This is the Little Lounge PC that can Play with the Big Boys.
1. A Build That Started with Good Intentions
I wanted to set myself the ultimate challenge – a chrome brass tubed liquid cooled “mini toaster sized” mini ITX PC capable of smooth 4K gaming. I had assembled quite a fantastic stock of parts for this one – an RTX 2080TI, the i9-9900K CPU and an 800W SFX-L PSU. Once I assembled the PC, I looked into the case, my finger was hovering over the power button, and my hand was on the PSU cord ready to pull the plug in the event of a disaster. I turned on the Power button. Nothing. I must have messed up somewhere I thought. Double checking, nope, everything is where it should be. It did not take me long to figure out that the GPU was dead meat, either blown to electrostatic smithereens during the installation of the GPU waterblock or maybe when I air benched the build I used the HDMI port on the motherboard and the card was one of those DOAs (I did not recollect the dry run very well). Either way that GPU was dead. I tried the GT 730 on this Ncase build, affirmative, no issues at all with rest of hardware. I decided to hold off building this project to pursue other interests. The replacement GPU and 9900K ended up contributing towards a different build. The Ncase entered a state of limbo and was quite dusty when I decided to rekindle my interest towards it.
2. The Rebuild
Several months later, armed with new enthusiasm I decided to tackle this little Ncase again. This time I had a better plan. A red black theme, the Ryzen 5 3600 was going to be the choice CPU and the Video Card probably an RTX 2070 Super although the 5700XT caught my attention as well. My “parts to purchase list” was altered when I saw an auction for a broken i7-8086K for very cheap. While I do not buy broken merchandise as a matter of habit, I am willing to chance on a deal if I suspect I can fix it. I still had that Z390 ITX board and this i7 was $75 cheaper than a MSRP Ryzen 5 3600. In this scenario I would not have to purchase the only ITX board for the X570 chipset (which was saddled with a $200 price tag). When I got the i7-8086K the repair was very easy once I delidded it. In regards to purchasing the RTX 2070 Super GPU I was going to sell my Titan XP to fund the cost. I had all but completed the auction listing and kept procrastinating on the odious task of disassembling the GPU Waterblock to reinstall the Titan XP into it’s original heatsink. The Titan XP had given me nearly two years of service on my Workstation and it was recently replaced by an RTX Titan. I never considered gaming on the venerable XP but I decided to satisfy my curiosity and loaded a few Youtube videos. To my surprise the XP was quite a decent card for gaming, most titles I was interested in playing run quite well at 4K with this card. I seriously contemplated using it particularly noting one thing in its favor is I already had it installed in a liquid cooling block. One less hassle, one less thing that can go wrong. Conversely, I was wasting money. Selling the Titan XP and purchasing the RTX 2070 Super would leave me with an extra $400 in my back pocket. After much soul searching and deliberation, the Titan XP was placed on the parts list for the build.
For the rebuild I used the liquid cooling gear I had already purchased for the first build. Nice thing about EKWB plates is the fittings are all the same and the places where mounts go are the same. I found the EKWB Coolstream 240 to be a tight fit in my case so I ordered an XSPC Slim 240mm to replace it. I am not a fan of pi/2 on my wires. I also decided to order a 92mm radiator by Alphacool as well to hedge my bets on better cooling given the XP is older and more power hungry than the 2070. The Alphacool is made of copper, it is thick, and a good fan with high static pressure will make it a respectable addition to the cooling loop. Noctua fans were good for the job despite clashing with my originally intended color scheme of red black. Please refer to my pictures of the loop to get a rough idea of what I did. I included a circuit diagram for you to check out as well.
PSU wise I wanted to reuse the Silverstone 800W SFX-L PSU I had purchased but it was a tight fit and some of my cable management was not as tidy as I liked because of it. This Silverstone PSU also emitted an irritating coil whine – it was louder than the fans and pump. I decided rather than replace a bad unit with a good unit I would take my custom elsewhere. On Newegg I found a Corsair 750W Platinum SFX PSU and an EVGA 650W SFX PSU. I liked both but the Evga price was slashed to $90. The Corsair was double the price yielding only an extra 100W and a 2% bump in efficiency. The Titan XP and i7 will run fine on 650W and I purchased the EVGA unit.
I had no issue getting the rig up and running. I did not even bother air benching it (so called dry run). First thing I did was conduct a few benchmarks. The results of a few tests are attached as cut and paste screenshots. For your convenience some key results are listed:
*3DMark Firestrike Ultra: 8066
*3DMark Firestrike 1.1: 25573
*TimeSpy Extreme: 4926
*TimeSpy 1.0: 10661
*UserBenchmark: SC = 155pts, Quad = 615pts, Mult = 1130pts
*Shadow of Tomb Raider (2560 x 1440p, DX12, VH settings, Pure Hair) = 86fps
*Idle Temps Ave = 33C
*Max Temp during TimeSpy = 92C (although settled at 76C)
*Max Temp during CineBench = 77C.
*Temp during 30min gaming session Fallout 4: 56C
*Temp during 2hour gaming session Shadow of Tomb Raider: Max = 62c,
Thermals did not go as badly as I expected. I say this tentatively since I still have to thoroughly test. I ran one benchmark and the recorded history indicated a 92C spike but it settled to 76c shortly after where it hovered most the time. Did the pump switch off for a fraction of a second? Was the 92C a glitch in measurement? No idea but I will investigate further. The spike caused the clock frequency to drop to 4.3GHz but once the temperature went down to 76C the average clock moved back up to maximum and stayed there. I did play approximately 2 hours on Shadow of the Tomb Raider and temperatures were balmy rather than molten, hovering around 62c with a few spikes hitting into the high 70’s and low 80’s. Idle temperatures we are pushing around the low 30’s mark. This rig definitely runs hotter than it would in a full tower but that was to be expected. The CPU is currently at a 5GHz (although a few tests were performed at an initial 4.7GHz clock) all core overclock and the GPU has a 100MHz overclock (I have at least another 100MHz to play with probably more).
3. Component Choices and Musings
CPU Choice: i7 – 8086K
The 8086K was purchased from a seller whom had it listed “for parts”. The seller had it on buy it now for $125 and indicated in the auction that the CPU does work on boot but it quickly shuts down thereafter. I decided to take a risk. When I got the CPU, after delidding it, I discovered there was no compound in there. After applying thermal compound, the CPU worked well and I had no issue overclocking to 5.4GHz on all cores on a heavy duty MSI Godlike EATX motherboard. I have since relidded the CPU and have it on an all core 5GHz setting. Performance is more than adequate for my purposes and motivation for this chip and platform was frugality driven.
Motherboard Choice: AsRock Z390M Itx/Ac
I have used AsRock boards before and never had an issue. I purchased this AsRock on a price/availability whim in 2018 when the chipset first came out and the plan was an i9-9900K build. While nowhere near the best motherboard feature wise, what is gained/lost must be leveraged against the build’s form. Great overclocking features would not be needed and I had already decided the limit of my OC dabbling was going to be 5GHz and no more. I wanted a mini toaster oven sized build, not an actual toaster oven.
GPU Choice: Nvidia Titan XP
The original goal of this build was a mini ITX lounge/gaming PC that was powerful enough to drive a 4K panel with playable frame rates. Consoles will be connected to this panel (Xbox One X, PS4 Pro) as well so I had in mind a media center of sorts. Given the consoles are not able to pump 60fps @ 4K I could similarly live with the PC not trailblazing the frame rates either. Medium settings 60fps or better or high settings 30-40fps would be okay I figured. There will be several titles that will run smooth at 4K, a few will stutter a bit. GPU wise I had in mind the RTX 2070/2070 Super. I had a Titan XP on my workstation PC and when I upgraded to the Titan RTX I was going to sell it. However, once I looked over gaming benchmarks online, I realized that the Titan XP is quite a capable 4K card in its own right and will perform competitively with the RTX 2070Supe. Coincidentally this is good enough for my purposes. With that in mind, rather than go through the hassle of selling it and then buying another card, it found itself repurposed for this build.
Ram Choice: Corsair Dominator CL16 2 x 16GB 3200MHz
This RAM was purchased for $120 on a sale. My original Ram choice was this kit in 2 x 8GB sticks. The deal was double the capacity for only $10 more. While there is better RAM out there than Corsair Dominator CL16 kit, with this Z390 chipset, you quickly hit diminishing returns. Besides, I am not gaming at 1080p/240Hz, this is a 4K rig, my bottleneck will certainly be the GPU. If I lose one or two fps due to RAM choice it is not the end of the world.
I did not put much stock into Keyboard Mouse purchases and bought what I did when I visited BestBuy (all on a sale of course). I generally use an Xbox One Elite Controller when playing and I do not spend any time on competitive shooters or Esports titles. As for typing, the only thing I will be doing with keyboard is enter my password. As for monitor and speakers they were moved from my room where I game to the lounge. I bought the Predator monitor Spring 2018 while the Speakers I have owned since Summer 2017.
The Ncase mini ITX case is probably the best ITX case I have ever worked with – at least in this small form. It must be said, despite being self-evident, that an ITX case built with mid-tower sensibilities (like Fractal Design Nano S or NZXT/InWin type mini towers) offer better building options and solutions. However, picking these in favor of the Ncase means a larger build. The Fractal Design Nano S, while a small case, is still about double the size of the Ncase. In the class of sub 5-gallon cases (20 liter or less) the Ncase is the best of the lot in my opinion. With some careful planning you can get a lot in there. Just do not expect to build a tower with a 10TB hard drive installed or a beautiful full tower form cooler clad in RGB trimmings. This is the wrong kind of case for all that. This is also not a case where mastery of bling is evident - if you are a fan of RGB I recommend looking elsewhere, perhaps at Anidees or Cooler Master. Given that this case is a niche low volume product, it also comes with a high price tag. Is it worth it? Well, only you can decide what is right for you. For me, the case contributed under 10% of the total build cost so it was borderline acceptable. For another build with different compenents I could very well baulk at the price.
Addendum: Tips for Building in this Ncase
LED options: Not great. A couple of LED strips = Yes. LED fans = No. This is due to the niche of slim form 92mm and 120mm fans and lack of availability of RGB options. 92mm is not a common RGB fan format (I know of only a couple of very mediocre fans) while 120mm slim RGB LED fans are pretty much nonexistent since Thermaltake discontinued their Luna Slim models.
Fan Options: 1 x 92mm fan, any thickness. Slim is more aesthetically pleasing than thick due to Line of Sight with the motherboard. The 2 x 120mm fans have to be slim due to the GPU being mounted above the slots. With air cooled GPU, the fans must act as an exhaust.
Motherboards: If you go for anything not an ITX form factor the odds of you returning the board to the vendor are extremely high.
CPU’s: Your choice/anything. Air cooling options limited – must be low profile. Remember this when choosing a CPU. Thermal considerations must be a priority.
Power Supplies: The Ncase has many options but the ones that are best involve SFX form factors. Try avoid the SFX – L form factor or PSU’s that are too long. You have to get cables routed from it and you cannot do that very easily with a GPU squeezing your workable space to an inch or so. You must only consider the SFX otherwise you will have a miserable time with cable management. When you turn on electricity the wires/cables are actually transmission lines. With awkward cable angles particularly bunched up in a tiny space, you can get all sorts of artifacts, such as overshooting, ringing, and so on. Overshooting or temporal surges could theoretically exceed component tolerances. Go SFX, nothing else.
Storage: If you need a lot of storage my advice is get a motherboard with two slots for M2-2280/22110 drives. This is the easiest way to load up on capacity since the storage is on your motherboard and takes up no real estate in your case. With the price of SSD’s today this is no longer as financially burdensome as it used to be. The front of the case has room for one 2.5” drive. Usually a SSD is preferred due to the slimmer form factor (some 2.5” hard disk drives like the WD Velociraptor or Seagate Barracuda 5TB are too thick to install). Forget about any other storage if following my template. The cooling equipment will circumvent mounting a 2.5/3.5” drive inside the case.
GPU’s: Your choice but Size is a constraint. Be aware of the triple slot GPU’s, they will not fit in the V5 release of the case. Dual slot or single slot only. Cards longer than around 12 inches are pushing the limit of feasibility [310mm is the hypothetical maximum]. Cards with excessively thick heatsinks or triple fans may or may not work. Liquid cooling in a waterblock will remove a lot thickness from commercial GPU’s. Here you do not need to care about the width of the stock card. You can also buy some GPU’s that already have a liquid cooling block installed. Buying these preinstalled Liquid Cooling cards is convenient but may come at a premium price for very little real-world gain. YMMV here.
RAM: Your choice/design. 16GB is good for a gaming build. 8GB is a cost compromise that no longer makes sense. Due to being an ITX form factor, you will only have two Ram slots (unless you get the x299e ITX by Asrock which has four Sodimm slots).
Air Cooling: I personally think if you go with air cooling for anything outside of something like the i5-8400/9400 or one of the Ryzen 5 chips you are setting yourself up for a frustrating experience in balancing performance and thermals. The case is tiny and “air flow” real estate here is at an all-time premium. This is made wose that vendors are incredibly stingy at offering premium low profile air coolers that can handle OC'ing chips that like to run hot. Even some so called low profiles like the Dark Rock might not fit in the Ncase. Your options are limited.
AIO Liquid Cooling: Forget AIO coolers if you get the windowed case. You could theoretically install a 92mm AIO using the 92mm fan slot (Asetek made one years ago but it may have been discontinued). On the bottom there is no room for a 240mm or 120mm fan/radiator if you install a GPU. The same caveat applies if you purchase a liquid cooled GPU and an accompanying 120mm Radiator. If you have to go with AIO, then try source a 92mm one for your CPU. GPU must be air cooled here.
Liquid Cooling DIY Loop: This is the most logical choice for this build outside of carefully planned air cooling. A liquid cooled founders edition card (and numerous others including AMD) yield very reasonable dimensions when installed in a waterblock. Gone are those thick heatsinks. Gone are the fans. That beastly video card is not much thicker than a pencil once you get rid of all the cooling hardware. The Ncase can now accommodate a 240mm radiator. The 240mm radiator must necessarily be of the thin variety. Anything thicker than 30mm should be treated with caution. For cooling performance get a copper radiator (just be mindful of mixing copper and aluminum parts). Fan wise you can install two fans but both must be thin– no more than 15mm thick. They are often called slim fans or ultra slim fans. Vendors such as PerformancePcs stock a range of them and they are easily found on Newegg as well. On the side of the case there is a 92mm port that will install a 92mm fan or 92mm Radiator or both. You can find a nice 92mm Radiator made by Alphacool. It is thick, it is copper, and it does a splendid job. Working in tandem with a slim 240mm Radiator it is quite a powerful method of dealing with heat. I do not believe you can do any better than this with the Ncase. In this topology the 92mm was chosen as exhaust and 240mm was the exhaust. Air Intake occurs where the cooler air will drift in through the top of the case to equalize the pressure. Provided the fans work consistently, laminar flow can be established. Regarding the CPU block, pick one you like that is compatible with your CPU slot. I really do not think it matters that much which one you get but generally EKWB, Bitspower, Thermaltake, Aquacomputer, Alphacool, XSPC, Bykski, Barrow, Waterkiller, and so on as do a good job. Now to the penultimate part of the puzzle – the pump and reservoir. The separate pump and separate reservoir arrangement, while my preferred method, is a little inconvenient for this build. Get a pump and reservoir as a combo if possible (either sold as a manufactured unit or one you can just assemble together if buying separate parts). Forget about a D5 pump, it is too big to conveniently install for little real-world gain – you are not pushing fluid through yards of tubing in this case. You will want a DDC pump for this build. Reservoir wise I would go for a 150ml one. You can get bigger (just be careful of length). 150ml will hold plenty of fluid for the loop. Installing? One method is simply drill holes where you need them and mount. Second option – buy Reservoir / Pump brackets. They are usually designed to fit 120mm fan slots but you can also source those that fit other slot sizes such as 50mm/80mm and so on. The ones that work with the Ncase fit SSD mounts. My personal solution was to drill my own holes since that gave me the flexibility to place where I want. Now to the final part of the puzzle – the tubing and fittings: There are many sizes in different metrics. To keep things simple, wider tubes in small builds like this are harder to work with and more space hungry than smaller tubes. A good size is 13mm/10mm outer and inner diameter. I used 16mm/12mm because I had spare tubing from another build. Search for something like the Alphacool Plexi Tube – this is good stuff and does a nice job. Get your fixings to match size wise. You will need two for each reservoir, two for CPU and two for GPU. That is eight. You will also need the compression parts, eight in total. This does not include 90 degree adapters or extenders or various intra-tube fittings and so on. I used four of such parts in this build but it could be more or less depending on you and the angles you form. More right angles = more fixings. You can save a lot on parts if you are willing to bend your tubes. Related to bending, the tube material is important. Hard metal tubes like brass or carbon fiber require specialized equipment to shape, cut, and use. Soft tubing is easiest to apply (highly recommended for the beginner – you need nothing more than a glass of boiling water and a pair of scissors). Harder tubing like Acrylic or PETG are my personal favorites although you will need a couple of tools to cut, shape, apply heat and bend.
Concluding Remarks: Remember that liquid cooling is expensive. Consider that and leverage against real world gain. A good air cooler can trade blows with liquid cooling but in a small case like the Ncase your air-cooling options are narrow and pretty much reliant on availability of good low-profile air coolers. Most low-profile air coolers I have dealt with are barely adequate for a stock i7-8700 let alone a K variant. If you want to attempt a Ncase Build, I recommend taking my component choices with a grain of salt. Purchasing a Titan XP for gaming flies against conventional wisdom, particularly when a nicely overclocked RTX 2070 Super can exceed the XP on DX12 titles for less than half the price. 32GB of RAM – generally not recommended for gaming, faster 16GB Ram will give you more real-world gain than my choice. CPU wise, nothing wrong with the i7-8086K but no question both the Ryzen 7 3700X and Intel i7-9700K will smoke past it – important given a 2nd hand 8086K is dearer than either chips brand new. In the six-core domain, a Ryzen 5 3600 would be worth checking out and it will run cooler. With the Ncase build, exercise good judgement. As with all endeavors like this, balance cost with performance. If you do that, you will not spend good money after bad. I hope you enjoyed this build/exposition/guide.