The product of months of sleepless nights researching the conclusive answers to every question about real world performance, value and compatibility.
THE MAXIMUM MACHINE FOR LESS THAN $550 USD
When retired, it will be used as the compact replacement of living room HTPC.
IT HAD TO:
BE AS SMALL AS POSSIBLE
BE AS LIGHT AS POSSIBLE
BE AS QUIET AS POSSIBLE
BOOT TO A DESKTOP AS FAST AS POSSIBLE
BE ABLE TO GET 60FPS IN ANY GAME AT 1080P
BE AN ATTAINABLE BUILD FOR A FIRST TIME BUILDER
HAVE ON-BOARD 7.1 SURROUND AND OPTICAL AUDIO OUT
BE AS LOW COST AS POSSIBLE, IDEALLY UNDER $500 USD
It was time for a new PC. My most recent computer was a base spec 2013 Alienware MX17R4 laptop. Lots of room to play catch-up.
After going through every computer magazine for the last 18 months, I was ready to build a $4,000 Skylake PC with a GTX 980 Ti and every cool peripheral in the book... but then I remembered the scene in 'Limitless' where he gets to his apartment and thought 'saner heads prevail' and decides to clean it up instead of burning it down. I also didn't have $4,000.
After a tremendous amount of research, I concluded that most of the hype was simply good marketing, and many real world tests saw little visible difference in performance (if any) between simpler more affordable parts and the more cutting edge equivalents.
Knowing that I:
Don't care about resolutions past 1080P
Don't care about FPS PAST 60, as my monitor only has a 60mhz refresh rate.
Can't spend more than $600 CDN ($500 USD)
Already own the peripherals I need (Keyboard/mouse/monitor/printer/speakers/headset/mic/DAC)
I set out to determine the highest available performance that could be achieved by determining what the most competitive and currently undervalued parts were. Thus began the true research. The following reviews detail the product of that research.
The final product was everything I thought it could be, and I am very happy with the little beast of a machine that these parts have amounted to.
To cut costs, I could have been tempted to do the following: (but didn't because the additional value was too high to decline)
used 8GB ram instead of 16 (-$29) (viable... but $29 is the price of future proofing... and being able to run SW Battlefront)
Used a 120GB SSD instead of a 240 (-$22) (If you NEVER downloaded ANYTHING and only played two games at a time... or one BIG game)
Used a mechanical HD instead of a SSD... actually forget that.... that's a fail... (i.e. considering the trade-offs in performance, power, heat, noise, speed, stability, and 'wow factor'...)
Used a full sized, non-modular, crap PSU ($-60) (but could give new meaning to the term 'Halt and Catch Fire'.)
Used an older model Graphics card (-$65) (at the expense of capable 1080P gaming, thus defeating the point of owning a computer... also would you REALLY skimp on the GRAPHICS CARD?!?)
Used a larger size MICRO-ATX build (-$11 Mobo) (-$15 Case) (but "discretion is the better part of valour.")
Ultimately any of these changes would be like poking a hole in the boat. WITH current specifications, this system has no weak points or bottlenecks (Within 1080P)
Add a 2nd 240 SSD and go RAID 0 for nearly double the storage, read and write speed and boot speed.
Upgrade to a GTX 1080 for max gaming and 4k res performance
Upgrade CPU cooler to allow for a more aggressive overclock (to 4.2 from 3.7) and likely silent operation
With upgrading to a GTX 1080, and an aftermarket CPU cooler with a mild overclock to 4.2 GHz, this rig would compete at the highest levels today, and thus remains an intelligently future-proofed build.
It's Quad Core, and I boot in under 20 seconds from power button to desktop. (Win 7) I get over 60 FPS in every game at 1080, and the only bottleneck is the Video card. The extra 'AMD wattage' amounts to pennies over the year, and the extra heat ('extra' relative to Intel that is) is negligible compared to the old AMD CPUs from pre 2009. (Honestly, I had an old PHENOM II 2.5GHz that ran HOT like the metal element inside an electric kettle... never failed once... just ran kinda hot....) WHAT MORE DO YOU NEED?
One star off for noise as the Stock 'Cool and Quiet' is the noisiest thing in the build, and I likely will upgrade to a silent CPU cooler later to address this drawback. Capable as the stock cooler is, it does not permit much (if any) overclocking on a CPU that otherwise is expected to attain 4.2 GHz all day with the correct tweaking.
NOTE: AMD's new APU's with integrated graphics was a redundant expense as I intended to use an external graphics card anyway for proper gaming.
BEST FEATURES FOR THE MONEY.
7.1 support, RAID support, S/PDIF out, Bluetooth 4.0, A/C WIFI, USB 3..0, all at a conservative price. It's up there with the best of 'em. Any feature not found on this board would justifiably be incorporated at a higher price point model.
It is also of special note that this Mobo supports 64G of (DDR3) RAM... not a common feature for Micro-ITX boards. (tho admittedly not cost effective either when limited to two 32GB dimms)
Just a reminder, no on-board video unless using a graphics integrated APU, so post from your graphics card if using an Athalon X4.
Ultimately, the biggest performance difference between DDR3 and DDR4 is in the numbers in computer magazines. Extensive research led me to conclude the following practical truths:
1 There is no practical or observable difference between DDR4 and DDR3 RAM IN GAMING) http://youtu.be/utWnjA4NzSA
2 More than 8GB of ram does not improve gaming performance on most titles.
3 Performance will suffer if the ram is slower than 1600Mhz
4 As long as the ram is 1600 Mhz, there is no observable difference in performance going faster. (but for the same price I bought 1866 Mhz.)
5 RAM IS RAM. Brand doesn't matter. Go cheap.
Kingston has a good reputation as being EFFICIENT and RELIABLE. These sticks are also much more LOW PROFILE compared to the monster heat sinks attached to G.Skill or Corsair equivalents.
A SSD for the system is a must. The cheap cost and superiour boot speeds and stability make it a simple choice. Mechanical drives are too big and slow... M.2 and PCI-E memory is too expensive and not worth the additional seconds off the boot time or the additional Motherboard cost for a model that supports it.
A 240GB SSD is more cost effective than a 120GB, but jumping to a 480 from 240 still doubles the price.
For maximum value, I would consider running 2X 240GB SSD in RAID 0 for the performance boost for basically the same cost as a single 480 GB. (I intend to make this upgrade next.)
The variance in performance of SSD does not justify the price variations. GET THE CHEAPEST ONE YOU CAN FIND.
As it stands, the single SSD allows me to boot into a desktop from hitting the power button in 19 seconds (Win 7, WITHOUT quick-boot)
NOTE: I am eager to quantify the increase in boot speed once I go RAID 0 after adding a second 240. I expect nearly 90% increase in speeds.
I originally intended to recycle an old RADEON 4870X2 (C. 2008... yeah I know) but it had defects from age and heat, so I grabbed a small profile GTX 950 OC ed. from GIGABYTE. I realized from my research that the 950 was basically a down-clocked 960, so I figured that with the right software tuning I could restore the near 960 performance on the hardware. As I'm not intending to buy a 4k monitor at the moment, I'm more than satisfied with 1080P gaming, and this card is a true workhorse~! Also very small, quiet and power efficient.
Benchmarks surprisingly show that it out-competes the R7 370X.
UPDATE: I have successfully overclocked the GTX 950 to a stable:
Base Clock of 1,289 MHz (VS 1241 MHZ: GTX 960)
Boost Clock of 1,466 MHz (VS 1,304 MHZ: GTX 960)
and a memory clock of 6834 MHz...
with NO other modification (power temp etc)
The 4GB GDDR5 of the 960 does not provide a significant increase in gaming benchmarks, (although would be sorely missed if trying to run 2 cards in SLI) and the GTX 950 runs 30W/25% cooler than the 960.
The Sugo S13B is by far the smallest case I could find. The build was quite manageable, and in spite of its small size, everything scaled down quite nicely. Originally I was able to even fit a double wide RADEON 4870X2 in there... (giant massive brick). Obviously the build is compact, and space is meant to be efficient and maximized, but that's the point of Micro ITX~! That being said, nothing was too-tight or unmanageable. I even originally used a full sized CM600 ATX PSU, and it fit nicely, however there was too little space between the PSU and the CPU fan, causing a tug-of-war which likely resulted in the CPU fan being starved of air. After switching to a SF450 SFX PSU, the additional clearance resulted in increased airflow and reduced CPU fan noise, as well as more room/airflow in the case due to the SHORTER cable lengths~!!
Abandon all your commitments to 'cable management'. (I still wont take off a star for that... it's expected when breaking new territory in the size wars, and they still did a great job... what we really need now is shorter PSU cables.)
the additional clearance resulted in increased airflow and reduced CPU fan noise, as well as more room in the case due to the SHORTER cable lengths~!!