|Introduction and Specifications|
|Building a small form factor gaming PC is a tricky business. For one thing, there simply isn’t enough room to fit as many components as you would put in a mid- or full-size gaming PC. Multiple graphics cards aren’t likely, and oversized power supplies (not to mention CPU heatsinks) usually present major challenges. The other issue is the heat: with space at a premium, good airflow becomes even more important, but all the harder to preserve. And don’t expect your customers to give you leeway on performance, looks, or (and this might be the toughest target of all) noise.
But it’s not a lost cause, especially with the Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan delivering so much power (and whisper-quiet cooling) in a single card. AVADirect thinks it has threaded the needle with its latest Mini Gaming PC, built around Nvidia's latest powerhouse.
Although chassis design is important to any computer, it’s especially so in an SFF system. AVADirect opted for the BitFenix Prodigy, which is a relatively small mini-ITX chassis. We’ll cover the case’s internal design in detail on the next page, but because this is an SFF system, we wanted to give an idea of the system’s size right off the bat. Taking into account the rails that double as the case’s feet, the Prodigy is about 10 x 13.5 x 13.5 inches (W x H x D). But drop the rails from those measurements, and AVADirect is working with 7.6 x 8.2 x 11 inches. Or, as AVADirect points out, it’s in the same general size range as a game console. That’s a lot to ask of more powerful gaming PC with such little space.
AVADirect’s website gives you a lot of flexibility for configuring a system, so you can go sub-$1000 or through the roof if you'd like. For the CPU, for example, there are multiple Ivy Bridge options, and our review unit arrived with an Intel Core i7-3770K quad-core CPU, which runs at 3.5Ghz. AVADirect paired the CPU with the socket LGA1155 Asus P8Z77-I, a mini-ITX board that sports the Intel Z77 Express Chipset.
Of course, the star of the show is the Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan, the Kepler-based powerhouse that we’ve been covering extensively. AVADirect has several cooling packages for this system available and it opted for Prolimatech Megahalems Rev. C CPU heatsink and a massive 120mm BlackNoise chassis fan. A dab of Arctic Silver 5 thermal compound gives the heatsink a little extra oomph. To give you an idea of the level of customization, you can actually pick which thermal compound AVADirect uses.
Other noteworthy components include 8GB of Crucial Ballistix Tactical Tracer memory with LEDs, a 240GB OCZ Vertex 3 SSD for the operating system, and a 2TB Seagate Barracuda for a boatload of game storage. Also included are a BD/DVD/CD combo, and an 80 Plus Bronze qualified Cooler Master Silent Pro M 850-watt modular power supply. The system also has Gigabit LAN, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth connectivity. Windows 7 64-bit is still the preferred OS for many gamers, so we weren’t surprised to see our review unit arrive with it. You can choose Windows 8 (or several flavors of Linux) when configuring your system too. Let’s crack open the case and have a look.
|Design and Layout|
|“Broad-shouldered” isn’t a description you’d want to assign to most mini gaming systems, but the BitFenix Prodigy really does have a sturdy, wide-ish look to it, and it works for this chassis. The front panel fan has bright purple lighting that gives the system some bling without going over the top. The light frames the two case badges nicely.
Front ports (2 USB ports and the headphones/mic ports) are actually at the side of the system, which is also where you’ll find the power and reset buttons. They’re close to the front and easy to reach, and they ensure that any cords (like your headphone cord, for example) aren’t dangling in front of the system, as they would if the ports were at the top.
For its size, the Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe motherboard has plenty of outputs. Four USB 2.0 ports and four USB 3.0 ports sit at the back of the board, along with two eSATA 3Gbps ports. There are also pinholes for reaching the CMOS Reset button and Asus’ BIOS Flashback feature. The Titan provides a Display Port, HDMI port, and two DVI ports.
The Prodigy looks like a tough case, and it mostly is - though those four rails are a little more flexible than you might think. The rails serve as the feet for the system, so you’ll want to be careful if you carry this system a lot.
Take the side panel off the system and you’re immediately greeted by the Titan, which has its own sharp-looking chassis. The GeForce GTX LEDs are bright. You can barely see them through the grill of the side panel, but that’s as it should be – the system looks dark and tough with the one purple fan light at the front. In any event, when you remove that side panel to show off your Titan, your friends will have no trouble checking it out.
Because the system is so small and the graphics card is right at the front (of the side area), the rest of the components are somewhat blocked from view. The memory is deep in the system and hard to spot, and even the massive Megahalems heatsink takes a back seat to the card. The drives area is easy to reach though, thanks to bays that face to the side. Also, you can get a nice top-down look at the CPU heatsink by lifting the air filter at the top of the system.
This is a bird's-eye view of the CPU heatsink on the left, and a look at the drives and cable management on the right.
AVADirect has a lot of experience with cable management and that comes into play here, what with the size of the system. The cables are folded neatly along the equipment and tied in places, giving the system the same polished look on the inside that it has on the outside.
|PCMark and 3DMark Tests|
|Futuremark is a familiar name in the computer hardware industry, thanks to its popular PCMark and 3DMark benchmarking suites. We put AVADirect’s Mini Gaming PC through these tests and compared the scores to results from similar systems we’ve recently reviewed.
Most of the benchmarks here focus on video games, which is what you’d expect in a review of a system called a Mini Gaming PC. But you’ll also likely use your system for other tasks, as well, and that’s where PCMark 7 can give you a sense of the system’s capabilities. It runs multi-threaded tests that simulate office tasks and general usage, then gives the system a score.
Futuremark’s 3DMark 11 is getting a little long in the tooth, but we have a large pool of system scores, so we ran then test again with the AVADirect Mini Gaming PC. Like PCMark 7, this benchmark runs the system through a battery of tests and provides a score for comparison. But here, the tests are generally more graphics-oriented.
With 3DMark 11, the Titan-bearing Mini Gaming PC gets its chance to shine. It tops all non-Titan systems by a wide margin and begs for a benchmark that can really give it a challenge. That benchmark, as it happens, is Futuremark’s new 3DMark Fire Strike test, which has Normal and Extreme modes. Because Extreme mode is geared towards systems that have multiple graphics cards in CrossFire or SLI configurations, we opted for Normal mode, which runs at 1920 x 1080.
Because the test is so new, we have only one other system to compare it to at the moment: Maingear’s Potenza, which is carrying lighter firepower. Maingear’s system (as we tested) has an Intel Core i7 3770 and a GeForce GTX 660. The AVA Mini Gaming PC, on the other hand, has the Core i7 3770K and the Titan. Understandably, the Mini Gaming PC takes the lead here, as well.
|Unigine Heaven and Valley Tests|
|Based on the Unigine game engine, the Unigine benchmarks offer dramatic 3D tours of exotic environments, complete with dynamic skies, tessellation, and SSAO (screen-space ambient occlusion).
Unigine Heaven provides heavy tessellation use and a dynamic sky to stress modern graphics cards. The Valley benchmark, on the other hand, is loaded with vegetation. The benchmark tours a forest thick with flowers, boulders, and rivers. We ran the test at 1920 x 1080, on Ultra Quality and with the Extreme Tessellation option.
Even with the extreme tessellation in the Heaven test, the AVA Mini Gaming PC puts up strong average frame rates and scores. As we review more systems with Titans onboard, these new tests will give you a better feel for how the systems compare. Right now, the Potenza suffers from an apples-to-oranges comparison, but we wanted to provide a reference point nonetheless.
|SiSoft SANDRA and Cinebench Tests|
|Before we jumped into the games themselves, we ran a few more standard benchmarks, including SiSoft SANDRA and Cinebench.
SiSoft SANDRA has a variety of tests that stress specific components or simulate certain tasks. We put the AVADirect Mini Gaming PC through the CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, and Physical Disks tests.
The Mini Gaming PC fared better than most systems in these tests, but the lack of emphasis on graphics evened the playing field a bit, particularly with iBuypower’s Revolt, which includes a Core i7 3770K CPU and a GTX 670 graphics card. AVADirect’s system did break away in the Memory test, posting 24.38GBps.
Based on Maxon Cinema 4D software, this test uses a 3D scene and polygon and texture manipulation to assess GPU and CPU performance.
This test is CPU-intensive, so the Titan doesn’t get a chance to throw its weight around here, either. That didn’t stop the AVA Mini Gaming PC from taking top honors.
|Games: Far Cry 2 and Lost Planet 2|
|With the simulations out of the way, we dug into the games themselves. Many games have built-in benchmark utilities. We kicked off the AVADirect Mini Gaming PC’s game benchmarks with a pair of sequels: Far Cry 2 and Lost Planet 2.
When it comes to lush vegetation in a steaming, sinister jungle, no one pulls it off quite like Ubisoft does in its Far Cry series. Far Cry 2 uses textures, shaders, and dynamic lighting to create a realistic environment.
Getting a playable frame rate with a modern system is a given in Far Cry 2. In fact, most systems we’ve tested offer well above 100 fps. The Mini Gamin PC breaks the 200 fps mark, though, at both of the lower resolutions we test. At 1920 x 1080, it’s bumping up against 200 fps, as well.
We used Lost Planet 2 to test the Mini Gaming PC’s DirectX 10 performance. With Lost Planet 2, we took a swing at DX11. We used Test B and set all graphics settings to High Quality. We also boosted the Anti-Aliasing setting to 4x before we ran the benchmark.
This game’s benchmark features soldiers attempting to take down a massive beast that seems to shrug off their firepower. There is a ton of action in the five or so minutes of benchmark run, and we’ve seen the test stutter when being run by lesser systems. The Mini Gaming PC handled it without a hiccup and posted high frame rates.
|Games: Metro 2033 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R|
|Next, we took on some post-apocalyptic shooters. Metro 2033 is new and tough on even modern systems. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. also provides a challenge.
Metro 2033 is a game that makes excellent use of shadows. Dangers lurk in the dark, and the game’s depth of field adds to the sense that there, just beyond that rubble, something might be lying in wait. (And, of course, it is.)
AVADirect’s Mini Gaming PC pounded its way through the dimly-lit tunnels of Metro 2033 and came up with notably high frame rates. In fact, its lowest frame rate of 95.73 fps (at 1920 x 1080) is higher than the 1280 x 1024 resolution of the nearest contender, the iBuypower Revolt.
Call of Pripyat is the third installment of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. We ran this test with all settings on Ultra and with DX11. As with our other benchmarks, we ran S.T.A.L.K.E.R. at three common display resolutions.
Although S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has been around for years, the new Call of Pripyat has improved graphics and is a better test of graphics processing power than its predecessors. Even so, the Mini Gaming PC posted very high frame rates at all resolutions.
|Batman: Arkham City and Hitman: Absolution|
|Batman: Arkham City follows the well-received Batman: Arkham Asylum and brings with it some new challenges for Batman and better graphics for us. Hitman Absolution is one of the newest games in our benchmark pool and is murder on most gaming PCs. Both games offer DX11 code paths and advanced graphics technologies, including tessellation.
We have few numbers for Batman: Arkham City, so please bear with us as we build up our data pool. Luckily, we can compare it to the Digital Storm Bolt, another SFF, though one that lacked a Titan when we reviewed it. We turned on Nvidia PhysX and cranked the detail to Very High.
In most games, systems perform very differently at the three resolutions we test. In the case of Batman: Arkham City, the opposite is true: the difference between the lowest and highest resolutions is often fewer than 10 fps. The Mini Gaming PC and its Titan are no different, with a 7-fps difference from 1024 x 768 to 1920 x 1080. However, the system put up much higher frame rates than previous systems overall.
Our final game benchmark of the review is of Hitman, the blockbuster game that follows an assassin as he finds himself become a target. Here we have no other systems to compare it to compare it to as yet.
Given the configurations of the two systems, you’d expect the Mini Gaming PC to have much higher frame rates, and it did. We’re putting the two together so you give you an idea of how the Titan performs relative to a more affordable card like the GTX 660 used in the Potenza.
|Power Consumption and Noise|
|The AVADirect Mini Gaming PC is extremely quiet and the soft noise it creates is unobtrusive. There is no whine, which is as we expected, but there isn’t even the low, mechanical hum that you get from most systems. This rig’s noise just sounds like soft wind. We won’t go so far as to say that we prefer it to silence, but it’s so quiet and tolerable that we didn’t notice it after sitting next to the system for a couple minutes.
We also checked out the system’s power consumption. To run this test, we first measure the system at idle, then load up Prime 95 and Futuremark’s 3DMark11. The combined draw on CPU and graphics resources makes for substantial load, and that’s where we expect to see a real increase in power consumption by the PSU. For all of these tests, we measure power consumption at the wall outlet.
The Mini Gaming PC started at a higher idle draw than we’ve seen in several previous contenders, but keep in mind that those systems have lower-end hardware on-board. The Mini Gaming PC has more power-hungry components on-board compared to several of the systems in our chart. So, power draw is notable here, but isn’t likely to detract from the value of the system for most gamers.
|Performance Summary and Conclusion|
|Performance Summary: As you can see, NVIDIA's GeForce GTX Titan gives AVADirect’s new Mini Gaming PC some serious firepower. It offers extremely high frame rates for most games and strong frame rates in the latest titles, as well. It proves that an SFF (Small Form Factor) PC is perfectly capable of giving you an excellent gaming experience, given the right components.
We have a lot of good things to say about AVADirect’s Mini Gaming PC, but we should also note one problem we encountered. As benchmarking got underway, the system occasionally crashed. Sometimes, it would freeze in the middle of a benchmark – at others, it would blue screen and restart. The system provided strong scores, but its stability obviously wasn’t acceptable for a customer. We contacted AVADirect to see how their technical support staff handled the situation and one of its tech support personnel walked us through several troubleshooting steps. He struck us as knowledgeable and professional, and didn’t waste time with unnecessary testing. He eventually settled on the SSD as a possible culprit. The company’s policy would be (with a customer) to replace the drive and continue troubleshooting if that didn’t solve the problem.
Given the system’s performance and the way AVADirect handled the situation, we’re comfortable recommending the AVA Mini Gaming PC. Problems are bound to arise occasionally, and having the personnel and policies in place to support the customer is critical to a system builder’s reputation. Like a customer, we'd prefer to not have to enlist the help of an OEM's technical support staff, but when we do, it's good to see that they're competent and professional.
Going beyond gaming performance, the AVADirect Mini Gaming PC is a great choice for LAN parties. Although it’s not quite as small as the Maingear Potenza, it’s easy to carry and won’t take up much space at your table. The Prodigy case gives it killer looks and the Titan, of course, is one of the most powerful and power-efficient graphics cards on the market. The performance and polish together make this Mini Gaming PC a worthy system, though we're hopeful AVA roots out the issue we observed and eliminates it with future test flows.