Parts Updated as of 11/18/2015
Update: Video overview is posted online! Make sure to check it out!
The Frostbite Gaming Cube is an appropriately named 1080p gaming machine that should operate around 300-400W. She’ll run cool, quiet, and play most of your games at high settings on 1080p while also allowing for the ability to upgrade to higher wattage systems (liquid cooling compatible case) for more demanding computing needs. The post is long, but I hope you like the build as a whole and the bonus RGB LED light strip at the end ;).
In the past, I've always set out with two basic criterion for selecting PC hardware components. I would find the 'best bang for the buck' components at upfront cost, particularly for the CPU and GPU. I would spend countless hours scouring price to performance ratios and spec'ing out hardware that would fit my computing needs. However, I'm going to consider a few other things in this build. I'd like to consider the environmental impact and heat dissipation concerns given that I'll be doing a micro-ITX build. Yes, with a little math, you can argue that one person's lower wattage gaming rig won't make an environmental difference, but I thought it would be fun to add this small constraint to see how energy efficient a gaming rig really can be. My criterion for the Mini Power Cube are:
- Performance (1080p Gaming)
- Price ($1000)
- Power Usage (~300-400W)
Not only does Intel excel at power usage over AMD, NVIDIA also has the upper hand on power-to-performance ratios versus AMD's discrete GPUs. When comparing a GTX 970 to an R9 290x, we see the 970 pull about 175W versus 250W for the 290x, with comparable performance. (Tom's Hardware Temp Charts). Arguments can be made for or against Intel, NVIDIA, and AMD, but the fact of the matter is that we can build computers with notably lower thermal design powers (TDPs) by using an NVIDIA/Intel combo.
So, going forward, let's put all fanboyism aside, and focus on the criterion listed above. It's absolutely possible to make a 1080p gaming machine for around $750, but I wanted a great 1080p gaming machine that’s also power efficient, hence the $1000 budget. I'm absolutely uninterested in 4K at the moment and would rather have a glorious experience at full HD for the next few years. Let’s get to the part picks and justifications.
When selecting a case for a mini-ITX build, there are more options than ever. There are some really slick cases out there, but I’d really rather stay away from the pricier ones. This won’t be a ‘designer’ custom build, but it should still look good. While the ‘coolest’ looking cases out there go easily for $200+, I tend to try and keep my case prices below $75. While I do like my PC to look nice, a $1000 build doesn’t leave a whole lot of room to go crazy on aesthetics.
After looking through some of the mini-ITX cases available, I decided to go for the Thermaltake Core V1 Snow Edition. I was amazed at the feature set it comes with for only around $55. The Core V1 comes with interchangeable side panels, a side window, quiet 200mm fan at the front, and respectable video card length support at 260mm. This case even supports 120mm or 140mm radiators for liquid cooling, and the large 200mm fan in front allows you to set up a push-pull configuration. We won’t be doing liquid cooling here, but it’s nice to know that if you ever get the itch to throw in a K-series processor for some overclocking, you can keep the system running cool by also upgrading the CPU cooler to liquid.
Central Processing Unit
I chose the i5-4590S because of its superb TDP at 65W. Even though it's over double the price ($205) of the FX-6300 ($105), the i5-4590S performs better at a much lower TDP (65W vs 95W) and has a much more updated CPU architecture than the aging FX-6300. The i5-4590S has an average CPU Mark score of 7,015 while the FX-6300 averages at 6,343 (Passmark CPU Charts). In fact, the i5-4590s outperforms AMDs FX-6350, which averages 7,015. Of course, Passmark’s benchmark doesn’t really translate to differences in gaming, but a quick YouTube search of CPU comparisons will show that the differences in gaming are negligible anyway.
Really, any i5 S-series variant will do just fine. The 4570S, 4590S, or 4670S are all rated at 65W TDP, the 4570S scores 6,623 CPU Marks at the low end of these three and the 4590s scores 7,015 CPU Marks at the high end. The low TDP helps to keep the whole system running cooler, resulting in lower fan speeds for quieter operation, and the PSU can be sized smaller allowing it run at its highest rated operating point, which is typically 50% for most PSUs. I just wouldn’t feel comfortable putting an AMD processor in an ITX build, because I’m going to be stringent on heat dissipation given that the GTX 970 will already be warming up things quite a bit on its own anyway.
Before anyone says ,”But 133t haxor gaming rigs need at least an i7-4770k for n00b pwning action!”, please read this article.
Not much to say here except that I simply need an affordable and highly respected air cooler that has a lower profile to fit in the mini ITX case (Cooler height max of 140mm/5.51in). Because the TDP of the i5 S-series is so low, we needn’t worry about liquid cooling, even though the Thermaltake Core V1 allows for it. The ARCTIC Freezer 7 Pro Rev.2 is a tried and true air cooler at only ~$20, and it will do a fine job at keeping temps low on an already cool running CPU.
Artic Silver 5. No surprises here.
Graphics Processing Unit
Originally, I chose an Asus GTX 960 Strix for this build, but then I felt like I might be able to spring for a GTX 970 to really solidify this build as a contender for a truly superb 1080p60 gaming machine. Then, I laid eyes on the Asus GTX 970 Turbo. Actually, this graphic card was the tipping point for me to revamp this build and start calling it ‘Frostbite’. I’ve never built a white color-scheme based build.
As I said in the introduction, the GTX 970s tend to consume about 75W less during gaming compared to the R9 290/290x cards. This is desirable, of course, because a purely AMD build would increase the TDP of my system from around 275W to 415W. Yikes. (I’m a huge fan of AMD, don’t get me wrong).
*Note: The Asus GTX 970 Turbo, and likely other 970 cards, tend to be long. If you don’t get a mini version of the 970, Thermaltake’s Core V1 description says that beyond 250mm, some drive bays may be blocked. However, this doesn’t matter for the Frostbite build given that I’m only using one large capacity SSD.
Power Supply Unit
I love picking out power supplies! I’m an electrical engineer, and my interest has always been in power and efficiency, so I love spending hours reading up on power supply reviews, load regulation charts, efficiency measurements, etc. I’m also a sucker for a great deal, and the nature of the PSU market allows for deep discounts on some great PSUs almost every week. Therefore, the PSU I have listed here is merely a placeholder. The price will likely fluctuate as various merchants discount this PSU, but it’s really only serving as a guide.
To fit the theme of efficiency in this build, I wanted to select an 80 PLUS Gold rated PSU. Not only that, I also kept in mind the total power requirements of the whole build, which will be around 300-400W. PSUs operate most efficiently typically around 40-50% of their rated max load, so that means we can expect an 80 PLUS Gold 550-750W PSU to operate at ~90-92% efficiency. Remember, an 850W+ PSU will begin to operate less efficiently on smaller loads just like a <500W PSU will operate less efficiently on loads nearing its max rating. We want to operate the Mini Power Cube at highest efficiency, so keep your PSU selection to 550-750W at 80 PLUS gold.
Oh. And choose at least a semi-modular PSU. There’s not going to be much room in this case, and we want as much airflow as possible. If you really want to follow my complete build, I would consider modding the PSU case by painting it white, or better yet, red. Maybe I’ll throw up an Instructable some time, but just remember that you’ll void your warranty. Don’t say I didn’t warn you/I’m releasing myself of all liability if you screw it up :D.
For the sake of size, a motherboard with bluetooth and wireless connectivity built-in was highly desired, considering that this is a mini-ITX build. No overclocking here, so I can save some money by going with a regular desktop grade chipset. The ASRock H97M-ITX/AC Mini ITX is a perfect board, priced below $75 and packed with features that we expect to be standard nowadays. RAM speeds up to 1600MHz are supported, which is standard and just fine given that most real-world differences between 1600MHz and 2400MHz RAM speeds are statistically insignificant during gaming. 16 GB of supported RAM is great, considering that 2016 PC games will likely start recommending 12 GB anyway.
Note: I’m pretty sure this board will need an immediate BIOS update over LAN to support Windows 10 and the Haswell refresh, if I’m not mistaken.
This is sort of a no-brainer. I really just wanted a solid pair of 8 GB sticks to max out the RAM capacity of the MOBO for 'future-proofing'. DDR3 RAM is so cheap anyway; I remember when 4 GB of DDR3 was nearly $200...so I’m pumped to be getting 16GB for $70. I found a great deal on some V-Color sticks of RAM, and I've been satisfied with them!
For storage, I thought about going the widely popular route of selecting an SSD for boot drive and HDD for media/games. This is fine, but not totally fitting within the theme of a small quiet build. I’m really nitpicking here, but I’d rather not hear a spinning/ticking HDD, and SSDs are so cheap now that we might as well spring for at least a 480GB drive. Of course, SSDs are always going on sale, so just keep an eye out for a steal. The Samsung 850 series drives are incredibly popular (UserBenchmark.com), but keep an eye out for sales/clearance on any of the top 5 or so SSDs listed at that link.
GASP! A PC build list that actually includes an operating system in the budget?? Yes. I, and likely many others, am constantly annoyed by seeing a seemingly incredible PC build for a great price only to realize that I need to shell out another $100 for an OS. So, I built this into the budget of the $1000 build to help keep surprises down to a minimum. Regardless of your feelings about Windows 10, I threw in a 64-bit version of Windows 10 Home OEM.
We all like bonuses, and no build is complete without considering what pretty colors our PCs must glow. I don’t like being restricted to only one color, so this build also includes a (Satechi 2x 12” Flexible RGB LED strips) to give the innards of this PC some life. Obviously the color theme for this build is red and white, so I’ll probably be using those two colors myself. I’ll also likely modify the bottom of the case to allow for placement of the second LED strip underneath the case for a nice ‘underglow’ affect to complement the ‘innerglow’ of the other.