This article focuses on several options for building an entry-level computer with a compact design and built-in wireless adapter. Such a computer can act as a dedicated home media center, displaying the image on the TV screen instead of the usual monitor. The presented prices are valid for the city of Surgut at the time of publication.
MediaBox, MediaBox Lite and MediaBox Plus editions
“A computer in a compact case, acting as a media center … Yes, it’s an HTPC!” – you will say, and you will be right. But not really. The fact is that the integral attributes of any self-respecting HTPC have always been an optical drive, a TV tuner, a discrete sound card and other cool things like an IrDA adapter that allows you to control a computer using a TV remote control. It is these devices that make the HTPC “real”. But, since all these bells and whistles do not fit well with the concept of “budget”, our assembly cannot be considered a full-fledged HTPC. Therefore, instead of the abbreviation HTPC, hereinafter we will use the more appropriate terms “PC in a compact case” or “compact assembly”.
Why do you need a PC like this when there are dedicated hardware devices for media centers? Firstly, unlike these devices, it can perform the functions of a regular PC, which makes such a solution more versatile. Secondly, although the “hardware” media centers and various BareBone systems used for this purpose can be arbitrarily compact, they are not always upgradeable, including firmware, while compact assemblies are obviously completely upgradeable.
Today we will consider one assembly, presented in three different versions:
MediaBox – basic version costing up to 31,500 rubles;
MediaBox Lite – a lightweight version (with less efficient components) up to 28,000 rubles;
MediaBox Plus – a more productive version up to 35,000 rubles.
Despite the relative budget, all three options will be based on a motherboard with a built-in Wi-Fi / Bluetooth adapter. Wireless Internet access will eliminate at least one unattractive cable in your system. And you can get rid of one more pair of unnecessary wires using a wireless keyboard and mouse – any inexpensive model with a USB radio module will do. There are also more elegant solutions like the Logitech K400 Plus – a wireless keyboard with a touchpad and additional multimedia keys.
Our goal is to assemble in a compact case (also known as SFF – Small Form Factor), therefore, we will start the selection of components with the case, not the processor. And the basis for our assembly will be … a shoe box! Of course, we are not talking about a real cardboard box, but about the type of cases that received the informal name Shoebox due to their external resemblance to shoe boxes. Cases of this type are about half the height of a regular Mid-Tower, but they can be somewhat wider in thickness, since the motherboard (mainly mini-ITX, or even smaller) is located in them mainly horizontally.
For MediaBox and MediaBox Plus we will take one of the popular cases, Cooler Master Elite 130 costing 4699rubles. Despite its compact size, this case can easily accommodate a full-size video card up to 343 mm long, a full-size ATX power supply up to 180 mm long, an optical drive, and a whole bunch of hard drives and SSDs! With cooling, everything is in order here too: a pair of complete fans and perforated walls will not give excess heat a single chance. The Elite 130’s front panel is a solid mesh flanked by a standard array of connectors, buttons and indicators, including two USB 3.x ports and one USB 2.0 port. This case is intended for motherboards of the mini-ITX form factor.
CoolerMaster Elite 130 Case [RC-130-KKN1] Black 4 699 *
And for the MediaBox Lite variant, the Cooler Master Elite 110 is suitable – a stripped-down version of the Elite 130. This is no longer a shoe box, but practically a cube – cramped at first glance, but still quite roomy. This model does not have a five-inch bay and a USB 2.0 port, and the maximum allowable video card length is limited to 210 mm. At the same time, the Elite 110 allows the installation of a slightly higher cooler, which, however, is not a very serious advantage, given the high density of the components in this case. Elite 110 price – 3899 rubles.
Unlike its older sibling, the Elite 110 is equipped with a single front-facing 120mm fan, but allows the installation of two more 80mm turntables. In our case, only one additional fan will be enough for the MediaBox Lite . Any budget model with PWM that creates acceptable airflow will do – for example, this: Cooler Master SickleFlow 80 . The declared noise level is only 25 dB – not bad for a state employee worth 550 rubles!
Our assembly will require a mini-ITX motherboard with built-in Wi-Fi / Bluetooth. We will choose from motherboards designed to work with Intel processors, since these processors are traditionally considered “cooler” than AMD processors, and this is important for assembling in a compact case. Since this build targets the very latest entry-level processors, the choice of motherboard chipset comes down to two choices – H410 and B460. The B460 chipset offers more USB ports and PCI Express lanes, but the compact form factor negates this advantage, and extra features such as support for Intel Optane memory or RAID are not required in this assembly, so choosing a “board” based on the H410 looks quite logical.
Universal choice for all three variants of the assembly will be the motherboard MSI H410I PRO WIFI for 8499 rubles. It has on board a pre-installed Intel 3168NGW wireless module, a ten-channel Realtek ALC1200 audio chip that provides high-quality sound, as well as HDMI and DisplayPort video outputs. It’s worth noting that MSI H410I PRO WIFI motherboard supports the updated Comet Lake line of CPUs without the need for a BIOS update (unlike the competition).The core of our assembly will be Intel’s 10th Gen Pentium and Celeron processors – not fast enough, but cold enough. For the basic version, let’s take the Pentium Gold G6400 BOX (price 6999 rubles). The MediaBox lite variant gets the usual Celeron G5905 BOX ( 4999 rubles) without multithreading, and the advanced MediaBox Plus gets the “hyperpen” Pentium Gold G6500 BOX ( 8699 rubles) with the improved integrated graphics UHD Graphics 630.
Intel Pentium Gold G6500 BOX processor
In the Firestrike CPU test, this “hyperpen” is on a par with such monsters of the past as AMD FX-8300 and AMD FX-8150. Of course, hardly anyone would agree to put “ficuses” in a compact cold assembly – Pentium is much better suited for this. As for games, judging by the test results, the G6400 could be recommended as the basis for assemblies for ultra-budget gaming. But there is a nuance: the author of the video used an RTX 2070 Super graphics card, so as not to run into the graphics performance in tests. However, in practice, choosing a powerful video adapter to pair with a weak processor looks too unrealistic – rather, there will be something like a GTX 1050 – so in the real world the numbers will certainly be lower.
CPU cooler and thermal interface
Here we do not impose any special requirements on the processor cooling system – boxed Intel coolers with thermal grease applied to their soles will successfully cope with this task. If someone finds the stock cooler too noisy, you can always choose a quieter alternative such as CoolerMaster I30PWM with a declared noise level of up to 28 dB.
Cooler for the processor CoolerMaster I30PWM [RH-I30-26PK-R1]
The budget compact assembly does not imply a discrete video card – only “built-in”, only hardcore! Therefore, now let’s find out what the integrated UHD 610 graphics of the Pentium Gold G6400 processor are capable of in various games. It doesn’t make much sense to test the other two processor models, since the results of the G5905 will be significantly worse (and some games will not run on two threads at all), and the Pentium G6500 will show almost identical results in those games where the CPU is the bottleneck (and there are plenty of such games).
Most games are at their limit of playability. Although undemanding games like CS: GO or old titles like NFSU2 show good results up to 60 fps, nevertheless, there are some – for example, Mafia III – whose gameplay looks like a frank slideshow. The Intel UHD Graphics 610 was definitely not designed for gaming. But with the reproduction of high-quality 4K / 60fps video, be it a Blue-ray movie or a YouTube video, it copes perfectly. However, like its predecessor without the letter “U” in the name.
The best RAM is one that has no compatibility issues. Kingston ValueRAM has always been one of the most compatible memory modules, which is why we use them in our assembly. In the MediaBox and MediaBox lite versions , one four- gigabyte Kingston ValueRAM [KVR26N19S6 / 4] module ( 2199 rubles) will be used , and in the MediaBox Plus version – Kingston ValueRAM [KVR26N19S8 / 8] ( 3699 rubles) with a volume of 8 GB. The frequency of both modules is 2666 MHz, the maximum for the 10th generation Pentium and Celeron.
In all cases, only one memory module is installed. On the one hand, working in single-channel mode, the memory will not be productive enough, and four gigabytes in modern conditions is not so much. On the other hand, the second memory slot remains free, and both previous problems can be easily solved by purchasing a second module in a future system upgrade.
Let’s decide on the choice of drives for each version of our compact assembly.
For MediaBox , we use a 2 TB hard drive. There are two options: either a disc with a “normal” recording – Toshiba P300 [HDWD120EZSTA] ( 5399 rubles), or a disc with a “tiled” WD Blue [WD20EZAZ] recording costing 4299 rubles. If the HDD is used primarily for storing immutable content such as music or movies, you can turn a blind eye to some of the inherent disadvantages of SMR-based drives and opt for a model from Western Digital. In our case, stable operation of the HDD without surprises is more important, so we will give preference to the CMR drive from Toshiba.