Small, Quiet, Fast: Building a Modern Gaming PC

By Loyd Case

Loyd walks us through the parts selection for his new gaming PC, which was built with size and sound in mind. But building a compact and quiet system doesn't mean he has to sacrifice performance. In fact, this rig houses the fastest graphics card you can buy right now.

If you dropped by my basement lab six or seven years ago on a Friday night, you would have seen the Friday Night Follies LAN parties I host most weeks. Back then, you would have been impressed at just how warm the room was. The fast PC of that era were equipped with power-hungry graphics cards, and coupled with the occasional CRT monitor, generated a ton of heat. We also had to crank up the speakers, not so much because we wanted lots of loud gunfire and explosions (which we did), but because the PCs themselves were noisy.

Recently, I fired up one of those old Pentium 4 systems that’s been languishing in my storage area. I then shut it down as soon as I could, because the noise level was astonishingly loud. In reality, it was probably only around 45-50 dbA, but that’s vastly more noisy than the under 30dbA of my current desktop system.

In building my 2013 gaming PC--a truly modern machine--I wanted something relatively compact. I don’t mean tiny--just somewhat smaller than your typical mid-tower case. On the other hand, I want room to add additional storage, and the case needs to be big enough to support a high-end graphics card. I’ve also been intrigued by the plethora of mini-ITX motherboards that offer full support for higher end CPUs and come complete with a full size PCI Express x16 graphics slot.

Then I saw a bright red, Bitfenix Prodigy mini-ITX case. It was love at first sight.

Yeah, I know, it looks like the bastard child of a Shuttle cube PC and an Apple Mac Pro chassis. But it’s red, capacious, and I like it. And building in it was a little different than in a traditional ATX case.

Prodigious Prodigy

The Prodigy isn’t your typical mini-ITX case. For one thing, it’s big (relatively). The footprint is slightly wider than a mid-tower case, and it’s about 2/3 the height. It’s a far cry from smaller, cube-shaped designs like Coolermaster’s Elite 120 Advanced. The motherboard sits horizontally inside the case, with room on either side for stray cabling and double-wide graphics cards. That’s one reason it’s a little wider. It’s a little taller, because the power supply sits in its own compartment underneath.

So yeah, it’s a mini-ITX case that makes no compromises on space. The case design assumes you want to build a fully realized PC, with lots of storage bays and room for a full size graphics card.

Several aspects of the Prodigy are worth critiquing. The power supply compartment is a little shallow, even if you have a square, small PSU. The main power cable needs to bend at an awkward angle.

The second problem is the hard drive bays. The bays are mostly tool-free, although the optical drive does need to be screwed into place. The bays are also reversible, which is actually pretty clever. If you aren’t a long PCI Express card, you can leave the bays in their default position. That allows you to easily slot in new storage into one of the five 3.5-inch drive bays. And while you can install a 2.5-inch SSD into one of these bays (which is what I did), you can save those bays for 3.5-inch drives and attach 2.5 inch SSDs in a variety of other locations.

However, if you do want a long graphics card, you’ll need to reverse the orientation of the drive bay cage. This little chore consists of removing 3,509 screws, rotating the bays, and screwing 3,509 screws back in. Okay, so I’m exaggerating a little, but it's still a cumbersome task.

If you do reverse the bays, adding or changing 3.5-inch devices means removing the right side panel, which brings me to my third issue with the case.

Bitfenix decided to mount all the front panel connectors – USB, power switch, etc. – in the right side panel. That works, since it’s the panel you normally leave on, even when you’re swapping out the GPU. But it’s not perfect. If you reversed the storage bays, you’ll need to contend with all those small wires and cables. The USB 3.0 cable in particular is quite stiff, so remounting the panel can be something of a chore.

The System Specs

On the component side, I pulled out all the stops.

CaseBitFenix Prodigy$90
Power SupplySeasonic 660W Platinum$155
MotherboardGigabyte Z77N-WiFi$129
CPUIntel Core i7 3770K$329
CPU CoolerIntel RTS2011LC$80
MemoryKingston 16GB HyperX LoVo$129
Graphics CardAsus GeForce GTX Titan$1049
Main StorageCrucial M4 512GB SSD$340
Optical DriveAsus BW-12B1ST Blu-Ray$79
OSWindows 8 Pro$140

There are three key things to note about this system. First, I built in one of Nvidia’s beefy new GeForce GTX Titan cards. That adds over $1K to the build. The second thing is the PSU, which is a Seasonic 660W 80-plus Platinum. It’s efficient and quiet. The third thing to note is the 512GB Crucial M4 SSD. Prices tend to vary, but I’ve found the drive as low as $329, though typical prices tend to hover between $349 and $379. In any case, that’s an impressive price for a half-terabyte SSD. It’s not the fastest SSD you can get, but I’m now running three of these, and they’ve all been solid and certainly fast enough.

Finally, note that I’m running the highest end single GPU card, built on 7.1 billion transistors, into a small case with a 660W PSU. And the whole affair is pretty damned quiet, even under full gaming load.

A Reasonable Alternative

Not everyone will want to drop a cool grand on a graphics card. Let’s spec out a couple of alternatives that are more affordable.

PartBuild 1PriceBuild 2Price
CaseBitFenix Prodigy$90BitFenix Prodigy$90
Power SupplySeasonic 660W Platinum$155Corsair TX650 Bronze$90
MotherboardGigabyte Z77N-WiFi$129Gigabyte Z77N-Wifi$129
CPUCore i5 3570K$229Core i5 3350p$179
CPU CoolerIntel RTS2011LC$80Silverstone NT07$30
MemoryKingston 8GB HyperX LoVo$60Kingston 8GB HyperX LoVo$60
Graphics CardEVGA GTX 680SC$469Asus Radeon HD 7870$260
Main StorageWD1002FAEX + Sandisk Caching SSD$155WD1002FAEX$105
Optical DriveLGUH12NS29 Blu-ray Combo$49Samsung DVD+/-RW$18
OSWindows 8$95Windows 8$95
Build 1 Total$1511Build 2 Total$1056

You can build a pretty killer system for just over $1500, with a fast GeForce GTX 680. The caching SSD gives the standard hard drive a little oomph on load times and Windows boot speeds. For well under $1,100, you can still build a very nice gaming system. So you can spend $2,500 on a PC, but you can also get away with a lot less.

Of course, you can mix and match to your heart’s content. But most of the cost is built into the storage and the graphics card, so you can save a bunch of hard earned dough by just changing out those two components.

Let’s Build This Thing

How did I actually build this PC? It took a lot of tinkering. Working with small PCs, even in a case as capacious as the Prodigy, is an exercise in patience and determining the right order of installation. Let’s take a look.