Respectable power and performance on a budget
Believe it or not, it’s that time of year again. Red frills and decorations are everywhere, and holiday music fills every conceivable retail space. Love them or hate them, the holidays are just around the bend. At least there are some deals to be had.
When we went looking on Newegg to find parts for our Fall builds, we had a few goals in mind: take advantage of pricing and make sure that we include the latest Skylake CPUs wherever possible. With this guiding principle, we were able to put together a great gaming build that will get players up and running with most titles at 1080p.
To start off, we went with a locked Skylake CPU and a motherboard without unneeded overclocking heft. We chose a quad-core Core i5-6500 and stuck it in a ASRock H170M mini-ITX mobo. While the H170 isn't as sexy as the Z170, we saved a little money by going with the H-model. The CPU, while not a K-model unlocked SKU, is still plenty powerful, and offers i5 speeds and features at a reasonable price. It also let us go with a cheaper H170 without hesitation or fear of missing out.
One thing we did run into problems with was the stock drivers in Windows 8.1. We kept getting blue screens until we were able to install the motherboard memory driver from ASRock. If you go with this motherboard, be sure to do that first (and don't discard the DVD that came with the mobo). The only other oversight was that this model did not have built-in Wi-Fi. While adding a USB dongle is a simple and cheap upgrade, not grabbing Wi-Fi on the mobo was a small oversight on our part.
Here's what we put together.
Note: All prices reflect in-cart price at time of procurement. Sale prices and instant rebates are included. Tax and mail-in rebates are not included.
Good things come in small packages
We decided to take the little board and mount it into the cube-shaped Xigmatek Nebula. The Nebula is a handsome little case, which would look right at home next to a TV or a small desk. The turned-up corner features an orange power LED, and is so similar to how a Steam Machine might look, we almost expected the Steam logo to adorn the light's face.
Three of the Nebula's four metal side panels come off easily, which allowed us to work on your build from nearly every side. However, this configuration was a mixed blessing: we couldn't figure out how to get the top off, which made for some interesting modifications to our build process.
There are a couple of main schools of thought when it comes to mounting your CPU: lne says you should mount it before mounting the motherboard; the other says it's better to mount the mobo first. This case pretty much forces you into the first school, since there really isn't a whole lot of room to safely mount the CPU once the board is mounted.
The other thing that makes this case a bit different is the lack of cable management options. When building into a small mini-ITX case, we highly recommend using a modular power supply to cut down on clutter. We went with the 450W Corsair CS450M to get the job done.
The cable management wasn't the only thing to worry about. We noticed this case came with only one exhaust fan. This means that the case is built to create negative pressure, which will suck in dust from every crevice. Luckily, it's so easy to open that cleaning should be a cinch compared to having to open up a tower. Just remember to clean your case regularly (like you should be doing anyway), and everything should be kosher.
Pixel pushing on a budget
When building a gaming machine on a budget, it is usually a good idea to sacrifice smaller features for the best CPU you can reasonably afford. We really tried to squeeze a shorty Asus GTX 970 into the build, but the sacrifices were simply too great. Instead, we went with an old favorite workhorse: the GTX 960.
The GTX 960 model we got from EVGA comes with a small factory overclock, and was plenty short enough for our needs. The GPU can handle most games at 1080p at max settings, and will perform admirably even at 1440p. However, don't try to play in 4K with this card; it just doesn't have the muscle, even if texture quality and anti-aliasing are turned way down.
Our tests with this build revealed just what we expected in this realm: decent FPS at the lower resolution, but sluggish performance at 4K.
Little box, little storage
One big thing we omitted with this build was a hard drive. Some may gasp and choke in alarm, but we felt that spending a little more on a larger SSD would yield a better return on investment. The 250GB 850 EVO is able to hold your OS and a respectable library of games. The 850 EVO is also one of our favorite SSDs for its price-to-performance ratio.
For those who need more storage, a 1TB HDD can be as little as $70, so adding a hard drive after-the-fact is a cheap upgrade. External hard drives are cheap, too.
High in the Skylake
If there's one good thing that stands out about the guts of this build, it's the Skylake core. Even with the new core, a locked CPU and a lower clock speed of its K-SKU cousins means that this little i5 can't compete when it comes to number-crunching tasks.
When it came to our multithreaded benchmark, the quad-core i5 performed similarly to its Haswell cousin we used in the Summer build.
At the end of the day, we're really happy with this build and feel like it would make a great entry-level build for those who want to get into PC gaming, want to play the latest games in 1080p, or want a homebrewed HTPC/Steam Machine for the living room.