A “true” ITX workstation for less?


Intel Xeon E3 Edition – Q1 2014

Piecing together a super portable desktop, that fits in a 15lt case without any major drawback that doesn’t break the bank?
Normally the case is coming at the end of the builds, but in this scenario, I wanted it to be in the front, leading the pack and reinforcing the rationale behind choosing the other parts. The CM Elite 110 is what I call a true ITX case.
It doesn’t fit full size GPUs like its bigger brother, the Elite 130 (19.8lt), nor 240mm watercooling loops like the 250D (28.1lt), and it is not revolutionary as the amazing Silverstone FT03-Mini (17.6lt) or the custom produced Compact Splash & NCASE M1. But it is $50, it is just 15lt, and you can pack quite some punch in it regardless.

To give you an idea of the size, the new Mac Pro (nMP) is 5 lt*. There was a lot of talking around the new Mac Pro, and how thoughtfully it catered for those that wanted a powerful machine on-the-go. Well, this built might lack here-and-there from the basic, $3,000 Xeon Quad nMP, but for practical purposes it can get you 90%+ of the performance (or more), for 33% of the cost.

It is not as pretty, not as fancy, but will get heads  turning when you really need to moonlight for that project in your Arch Studio.

  • Case: Cooler Master Elite 110

  • CPU:  intel Xeon E3-1230V3 – 3.3GHz. I do like AMD FX CPUs for their value, but for a workstation that unfortunately is still heavily dependent on single threaded performance, it is hard to beat one of the late intel Core architectures.
    So far, the obvious choice for a low cost system, would be an i5 CPU that would offer a proper balance between available cores, decent clocks and a price that doesn’t break the bank. That was before I’ve started noting the prices of Haswell based E3-12xxV3 Xeon CPUs, which are comparable with the high-end i7 CPUs, providing exact or almost exact clocks, four cores and HyperThreading, what the i5 lacks to provide that extra grunt for the occasions that applications are properly mutlithreaded – like rendering, or even advanced gaming engines.
    Since most users interested in such a workstation would not really overclock it, the inability of Xeons to be tampered with is easily overlooked, when for $15-25 ontop of a similarly clocked i5, you can get performance that competes with i7s that would cost $100 more than the same i5.
  • CPU Cooler: Assuming stock speeds, there is no need for an extra cooler. The factory cooler included with the CPU will work fine.  Of course there is the ability to mount most 120mm closed water loop coolers (CLC) in the case of choice, but we are not after “pimping” this rig with fancy stuff, more like focusing on some high value choices, and truth be said, the stock cooler will serve us just fine for the life of the machine, and help is stain with a 3-figure budget. More useful components down the road!
  • Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z87N-WIFI. This Z87 based board is not the best ITX motherboard around, but it is a reliable unit, that offers everything we could want for a small, compact built like ours. Should you drop a 4670K or 4770K there, it could hold a decent overclock for its size, but otherwise it is as vanilla as s1150 ITX gets: 2x Dimms for up to 16GB RAM, a single PCIe 16x 3.0, more SATA ports than the drives you can fit in most ITX cases and more USB 3.0 ports than most will care for.
    It does have WiFi, since we will probably need that for our ventures out of our base, it was chosen as a priority. H81 ITX boards with WiFi are not really a cheaper alternative, so…why not? The provided WiFi antenna might need to be replaced with 2* stubby antennas salvaged by another wireless adapter to reduce clatter.
  • RAM: Crucial Ballistix Sport 16GB Kit (8GBx2) DDR3 1600. Only 2 dimm-slots on our mITX board, so we better make the best out of them. Prefer low profile heat-spreaders. Those offer little to no gains in reliability and stability, but might cause installation issues obstructing the use of large CPU heasinks, and even airflow to the CPU in tight situations. And trust me, this can get tight!
    G.Skill Ares and Corsair Vengeance LP are good examples, much like those Crucial Ballistix Sport that was chosen for the lower price point. With AMD CPUs RAM speed is more important than with current intel CPUs, so 1600 and even 1866 DDR3 are highly recommended. Real life rendering performance will vary very little past DDR3-1600 speeds.
  • Graphics: EVGA GeForce GTX 750Ti SC 2GB. Yes, there are other good value choices out there for less, but in our very tight ITX box, this latest generation GPU based on nVidia’s brand new Maxwell architecture will provide us with more than enough grunt for casual modeling, CAD & BIM scenarios. Compute is also very strong for its low wattage, so GPU accelerated tasks are not left behind completely – definitely a better choice than a K2000 and even a K4000 if GPU rendering is even a small priority and you will be using the latest versions of 3DS and/or Maya that work wonders with GTX cards over the performance that was expected in previous versions without a workstation GPU. K4000 would not fit regardless, but the Quadro K2000 or a Firepro W5000 would fit in case you want to go towards a more traditional workstation card for OpenGL-heavy workloads. The budget will be blown ofc, but…priorities take their tall.

    Alternatively, if you don’t mind spending an extra $100 or so over the 750Ti, the MSI N760 2GD5/OC ITX will be the card with the most raw power you could fit in the Elite 110 without any modification (and before the mining craze will allow you to grab a decent Radeon in this price range, some 270s do fit). Did I mention that either GTX can play the latest AAA games @1080p very well? This box can be a great small HTPC/Gaming rig when back home.
  • SSD: The Samsung 840 EVO and Crucial M500 are great little drives, with the best reliability records. Both are based on TLC NAND, which will probably last less time than the MLC offered in most commercial SSDs, but for the average CG workstation, the available writes before any deterioration starts inhibiting performance or available disk space, will take probably decades. Remember: even when SSDs “wear-out”, only writes are suspended from the “weak” areas, and reads are allowed to 100% of the drive. A Samsung 840 EVO 250GB should be enough as a single drive in such a machine.
  • PSU: Rosewill Capstone 450W 80+ Gold. You should not need anything more than 200-250W for this Xeon (or any haswell quad at stock speeds) and a 750Ti.
    A quality 80+ certified or better unit is certainly a good choice for a system that will be seeing a lot of up-time, both under load or idling. 80+ Silver or Gold units are of course usually better, as long as those are sourced from reputed OEMs like the Rosewill Capstone line. The ability to mount full size ATX PSUs in the Elite 110, allows for a great selection of good PSUs.
  • Optical Drive: Optical Drives (ODs) are rarely utilized the last few years. Broadband connections, cloud storage and affordable flash drives are replacing them. For most ODs are limited to installing new software and OS. We assume access to a SATA or USB OD that will allow the initial OS installation, and after that.
  • Operating System: Windows 7 Professional SP1 64bit (OEM)
    Windows OS is guaranteeing compatibility with most rendering packages, including 3DS Max. If your distributed rendering will be focused in Maya, you could actually get away with Linux as client packages for VRay are available.
    Windows 7 Home editions are limited to 16GB of RAM. Professional and Ultimate versions allow up to 128GB, and offer some additional networking/remote access features that are desirable.

* Corrected from my silly figure before, thanks to a “passerby”


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3 thoughts on “A “true” ITX workstation for less?

  1. Hate to break it to you, but the new Mac Pro is just 5.5L. Won’t find any PCs using off-the-shelf parts with close to the same power any time soon.

    • Noted and corrected. Wasn’t my point to compare it with the MP really, but messed up in the imperial -> metric conversion as a noob I guess. 😮
      Thanks, and please, feel free to drop suggestions and – why not – corrections.

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