Strap in, this is a long one...
In the Beginning
I had been wanting a smaller form factor PC for a while after small problems kept cropping up with my standard mid-tower build. I'm by no means an expert builder, but a friend and I had pieced together a few simple boxes for me over the years. The last (2010, with video card from 2008) was a bit more complex, featuring 4x320GB Samsung Spinpoint F4's in RAID5 as a system drive, and a pair of ancient (and probably 30% bad sector) WD's in RAID0 as storage. I don't know if it was the increased stress of RAID or just that those Samsungs weren't great quality, but I had to replace 3 of them in 5 years, and got my money's worth from the RAID5. Finally, 2 more failed at once and I could no longer boot, the catalyst for turning my wandering eye into a real build.
Well, as I'm a little older and arguably wiser, I wanted something a little more understated than a mid-tower with a glowing blue front panel, a giant side window exposing a glowing motherboard and video card and full view of the spider's web of SATA cables, modular power (all used anyway, of course), and giant 180mm case fans. HTPC-sized cases intrigued me, and SSD's have come down enough in price to make a decent system drive for gaming feasible. There are a number of good builds right here on PCPP (KDML105's "Milo" and ephemient's Workstation were helpful), so I thought I would give it a shot.
With a major difference: everything will be liquid cooled.
The impetus for liquid cooling wasn't necessarily because I planned on overclocking everything, but because in a case that small I figured everything should run as cool as possible. I also didn't want it to be a tornado generator because I planned on keeping it on my desktop instead of on the floor.
I also drew a lot of inspiration from some of the builds on overclock.net, but I was certainly not ready for any kind of custom liquid loop solution (like this sexy one here). I wanted to use all-in-one (AIO) liquid cooling so I could just drop the parts in and go. For the CPU, I went with Silverstone's recommended TD03-SLIM at 37mm total radiator+fan height. It had decent reviews and I was worried anything else might be too tall. For graphics, there were only a few options: buy one of EVGA's Hybrid models, or buy any reference-sized board and go the Kraken G10+CPU AIO route. I knew that to mount the radiator inside the case with the fan would require the actual board to be pretty short or at least shallow, so the G10 was out, unless I threw half of it away and just used the backplate/standoffs, but at that point what am I paying for? The EVGA was a really appealing option since it cost about as much as a good board + AIO together anyway, but I couldn't find any specs or instructions on removing the shroud, which I knew I'd have to do. It was going to be a $400 experiment, but I pulled the trigger anyway.
I also wanted the longer PSU form factor, which had varying accounts of whether the case supported it, because I wanted the quieter operation. I knew it would leave less room for cable management, but I'm stubborn and once I make a decision I like, there's no stopping it.
With many motherboard manufacturers now enabling overclocking on non-K processors, I saw no reason to spend the extra $30 on the i5-6600K and went with the 6500 instead. I opted for that one over the 6400 because I figured better binning would allow more OC headroom if I ever felt like going down that road.
Power Supply Fitting
I was fairly confident the longer -L PSU would fit, and it did, though with barely an inch between its modular cord slots and the case's internal GFX support bracket. The real problem, as it turns out, was that the longer -L PSU has its power cord input on the opposite side from its standard-length siblings. You can see from the pictures where the case expected the plug input to be, and which side it was actually on. That internal "extension cord" was so nicely fit to length and mounted in its perfectly-sized case clips, until I ripped it out to "shorten" it. I actually took the case's GFX support bracket out and rerouted the extension cord above it, following the top side of the case instead of the middle where the cord clips were. So sad. But it opened those clips up for use with the front panel connectors, which I'll get to below.
Fitting the GFX AIO
My first step in the GFX process was to try to fit the video card with cooler into the case, since I knew sending it back and getting a different one would effectively halt any other progress. As it turns out, removing the shroud was really strightforward - you can see from the pictures which screws I had to remove to take it off (RED circles, PLUS 2 more on the side, not shown, that were connected to the VRM fan's plastic mount). I then removed the VRM fan (ORANGE circles, PLUS the extra one on top holding the fan wire down). The fan's mount, to my surprise, was nothing more than a piece of plastic, ostensibly directing its air flow toward the main board. Gone! (YELLOW circles.) What was left was a tiny little board with a nicely pre-mounted liquid cooler/pump.
Note: do not let your cat chew on the liquid cooler tubes.
The two GFX fan vents in the case allow two 120mm fans to be mounted side-by-side, and I wanted to use both of them. Thus begins the experimenting. The radiator, as I came to learn, is not, in fact, 120mm. Kind of. The fins and their mounting are 120mm, but on two sides extend metal encasings that I assume allow the liquid to flow. This left two options: mount the radiator sideways, or mount it above the included fan. It actually wouldn't fit sideways without removing the case's GFX support bracket (the one that holds a 3rd 2.5" drive). That didn't seem like a good option because of all the upwards pressure the liquid tubes were placing on the case's GFX mount. I opted for mounting the fan against the case and the radiator above it, in the more natural direction with the tubes farther away from the board due to their length. You can see that layout in a few of the pictures, with the added bonus of routing the case's front-panel connectors into the GFX area and back through the two fans. Beautiful.
A few problems:
- I tried test-fitting the motherboard, and the front-panel connector pins were just too far away for the connectors to reach. Crap. Gotta pull them back through the 2 GFX fans and figure something else out.
- The radiator's tube fittings don't swivel like some do, and were pointing directly up into the case's GFX mount. They're pretty flexible, and seemed sturdy enough, but they basically had to turn 90 degrees right off the radiator, plus they put a lot of upwards pressure on the case's GFX mount. Crap. Gotta rethink this.
I pulled everything back out.
Fitting the GFX AIO Take 2; or, How My Wife's Bra Saved the Day
I had already determined that the radiator couldn't fit "sideways" without removing that important GFX support bracket, so I needed some other way to mount it to the case without the screw holes lining up. Wife to the rescue: she had some sturdy embroidery thread that I was able to weave through the case's fan hole and wrap it up and around the radiator fan's housing a few times. I tied it as tightly as possible on the outside of the case, and was actually able to screw the thread down into a single radiator screw hole visible through case. It was actually in there pretty good! It just...looked slightly cockeyed. It's a hack in an otherwise great layout, but I'll take it.
Of course, without actually using screws to mount the radiator to the case, there was no other way to attach the fan filter. One of my requirements was that I wanted to be able to clean the filters easily, even remove them easily if necessary. With the standard case fan, I screwed right through the fan filter mounting holes from the outside of the case (despite being magnetic, just for extra support). Wife saves the day again: she had double-sided bra tape leftover from our wedding, which is incredibly sticky and ended up working perfectly to stick the filter to the outside of the case.
Putting the fan behind the radiator actually gave me the idea to use the LED fan instead, lighting up the radiator fins from the inside. I fortunately had the foresight to do a little research into static pressure vs. air flow and determined that the LED fan wasn't the right fit for pulling air through the radiator. In fact... uh oh... it isn't even the right fan at all (more on that later).
With the radiator sitting lower in the case, there was more space for the liquid tubes to wrap around, and they put significantly less upwards pressure on the GFX mount. As it turns out, this was also necessary for lining up the slim slot-load DVD drive with the case's DVD slot. With too much pressure, it would have scraped every DVD I tried to jam in there. I still wouldn't say they're perfectly lined up, but they're pretty good.
Fitting the Motherboard and CPU Cooling
My intention was to test-fit the motherboard before screwing anything into place, but with how tight the space is and how meticulous the cabling has to be, it made sense just to go all-in and try to get it right in one go.
Installing the CPU cooler was really straightforward. The box came with a ton of extra screws and brackets, but for Intel I only ended up using the backplate, the 4 posts, 4 standoffs, and 4 spring-screws. It was my first time applying thermal paste myself, and I hope I did it right. I did the "pea method". It may be a mistake to press it all down then lift it back up to see how you did, but I did it anyway. I sucked. I added more to the side that wasn't covered at all and pressed it all back down again, hoping for the best.
I did do a little experimenting, as much as I could, to determine the best orientation of the liquid tubes. Let me just state it for the record:
The liquid CPU cooler is a really, really tight fit.
There may be another orientation that works, but I found that having the CPU cooler tubes toward the GFX riser and the radiator tubes toward the back of the case worked best for me. With the CPU cooler, fortunately, the tube fittings do swivel, so I angled them toward the front of the case and wrapped them around in a counter-clockwise circle. There are 2 pictures above showing this orientation.
Wiring It Up
Remember how I had beautifully routed the front panel connectors through the GFX area and through the two fans, but found they were just too short and ripped it all out? Well, the motherboard came with a front panel post standoff for easier installation which bought me the 3-4" needed to make the initial configuration work. Damn. There ended up being enough space to fold everything between the motherboard and the PSU bracket anyway.
The slim slot-load DVD drive came with its own slimline power+SATA connector that fit nicely through the GFX mount's openings, but the other end of the power connector was a standard 4-pin Molex, while the power for the SSD and HDD both took slim SATA power. The power supply came with a cord with dual slim SATA power and another cord with dual 4-pin Molex, but I didn't want to use a whole extra power cord just for the single DVD player. Serendipitously, from my previous build I had a 4-pin Molex to dual slim SATA power adapter, so I just used that with the dual Molex power cord from the PSU - the DVD in one and the adapter connecting the SSD and HDD to the other. Modular power supply, and dammit I was going to leave something out.
For the video card's AIO, there was a 3-pin male fan wire extending out from the pump mount that attached to the included radiator fan's female lead, which was oddly enough only 2-pin. But with the CPU cooler, both the pump lead and the included fan's lead were both female, tripping me up for a minute. I had to look around online for a bit as to where to connect each one, and I couldn't find really definitive answers. I ended up connecting the pump lead to the CPU fan header and the radiator fan's lead to the CHA1 header. I connected the GFX area case fan to the CHA2 header.
You can see from the pictures that the cabling ended up working out pretty well. Some of the cables came with twist ties on them already and were the right length as-is. For the SSD and DVD SATA connectors, you can see I routed them up through the GFX mount's second 2.5" area with a few twist ties. Most of the rest of the cables got packed in around the PSU mount. A special note: I was able to wrap the video card's double 6-pin PCI-E power cable around the back of the case's GFX mount and through the same opening as the DVD's slimline power/SATA cable, as seen in picture 22.
With the cabling all hooked up and everything where I wanted it, but before putting the top of the case on, I tried firing everything up. On the first push of the power button, my very first push of the button, I heard the mechanism inside the case make a snapping sound. It turned the computer on, but at that point the case's power button was just a flimsy plastic tab floating freely in the wind with nothing behind it to press.
The good news was that I POSTed and was able to enter the BIOS. Now, I haven't built a new computer in a while and man have BIOSes come a long way. You can use a mouse! Small comfort, however, as I wasn't able to turn the thing back off using the power button, only by yanking the power cord.
Fortunately it wasn't quite as big a deal as it seemed. I was able to lift up some of the cabling between the PSU mount and the front panel and see that the power mechanism was just pushed too hard and came unglued. In a deft maneuver, as a seal gliding through the ocean catching fish, I jammed a screwdriver down in there, yanked it to the side, and popped the mechanism back in (see picture 24). Good enough. I'll just be delicate with it.
I was then able to gently but firmly get the CPU cooler tubes oriented and in place for getting the top of the case on. Boom!
I poked around the BIOS for a bit and felt a little overwhelmed with all the tuning options. I knew I needed to OC it just a bit to get the RAM up to its rated speed, but didn't mess with anything until I at least had an OS installed.
I opted for Windows 10 in my first ever operating system purchase. It went fine, as did using the motherboard's included DVD to get the WiFi drivers installed. I had the OS-based Ai Tuner software thing installed for a while, but didn't like all the services and apps it included and littered the system with, so I removed it in favor of the direct BIOS approach. It's good, getting your hands dirty when you need to play in the dirt.
I wanted to burn things in a bit and get some baseline temperatures and benchmarks, so I headed back into the BIOS and enabled XMP for easy RAM speed setup. This had the effect of bumping my CPU clock to 3300MHz too, and brought the RAM up to the rated 3200units. I may mess with the BCLK in the future, but for now I'm leaving it as-is. I ran Prime95 and FurMark simultaneously while watching HWMonitor for temps. Prime95 ran for just over 45 minutes and FurMark for a little over 20. There is a screenshot above with the HWMonitor readouts. The CPU temp ended up climbing a little higher than I was hoping, but it seems to be right in line with other TD03-SLIM reviews (which run Prime95 for a shorter time than I did).
I also had the BIOS run its FanSpeed2+ thing or whatever it is, but manually turned off the CPU fan control in favor of running the pump at full speed all the time. I don't know how necessary this is - maybe BIOS control is fine - but I would rather have the pump just run and have the fan itself be controlled until I can read more about it. It also had the effect of keeping the GFX-area case fan (CHA2) turned off until the motherboard heats up enough to need it, but since I have the LED version of the fan, the light is constantly lighting up and turning off. Maybe I'll just go in and set a minimum for every temp.
If I Had to Do It All Over Again
All in all I'm pretty pleased with how the build came together. There was a little experimenting, but I really didn't have to rip much out due to failed fittings. It's fairly quiet, the video card runs really cool, and the box itself has the minimal, grown-up look I was going for, without (too much) bling, or compromises like mounting case fans to the outside.
That said there are a number of changes I would make if I had to do it all over again:
- First and foremost, tying the GFX radiator and fan to the case with embroidery thread is a total hack. Maybe I could eschew the case fan entirely, or maybe mounting the radiator sideways and foregoing the internal GFX support bracket could work, or maybe I could have put on big boy pants and got a GFX card liquid cooler mount and a correctly-fitting CPU AIO for it instead (one whose tube fittings swivel).
- I got the wrong kind of case fan. I should have opted for a high static pressure model rather than a high air flow model. Also I didn't intend to get one with LEDs.
- The EVGA Hybrid models use Asetek coolers, and while it does a beast of a job cooling the GPU, the included fan is kind of a dud. Its static pressure specs are mediocre, and it's the loudest thing in the case. Maybe I'll spring another $15 for a better fan in the future. With LEDs!
- It worked out ok during the build, but looking back through the pictures I can see that the 8-pin motherboard power connector could be routed along the side of the case then along the PSU bracket instead of directly over the motherboard.
- Speaking of routing cables, I would definitely route the front panel connectors as I had originally - through the GFX area and between the two fans (or, between the fan and the radiator in the current setup) - since the motherboard came with an extra 3-4" of front panel connector cable.
- I might spring the extra few bucks for a 2.5" storage drive and place it in the GFX mount instead of the 3.5" storage drive mounted to the PSU bracket. This would free up welcome cabling space and assuage any concerns over HDD cooling. If you noticed, I went with the 5400RPM drive on Silverstone's recommendation.
- The case's fan mounting holes are countersunk, I guess so the screws will be flush with the side. I wanted external filters though, so the screws went through the filters' mounting holes, then the small gap from the countersunk case holes, then the case, then into the fans. This necessitated slightly longer screws than provided, and also had the effect of sinking the filters' corners into the countersunk hole areas, which left little gaps along the filters' edges. I had to strike a balance between tightening the screws enough to keep the fans secure but not so much that the filters warped and raised their edges, negating any benefit they would provide. I should have spent more time looking for small washers that could have fit between the filters and case, inside the countersunk holes, which would prevent the filters from warping from too much pressure.
- I only just realized, now a week later, that I could have used a PWM-to-VGA fan adapter to connect the AF120 to the video card where the VRM fan that I removed was previously, rather than to CHA2. The AF120 points straight at the video card anyway, which is what the VRM fan was cooling, and is certainly nowhere near the motherboard.
I would consider the build successful in any case. In fact, I wrote this whole description on it!
Case good; liquid cooling tubes tight; runs cool; had fun.