Advice: Windows 7-based Small or Compact PC for Gaming/Media
February 22, 2015 11:40 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a small-ish console- or AppleTV-sized Windows 7 PC for gaming and possibly media playing, and I could use opinions. Researching the topic is fraught and messy and horrible (reviews of varying usefulness/reliability, lots of different people doing different things with the same products) so I could use personal stories if you have them.

- Two budgets:
- $1,000 not including TV, keyboard, mouse, audio
- $2,000 not including TV, keyboard, mouse, audio
- I already have an OSX-majority household. This component/appliance/PC should be able to run Windows natively and provide good gaming performance while doing so.
- I know how to administer Windows, so no worries there. I'll run Steam and probably other downloaded games. Optical drive is very much optional unless I need it for some reason for media.
- The network connection will be wired (Cat 6A in the house, Cable Internet to the outside).
- I have a number of older appliances/consoles that I could possibly replace with a good unit like this, and would love to. AppleTV (for the iTunes licenses and the convenient interface), PS3, XBox 360, OUYA. For the most part we do media streaming through Hulu, Netflix and Youtube. I already have an XBox One for DVDs and Blu Ray movies.
- I don't need storage for a media library. Just for installing games.
- I don't miss the PC-building/administration experience, but I'll happily do DIY-level stuff if it gives me the best experience to cost ratio. I'm not tech certified but I'm totally comfortable monkeying around with hardware internals, Apple, PC, or enterprise/data center.

There is a stack of games I have licenses to that run on PC only via Steam, Good Old Games and other digital distributions that don't do well on emulation and that I'd love to play again. These include Banished and the upcoming Homeworld: Remastered.

After doing a significant few days of research I initially thought the Gigabyte Brix line might be suitable, but then found a lot of poor reviews on Newegg for QC, reliability and heat/noise issues. Doing more research I'm seriously considering the Digital Storm Eclipse, which strikes me as a smallish shop doing Dell/Alienware-style builds and customizations in a compact case. I don't like the red, but I'll slap the unit in a media center and no one will be the wiser.

So what I'm looking for is personal stories or war stories about this topic and what you've learned, what you'd watch out for, what brands you've had good luck with, average lifetimes, noise, temperature and other pertinent data I should look at, and what your opinions are.

Please, as should be obvious, no platform debates. I know what I want and why I want it.

As always, thanks very much in advance for your time reading and writing.
posted by kalessin to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
For small and fanless, you could look at some of Compulab's small pc's, for instance the CompuLab IPC2 i7 Barebone. It's $878 at Amazon.
I have no idea whether the Intel 4400 graphics will suffice for gaming, though.
But: with a SSD it's completely silent.

Best of luck!
posted by Thug at 1:44 PM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

for what it's worth, the "digital storm eclipse" appears to be a mini-ITX PC built around this case, whose default color is black. (it uses an SFX power supply) mini-ITX is quite a bit bigger than the "brix" and there are quite a few case options... i'm pretty sure the "brix" has a laptop motherboard (with an integrated 760m) and will have vastly inferior gaming performance. intel graphics is a bad plan if you want to play games now or in the future.

i don't have any experience with any of these products, but if you are willing to go up to mini-ITX as a motherboard size, you have many options for build your own. depending on what features you actually want you might be able to some money, or at least not have a bright red case. for the $950 digital storm eclipse, they are using the minimum rated power supply (400w) for the gtx 960, which is something to think about.
posted by at 2:03 PM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think in this form factor you are probably stuck with integrated graphics. If I were actually building a gaming-dedicated machine I wouldn't choose this, but I just use a general-purpose 3 year old mac mini (in os x and windows 7) with intel integrated graphics for gaming, so I can report on my experience. In contrast to what to what people who don't have direct experience with integrated graphics say, in my experience it is basically fine for things that are not the newest, things that are not graphically too ambitious or 3d-heavy, and/or things roughly targeting hardware from previous gen consoles or (even better) hoping to have an ipad version. Banished will be completely fine, for example, as will most/all indie games. Roughly current-gen stuff like divinity original sin, banner saga, dragonfall, wasteland 2, xcom, all run great, and I expect things of this genre will continue to do so on even my aging mac mini for a while. Previous-gen 3d stuff (which is actually nearly contemporary with this graphics card) also runs great in my experience, e.g. games like dishonored, deus ex:hr, skyrim, borderlands 2, the batman games. Bioshock infinite was fine, could've been better, but perfectly playable (that's the most recent 3d-heavy game I've played I think).

So it really depends on what you want to play. If your target is things like witcher 3 or far cry n, or AAA games also targeting current-gen console hardware, possibly don't bother with integrated graphics. Something like homeworld remastered, it's harder to say pre release, but I expect it will probably run at somewhat minimal settings (this is what reports for elite: dangerous are like for intels for example). If you really want to play that game it may at least be worth waiting for the release to pull the trigger on committing to integrated graphics.
posted by advil at 3:05 PM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just for reference: the specific hardware I'm talking about in that post is an intel hd4000 on a 2012 mac mini, which is several generations behind in terms of integrated graphics.
posted by advil at 3:14 PM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, it looks like the Intel Integrated Graphics generation now is 4400 or 5200. But some of the hardware/cases available right now also supports mobile nVidia and Radeon boards.
posted by kalessin at 3:22 PM on February 22, 2015

Here's my 1K stab based on a case I sort of admired from afar for a while. I have not built this and you'd want to double check everything.

The Intel IGP will play older indie games OK (and homeworld most likely) but you'll need an actual video card for AAA games (and you have the budget for it).
posted by selfnoise at 3:43 PM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

The third-generation (Broadwell) Intel NUC should be available later this month, with an HD 6000 GPU. Based on benchmarks, this is a step up from HD 5000; I'm not sure how it compares to the Iris Pro 5200. The NUC seems like it might be good for you since it's available bare-bones (so you can pick your components and OS, and upgrade them easily in the future) and Ars likes its quality and performance over the other mini-PCs they've reviewed. It's not a 3D gaming-oriented box like the Digital Storm that you linked, though.
posted by mbrubeck at 3:56 PM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

One thing that I didn't put in my very brief post above: I think the NUC-size devices are cool but really limiting which is why I built out a mini-ITX machine. I feel like that's still a pretty small size but you can built an actual computer at that size, rather than something that sacrifices significant levels of graphical performance and flexibility for scale.
posted by selfnoise at 6:11 PM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

How insistent are you that the machine be weensy?

I mean, if this is a living room box, then you'll probably be using a wireless keyboard+touchpad (we use a logitech k400) and controller to interact with it, so you can shove the box somewhere unobtrusive and run a longer hdmi cable to the tv/receiver and, if needed, a usb cable with the dongles at the end.

I only ask because facing otherwise similar constraints, I recently built a machine into a Nanoxia Deep Silence 1 case because reviews suggested that all of the gaming bricks are pretty loud. It's kinda stupid big but, being a featureless black monolith, mostly just disappears. At some point I'll get some longer cables and put it behind a chair or something and it will be functionally gone. And I've been really happy with it because it's quiiiiieeeet. Notably quieter than our gen2 PS3. Quieter than the heater vents a room away. Even after gaming for mumblety hours, it's really quiet.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:38 PM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think I'm more interested in it being quiet than weensy. There's not a LOT of room in my media center (or nearby) but I could potentially make room. Higher priorities than being weensy are:
- Graphics/game performance
- Quiet
- Coolish
- Lowish energy usage

Looking at my options and my priorities, I feel like it's possible that I'll have to get a medium-ass power supply (at least 600 W) and that the heat generated by the CPU and GPU I probably want will necessitate some sort of cooling system at any footprint size. I've started looking for DIY PC builds starting with a case. It's clearly not my only option (I've even considered, this evening, dual booting one of the Apples I have at home already), so I would love to keep hearing about others' experiences and opinions. Thanks!
posted by kalessin at 9:44 PM on February 22, 2015

My build was:

Nanoxia Deep Silence 1
Nvidia 750Ti
Whatever 200+GB SSD was cheapest that week (PNY 240GB) + 1TB hard drive
Whatever highly-rated motherboard was cheapest that week (ASRock H97M Pro 4)
Rosewill 450W PSU
Whatever 2 dimms of 4GB RAM were cheapest that week
Cooler Master Hyper 212 cpu cooler

Everything runs stock. It's not quite silent, but quieter than the PS3 under load. I don't have a kill-a-watt to hook it up to, but calculators say it comes in at 175-200 watts under load, or about the same as the gen2 PS3.

The 750Ti limits things, and on some newer games I've backed things down to 1280x720 but with the eye candy still set pretty high. I'm pretty intolerant of low frame rates, though, so YMMV. If a die shrink brings the power consumption on something like the 970 down, I'll swap one of those in.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:20 AM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

But some of the hardware/cases available right now also supports mobile nVidia and Radeon boards.

Possibly even more important than the particular graphics cards is that it sounds like these options will let you later upgrade the graphics board independently. Based on my mac mini experience, for a gaming machine I'd definitely choose upgradable (anything) >> integrated, even if I do still think a contemporary integrated card will be fine for most purposes at the time of purchase. (I.e. if I could I would probably upgrade my graphics card soon.)

Also, dual booting an apple is a decent option, I've found that this works well for gaming. The only slight annoyance is that windows 7 is nearly impossible to buy except for oem, so it's permanently tied to the particular hardware, and if the dual-boot thing is a stopgap you'll find yourself needing to buy another license later.
posted by advil at 8:05 AM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think I will connect it, if I do not dual-boot, to an average, 1080p HDTV via HDMI, so screen res doesn't have to be that high. I don't really have room in the house for a computing/gaming station on a desktop with a dedicated higher res monitor, so I may be able to get away with a lower performance non-integrated graphics adapter.
posted by kalessin at 8:30 AM on February 23, 2015

For a living room machine, Win8 doesn't suck. The start screen might be otherwise stupid for a desktop, but on a tv across the room it's great. You can roll your own tiles with oblytile, and there are gazillions of premade image files to use.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:18 AM on February 23, 2015

Windows 7 is a listed requirement for Homeworld: Remastered. If it ends up running fine in Windows 8.1 upon release, I have no issues with using the more modern OS.
posted by kalessin at 9:20 AM on February 23, 2015

As a note, I went off the deep end and did lots of fiddling with both custom builds on the Parts List site as well as with Puget Systems, Digital Storm, Origin, Falcon, Alienware and some others and found that the spend for what I would probably buy as a quiet beside-the-media-center PC to replace the AppleTV, PS3, OUYA and XBox 360 in the cabinet, would probably cost me about $2,400.

- Mid-tower, acoustically quieted black cabinet
- Liquid CPU cooling, big, quiet fans, 2-fan graphics card, lots of airflow space
- 4th-gen i7 CPU, possibly overlocked
- 4 GB, probably nVidia GTX 970 single graphics card
- 500 GB SSD single drive
- Onboard sound
- 16 GB probably 1833 GHz RAM (2x8)
- Windows 7 Pro (Home limits you to 32 GB)

Given that my job is in flux, even though my savings can afford it, I think what I'm going to do right now is dual-boot my 2014 MB Retina Pro and then when I get the job situation stabilized, buy something like this for myself and some nice jewelry for my sweetie. I've always wanted to mess around with BootCamp anyway.

And I will probably buy a custom build from someone like Puget Systems (which, by the way, have a cool pre-sales quoting mechanism where a PC build expert will consult with you about your customized choices before you order the system), because the few hundred I'd save building this myself is more than offset by their expertise and warranty package that comes with the system by default.

Thank you again to everyone who gave advice and offered opinions and tales of their own adventures. A very good discussion!
posted by kalessin at 6:11 PM on February 25, 2015

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