Mighty Muscular (Mini ITX) Build

Discussion in 'Desktop Hardware' started by jclausius, Dec 30, 2017.

  1. jclausius

    jclausius Notebook Virtuoso

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    Within the past 12 months, I’ve been looking at retiring my trusty, old Clevo x7200. If you’ve come across my posts on NBR, you know I’ve been patiently waiting for a Clevo or an MSI (Tornado based) laptop supporting a desktop CPU with 8+ cores, 32 to 64 GB of RAM, and plenty of disk space, as some of my day to day routines require having enough CPU horsepower and drive space to run 4 virtual machines simultaneously.

    Note, the GPU isn’t all that important in my case, as this computer will be used for writing and compiling code, running and debugging solutions against databases and web servers. Also, the internal LCD isn’t much of a factor either as I use an external monitor about 99.99% of the time. As long as the graphics card and monitor lets me watch an occasional high-def movie over HDMI or play ‘Hearts’ or ‘Minesweeper', I'm set.

    Other goals for this machine is something that can easily be transported between my home or office packaged in a small enough footprint that packing it up and shoving it in my car is a 3 minute process and won’t strain the back. However, coming off of my Clevo x7200, weighing in at 12.8 pounds (5.8kg), it shouldn’t be too much to ask to come up with a lighter solution. Oh, did I mention I was given a budget of under $2800 USD.

    Keeping that in mind, this past autumn, I ran across a press release regarding a new ITX based motherboard that could support intel 18 core CPUs with the Z299 platform capable of 64GB of DDR4 SO-DIMM memory, 2 PCIe x4 M.2 drives (tying directly to the CPU), 6+ SATA 6GB drives (tied to the PCH) from ASRock, the x299e-itx/ac.

    Pondering on this a bit, I wondered if I could really move away from the laptop based platforms, which I’ve been using since 1999, and moving to an unorthodox solution which may or may not work. Well, after some careful research and waiting in frustration for a platform from the laptop vendors (that looks like may never come), I decided to take the plunge and move into the Mini-ITX world using a small form factor case.

    The following posts in this thread document my move, and hopefully provide some useful information for others that may be looking to make a similar move.
     
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  2. jclausius

    jclausius Notebook Virtuoso

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    1 - The Components

    The overview of the components used for this build can be found at https://pcpartpicker.com/list/rQLpd6

    Here are some notable links to reviews I've researched in determining the configuration:







     
    Last edited: Jan 1, 2018
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  3. jclausius

    jclausius Notebook Virtuoso

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    2a - The Build (with plenty of pix in the spoilers)

    The QBX case reviews pretty much all say the same thing. Before going off half cocked and purchasing any components, there are detailed considerations one must make when completing their system. So, if you look at this case, please be sure to review any / all documents online when determining what components to use inside:

    - GPU – The GPU can be up to a 2-slot solution, but the case allows no longer than 13 3/4” (350mm) in length
    - PSU – Can be an ATX power supply, but can be no deeper than 140mm long measuring the side from the front of the PSU to the side containing the electrical socket in the back
    - PSU – on the PSU’s electrical socket orientation – the 3rd plug (ground wire) cannot be opposite the exhaust fan. However, it can be oriented to the left, right or toward the exhaust fan. See QBX documentation image - [​IMG]
    - ODD – The optical disk drive needs to be a slot loader that is a ‘slim’ (12.7mm) or ‘super-slim’ (9.5mm) in height. In addition, you will need a Slimline SATA to SATA power adapter.

    Some of the bonuses of this case:
    - Light weight but durable plastic front and top.
    - SFF 7.01" x 11.46" x 15.12" (178mm x 291mm x 384mm)
    - Slot load ODD
    - 240mm water reservoir capable
    - Seven extra case fan mounts (fans optional and share space with water reservoir)
    - USB 3.0 x2 and Audio on Front Panel
    - 3.5” HDD bay
    - 2.5” HDD bays (x4) – although note 2 support 9.5mm height HDD and the others only can mount 7mm or smaller height HDDs

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    The ASRock x299e-itx/ac coming in at 6.7-in x 6.7-in (17.0 cm x 17.0 cm) and weighing about 3 pound (1.4kg) is a tiny little beast supporting Skylake Core X CPUs including the i9-7980XE (assuming one could keep it cool).

    Besides the Skylake multi-core CPU support, the x299e-itx/ac has two of the M.2 NVMe sockets wired directly to the CPU bypassing the system board’s platform controller hub (PCH). This little extra is supposed to unleash the M.2 drives instead of bottlenecking I/O at the PCH.

    To round off the board, some other niceties include:
    - UEFI/BIOS is a FULL FEATURED system allowing settings for all sorts of timings, fan tables, etc. within your system. No more crippled system!
    - USB 3.1 type-C connector
    - Integrated Intel 1GB LAN
    - Integrated Intel 8265 Wireless Wi-Fi / Bluetooth
    - RGB header
    - CPU/VRM water-block (3rd party) https://www.bitspower.com/html/product/pro_show.php?products_id=5412

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    There's not much I can add to the CPU / Memory not already covered in a gazillion different reviews. However, one item I'd like to point out is the CPU Cooler, the Dynatron R30. This product markets itself as a 160 W cooler with a full bottom vapor chamber. Now, for those of you hanging around the Clevo laptop forum that may have come across a post or two discussing the benefits of a vapor chamber instead of heat pipes, you know I couldn't resist to try this product out.

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    For the graphics card, nothing really fancy - 'Mini' nVidia GTX 1060 w/ 6GB RAM

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    Last edited: Mar 2, 2018
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  4. jclausius

    jclausius Notebook Virtuoso

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    2B - The Build

    Just as in the CPU / Memory, there are plenty of M.2 Samsung 960 Pros reviews online. I'm not planning to use RAID in this build, and some of that is due to Intel's unfriendly consumer decision with RAID on the x299 platform. So, the 512GB 960 Pro M.2 drive will be designated as a boot / operating system drive, and the 1TB M.2 960 Pro will serve as a data drive and location for virtual machines.

    About the only 'gotcha' I encountered (and it is even outlined in the ASRock x299e-itx/ac manual) is the M.2 sockets have a small plastic covering which should be removed before screwing the M.2 drives into place. Would've saved me 5 minutes if I had only RTFM. Pics of the shrink-wrap covers in the spoilers.

    Here is one of them - [​IMG]

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    The slim SATA connector can be seen in the spoilers

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    Finally putting it altogether

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    First Boot. It's alive!!

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    Finally, for transportation, I grabbed one of my daughter's old basketball duffel bags, slipped the styrofoam packaging from the QBX case in the bottom of the bag, and voila' the Mighty Muscular Mini ( weighing in at 14.4 pounds (7.9kg) ) is ready to go!

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    Last edited: Jan 1, 2018
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  5. jclausius

    jclausius Notebook Virtuoso

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    3 - Post Build Configuration and Tweaking

    1) Memory -

    On boot and with a quick run with a Memtest86+ boot disk, the default speeds of the GSkill memory was at 2666 MHz. Not a big deal, but after a boot into UEFI/BIOS, and a switch in the memory tweaker to use XMP 2.0 profiles, running the quad channel SO-DIMM modules at 3000MHz.

    2) Operating System -

    I’m breaking with over 23 years and officially moving away from Windows as my main operating system. In 2017, my x7200 having Windows 7 installed finally went bonkers during a planned Windows Update. Now the machine will not successfully run a Windows Update and will repeatedly try to run the same update on each and every shutdown. In addition, in October, Windows 10 completely trashed my wife’s Dell's Windows 10 install after an unplanned update was applied. After the update, the laptop's LCD was trashed due to some issue with Dell, Intel video, and the update. Enough is enough.

    The Mighty Muscular Mini has been booting Linux Mint since its completion ( @Phoenix ), but I still allow a dual-boot with Windows 10 Professional due to Samsung's Magician software only running on Windows, a Blu-Ray player for Windows 10, and some other benches and utilities. However, in general, with moving both my mail and virtual machines with VMWare Workstation over to Linux Mint, I'm hoping to avoid any frustration I encountered this last year.

    First off, I downloaded 'Rufus', and created a Windows 10 boot USB from the Windows 10 Professional .iso I downloaded from Microsoft.

    Now in my previous post, I mentioned using the Samsung 960 Pro (512 GB) as an OS drive, the Samsung 960 Pro (1TB) as a Data drive, and the Seagate Momentus as a swap / extra drive.

    With that in mind, using the ASRock UEFI boot order (F2) to boot to the USB, I first installed Windows 10 Professional on to the system. However, during the installation, when I was presented with the drive partition breakdown, I chose the 512 GB 960 pro, to install. Windows' installer created its 4 partition suggestions, and I made the following changes:
    - Ensured Samsung 960 (nvme0n1) used UEFI/GPT instead of BIOS/MBR for partitioning
    - Accepted the Windows ‘recovery’ partition on nvme0n1 499MB (NTFS)
    - Made note and deleted the 3 other partitions.
    - Recreated the EFI (or ESP) partition for U8EFI booting for 125MB – (reconfigured size during Win 10 install to FAT32). Note, I expanded this to allow more drive space for Linux LILO and other boot / EFI stuff required to boot multiple operating systems.
    - I believe I rebooted the install, and using 'diskpart', re-created the Microsoft System Reserved (MSR) 16MB partition
    - And finally an installation partition of 96 GB (NTFS) for Windows 10.

    I selected that 4th partition to install Windows 10.

    See https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/wi...configure-uefigpt-based-hard-drive-partitions for additional information regarding GTP based partitions.

    After Windows 10 had finished the installation, I ensured it was booting and running correctly. Next I downloaded and installed the Samsung NVMe drivers and Samsung Magician. And after that, I downloaded and installed CPU-Z, HWMonitor Pro, and prim95 (version 26.6). Finally, Leawo DVD player was installed on Windows 10. That pretty much sums up all I plan on doing on this partition with Windows 10.

    After Windows 10 installation, it was merely a matter of downloading Linux Mint ( linuxmint.com ), and using Rufus again, creating a Linux Mint bootable USB. Again, F2 to change to boot from the now connected Linux Mint USB. During the Mint installation it will detect that Windows will install, and you can use the default to dual boot. However, I have some specific breakdowns on drives I used. I choose to use the 'Something Else' step to create my own partitions.

    For Linux my breakdown is:
    '/' will be a 5th 30GB partition on the 512 GB 960 Pro
    '/home' was a 6th 325+ GB partition on the 512 GB 960 Pro - leaving a bit left for over provisioning ( thanks to @tilleroftheearth )

    Now for the tricky part... Getting the Linux '/boot' partition onto the 125MB FAT32 partition I had created during Windows 10's installation. There's nothing that I could find online that documented how to do this, but on a whim, I simply choose the 125MB FAT32 partition in the Linux Mint installer combo box for 'Device for boot loader installation'. It turns out this was the magic setting the EFI boot process uses, and it safely divides and installs Linux boot processes along side (again but separate from ) Windows.

    A dual-boot snapshot -
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    Additional information on installing Linux Mint along side Windows and Manual partitioning with Linux Mint installer links:

    https://itsfoss.com/guide-install-linux-mint-16-dual-boot-windows/
    https://winaero.com/blog/how-to-partition-your-hard-drive-to-install-linux-mint/
    https://forums.linuxmint.com/viewtopic.php?t=122276

    3) Temps -

    With the system successfully running Windows 10, it was time to take a look at my system's temps. I was especially curious on how well the Dynatron R30 would be able to dissipate the 140W CPU installed on the system ( Special thanks to @Mr. Fox, @Johnksss, @Phoenix, @ole!!!, @Papusan, @hmscott, @ajc9988, @Blacky, and anyone else I may have forgotten for the lessens on heat dissipation in very tight spaces )

    The Dynatron R30 comes with Shin-Etsu 7762 Thermal Grease pre-printed on the vapor chamber, but how would it hold up with a run of prime95?? It turns out, not too well... Running on the CPU and case fan at 100%, within 6 minutes, all 8 cores were 95C!

    OK. Not to despair. I had also purchased 11g of Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut as well. I removed the R30, cleaned it up with 91% alcohol, applied with Kryonaut, and retried. While it was better, temps were still a problem. A run with prime95 and 100% both fans, I would still get to 94C - 95C after 15 minutes.

    Oh, no. This was clearly going to be a problem. Did I just spend $2800 on a toaster that would be hampered by thermal issues? Was the R30 defective? What was I to do?

    So, I decided to take a day away from this build so my sub-conscience would work on the issue. The next day, I re-examined the build. If you take a look at my pictures of the system board in the posts above, you'll notice that the front and back of the x299e-itx/ac have 'riser' boards for the different I/O of the system. In addition, the four GSkill SO-DIMMs also provide vertical barriers with two on the left and two on the right. In essence this 'boxes' in the CPU on all all sides by varying components. In addition, the height of all of these components is either the same height or taller than the top of the fins of the R30's heat diffuser. Although there's an 80mm fan on the CPU cooler itself, is it possible heat from the CPU or VRMs is still being trapped?

    As mentioned in a previous post the QBX case has a boat load of fan mounts, including a 120mm fan mounts above the system board on the left hand side of the case, and two 120mm fan mounts on the top side of the case. After scrounging through our 'Computer Graveyard' at work, I found a PWM 120mm and a 3-pin 120mm fan with a MOLEX connector and variance switch. So I hooked up the MOLEX on the side running at 'Med' speed, and the PWM on top attached to the motherboard. Could air flow be the problem? Only a nice test would tell...

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    I'm happy to report that air-flow was indeed the problem. While not super cool, the two extra fans do seem to have solved the problem. I can safely report a run of prime95 (again 100% fans) all 8 cores are a little more in line. My 18C (68F) room heats up to 22C to 23C (73F) after 3+ hours straight, and the CPU temps max out in the 68C to 71C range! Whew! What a huge relief!

    4) Fan tables -

    I was a little nervous that the system may get hotter than normal, but some tweaks to the ASRock's UEFI default Fan tables should now take care of any surprise spikes in thermal levels.

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    5) Blu-Ray

    The final tweak I will be making is to provide some more temp relief for the Blu-Ray player. In my testing of the Panasonic blu-ray drive, I noticed the 'swap' HDD drive had some 45C temp warnings in the SMART log. I don't have this one solved just yet, but my plan is to add yet another fan. This time an 80mm MOLEX fan to the front, including a 90 degree deflector ( http://forum.notebookreview.com/threads/80mm-fan-with-90-degree-deflector.812261/ ) so the air moves up and into the location of the blu-ray drive, where I think is some dead air-space due to the location of the PSU. At some point after the new year, I'll update this thread later once the solution has been installed and tested. I'm keeping my fingers crossed this is the problem.
     
    Last edited: Jan 11, 2018
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  6. jclausius

    jclausius Notebook Virtuoso

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    4) Build Post-Mortem

    There's a lot of info in the previous posts. Hopefully the information will help others deciding on a small form factor (SFF) build using the newer mini-ITX specifications.

    Here's a summary of what I’ve learned from this build:

    1) Cougar’s QBX case is a good case! Grade: ‘B+’

    First off, let me say while the aesthetics are not super-sexy, the case’s outward appearance is pleasing to the eye... Although, the case’s shape does strike a resemblance to a ‘Sandcrawler’ - [​IMG]

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    The case is designed for a mounting different drives, including a slim slot loader. I was looking to try out Blu-ray disks on the PC, and the QBX is one of the few mini-ITX cases which would mount an ODD. Finally, the case can be picked up for under $60 USD, so the price is right on target for those with a smaller budget in mind.

    My initial reaction to cramming all of this hardware into a tiny space would prove difficult and would eventually produce to a thermally crippled, large-sized toaster. But the QBX proved otherwise!

    By removing all side, front and top panels, the case itself is super easy to use for a build. There were no spots I couldn’t access when assembling components or sliding them into place. I should also note a HUGE plus (for those using air cooling) is the case’s additional 5 to 7 fan mounts. In case you missed it in the posts above, after the initial build, my CPU was running into thermal throttling at 95+C. I believe this was caused by choice of low profile CPU cooler not reaching cooler air pockets due to the location of the CPU in the ‘well’ of components on the motherboard. However, I soon found out the mounting of two additional low-speed fans saved the day!

    However, the case has a couple of weak spots too.

    The first knock are the documentation and manual is a little on the light side, but for those that have experience in assembling, there’s nothing out of the ordinary that cannot be figured out.

    The second problem involves a ‘dead’ spot for heat around the ODD. The location of the ODD and one of the HDD bays is in a location in the front that doesn’t seem to get air flow. The temps were reaching close to 50C on the drive. However, with the purchase of an additional fan and a 3D printed vent, I was able to direct some air flow up and into that location within the case bringing HDD temps back into the 30C range.

    At the time of this post, there are other cases one might like to try. I’ve made note of them here in case anyone is interested in more research:

    NCASE : M1 (http://ncases.com/) - ODD support
    DAN Cases : AF-SFX v2 (https://dan-cases.com)
    Phanteks: Enthoo Evolv Shift X (http://www.phanteks.com/Enthoo-Evolv-Shift-X.html)
    iMagic: iMagic pi mini ITX (https://www.amazon.com/iMagic-mini-cylindrical-computer-Silver/dp/B01GE2QBP0)

    And if it had made it to production:
    Dune Case ( https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dunecase/dune-case/description )


    2) The Low Profile Dynatron R30 CPU : Grade ‘A’ when properly vented in a standard motherboard; Grade ‘B’ in ASRock’s x299e-itx/ac and good air flow; and Grade ‘F’ when paired with ASRock’s x299e-itx/ac and improper ventilation.

    The R30 CPU cooler does a fantastic job cooling the CPU. However, it requires good ventilation providing access to cooler air. As stated above, when properly vented in my build, I’m seeing temps in the mid to upper 70s.

    If I did a build again, I might take a look at Noctua’s NH-L9x65 or NH-L12S, although the NH-L12S may require some re-construction to move the fan to the top of the fins as I don’t know if the fan’s location would fit above the motherboard’s daughter cards or the SO-DIMMs.

    3) ASRock’s mini-ITX x299e-itx/ac is all that plus a bag of chips! Grade ‘A’

    The mighty, muscular mini build is sporting an i7-7820X octo-core CPU, 32 GB of 3000MHz RAM, a 1060 GTX GPU, 850W PSU, 2x NVMe Samsung 960s with plenty of opportunity for future upgrades.

    With the x299 platform, when tied directly to the CPU the performance of the NVMe drives is simply amazing. Moving 300+GB files around takes mere minutes! I couldn’t be any happier with the Samsung 960 Pro NVMe performance when mounted to the M.2s which bypass the PCH in the x299e-itx/ac.
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    With that said, there are some precautions one must take with this board:

    A) CPU Heat dissipation -
    I don’t have the tools to measure / prove this, but I believe the location of the CPU, being walled in between 4 sides of computer components, creates heat dissipation issues with this board. Since I cannot prove it, I did not reflect this in the assigned grade. However, I do want others to be aware this might be a problem, and to be prepared to properly vent / cool that area.

    B) X299 RAID – This is not a knock against ASRock, but rather Intel. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by the ‘BIOS’ (fake) RAID solutions provided by Intel over the years, but the fact that with X299, if I would like to use RAID on the two M.2 NVMe drives requires me to purchase a ‘dongle’ to enable the feature feels like a slap in the face of the consumer. It would be nice if X299 would allow RAID-1 without the additional purchase from Intel.

    Well. That's all for this build. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know.

    See you in the forums!
     
    Last edited: Jan 25, 2018
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  7. jclausius

    jclausius Notebook Virtuoso

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    Finished post 4. Thoughts, comments and questions are welcome.
     
    Last edited: Jan 16, 2018
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  8. ajc9988

    ajc9988 Death by a thousand paper cuts

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    Why did you go Intel over AMD? Is it early itxm boards, or what?

    Also, why 8-core over 10? Because you didn't need pcie?

    Either way, good stuff and good log!

    Sent from my SM-G900P using Tapatalk
     
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  9. jclausius

    jclausius Notebook Virtuoso

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    All great questions! Answered inline...

    At the time of the original decision for this build, Ryzen was just out with the desktop chips, and I don't recall coming across any AMD platform mini-ITX boards from Asus, Giga, ASRock, etc., that were 64GB RAM capable and bundled with NVMe support.

    The first reason was price. I picked up a brand new i7-7820x (8 core) for $440 during Black Friday sales. The i9-7900x (10 cores) was still retailing for right under $1000.

    And while the i7-7820x has 28 PCIe lanes vs. 44 PCIe on the i9-7900x, the x299e-itx/ac only supports add-ons for 24 extra PCIe lanes. The mighty mini build has two M.2s running PCIe x4 directly to the CPU (so there's 8 of them) , and the x16 for GPU (or split up if you want to use a lesser video card and bitfurcation).

    So between receiving the benefit of additional cores and no addt'l data bus 'oomph', it didn't make sense in this build. I just couldn't justify greater than 2x the investment on CPU for just 2 extra cores or more.

    :thumbsup: Means a lot you took to the time to take a look. Thanks!!
     
    Last edited: Jan 16, 2018
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  10. tgipier

    tgipier Notebook Deity

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    The 8 core isnt bad. SODIMMs might not be great though in terms of compatibility with quad channel.
     
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