This article was published in the Holiday 2015 issue of Maximum PC. For more trusted reviews and feature stories, subscribe here.
Assembling the cage
Most of the time, our builds end up in PC cases that encloses the guts on all six sides. Even if there is a side panel window, five out of six sides remain mostly or totally opaque. That means that the case is on display, not the parts. Since the case is only a fraction of the cost of the PC, it’s a shame to hide all those parts away behind sheets of black steel or aluminum.
We wanted to try out this open-air case because it gives us a chance to look at those parts that are too often hidden away. But with beauty comes pain. An open-air case like this one presented some unique challenges for our build.
Even with those challenges, we were happy with the final result.
Rounding up the parts
When we set out to do this build, we wanted to include some shiny-new, recently released parts. This, of, course meant we had to go with Skylake; we’ve been overdue for a build that used Intel’s latest architecture. For graphics though, we had a choice to make: we could go lower-end with the recently released GTX 950, or go bigger with the AMD’s R9 Nano.
Guess which way we went? More power is sexier, so we went with the Nano, which fit really well in this mini-ITX build. It’s been a minute since we went with an AMD GPU in one of our monthly builds, and the Nano felt like the obvious choice for this form factor.
The CPU and GPU found their home on the Gigabyte GA-Z170N motherboard, which supports DDR4 and offers up a wireless connection with an included mini-PCIe Wi-Fi card. We had an EVGA Z170 board on hand, but for this build, we felt that the included Wi-Fi capability was a good reason to choose one board over the other. We do wish that the mobo came with on-board power and reset buttons like the EVGA model does. Since this is a Z170 board, we had to go with DDR4 memory. We got a couple of 8GB sticks of 2666MHz Corsair Dominator for the job.
All of our parts found a comfy, airy home in the In Win D-Frame Mini. We really liked this model with its orange-and-blue frame, but the D-Frame also comes in black-and-red and red-and-black. The cool thing about the case is that there’s no clear top or bottom; the only thing you need to worry about is access to ports and buttons.
The 750W power supply is plenty for the assortment of parts we chose, and since mini-ITX is limited to one GPU, there’s no need to worry about extra headroom for SLI or Crossfire. However, the extra wattage does allow for single-GPU upgrades, or the addition of some spinning drives.
|Case||In Win D-Frame Mini (orange/blue)||$250|
|CPU||Intel Core i7-6700K||$360|
|Memory||16GB (2x 8GB) Corsair Dominator Platinum DDR4 2666||$170|
|GPU||Radeon R9 Nano||$650|
|PSU||BitFenix Fury 750G 80 Plus Gold||$121|
|SSD||Samsung 850 Evo 2TB||$800|
|CPU Cooler||Deepcool Maelstrom 240||$177|
All prices reflect market pricing at time of writing.
Step 1 – Hot Stuff
The Radeon R9 Nano a quite the powerful GPU, given its tiny form factor. However, we noticed that this card got pretty toasty when we ran our graphics benchmarks. While normal closed cases could solve this by channeling a lot of air through the case, we were low on options because there was no way to effectively push extra air over the card. The air coming from our CPU radiator was nice and cool, but the slight offset of the motherboard meant that the Nano wouldn’t get any of those cool breezes. Placing the “front” glass panel on the case helped a little bit, but at the end of the day, the Nano breathes best with a little extra air flow from a case fan.
If we were to redesign the case, we’d like to see an extra removable bracket for a case fan, just below the GPU mount. This would allow extra-toasty GPUs that would usually have more forced air to stay a bit cooler under load.
Step 2 – Side Mounted
The PSU is the heaviest component in nearly any build, so mounting it on the side of the case might seem counter-intuitive. Not so, with the D-Frame. The PSU happily occupies a bracket on the side of the cage, but doesn’t make the cage feel off-balance. Since mini-ITX builds will rarely see high-wattage PSUs, extra support for a potential 1600W monster wasn’t warranted here. In this photo, we show the cage positioned with the PSU on the bottom.
To make things a little neater, we went with individually sheathed cables, which are easier to manipulate. These cables can also be used with cable combs for an ultra-clean look, though we just went with trusty zip ties. Routing the cables was a bit tricky with a smooth aluminum plate instead of a motherboard tray rife with cable-management tie loops. Luckily, the cage came with a few accessories that helped out with wrangling the cables.
Like we’d recommend for most mini-ITX builds, we used a modular power supply, so there’s no need to stash unused cables. That’s a big deal in a case where there are no hiding places for your cabling. The glass on this cage is tinted, so black cables don’t exactly advertise their presence on the back side. If you prefer white or other bright-colored cables, be prepared to get creative to keep them neat. The tinting only hides so much.
Step 3 – USB 3.0 Woes
If there was one beef we had with this motherboard, it was the positioning of the USB 3.0 front panel connection. At first glance, it didn’t look so bad, but after you figure in the presence of a GPU, it became clear that there was no sexy, clean way to attach the cable.
To the left, you have the R9 Nano, and routing under the GPU between the PCIe slot and the “back” panel was too tight of a squeeze. If we came from below, we’d have to let the cable cross over both the memory and CPU. That just wouldn’t do. We decided to run the cable over the “top,” which routes it over a pair of USB ports and the Wi-Fi antenna connectors. The result was the best of a bunch of less-than-ideal options. There really wasn’t an attractive way to do this.
If there’s an upside to this, it’s that the USB cable is braided, which makes it at least look good, even if it is in the way.
Then again, some may like the appearance of a cable or two jutting out of the mobo, giving it a bit of a cybernetic look. We won’t judge.
Step 4 – Silent Storage
With the recent release of the 2TB Samsung 850 EVO, we thought that it would be the perfect storage solution for a mini-ITX build. Having two whole terabytes available on an SSD is pricey (at $800, this SSD is a luxury item), but it has its advantages: It eliminates the need for having a small HDD for Steam games or media files, and it means that there’s one less moving part to fail from frequent moves to and from LAN parties or events.
It also means that the machine will be a little quieter.
In a cage-type case, it’s easy to forget that an enclosed case muffles sounds of fans, and hard drives searching for, reading, and writing data. The high-speed clicks of the hard drive disappear when using an SSD, leaving only the CPU cooler and GPU as noise sources.
Another thing we noticed was the black finish on the 850 EVO is very similar to the finish of the aluminum mount of the D-Frame. This makes the slim little SSD seem to disappear, until you look from the top and see the Samsung label on its face. The one downside to this mount was that the drive is just a little too far from the edge of the plate (about two or three millimeters), which made it a little hairy when we tried using an L-shaped SATA cable.
Step 5 – Dominating the Cage
When we went looking for memory to put in the build, we wanted to go big on the capacity. As we looked, we noticed that most of our DDR4 kits come are 16GB, but in 4x4GB kits. Bummer.
As we searched and searched, we remembered: We had a machine sitting in our lab that could donate a few sticks for our purposes. We grabbed two 8GB stick of Corsair Dominator RAM from our 2015 Dream Machine, and pressed them into service in this build.
The 2,666MHz sticks are plenty fast, and didn’t give us any problems at boot. However, just as with most X99 systems, our Z170 board from Gigabyte defaulted to setting the RAM clocks at 2,133MHz. The problem was quickly solved by upping the multiplier for the RAM clock, granting us our desired 2,666MHz.
Leaving the RAM at 2,133MHz wouldn’t have hurt performance much since RAM clocks are rarely a bottleneck these days. In other mini-ITX builds, going with 2,133MHz DDR4 RAM modules would be just fine in most cases, and you’ll save a little coin by forgoing higher RAM clocks.
Step 6 – One Cool Cage
One of the neat things about this build was the way the cage accommodated our cooling solution. The cage comes with a bracket for a 240mm closed-loop cooler, which sits out of the way at the “bottom” of the cage.
We were able to get our Deepcool Maelstrom 240 snugly situated in the bracket, with nary a screw to secure it in place. Other coolers might not simply stay put with friction alone, so the eight screw holes can be used to secure fans to the bracket for a more secure fit.
The Deepcool cooler was our backup choice in this build, though. We tried using another, bigger cooler, but for some reason it wouldn’t have good enough contact with our CPU, which resulted in some problems booting. The larger cooler did fit on—not in—the bracket when we flipped it upside down, though.
The one main gripe we had about using a 240mm cooler with this mobo was the lack of PWN pinouts. The motherboard offers two pinouts: CPU and a case fan. Both pinouts are four-pin, but the lack of a CPU_OPT or second case fan pinout meant that we had to do something to get three PWM connectors (two fans and one pump) fit on two pinouts.
- The blue rubber bumpers on the D-Frame Mini allow you to position the cage in any orientation you like. They’ll also keep the case from sliding around in your car’s trunk on the way to a LAN party.
- The extra room below the PCIe slot allows for full-length video cards. In our build, the Nano leaves this area sparse and clear.
- Thumb screws allow for the attachment and removal of hard drive and cooler brackets, for tons of modularity.
- The “front panel” is a bit of a misnomer in this cage, where there is no clear front, back, up, or down.
Throwing all of these parts together in a cage was a lot of fun and was quite a different building experience. Such a build requires you to think more about the aesthetics of the build’s entirety, since there’s no hiding of cables or extraneous accessories here.
Like we said earlier, though, an open-air case build is not without its challenges. One of those major challenges was the cooling system. We started off with a larger cooler that ended up not maintaining good contact with our CPU for some reason, so we had to go with the Deepcool we had on standby. Once we had the radiator and pump in place, we had three PWM connectors to plug in, but only two pinouts to work with. Problems.
We solved this in a roundabout way. First, we plugged the two fans for the radiator into the CPU and case fan pinouts. We then connected the pump to a two-pin Molex-to-PWM adapter. This had two consequences, which we weren’t exactly fond of. First, the two fans ran at different speeds, since each PWM pinout runs as a function of a different temperature sensor. The CPU fan is a function of CPU temps, as you’d expect, but the case fan takes temps from the motherboard itself. While we stayed at acceptably cool temperatures due to the large radiator, we wouldn’t do this when overclocking, as the fan plugged into the case fan connector wouldn’t rev up as temps increase. Not good.
The other bad side effect was that the water pump runs at full speed while connected to the two-pin adapter. Normally, you’d connect the pump to a four-pin pinout for much of the same reason you’d attach the radiator fans to them. However, we just needed the pump to work, so we put up with this while we ran our benchmarks.
We wouldn’t recommend attaching fans and pumps this way, and ideally, we’d use a PWM two- or three-way splitter and attach the single side to the CPU PWM connector. But sometimes, you just gotta make things work.
Speaking of benchmarks, our caged rig did pretty well in some aspects, while relatively poorly—compared to our three-way SLI zero-point—in others. In the single-threaded CPU benchmarks, the i7-6700K Skylake performed well, outpacing the i7-5960X in our zero-point. With a 240mm cooling setup, we believe this CPU could score even higher with a little bit of overclocking. When we reviewed the CPU, we found that the 6700K can get a 17 percent performance boost from overclocking. Not bad at all.
When it came to the 3D application benchmarks, the little R9 Nano put up a good fight. Considering our beefy zero-point machine has three GTX 980s in SLI, a single GPU can hardly expect to beat it in raw frames per second.
Despite having less than half the 3DMark score in Fire Strike Ultra, the Nano delivered playable framerates in Tomb Raider and Shadow of Mordor at 4K. Remember that these benchmarks are stress tests, so turning off or reducing antialiasing will render much better framerates at 4K, without a big difference in video quality. In Batman: Arkham City at 1440p, the 92fps means that there’s plenty of power there to keep a FreeSync 1440p monitor synced and happy at 60Hz.
In the multithreaded test, x.264, the octa-core 5960X still reigns supreme, with double the cores that Skylake has to offer. While that seems damning on its surface, the majority of applications people interact with on a daily basis don’t take full advantage of multithreading anyway.
For most gamers and enthusiasts who don’t encode video all day, this build would perform nicely. And with its small, portable, and unique form factor, this PC can be quite the conversation starter at a LAN party.
|Zero-Point||Our Build||Percent Difference|
|Stitch.Efx 2.0 (sec)||806||781||+3.1%|
|ProShow Producer 5.0 (sec)||1,472||1,442||+2%|
|x264 HD 5.0 (fps)||33.8||19.54||-42.9%|
|Batman: Arkham City 1440p (fps)||204||92||-54.9%|
|Tomb Raider 2160p (fps)||87.5||36.6||-58.2%|
|Shadow of Mordor 2160p (fps)||70.1||40.2||-42.7%|
|3DMark Fire Strike Ultra||8,016||3,362||-58.1%|
Our desktop zero point PC uses a 5960X CPU, three GTX 980s, and 16GB of RAM. Arkham City tested at 2560×1440 max settings with PhysX off. Tomb Raider at Ultimate settings. Shadow of Mordor at Max settings.