Welp, here we go again. We’re building another PC and got our hands full, so full that we’re brimmed to the gills to contain all this computing goodness. Our initial project from a couple years ago was a labor of necessity as we didn’t have anything up to the task of productivity and (of course) gaming; not only that, the budget was extremely tight and we didn’t get to do what we originally wanted. Now, things are different this time around because we have more money to play with, and some companies have decided to participate by providing parts, which is always good.
How We Did It
This newer system was erected at the behest of none other than my managing editor, Nathan Evans, who ceaselessly pulls many of the editorial strings behind this plucky website. He is a man of habitual productivity but still takes the occasional break when time allows, so his needs are mostly specific for a personal workstation.
But here’s the twist: He also wanted a small form desktop that is cheap to build, and also gaming-worthy — I’m not just talking about Minecraft — real AAA games that can be enjoyed at 1440p without buckling under pressure. This effectively makes this a mix of niche machine with copious sensibility in mind, a mild challenge all its own.
It’s necessary to note that Nathan always pony up for the parts himself, but this time a couple of companies have lent a helping hand. It should also be mentioned that I advised manufacturers that co-oped parts should be realistic options and specifically selected to fit within our itemized parameters. For reference and fairness, parts on this build that were externally provided are marked with an asterisk (*).
Total cost: $1,171.93. Exact components can be found at Amazon, Newegg or Micro Center.
There were a lot of concessions made to reach an aggressive sub-$1K price in the first PC. The biggest compromise before was the chassis itself, where reality and availability dashed hopes for a mini-ITX arrangement. Flash-forward to now and it seems like manufacturers have gotten the message about “bigger not always being better”. The Cooler Master Elite 130 was definitely on our shortlist for being whisper-quiet, well-organized, and affordable in a durable steel construction.
The mesh front panel is attractive yet inoffensive, and the layout dimensions make it discrete for almost any area. Nathan was adamant about downsizing his entire workstation and the Elite 130 was pivotal in getting rid of any digital mass, to the point that he got rid of his old desk for something absolutely compact. We didn’t have to sacrifice too much either as the Elite 130 includes two cooling fans, can fit multiple HDDs/SSDs, supports a standard/semi modular power supply — even fitment of liquid cooling and/or high-end graphic cards as long as 13.5 inches (343mm) is possible. Best of all, it’s less than $50 at the time of this writing.
CPU At The Pinnacle (Ridge)
The most important component was the desktop processor and AMD came through with the Ryzen 5 2600X*, a significant upgrade that piles on the core threads for workflow users. This unit replaces an Intel i5-6500 which was great at the time — but was showing some age according to Nathan. For everyone looking to have their proverbial cake and eat it, the Zen+ architecture is a fantastic performer. While avid gamers will love this chip, Nathan found the results to be an ‘good’ bump for conventional purposes. It is better but not enough for him to notice stark differences right away.
With a 3.6GHz base and 4.2GHz boost clock this is an overqualified CPU that our managing editor can grow into for games, or editing media such as video and audio recordings. In fact, that’s exactly why AMD is a newfound favorite among studious users. It does gaming well enough but is even happier being put to real work, a combination that you had to pay a fortune for with Intel’s Broadwell-E platform over a year ago. Surely, Nathan will warm up to the Ryzen in time.
Small But Fierce Motherboard
Because this is a small form factor computer the only compatible motherboard will be of the mini-ITX variety. Non-builders often get confused on which type will fit in their chassis (the naming scheme doesn’t help either), but with our case the choice was already made as we immediately gravitated towards ASRock and their latest Fatal1ty B450 GAMING-ITX/AC.
This is an AM4/B450 chipset which makes it suitable for mainstream computing, with added benefits of retaining some overclocking chops for gamers. It’s a fantastic pick and comes with built-in WiFi, connectivity for both Type-A/Type-C Gen2 USB 3.1, and the ability to run 32GBs of DD4-3466 memory. This is also the cheapest and better-packaged picks we bought for our miniature Ryzen needs, although both Gigabyte and MSi have compelling options, too.
The caveats of any mini-ITX board? Well, you can kiss SLI/CrossFire GPU support goodbye (largely because there’s not enough room anyways) and plugging all the necessary power and fan connectors can be an utter hassle for bigger hands; I have never cussed so much at inanimate hardware while the staff ringleader inquired on how things were going from the sidelines. Your building experience should be less aggravating than mine, just be patient and lock the CPU, RAM and fan before placing into the case to save yourself some time.
If DDR4 Ain’t Broke…
The memory was probably the easiest thing to get because we already had some Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4-2400 lying around from the previous system. Our dual-channel kit is 16GB (2x8GB) in total and occupies the only two DIMM slot. For the penny-pinchers out there we strongly recommend stepping up from 8GB if you actually things to run smoothly for daily tasks.
Thanks to the transient rush and two-bit speculators who banked too late on cryptocurrency, prices remain on the high side for a decent amount of RAM no matter where you get it. This royally sucks because we paid $65-70 for our modules a couple years ago and now that price that doubled with no signs of coming down. We feel your pain but this is one area where you’ll have to bite the bullet.
Fortunately, reliability has been solid with Corsair and the modules have never let him down. Just get these if you insist on a reputable brand, and have no plans whatsoever to overclock the XMP profile or even know what that means — just KISS.
The Power Supply On The Other Hand…
Nathan planned on staying frugal with a 500W power supply from Thermaltake. However, his kitten had other plans as she invaded the workbench with curiosity and played with some dangling cables; these actions inevitably led to her pulling the original PSU off the table and it slamming onto the floor. We tried powering it on and hoped for the best, unfortunately the impact meant it was DOA.
Enter the PowerSpec 650 Watt ATX 12V Semi-Modular PSU and its 80 PLUS Bronze energy certification. This is as basic a replacement you can get for 82% efficiency. It gets the job done without any drama and generated a hum that is only audible when your ear is close to the case; Nathan needs nothing more and certainly doesn’t want to spend more than necessary. If you look for this on Amazon you can get it with a 80 Plus Gold (90% efficient) for thirty bucks more, which might be worth it.
For the rock-bottom price though, you’ll have to deal with annoyances like the jumble of hardwired power connectors making it challenging to fit everything cleanly. Aside from placing the motherboard in a small area, the size and mess of mesh cable offered no additional room for quick modifications. Since keeping a budget was top priority we soldiered on with passable results, but I advise ponying up for a modular PSU since you can have as a many or as little stray cables as needed.
‘Evolving’ To A Terabyte SSD
Flash storage was another area we wanted to beef up. The old 480GB PNY SSD served Nathan well but it was starting to show its age prematurely, specifically in read/write cache performance and increasing demands in capacity. Fortunately, the Samsung EVO 860Series 1TB 2.5-inch SSD is an amazing deal if you don’t mind holding off on a slimmer and faster M.2 drive.
It is currently less than $180, and features Samsung’s own 64-Layer V-NAND and MJX controller for improved efficiency, and at least nine times the MTBF longevity. That last point was pretty much a requirement as gigs of data are commonly transferred in a single day. We also liked the fact that the terabyte (930GB after OS partition) of space eased any storage anxiety that the previous SSD ran into. The EVO 860 will serve him well.
The EVGA GTX 1070 Remains Potent
Back in the day, EVGA sent Popzara a GeForce GTX 1070 SC GAMING* graphics card for review and I had a lot of great things to say when it was brand-spanking new. A lot of things happened between then and now but one aspect that hasn’t changed is how good is GPU still is, despite the hardcore groups salivating over the upcoming GeForce RTX lineup from their current GTX 1080 Ti, and the dying fad of cryptocurrency driving up the buyer market. I was ecstatic to see this card in action yet again as I fumbled to nudge this beast into the increasingly cramped shell.
Nathan insisted he didn’t need another GPU since he was happily rocking a MSI Armor GTX 960 for gaming, which did most things in 1440p/144Hz at medium-high settings. I admired his humility but picked up another GTX 1070 anyway because it easily outclassed his old unit, now he could have all graphical settings maxed-out with no penalty. This is the point of mainstream PC upgrading, right?
For perspective buyers on a tighter budget, we find the best time to get a graphics card is during the moment AIB (partner) manufacturers start gearing up next-gen GPU architecture (whatever it might be) and the hype train leave the station at full speed. Knowing this, there are good deals on available GTX 1070 models around $400 right now — we eagerly anticipate prices sliding further down by the end of the year.
Conclusion: Patience Against Inflation
When all is said and done, the overall cost of this system theoretically set us back a little under $1200. The main reason why is because of lingering supply/demand effects exacerbated from the cryptomining bubble, prices on DDR4 memory and especially graphic cards are coming down but not quick enough in time for this build. It’s also more challenging to assemble a respectable gaming machine that’s squat and compact, so we’ll accept the notion that going niche may not be practical on occasion.
You could definitely spare your wallet with a conventional ATX-derived frame and motherboard by saving $60-$70, but when you’re obsessed about size or performance sticking to ‘less is more’ turns into a mental exercise. But we wouldn’t take it back because there’s something awesome about having intermediate/light enthusiast quality within the size of a breadbox, it’s like a forbidden pleasure knowing that you don’t need a huge metal box to create something unique in the rational sense.