Installing the CPU Cooler
On this page, we're going to cover all the areas that are unique to building this highly-customized ITX system, starting with the CPU cooler. As you're going to learn again and again as we step through the assembly of this system, there's not a lot of clearance to spare. But that's the fun of it, right - seeing how much we can cram into a tiny PC case? Well, hold on a second there, partner. The goal is actually to see how balanced a system we can cram into a tiny PC case, and how repeatable the process is for others who'd like to do the same. When you're done reading this article, we promise that you too can go out and buy these parts and build this system yourself! The only caveat: we aren't going to be covering basics like mounting a CPU, connecting cables, or installing RAM. If you'd like help on these items, check out our detailed High-End PC Assembly Guide (2017).
We previously reviewed the SilverStone NT06-Pro cooler, and while its performance was exceptional for a low-profile model, it had two drawbacks: it's nearly impossible to install if a motherboard is already in a chassis, and its fan is simply too loud. We were able to address both issues for purposes of this build. First things first: there's no way you can install this cooler while the motherboard is in the SG13 case, because you don't have access to the rear of the motherboard, so you're just going to have to follow instructions! Luckily, the cooler is really pretty easy to install when it's outside of a case. The only catch for this system is that you actually have to know which way to orient it; while you can point it in one of four directions, only one is going to work! We've detailed that in the photo here. Note that the spacing on our board (the Asus Z170I) and the updated model (the Asus Z270I) is identical, so this will work with either board. In short, the heatpipes must face the back of the case, and the cooler must overhang the right side of the board.
This of course causes another potential headache: access to cable headers. In particular, on some boards, you may lose access to the USB 3.0 header (the layout of the Asus ITX narrowly made the cut in this regard), and you'll also have a heck of a time plugging in the 24-pin motherboard cable with the cooler in place. You may want to install it before you install the cooler, taking advantage of the fact that the power supply is fully modular (in other words, you don't need the PSU hanging off your board the entire time). One last tip: use right-angle SATA connectors, as straight cables will run right into the cooler's fan perched above the ports.
With regard to the noisy fan spec'd on the NT06-Pro, we learned that we couldn't in fact replace it outright, because it's slim design was crucial for providing sufficient clearance for our low-profile Corsair Vengeance LPX RAM. Yes, we tried, and no, it didn't come close to working (the NT06-Pro's fan is 20mm thick, versus the standard 25mm thickness, and we only had about 3mm to spare above our RAM sticks). So we did the next best thing with regard to noise: we tamed the fan. Noctua's handy NA-SRC7 low-noise adapters cut voltage to fans, thereby reducing their RPMs. Due to the way voltage reduction affects motor operation, it happens to take more off the top (i.e. the maximum) then it does the low end, which is sort of a shame, but at least it made idle noise tolerable by dropping minimum rotational speed from well over 1200RPM to 1050RPM.
Installing the Case Fan
In the interest of "consumer choice," SilverStone refrained from including any active cooling in this case. But for a system like the one we're building, that should not be taken as a sign that the case doesn't need active cooling. So the first item on the agenda after picking our CPU cooler (and getting it to fit!) was to mount a front fan in the case.
We chose the excellent Arctic F12 PWM fan, one of the lowest-cost fans on the market to include both fluid dynamic bearings and a PWM function. We also happen to like the white blades, a hint of which can be seen through the front panel's mesh when spinning. Note that although the SG13 can theoretically accept both 120mm and 140mm fans, as we detail in the photo to the left, installing a 140mm fan will mean you can't use video cards longer than around 9.5" (SilverStone's specs indicate the limit is in fact 9.3"). In other words, you're going to need a compact card if you want a 140mm fan, but that means you're either going with a lower-powered card, or you're using a compact version of a high-powered card, which is going to sacrifice enough cooling potential to offset any gains achieved by the 140mm fan. So basically, don't bother with a 140mm fan in this case unless you're building a home theater PC with a basic lower-end video card.
Truth be told, we actually thought we could get around this official limiation by using a 140mm fan with 120mm fan mounts, specifically the fabulous Noctua NF-A15 PWM. Turns out this was one mistake we made that you need not repeat. It simply won't work, no matter how much you want it to! The frame of the fan blocks the housing of the front panel USB 3.0 connectors from seating within the case. In other words, you're not going to have a front panel on your case if you try this at home!
Installing the Power Supply
OK, this is where we had to turn to SilverStone for a bespoke solution to a vexing problem. The SG13 is designed to fit ATX power supplies, which obviously use a different mounting standard than smaller SFX-class units. And while some of SilverStone's SFX power supplies come with adapters (notably, the SX500-LG), that bracket mounts the PSU right in the center of the vent, which wouldn't provide enough clearance for our big CPU cooler. Luckily, SilverStone actually designed a second SFX-to-ATX adapter, the RL-PP08B, which it sells as an aftermarket component. This little gem is what allowed this entire system to come into being. Take a look at the photo below to see just how close the PSU sits to our CPU cooler. While the PSU can be mounted fan up or fan down, we chose to mount it fan down so that it would work in concert with the NT06-Pro's CPU cooler's fan, which blows upwards and into the PSU, at least in part. Some of the hot air will actually escape through the vent area in the offset section of the bracket, which SilverStone thoughtfully designed into the part.
By the way, if you're a regular reader of The Tech Buyer's Guru, you know that we review a lot of SilverStone gear, and we generally really like it. But we'll be the first to call SilverStone out when it makes a mis-step, and SilverStone is always gracious in accepting this criticism. So here's the brutal truth: SilverStone should never have marketed the SG13 case as compatible with ATX PSUs. We know why they did it (for System Integrators, who have factory labor struggle to build technically out-of-spec systems), but back on Planet Earth (i.e., where you, our readers, live), this case is not compatible with ATX power supplies. So we'll just leave it at this: the SilverStone SG13, a SilverStone SFX-L power supply, and the SilverStone PP08 adapter make for a wonderful combo that pushes the limits in terms of miniaturization without crossing the line.
Installing the Video Card
The final major step is to install the video card. While you may think you're going to be inserting the card in from the side, or perhaps the top, you'll quickly realize that the frame of the SG13 is actually shorter than most high-performance cards. The SG13 is based on the venerable SG05, which was released at a time when video cards were shorter than they are today. So SilverStone got crafty and punched a hole right through the front of the case, allowing the card to essentially protrude beyond the confines of the case. It then designed a front panel with a cavity inside to cover the card, sort of like a cap. In the photo below, we're in the process of inserting our Titan X Pascal through the front cutout.
Once the video card is in place and properly cabled up, the final step is to lower the SSD tray into position. You'll see what that looks like on the next page, which also details the performance and our overall thoughts about this system.