Magic box of holding.

So ive been kicking around the idea of building a new editing/gaming station for a while now.  My current rig is still pretty good,  but its having trouble with fps on games ive been playing lately and storage on laptops is pretty limited.

I use my computer for my photographic work,  more than gaming and have been relying on external drives to house my photos.  Anyone who spends enough time with external drives should understand how stupid it is to put important data on external drives and then travel around with it.

I should probably mention that i travel a lot for work and photography,  and by a "lot" i mean about 320 days a year.

So i needed a solution that was small enough to be vaguely portable but robust enough to house some serious storage.  That it should game,  goes without saying.

The number one requirement is size.  If its too big to comfortably carry,  then I wont,  then the whole build is useless.

The next requirement is that it be powerful enough to move away from my current solution.  Not too difficult since my current rig is a laptop.  Any desktop of quality should out perform a laptop of any kind.

And finally it should have ample room for storage.

I would love to also add light weight to the requirements,  but when talking performance and storage.. well we're not quite there yet 😉

Another important requirement is that it should have the ability to run near silently.  Obviously when I crank it up itll get hot and noisy but when at idle it should quiet.  I work in an environment with enough noisy computers,  adding anouther will make very unpopular with my work mates.

So let's recap.

We're building a quiet, small but powerful computer with ample storage.

We'll see how in another post,  its time for my morning coffee.

The first thing i had to figure out was what format board I wanted to use.  The obvious choice was the mItx board, but its limited to 16 gigs of ram.  I was looking to go big on this one as Photoshop tends to use as much as you can feed it.  I typically have a lot of things going on in my computer too, so ram is a big deal.  Matx is the next choice.  it has a lot of solid options and can support 32 gigs of ram.  it also has more than a single pci slot, which would be nice in the storage arena as it would allow me to add more sata ports.

After looking long and hard at the cases available for matx, there just didn't seem to be any choices of box that was very small.  Size is the absolute most important  feature of this build, I really need it small enough to put ON the desk, not under it, and be able to cart it around in my truck with the billion other things i drive around with.

So since matx is out, mitx is in.

Now that I know which form factor I want, I've got to look for some boxes.

I want a box i can put up on the desk, under my monitor, so I don't mind if it has a large footprint, but "thickness" is something that I'd like to keep on the minimum.  Looking around the net, I found a great many nice thin cases, but non of them supported a full size GPU.  I'm not sure why theres no such thing as a 90° PCIE adapter, so that the gpu can lay flat instead of standing, but there just isn't anything like that, that I was able to find.  so no thin cases with full size GPU capability.

Looking in the "full size" case arena, There was a number of options, but the Lian-li TU200 looked to be tailor made for what I want to do.

Its rugged construction, large drive bay design, handle at the top and very small size are pretty much exactly what the doctor ordered.  Its still as thick as a normal desktop case, but there really isn't any way to design it any other way and still do what it can do.

The features of the case include room for a full size PSU, full size GPU, single 5.25" front slot, 4 hot swappable 3.5" hard drive bays, a mounting kit for 2 x 2.5" Hard drives (or ssd), Thats room for 4 full size hard drives and 2 small drives of any flavor I want.  The 2.5" mounting kits mean that I don't have to use up a 3.5" bay for a boot SSD, and can keep it for a large capacity drive. Front panel ports are 2 x USB 3 ports and an E-SATA port which will give me fast connections to any external drives i still use.  The fact that its just about the smallest mitx case i could find, gives it some pretty amazing potential.

Because i'm a photographer, I do a lot of uploading of data from memory cards.  My cameras use compact flash, so I thought I would look around for a good card reader for the optical drive slot.  While I was browsing around at those, I came across something by Vantec called the EZ swap F4.  This little gem  allows you to add a 4 bay 2.5" HDD hot swap rack to the 5.25" optical slot in the front of your computer.  This had me pretty intrigued as storage for me never ends.  There is no "wow man, you'll never use all that" so more for me, is definitely better.  And it was purdy too.

I decided that I just HAD to have this rack.  its so awesome.  But of course  this is going to present a few challenges of its own.

The box already has room for 6 hard drives, with the other 4 from the rack, that makes 10.  Last time I checked, there weren't any mitx boards with that many sata ports, so I'll have to add some.  The next issue is that adding ports to a board is usually done through a pci/e slot…  mitx only has one, and I intend to use that for the GPU.  Port multipliers are not so common,  but with the help of Arinoth, I was able to locate one online.  It didn't come cheap though, but it did give me 4 extra ports. (5, but since I lost a port to multiply it, the fifth one really just gave me back the one I lost)  So with the addition of the port multiplier I be able to add a few more sata drives, and that hdd rack will be mine!

Next part that needs consideration is the motherboard itself.  I need to know what I have there so that I can match the rest of the parts properly.

This computer is destined to gaming and photo editing, with an emphasis on storage and performance.  The motherboard is going to need to put out, so to speak.  After looking at a number of mitx boards, I decided on a MSI Z87 GAMING AC.  The board is designed with gaming in mind, and boasts 5 internal SATA ports, 4 external USB3 ports and a bus for front panel USB3 as well.  On board high speed wireless will make my life a lot easier too, as most desktop machines are hard wired, or require separate wireless radios.  Being on the road, wireless is king, so this board has everything I need, and easy OC too.

Now that we have the box and the board, its time to figure on ram.  Gskill tridents are a good bang for your buck and OC well.  Nice and fast, so i picked up a pair of 8 gig sticks.

I'm out of time for this post, so I'll post some more later.

Looking forward to seeing pictures of this beast.

Is your plan to port the monitor around with you as well? Thats a lot of gear lugging just to game. Seems like an ultra-high end laptop would be better suited. You're going to pay for that though, like 3k+ 😞


Is your plan to port the monitor around with you as well? Thats a lot of gear lugging just to game. Seems like an ultra-high end laptop would be better suited. You're going to pay for that though, like 3k+ 😞

Actually, the entire decision to build this computer is because I've been lugging around an external monitor for the last year anyway.

Back a couple years ago I used my personal laptop for work.  Because of this, I always had a nice big 17" desktop replacement style laptop, that had enough giddy up to game and edit my photos.  I also used external 3.5" drive bays and 3.5" drives for expandable storage.

Fast forward a couple years and the company I worked for was bought out by a larger one and I was given a "work" laptop.  A Dell 15" somethingerother.  Now, I don't mind carting around a dedicated work laptop, but if you ever tried to do 12 hours of data entry on a 15" laptop with no number pad on it, you'd understand how completely wrong that laptop is for the work I do.

My solution to this problem has been to bring a monitor, keyboard and mouse with me and use the laptop as a low profile desktop.  Because I don't want to use the work computer for personal use, I've been stacking my personal laptop, and the work laptop on top of each other and using VGA and HDMI to connect the monitor to them both, and use a wireless keyboard / mouse combo (with a single usb transmitter) and switch between the two, depending on if I'm screwing the pooch or working.

I've been running like that for about a year and a half now, but lately my laptop is showing its age.  Its not that its that old or even that bad.  Its actually still pretty kick ass in the grand scheme of things (Alienware MX17R3 with an ati 6900m)  but I've still got to compromise a lot to have the laptop form factor.

I was thinking that the Alienware and a small desktop PC case pretty much take up the same amount of space in an office.  The laptop is easier to cart around, because it (barely) fits into a backpack, but when I set out to research this build, one of the main requirements was that the final unit shouldnt be any more of a pain to travel with than the laptop.

I've also got a Razor Edge gaming tablet that does only slightly worse job gaming and editing than the alienware does (believe it or not) so mobility isn't as important for the build as it was before.

I have shifted the responsibility for portable gaming / editing from the Alienware to  much more portable Edge.  This has freed up the requirement of uber portability in the computer I use at work.

Put all these factors together, and a desktop PC is quite viable.

I no longer have to compromise on ram, GPU, CPU, Storage…  I can have as much or little as I'm willing to carry around in my truck.  I still need to keep the box as small and quiet as I can of course, but ultra portability is not a concern, as it was before.