As we said at the beginning of this article, we actually chose to revisit Project ITX a year later to see if we could wring more performance out of our system, while also addressing some of the pitfalls we encountered initially. Here are the five areas we wanted to improve upon:
- Improving the case cooling, which we found to be somewhat borderline using only a 120mm case fan.
- Upgrade to a more robust power supply that would offer higher capacity and efficiency while still fitting in the tiny SG08 case.
- Find a work-around for an overheating hard drive.
- Moving over to Nvidia's newer line of Maxwell GPUs, which offer much higher efficiency than the Kepler-based GTX 780 Ti we initially used, along with more VRAM and HDMI 2.0, both critical for fully supporting our 4K HDTV.
- Upgrade to a better OS!
What you can see pictured here is the final result of our efforts, and spotting all the changes might be difficult. Don't worry, we're going to walk you through the steps!
We were never fully satisfied, though, with the temperatures reached by our system, despite their being well within safe tolerances. So we replaced the original 120mm fan used for this build with the Rosewill Hyperborea 140mm Case Fan. It's the largest fan that can fit in the Silverstone SG08 case. It's also an ideal pick for this build: it spins up to a maximum of 1,350RPM, can be easily controlled via the motherboard's 4-pin CPU fan header, and uses a hydro dynamic bearing for low noise even when placed in a horizontal position. Its contoured fan blades produce tremendous airflow with low noise, although in a less directional fashion than straight fan blades. This makes it ideal for an exhaust fan, where you simply want the maximum amount of air to be pushed out of the case (but less than perfect for use on a CPU heatsink or as an intake fan, where you want directional air movement). The results? Nothing short of phenomenal! The maximum CPU temperatures reached under sustained load using Intel Burn Test dropped 10C to 83C, and the gaming load stayed under 60C. Better yet, we set the fan to spin down to 650RPM under idle conditions, and the CPU remained under 40C. We'd finally found the holy grail of quiet computing!
Next, we wanted to upgrade from our Corsair CX500M power supply. We had chosen that unit because of its incredibly-short 140mm depth, which we thought would help us get a modular PSU into a case that notoriously wasn't designed for one. Well, if you read through the previous pages, we were able to get it to work, but it wasn't pretty. We had to jettison all of the internal PSU bracing and drive mounts and hike up the PSU on its side, and even then, it was crowding our video card. So we threw caution to the wind and went with an awesome new power supply that would give us three massive upgrades in one fell swoop, the EVGA Supernova 650 GS. It had 150W more capacity, a fully-modular design, and Gold-rated efficiency. And of course, it's just a better unit overall, having been designed for EVGA by Seasonic. It even offers a very trick silent mode, meaning the fan doesn't spin until you hit about 300W power draw. Now, this is still an ultra-compact PSU, but at 150mm, it was 10mm longer than our Corsair unit, which wasn't great given that we were already pushing the limits at 140mm, and furthermore, with fully-modular cables, it was almost certain that some of the cable connections would interfere with the video card. In the end, this proved true - we simply couldn't have the cables facing the left side of the case, which is how Silverstone had designed the PSU to be installed in the SG08. Since we'd already scrapped the whole PSU mount, we figured why not go for broke and really get crazy? And so we propped the PSU up on its edge, with the modular cables facing the motherboard. A standard PC building approach this most definitely is not! To provide clearance for the cables, we even swapped out our standard-profile G.Skill DDR3 RAM and replaced it with some of the most amazing RAM ever sold, Samsung's ultra low-voltage "Magic RAM", and it came to be known by enthusiasts. It's no longer in production, but luckily we had stocked up on it when the getting was good! This RAM is seriously no taller than the RAM clips on the motherboard, giving us the utmost in clearance for our cables. The photo below tells the whole story, and also gives you a glimpse of the big 140mm spinner up top:
The good news was that propping the PSU up at an angle gave us some space to hide away cables, and also created a nice nook to hide our new solid-state drive, the Corsair Force GS 240GB. We found that running a spinning hard drive in this system just wasn't ideal, because due to a lack of airflow in the front of the case, it tended to overheat as the CPU and GPU spit tons of hot air into the case. SSDs run much cooler than hard drives to start with, and aren't susceptible to damage due to the kind of heat that was being generated in our case. So we tucked the Force GS right at the front of the case, where it actually gets a bit of heatsink cooling effect from the solid metal frame of the case. Being an SSD, it also provided a tremedous performance boost versus even the hybrid hard drive we originally tested with this system. Our only wish: that it was even bigger, because boy, 240GB goes fast nowadays!
And now for the pièce de résistance: the EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti 6GB. Offering up to 50%-higher performance than the GTX 780 Ti that was top gun just a year ago, this beast also offered two other significant benefits: twice the VRAM, which is crucial for 4K gaming, and HDMI 2.0, which is required for full-color 4K output on UHD TVs. We knew that our upgraded power supply could handle this card, in part because it actually doesn't require more power than the 780 Ti we used previously. Then again, our 500W unit was being pushed pretty close to the limit in our first iteration of this build, so having 650W on tap made us more comfortable moving forward with an even higher-powered GPU. We decided that as long as we were pushing the limits, we'd go ahead and try an open-air cooler this time around, as opposed to the blower-style cooler that our GTX 780 Ti featured. This meant that the card would likely run cooler and quieter, but would end up dissipating nearly all of its waste heat directly into the case, a real risk in an ITX build like this one, especially considering the passive CPU cooling we used. Only performance numbers could determine if this calculated risk would work out in our favor! Note that most open-air coolers actually won't fit in the SG08, but EVGA had us covered with its 980 Ti model, which has the exact same dimensions as the blower-style 780 Ti (and reference 980 Ti, for that matter).
Last but not least, we installed Windows 10 on Project ITX. Thank you, Microsoft, for giving us the Windows 10 upgrade for free! Honestly, everyone but Microsoft knew from the very start that Windows 8 was a stinker, at least in terms of its user interface, and that the Start Menu simply needed to return. Well, it's back, and though it's not exactly the same, it's most welcome. We're also digging that really cool new Windows desktop image, which you can see in our screenshot here. And under the hood, there are some very big changes to the graphics API in the form of the revolutionary DirectX 12, which will allow games and virtual reality applications to truly push beyond the limits of the current generation of image quality.
For now, though, we just have our standard DX11-based test suite available to us, so let's have a look at some numbers, shall we? Just to keep things even, we overclocked the GTX 980 Ti by 200MHz on the core, just as we had the 780 Ti, and boosted the VRAM to 7800MHz, even higher than the 7400MHz we benched on the 780 Ti. Here's how they compared in 3DMark:
Well, that puts to rest any argument that we're not seeing progress in the video card world. Focusing on the Graphics Score, we can see that the 980 Ti is a full 52% faster, an incredible delta given that this card came out only 18 months after the 780 Ti, at a lower price no less. The rest of the scores are held back by the fact that the CPU is identical, but for gaming, at least, the video card is king, and here the 980 Ti reigns supreme.
But all is not perfect with our latest creation. Take a look at the temperature data:
Now, the first thing you have to keep in mind is that this machine uses just 30W at idle, running at a near-silent 31dB, and that is simply awe-inspiring. But at load, it shoots up to 390W and lets out a deafening roar. The little beast is not a happy camper. The big 140mm exhaust fan up top helps a lot at idle, dropping the temps on all our components - and keep in mind that the GTX 980 Ti isn't even spinning its fans to hit 35C! But it's not enough at load. The problem is that open-air video cards like EVGA's ACX model simply aren't ideal for use in cramped enclosures. A lot of enthusiasts believe that the best card is always going to be the open-air card, but when you're operating in the small form factor world, this is simply false. There just isn't enough room to exhaust all the hot air that the 980 Ti is blowing directly into the case. And not only is our 980 Ti flirting with the temperature throttling threshold (83C), the CPU and SSD are running very hot. Even worse, while the open-air 980 Ti on its own may be quieter than a blower-style card, the sound level for the system as a whole, at over 48.5dB is much higher. We measured under 40dB for the 780 Ti-based system in a similar test. That's why our mini-ITX build guides always suggest blower-style video cards. They may not be as "sexy", but they take the worry out of building small.
The saving grace of our open-air 980 Ti is that it does one thing a whole lot better than the 780 Ti: perform at 4K. We were able to play several popular games, including Bioshock: Infinite and Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag with nearly all settings maxed while sticking very close to the coveted 60fps mark (particularly with Bioshock). And while the temperatures we hit were not ideal, they also weren't anywhere near concerning. So the overall outcome is very good, if not quite perfect. And of course, 4K isn't just about games. The 980 Ti can display true 4:4:4 full-color UHD via HDMI 2.0 on compatible HDTVs; below you can see some of our favorite 4K demo material, the Jetman Dubai clip, being run at 4K with UHD color enabled:
So, in the end, we're happy with the upgrades we made to Project ITX. We got a quieter, more efficient machine at idle, and increased our performance capability by 50% in standard benchmarks, with even greater improvements at 4K. Because we switched to an open-air video card, we ended up with a bit more noise and heat than we would have liked. But overall, we'd say the trade-off was worth it. Pushing the limits of the ITX format is never easy, but it sure is fun!
Update: Since this article was originally published, we've put together an Extreme Gaming ITX Assembly Guide profiling an ITX build that's faster and quieter, while being just a bit bigger. Check it out if you're after the ultimate ITX experience!