Thursday, December 23, 2010

Build It: Half-Height Gaming PCs For The Living Room

PowerColor’s half-height Radeon HD 5750 launched a quest to build a tiny gaming PC. But things didn't work out the way we planned. We ended up building two half-height machines capable of cranking out playable frame rates, and put them both to the test.
Tiny nettop HTPCs are great for playing back HD video, but they aren’t able to tackle demanding games at high resolutions because they lean too heavily on integrated graphics. We've always been intrigued by the possibility of a tiny PC that can handle media playback in addition to late-night frag fests, so when PowerColor introduced a half-height flavor of its Radeon HD 5750, we got excited about the possibility of squishing significant graphics power into a tiny PC.

With 700/1150 MHz core/memory speeds, PowerColor's Radeon HD 5750 runs at AMD's full reference specification, despite its half-sized PCB. The only physical feature that betrays its power within is a dual-slot cooler.

We’re well aware of powerful gaming PCs that use the small cube form factor, but we want to see if we can push the size limit even harder. Can we build a machine capable of gaming at 1080p as small and thin as the new, slimmer Xbox 360?

We know that smaller systems require careful planning. Even when we put our System Builder Marathon machines together, we run into compatibility issues--and that's with full-sized ATX platforms. The smaller you go, the more complicated things can get, though. What we didn’t know--until we tried--is that a successful half-height build can be far more involved than you might otherwise imagine.

PowerColor’s half-height Radeon HD 5750 is a dual-slot card, so, in theory, all we should have to do is find the smallest half-height case available that can accommodate two half-height expansion slots. While this sounds simple enough, it turns out that mini-ITX cases with two half-height expansion slots are quite rare.

A great deal of searching lead us to In-Win, a case manufacturer that offers an eclectic selection of product configurations. In-Win has a number of half-height PC cases, two of which feature dual expansion slots: the Wavy and the Diva. While the Diva is extremely pretty and colorful, it does not appeal to this reviewer’s gender in name or in form. We choose the Wavy.

The Wavy is a small case: 264 x 112 x 230 mm compared to the Xbox 360 Slim’s 270 x 75 x 264 mm--definitely in the same league as the console, although the Wavy is a little thicker. The test sample that In-Win supplied comes equipped with a 160 W power supply. The Wavy (with its power supply) can be purchased at In-Win's Web store: There is a new model with a 180 W power supply in development, but either way, we’ve run into our first major snag: this probably isn’t enough juice to power the system including PowerColor’s half-height Radeon HD 5750.
Let’s set that issue aside for a moment, though, and move on to motherboard choices. When small is the name of the game, mini-ITX motherboards are the way to go. For an ultra-low power gaming machine, our wish list includes a Mobile Core i7 CPU like the -640M or the -920QM. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of Socket G1 mini-ITX motherboards available, and we couldn’t find one at retail with a x16 PCIe slot for the discrete graphics card.

In fact, there aren’t a lot of mini-ITX boards with 16-lane PCIe slots at all. In the end, we chose Asus’ M4A88T-I Deluxe, a mini-ITX board with all the bells and whistles including in integrated wireless LAN card and AMD's 880G chipset. This board supports AMD’s Socket AM3 interface and laptop-style DDR3 SO-DIMM memory.

Speaking of memory, we chose Mushkin Enhanced Essentials 4 GB (2 x 2 GB) SO-DIMM DDR3-1066 (PC3-8500) dual-channel kit. This should provide excellent performance in conjunction with low power usage. The motherboard automatically set this RAM to run at 1333 MT/s without incident.
We’re also using AMD's Phenom II X3 705e processor for this PC because of its relatively low 65 W TDP, triple-core architecture, and 6 MB L3 cache. The 2.5 GHz clock speed is a little lower than AMD's higher-end Phenom II chips, but that's one of the compromises we need to make in order to dip under the enclosure's 160 W ceiling.
With a Western Digital Black 750 GB drive added to the mix, we’re ready to put the system together. Squeezing the mini-ITX motherboard in the Wavy case isn’t as simple as we assumed it would be, but a little careful wiggling gets the board seated properly. At this point, we dropped in the PowerColor Radeon HD 5750.

Correction: we tried to plug in the half-height PowerColor Radeon HD 5750; it's too long to fit inside the Wavy case. The height is fine, but the back of the card extends about an inch too far for this case, and is blocked by the power supply.
PowerColor’s card may have been the raison d'être for this build, but that wasn't going to stop us from going the distance and finishing it up. We used the half-height Radeon HD 5570 instead. It's naturally not as fast as the Radeon HD 5750 when it comes to games, but it can certainly handle 720p, and might be able to pull off 1080p at reduced detail settings.

The Radeon HD 5570 fit like a glove and the rest of the build came together nicely. The cramped space presented us with a couple of more unpleasant surprises, but nothing we couldn't handle. We were forced to cut the plastic retaining clip off of the four-pin motherboard power cable because it interferes with the case fan, and we couldn't use a full-sized internal optical drive because it would literally smother the CPU fan. Ideally, a slimline optical drive would provide the space we need to give the CPU some breathing room, but for our purposes, an external drive did the trick. We used Asus’ SBW-06C1S-U 6x external Blu-ray writer to complement our build--a convenient choice, since it requires no external power. The drive runs off of the power drawn from two USB ports.

Our smallest HTPC build was ready to go. But what about the half-height PowerColor HD 5750 that had to be abandoned?

We didn't give up on PowerColor’s Radeon HD 5750. While an Xbox-sized enclosure might not have been a suitable home for this card, a standard home theater chassis shouldn’t present a problem.
Enter Moneual’s MonCaso 312:

This is an elegant half-height case by any standard, and the beauty of it is that the enclosure accommodates any micro-ATX motherboard and standard ATX power supply. In addition, it comes with a stylish HTPC remote worthy of any living room.
As before, we needed to make a decision about the platform. Ideally, we’d choose a Core i3 or Phenom II for this low-power gaming machine, but since we weren’t planning on this second build, we had to make due with some of the parts around the lab. We chose an older Socket AM2+ board, Gigabyte’s GA-MA78GM-S2H.
Experience shows us that there is no real performance penalty in shifting from DDR3/AM3 back down to DDR2/AM2+, so this board is fine for our needs, even if it's a bit aged. The only restriction we noted was a 95 W TDP limit on the board. And without a 95 W Phenom II on hand, we chose the 3.1 GHz Athlon II X4 645 CPU, a true quad-core processor that should be a good complement for the Radeon HD 5750. We had 4 GB of dual-channel 800 MT/s Wintec AMPO DDR2 memory to round out the platform.

This capable HTPC gaming build wouldn’t be complete without a Blu-ray drive, so we included the Lite-On iHES 208 8x internal Blu-ray reader and DVD/CD writer.

You might assume that the full-width MonCaso case would promise an easier installation experience than the tiny mini-ITX Wavy case, and for the most part you’d be right. Everything proceeded smoothly until the optical drive installation—unfortunately, the iHES 208 encroaches on the CPU’s territory. This made it impossible to install the low-profile Cooler Master Vortex 752 CPU cooler we lined up for this build. So, we settled for AMD's bundled retail cooler.
Speaking of cooling, this is the one concern we had with the MonCaso 312: it didn't include any fans at all. We went with an Antec SP-400 power supply that was the only source of airflow for the case, but with an optical drive installed and the cables attached, the PSU’s air intake is restricted. The MonCaso 312 accommodates three tiny 40 mm fans above the motherboard I/O panel, but these should not be optional.

The final component is the hard disk, the same 750 GB Western Digital unit we used in the first build. The drive cage near the motherboard interferes with the long PowerColor Radeon HD 5750 card, so we had remove it and use the hard drive cage on the right.

Our two half-height builds are detailed below:

Mini-ITX Half-Height BuildMicro-ATX Half-Height Build
CPUAMD Phenom II X4 705e2.5 GHz, 6 MB L3 Cache, 65 W TDPAMD Athlon II X4 6453.1 GHz, 95 W TDP
MotherboardAsus M4A88T-I Deluxe Socket AM3
Chipset: AMD 880G, BIOS 0410
Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H Socket AM2+
Chipset: AMD 780G, BIOS F11
NetworkingOnboard Gigabit LAN controller
MemoryMushkin PC3 10700 SO-DIMM
  2 x 2048 MB, 1333 MT/s, CL 9-9-9-24-1T
Wintec AMPO PC2 6400
  2 x 2048 MB, 800 MT/s, CL 5-5-5-16-2T
GraphicsRadeon HD 5570 Reference
650 MHz GPU, 512 MB DDR3 at 900 MHz
PowerColor Radeon HD 5750
700 MHz GPU, 1 GB GDDR5 at 1150 MHz
Hard DriveWestern Digital Caviar Black 750 GB
7200 RPM, 32 MB Cache, SATA 3.0 Gb/s
PowerIN-WIN IP-AD120-2
160 W (included with case)
Antec SP-400
400 W
CaseIn-Win WavyMoneual MonCaso 312
Software and Drivers
Operating SystemMicrosoft Windows 7 x64
DirectX versionDirectX 11
Graphics DriversAMD Catalyst 10.11
Benchmark Configuration
3D Games
F1 2010In-game benchmark
High Quality Preset, No AA
Aliens vs PredatorAliens vs Predator DirectX 11 benchmark
Medium Settings, SSAO, tessellation, and shadow sampling off, No AA, 8x AF
Just Cause 2 DemoIn-game benchmark
Everything set to On or Medium, Texture detail set to High
V-sync set to Off, No AA, 8x AF

Let’s start with a look at the new Formula 1 racing title, F1 2010:

At 720p and 1080p, both systems are able to pull very smooth performance with minimum performance at or above 30 frames per second (FPS). It looks like this game is limited by the platform, as an increase to 1080p doesn't show much of an impact on the results.
Now, let’s try Aliens vs. Predator:

This title requires considerably more graphics power. The mini-ITX build with its Radeon HD 5570 can muster passable performance at 720p with an average 35 FPS. The micro-ATX/PowerColor Radeon HD 5750 combo handles the lower resolution easily, and even delivers an average 37 FPS at the high 1080p setting.

Just Cause 2 is another demanding title. Let’s see how these half-height gaming systems perform:

Both systems have no trouble with 720p, but at 1080p, only the Radeon HD 5750 system offers smooth performance.
Let’s finish off the benchmarks by looking at the power usage:

Both systems use identical idle power, but the microATX/ Radeon HD 5750 combo reaches almost 250 W under load, while the mini-ITX/Radeon HD 5570 system uses about 100 W less.
Note that the 144 W ceiling of the smaller system is very close to the rated 160 W maximum of the power supply included with the Wavy case. Even if we could have fit the half-height PowerColor Radeon HD 5750 into this enclosure, it probably would have crashed the system under a heavy graphics load. The Phenom II X3 705e/Radeon HD 5570 is probably one of the most potent combos you’d want to pair with this 160 W power supply.

We originally set out to see just how tiny we could make a gaming PC outfitted with PowerColor’s half-height Radeon HD 5750. In the end, space and power restrictions prevented us from putting this card in something as small as an Xbox 360 slim.
All was not lost though, and we still managed to build a couple of fairly useful configurations. In-Win’s Wavy case is close to the size of the Xbox 360 slim, and when combined with Asus’ M4A88T-I Deluxe mini-ITX motherboard and a half-height Radeon HD 5570, can handle respectable frame rates at 720p in some fairly demanding titles. This PC might take up a little more space than a nettop, but it’s still a very small package. Thanks to the desktop-class Phenom II X3 705e CPU, 750 GB Western Digital Black hard disk, 4 GB of Mushkin RAM, and Radeon HD 5570 graphics card, it performed much faster than any nettop available.
After a little searching, we were also able to find a suitable home for the half-height PowerColor Radeon HD 5750 in the Moneual MonCaso 312 case, a slick enclosure with a classic home theater appearance and a bundled remote. Equipped with an Athlon II X4 645 CPU and complemented by PowerColor’s half-height Radeon HD 5750, this system handles 1080p gaming, no problem. What more could you ask for from an entertainment-oriented HTPC?
We know that there are far more powerful gaming PCs that make use of the flexible cube form factor, often enabling powerful SLI and CrossFire configurations. But while the cube offers the most powerful mix of diminutive size and gaming performance, half-height systems offer an alternative that are almost certainly a better fit in the living room. As our builds both demonstrate, a half-height form factor can be configured to bring high-definition gaming to your television, in addition to the exceptional HD media playback we already expect from HTPCs.

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