silent PC
(noise levels of 15/20 dBA@1m or lower at idle/load).
This PC is almost inaudible under idle conditions, and during gameplay, it produces
a level and quality of noise that is easily tuned out unless the game sound
effects are muted.

The core design of the BitFenix Prodigy case is sound and it deserves much
of the praise it receives from enthusiasts and gamers. The layout and interior
construction gives it some versatility that many mini-ITX cases lack, though
it is larger than most. Unfortunately the plastic portions that form the top
and bottom aren’t worthy of the chassis sitting between them. The top makes
a convenient handle for transporting the machine and the bottom gives the power
supply vent plenty of clearance, but they’re both shockingly weak. One of the
tabs on the top piece cracked very early on during our examination, even before
assembly began, and the wobbly bottom fills us with trepidation. Even if it’s
strong enough to support the weight of a fully configured PC, it likely amplifies
any vibration generated by the case. We would love to see an all-steel version
of the Prodigy, even if it meant bumping up the price at bit. The non-black
versions should also incorporate the less stiffling front bezel design.

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

* * *

Articles of Related Interest
Quiet Mini-ITX Gaming Build Guide #2: NCASE M1 Edition
Journey to a Silent MicroATX Gamer
Quiet Mini-ITX Gamer Build Guide
Quiet ATX Gamer, R5 Version
SPCR’s Quiet ATX Gaming Build Guide
Case
Basics & Recommendations

* * *

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