Description

Purpose: My objective was a compact machine to replace the ~8-year-old hardware that my family had been relying on for browsing, email, office productivity, and photo organisation tasks. The Athlon 64 X2 4600+ and 4800+ were phenomenal in their time, and today remain capable for light workloads, but there were very tangible gains to be made with fast UEFI booting, solid-state storage, and processor energy efficiency advances. I chose the Mini-ITX form factor so that I could take this machine through airport security, which I did. I expected to raise quite a bit of suspicion, prompt some interrogation, and be asked to open it and/or power it on, but much to my surprise, TSA treated it like any other piece of carry-on luggage. I put it through the X-ray scanner, picked it up off of the conveyor, and that was it.

Part selection:

  • CPU: AMD's latest flagship Kaveri part is well-known for being capable of running Battlefield 4, one of the most resource-intensive games out today, at medium settings using just its integrated GPU. The Kaveri lineup boasts some notable efficiency improvements and is also the launch series for the rather revolutionary Heterogeneous System Architecture. Not many applications take advantage of HSA yet, but this was an easy way to future-proof.

  • CPU cooler: Initially, I installed the bundled cooler, despite questioning its heat dissipation capability given its small size and low fin density. However, I read some reports of the A10-7850K running hot, and remembered that I had a spare FX-8350 bundled cooler (which was stamped Cooler Master). An advantage of AMD keeping its mounting bracket design largely unchanged over the years was that this was a drop-in replacement. I had much higher confidence in the larger cooler with a copper base and heat pipes, designed for 125-watt thermal loads rather than 95. More on this later, however.

  • Motherboard: There were only 3 choices that met my requirements of being Mini-ITX and using the latest A88X chipset, one from ASRock, Gigabyte, and MSI each. It was between the ASRock FM2A88X-ITX+ and the Gigabyte GA-F2A88XN-WIFI for me. I ultimately went with the Gigabyte because the ASRock doesn't have any VRM heatsinks, all 3 of the Gigabyte's video outputs are digital, and ASRock's features and marketing are rather silly.

  • Memory: I initially installed 16 GB of G.Skill Ripjaws Z DDR3-2133 RAM, which I had to RMA due to one of the modules causing kernel panics in DBAN and throwing a flood of errors in MemTest86 test 6 while on the RAM's XMP1 2133 MHz profile. The replacement set ran more stably while also on the XMP1 profile, but still caused several blue screens and freezes over a period of several weeks. Although this RAM's part number was listed in the motherboard's qualified vendor list for 8 GB, I suspect that there may have been a reason that the QVL contains no 16 GB sets. Or perhaps the XMP profiles are just borderline too aggressive for this APU and/or board, or the board wasn't reading the XMP data correctly. Fed up with instability, I replaced the G.Skill modules with an AMD Radeon R9 Gamer Series 8 GB DDR3-2133 set. I felt that the guaranteed compatibility of AMD-certified memory with AMD's own processors more than justified their slight premium relative to other brands. Furthermore, AMD memory is currently manufactured by Dataram, which supplies the U.S. Department of Defense. When it comes to ruggedness and reliability, I'll confidently place my trust in manufacturers whose products are in mission-critical applications such as military aircraft. Sure enough, the AMD RAM has been rock-solid for about 2 months now on its AMP 2133 MHz profile.

  • Storage: I won this SSD at a raffle, and the WD Green was repurposed from an old array that I upgraded to WD Blues.

  • Case: I wanted to keep open the option of adding a dedicated GPU for yet more horsepower if needed, so I chose a case that could accommodate a standard ATX power supply and a dual-slot graphics card. With the existence of cards designed specifically for Mini-ITX gaming, such as the MSI R9 270X ITX (170 mm), I decided that this case's 210 mm of graphics card clearance was sufficient. Although that rules out more powerful (and, given what's currently on the market, necessarily longer) cards, I figured that most of the serious gaming at home would be done on our Xbox One.

  • Power supply: This came up on Slickdeals for $60 minus a $30 mail-in rebate. $30 was a bargain for a PSU of a top brand, with modular connectors (particularly valuable in small form factors), 80+ Gold efficiency, a large and quiet fan, and an excellent 5-year warranty. 450 watts leaves more than 300 watts (the A10-7850K pulls 95 watts) of headroom for a dedicated graphics card if I ever add one, which is more than any compact card would require.

Build:

  • The most common issue with the Gigabyte GA-F2A88XN-WIFI motherboard is the unusually short distance between the APU socket and the RAM slots. The cooler bundled with the A10-7850K was too small to possibly have any clearance problems, but the FX-8350 cooler, being wider, just barely makes contact with the first RAM module.

  • I also found that there is less than an inch of clearance between the top of the cooler and the bottom of the PSU. I was afraid that both fans attempting to pull air in opposite directions would starve the APU, but the horizontal overlap between the two seems to be small enough for the APU cooler to receive enough clean air from the front intake fan. I considered flipping the power supply so that it would instead pull air from above, but that would have prevented the PSU from helping to exhaust hot air.

  • Otherwise, the rest of the build went smoothly. Though both right-angle SATA power connectors were angled the wrong way, it was easily rectified by a bit of bending. Generous use of zip ties, the case's strategically-placed zip tie loops, and threading the 24-pin motherboard power connector through part of the front panel kept everything tidy.

Observations:

  • Upon firing it up, it quickly became apparent that there was little hope that this machine would run quietly as long as the FX-8350 cooler was in there. At 4,000+ RPM, it sounded like a jet engine whilst in the UEFI configuration utility due to its lack of any frequency scaling or other power saving features. Although the fan is quieter within Windows, the slowest "Manual" slope setting offered by the Gigabyte firmware of "0.75 PWM value /°C" still allows the fan to spin up to an audible 3,000 RPM and beyond whenever the APU is placed under moderate to heavy load. Thermal margin as reported by AMD OverDrive usually ranges between 40°C and 70°C, reaching a minimum of 20°C only upon sustained full load in hot weather. That translates to absolute temperatures of 50°C and lower (assuming a maximum temperature rating of 70°C), which is acceptable. Since this 125-watt cooler is more than capable of dissipating the 95 watts of heat, I contacted Gigabyte support to ask them to consider adding some slower manual slope PWM options, such as "0.50 PWM value /°C" or perhaps even "0.25 PWM value /°C", in a future BIOS update. However, despite my lengthy and clear explanations, it took 3 back-and-forth exchanges just to get their first-level support to understand what I was asking for, so I'm not keeping my hopes up. I intend to replace the cooler with a much-quieter Cooler Master GeminII M4 at some point. Until then, I've set the APU's configurable TDP to 65 watts in order to decrease the fan noise.

2014-10-05 update: I've installed the Cooler Master GeminII M4 (its shape allows it to overhang the RAM with plenty of clearance to spare), reverted the configurable TDP from 65 watts back to the full 95 watts, and changed the CPU fan slope setting from the slowest "0.75 PWM value /°C" to the fastest "2.50 PWM value /°C". Rotational speeds range between ~900 and ~1,600 RPM depending on temperature. Although the new fan is audible at its maximum speed, it's only a whisper compared to the screaming FX-8350 bundled cooler. The extra 30 watts bumps the maximum APU temperature under full load from 50°C to 60°C.

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Comments

  • 65 months ago
  • 2 points

Love the detail in the description. This is almost identical to the build I have underway, except I have the Elite 130 case. I may switch to the AMD memory for the reasons you expressed above.

  • 66 months ago
  • 1 point

Now that's what I call a tight fit. Parts selection is good, performance will do great. Just curious as to why the CM Elite 110 and not the 120/130? +1

  • 66 months ago
  • 1 point

If you think this is a tight fit, keep an eye out for my next build. =)

Performance is indeed excellent; this is the most responsive computer I've built thus far.

Why the Elite 110? Because the 120 and 130 are relative behemoths. See http://www.coolermaster.com/case/mini-itx-elite-series/elite110/ (scroll down to "Comparison").

  • 65 months ago
  • 1 point

how's the cpu in adobe premiere ?

  • 63 months ago
  • 1 point

I haven't tried Premiere on this, but I'd expect it to perform on par with the latest i3 and some i5 chips. There are also benchmarks on the internets that you can refer to.

  • 64 months ago
  • 1 point

Great build with some great pictures, love the detailed description. I really like the form factor of this tower, what OS did you wind up going with? +1

  • 63 months ago
  • 1 point

Thanks. It's running Windows 8.1.

  • 59 months ago
  • 1 point

Very Cool Build. I have been considering the A10-7850K for some time. Have you tried streaming, recording gameplay, and video editing with this build? And if so, how has it been?

Also, Will the Gemini M4 Cooler block the PCI-E X16 Slot? I do want to add a discrete GPU later.