Mothership Meow: A sub $500 mITX HTPC + Steambox
This is my first build in years and I’m really happy how it turned out. This write-up is a bit long, but if you’re interested in building a similar PC I hope this may be of some use.
Years ago I was a big PC gamer and built a couple of boxes. However med school and real life - or lack thereof - took over, so for practicality’s sake I sold off my desktop and switched to a laptop. A couple months ago, however, I stumbled onto /r/cordcutters and decided to say bye-bye to cable.
Originally I was going to throw some stuff together for a super low-budget HTPC build….and then I discovered steam big picture.
For years I have been buying indie bundles and throwing money at steam summer sales…the problem was I could never actually play the games. Sure I could run a lot of the indie games on my laptop but it’s just not that much fun to destroy my keyboard mashing in tiny arrow keys playing Super Meat Boy.
My goal was for the build to be reasonable (around $450), replace my 360 as my go-to game console, and also to be small and dead silent. Here’s the build:
CPU: AMD A6-6400K I originally was going to go with an AMD A10-6800K, however a lot of people expressed regret using that 100W chip in their small builds as they simply run too hot. Additionally, the low profile CPU cooler I needed for this build was only specced for 65W chips. I started looking into the A10-6700 and A8-6500 but they would’ve pushed this build past $500 which was more than I wanted to spend.
I went with A6-6400K. It may not be the fastest APU, but at half the price of the A10-6700 it presents exceptional value. I saved another $30 by bundling it with the motherboard at Microcenter. I simply could not justify spending an extra $100 for the A10.
The A6 also gives me a couple options to boost performance without upgrading. It’s a Black Edition APU so it can be OC’d if temps allow. Also I can throw in a Radeon 6570 for fifty bucks and crossfire it, if needed. After years of using awful integrated intel graphics on my laptop I wasn’t expecting much from the APU, however so far I’m really impressed. I haven’t tested many games, but it rips through The Walking Dead and XCOM at high detail @ 720P. Obviously it’s not going to keep up with a dedicated gaming pc, but it blows away my 360 and for $75 you really can’t beat its value.
The chip idles around 36C and under load around 50C. This is with the fan speeds turned down to a nearly inaudible level. At one point I thought it was being too loud, but when I checked it turned out to be my girlfriend’s Wii.
Motherboard MSI FM2-A75IA-E53: Pretty standard. Comes with built in wireless and Bluetooth, which is nice. The BIOS is snazzy.
The problem I encountered was that the board shipped with a BIOS version (1.2) that did not support the Richland CPU (2.0). As of now, the only way to update the BIOS is by running an .exe file in windows. I was able to install windows fine with the unsupported BIOS version, however running the executable file caused the system to crash. I’ve heard of people having to put in an older APU chip to update the board, but luckily I found a work around. I used Rufus (http://rufus.akeo.ie/) to create a bootable USB running DOS and updated the BIOS by running the .exe through there.
I could’ve saved some money if I went a larger form factor, but I really wanted this build to be small. It’s probably never going to move from my media center, but I think it’s impressive just how much can fit into a small machine these days.
Case: Apex MI-008 I went with this case because it’s small, cheap, and came with a 250W PSU. There is one glaring problem: the PSU is mounted directly over where the CPU sits and, with only 50mm clearance from the bottom of the case, there is not enough room to use the stock heatsink. The only cooler that I found which fits is the Noctua NH-L9A which cost more than the case itself. Throw in a couple of case fans and this $40 case is approaching $100. Alternatively you could toss out the stock PSU and put in a picoPSU for about the same price as the aftermarket cooler.
Before I put the build together I was concerned about the PSU blowing hot air directly into the CPU heatsink. I decided to flip the PSU over and drill a hole in the top of the case for exhaust (a 3” Milwaukee hole saw worked perfectly). I used a Silverstone 80mm fan grill to cover it but any sort of mesh would have done. I had to tape it on the underside of the case because there was not enough clearance to screw it on to the top, but that actually made it more seamless with the case. In retrospect this mod is almost completely unnecessary. The PSU simply does not get that hot, or blow out that much air, to make me think it makes much of a difference. In the future if I switch to a picoPSU I will use this as hole for an 80mm exhaust fan.
For a cheap, somewhat-awkwardly designed case, it does have a couple thoughtful features. For example, the front panel has a slot and diffuser for a LED bulb to glow light out of the right side of the case. By default it's left empty, but it’s easy to move the power or HDD LED into it. This stops the light from blasting you in the eyes when you are trying to watch a movie. I replaced the stock LEDS, a green power and red HDD bulb, with blue and white ones I got from microcenter respectively. It looks great.
RAM: I got the RAM on sale back when I thought I was getting a A10 6800K, which can handle memory @ 2133MHz. With the A6 I have it clocked at 1866MHz. I might be able to run it at the higher speed but I haven’t tried yet. The AMD APUs benefit from faster RAM speeds.
HDD: It’s a HTPC, so I spent most of the money on storage. I can’t really imagine using anything but an SSD anymore, so I got one for this build. If I wasn’t planning on using steam I would have gotten a smaller SSD for just the OS. I used velcro tape to secure the SSD to the top of the HDD.
Despite the small size, this case actually has room for up to three 3.5” HDDs. I started with one 3TB WD Green drive. I used a 5.25”-to-3.5” adapter to fit the drive in the 5.25” bay. The RAM’s heat spreaders were a bit too tall for it to fit in the 3.5” bay and I didn’t want to mount it on the side of the case and block any airflow. I’ve seen a lot of negative reviews about these drives and the first one I ordered came DOA, but hopefully there won’t be any more issues. Eventually when this drive fills up I’m going to stick it into an old desktop repurposed as a NAS.
Fans: I got an 80mm and 120mm Entermax T.B. Silence fans on clearance at Microcenter. The 80mm fan is mounted onto the left side of the case using rubber screws/adapters and blows cold air in. The 120mm fan blows warm air out and fits snuggly into the right side of the case, where you also have the option of mounting a HDD. Together they are near silent, but only when set to a low speed (50% in BIOS). The mobo only has 1 case fan power source, so I used a cable splitter. These fans are pretty much essential to keep the case cool. Note: You can only a fit a 80mm, but not 120mm, fan on the left side.