Big Old PC Builds
I've been building my own computers since 2001, but until recently they were all huge and heavy, with a mess of cables randomly scattered inside. I had always assumed that high performance components needed a lot of space, just check out my last build (2015) inside a 62 liter Antec P183 case, but then I discovered the wonderful world of small form factor (SFF) PCs.
With mechanical and optical spinning disks no longer necessary some things have improved in the SFF arena, but with graphics and cooling solutions continually getting bigger it's not as simple as you might think. Although we've had thin and light laptopns for while and technically it's possible to get USB stick sized Windows PC, the real challenge is cramming as much power into as small of a chassis as possible.
SFF Chassis (Case)
The most important aspect with SFF is the case itself. It will dictate much of your component choice, orientation and level of complexity. My choice was the NCase M1. A standard layout, sub-13 liter case that started life on Indigogo in 2013. Manufactured by Lian Li in small batches it's a rather expensive option, but it's extremely well thought out and well refined (now on version 6.1). It's not the smallest case that can fit high end components, but it's where things start to get tricky and thus seems like a good sweet spot for many people starting out with SFF, even now.
With the panels on the M1 is pretty but fairly low profile, so I made this image to show some of the interior with the exterior. If the price of the Ncase makes you cringe check out the Coolermaster NR200. It's an NCase inspired design, but mass produced and thus considerably cheaper. At 18 liters it's about 50% bigger than the M1, but that makes it easier to build in and more forgiving with system components.
Component compatability is perhaps the hardest aspect of SFF PC building so the best advise I can give is to do a ton of research before you buy, hopefully someone else has done something similar to what you want already and that can give you a huge advantage when choosing what GPU and cooling solutions are achievable in the case you would like.
My biggest issues with this build were: The uniquely shaped mini-DTX motherboard (Asus X570 ROG Crosshair VIII Impact), which is much lower than a standard mini-ITX and the fans I wanted to use at the bottom of the case (used for the deshrouded GPU). When plugging in the system cable (connecting to the cases power switch), shown above, it was extremely lucky that it fitted between the two 140mm fans. Note that there is no rubber padding on the fan corners, this is because there was only just enough room under this unusually low motherboard.
As you can see from the top down view of the NCase M1, there's a lot packed in here. Even with a deshrouded GPU it can be safely used with only 3 fans, tucked away from view. It will get hotter, but it's doable. If you want it to be as cool as possible you can fit another three. Maximising standard capacity of six fans, means two full size 140x25mm (for the GPU), two a 120x15mm (side), one 92x25mm (back) and one 120x30mm (CPU cooler). All this in a sub-13L case is pretty spectacular. This configuration also allows the SFX power supply in its default location on the side, where it can get fresh cool air. This is especially useful during low to mid use since the Corsair SF750 fan doesn't even spin until it draws 300w, so this way it can be much more safely passively cooled.
Compared to the initial build I switched the graphics card, RAM, fans, case panels (black), power cables and added two RGB LED strips. Here are the specification for the above build:
NCase M1 v6.1 (12.7 Litre)
Asus ROG X570 Crosshair VIII Impact
AMD Ryzen 7 5800x (8x 4.8GHz)
MSI Ventus 3x RTX 3080Ti (12Gb GDDR6x)
G.Skill 32Gb Trident Neo (3600MHz cl14)
500GB WD SN850 PCI-E 4 (OS)
4TB PNY XLR8 CS3040 PCI-E 4 (Games)
4TB Samsung QVO 870 SATA (Photos)
Noctua NH-C14S (NF-A12x25)
2x Noctua NF-A14 (for GPU)
Win 10 Pro
Acer XB321HK 32" 4k (IPS / G-Sync)
The biggest concern about this layout is that it can get hot and could add a few more fans to this side, so let me share some temperatures for the above configuration:
IDLE (after gaming):
CPU temp/fan: 43°c / 864rpm (One 120x25mm)
GPU temp/fan: 37°c / 643rpm (Two 140x25mm)
Gaming (Dirt Rally 2 @ 4k / 60 / Ultra settings for 30m):
CPU temp/fan: 56°c / 1,225rpm (One 120x25mm)
GPU temp/fan: 74°c / 1,026rpm (Two 140x25mm)
The fan behind the CPU cooler here was the Noctua NF-A12x25 set to exhaust. Rotating that CPU cooler fan back to intake, adding an NF-A9 on the rear (92mm intake) and two NF-A12x15 fans at the side (intake / exhaust) brings the CPU/GPU temperatures down by around 3°c at idle and 6°c while gaming. Whether this is worth covering the look of those lovely heatsink fins and bumping the noise levels (since all the extra fans are either small or thin) is debatable.
Custom 3D Printing
To get more of that great airflow from the two bottom 140mm Noctua NF-A14 fans on to the relatively thin GPU heatsink I turned to 3D printing. I had always wanted a 3D printer, but this finally pushed me over the edge into getting one. After a few small test prints and couple failed prints I finally got a good shape that funells all the air directly the to GPU and even holds the LED light strip.
The under side of the front left and back right shrouds. Printed successfully by supporting each other with little bridge connections that could be easily cut later (to stop wobbling during the later stages of the print). More info about this project coming soon...