A mini PC can be one of the most beautiful sights in gaming. PCs don’t have to be enormous machines and building a mini PC is easier than ever thanks to modern motherboard designs and new APUs, such as AMD’s Raven Ridge desktop chips.
Want to know the top processors to build your rig around? Check out our guide to the best CPUs for gaming.
The classic image of a gaming PC is some hulking behemoth of a machine, all frantically spinning fans, blazing RGB LEDs, and monstrously large graphics cards. But that doesn’t have to be the case anymore, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to make compromises on performance just to lessen your PC’s overall footprint. There are small form factor chassis which can still house full-scale components in their TARDIS-like innards.
This is what makes the PC such a fantastic gaming platform - its innate versatility. I spend a lot of time unnecessarily digging around inside my PC and so I like having a monstrous case sat on my desk that gives me space to work. And you need a lot of space for all those vital flashing lights too, right?
But sometimes you’ll want a PC that’s not seen and not heard, and thanks to AMD’s new Raven Ridge platform you can create some absolutely miniscule gaming machines. The actual process of putting the rig together doesn’t differ that greatly to a full-size build, so check out our how to build a gaming PC guide for the basics.
For a mini PC build then component choice is absolutely the most important thing. We’ve picked three different kinds of machine, from a tiny GPU-less Raven Ridge machine, to a pint-size GTX 1060 rig, and all the way up to a 20-thread mini-monster with a GTX 1080 Ti.
The super mini PC build
Creating a gaming PC the same size as an Xbox One S
The unprecedented graphical power of AMD’s latest desktop APUs - the Ryzen 5 2400G and Ryzen 3 2200G - means you can build a gaming PC that doesn’t need to have a discrete graphics card plugged into it. Which is pretty good timing considering the cost and scarcity of current GPUs. And the fact that Nvidia reckon that’s going to continue on til Q3 this year. That’s between July and September for us non-corporate folk.
There are also more mini-ITX boards coming on the AM4 platform too. Mini-ITX is the smallest of the mainstream motherboards, with micro ATX being a bit of a middle-ground between those and the big-boy ATX boards and absolute unit eATX boards.
And your choice of chassis and of motherboard will directly affect just how small you can go with your mini-build. We’ve paired up this InWin Chopin case with the MSI B350I Pro AC to create the smallest of our gaming rigs. We went for the Chopin as it comes with a built-in 150W PSU, which delivers just enough juice to keep the Ryzen 5 2400G APU running, even with both the CPU and GPU components overclocked.
Power has to be a key consideration when you’re putting together your mini build, as does the cooling. The ultra low-profile Noctua L9a is almost the only AM4 cooler we could have used for this machine because of the limited space available in our tiny chassis.
Word of warning, however, no matter what chassis you choose when you’re building at this scale be prepared to absolutely hate it while you’re building into it.
The components aren’t really an issue, they fit in without much problem, especially with some of the smart design InWin have used. But it’s those nasty, fat, long cables which will drive you mad. And have you unscrewing and removing the motherboard over and over again to get the cable routing just so.
In total this wee build runs to about £625 or $639, but if you opted for a slightly different mini-ITX board and a 250GB SSD instead you could get it down to £530 or $584.
And for that you get a rig which is capable of hitting 50fps on average in GTA V at 1080p on ‘high’ settings. With more modern games you’ll have to drop your resolution down to 720p to get some decent gaming performance. But if you’re just after this as an esports level machine then it will absolutely fly with Overwatch, LoL, and DOTA.
The ‘you got a GTX 1060 in that?’ mini PC build
Discrete graphics power in a seriously tiny chassis
You might be surprised at just what you can fit in a chassis this small, but thanks to the advances in mini-ITX motherboards, and the use of intelligent partitioning and ribbon cables, you can squeeze a high-end gaming machine into something this big.
The Kolink Rocket case isn’t that much bigger than the InWin chassis, but the performance difference in the two PCs we can build out of them is massive.A key difference, however, is that you’re going to need to need a special SFX power supply as the Kolink doesn’t come with one out-of-the-box.
We’ve got a relatively cheap 300W PSU from Silverstone here in this machine and that has enough juice to power the GTX 1060 GPU we’ve got running inside it. For more powerful graphics cards, however, you’re going to need to get something around the 450-500W range.
But then you could go for something as powerful as the gorgeous small form factor GTX 1080 Ti from Zotac. Just imagine... And just look at how cute those SFX units are. They’re like scale-models of a real PSU.
Because of the way the Kolink chassis is partitioned we can install the mini-ITX motherboard on one side, with the same low-profile Noctua cooler sitting comfortably under the mesh side, and have the full-size GTX 1060 sat on its own on the opposite side.
The riser cable we use to connect it to the MSI board is essentially just an extension cable for the PCIe 3.0 slot and shouldn’t have any detrimental impact on the gaming performance of your card. With previous generations of riser cables that was a problem, but it seems to have been largely eradicated by the move to PCIe 3.0. Either that or there is so much excess bandwidth the graphics card isn’t using that any dip in bandwidth isn’t an issue.
Because we’ve got that discrete GPU inside doing all the graphical grunt work we’ve opted for an AMD Ryzen 5 1600 CPU to go alongside it. All told that means you’re looking at £1,115 or $1,020 for the full build.
But that gives this machine twelve threads of processing power as well as some serious 1440p gaming chops. And with a 1080p screen you can play all the latest games at pretty much the highest settings without batting an eyelid. At 60 frames per second.
The monster mini PC build
All the power without the full tower footprint
If you’re not desperate to squeeze a PC into a shoebox, and are prepared for a little heft without the full ATX tower aesthetic, then the lovely NZXT H200i or slightly larger Fractal Design Mini C will be perfect.
The H200i is purely a mini-ITX case, so we can use the same AMD motherboard that we have for the other three small form factor builds. The Fractal case, however, will also take the larger micro-ATX motherboards and that means we can make the step up to an X299 board and a 20-thread Core i9 7900X processor.
The real benefit of both these cases is that, motherboard aside, you can use standard scale PC components throughout. That means you can go for a full-size power supply, beefy graphics card, and more serious cooling. You can drop in a monstrous air-cooler or even a 120mm liquid chip chiller should you so desire. The excellent Fractal Design case will even allow for a 280mm Corsair H115i cooler to get all up in its front grill.
That means there’s practically no compromise with this sort of small form factor build, and because you’re not having to pay a premium for specialist mini components you could save a bit of cash too.
With an X299 micro-ATX motherboard, such as this powerful MSI Gaming Pro, we can even go all out and drop in a GTX 1080 Ti. We’ve chosen the super-cute Zotac mini version to show that you can still get maximum power with a tiny footprint, but this Fractal chassis could still take a bigger card.
And with that sort of componentry inside you’re looking at an absolute heroic gaming PC with the processing power to act as a serous streaming and computational box too.
But you are looking at a rig here that costs around £2,700 or $3,200. But then this highlights the only compromise you need to make is on the size of your motherboard. Hell, you could even squeeze another GTX 1080 Ti in here if you wanted.
And that’s how easy it is to create a mini PC for gaming, whether you’re building on a budget or looking to create a monster rig with a miniscule footprint. The only thing standing in the way is your imagination. Well, that and your bank balance. Mini or not, a three grand PC is still a three grand PC...
Thanks to OverclockersUK for their help in sourcing the mini PC chassis.