|Introduction and Specifications|
|There’s a lot to love about a mini-ITX gaming PC. Portability is a big draw, of course: carrying your computer through the parking lot to a LAN party is much easier if it happens to be an SFF system. Reclaiming desk space is another reason to go small. And some of us just take a lot of pleasure in knowing that our tiny, unassuming PC will drop a few jaws when it’s game time.
With an Intel Core i7 3770 and an MSI GeForce GTX 660 at its heart, Maingear’s mini-ITX Potenza only looks mild-mannered. In fact, Maingear offers the system with up to a Core i7-3770K and a GTX Titan, but Maingear sent us a slightly tamer unit to show what it can do in the $1600 range. As configured, this rig is available through the Microsoft stores (both online and retail). You can also customize a Potenza at Maingear’s site.
Maingear built this Windows 8 system around the Asus P8 H77-I Deluxe motherboard, which has two memory slots and supports up to 16GB of DDR3-2200 memory. For our system, Maingear chose two 8GB DIMMs of Corsair Vengeance DDR3-1600 RAM. The previously-mentioned Ivy Bridge quad-core CPU runs at 3.5GHz with Turbo to 3.9GHz. It has Intel HD Graphics 4000 built in, but that’s disabled in favor of the MSI Nvidia GeForce GTX 660 Twin Frozr III, which has 2GB of GDDR5 memory and the output ports you’d expect from a card in this price range: two DVI, one HDMI, and one DisplayPort.
Maingear’s storage setup includes a 1TB Seagate Barracuda HDD and a 30GB Corsair Nova 2. The Nova 2 is there to improve everything from the system’s boot time to application launch times through the use of SSD caching technology. It’s a handy addition and an easy way to improve performance without pumping up the price tag of the PC too much.
The motherboard’s Intel H77 chipset allows for plenty of USB ports, and the system’s design means that they’re all be in the same spot at the top of the PC. There are four USB 3.0 ports, 6 USB 2.0 ports, and a Gigabit LAN port, as well as typical audio ports. The system also has built-in Wi-Fi.
Maingear's site, has a 600W minimum PSU requirement. Maingear tells us that it has tested the Titan extensively with its 450W PSU, however, and is confident in its ability to support the new graphics card.
For cooling, Maingear selected its EPIC 120 option, which is a closed-loop liquid cooling system, as well as a Silverstone AP141 Air Penetrator fan. Silly name aside, the fan is remarkably quiet, which is important in any system, but especially a small form factor PC, where increased noise is often a tradeoff for a compact size. If you find yourself configuring a Potenza, this is an option worth adding.
|Design and Layout|
|The Potenza is so small, sleek, and dark, that it would be easy to miss – if it weren’t for the bright-red, backlit Maingear logo cut into the aluminum front panel. The logo is the only noticeable light on the system, inside or out. Even the fan at the base of the system lacks lighting.
The rest of the ports are at the top of the system. There, you’ll find two USB ports, the power and reset button, and audio ports. To access the rest, you lift off the plastic lid. This is where things get interesting: not only are the motherboard’s I/O tray and graphics card ports hiding just below the Potenza’s lid, but so is the power supply. That’s right: you plug the power supply in at the top of the system and then run the cord out a nearby hole. There’s a groove in side of the external port tray that lets the power supply cord escape from the back of the PC. Unfortunately, there’s no built-in cord router to guide the power cord to the bottom of the PC, so it tends to dangle from the back-top of the system.
The cabling job isn’t as pretty as I’ve seen in other Maingear systems. Then again, the Potenza’s layout leaves very little room for channeling cords out of sight. That lack of space also makes the hard drive somewhat hard to reach for upgrades.
The GTX 660 sits right at the front of the system, just behind the front panel. Its fans are very close to the front panel, but that doesn’t seem to have a negative effect on the card’s performance. I didn’t encounter any signs of instability in the system, even when it was under heavy loads.
As for the fan at the bottom of the system, which sits about a half-inch above the table surface, thanks to the system’s feet, it seems that Maingear is missing an opportunity here. As I mentioned earlier, the fan has no lights. LED fans are easy to come by, and the light from an LED fan could cast a red glow on the desk. The look would complement the backlit logo nicely.
|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 Maingear's Potenza through both tests and compared the scores to results from similar systems we’ve recently reviewed. We also ran the system through the Fire Strike test in Futuremark’s updated 3DMark benchmark suite.
Many of the benchmarks here focus on PC games and graphics, which is what you’d expect in a review of a system designed for gaming and entertainment. But you’ll also likely use your Maingear Potenza 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.
The Potenza's PCMark 7 score puts the computer right about where we would expect to see it: between the iBuypower Revolt (which boasts an Intel Core i7 3770K CPU and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 670 graphics card) and the Digital Storm Bolt (which has a Core i5 3570K CPU and a GeForce 660 Ti). The computer is clearly competent to handle day-to-day office tasks and Web browsing.
Futuremark’s 3DMark 11 is a well-respected gaming test suite. 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.
Although 3DMark 11 has been around for a while, it's a good tool for spotting serious gaming capabilities. The GTX 660 is a solid card, and it shows here. In fact, the Potenza's score is a little better here than you might expect from this configuration.
We also put the Potenza through 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. As a result, we don’t have comparison data at the moment, but our data pool will grow quickly as we run more review systems through this test.
There are two sets of numbers to look for with the Fire Strike results. The first is the score, which is broken into an overall score and a separate graphics score. The other provides a breakdown of the system's performance in the individual tests that were run. Again, there isn't much to say about the Potenza's scores in this benchmark, other than to say it is a good result, so we'll dig into some of the other tests for this gaming PC.
|Unigine Heaven and Valley Tests|
|Based on the Unigine game engine, the Unigine Heaven and Valley 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.
Here again, we're just getting our data pool started with these benchmarks. The Potenza handled them without any trouble, but that's as it should be.
|SiSoft SANDRA and Cinebench Tests|
|Before we jumped into some actual games, we ran a few more standard benchmarks, including SiSoft SANDRA and Cinebench. These tests are designed to test particular components, including the processor, memory, graphics card, and the computer's main storage device.
SiSoft SANDRA has a variety of tests that stress specific components or simulate certain tasks. We put the Maingear Potenza through the CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, and Physical Disks tests.
The Maingear Potenza held its own in the SANDRA benchmarks, sticking to its spot between the Bolt and the Revolt. The physical disk score likely received some help from the included caching SSD.
Based on Maxon Cinema 4D software, this test uses a 3D scene and polygon and texture manipulation to assess GPU and CPU performance.
We ran the Cinebench test twice - once on a single thread, then again on all eight threads. The Potenza posted an identical score in the single-thread test to the Revolt, but fell just short in the multi-thread test.
|Games: Far Cry 2, Metro 2033 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.|
|With the standalone and synthetic benchmarks out of the way, we dug into some actual games. Many games have built-in benchmark utilities. We kicked off the Maingear Potenza’s game benchmarks with the ever-popular Far Cry 2 and a pair of post-apocalyptic hits.
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 high quality textures, complex shaders, and dynamic lighting to create a realistic environment.
The Maingear Potenza's score at 1024 x 768 is neck-and-neck with the Revolt's score at the same resolution, but the Potenza's frame rate at 1920 x 1080 put the system well behind the Revolt, due to the latter's higher powered graphics configuration.
Next, we took on some post-apocalyptic shooters. Metro 2033 is 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.)
This is a game that traditionally brought systems to their knees, but the Digital Storm Bolt and iBuypower Revolt recently turned up some solid numbers. The Potenza stays in the same range, but doesn't make any waves.
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 the Potenza put up respectable frame rates, it couldn't keep up with either of the systems it has been competing with in previous benchmarks. Still, the Potenza fares much better than most of the systems we've recently tested in this category.
|Games: Batman: Arkham City and Hitman: Absolution|
|Next, we ran Batman: Arkham City and then brought Hitman: Absolution into the fold. Both games offer DX11 gaming modes and advanced graphics technologies, including tessellation.
Batman: Arkham City follows the aging Batman: Arkham Asylum and brings with it updated graphics. We turned on Nvidia PhysX and cranked the detail to Very High.
With Batman, the Potenza found itself competing with the Revolt for the top spot, posting the highest frame rate at the 1024 x 768 resolution. But, it virtually tied the revolt at 1280 x1024 and then struggled to keep up at 1920 x 1080, the highest resolution we tested.
Our final game benchmark of the review is of Hitman, the blockbuster series that follows an assassin as he finds himself go from hunter to prey. Here we have no other systems to compare it to as yet.
The frame rates in Hitman: Absolution won't stun anyone, but they're playable at the lower resolutions. The benchmark routine makes use of Hitman: Absolution's support for Global Illumination, which provides realistic lighting, but also hammers on NVIDIA-based graphics cards. The benchmark shows a throng of people watching fireworks in crowded city square.
|Power Consumption and Noise|
|When it comes to system noise, the Maingear Potenza's closed-loop cooling really makes a difference. It draws the CPU's heat down to the bottom of the system, which houses a radiator and 140mm fan. Because it's so large, the fan moves air at up to 64.34 CFM without making much noise at all. The Potenza is nearly silent. Put it in a room with more than one person, and you probably won't hear the computer's light hum.
We also checked out the Potenza’s power consumption. To run this test, we first measure the system at idle, then load up Prime 95 and FurMark. 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. For all of these tests, we measure power consumption at the wall outlet.
At idle, the Potenza was neck-and-neck with its peers, but it took the lead (lower numbers being better) when loaded down with Prime 95 and FurMark. The power consumption here isn't likely to make or break a purchase decision for most buyers, but if you're thinking about buying a Potenza, put these results in the Pro column.
|Performance Summary and Conclusion|
|Performance Summary: The Maingear Potenza put up some great numbers throughout our testing. There's no question that it's a strong SFF gaming system. That said, at nearly $1,600, it's about $200 more expensive than the iBuyPower Revolt that we recently checked out, and it trailed the Revolt in a number of benchmarks (if only by a little) due to the iBuyPower machine's more powerful graphics configuration.
The Maingear Potenza has just about everything you'd want from a high-end system. The performance is there, and the eye-catching design is certainly there as well. Another important plus is that the system is extremely sturdy, thanks to the metal chassis. It sits solidly on the desk and won't tip when bumped by accident. The computer is easy to carry, and the unusual all-ports-at-the top design makes it easy to plug in your peripherals, which can be handy if you're at a LAN party. Speaking of LAN parties, you'll only be lugging about 20 pounds of computer with you with this Potenza configuration.
Should you need to get into the machine, removing the front, back, and side panels is very easy and you're not likely to break any latches in the process. But as "open" as the case is with its panels removed, it's not really very open at all. There just isn't enough space to make the system easy to upgrade. For one thing, you'll have a tough time reaching components, let alone replacing them. Upgrades mean replacing parts, as there are no free bays for adding drives, no extra memory slots for adding DIMMs, etc. Limited space and expansion is always the price to pay with an SFF, but this system is especially tight.
Space constraints aside, the Maingear Potenza is a polished, powerful machine with a small footprint. Yes, it's more expensive than some competing offerings, but we'd argue that the sturdiness, silence, and appearance of the system justifies the additional investment. Whether those factors tip the balance or not depends on one's taste, but we're impressed with the Potenza.