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Gigabyte's H55 Mini-ITX mobo squeezes into the Silverstone SG07 case

Return of the roll-your-own shoebox gaming rig?

Shuttle had a good run in the enthusiast space a few years back. We reviewed the company's very first mini barebones rig and covered a stream of subsequent releases that fueled the market for small-form-factor PCs amenable to do-it-yourself builds. Like acid wash, neon, and so many other trends, the SFF craze burned brightly but briefly. Shuttle had numerous hits, but it started relying on old chassis designs and was often late to market when new chipsets arrived. This from a company that aggressively refined its early XPC enclosures and used to have updated models ready the same day fresh chipsets were unveiled.

Shuttle at least did better than its competitors in the space. Motherboard makers were slow to get in on the action, and their initial efforts were a cut below XPCs that had been tweaked and polished over multiple generations. Few returned with sequels, largely seceding the market to the SFF pioneer.

Not content to be the king of shoebox-sized barebones PCs, Shuttle soon shifted its focus to selling complete systems. The company's DIY offerings suffered, and enthusiasts—myself included—largely lost interest. By that point, Shuttle's reliance on proprietary motherboard, cooling, and PSU designs had already worn thin.

Besides, there was an alternative: Mini-ITX. The midget motherboard format had been around for some time, having been introduced by Via, which joins Shuttle on this week's episode of Where are they now? Mini-ITX was long the domain of low-power Via CPUs, but starting a few years ago, motherboards based on the form factor began trickling out boasting modern CPU sockets and PCI Express x16 graphics slots. The ever-increasing peripheral payload and consolidated packaging of new core-logic chipsets has made contemporary Mini-ITX boards even more potent, allowing them to form the basis of powerful PCs that make few compromises.

Often the biggest problem when contemplating a Mini-ITX build is deciding which case to use. There are loads on the market, but most are targeted at slim home-theater PCs and have little room for discrete graphics cards, let alone those with longer circuit boards or double-wide coolers. Even if you can find one big enough, it's rare to encounter a Mini-ITX case with a power supply capable of quenching the combined thirst of a multi-core CPU and a high-end graphics card. Little laptop-style power bricks ain't gonna cut it.

Scott built a Mini-ITX kitchen PC using a Silverstone SG05 about a year and a half ago, and he seems to be pretty happy with it. However, that particular model can only take graphics cards up to nine inches in length, which disqualifies everything north of the GeForce GTX 460. The SG06 didn't address that shortcoming, but the SG07 has room for monster high-end graphics cards and a beefy 600W PSU to feed them. These improvements make the SG07 an intriguing companion for Gigabyte's new GA-H55N-USB3 motherboard, which combines a socket that can host Core i3, i5, and some i7 processors with a PCI Express x16 slot. As its name implies, the H55N-USB3 also features SuperSpeed USB connectivity, which isn't all that common in the Mini-ITX realm.

At least on the surface, the SG07 and GA-H55N-USB3 seem like the perfect tag team to reclaim the former glory of small-form-factor gaming rigs. To see how the two get along, we've put together a nice little gaming system for a test drive.

Mini-ITX gets menacing
The first thing I noticed about the SG07 was the fact that it cuts an imposing profile for an enclosure the size of a shoebox. Make no mistake: this is not a pretty case, nor is it particularly beautiful. There is, however, a rugged handsomeness to the brutish exterior. Think more Russell Crowe and less Tom Cruise.

Matte black is all the rage among auto tuners, and Silverstone uses it to great effect here. A flat black finish permeates nearly the entire enclosure, from its metal skin and front bezel right down to the internal framework. To break up the darkness, Silverstone runs a brushed metal strip down the face. The piece's almost titanium hue offers a nice contrast without being too stark. I'm not as crazy about the Silverstone logo that's right in the middle, though. The muted badge is nicely set into the front face, but the snowflake hardly matches the case's sinister styling.

Despite that one blemish, I quite like how the SG07 looks. This is the sort of industrial design that feels like it belongs on the bridge of a Battlestar rather than some smarmy hipster's desk, and it's a breath of fresh air in a market littered with copycat aesthetics.

Silverstone keeps the flow going with a big, chunky power button up front. The reset button is curiously located at the rear, though. At least you get some front-facing connectivity, including two USB ports and 3.5-mm headphone and microphone jacks. Both of the USB ports hail from the second generation, so you'll have to get your SuperSpeed fix from the motherboard port cluster out back.

With dimensions of 8.7" x 7.5" x 13.8" (222 x 190 x 350 mm), the SG07 really is about as big as a shoebox; my size-12 sneakers just squeeze into the metal shell. The case's proportions favor depth over height, resulting in larger footprint than one might expect from a Mini-ITX enclosure. Such concessions are necessary to accommodate extra-long graphics cards, which I'd rather have stretching back than upward.

The SG07 feels every bit as solid as it looks. I've only been playing with the case for a couple of weeks, but it has a sturdy build quality that I'd expect to endure for years. Surprisingly, the tough exterior doesn't carry much of a weight penalty. The SG07 tips the scales at 10.8 lbs (4.9kg), which is a little more than half a mid-tower Sonata—not bad considering the Silverstone's 600W PSU. If you're worried about lugging a few extra pounds to the next LAN party, you could probably use the exercise.