Back to School: Gaming in a Bag

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The laptop is the hands-down winner for on-the-go performance, but what if you’re missing the comforts of your home gaming system? How do you get that in your dorm room? And what about LAN parties with friends? Can you do all that without the heavy lifting? Well, take a step out of the box and let’s talk about mini-ITX. Mini-ITX is the smallest common motherboard form factor with gaming potential. Measuring 6.7 x 6.7", it has everything you need, including a CPU socket, two RAM slots, an M.2 slot or two, a few SATA ports, and a PCIe x16 slot. With this kind of connectivity, you can install the same type of high-end hardware you would on a standard ATX board.

ASUS Republic of Gamers Strix B450-I Gaming AM4 Mini-ITX Motherboard

There are a few tradeoffs, though. As quite evident from its size, mini-ITX boards lack a few things, mainly extra RAM and PCIe slots. Still, these aren’t complete deal breakers. Two RAM slots can support 16GB modules for up to 32GB, which is more than plenty for everyday use and gaming. Additionally, multi-GPU gaming has fallen out of favor for a more powerful single-card solution. As I downgraded over time from a full tower to a mid-tower, and now to a mini-ITX, I’ve been more than satisfied. Rather than hidden under my desk, my system now sits on top of it as a functional art piece. There will always be challenges when building a new system and without some planning, you’ll most likely have a few “hindsight 20/20” moments. If you’re thinking of building a small form factor system, here are some pointers.

Selecting Parts

Selecting the right parts is crucial in making an ITX build work. Most importantly, you need to decide whether you prioritize the case or the components. Mini-ITX is kind of niche, so finding the right case in an already limited catalog to be the backbone of your system is a tough task. Standard mid- to full-tower cases can easily fit a mini-ITX board, but remember, the point of all this is to downsize. (Have you ever seen a mini-ITX board in a full-sized tower?) Aesthetics aside, a case needs to have adequate clearance and cooling for your hardware.

Let’s use the SilverStone ML08 as an example for a case-first approach. This mini-ITX case has two expansion slots, supporting graphics cards up to 13" long. Length could be an issue for some, but many high-end graphics cards nowadays have 2.5- or 2.75-slot designs with hefty coolers to offset the heat they generate. Putting two and two together, these cards won’t fit, leaving you with strictly two-slot GPUs as your only option. To further add to your dilemma, the max CPU cooler height of this case is 58mm. Options start to shrink, especially considering RAM height clearance and the motherboard’s heatsink design. As you can already imagine, these restrictions can really impact parts selection and build potential.

SilverStone ML08 Milo-Series Slim Mini-ITX Console Case

Moving on, mini-ITX cases often only support SFX or SFX-L power supplies rather than standard full-sized ATX ones. With up to 800W SFX-L PSUs available, power output isn’t going to be the thing that makes or breaks your build. As for storage, we have to deal with size constraints again. Console-sized mini-ITX cases may only fit one or two 2.5" drives or a 3.5" depending on the size of your GPU (which isn’t an ideal tradeoff in a gaming-focused build.) I’d recommend using a combination of both 2.5" drives where you can, and M.2 drives since they’re installed directly on the motherboard.

Before you start finalizing your game plan though, you still need to think about cooling. Going back to the SilverStone ML08, we can see that there are neither fans installed, nor slots for users to mount their own. The case relies on its vents and your components to dissipate heat. Depending on what parts you select, this can become an issue (especially in this case) because everything is placed so close to everything else. Without a helping hand to either increase air intake or exhaust, expect to see higher than normal temperatures. This is where you can consider going back to the drawing board and trading the console-sized ML08 for something larger, like a Thermaltake Core V1.

Thermaltake Core V1 Mini-Tower Case

Building

Assembly is as straightforward as any other build; however, cable management can be a bit trickier. SFX power supplies come with shorter cables already, which is good; however, sometimes they aren’t easy to work with. The ribbon-type cables I had weren’t working for me, so I ended up unsticking each wire from each other and bunching them together to form a more standard cable. This was a personal choice, but to each their own. Alternatively, you can also opt for third-party custom-length and custom-sleeved cables for a neater presentation. Lastly, if your case uses a power pass-through cable for the PSU, make sure to flip its switch before closing your panels. This should save you the confusion if your system doesn’t boot.

EVGA GeForce RTX 2080 Ti XC ULTRA GAMING Graphics Card

Depending on the case, mini-ITX systems can easily be held under one arm or put in a backpack. Throw in your keyboard and mouse, and you’re set. Well, apart from a monitor. From a casual party night or a LAN session, people are going to question your tiny build. Some may even doubt its capabilities. That’s when you smile politely and remove a side panel to reveal a liquid-cooled Core™ i9-9900K and a RTX 2080 Ti. For gamers out there, have you ever considered a mini-ITX system? Or if you have one, how does it compare against a mid- or full-tower? Share your thoughts, experiences, and tips with us in the Comments section, below.

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