Time for a DIY Mini PC for 2017 on a Budget!

After reading the recent review of the Dreamcore One, and hearing about Aftershock PC’s capable equivalent of it in the form of the Impulse, I wondered what this meant for the DIY tech enthusiast?

While all these amazing made-to-order machines offer convenience and assurance in the form of warranty and after sales service, it does rob us of the euphoric satisfaction of assembling our own machine.

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So I decided to start a little journey into what it would take to create a mini console PC of my own.

My starting point was the old steam box featured here last year. The article comes with detailed description of how the box was assembled, and how it performs. Since a year in real life is around a decade in gaming, the box had become horribly outdated. It was also my first mini PC, which means in retrospect, I could have done everything better – the box was too cramped for my tastes and ran a little too hot. These are all things I wanted to fix in my updated version of it.

First, the things I wanted to keep. I had no issue with my motherboard and CPU. Many games don’t even fully utilize the current Intel Core architecture yet, so my i5-3210m still had many years ahead of it. It’s also a mobile CPU, which means it drew way less power than a desktop one (just 35W), and will go a long way in helping me pare down the size of my power supply later. I also left my 8GB of DDR3 memory and 256GB of solid state storage untouched – it would be nice to have more, but we can always upgrade later. Moving on.

What I needed to update was the monstrous 400 watt HDPLEX power supply that was clogging up the airflow within the case, and the desktop Asus GTX970 graphics card that was consuming most of those 400 watts. Nvidia had tremendously improved the power consumption of their chips with the latest Geforce 10 series of cards, so I bought one of the first models released that could fit my tiny case, the Zotac GTX1060 3GB from Amazon (USD$194 and free shipping all the way home to Singapore, what’s not to like about that deal?).

So a little bit of online sleuthing (basically, reading reviews) revealed the card to have an estimated TDP of about 135W. This, plus the 35W from my processor and a 40W estimate for the rest of the components (and some leeway for occasional spikes), puts us in the market for a 210-220W tiny DC power supply. Where do I find such a niche little product? Enter Taobao, the world’s most wretched hive of scum and villainy (happy 40th anniversary Star Wars!), and apparently also where you can find the oddest computer components.

I ended up purchasing the Z2-ATX-200W picoPSU from Pico Box (SGD$26.19, with shipping via EzBuy). It’s rated at 200W, with a peak pull of 220W, which is just right for my little setup over here. Now I also need an accompanying AC-DC adapter to feed my petite power supply from the mains. Taobao to the rescue again, I found this little treasure meant for a Dell machine (SGD$14.05, ditto above). My power supply has a 12V input, which means the Dell adapter’s 18A current will bring us just under the peak load at 216W. Absolutely perfect.

Putting everything together a second time was a breeze. The power supply’s location near the exit vents of the case also meant the heat it produced while gaming got carried out of the case quickly, making everything run a little cooler, a happy accident. Now to run some benchmarks.

OpenGL: 63.18 fps
CPU: 260 cb

FPS: 71.0
Score: 1790
Min FPS: 22.9
Max FPS: 152.6

Comparing this to the Dreamcore One scores, we fell behind by 5 FPS in Cinebench OpenGL, did dramatically worse in Cinebench CPU scores due to the dated CPU, but quite a lot better in Unigine Heaven. The weaker scores in the Cinebench scores were probably due to the 5 year old CPU, but considering the amount of older parts that were reused in this build, I’m pretty happy with how it matches up with a current machine.

For DIY enthusiasts, I definitely recommend you try out a mini PC build like this to get out of your comfort zone and experiment with something refreshing. If you have any questions or need some help with your build, do drop me a note in the comments and I’ll try my best to help you out.

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