I like to build unique systems; stand-out machines with custom water cooling loops, UV lighting and top-of-the line parts. I also like reading up and looking at other unique systems. One feature they often have in common is that they all use large cases, with the most outlandishly large ones ousing the monstrous CaseLabs cases (which are awesome, but may cause back injury when moving!). I’m an engineer, and I’m all about efficiency, and to me those cases are much bigger than they need to be. I decided I would try to cram as much as I could into a very small space, to achieve this highest level of computing power per cubic inch of case space.
Most of the builds I have completed recently were for clients, and while they worked very well and looked good, there weren’t really unique. This is one of those builds that would be unique.
Even in the mini-ITX world, most highly customized builds use the BitFenix Prodigy case, which is rather large as ITX cases go. Same goes for the Corsair 250D. I did a bit of research, and something like the nCase M1 would be too small for a custom water loop. The Fractal Design Node 304 looked like a perfect choice however. I found one build log of someone building a custom loop in a Node 304 last year, but the setup wouldn’t accommodate a full-length GPU. My measurements said that I would be able to if I picked my parts well, so I sketched out the layout and forged on ahead. The Node 304 doesn’t have a top window like the 250D, and I definitely wanted a window to show this build off. I ended up making my own window in the top of the case.
I used the following parts to assemble this Nuclear Shoebox:
CPU: Having just been released when I built this, the 4790k was a no-brainer. Since there are no mini-ITX socket 2011 boards, this is the most powerful CPU I could fit in the form factor. I’d love to do a SFF 2011 build some day, but that would probably be mATX at the smallest.
Motherboard: I purchased the ASRock Z97E-ITX/ac before Asus released their newest Z97 Impact board. Perhaps I would have considered the Impact had I waited, but the ASRock has a really nice feature set, and the lack of riser boards frees up some space to work with in the case. I haven’t been disappointed by the board. It’s stable, overclocks well and is well laid-out, with the exception of the front panel audio header that is at the back edge (essentially under the rear radiator). I’m quite happy with the board, and would probably choose it over the Impact if I needed another similar one for a client build.
RAM: I wanted 16GB of fast RAM. I had the choice between 2133MHz CL9 and 2400 MHz CL10. Both perform similarly, but the lower latency 2133 was available in stock, so I went with that. The RAM has worked flawlessly at its rated timings.
GPU: The limited radiator capability of this build meant that I would not be able to use a dual-gpu card such as the R9 295x2. So in trying to keep the performance per cubic inch as high as possible, I knew I would go with a R9 290(X) or a GTX 780(Ti). The decision became pretty easy when I found a used R9 290 for $250 on Kijiji (a Canadian equivalent of Craigslist). It had the crappy reference cooler, but I was going to replace it with a water block regardless, so it worked well for me.
SSD+HDD: Space being tight, I decided to buy a Western Digital Black2 combo drive since it was on sale for $149 at NCIX (The $299 regular price makes no sense at all). The drived contains a 120GB SSD and 1TB HDD in a 2.5” package. They are separate, not like the Seagate Hybrid drives which use the SSD as cache. Performance is OK, but the write speed of the SSD is not very good. I would only recommend this for applications where two drives won’t fit. A Crucial MX100 + WD Blue would be faster for about the same price. Nevertheless, the system boots in about 7 seconds and is very responsive.
PSU: In order to be usable in this build, I needed a power supply that was 1) 140mm long or less 2) fully modular 3) at least 600W. This Silverstone Strider unit is one of the very few that met the criteria. There’s nowhere to put long cables in this build, so I shortened all the cables to the required length, essentially removing the need for tedious cable management.
Watercooling parts: There is a limit to what can fit in this case, so the parts were ordered based on their dimensions rather than outright cooling power.
-The Black Ice Nemesis is the only rad I could find that fits the dual 92mm configuration in the front of the case. The rad is thick however, and if used with regular 92mm fans in the Node 304, it impedes on a full-length GPU. I replaced the 92mm fans with low-profile Noctua fans to have enough clearance for the GPU. The low-profile fans have to run at full RPM to move enough air so the build isn’t totally silent.
-I was able to fit a Magicool slim 140mm rad in the rear of the case. I had to remove the 304’s built-in fan controller board and one of its mounting rivets to do this however. A 140mm Noctua PWM fan handles the airflow well. This fan has to be the last item in the build to be installed, because it blocks a few connectors as well as the mounting screws for the CPU waterblock.
-I used an EK Supremacy block for the CPU. Dazmode sells a special Canadian edition with a maple leaf in the plexi; that’s good enough to sell me on it. EK has alwayd delivered quality products also, and I have good confidence in their work.
-Since the GPU waterblock would be quite visible from the side window, I decided to get a really nice-looking one: the Aquacomputer Krygraphics Hawaii. It looks great, and cools very well (about the same as EK full cover GPU blocks). Installation instructions are not the greatest though (compared to EK anyways), which could pose a problem for builders that have never installed a GPU block.
-I had very little space for a pump, so I used a DDC pump with the smallest pump-mounted reservoir I could find: the Watercool DDC-Tank LT. The reservoir only contains about 100ml of coolant, but it does the job fine. The pump and reservoir are mounted to the PSU using heavy-duty adhesive.
-The coolant is Feser One UV Blue. I was slightly disappointed, because the UV effect is not as obvious as with their Acid Green coolant. It still looks pretty good though, but I had to use a white LED strip to brighten up the case a bit. Total coolant volume in the system is about 500ml.
-The fittings are Feser barb fittings with black clamps and clear 3/8” tubing.
Assembly in such a small space required a bit of planning. I can’t stress enough how essential it was to shorten all the power cables to keep the case clean. Installing the CPU waterblock was a bit challenging. The mounting posts would not screw easily into the backplate holes; it seems the threads were tapped rather coarsely. Once installed, it is VERY secure however.
Connecting the front panel buttons, USB and audio connectors was a challenge because I has already run all the coolant lines and power cables before putting the front panel on. In hindsight, I’d connect those first. The GPU fit easily, although the back of bracket screws rest against the 140 mm radiator. I had to place a layer of insulating tape on the radiator so the GPU would not contact the metal.
I used a ModMyToys 8-way 4-pin power splitter to connect the lighting, pump and front fans. It is connected to the PSU using a cable made from a sacrificed modular Molex PSU cable, cut to length, with a 4-pin connector on the end.
I used LED strips from www.dazmode.com to light up the case. I used two UV strips for coolant highlight, and a white strip for general lighting. The white strip is incredibly bright, and created reflections in the top window, so I placed a piece of black cardboard over the LED strip to block light from leaking upwards.
Filling the coolant loop was a breeze, and the Nuclear Shoebox fired up perfectly. The loop volume is small, so bleeding out the air was rather quick. The system is a miniature powerhouse, with the CPU running at 4.6 GHz and the GPU overclocked to 1100 MHz.
Proof positive that cool systems don’t need to be huge!