System Builder Marathon Q3 2015: AMD Mini PC

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Like many readers, I have questioned past SBMs about hardware selection. Having gone through it now, I have a

lot more sympathy for Paul, Don, Thomas, and the other SBM builders. Having a completely firm budget is quite restricting. The machines I've built in the past for myself, family and friends had general budget ranges. An $800 budget usually meant that going to $820 was allowed if the extra $20 meant a greater than 2.5 percent boost in performance. I'm not allowed to do that here. If you can't find a perfect mix of parts and prices, you end up leaving money on the table. Sometimes you get lucky and it doesn't matter a whole lot. In the sub-$1000 range, every dollar counts.

The Munchkin went through two major part iterations. The case, hard drive, and power supply all changed dramatically between the two. My first submitted part list didn't include an optical drive and my chosen GPU had a $20 instant rebate. This allowed me to fit a 240 GB SSD and SeaSonic modular power supply. Management told me I had to include an optical drive. My case didn't have a 5.25" bay, meaning I'd have to get a more expensive external drive or a different case. While looking at my options, the GPU discount ended. That meant I was effectively $40 over budget. Cutting $40 meant dropping the SSD for a mechanical drive and swapping for a less prestigious PSU.

Cooler Master Elite 130 Case

My original selection was the Thermaltake Core V1. That case has a two-story design that places the PSU underneath the motherboard tray. That means more breathing room for the CPU cooler, while the massive 200mm intake fan meant plenty of airflow for cooling. But since I had to include an optical drive, I switched to the Elite 130. Instead of a single 200mm fan, it has a 120m and 80mm for airflow. More importantly, the side panel is still vented to allow a GPU to get its own fresh air for cooling.

$49.99 >Newegg

AMD Athlon X4 860K CPU

Compared to the 860K, the Pentium G3258 runs cooler and can often clock higher on stock cooling. However, the 860K has twice as many cores, which I'm counting on in the threaded benchmarks. The big question here is if the ITX case and stock cooling will be enough to prevent massive thermal throttling.

$74.99 >Newegg

ASRock FM2A88X-ITX+ Motherboard

While you can get a cheaper ITX FM2+ motherboard, this model has a feature set that's nearly perfect for my idea of a LAN box. The cheaper boards had the older A78 or A68 chipsets, and quite frankly I wanted a newer board. Gigabyte's GA-F2A88XN-WIFI was also a contender. The Gigabyte board has a faster AC Wi-Fi card, but the deciding factor was the eSATA on ASRock's model. Again, this part was locked in when I still had a 240 GB SSD. The eSATA port makes it very easy to attach an external storage drive. Yes, USB 3.0 is available now for high-speed storage, but eSATA is still my preferred external storage method.

$98.99 >Newegg

Crucial Ballistix Sport 8GB Memory

RAM prices have been condensing lately and the price difference between mainstream and premium kits is pretty small right now. However, the GTX 970 had already taken almost half my budget and I needed to save every dollar. I opted for the cheapest DDR3-1600 8GB kit I could find with reasonable CAS latency and hoped it proved a good overclocker. I've used Crucial memory in my personal builds for years with good results, so an 8GB kit under $40 was the smart choice. The Ballistix Sport kit was also low-rise, so I knew it would fit under the PSU and wouldn't cause airflow problems.

$48.99 >Newegg

ASUS GeForce GTX 970 TURBO Graphics

The GTX 970 was the obvious GPU after a little consideration. Furies and 980 variants are too expensive, and the 290X is too hot for an ITX case. The 970 has a relatively low power requirement and has blower-style cooler models available. Both are perfect for my needs. Most 970 cards on Newegg at the time had discounts dropping them to $329. This particular Asus model has a single 8-pin power plug for easier cable wiring and an additional $20 discount lowering the price to $309 (at least it did have the discount when I first tried to order).

Even after I missed the discount, I kept the GPU since it had a higher than average factory overclock and I liked the look of the white shroud. After purchasing I noticed it had a double-sided blower that pulls air from both sides of the card. I wasn't sure if that would help or hinder the CPU cooling. But duct tape covereth a multitude of sins, and I've got a roll handy in case the vent needs to be covered.

$249.99 >Newegg


I'm sure a lot of readers don't like this particular selection. That's okay, my first pick was the SeaSonic M12II 520 for $75. Losing $40 meant cutting $20 off the PSU. I needed a modular PSU so the extra cables wouldn't hamper airflow inside the case. In the $55 range, that meant either a Corsair CX or Rosewill ARC. I couldn't find any info on the ARC so I went with the CX. I know a lot of people don't like the idea of a Channel Well PSU in a build like this. But the Elite 130 gives the PSU its own air intake up top for plenty of ventilation and this build will mostly stay below 60% load while gaming, so it shouldn't be a problem.

$79.99 >Newegg

Western Digital Blue WD10EZEX (1TB) Storage

As the advice goes, even the slowest SSD is much faster than the fastest spindle drive. I barely fit a 240GB SSD in the first iteration of the build, but was forced to swap it out for a 1TB Western Digital drive when I had to cut an additional $20. The same $50 spent on the WD Blue could buy a 128GB SSD, but I consider that too small to be the only drive in the system. Not only that, but our test bench image takes up 200 GB, so it wasn't a workable alternative. The WD Blue has proven itself to be a reliable, if inexpensive, drive for years. It may be slower, but I'm hardly scraping the barrel bottom for a system drive.

$69.99 >Newegg

Asus DRW-24F1ST Optical

I know a lot of builders consider an optical drive a waste of funds. And normally I disagree with them. But the Munchkin originally wasn't supposed to have one as it's not critical for a LAN box. The higher-ups said an OD drive was required. Finding a 40 percent discount meant this drive only cost $12 instead of the usual $20. I find Asus drives a little shorter than other brands (this is the same model in my personal system), and I'll take every millimeter of extra space I can get in this small case.

$19.99 >Newegg

Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64-bit) Software

A 10 percent discount on the OS made all the difference on this build. I already scrimped about as much as I could to make a reasonable system and couldn't have fit all the components without that extra $10 savings.

$99.99 >Newegg

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