A Tiny Linux Server and an OS X Workstation

My third Mini-ITX build turned into my third and fourth builds. I started with a Gigabyte GA-H61N-USB3 motherboard, an i7-2600K, and 16GB RAM. Add in two 1TB drives, a 500W PS, and a Cooler Master Elite 110 case.

I had so much room left over from CentOS 6 that I decided to try adding a Hackintosh to the system. Gigabyte boards are supposed to work well at this kind of thing, and I suppose it did, but there is no chance of overclocking with that ancient board. And Yosimite would hang every time the backup started.

We have six Macs around the house and love them. I don't like experimenting with them, especially with the OS, even though they will restore from a bare drive if you have a network. This machine is one I can try things out on without trashing one of the real Macs.

I did try various combinations of this driver and that boot parameter for a few days, until I hit on the combination that worked. But then it kept coming back to the inability to overclock this board or run Yosemite. I needed a newer motherboard. Imagine my surprise (not) when I found that I had about the last "new" Gen 2 motherboard. My 2600K would not work in a newer motherboard, so I had to spring for a new CPU. i7-4790K was the one I went with. It looked like the most bang for the buck. The motherboard is the ASUS Z97I-Plus. It took twice as long to find the right setup for this board, and it still won't run Yosemite correctly, although all features appear to work under Mavericks.

Most Mini-ITX boards only have two memory slots, so I picked up two 8GB 1600MHz SIMMs. That left me with exactly one more computer than I had before, minus a case. I picked up another Cooler Master Elite 110 case, and built the second box.

Of course the new one runs faster. Lots faster. At 4.0GHz/4.9GHz vs. 3.4GHz/3.8GHz, and RAM at 1600MHz vs. 1333MHz. But along with that comes heat. The stock CPU coolers are not sufficient to run all cores full speed in these little boxes, so I added 80mm side fans and Seidon 120V water coolers.

The little boxes together make less noise than the one big box I was replacing. That's good.

Cooler Master Elite 110 case
Cooler Master Elite 110 case

Their pictures are better than mine, so I'll use them here. The case is amazing. I read a couple of reviews, one TechReport Elite 110 test, and one HardOCP Elite 110 test. Both excellent reading. It seems Cooler Master might be right about mounting the PSU upside down. It runs a little cooler that way in tests, but not so in my first installation. I had to turn it right-side-up in order to get air through the power supply. The high powered build cools better with the power supply upside down as advertised.

The video card was a struggle. The GeForce GTS-450 will "fit", but to get the power connector to fit on the end of the board, the cable has to come from the front of the case, through the front panel. It's just a routing problem. It makes it so you really have to strip the case down to get the video card in and out. On paper the PCI slot can handle a card that is 1mm longer than the GTS-450, but in practice, that doesn't take account of the tabs on the top of the card mounting plate, which are about 3/8" long. But it can be done by weaving a path through the power supply opening and an access hole in the front panel.

The case comes with an all-in-one front panel USB3 cable assembly which of course does not work with the GA-H61N-USB3 motherboard at all. It is basically a single connector on the motherboard end and multiple connectors on the front panel end. Too bad, because it would have really cleaned up the cabling inside. The single cable works great on the ASUS Z97I-Plus motherboard.

So what did I learn?

  • Most eye opening discovery: The stock Intel cooler will not cool the CPU with all four cores running full time at the stock 4GHz frequency. It will shut down the chip in seconds. I stopped the test after around 20 seconds, when the CPU temperature passed 90°, and flashed bright red on the alarm.
  • Arctic Silver CMQ2 Ceramic Thermal Compound works, but it is sticky, and you must spread it thinly over the CPU before adding the heatsink. This is different than standard silicone thermal compound. Thinly means different things to different heatsinks. A "normal" polished copper surface means really thin, while the brushed copper finish on the Seidon 120V means not so thin, since it has gaps to fill.
  • The thermal safety stuff on the i7 works by changing the multiplier when the CPU overheats, but there is no guarantee that it will lower the multiplier to a safe value. There is a final failsafe that Intel doesn't describe well that apparently stops the clocks to protect the CPU.
  • The Cooler Master Seidon 120V will do what the stock cooler should do, and cool the CPU with all four cores running. It will not do it with significant overclocking. For that a larger cooler is required, like the 240 or models other than the Seidon.
  • You can build a very powerful (fast and full-featured) computer using the Mini-ITX form factor. By any standard, a 4.0/4.9GHz i7 with 16GB of RAM and an nVidia video card is a very powerful machine. You would want a better video card for gaming, but you really can't use a video card longer than 210mm in this case. It just won't fit.
  • I don't need a DVD drive. I loaded everything including OS X using a 16GB thumb drive and the network.
  • From here on out, my "standard build" will start with a CM Elite 110, CM 550W power supply and CM Seidon 120V.

And how much did this little experiment cost me?

Oh my goodness. There were enough spare parts that I only needed a case and a motherboard, but then it got complicated and I wound up buying two cases, and enough parts to build another computer. The parts in italics are new.

Box 1 - The Server

  • Elite 110 Mini-ITX case $40
  • RS-500-PCARD Power Supply $55
  • Gigabyte GA-H61N-USB3 Motherboard $73
  • Corsair Vengeance 8GB Ram (2x4GB) $76
  • i7-2600K CPU $350
  • Seidon 120V Cooler $50
  • Total: $644 ($163 new spending)

Box 2 - The Workstation

  • Elite 110 Mini-ITX case $40
  • RS-500-PCARD Power Supply $55
  • Asus Z97I-Plus Motherboard $150
  • Corsair Vengeance 16GB Ram (2x8GB) $172
  • i7-4790K CPU $300
  • Seidon 120V Cooler $50
  • EVGA GTS-450 1GB $90
  • Total: $857 ($712 new spending)