Performance and Parting Thoughts
Building a mini-ITX system, particularly one intended to offer extreme performance, is always going to be a challenge. We've already shared some of the many head-scratching moments we faced as we put this PC together. But just getting it pieced together was only half the battle. We had to push it hard to see if it would hold together under stress. And as we've already suggested, we learned a thing or two once we hit the power button.
Of course, the first thing we did was overclock it, because it was supposed to be fast, after all! Now, we don't typically recommend doing this right off the bat, but we already had a pretty good sense of the limits of our components. So we took the 4690K up to 4.2GHz with a little extra voltage, and then pushed the GTX 780 Ti up by 200MHz on the core (that's fast!) and 400MHz on the memory.
First up, a 3DMark run just to make sure that Project ITX is able to beat just about every other system ever built....
Yup, pretty good. Maybe not a grand slam, but at least a solo home run. We were running a 4.2GHz overclock on this passive CPU, but was it actually stable? What would your guess be if we told you that this system was pulling an incredible 395W in this test? Ouch! To make sure our CPU wasn’t going to give up the ghost, we ran the most strenuous stability test out there, Intel Burn Test. Sure enough, the system got hot, but it didn’t come all that close to throttling, and in our intended scenarios (gaming and HTPC use), we weren’t going to be getting anywhere near this level of load.
Alas, to give the system a bit of breathing room (the CPU is running without a fan, after all), we dropped the overclock down to 4GHz for some extended gaming sessions. And this is where we ran into a brick wall in the form of Silverstone’s odd vent setup. Luckily, simply flipping the top-mounted fan into an exhaust orientation cured our problems:
While running the fan as Silverstone likely intended us to kept the CPU fairly cool, it caused everything else to overheat. Our hard drive was hitting nearly 50C, and the video card, well, it was maxing out its cooler, hitting the 83C throttling threshold, and making a racket all the while. So knowing that running our CPU with passive cooling was unorthodox from the start, we decided not to let it bring the whole system down. We reinstalled the top-mounted fan in an exhaust orientation, which raised CPU temps, but dropped the VGA into downright chilly territory, and prevented our hard drive from cooking in its perch at the top of the case. If we were to do it all over again, we'd go with an SSD for this build, as they generate very little heat, and being solid-state, wouldn't be damaged by the temperatures generated by this system. Amazingly, despite leading to higher CPU temperatures while gaming, the exhaust fan orientation lowered the maximum temperature in Intel Burn Test from 96C to 93C, suggesting that it really was the all-around better setup for this system.
In the end, Project ITX worked, and with a little trouble-shooting, we accomplished all of our goals. It's fast, it's small, and it's quiet. In fact, at idle, with the single 120mm fan spinning at under 900RPM via motheboard control, it's nearly silent. And even at full tilt it's not all that loud - the fan spins up to just 1200RPM, and the GTX 780 Ti was well under its maximum fan speed.
Below you can see Project ITX running Batman Arkham Origins at a glorious 4K resolution on our 55” Samsung HU8550. Note that at the present time, no mainstream 4K TVs have DisplayPort inputs, which would support 4K, and no video cards today have HDMI 2.0, which would also support 4K. Talk about a standards mis-match. Luckily, we were able to run 4K over HDMI 1.4 using an awesome driver trick introduced by Nvidia in its R340 series drivers.
So, what have we learned? Well, first of all, as far as we're concerned, there is no case on the market that would have let us do what we wanted to using standard components without modification. Yes, there are a few cases using ultra-small power supplies that could probably achieve the same outcome (the EVGA Hadron Air and the Silverstone Raven come to mind), but they weren't the right form factor for our AV setup, and we didn't want to get locked into proprietary power supplies.
Alas, building an extreme mini-system can be a bit tricky with off-the-shelf parts, so anyone looking for a little less stress would probably be better off using one of those factory-custom solutions. For everyone else, feel free to start with Project ITX or one of the systems in our Small Form Factor Build Guides, and then get as creative as you want to be!
Wait, is that all? No, of course not! Turn to the next page to see how we modded Project ITX a year after first putting this article together...