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

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.

Taking a closer look inside

There isn’t much room to breathe inside a fully loaded SG07, making the holes that riddle the sides, top, and even bottom of the casing vital to ventilation. The left side (right in the picture above) essentially serves as a giant grill to provide as much airflow as possible to graphics cards that sit just beyond the perforated metal.

Even the PCI back plates have been stamped out to make the SG07 breezier, although their utility is questionable for a case that’s very obviously been designed to run a dual-slot graphics card with its own back plate. I wonder if the money saved by switching to standard back plates would’ve been enough to spring for some thumbscrews. That’s right, you’ll have to bust out a screwdriver just to crack the case open.

As a testosterone-infused man, I like tools. I own several screwdrivers, including one in my office just a few feet away. But I don’t want to have to reach for it just to open a case that’s ostensibly been designed for the sort of folks who swap and add internal components with some frequency. Considering the SG07’s $200 asking price and enthusiast aspirations, a few thumbscrews should have been included.

You’d still need a screwdriver to really get at the guts of the case, though. A further three screws secure the 180-mm turbine that sits directly above the motherboard area. This monstrous fan is actually larger than the Mini-ITX form factor, which measures only 170 mm square. Users can toggle between 700- and 1,200-RPM rotational speeds via a switch at the rear of the case, and a three-pin header is included to allow the fan to be governed by the motherboard. You don’t need much spin to make this fan move a lot of air, and Silverstone claims it blows hard enough to cool 95W CPUs sitting under its NT06-E passive heatsink.

As illustrated in the picture above, a plastic filter slides neatly into the fan bracket to prevent dust and other particulate from infiltrating the system. Unlike typical mid- and full-tower enclosures, the top fan acts as an air intake rather than an exhaust. A second filtered intake can be found just below the PSU fan on the chassis’ underbelly. That particular filter is screwed on, so it’s not as easily removed for cleaning.

Filter number three comes in the box and is intended to be used with blower-style graphics coolers. The grid of holes that dot the case’s left side provide plenty of anchoring points for the filter, which also comes with a foam shroud to help better direct airflow.

The SG07’s second and final active cooling element is a 120-mm bottom-facing fan that sits inside the case’s 600W power supply. Although this particular model is a custom job for the SG07, the chassis can accommodate standard ATX PSUs up to 6.7″ (170 mm) long. If you want to run a decent-sized graphics card, the PSU can be no longer than 5.5″ (140 mm).

Good luck coming up with a Mini-ITX build that requires more power than the SG07’s stock PSU can dish out; the power supply has a single 12V rail capable of carrying well over 500W all on its own. There are plenty of connectors, too: everything you need to hook up a motherboard, plus dual 6/8-pin PCIe connectors, three SATA plugs, and a couple of four-pin Molex connectors. With 80 Plus Bronze certification, the PSU should be plenty efficient, too.

Just above the power supply lies a pair of drive cages that house the SG07’s storage capacity. The case’s optical bay is of the slim variety, so you won’t be able to drop in a standard 5.25″ optical drive. That’s a disappointment given the higher price tags usually associated with slim optical drives, but Silverstone would have had to make the SG07 both taller and deeper to squeeze in full-size optical bay. I wouldn’t mind trading an inch or two here and there to gain the flexibility of a 5.25″ drive bay, and I expect many enthusiasts would share that sentiment.

The cage to the left houses the case’s single 3.5″ and twin 2.5″ bays. Personally, I’d prefer dual 3.5″ bays and a single 2.5″ mount to run a pair of low-power hard drives in a mirrored RAID 1 array behind a single SSD. However, for gamers, the prospect of a pair of low-capacity SSDs in a striped RAID 0 array with a single 3.5″ drive acting as mass storage is probably far more enticing—and faster.

A lack of vibration damping for the 2.5″ bays suggests that Silverstone very much had solid-state disks on its mind when designing the SG07. At least the screws that hold 3.5″ drives in place sit inside rubber bushings that should effectively isolate vibrations.

Now that we’ve stripped the SG07 bare, it’s time to turn our attention to this build’s Mini-ITX motherboard.

SuperSpeed USB goes Mini-ITX

While Gigabyte is widely regarded as one of the top-two motherboard makers in the business, it only recently dipped into Mini-ITX territory. The company’s first efforts were released earlier in the year with Atom CPUs and old-school PCI slots—not the sort of thing you’d want for a gaming rig or even a proper desktop PC. But it didn’t take long for Gigabyte to expand its Mini-ITX range to the GA-H55N-USB3, which has an LGA1156 socket ripe for a whole host of cutting-edge duallies and quad-core processors. With a street price of only $105, or $15 less than Zotac’s comparable H55 ITX WiFi, we just had to check out the H55N for ourselves.

The Mini-ITX form factor’s 6.7″ x 6.7″ (170 x 170 mm) dimensions leave little real estate available for ports, slots, and other surface-mounted components. Fortunately, Intel’s desktop Core 2010 platform has a much smaller package footprint than the company’s previous efforts, which paired the CPU with separate north- and south-bridge chipset components. Intel has moved traditional north-bridge functionality like the memory controller, PCI Express, and integrated graphics onto the processor package, leaving a single PCH, or platform controller hub, as the CPU’s only sidekick.

As one might expect, the GA-H55N-USB3 features Intel’s mid-range H55 Express PCH. You can read more about this chip’s particulars in the four-way H55 motherboard roundup we published back in April.

No doubt thanks to the small footprint of the H55 Express and its accompanying socket, Gigabyte was able to squeeze a PCI Express x16 slot and a pair of full-size DDR3 DIMM slots onto the board. All the Mini-ITX boards that I’ve seen with chipsets that have separate north- and south-bridge components have had to resort to smaller SO-DIMM slots and notebook memory.

The CPU socket sits right next to the PCIe slot, which could create clearance problems with larger aftermarket coolers that fan out from the CPU. On its website, Silverstone also notes that this socket placement is less than ideal for use with the SG07. The case maker prefers DFI’s approach with the LANParty MI P55-T36, which puts the chipset directly adjacent to the x16 slot and the socket closer to the top edge of the board. For mobos like the H55N and Zotac’s H55 ITX (which shares a similar layout), Silverstone recommends Thermalright’s AXP-140 CPU cooler. Don’t worry about clearance for the stock cooler that comes bundled with retail-boxed LGA1156 CPUs; there’s plenty of room for it.

Gigabyte makes no mention of any limitations to the H55N’s CPU support, suggesting that the board’s 4+2 power phase configuration is capable of keeping even the fastest members of the Core i7-800 series fully juiced. Expect the rest of the motherboard’s components to keep up. The H55N-USB3 is a part of Gigabyte’s Ultra Durable 3 lineup, which means it’s peppered with fancy electrical components and sandwiching heavier copper layers than typical motherboards. To be fair, though, higher-grade components and extra copper are quickly becoming typical for motherboards from big-name manufacturers.

Amusingly, there’s so much connectivity built into the H55 Express PCH that Gigabyte hasn’t been able to find space to make use of it all. The chipset has six Serial ATA ports, for example, but you only get access to four of them internally and one more via an eSATA port at the rear. More USB 2.0 ports are left on the table, with the chipset offering 14 and the board only making four available in the rear cluster and another four accessible via onboard headers. Here’s how the rest of the H55N’s specifications stack up:

CPU support LGA1156-based Core i3,
i5, i7 series processors
Chipset Intel H55 Express
Interconnect DMI (2GB/s)
DIMM slots 2 DDR3-1333
Expansion slots 1 PCIe x16
Storage I/O 4 SATA 3Gbps w/ RAID 0/1/10/5
Audio 8-channel via Realtek
ALC892R
Ports 1 PS/2 keyboard/mouse
1 HDMI
1 VGA
1 DVI

4 USB
2.0 w/ headers for 4 more
2 USB 3.0 via NEC D720200F1

1 Gigabit Ethernet via Realtek RTL8111E
1 eSATA

1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out
1
analog rear out
1 analog surround out

1 analog line in

1 analog mic in

1 S/PDIF out (TOS-Link)

Now that we’ve listed all the ports, let’s take a closer look at them in their natural habitat.

The port cluster is one area that Mini-ITX offers every bit as much space as its larger siblings, so you get a full complement of connectivity options here. I should point out that the USB 2.0 ports are capable of delivering three times the normal current to speed charging with compatible devices. It’s also possible to configure the USB ports to continue charging attached devices when the system is sleeping or powered off.

On the SuperSpeed front, the H55N uses the same two-port NEC controller as everyone else on the market. Competing USB controllers have yet to be certified by the USB-IF, so Gigabyte didn’t have much choice. It did, however, employ a nifty bit of PCI Express switching that connects the SuperSpeed controller directly to the CPU’s PCIe lanes when the x16 slot is empty. Plug in a graphics card, and the USB 3.0 controller gets switched over to one of the half-assed half-speed lanes in the PCH, limiting bandwidth to 250MB/s in either direction. At least that’s not a huge limitation given the speed of current devices, but it’s still a bit of a drag.

Before you get too excited about putting together a Lynnfield rig with integrated graphics, I should clarify that the board’s video outputs will only work if you’re running a Clarkdale-based Core i3 or i5 CPU with Intel HD Graphics. Anyone can tap the combination of analog and digital audio outs, though. The H55N uses an ALC892R HD audio codec that isn’t listed on Realtek’s site. I’m not sure whether to fault the chip or Gigabyte’s implementation, but there’s no support for on-the-fly DTS or Dolby Digital Live encoding. Real-time encoding allows gamers to pipe multi-channel audio to compatible speakers or receivers using a single optical cable, neatly dodging onboard DACs while also cutting down on wiring; it would’ve been a nice feature to have in a system that offers little expansion capacity for a discrete sound card.

Clock speeds Base: 100-600MHz in 1MHz
steps

GPU:
0-2000MHz in 1MHz steps
PCIe: 90-150MHz in 1MHz steps
Multipliers CPU: 9X-22X in 1X steps
DRAM:
6X, 8X, 10X
QPI: 12X-48X in 4X steps
Voltages CPU: 0.5-1.9V in
0.00625V steps
DRAM: 1.3-2.6V in 0.02V steps

QPI: 1.05-1.99V in 0.02V steps
IGP: 0.2-1.8V in
0.05V steps

PCH: 0.95-1.5V in
0.02V steps

Monitoring Voltage, fan status, and
temperature
Fan speed control CPU

The H55N’s BIOS is loaded with a lot more clock speed, multiplier, and voltage options than one might expect from a Mini-ITX mobo. A full suite of memory timing controls is also available, as is an embedded flashing utility, support for multiple configuration profiles, and a secondary DualBIOS backup chip. Rudimentary fan speed controls are included, too, although they amount to little more than an on/off switch and a toggle between modes for three- and four-pin CPU fan headers. Temperature-based fan speed control for the system fan header isn’t available at all.

As I’ve said in just about every Gigabyte motherboard review over the last few years, such limited fan speed controls are an abomination in this day and age. Balancing noise levels with cooling performance is a key step in any DIY build, and forcing users to rely on Windows software to tweak fan behavior simply isn’t good enough when the competition—Asus, MSI, Zotac, and others—offer better and in some cases vastly superior BIOS-level fan speed options. Gigabyte, it seems, would prefer to develop gimmicky Windows software, such as applications that allow remote overclocking over the web or automatically put a PC to sleep when an associated mobile phone strays too far away. Ugh.

Big graphics for a small system

A key test for the SG07 will be how well it handles the larger, double-wide graphics cards commonly found in modern gaming rigs. We went looking for just such a card and came upon Gigabyte’s GeForce GTX 470 Super Overclock, which fits the bill rather nicely. Behold:

The Super Overclock occupies two slots and measures just under 11 inches in length, making it quite a bit longer than a Mini-ITX motherboard. Like other GeForce GTX 470s, this one has a GF100 GPU and 1280MB of RAM. However, while the stock GTX 470 clocks its GPU core at 607MHz and the shader processors at twice that speed, the appropriately named Super Overclock pushes the core speed to 700MHz and the shaders to 1.4GHz. Gigabyte hasn’t messed with the default 837MHz memory clock, which translates to a 3348 MT/s data rate with the card’s GDDR5 memory.

Likely eager to distance itself from the droves of GTX 470s using Nvidia’s admittedly excellent reference blower, Gigabyte devised a cooling contraption of its very own for the Super Overclock. Dubbed the WindForce 3X, the cooler perches a trio of 80-mm fans atop a substantial heatsink. The angular shroud looks pretty sweet when combined with the mass of fan blades, but I doubt it’s doing much to direct airflow. The thin metal barely wraps around the fans, let alone the heatsink. Not that I’m complaining—the fans spin quietly at idle and under load, and they keep the GPU nice and cool.

I don’t know what possesses graphics card makers to cover ports and SLI connectors with little plastic booties, but the Super Overclock has loads of ’em. Two cover the card’s DVI outputs, which sit next to a rarely-seen Mini HDMI port. Don’t have a monitor, receiver, or TV with a Mini HDMI port? Worry not, because Gigabyte includes an adapter cable in the box.

The Super Overclock is currently selling for $350 at Newegg, which is a good $50 more than the cheapest stock-clocked GTX 470s. That said, there are a good number of other “factory overclocked” GTX 470s listed at around $350 that have slower clock speeds than the Super Overclock.

Putting it all together

With our core components selected, it’s time to begin assembly. I’ve built enough systems over the years to be able to do it blindfolded, but you can’t just throw things together in a Mini-ITX chassis. Assembling small-form-factor systems is often delicate work that requires patience, careful positioning, and hands much smaller than my own clumsy mitts. Surprisingly, though, our gaming rig came together pretty quickly and with little drama.

The lack of thumbscrews and tool-free amenities will disappoint folks spoiled by mid-tower enclosures that have long offered such luxuries. Fortunately, a few minutes with a screwdriver is all it takes to break down the SG07 completely. Once removed from the chassis, the drive bays are a breeze to work with. Extracting the massive top-mounted fan really opens things up, allowing you to slide the motherboard in at an angle from either side. Just remember to install the I/O shield first. I always forget.

If you’re looking to use an aftermarket cooler, finding one that fits inside the SG07 is going to be tricky. With the SG07’s top fan in place, the case has only slightly more headroom than my first basement apartment, leaving little room for popular tower-style coolers. Silverstone says there’s only enough clearance for heatsinks up to 4.6″ (117 mm) tall, which sounds about right given the ~125 mm gap between the surface of the motherboard and the bottom of the fan. You’ll also need a cooler that doesn’t, ahem, fan out too far from the socket, at least on one side.

With the GA-H55N-USB3, the socket area is effectively walled off on one front, and the DIMM slots are dangerously close on a second. I wouldn’t worry about memory clearance unless you’re planning on using modules with taller heatsinks. Memory slots are often put right next to the socket on full-size motherboards to shorten trace lengths for integrated memory controllers, and most aftermarket coolers leave enough clearance for standard-height modules.

Other than a collection of too-tall towers, we don’t have many LGA1156 coolers here in the Benchmarking Sweatshop, so we were stuck with the stock heatsink from a Core i5-530. This is the very same cooler that came with our Core i5-750, but we dropped in the dually to test the old argument that all you really need for games is a cheap CPU and a powerful graphics card.

Installing the CPU, heatsink, and memory before inserting the motherboard ensures that you won’t have to do much actual fiddling inside the unavoidably cramped confines of the SG07. The two cable ties that come with the case proved vital for cleaning up cable clutter, and I’d probably end up using a handful of zip-ties to really tidy things up for a permanent build.

When I saw the angled shroud on the Gigabyte card’s double-wide heatsink, I wondered whether it might have to be removed to squeeze into the SG07. Nope—not even close. The case can handle graphics cards as large as the AMD’s super-sized Radeon HD 5970, which monopolizes two slots and measures a whopping 12.2″ (310 mm) in length. Accommodating taller cards may require a little fiddling, though. You’ll need to bend the wiring on the PCIe power connectors if you card’s plugs are located along its top edge. Silverstone also says that an extra bracket on the bottom of the main fan may have to be removed to clear the heatpipes on some GeForce cards. This bracket isn’t a necessity, so removing it shouldn’t be a problem.

After building up the SG07, I looked down at my hands expecting to find the wounds normally associated with working inside small enclosures. Alas, there was no blood, no shredded skin, and not even the slightest hint of a scratch. I’ve yet to encounter a sharp edge anywhere inside the SG07.

Our testing methods

We’ve subjected our Mini-ITX build to an interesting mix of performance tests, the results of which will be presented over the following pages. The SG07 has little in the way of direct competition, so we don’t have a foil for it today. We do, however, have results from a number of H55-based motherboards, including a Mini-ITX model from Zotac. We’ve run the GA-H55N-USB3 through our usual suite of motherboard tests using the system configuration detailed in the table below. Our motherboard tests were conducted with the Core i5-530’s integrated graphics and a PC Power & Cooling PSU to allow us to make direct comparisons with the other H55 boards. After tackling the mobo, we’ll look at our rig’s real-world gaming performance with the GeForce GTX 470 and at the SG07’s impact on temperature levels and noise levels.

With few exceptions, all tests were run at least three times, and we reported the median of the scores produced.

Processor

Intel Core i3-530 2.93GHz

Motherboard


Asus P7H55D-M EVO


Gigabyte GA-H55M-USB3


Gigabyte GA-H55n-USB3


Intel DH55TC


Zotac H55 ITX
Bios revision 0806 F2 F5 0028 A130PA16

North bridge
Intel H55 Express Intel H55 Express Intel H55 Express Intel H55 Express Intel H55 Express

South bridge
Chipset drivers Chipset: 9.1.1.1025

AHCI: 8.9.0.1023

Chipset: 9.1.1.1025

AHCI: 8.9.0.1023

Chipset: 9.1.1.1025

AHCI: 8.9.0.1023

Chipset: 9.1.1.1025

AHCI: 8.9.0.1023

Chipset: 9.1.1.1025

AHCI: 8.9.0.1023

Memory size 4GB (2 DIMMs) 4GB (2 DIMMs) 4GB (2 DIMMs) 4GB (2 DIMMs) 4GB (2 DIMMs)

Memory type


OCZ OCZ3G1600LV6GK DDR3 SDRAM
at 1333MHz


OCZ OCZ3G1600LV6GK DDR3 SDRAM
at 1333MHz


OCZ OCZ3G1600LV6GK DDR3 SDRAM
at 1333MHz


OCZ OCZ3G1600LV6GK DDR3 SDRAM
at 1066MHz


OCZ OCZ3G1600LV6GK DDR3 SDRAM
at 1333MHz
Memory timings 7-7-7-20-1T 7-7-7-20-1T 7-7-7-20-1T 7-7-7-16-1T 7-7-7-20-1T

Audio
Realtek ALC889 with 2.42
drivers
Realtek ALC889 with 2.42
drivers
Realtek ALC892R with 2.42
drivers
Realtek ALC888S with 2.42
drivers
Realtek ALC888 with 2.42
drivers
Graphics Integrated
GMA HD with 15.16.5.64.2021 drivers
Hard drive
Western Raptor X 150GB
Power Supply PC Power & Cooling
Silencer 750W
OS

Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate x64

We’d like to thank Western Digital for sending Raptor WD1500ADFD hard drives for our test rigs.

We used the following versions of our test applications:

The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at a 60Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.

All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

Motherboard performance, power consumption, and overclocking

When they use the same processor and core-logic chipset, motherboards tend to exhibit near-identical application performance. However, the DRAM tuning in a motherboard’s BIOS can impact memory subsystem performance, which we’ve measured with bandwidth and latency tests.

The GA-H55N-USB3 does well but really no better than the competition here. That’s what happens when you run these tests on a stack of boards with identical DIMMs and memory timings. The only reason the DH55TC lags behind the rest is because it wasn’t able to run our DIMMs at 1333MHz. Instead, its memory is clocked at 1066MHz.

Power consumption is one variable that can be quite different from one motherboard model to the next. We measured system power consumption, sans monitor and speakers, at the wall outlet using a Watts Up Pro power meter. Readings were taken at idle and under a load consisting of a Cinebench 11.5 render alongside the rthdribl HDR lighting demo. We tested with Windows 7’s High Performance and Balanced power plans.

Asus and Gigabyte ship their boards with energy-saving software that’s supposed to lower power consumption without impeding performance. We’ve tested the boards from each manufacturer with and without this software installed. The EVO uses an EPU app that must be configured in “auto” mode to avoid performance-sapping clock throttling, while the Gigabyte boards use the company’s Dynamic Energy Saver software.

Interesting. The Mini-ITX H55N has nearly identical power draw to the microATX H55M. If we focus on only the Mini-ITX offerings, the Zotac board trumps the Gigabyte at idle, while the reverse is true under load. Gigabyte’s power regulation circuitry looks to be more efficient under heavier loads, which at least bodes well for gamers and overclockers. Lower idle power consumption would be preferred for home-theater PC applications.

Speaking of overclocking, I couldn’t resist pushing the H55N beyond stock speeds. Dipping into serious CPU overclocking with a stock cooler inside a cramped enclosure wouldn’t have been wise, but we can learn much about a motherboard’s potential by pushing its base clock speed to the limit.

With our sample, that’d be an even 200MHz, which works out to a 50% increase over the board’s default 133MHz base clock speed. The H55N effortlessly sailed up to this speed without the need for extra voltage or additional tweaking, although we did lower the CPU and memory multipliers to take those components out of the equation. We’ve achieved similar base clock speeds on enthusiast-oriented LGA1156 boards with larger microATX and full ATX form factors, but only hit a 180MHz base clock with Zotac’s Mini-ITX model.

Had we not lowered the CPU multiplier, the H55N’s 200MHz base clock would have been fast enough to push our Core i5-530 up to an impressive 4.4GHz. As is always the case with overclocking—and doubly true in smaller enclosures with limited cooling options—your mileage may vary.

Integrated peripherals enter the spotlight in the final component of our motherboard test suite. First up: those fancy USB 3.0 ports.

HD Tach
USB 3.0 performance

Read burst

speed (MB/s)


Average read

speed (MB/s)


Average write

speed (MB/s)


CPU utilization

(%)


Asus P7H55D-M EVO
174.6 118.7 126.3 8

Gigabyte GA-H55M-USB3
152.5 119.1 123.7 7

Gigabyte GA-H55N-USB3

147.1

118.9
123.9 8

The GA-H55N-USB3 looks competitive, matching the sustained read and write speeds of the other SuperSpeed-equipped H55 boards. These scores were obtained with no graphics card in the system and the USB 3.0 controller hanging off the processor’s full-speed PCIe lanes, so what happens when we pop our GeForce GTX 470 into the H55N and force the USB controller over to a half-speed lane linked to the PCH? Performance drops substantially. Burst rates fell to 104MB/s, sustained reads to 99MB/s, and sustained writes to only 75MB/s. That’s still a lot faster than a gen-two USB port and more than quick enough for most external hard drives, but it’s a disappointment nonetheless.

 
HD Tach
USB 2.0 performance

Read burst

speed (MB/s)


Average read

speed (MB/s)


Average write

speed (MB/s)


CPU utilization

(%)


Asus P7H55D-M EVO
33.8 32.5 28.5 5

Gigabyte GA-H55M-USB3
34.2 31.1 21.4 8

Gigabyte GA-H55N-USB3

34.4

31.1

26.6
7

Intel DH55TC
33.4 29.5 20.4 7

Zotac H55 ITX
33.4 29.9 29.7 8

The H55N has USB 2.0 ports, too, and they’re about as fast as those found on other H55 boards.

HD Tach
Serial ATA performance

Read burst

speed (MB/s)


Average read

speed (MB/s)


Average write

speed (MB/s)

Random access time
(ms)

CPU utilization

(%)


Asus P7H55D-M EVO
231.2 110.5 110.7 8.4 4

Gigabyte GA-H55M-USB3 (Intel)
218.8 109.4 110.2 7.4 7

Gigabyte GA-H55M-USB3 (GSATA)
179.5 110.5 80.0 7.0 3

Gigabyte GA-H55N-USB3

211.4

109.0

110.0

7.3
8

Intel DH55TC
256.7 110.5 109.5 8.6 5

Zotac H55 ITX
212.7 108.1 109.9 7.3 9

The same holds true for the Serial ATA ports.

NTttcp Ethernet
performance
Throughput (Mbps)
CPU utilization (%)

Asus P7H55D-M EVO
935.2 10.3

Gigabyte GA-H55M-USB3
926.8 9.6

Gigabyte GA-H55M-USB3

933.0

8.8

Intel DH55TC
931.4 6.9

Zotac H55 ITX
927.7 6.3

I can’t say for certain why Taiwanese motherboard makers favor discrete networking controllers over the GigE MACs built into the last several generations of Intel core-logic chipsets. The Realtek Gigabit Ethernet controller on the GA-H55N-USB3 works just fine, though, offering plenty of throughput with low CPU utilization.

RightMark Audio
Analyzer audio quality

Frequency response

Noise level

Dynamic range

THD

THD + Noise

IMD + Noise

Stereo Crosstalk

IMD at 10kHz
Overall score

Asus P7H55D-M EVO
5 5 5 4 3 5 5 5 5

Gigabyte GA-H55M-USB3
5 5 5 4 3 5 5 5 5

Gigabyte GA-H55N-USB3

5

5

5

4

3

5

5

5

5

Intel DH55TC
5 4 4 5 3 5 4 5 4

Zotac H55 ITX
5 5 5 5 3 5 5 5 5

Unless you’re willing to live with integrated graphics or rely on USB audio devices, you’ll be stuck with the H55N’s onboard audio. Fortunately, its analog signal quality is reasonably good, at least when compared to the competition. The H55N’s score was unchanged when we ran this test again with the SG07 fully loaded, which is a good sign.

System temperatures and noise levels

Cases like the SG07 are few and far between, so we don’t have any comparative results for our temperature and noise testing. However, we did test the case with its fan at both high and low speeds, at least under load. At idle, system temperatures were low enough that we didn’t bother with the high speed setting. All testing was conducted with the GeForce GTX 470 installed.

To gather data at idle, we let the system sit at the Windows 7 desktop until temperatures stabilized. We then used Prime95 and a looping DiRT 2 demo generate a combined CPU and GPU load. Temperatures were measured with SpeedFan, and a TES-52 digital sound level meter was used to gather data on noise levels.

See what I mean about there being no need to use the high fan speed setting at idle? Even under load, the CPU only got up to 57°C with the slowest fan speed—not bad considering we’re using the tiny stock cooler inside a very small enclosure.

Generous venting on the SG07’s left panel is no doubt responsible for the reasonable GPU temperatures we’re seeing here. The Gigabyte card does have three massive fans that are doing an excellent job of keeping the GPU cool, but they’d be considerably less effective squished up against a solid panel that impeded airflow.

Kicking the SG07’s fan up to high speed doesn’t move temperatures by more than a few degrees, but it does have a bigger impact on system noise levels. The difference in noise levels is immediately and obviously apparent, even from a few feet away. However, the high speed setting isn’t so loud that it annoyed me while playing games with the sound piped through speakers or open-ear headphones. With the low speed setting, our SG07 build was quiet enough that I’d use it as a desktop PC or put it across from the couch in the living room.

Real-world gaming

We’re building a gaming rig, remember? Time to fire some up to see what a dually Core i5 backed by an overclocked GeForce GTX 470 can do inside a shoebox. I played a selection of recent titles on the system and used Fraps to monitor frame rates. My highest-resolution monitor tops out at 1920×1200, which is the resolution used for all the games tested.

Alien Swarm is one of the best free games released in recent memory. This top-down co-op shooter doesn’t look half bad, either. It ran very well on our little gaming box with details cranked, antialiasing enabled, and 16X anisotropic filtering. Fraps’ frame-rate counter sat at a solid 60 FPS throughout most of our gaming session and never dipped below 57 FPS.

Although DiRT 2 is getting close to a year old now, it’s still one of the best-looking games available for the PC. We turned up all the details in this DirectX 11 title and tacked on 4X antialiasing and 16X aniso for good measure. Even with those settings, frame rates stuck to the mid-60s, occasionally dropping down into the high 40s and spiking up to 80 FPS. Smooth—literally.

For me, Just Cause 2 is more of a playground than an actual game. And what a luscious playground it is with the details cranked, 4X antialiasing, and 16X aniso. With those settings, our Mini-ITX gaming box stuck largely to the mid-40s, even as explosions and flying debris filled the screen.

The Battlefield series and I go way back, and the most recent entry in the franchise is by far the most visually stunning. It’s also the most demanding, but our gaming shoebox proved more than capable of producing fluid frame rates. With the details maxed plus 4X AA and 16X aniso, frame rates largely stuck to the mid-60s. The lowest frame rate we observed was a still-smooth 46 FPS.

Much has been made of Mafia II‘s “Apex high” detail setting, which was a little too demanding for our dual-core Mini-ITX build. However, with the “Apex medium” setting, frame rates bounced between the low-30s and mid-40s. The game still looked gorgeous, in part because we had all the other graphics options turned up, antialiasing enabled, and aniso cranked to 16X.

Metro 2033 fills in as our final and perhaps most graphically impressive gaming test. We saw frame rates in the mid-to-low 30s with high detail settings, antialiasing enabled, and aniso turned up to 16X. Unfortunately, enabling advanced PhysX effects plunged frame rates into the 20s, which isn’t quite smooth enough for first-person shooters.

Conclusions

The Mini-ITX form factor has long been a viable platform for low-power desktops and home-theater PCs, but it’s never been particularly friendly to high-performance gaming rigs. Today, however, we’ve proven that you can build one heck of a midget gaming system with Gigabyte’s GA-H55N-USB3 motherboard and Silverstone’s SG07 chassis. In fact, the case and mobo have enough headroom to accommodate an even more powerful system than the one we cobbled together.

Much of the credit for our system’s gaming chops goes to Silverstone for fashioning a Mini-ITX chassis that can accept longer double-wide graphics cards and pairing it with a power supply meaty enough to feed them. That’s a tall order for something the size of a shoebox, especially when you add multiple drive bays to the mix. But the SG07 swallows desktop components with ease, and thanks massive fans and compatibility with standard motherboards and desktop PSUs, it addresses many of the issues that drove enthusiasts away from proprietary small-form-factor systems of old.

The SG07 looks badass, too—that matters for a system small enough to sit on your desk or show off at a LAN party.

Of course, the SG07 isn’t without its flaws. The absence of thumbscrews is maddening, and I’d move the reset and fan switches up front. I don’t see much value in the space saved by the slim optical drive, either. The SG07 wouldn’t have to grow too much to incorporate a 5.25″ drive bay, and the extra volume would be well spent.

Much like the SG07, Gigabyte’s GA-H55N-USB3 is good but not perfect. A $105 street price makes the H55N one of the cheapest Mini-ITX boards with an LGA1156 socket, yet it’s loaded with overclocking potential and offers a pair of USB 3.0 ports. Performance is solid, too, and it’s nice to see Gigabyte incorporating the same Ultra Durable goodness you get with its full-sized ATX boards.

Integrated Wi-Fi would’ve been nice, but that can easily be added with a USB adapter. It’s much harder to get around the board’s lack of support for real-time Dolby Digital Live or DTS encoding, which would’ve been a real plus here. The drop in SuperSpeed USB performance when graphics cards are used is a more serious flaw, although one that’s only likely to affect users with extremely fast external drives. I’m more frustrated by Gigabyte’s indefensible failure to address its prehistoric BIOS-level fan speed controls.

As it turns out, one must still compromise to squeeze a high-performance gaming rig into an enclosure the size of a shoebox. Those concessions are relatively modest considering the dearth of alternatives to these two products, though. Want a different LGA1156 Mini-ITX board with USB 3.0 functionality? There’s only one: a Zotac model that costs $35 more than the Gigabyte board. And good luck finding an enclosure that can match the SG07’s capacity for high-end graphics cards. The case’s $200 asking price might look expensive in a vacuum, but taken in context, and with a 600W PSU, it’s not unreasonable. Niches are rarely home to the best values.

If I were going to build a small-form-factor rig for desktop use or gaming, the GA-H55N-USB3 and SG07 would be at the top of an admittedly very short list of options. Both are TR Recommended, although they’re not quite a match made in heaven. This is, however, a relationship worth working on.

Comments closed
    • miahallen
    • 9 years ago

    /[http://www.techreaction.net/2010/09/24/gaming-in-tight-spaces-part-2%e2%80%93-max11l-featuring-corsair-and-gigabyte/<]§

    • fredsnotdead
    • 9 years ago

    l[

    • 1love4all
    • 9 years ago

    totally welcome *[

      • pedro
      • 9 years ago

      I’ve been using a USB external optical drive over my past couple of builds and it does the job fine. I barely ever use optical media anyway and I suspect the same goes for most people on here.

    • RedHotLama
    • 9 years ago

    If only the MB ditched the video outputs and keyboard/mouse port to add wireless and some more USB and another eSATA. Maybe add Sata III but not a biggy.

    Also would like to see they case with just one 2.5 drive and 2 3.5. Plus maybe full size 5.25 drive.

    • oldDummy
    • 9 years ago

    Nice review.
    As I’ve been telling everyone for years:
    “smaller is better”.

      • 1love4all
      • 9 years ago

      “smaller is better”……not a universal slogan!

    • anlashok
    • 9 years ago

    who sells mini rigs like this?! I’d love to get a gaming rig like this.

    • jackbomb
    • 9 years ago

    This article inspired me. My next build is going to be a Bulldozer powered mini-ITX gaming box. With a slot loading BD drive, if I can find one. And that new 30″ Dell. As much as I hate Apple, their “tiny box next to huge monitor” Mini ad kinda turns me on.

    • wkstar
    • 9 years ago
      • Skrying
      • 9 years ago

      The H50 can fit with modding. I haven’t read of anyone trying the H70 yet.

    • SomeOtherGeek
    • 9 years ago

    Really, nice review and got a few laughs to boot! Thanks!

    l[

    • albundy
    • 9 years ago

    With that kind of hardware I wouldn’t want to use in such a cramped space.

      • rhema83
      • 9 years ago

      If you don’t have the space constraints, I think the Silverstone SG-02F mATX case strikes a good balance between form and function. Many mATX boards these days are enthusiast-oriented and can satisfy most gamers. (I say most – because the case would be too stuffy for CrossFire or SLi rigs.)

    • DrDillyBar
    • 9 years ago

    That is a nice little case.

    • Thresher
    • 9 years ago

    A total build price chart would be nice. Wouldn’t mind speccing out this rig for myself.

      • pedro
      • 9 years ago

      ’twas $975 (Australian) when I priced it up today, which is about $US915. It can probably be had for a fair bit cheaper in the States too, what with the endless coupons, mail-ins, rebates, austerity measures and bail-outs that are the fashion there.

        • MadManOriginal
        • 9 years ago

        We don’t have the ‘transport across dangerous kangaroo-infested desert’ price hikes either.

    • Steel
    • 9 years ago

    q[

      • Dissonance
      • 9 years ago

      Doh, my notes were wrong. Must’ve misead the spec sheet. Fixed.

    • El_Angelo
    • 9 years ago

    I have built a Asus M4A88T-I with an amd x6 1055T in an sg07 and it’s a nice performer.
    I only have a ATI 4830 and use it together with the onboard graphics for a triple head workstation.
    I like the case a lot, though indeed it would have been nice if it was a tad more quiet.
    The only real complaint is Silverstone’s recommended cooler. The NT6-e is a no-go for the Asus motherboard, and imho with a lot of mini-itx boards, due to the height restrictions on the northbridge cooler.

    • pedro
    • 9 years ago

    Thanks very much for this review. This is probably the first ‘mini’ case, etc. that has seemed acceptable to me. Hopefully other case manufacturers will follow suit.

    • vvas
    • 9 years ago

    Cute case, but way too expensive just for the privilege of having a smaller computer. I mean, I’d happily pay a premium for a smaller laptop (and fortunately that’s not even necessary these days), but for a desktop PC it just doesn’t seem worth it.

    That said, I just had a quick look on the web to see what other mini-ITX cases are available around here (UK), and the Lian Li PC-Q07 looks pretty compelling. I wonder if anyone here has used / seen this in person?

    • derFunkenstein
    • 9 years ago

    Page 7

    l[

    • flip-mode
    • 9 years ago

    Anyone familiar with mITX options for AMD?

    I wonder if 90mm towers like the Cooler Master Hyper TX3 would fit in there – Any thoughts on that Geoff?

      • Voldenuit
      • 9 years ago

      A Scythe Big Shuriken would fit in there if a motherboard with a less retarded layout (ie, CPU socket not flush against PCIE slot) were used. It’s also very quiet and a pretty good performer.

      EDIT: There’s this ASUS 880G mini-ITX mobo. Bit pricey though:
      §[<http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16813131659<]§

      • OneArmedScissor
      • 9 years ago

      I really don’t think any AMD CPU you can use with a current mini-ITX board is going to get so hot that you need a tower cooler.

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 9 years ago

    I know you listed the dimensions and wrote at length about the diminutive size of the case, but would it have killed you to at least include 1 shot of the case with something next to it for comparison? Even a loaf of wonderbread would’ve sufficed…

    • toyota
    • 9 years ago

    never mind

    • Bauxite
    • 9 years ago

    Wonder how this compares to the layout of the lan gear itx case, they’ve got their matx case laid out better than anyone else but it still needs a tweak or two.

    I like this one overall, though the cpu cooler area is awful limiting.

    • Voldenuit
    • 9 years ago

    PS. I’m surprised the “Phenomenal cosmic power, itty-bitty living space” quote didn’t make it into this review ;).

    • Voldenuit
    • 9 years ago

    Eep. 51 dB!

    I know that sound measurements depend greatly on the sound floor and microphone placement and sensitivity, but that just sounds rather scary when silent computing sites like spcr target under 30dB as their “acceptable” level. In the (unlikely) event that the noise measurements are directly comparable, that would mean the SG7+H55N combo is *[

      • FuturePastNow
      • 9 years ago

      l[

        • Voldenuit
        • 9 years ago

        Yeah, but unfortunately, not a setup that is friendly to aftermarket heatsinks, with the PEG slot jammed up against the CPU socket.

        I’ve looked at a few H55 mini-ITX boards, and most, if not all, have the same layout. I guess it’s hard to route the PCIE lanes and the southbridge through the same place on these cramped boards, but it’s still not great for enthusiasts.

          • Skrying
          • 9 years ago

          This is because Intel’s suggested layout places the slot there. There are however a few solutions that work with this setup and keep the noise down. I’m using the Scythe Shuriken (not the Big Shuriken, which doesn’t fit) but Prolimatech Samuel 17 works well from what I’ve heard and if you can find one the Thermalright AXP-120 works fine and cools very well.

          Also with some modding you can fit the Corsair H50 inside the Silverstone mITX cases.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 9 years ago

            I’d be curious to see info on the Prolimatech heatsink on a board with such a layout. It’s ~120x120mm from the specs but an LGA1156 mounting holes for the heatsink are 78x78mm iirc. I don’t see how an extra 21mm in each direction could possibly fit. Perhaps a heatsink with dimensions of 90mm on the short side that is parallel to the PCIe slot could work though.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 9 years ago

            I see. I hadn’t quite realized how much offset the heatsink base has and also right after posting (I had to run) that some of that 120mm width is accounted for by the fan mounts so it’s defintely not symettrical around the CPU socket. Makes things kind of tricky to determine for each motherboard but nice to see it fits…now if only mobo makers could put the CPU socket on mITX boards somewhere other than as close as possible to the PCIe slot.

    • Skrying
    • 9 years ago

    This is an awesome surprise review/article post! I love my new mini-ITX is Silverstone’s SG05. I considered waiting until the SG07 to build my rig but I didn’t need the extra room and the cost is double. I am also using the Gigabyte H55N-USB3 and it’s been a solid motherboard with no problems. This rig is the happiest I’ve ever been about the result.

    • FuturePastNow
    • 9 years ago

    That’s not a mini-ITX case. It’s mini-DTX.

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