Previously on “Road to the Perfect Mini ITX PC”:
The first two cases I had bought were before I became aware of all the mass-market and niche options that existed at that time. Not only have I learned about the DAN Case, NCase M1, and Streacom DA2, but companies have released more cases during the past year. I’m talking about the NZXT H1, the Cooler Master NR200, or, recently, Phanteks’ second attempt at the Evolv Shift. Even Lian Li’s TU150 landed during that time, my current case. There are even so many more cases, like the Louqe Ghost S1, the FormD T1, Sliger SM560, and many more.
All of these tiny, cute enclosures have two things in common:
- Steep pricing
While I may have been able to push myself past the price, it does not do any good if you cannot buy it. Sliger’s cases are resold by a Slovakian company, Density, that focuses on small form factor cases, making it a lot easier for European buyers – like me – to get your hands on one of those. European shoppers can find the Ghost S1 at Proshop, a Danish company, but it’ll cost close to 300€, and that is a very steep price, no matter how good the quality may be. Even if I had known of those cases a year ago, when world-wide shipping was not in flux as it is now, it is doubtful that I would have considered them. Too expensive and too limited in hardware compatibility.
> I like sandwiches, but not as a case
Let me explain my rationale that applies to almost all sandwich-style cases that follow the DAN A4 form factor. Here is a list of the most common traits of such a case to lay a foundation for discussion.
- SFX power supply
- Full-length GPU support
- Dual-slot GPU
- Minimal CPU cooler clearance
In theory and practice, you can install the most powerful hardware in such a small computer enclosure. But as I have mentioned in my previous posts about this topic, I’m not content with the theory. The practice has to be a viable one, and for me, that means adequate cooling and choice of products.
Let me go through the list in order.
SFX Power Supply
Choosing a suitable power supply is the easiest of the four – if it weren’t for this thing called pandemic in 2020. I believe all cases support up to SFX-L, with Sliger not recommending SFX-L because of the length and the limited space for cables coming out of the PSU. You can watch this video by Linus Tech Tips on YouTube and be the judge yourself. I will also quickly talk about the larger Sliger cases later in this post.
In my opinion, there only exist two companies right now from which I would buy power supplies – Corsair and Seasonic (650W is SFX-L). Corsair’s SFX units are held in high regard in the tech community, and Corsair is one of the few companies to gladly sell you an SFX (not L) unit capable of more than 600W – the SF750. Unfortunately, you cannot find this tiny powerhouse in stock anywhere in mid to late 2020. If you plan to install an RTX 3080 or 3090, then you may be out of luck. A 600W unit should be capable enough in theory, but it may reach its limits. It does work, as YouTuber Optimum Tech has shown. In the long run, it might not be the best idea, though.
In short: when the world goes back to normal, it should be easy to buy a high-quality power supply.
Full-Length GPU Support
This topic is an easy talking point, as well. Although the computer cases in question are small in volume, they are not short. They do have their limits, though, and recent RTX 3000 and AMD RX 6800 series releases have shown that high-end graphics have gained in size a lot
- at least if you want to buy from an AiB instead of NVIDIA or AMD directly.
Now, this is where it gets interesting, and this is a point of contention for me. Supporting a dual-slot GPU sounds like a good thing, but for me, it is not enough. I want more choice when I buy a graphics card. I want to buy at my favorite retailer, where I know that they properly handle warranty requests and the return policy. I also wish to have a choice when it comes to cooling, and the most efficient and quiet cooling solution is most often found on more oversized cards. NVIDIA may sell pretty good dual-slot founders edition cards, but I will not buy from NVIDIA. If you have read the post about the NZXT H200, you know I have replaced that chassis because it does not support big, oversized graphics cards.
Minimal CPU Cooler Clearance
CPU cooling is only a minor point, but still nothing I merely glance over. Depending on your use case, you do not need a high-core-count processor that sucks hundreds of watts. I do not. I still want a high-end processor, though, because the AM4 socket is dead, and the next CPU I put in there should be good for a few more years. Therefore, I will probably go a bit further than is strictly necessary.
Now, CPU cooling is very dependent on the exact case you want to buy. You may only be able to use air cooling or maybe even install an all-in-one water cooler. For me, the latter would only be a last resort. I have had water coolers in the past, and they ran just fine. Not all small form factor cases support the optimal mounting position for an AiO, though, where the pump is not in the highest spot in the loop. Right now, for several reasons, I prefer air cooling over an AiO.
This stance on cooling limits me to very small CPU coolers. The most powerful and case-compatible is probably the Alpenföhn Black Ridge (you should consider swapping the standard fan with one from Noctua). I wrote “case-compatible” because it might interfere with large VRM heatsinks on the motherboard. So, not only must it fit the case, but also your mainboard – that pesky compatibility again. Noctua’s NH L9i does not have this issue and should work everywhere. And although it may be good enough for a 6-core or even low-power 8-core gaming CPU, I am convinced the CPU temperatures would not make me happy. There is also the Cryorig C7 Copper, or if you have more room in the case, something like the Noctua L12 (Louqe Ghost Edition). Unfortunately, I am just wired in a way that makes it hard for me to accept this tradeoff. I am used to roughly 50 – 55 degrees Celsius in gaming, with my Ryzen 2600 overclocked to 4 GHz.
Long story short: Small form factor cases have come a long way, and if you are willing to make some tradeoffs, unlike me, you can build a tiny computer that packs a lot of punch.
Let’s make it short:
- SM560: Triple-slot GPU! The tallest CPU cooler can be 55mm, so Alpenföhn is the best choice, in my opinion.
- SM580: Triple-slot GPU and support for a 240mm AiO if you like water cooling. This is probably the best option overall.
- SM620: Very similar to NCase M1. I didn’t even know about this case until writing this piece. It looks very intriguing, with triple-slot GPU support and Noctua’s NH-D15 in the product shots.
Phanteks Evolv Shift 2
I will start with the latter because I think I can make it short. The problem is that it is not short. It has a small footprint on your desk, which is cool. But with 490 mm, it is taller than a mid-tower ATX case. At that size, you should consider it as part of your furniture and if it would fit your overall desk and room setup. The way I have arranged my desk now, it would probably fit nicely, neatly tucked away in the corner of my living room on an L-shaped desk arrangement. It would fill out space in that corner, something other people do with plants. If that is your goal, then the only thing to consider is CPU cooling. At 85 mm, you could use a potent top-blower style cooler. Oh, and install the mesh side panels.
The H1 is the closest you can get to an Xbox Series X form factor, and I had already put it in my shopping cart, only to chicken out the last second. Here is why:
- The pre-installed power supply is supposedly the Seasonic SGX650, the unit I already have.
- An included 140 mm AiO. I know I should grow out of ideology.
- Limited cooling due to a glass front panel. The most unnecessary “feature” of this case.
Large-ish graphics cards fit, as long as their brackets are dual-slot only. The cooler itself can be much thicker until it touches the side panel. But, you are almost required to externally mount fans to the rear panel to aid with airflow because of the glass at the front. This little “mod” is not a huge problem per se, but it would be nicer if NZXT had designed the case properly in the first place.
Cooler Master NR200
If this case had been available earlier in the year, I would have bought one. Unfortunately, its announcement preceded the availability in Germany by months. The same problem that plagued the NZXT H1 as well, by the way. Even right now, availability is spotty at best. However, as soon as things go back to normal, I expect this to change. It is also the buying season right now, just a few more weeks to Christmas and just a week after Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Everybody is in a buying mood, which makes supply dry out even quicker.
About one thousand seven hundred words later, let me try and summarize the whole small form factor computer experience so far. As I am five blog posts into this journey, I guess it has been an interesting ride that is yet to come to a conclusion. I have already arranged with my sister to receive my Lian Li TU150 once I have decided what I want to do next. I have many concerns regarding cooling, which is why I certainly will not buy a sandwich-style case. That, and the price. Rolling back such an experiment is expensive, and I have already made too many bad tech-buying decisions just to go forward and try it out.
Cooler Master and NZXT had their chances with the NR200 or H1. Both were way too late to come to the German market. As of now, with the new and power-hungry high-end GPUs in mind and the supply issues with Corsair’s SF750 power supply, I wonder if staying with ITX is the way to go forward. I want to mount a Ryzen 5000 CPU in the motherboard, and although ASRock has announced support for the B450 Gaming ITX/ac, since AMD has labeled Ryzen 5000 on B450/X470 “Beta”, I am not so sure I want to try it out. If anything were to go wrong, I would not even know if the BIOS update failed and bricked the board or the new CPU is dead. As I understand it, going back to the Ryzen 2600 is a no-go too. The latest BIOS version does not seem to support this CPU anymore. That would be an awful situation. So… getting a new CPU sounds like a mainboard change is inevitable. Since the current platforms are essentially dead after this latest release, I want the fastest CPU (within reason), so it lasts as long as (or close to) the Core i5 2500 did – which was the end of Q3 in 2019.
My ITX resolve is waning.