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.
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.
Core components, continued
I’d have been happy with a single SSD as a system drive in this Breadbox, but OCZ answered my call with two of its Vector 180 SSDs: one a 480GB drive, the other with 960GB of space.
Not only do we have over a terabyte of solid-state storage to work with in the Breadbox, the Vector 180 just so happens to be one of the faster SATA SSDs you can buy today. Check out our review for more info. I doubt I’ll ever notice the storage subsystem limiting this system’s overall performance. With that much capacity to work with, I don’t have to worry about adding slower, noisier mechanical drives to this PC, either.
Case: EVGA Hadron Hydro
EVGA may be best-known for its graphics cards around these parts, but the company also happens to make cases, motherboards, several lines of power supplies, and more. The company’s Hadron enclosures seemed like a natural fit for the Breadbox. These two cases—the Hadron Air and the Hadron Hydro—both include niceties like a built-in 80 Plus Gold PSU, room for slot-loading optical drives, and two 120-mm fans.
Had I been building with a locked Skylake CPU, the Hadron Air would have been my first choice. The Core i5-6600K is going to need a substantial heatsink to let me fully realize its overclocking potential, though, and despite its other virtues, the Air doesn’t have a ton of room for tower-style CPU coolers. Liquid cooling of some kind was the obvious answer to that problem, so I went with the Hadron Hydro for the Breadbox. The Hydro version has a compartment above its twin 120-mm fans for a 240-mm radiator.
EVGA earns points for giving the Hadron twin storage sleds with mounting provisions for both 2.5″ and 3.5″ drives, but the drive cage is riveted in place. That choice makes this enclosure less flexible than it could be. Considering the Hadron first appeared in late 2013, I’ll forgive its rigid configuration—we need both of those drive sleds, anyway.
The Hadron’s sleek piano-black front panel should look right at home in any setting, but I’m less pleased with the bare steel and brightly-colored cables visible inside. For the $170 builders will pay for the Hadron Hydro right now, the black finish should extend inside and out, and a modular PSU would be preferable. To be fair, few of those unpainted surfaces will be visible with a system inside the case.
Builders will need to be careful around the Hadron’s side window. While I’m a fan of windowed cases for their aesthetic benefits, the transparent plastic used on the Hadron is quite soft. Even light polishing with a microfiber cloth left prominent scratches in the window’s surface. Given how readily case windows attract dust and fingerprints, the choice of material for the Hadron’s window isn’t ideal.
CPU cooler: EVGA Hadron Hydro custom liquid-cooling kit
Here’s where my Breadbox gets a little wild. Normally, I would turn to a closed-loop liquid cooler for overclocking the CPU in a Mini-ITX system, but EVGA just so happens to make a complete custom liquid-cooling kit for the Hadron Hydro case. This kit includes a pump, radiator, fittings, tubing, coolant, and a CPU water block.
This is the first custom water-cooling loop I’ve ever laid hands on, but EVGA’s kit seems reasonably priced and of high quality. The included radiator is far thicker than that of any closed-loop liquid cooler I’ve ever used, and it could probably keep a small engine cool, never mind my Core i5-6600K. All of the included fittings feel like chrome-plated brass.
Despite my inexperience with custom liquid-cooling hardware, this $140 kit (and the included instruction manual) made me feel pretty confident in my ability to put a loop together without causing leaks or shorting out any expensive hardware. One could probably even add a graphics-card water block to the loop later, too. Like the Trident Z RAM in this box, a full custom liquid loop isn’t strictly necessary, but it sure is nice.
Keyboard: Logitech G410 Atlas Spectrum
For my day-to-day work at TR, I need a keyboard with the full 104-key layout many know and love, thanks to our extensive reliance on Excel. Once I’m off the clock, though, I’m happy to ditch the numpad for a so-called “tenkeyless” board. I’m already a happy user of Logitech’s G502 Proteus Core mouse, so it only made sense to give some of the company’s other gaming peripherals a try.
Enter the G410 Atlas Spectrum. This gaming keyboard would earn those stripes simply for the fact that it lets me get to my mouse without creating an awkward wrist or shoulder angle. That narrower width isn’t the only distinctive thing about this keyboard. Logitech uses its proprietary Romer-G switches under each of the G410’s keys. Unlike the feathery, linear Cherry MX Red switches in my daily-driver Corsair K70 RGB, these switches combine a fairly light weight with a tactile bump that feels a tad crisper than the MX Browns in my now-retired Kinesis ergonomic board.
The Romer-G switches felt a tad weird after such a long time with the linear MX Reds in the K70 RGB, but I quickly warmed up to them. Each keystroke feels positive thanks to the tactile bump. Each key is also individually backlit, and somehow, Logitech’s RGB LEDs seem more vivid than other RGB lighting I’ve seen. That may be because each Romer-G switch has an LED right in the center of the switch post, combined with some kind of lens on top that may serve to focus the light better. As a result, it seems like more of each LED’s photons are directed up and out of the key cap.
Cherry’s MX RGB LED switches use an LED mounted toward the top of each translucent switch housing, and that housing then serves to diffuse the light both around and up through the key cap. That’s a cool effect in itself, but I prefer the more focused, vivid light from the Romer-G switches. No, the Cherry and Logitech switches aren’t functionally different from one another, but if you’re obsessed with the quality and intensity of light like I am, Logitech’s approach simply looks better.
Each of the G410’s LEDs are individually customizable in Logitech’s Gaming Software utility. The company also includes several baked-in animation effects for the folks who just want to see scrolling rainbow patterns on their keyboards without any effort.
A couple other touches on the G410 make this board feel worthy of its “gaming” label. Its four large rubber feet mean it won’t slide around your desk at all, even during regular typing. Logitech also includes a slide-out dock in the base of this board that can hold a phone running the company’s ARX Control software. This app can display at-a-glance info about custom key and button profiles on all of the Logitech hardware connected to a given PC, and it can also display system stats like CPU and RAM usage. Neat.
Mouse: Logitech G502 Proteus Core
For the Breadbox’s mouse, I figured: why mess with what works? I already use Logitech’s own G502 in all of my day-to-day computing, so I’m happy to pair another one with this system. The G502 has Logitech’s trademark dual-mode scroll wheel on board, along with buttons for on-the-fly DPI switching, back and forward buttons, and a “sniper” button that temporarily drops the mouse’s DPI when extra precision is needed. The G502’s optical sensor can be set to track at resolutions anywhere from 200-12,000 DPI in 50-DPI intervals, though I prefer a saner 800 DPI for general-purpose mousing.
All of those buttons can be assigned to dozens of different functions in Logitech’s Gaming Software utility, and if the baked-in button settings aren’t enough, Logitech gives owners the ability to assign simple keyboard shortcuts and more complex macros to the G502’s buttons. I just wish the light-up “G” logo on the palm rest was backlit with an RGB LED. The single-tone blue light starts to look out of place if you play with the lighting settings on the G410 keyboard at all. Yes, this is a minor complaint.
Gamers can customize the G502’s mass to taste, as well, thanks to an included pack of weights that can vary the mouse’s base weight by up to 18 grams. Even better, these weights can be placed toward the front or rear of the mouse to vary its center of gravity. I personally like to use two of these weights toward the rear of the mouse to counteract the hefty scroll wheel mechanism’s mass.
Headset: Logitech G633 Artemis Spectrum
I already keep a relatively high-end, open-back stereo headset hooked up to my main PC at all times, so I was curious to see how Logitech’s $150 G633 Artemis Spectrum compared to that pair of cans for the Breadbox.
Unlike my stereo headset, the G633 bristles with programmable buttons, customizable RGB LED lights, and whiz-bang audio-processing tech. In its most fancy mode of operation, this headset plugs into a PC with a USB cable, and its onboard settings are all managed using the same Gaming Software utility as the G410 and G502. Those LEDs may not be necessary, but they do look neat.
The biggest love-it-or-hate-it feature of the G633 is going to be its 7.1 surround sound emulation. I’m personally not a fan of this technology in general, since it’s always made me nauseous after a while. Before that issue kicked in with the G633, though, I felt as if I was more immersed in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive than I do with stereo cans. The 7.1 emulation sounded pretty natural to my ear, sea-sickness aside, and audio felt far more “positioned” than it did with a plain old stereo signal.
The G633 can also be put into a plain stereo mode, and that’s how I used this headset for most of my time with it. Overall, I’ve got nothing but praise for the G633’s sound quality. While open-backed headphones might sound “airier,” the G633’s closed design provides tight, deep bass and remarkably detailed treble response. Those characteristics are useful in games, where the G633 reproduces explosions, gunfire, and the crunchy sound of footsteps with aplomb. I also liked listening to a wide range of music on this headset, although I might dial back the mids and highs a bit for non-gaming sources.
The only shortcoming of the G633 is its relatively sensitive microphone. Skype callers could easily hear me typing while I used this headset. If you use a loud keyboard or you’re a heavy typist, the G633 will probably pick up that noise. On the upside, the mic is automatically monitored through the G633’s earcups, so you can hear yourself speak while calling out commands in games or Skyping. Swinging the mic out of the way automatically mutes it, too.
Putting it all together
Mini-ITX systems can be a challenge to build, and this Breadbox was no exception. It’s never quite clear how well various combinations of parts are going to interact with one another in a Mini-ITX case, no matter how much careful spec sheet comparison you do.
The starting point for any custom liquid-cooling loop is the radiator. The Hadron Hydro provides us with a separate compartment at the top of the case for the radiator in the EVGA liquid-cooling kit, and those parts all fit together great.
Once the radiator was in place, I began working down to the eventual position of the CPU socket. EVGA’s liquid-cooling kit includes some spiffy chrome extensions that bridge the gap between the radiator’s ports and the hose grommets on the back of the Hadron Hydro, so I installed those next.
From there, EVGA instructs builders to mock up the CPU water block and tubing. However, one of the first steps in the included manual is to install the water block on the motherboard—a procedure I’d already completed. After some chin-scratching, I decided to forge ahead by installing the motherboard (with CPU and RAM on board) with the water block attached. Installing the mobo before sealing, filling, and testing the loop was a risky move, but I was confident in the water-tightness of the included compression fittings and my mechanical aptitude.
Installing the motherboard also let me mock up the loop with greater precision than I would have had by winging it with a water block that was free to move around the case. That precision proved to be quite important. The short tubing run from the outlet of the water block to the radiator extension proved challenging enough to measure and cut without creating kinks, but the run from the pump outlet to the water block proved even more difficult.
The pump’s out-of-the-box configuration uses two hose barbs at a 90-degree angle to the water block ports. With this arrangement, the CPU water block’s inlet was too close to the pump’s outlet to connect a hose without creating a kink. Even though the instruction manual doesn’t mention it, EVGA apparently foresaw this problem and included some extra 90-degree fittings in the kit. I installed one of those 90-degree fittings on the pump’s outlet and used it to point the hose barb at the water block. With that extra fitting between the hose barb and the reservoir, I was able to cut a length of hose that could connect the pump to the water block without kinking.
The final piece of the loop I needed was the connection between the pump’s inlet and the second radiator extension at the rear of the case. This hose run also creates an extreme angle with the corresponding fitting at the pump, but EVGA includes an anti-kink spring for this hose that prevents the tubing from collapsing. I had relatively little trouble cutting and fitting this hose.
With the loop properly fitted, the only remaining task was to fill the system with the included coolant. I took exceptional care not to spill any of the liquid on the motherboard or components below—hello, lots of paper towels—but in less restrictive cases or systems, I would strongly recommend removing the motherboard and other components before adding coolant. This is not a process that rewards impatience.
After triple-checking each and every fitting for tightness, I slowly added coolant, ran the pump for a few seconds with EVGA’s included short for the 24-pin ATX power connector to prime the system, and repeated this process until I had a full reservoir. I then ran the system for short intervals, “burping” it from the reservoir fill port to get as much air out as possible. With that done, I ran the pump for a few hours with the system off to check for leaks. To my great relief, all of the coolant stayed in the loop.
With all that done, I installed the graphics card and SSDs, put Windows 10 on the system, enabled the XMP profiles for my DDR4-3000 RAM, and that was that. I had a complete Breadbox up and running. Though that may seem like a cursory description of the rest of my build, it’s really just a testament to how easy it is to get a modern system going. Gigabyte’s motherboard firmware made it easy to get to the settings I needed, and Windows 10 is easy and fast to install.
When I set out to build this Breadbox, I wanted to make a powerful, quiet system that wasn’t too over-the-top. For the most part, I feel like the parts I chose accomplished that goal.
Despite a couple of small quirks and a somewhat inflexible interior, I’m happy with the EVGA Hadron Hydro case I chose to house and cool this PC. This classy-looking case is a pleasure to look at, whether it’s sitting on my desk or near my entertainment center, and it’s just big enough to draw attention to itself without being overly large for a Mini-ITX PC.
I’m not sure I would recommend a custom liquid-cooling loop for every system, but EVGA’s pre-assembled kit goes great with the Hadron Hydro. My system’s Core i5-6600K reaches Prime95 load temperatures of just 50°C or so with this setup, and the hum of the pump is as loud as this system gets under CPU load. Next time I build a full-size PC, I might have to spend some time thinking about a complete liquid-cooling loop to go with it, just because of how neat it looks.
Gigabyte’s GA-Z170N-Gaming 5 motherboard and bite-sized GeForce GTX 970 worked great for this system, and it turns out the motherboard can even control the Hadron Hydro’s duo of three-pin 120-mm fans—a rare and welcome feature. If Gigabyte let us key fan speed to CPU temperature rather than CPU load and threw in a couple more fan headers, this board would be just about perfect.
Despite its tiny size, the GeForce GTX 970 I chose can still drive many titles with a great deal of eye candy at 1080p or above. We can’t beat physics, though. A small cooler on a powerful GPU means this GTX 970 makes a fair bit of noise under load. By my measurements, the Breadbox hits about 50 dBA with a game running, and the graphics card fan is probably the single loudest part of the system. I also noticed the card couldn’t sustain its specified boost clock range at times despite the din.
Even so, this GTX 970 fits great in the Hadron Hydro, and with a game running in my living room, that fan noise was drowned out by my sound system with a game running. I still find it remarkable we can get a powerful graphics card like the GTX 970 into a system this compact, and its graphics performance far outweighs that of any game console.
I’m also quite happy with the speed of the OCZ Vector 180 SSDs serving as mass storage in this system. For basically any purpose, it’s hard to beat over a terabyte of solid-state drives working in tandem to store and shuttle bits. OCZ’s drives felt as lightning-quick in use as any other SSD-equipped PC I’ve used.
Logitech’s gaming hardware made playing my favorite titles a pleasure on the Breadbox. These highly customizable peripherals are all conveniently tied together in one utility on the software side. Logitech’s Gaming Software utility also makes it easy to manage these relatively complex programmable peripherals. Those who want to tweak each and every key will find the necessary tools to do that, while those who just want to watch the pretty lights blink can get up and running in seconds.
All told, this Breadbox was a lot of fun to build, and I feel like a similar system would make a great gaming machine for the space-constrained. Thanks once again to the folks at Gigabyte, OCZ, EVGA, G.Skill, and Logitech for letting me raid their catalogs to put this system together.