As a system builder, Mini-ITX systems represent one of the more intriguing frontiers of the PC for me these days. Where ATX PCs are largely a solved problem (at least if you're building from our System Guides), Mini-ITX boxes still require careful parts selection and a high tolerance for frustration when those parts don't go together as expected. That difficulty makes the payoff from building a tiny-yet-powerful system all the sweeter, though.
The Mini-ITX system—or Breadbox—I'm building today is especially sweet. I got to select some of the finest parts from the folks at Gigabyte, OCZ, EVGA, G.Skill, and Logitech to put together a powerful system that'd be equally at home in a dorm room, home theater, or anywhere else a big ATX mid- or full-tower just wouldn't fit. This system is also my first crack ever at installing a custom liquid-cooling loop in a PC. Read on to find out how it went, or take a look at our build log video:
CPU: Intel Core i5-6600K
The theme of my take on the Breadbox might be best described as "power without excess," and Intel's Core i5-6600K CPU fits that mantra perfectly. This chip has four Skylake cores clocked at 3.5GHz base and 3.9GHz Turbo speeds, and its unlocked multiplier might let us wring out even more clock speed with some tweaking.
Generally speaking, Skylake chips give us higher performance and efficiency compared to similarly-specced Haswell CPUs. More importantly, the accompanying Z170 platform gives us a wealth of PCIe 3.0 lanes for connecting storage devices like M.2 PCIe SSDs and other high-speed peripherals.
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z170N-Gaming 5
Gigabyte's GA-Z170N-Gaming 5 motherboard will serve as the foundation for the Breadbox's Core i5-6600K and its other bits. This tricked-out board comes with lots of stuff I like to see in a Mini-ITX mobo. Built-in wireless networking and Bluetooth 4.2 support, courtesy of an Intel wireless card, mean we don't have to waste precious USB ports adding those features. Gamers who don't mind plugging in an Ethernet cable will probably enjoy the board's Killer E2200 NIC and its potentially beneficial software suite.
This board's Realtek ALC1150 codec should produce high-quality analog audio, and an Intel Alpine Ridge-powered USB 3.1 Type-C port means this board is ready for high-speed connectivity with next-generation peripherals. Gigabyte even sneaks in an M.2 slot on the back of the board with four lanes of PCIe Gen3 connectivity for next-gen SSDs.
One thing I would have liked to see on this board is more fan headers. One CPU fan header and one system fan header just don't cut it for an enthusiast-class system these days, even for a Mini-ITX box. Fan splitters and a Fan Mate can help, but for a motherboard fan control addict like myself, more headers are the only true answer. Still, this is a sweet-looking, feature-packed board that I'm happy to have powering my Breadbox.
Memory: G.Skill Trident Z 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3000
No PC would be complete without RAM, and G.Skill provided me with a Mercedes of a kit for this build. Skylake CPUs officially demand DDR4-2133 at 1.2V, but we can do better. Feast your eyes on a 16GB kit of the company's Trident Z DDR4-3000 memory.
It's rare that I get excited about the aesthetics of a RAM kit, but these Trident Z sticks deserve to be called eye candy. The classy black-and-silver aluminum heat spreaders rate a cut above the average DIMM, and some subtle fins and a red stripe on the top of each stick should draw attention to our build's RAM slots without searing the eye. These DIMMs demand to be held and examined, and it's a shame they'll be mostly obscured in a Mini-ITX build.
Like I said, I'm not usually one to recommend more expensive RAM than run-of-the-mill kits, but these Trident Z sticks are just nice. Look how well they fit in with the aesthetic of the black-and-red GA-Z170N-Gaming 5:
15-16-16-35 timings are nothing to sniff at in a 3000 MT/s kit, either, and XMP 2.0 support should let us set up our system to support this kit's faster speed (and 1.35V power requirements) in the motherboard's firmware with just a couple clicks.
Graphics: Gigabyte GeForce GTX 970 GV-N970IXOC-4GD
Since the Breadbox is a small-form-factor system, I sadly don't have room for a pair of GeForce GTX 980s or something similarly crazy. Gigabyte does have a stubby GTX 970 in its parts catalog, though, and that's the card I asked them to send me. Like the Core i5-6600K, the GTX 970 gives us plenty of performance without going overboard.
This 6.6" (168 mm) card is perfect for mini-ITX systems like my Breadbox, and its modest thermal and power requirements comport with the needs of compact systems. Despite the single-fan cooler, Gigabyte still gives this card a nice push to 1101MHz base and 1241MHz boost clocks (as long as you enable the right checkbox in the company's OC Guru II utility). Unlike bigger GTX 970s, this card only needs a single eight-pin power input.