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Since I run this site, it goes without saying I’m a tinkerer and a PC enthusiast. And for my latest rig, I wanted to build my first mini-ITX machine. After starting with a few pre-built 286s and 386s, I’ve been building my own PCs for over 20 years, and I have a history of eschewing giant full towers — even when I first started back in college in the early 1990s, when some gamer friends had 486 towers almost as tall as their desks. I went to college in Manhattan and lived in south Brooklyn. And if I was going to haul my beige desktop and 15-inch CRT back and forth between New York City boroughs on long weekends and holidays — because I couldn’t be without my gaming PC for a single minute — it had better be easy to carry.
That preference essentially stuck throughout the years. Normally these days, I’d go with a micro-ATX board. But I wanted as small a machine as possible this time around, and I wanted one with built-in 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and I couldn’t find any good micro-ATX candidates. And now that mini-ITX is well established as excellent for gaming, and not just for low-power HTPCs, the timing felt right.
My other goals: I wanted a powerful CPU for audio recording (more on this later), and I wanted a PC that could game at 1080p and 60 frames per second (fps). I wanted to be ready for Windows 10, of course — even though I’m sticking with Windows 7 on the main partition for now. And I wanted to do it all for about $ 1,500 total. So with that, here’s the hardware load-out. Just note up front that squeezing enthusiast parts into a mini-ITX-sized case isn’t for the faint of heart. Also note: I’m quoting prices from Newegg, although I made my actual purchases from Amazon, since I have Amazon Prime for faster shipping, and the lower prices usually offset the sales tax in New York State that Amazon collects.
Case and Power Supply: EVGA Hadron Air ($ 120 w/rebate)
Choosing a case and power supply was the toughest decision of this particular build by far, so let’s start with that. I actually went and made a table of measurements and weight for 15 different cases, because I am a giant nerd. Some standouts: I like Silverstone’s Raven. It looks kind of like an oversized Xbox or PS4. It’s a bit bigger than the pre-built Alienware X51, but with a SFX internal power supply, which makes all the difference if you prefer building your own machine; the last thing I wanted was an external power brick. Lian Li cases are beautiful, but expensive, and I didn’t see anything that particularly grabbed me this time around. As far as Bitfenix is concerned, the Prodigy is pretty huge given that it only fits a mini-ITX board.
Instead of these options, I went with the glossy black EVGA Hadron Air, which was released in late 2013. It’s wider, but not as deep as the Raven, measuring just 12 by 6.6 by 12 inches (HWD) and weighing 13 pounds with the included 500-watt power supply. It’s sleek, it has room for a full-size graphics card, and it supports slot-loading optical drives. There are two annoying things about this case: The power supply is not a standard size, meaning I’ll have to contact EVGA if it ever fails, and inexplicably, it’s not modular, so cable routing can be an issue. Some people have complained in forums about extra fan noise and having to call the company for a replacement, but the majority of people who own the case seem to love it. Even with these caveats, I just think it looks terrific.
CPU: Intel Core i7-4790K ($ 339)
In my life outside of ExtremeTech, I work on audio projects in a number of DAWs (digital audio workstations), splitting time equally between Logic Pro X 10.1 on the Mac and Pro Tools 11 on the PC. (My latest: I mixed and co-produced the score for the indie film Get Happy — my wife Allison, a veteran theater composer and singer-songwriter, composed and also co-produced the score. It won best romantic comedy at the 2015 Manhattan Film Festival; wish us luck that it gets distribution!) For these projects, I have thousands of dollars of sample libraries that total up to almost a terabyte in size, and often demand hundreds of voices of polyphony streaming from the hard drives simultaneously in any given track. I also tend to peg the CPU meters on just about any machine when running dozens of real-time audio plug-ins with these projects.
Given the above, plenty of processing power and RAM was a necessity. To that end, I started with an Intel Core i7, just as I have for so many of my previous builds. This time around, I went with the i7-4790K, aka Devil’s Canyon. It’s fast, it’s flexible, and I could experiment with overclocking if I felt like it. If you’re just gaming, a Core i5 will still work wonders; it’s a killer value.
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