Friday, March 27, 2015

Was switching to a SFF gaming PC worth it?

Several months ago, I shrunk down my desktop PC from a case with with 69 litre volume to a measly 23 litre one. The main reason for doing that was to move the PC off the carpet and on to the desk, so that my kid doesn't get access to all the wires dangling from the back of the case. (No, I won't get an iMac instead.) It'll be a couple years before he'll be able to access them with the current arrangement, so it'll do just fine until I leave Japan for good. Just be clear that this was not something I wanted to do, rather a necessity.
Would I have shrunken the PC if it wasn't for this particular reason?
There is another reason for making the PC smaller, but I'm not sure about the timing. I intend to ship the PC back to my country when I leave Japan, thus the volume would be a primary concern. Of course, I would be shipping the PC (that's my precious) and if I had the Raven RV03 with me, that would have used up too much space, which could otherwise be used for other stuff.
But still, pure usage wise, has shrinking the PC caused any hindrance?
There are few issues that were definitely caused by the lack of space inside the small case. Having space for only two hard drives,  ironically, isn't one of them. To be frank, having just two hard drives makes organizing data easier for me. One for the data and the other one for the backup of the first drive. In addition to those two 3.5 inch hard drives, 6 SSDs can be installed as well. With the prices of SSDs dropping, the case seems to be suited for the future.
The two biggest issues I'm facing are the inability to install a large CPU cooler and the uncertainty of the upcoming R9 390x WCE's radiator fitting the rear 120mm fan bracket.
The former is caused by the socket placement of the motherboard rather than the case clearance. Some board have the socket too close to the first PCI-E slot so that large CPU coolers would block the slot. Why this is a problem is because on boards with the Intel mainstream chipsets, only the first PCI-E slot runs at full-speed. There probably won't be any noticeable performance drop by using the x8 slot instead of the x16 slot. However knowing that the graphics card isn't running at its full potential doesn't give me a good feeling. That's why I had to go with the Noctua NH-U12S cooler which doesn't block any of the slots on the board, including DIMM slots. However,  despite the favorable reviews, the cooler doesn't perform up to the level I originally expected. I probably should have kept my Silver Arrow Extreme cooler and used the second PCI-E slot for the graphics card.
Speaking of graphics cards,  AMD will be releasing their upcoming Titan X killer graphics cards, the R9 390x WCE (WCE stands for water cooled edition) and if they release it at a reasonable price I might go for it. If we forget about the price for a second, there is a another issue that stands between me and the card: compatibility with my SG09 case. The WCE will most probably come with a 120mm radiator. The SG09 has only one fan slot where a 120mm radiator can be installed, unless you want to replace the 180mm penetrator fan with a small fan, which I don't want to do. Not all rads seem to fit in that slot, so the WCE possesses the risk of being incompatible with the case.

What about Mini-ITX? Do I regret not going extreme?

Somewhat. Mostly because SLI is a no go. However my SFF build didn't become a reality just overnight. I had to wait several months to put it all together,  as I wanted to get rid of all the old hardware that wouldn't fit in: the motherboard, CPU cooler,  power supply and the case. I could get rid of the CPU cooler and the PSU quite early. Then I had to decide whether to go with a Micro-ATX board or a Mini-ITX board.
If I went with a Mini-ITX board, I would have to buy the case together as well because the Raven RV03 didn't support Mini-ITX boards. I wasn't sure that I would be able to get rid of the case. Of course I could hold off the build until I could sell the case but waiting any longer would depreciate the motherboard further. So I had to get rid of everything as soon as possible. So I opted for Micro-ATX form factor.
Micro-ATX didn't look too bad at the time because I had already chosen the case I would go with if I could get rid of the Raven. It was the Silverstone SG09 or SG10 (depending on the price and availability), with only the external appearance separating the two. Those were very small cases that could actually house a Micro-ATX motherboard, in fact smaller that most of the Mini-ITX cases, coming at only 23 litres of volume. For comparison,  the Fractal Design Node 304 and Cooler Master Elite 130 are about 19 litres and the Corsair 250D is about 28 litres. The smallest ones like the Silverstone RV01Z and NCASE M1 come at around 14 litres but they have almost preset list of compatible hardware and you have to plan a build in either of them right from the scratch.
So basically, the Silverstone SG09 case made Micro-ATX appealing.
One thing that bothers me is the weight of the fully built rig. The case itself weighs only 5.3kg, but it feels like 15kg when I pick it up. (I haven’t measure it, to be frank, and I intend to do that some time.) The Raven was almost impossible to pick up without straining my back though. But it had a 3 times larger case and a massive cooler to justify the weight. So where is the this weight coming from? Checking the specs, the HDDs, PSU and  CPU cooler account for about 4kg! Then there is the motherboard and the video card, which might take up another 3kg. Add the case fans and cables, and there is my 15kg. Crap!
What about the future?

Once I leave Japan, there is no reason to hold on to a small form factor PC. Neither I would need to ship my PC anywhere nor I will (hopefully) have any issues with room.
Now that I have had a SFF PC, I actually feel that a large PC is worth it -  one with a full tower case -  because then I don't have to make any compromises when upgrading. Peace of mind. One of the reasons to build a desktop PC is to upgrade. What's the point if you cannot upgrade easily?
But does that mean that I would switch to a larger PC on the first chance I get? Probably not. Just like I shrunk down the PC,  it would have to be incremental, unless I find a way to sell the whole PC altogether and be able to build from the scratch.
Time will tell which route I will have to take. I have a feeling that I might have to make that decision in a not too distant future.

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