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Quiet, moveable SFF/HTPC desktop for gaming/work

by deschepper

Description

After testing more extensively, I've found an issue with my build, see the note at the bottom for details.

I've built my home PCs since the early nineties, always on ATX form factors with donated/recycled cases and often many other parts. This is the first time I built the whole thing from scratch.

Intended use: secondary gaming PC (so family members can play together) and light work (editing, programming, some VMs). I wanted low power use and quiet operation. I also wanted something "moveable" if not quite portable.

The Raven case is a dream to work in. It's well laid-out, has clear instructions and has everything you should need in parts, and then some. Routing the cables is easy enough, although making it look clean and uncluttered is quite a bit harder. It is, however, important not to obstruct the airflow as the case has no cooling fans.

I wanted to use the Silverstone SFX SX-500-LG power supply, but it was hard to get, so I went with a Sharkoon Silent Storm SFX 500 80+ Gold (not listed on PCPartPicker). It fits the case well (it's also an SFX-L supply with square form factor, allowing a full 120 mm fan), although it does take a bit of work to get the cables set up. In general, I suspect that if you really want to get a perfectly laid-out SFF system, you'll need to go with the cases that have a built-in power supply.

The Fatal!ty motherboard is strong, pretty complete and well-documented. Coming from ATX to ITX motherboards, it looked positively tiny, but it's easy enough to find where everything has to plug in and there are routes for all of it in the case. However, the onboard WiFi was unable to work with either my old or my new WiFi router, with the connection being slow and regularly interrupted, despite the dual antennae. I'm not sure what the root cause is, as the WiFi generally performs well and I tried mounting the new router 4 meters from the case. I switched to a (crappy but sufficient and stable) powerline network for now.

The Ryzen 5 1600 seemed the best price/performance compromise, when I bought it. It changes constantly, though. In any case, it's a great performer for the power used. The fan that comes with it is hopelessly large for an HTPC case, though. I replaced it with the Noctua NH-L9a, which fits perfectly on the motherboard. The cooler is really hefty and pretty, is well-packaged (actually, the packaging is a work of art) and well-documented. Everything you would expect from Noctua.

The memory I ended up getting is slightly different from the one in the part list. It has the same latencies (15-15-15-36) but it's actually sold as a 2666 MHz Vengeance LPX unit. By default, it runs at 2128 MHz though, so the package may be over-egging the punch. Other than that, it's the usual solid product you expect from Corsair.

The DVD writer obviously fits the case, but the front plate is a bit thin, leaving a 2 mm gap on the left of it. It doesn't hurt (as long as you don't lose a DVD in it), but it's a bit ungainly. If you're OCD, you might want to look at the front plate width in detail, or go with an external unit.

The peripherals (keyboard, mouse, headset) are basic gaming gear with nothing specific to recommend it other than that they are solid choices that were on sale when I bought them.

The GPU is actually the Zotac AMP! version of the GTX-1060 3GB card (not listed on PCPartPicker) in stead of the Mini. The AMP! is still pretty short for the case and has two fans (as opposed to the single fan of the Mini version). With slight modification of the fan curve (MSI Afterburner) it can be run at below 70 degrees Celsius during moderate gaming (Overwatch).

The Bloodstorm DX-11 benchmark (based on Final Fantasy XIV) pushes the GPU to 99% for extended periods, but the temperature maxed out at 76C. The CPU didn't break a sweat and stayed below 53C. This is with room temperature around 19C and baseline operation temps for both CPU and GPU at 25C. The benchmark score was comfortably over 10,000 (extremely high) at 1920x1080 "Maximum" settings. In hotter rooms and with more demanding games, you'll obviously run up against the 80C limit during long gaming sessions. It is probably unreasonable to ask more from a passively cooled SFF for that use case, though.

I'm using an old Samsung monitor as a display for now, but there's a DisplayPort-capable monitor in my near future. I hope.

End result: it's good enough for medium to semi-serious gaming. I doubt it would hold up as well for higher resolutions as the FFXIV benchmark really took all it got to keep up. On the other hand, the GPU should actually have a much easier time with DX-12 graphics, so the next generation of games should still run fine if they support that. The PC is quiet enough to keep less than half a meter from my ears on the desktop, although it certainly is audible at all times (because neither the CPU nor the GPU fans are ever completely off). The noise is relatively white and without any unpleasant characteristics, so it's not particularly irritating or draining. As to being portable, it certainly is light and compact enough. It comes with a full complement of screws, so you can bolt it together really tightly. However, I will need to review the cabling and tie it down better before I feel comfortable lugging it around: you really don't want a cable to get in the wrong place in this case.

=============================================================== Later realisation:

After installing and running the (fantastic, highly recommended) Folding@Home program, I've gotten a clearer picture on the performance of the completed build. Folding@Home allows you to contribute to medical research by donating your unused CPU/GPU cycles. It works efficiently in the background and doesn't interfere at all if you don't want it to. You can also pause it completely whenever you want. That said, if you let it run free, it provides an excellent performance/endurance test of your PC. While doing my initial run-in, I noticed that the GPU did absolutely fine. It runs stably at 90+% utilisation and the temperature remains below 80C. That indicates that there is adequate venting in the case, probably helped by the fact that the GPU compartment is only partially filled by the card. However, the CPU will reach 80C at utilisation levels of about 70%, and start cruising well above it if you push utilisation to 80%. While this isn't a problem per se, it's clearly not ideal. It's possible that I didn't apply the cooling paste well enough, but it could also be that the CPU simply puts out too much heat in too small an area. Passive cooling in this SFF case may therefor be limiting CPU performance.

Recommendation: save some money and buy a lower performance Ryzen, or grab a lower-power CPU in stead. Right now, the Ryzen 5 1400 would be a much better deal, as its power output is significantly below the Ryzen 5 1600 (according to e.g. techreport.com). It would effectively be as powerful.

Part Reviews

CPU

The Ryzen 5 1600 seemed the best price/performance compromise, when I bought it. It changes constantly, though. In any case, it's a great performer for the power used. The fan that comes with it is hopelessly large for an HTPC case, though. I replaced it with the Noctua NH-L9a, which fits perfectly on the motherboard. The cooler is really hefty and pretty, is well-packaged (actually, the packaging is a work of art) and well-documented. Everything you would expect from Noctua.

CPU Cooler

The fan that comes with the Ryzen 5 is hopelessly large for an HTPC case (Raven RZV02B). I replaced it with the Noctua NH-L9a, which fits perfectly on the motherboard. The cooler is really hefty and pretty, is well-packaged (actually, the packaging is a work of art) and well-documented. Everything you would expect from Noctua.

Motherboard

The Fatal!ty motherboard is strong, pretty complete and well-documented. Coming from ATX to ITX motherboards, it looked positively tiny, but it's easy enough to find where everything has to plug in and there are routes for all of it in the case. However, the onboard WiFi was unable to work with either my old or my new WiFi router, with the connection being slow and regularly interrupted, despite the dual antennae. I'm not sure what the root cause is, as the WiFi generally performs well and I tried mounting the new router 4 meters from the case. I switched to a (crappy but sufficient and stable) powerline network for now.

Memory

The memory I ended up getting is slightly different from the one in the part list. It has the same latencies (15-15-15-36) but it's actually sold as a 2666 MHz Vengeance LPX unit (not present on PCPartPicker). By default, it runs at 2128 MHz though, so the package may be over-egging the punch. Other than that, it's the usual solid product you expect from Corsair.

Video Card

The GPU I have is actually the Zotac AMP! version of the GTX-1060 3GB card (not listed on PCPartPicker) in stead of the Mini. The AMP! is still pretty short for the case and has two fans (as opposed to the single fan of the Mini version). With slight modification of the fan curve (MSI Afterburner) it can be run at below 70 degrees Celsius during moderate gaming (Overwatch).

The Bloodstorm DX-11 benchmark (based on Final Fantasy XIV) pushes the GPU to 99% for extended periods, but the temperature maxed out at 76C. The CPU didn't break a sweat and stayed below 53C. This is with room temperature around 19C and baseline operation temps for both CPU and GPU at 25C. The benchmark score was comfortably over 10,000 (extremely high) at 1920x1080 "Maximum" settings. In hotter rooms and with more demanding games, you'll obviously run up against the 80C limit during long gaming sessions. It is probably unreasonable to ask more from a passively cooled SFF for that use case, though.

Case

The Raven case is a dream to work in. It's well laid-out, has clear instructions and has everything you should need in parts, and then some. Routing the cables is easy enough, although making it look clean and uncluttered is quite a bit harder. It is, however, important not to obstruct the airflow as the case has no cooling fans.

Optical Drive

The DVD writer obviously fits my Raven RZV02B HTPC case, but the front plate is a bit thin, leaving a 2 mm gap on the left of it. It doesn't hurt (as long as you don't lose a DVD in it), but it's a bit ungainly. If you're OCD, you might want to look at the front plate width in detail, or go with an external unit.

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