Building a small form factor PC20 days ago, 7 min read at 1295 words
For a long time, I've been keen to build a PC. Not just any old PC though, no, when I do things, I like to go a bit deeper. This is my journey to a mini-ITX build.
As we've been cooped up this past year, I've wanted to build a PC as a way to take my mind off things. Evidently, like many other people who seem to have stumbled upon PC building as a passtime. Short supply of things out there.
Long a convert to Mac machines, the lack of flexibility in parts or upgrading your machine often leaves me feeling a little boxed in.
Though I appreciate the craftsmanship of Apple's products, I don't particularly like the shorter and shorter life cycle of newer products.
I truly believe the last good Mac was made around 2014. My 2014 MacBook 13" is still standing the test of time ...for the time being. That is good engineering.
One thing that building a PC offers you though, is a vast world of customisability and flexibility. Those are two words we're slowly creeping away from in the age of lockdowns as we give up more of our lives to bland services and delivery platforms. Anyway, that's a post for another day.
Having not touched PC parts since I was in my teens, the initial research in what I wanted was quite overwhelming. I guess the drawback of choice is that there's too much of it!
So where do you start?
Well, I had to decide what I wanted to do with the PC to begin with. Simply building one for the sake of it in these current times didn't really make much financial sense. Especially with things like GPU's at higher prices than usual.
The goal then had to be getting use out of it and have it as a daily driver.
"Driver", another key word. As my sim racing escapades have slowly been getting a little more serious. It was time I answered the call from iRacing. I'm now in the rabbit hole. Ultimately, I wanted a machine for my weekend hobby and weekday work.
So the overall goal was the following...
- A machine capable of playing Assetto Corsa Competizione & iRacing.
- A machine where I could do heavy duty work like image or video editing.
- A machine that's small in form, hidden in plain sight.
- A machine is minimal fuss.
With all of that in mind then, I set about finding the parts I needed.
Finding the parts
This is a bit of a strange one. I began this build back in November of last year. If you're prepared to be patient, keep a constant eye on pieces and get ready to give up a part of your cognitive load - you're going to do well.
A surge in Bitcoin price (GPU's in higher demand) and a massive faux pas from the big players when it comes to GPU's have led stock to being solid at ridiculous prices. Old and new.
What of the actual parts then?
As I wanted a small form factor case, one of the first things I stumbled upon was the NZXT H1. Little did I know the case would be a fire hazard, which has since been resolved (sorta).
Initially, I'd had my eye on Velka 3-RL. While this is much smaller than the H1, the drawback is I'd have to figure out my own power supply, cooling and riser setup. The benefit of the H1 is most of the cable management and some vital parts are pre-installed. I love things that are like Lego and this case is very much a Lego build.
So with the case out of the way, I had to find the right parts to be able to drive my imaginary Porsche 911's.
The parts that were easy to find...
- Memory, a Crucial P1 1TB.
- RAM, Corsair Vengeance 16GB x2 @ 3200mhz.
- Motherboard, Asus Rog Strix B550 mini-ITX.
- Mouse, Apple Magic Mouse 2.
Along with the case those parts were purchased quite quickly and at knocked down prices! Pretty good result there in the end.
The parts that dragged on though...
- CPU, AMD Ryzen 7 3700X.
- GPU, GeForce RTX 3060 Ti Founders Edition.
- Keyboard, Keychron K3.
The GPU took me until the end of January to find. The amount of Discord servers I found myself in (and since deleted) was absured. Unfortunately due to the reasons mentioned above, coupled with the obvious pandemic and slower production times, this was quite a tiring task.
In the end, I got lucky when my cart on a local German stockists site timed out. When they first emailed me back to ask if I wanted to complete the order, I must admit, I thought what anyone would ...SCAM.
After much vetting, back and forth, I managed to verify they were genuine and within a week, I had a Founders Edition card at MSRP. That was perhaps one of the luckiest strokes in this whole build.
As a sidenote, still happen to be waiting on the Keychron K3 a couple of months after purchase, but seems like they've also had production issues due to pandemic, which is fine. That's life. They've been more than communicative though, so I'm excited to receive that board.
So whats the deal with the setup?
While I've wanted to improve my home working situation — even pre-pandemic I'd been working remotely for a couple of years — I wanted to reduce friction between switching contexts.
With my monitor, I'm fortunate enough to have two HDMI slots, meaning I can have two devices hooked up. As for the large part, I'll still be doing all my coding on Mac, I wanted a way to switch between the two.
This is why the choice of mouse and keyboard were quite important. Going for Bluetooth devices that can connect to either Windows or Mac was quite appealing. On one side, you have the PC and the other, the Macbook plugged in.
The cool thing after years of having cables everywhere, I can now switch between either device when it comes to headphone, keyboard and mouse.
And it's easy.
What lessons were learned?
Firstly, building a PC (sans cable management) is not as difficult as it looks on the outset. Of course, I had to YouTube and Google some things along the way, but for the most part, the machine works well. Even with the nylon screws.
Yes, until I receive a replacement riser cable from NZXT, using the hack of nylon screws to hold it in place.
Perhaps one other learning is, maybe don't try to attempt building a PC if you don't want extra stress right now? Finding parts can be quite difficult and finding them at good prices to fit your budget. I initially saw this project as a little bit of escapism from the current situation, but it soon spiralled into a 3 month project.
That's a long time.
While I've been enjoying the fruits of iRacing, I have been unplugging the PC when it's not in use due to the potential fire hazard of the case. As ever, with PC's comes a million variables and that's perhaps one of the more annoying ones.
Also, don't believe the hype when it comes to Apple products not being as compatible with Windows. A small driver enables the Magic Mouse to work with gesutres, which is a life saver.
I may update this post over time. I feel perhaps I could have explained some parts of the build in more detail and been a little more detailed about the setup.
I kind of wanted to put something out there for anyone considering building a mini-ITX or PC right now and just the experience I went through as bit of a n00b.
Hope it helps.