I wanted a quad core CPU for running mathematical models. Enough RAM to comfortably run a VM or two. Ability to put in a GPU if I decide I want to play games. Big SSD as main drive, plus a 3.5” hard drive for backups and extra storage so I don’t have to faff around with external drives any more. WiFi networking since my house isn’t wired for Ethernet. As small, quiet and elegant as possible.
I’ve been a “MacBook is my main machine” guy for the last 8 years. Last PC I built was a single-core Athlon 64 in 2005. The basic process is the same but all the details have changed! One thing that quickly became apparent is that I could get everything I needed in a Mini ITX board. I wanted to purchase all parts locally in Melbourne, and ideally all from one retailer, which restricted components I could choose a little.
Case: this was a choice between the Fractal Design Node 304 (gorgeous but expensive and larger than needed because it had room for 6 hard drives), Silverstone SG13 (small and cheap), or a Silverstone FTZ01 (nice but I’m not a huge fan of the “vertical desktop” look). In the end the Silverstone SG13B-Q won.
Power Supply: Corsair SF450. Many people recommended using an SFX power supply with this case and I’m glad I did. Space is tight enough as it is. This power supply is brilliant. I’ve yet to see its fan start spinning. Note that you will need to buy a bracket to mount it in this case.
Case Fan: Noctua NF-S12A PWM. It’s a fan. It’s a natty brown colour. It spins. It’s not too loud.
Motherboard: Wanted something with both onboard WiFi and m.2 SSD support which limits the choices somewhat. Ended up going for the Gigabyte H170N-WiFi. I’m not a huge fan of this board (see below) but it does the job. The other alternative here was the Asus H170I-Pro which was slightly more expensive.
CPU: Intel Core i5-6500. Easy choice here: going any higher meant a significant price increase, higher TDP (which could make cooling difficult in a small case) and only marginal performance increase without overclocking.
CPU Cooler: I wanted something that would run cooler and quieter than the Intel stock cooler, and no water cooling because that seemed ridiculous on a non-overclocked computer. There are few options available which fit into this case. The Scythe Big Shuriken looked like a good choice but wasn’t available locally. The Be Quiet Shadow Rock LP sounded promising but was dubious as to whether it would fit. The Noctua L9i reviewed poorly and was possibly not an improvement on the stock Intel cooler. I ended up going for the Cryorig C7 because it was cheap, but it turned out to not be particularly quiet.
CPU Cooler Fan Replacement: Noctua NF-B9 redux PWM. Significantly quieter than the Cryorig fan, and claims to move more air too.
Memory: 16GB of Corsair’s finest cheapest DDR4.
SSD: Samsung 850 Evo m.2, 500GB. Seemed to be the default choice. Going m.2 was good, the price was the same as the 2.5” SATA version and it reduces the cabling needed, an important consideration in this case.
Spinning Hard Drive: Western Digital Blue 4TB. Cheapest 4TB drive available locally. This is the loudest component of the system at idle.
Peripherals: I already had an Acer 27” 1440p display, Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic keyboard and mouse and Audioengine A2+ speakers.
Making it Cool and Quiet
Assembly went slowly and carefully but smoothly, following the instructions that came with the case. My big recommendation would be to attach cables to parts as soon as possible, because after they go in it can be very difficult to see where to plug anything in. The HDD tray for the Silverstone case is sneaky; you need to mount the drive in a particular orientation to be able to fit the SATA power connector in.
After first boot, I was disappointed at how loud the machine was. The Cryorig C7 fan makes a significant whine at high RPM, and the motherboard insisted on running the fans at high RPM even at idle, even with the fans set to “silent” in the BIOS. The latter was solved by installing the Gigabyte “System Information Viewer” software and configuring a custom fan profile. This software is clunky but it works. This improved the machine from “awful” to “tolerable”, but I wanted to do better.
In theory, the fan for the Cryorig C7 is a proprietary clip-on thing that can’t be replaced. I don’t believe in “can’t be replaced”, though, and managed to attach a Noctua B9 redux 1600rpm fan using a combination of cable ties and Blu Tack. This fan is of similar noise to the Cryorig fan at a given RPM, but it’s taller and so can spin slower to move the same amount of air. The quality of the noise is much better, too. All you hear is the whooshing of the air moving, not a whiny electric motor.
One final change to the system was to turn both the power supply and the CPU fan upside down, so the air flowed up from the bottom of the case to the air vent on the top. This dropped the CPU temperatures at load by about 5 degrees.
Finally, all instruction manuals and left over cables were stashed away in a shoebox. Because what else?!
The final system is almost silent at idle and reasonably quiet under heavy load. When the hard drive spins up, it's the loudest component in the machine. Since I didn't connect the power or hard drive LEDs, you can't tell if it's switched on or not until you're sitting down at the desk.