We’ve taken a look at a couple of PCs based on Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC) design here at TR: Intel’s original whitebox NUC, and Gigabyte’s NUC-inspired Brix Pro. While both of those machines were competent performers, neither of them had enough GPU horsepower to seriously tempt the PC gaming enthusiast.
With its Brix Gaming BXi5G-760, Gigabyte is looking to change that. The company has stuffed a discrete Nvidia GPU and an Intel Core i5 processor into a case that takes up about as much space as a dense paperback. The amount of computing power per cubic inch here is seriously impressive, at least on paper. Is the Brix Gaming good enough to replace the typical mid-tower gaming PC? Let’s find out.
In the world of computing hardware, small, powerful things rarely come cheap. The Brix Gaming is no exception. It sells for $799.99 at Newegg right now. That asking price gets you an Intel Core i5-4200H CPU, which is a dual-core mobile part with Hyper-Threading enabled. The i5-4200H’s base clock speed is 2.8 GHz, and Turbo Boost can take it as far as 3.4 GHz.
The real point of interest in the Brix Gaming is the discrete GeForce GPU. Nvidia and Gigabyte are calling the part a GeForce GTX 760, but don’t let that name fool you—this isn’t the same product as the regular, desktop GTX 760. A quick look at GPU-Z proves as much:
For comparison, here’s the GPU-Z analysis of the GTX 760 in my personal desktop:
After looking at the numbers above, we reached out to Nvidia for more information. The company clarified the lineage of this GPU for us, and it explained the somewhat confusing choice of name:
In this particular case, [Gigabyte] is using a GK104 chip with 1344 cores and 192-bit memory interface. The “GTX 760” name was chosen because of the performance of this particular GK104 chip. It most closely matched the performance of the GTX 760 in our traditional desktop GPU lineup. Perhaps the 870M designation would’ve been more fitting, although the GPU in Brix doesn’t support Optimus and Battery Boost, so that name wouldn’t have been a great fit either.
Keep that in mind as you read the following pages. While the GPU in this system has the same name as the full-fledged GTX 760, it may not be capable of the same feats of performance. The Brix GPU’s 72 GB/s memory bandwidth deficit is particularly noteworthy in this regard.
The Brix Gaming’s GTX 760 is backed with a whopping 6GB of GDDR5 memory, though. That’s the kind of capacity I’d expect to see in concert with something branded “Titan,” not the average mid-range GPU. Whether the GTX 760 can make use of such copious memory is questionable, but it does look good on the spec sheet.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-4200H (2.8GHz, 3.4GHz Turbo), dual-core, Hyper-Threading enabled|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GTX 760 with 6GB GDDR5|
|Platform hub||Intel HM87|
|Audio||Realtek ALC269 HD audio|
|Wireless||802.11ac Wi-Fi and Blueooth 4.0
Chipset: Azurewave AW-CB161H
1 Mini DisplayPort
4 USB 3.0
1 Gigabit Ethernet via Realtek RTL8111G
1 combination headphone/microphone port
|Expansion||SATA port for 2.5″ hard drive/SSD|
|Dimensions||2.3″ x 5″ x 4.5″ (59.6 mm x 128 mm x 115.4 mm)|
Gigabyte normally sells the Brix as a barebones machine. However, the company kindly provided us with a 128GB mSATA solid-state drive and 8GB of RAM for testing. Folks who buy this system at retail will need to supply their own memory and storage. I took a quick survey of Newegg prices for an 8GB SO-DIMM and a 128GB mSATA SSD, and found that similar parts would cost around $200. That would bring the total price for a Brix Gaming system to roughly $1,000.
Like the Brix Pro, the Brix Gaming relies on an external power supply. While it may seem unwieldy, the power supply will likely live under a desk for most of its life, so it’s not a big deal in practice.
Also during my unboxing, I found a splitter for the combined mic/headphone port, a thumb drive with Windows chipset and grapics drivers, a VESA mounting plate, a mini-HDMI to HDMI cable, and a mini-DisplayPort to DisplayPort cable. The Brix Gaming comes with almost everything you’ll need to get it up and running, although I did have to provide my own HDMI-to-DVI adapter to connect the Brix to my older LCDs.
Now that introductions have been made, it’s time to take the Brix Gaming apart.
Much like the Brix Pro, the Brix Gaming comes apart easily. I took four screws out, and I was in:
Inside, I found a 2.5″ hard-drive caddy on the Brix Gaming’s bottom plate. I didn’t have a 2.5″ drive to install, but one can easily see how it’s done: remove the tray, slide your disk of choice under the tabs at the end, secure it with the two screw holes at the bottom, re-attach the tray to the bottom plate, and plug in the combined SATA data and power cable from the Brix Gaming’s motherboard.
All of the Brix Gaming’s expansion slots are on the bottom of the motherboard. The SO-DIMM and mSATA slots are free of obstructions and easily accessible. You can also see the combined SATA power and data cable for the 2.5″ bay taped down in the center of the picture. The wireless card sits under the mSATA slot, and a pair of fans on the left side of the case draw in cooling air, which is then expelled from a vent on the right side.
Removing the port cover allows for a glimpse at the top half of the interior:
There’s a lot of heatsink in there, though not as much as I expected. I would have loved to take the Brix Gaming apart further, but removing the motherboard is difficult, and I didn’t want to break anything. (This was a loaner from Gigabyte.) Based on the placement of the heatsinks, it appears the CPU resides on top of the motherboard, while the GPU is on a daughter board that sits at the very top of the case. You can see its mini-DisplayPort and mini-HDMI outputs in the picture above.
Given the limited heatsink area, I’m a little puzzled by a couple of the exterior design decisions. The enclosure’s top plate is solid, which means it blocks any hot air that might rise from the bottom of the GPU daughter card. Also, on the intake side of the case, one of the fans is partially blocked by an angled section of the fascia:
As we’ll soon see, the Brix Gaming needs all the help it can get on the cooling front. Any obstruction to airflow or heat dissipation, deliberate or otherwise, is bad news.
With a dual-core mobile CPU, the Brix Gaming isn’t going to break any benchmarking records. That said, we’ve found Haswell-based CPUs to be great performers in general, and in my experience, the Core i5-4200H lives up to that tradition. For more detail, you can check out our overview of the Haswell microarchitecture and its performance here. Instead of retreading those performance numbers, let’s install a few games on the Brix Gaming and see how it holds up.
The first game in my test suite is Watch Dogs, which employs a sophisticated game engine called Disrupt to render its techno-dystopian Chicago setting. Watch Dogs can strain even the fastest PCs available today, so it’s a good stress test for the Brix Gaming.
Driving seems to be one of the more resource-intensive activities in this game, so I chose it over wandering around on foot for my testing. To collect data, I drove around a section of the in-game Chicago Loop five times for 90 seconds each, trying to stick as closely to the same route as possible.
Lest you come away from these numbers with a bad impression of the Brix Gaming, we should note that Watch Dogs appears to be unusually dependent on CPU resources. Results from an upcoming project in Damage Labs suggest that even powerful desktop CPUs can have a hard time with Watch Dogs, so the GPU may not be the limiting factor in getting good performance in this game. With that in mind, it’s probably not fair to judge the Brix Gaming solely on its performance in Watch Dogs.
CPU demands aside, you’ll recall that Nvidia described this custom GPU as closely matching the performance of desktop versions of the GTX 760. In my experience, it falls short. Part of the problem seems to be that the system has to throttle the CPU and GPU clock speeds under load, reducing overall performance somewhat. The game isn’t entirely smooth, either, even at these low settings. My experience with Watch Dogs involved a fair bit of stuttering and hesitation.
There is one thing that can help the Brix Gaming’s performance, though: Turbo mode. Hidden away in the EFI under the Chipset category is a setting called “System Performance Mode.” The default parameter, “Operational mode,” keeps fan noise in check at the cost of some clock speed throttling. “Turbo mode” turns the tables. It increases fan speed across the board, which allows the CPU and GPU to remain closer to their normal clock speeds. After discovering this setting, I re-ran my test cycle with Turbo mode enabled, and the results are highlighted in orange above.
For really demanding games like Watch Dogs, keeping Turbo mode enabled is a big help. It increases average FPS and lowers the 99th percentile frame time, making for a noticeably smoother experience. Unfortunately, Turbo mode also makes the system quite loud. I’ll quantify just how loud it is in a bit, but for now, let’s switch things back to Operational mode and try out a few less demanding games.
Subjective gaming performance
I played the following three games at the highest detail settings that still produced smooth gameplay. While I didn’t do any data logging, I left Fraps running and kept an eye on frame rates to bolster my subjective impressions.
BioShock Infinite is based on Unreal Engine 3, so it isn’t too demanding of modern hardware. I was able to use the game’s Normal graphics preset at 1920×1080. At those settings, the Brix Gaming delivered solid frame rates in the 55-60 FPS range. Any stutter and lag were minimal, never distracting me from the gameplay itself.
Dota 2, Valve’s massively popular MOBA, is based on the Source engine, which runs well even on modest hardware. The Brix easily hit and remained at the game’s 60 FPS cap, even with the limited graphics settings maxed at 1920×1200. I never saw even the slightest hint of stutter or lag.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
While slightly more demanding than Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is another Source Engine game. Here, the Brix Gaming could maintain 90-100 FPS at 1920×1200 with 8x MSAA, 8x anisotropic filtering, and high-quality textures enabled. Playing CS:GO on the Brix was a pleasure.
Clearly, in games with more modest requirements than Watch Dogs, the Brix Gaming does just fine with its default fan profile. The system can churn out more-than-sufficient frame rates, even at 1080p with medium or high graphics settings. That’s quite a step from other machines with similar physical footprints. For reference, Cyril found that the Brix Pro, which is powered by integrated Intel graphics, maxes out at about 1366×768 with much lower doses of less eye candy.
Cooling and acoustics
The Brix Gaming produces a lot of heat in a very small area. The only way for its tiny fans to rid the case of this heat is to spin fast, and that means a lot of noise.
I didn’t have access to TR’s lab-grade decibel meter for my tests, but as with most things these days, there’s an app for that. I downloaded a highly rated app called dB Meter – lux decibel measurement tool for my iPhone and got to work. I wouldn’t claim scientific levels of accuracy for these numbers, but they should provide a rough idea of how loud the Brix gets.
According to this app, the noise floor in my office is about 30dBA with no appliances, computers, or HVAC equipment running. Fire up the Brix, though, and things quickly get rowdy. At idle from a distance of about one foot, the fans produce roughly 37 dBA, and that figure rises to 43 dBA under load. With Turbo enabled, the fans can go quite a bit faster under load, which increases the SPL to 56 dBA.
dBA measurements don’t tell the whole story, though. A sound’s character is just as important a consideration when describing how annoying it is to the ear. At idle, these tiny fans make a coarse whir that’s difficult to ignore. Under load, the fans produce a high-pitched whine. Turbo mode only makes matters worse. With its more aggressive fan profile enabled, the Brix Gaming in full song is like having a 1U server on my desk.
Here’s a video of the Brix Gaming at idle, under load, and under load with Turbo enabled. Hear it for yourself:
While running my gaming tests, I also logged CPU and GPU frequencies and temperatures. You can see how much the Brix Gaming throttles clock speeds—and how Turbo mode alleviates the issue:
Intel’s spec allows for the Core i5-4200H processor to run at up to 100°C, and Nvidia quotes a maximum temperature of 97°C for the desktop GTX 760, which is based on the same silicon as the part inside the Brix Gaming. Judging by the numbers above, then, the Brix Gaming doesn’t overheat—but in its default fan profile, it does throttle clock speeds a fair amount in order to keep temperatures within spec. Even with Turbo mode enabled, the discrete GPU occasionally dips below its 941MHz base speed.
Toward the end of my time with the Brix Gaming, Gigabyte informed me that a new firmware update was available for the system. According to the company, this update changes the fan profiles for both the default and Turbo modes. I didn’t have time to run the new firmware through the same tests as the old, but I did do a little last-minute testing to see what had changed.
With the new firmware, the default fan profile seems to allow the fans to run a tiny bit faster under load, but the difference is minimal. The updated Turbo profile appears to have been the biggest change. The system will now spin its fans as fast as is necessary to avoid GPU throttling under load, at the price of further increased noise. According to my imperfect tools, the Brix Gaming can now reach up to 60dBA under load with Turbo mode enabled. That’s loud, folks. Get your noise-canceling headphones ready.
I wanted to love the Brix Gaming. Even with its flaws, it’s amazing how much raw performance Gigabyte has packed into this tiny package. If your game library consists of older or less demanding titles, the Brix Gaming can easily produce playable frame rates at 1080p with moderate-to-high detail levels. For a system that can easily fit into a backpack or messenger bag, that’s incredible performance. The Brix Gaming is certainly worth a look for anyone who needs maximum portability from their gaming PC. Right now, there’s not much else like it on the market.
This system’s feverish temperament broke my heart, though. The Brix Gaming runs hot, and while its small fans are up to the task of getting rid of the heat, they make quite a din. Turbo mode’s higher fan speeds improve performance, but the fans make far too much noise at those speeds to be tolerable. If Gigabyte could figure out a way of cooling mini PCs like this one both effectively and quietly, it would have a real winner on its hands.
With that in mind, it’s tantalizing to consider what Gigabyte could do with 50 to 100% more interior volume in a system like this. Such a system would still be smaller than mini-ITX PCs, and the added room would allow for bigger heatsinks and larger, quieter fans. For the moment, though, the Brix Gaming trades quiet operation for performance and small size, and while those might be reasonable compromises for some, I like my gaming PCs quiet. If the next Brix Gaming manages to be this fast without all the noise, I’ll be first in line to buy one; but for the moment, the ATX mid-tower under my desk is safe.