Seems a fair few of you are considering a transition to the mini-ITX form factor for your next PC build, but such a move is likely to require a much smaller chassis, so which do you choose?
We're starting to see a wide array of options from some of the industry's popular brands - Corsair's Obsidian Series 250D and EVGA's Hadron Air are a couple of noteworthy examples - but component manufacturer MSI is taking matters into its own hands.
The Taiwanese firm has been a long-standing champion of small-form-factor solutions, and with an array of mini-ITX motherboards and graphics cards in its arsenal, it now has a compact enclosure to match.
It's called Nightblade, and having launched under the Gaming Series umbrella, is designed to give enthusiast users the maximum amount of performance in a much smaller overall package. Nightblade measures 345.8mm x 277.2mm x 175.7mm in size, giving it a reasonable internal volume of 16 litres, and setting itself apart from most other solutions, it isn't just a chassis but rather a barebone PC priced at £349.
Included in the price tag is the chassis itself, along with a pre-installed 600W SilverStone power supply (worth £67) and MSI's own Z97I Gaming AC motherboard (worth £107). It's handy to have the core components pre-configured - the user just needs to add an Intel LGA1150 CPU and memory to get up and running - but the barebone isn't cheap, and you're paying roughly an extra £175 to have the aforementioned components wrapped in the Nightblade body.
Petite PC enclosures tend to be easy on the eye, yet the reception toward the chassis' exterior look is going to be mixed. MSI has opted for a black steel frame with zinc coating that feels suitably sturdy and well put together, but it is highly prone to scuffs and finger marks. The brushed-metal fascia provides a bit of glamour, while the raised front lets it sit at an angle, however there's nothing particularly sexy about it and the whole box does look utilitarian. Some might love it for that very reason, while others will find there are more stylish options already available.
Still, what the Nightblade lacks in finesse it compensates in functionality. True, there's no side window to show off your wares, but if you're a LAN-going individual, you'll appreciate the fact that the front stand doubles as a carry handle, and you'll be safe in the knowledge that a dizzying array of high-end hardware will fit within the 16-litre interior. Covering most bases, MSI's Z97 motherboard has standard-size DIMM slots supporting memory speeds of up to 3,200MHz (that means you don't have to contend with slower SO-DIMM modules), and the pre-installed power supply is 80 Plus Gold-rated.
There's room for a dual-slot graphics card measuring up to 290mm in length, and storage options are plentiful, too. MSI has provisioned for two mSATA SSDs to be installed in RAID0 on an integrated 2.5in daughter board, and there's also room for another 2.5in drive, as well as a 3.5in drive and a slim slot-loading optical drive.
The front I/O panel is also well-stocked, with a backlit power button, four USB ports (two of the SuperSpeed 3.0 variety), audio jacks and a dedicated OC Genie switch. The latter, hooked-up directly to the motherboard, gives users quick access to the one-touch overclocking option baked into MSI's BIOS.
Nightblade is an interesting proposition for self-builders, but it's also being noticed by an array of system integrators who are now selling the machine fully-equipped with gamer-grade components. To show us exactly what the platform can do, MSI opted not to send in the barebone package and instead provided a Nightblade 3 HEX from Mesh Computers.
Building on the barebone foundation, this £1,499 premium build adds a liquid-cooled Intel Core i7-4790K processor, 16GB of DDR3-2,400 memory, dual 120GB mSATA SSDs in RAID0 and an MSI GeForce GTX 780 Ti Gaming 3G graphics card. And those are just the core components, as you'll also find a 2TB hard disk, a slot-loading DVD writer and a 64-bit install of Windows 8.1.
There's a surprising amount of hardware crammed into the box, particularly when you consider that the 600W PSU is a standard ATX unit. Taking off the top, bottom and side-panel covers reveals how intricate a build it really is. You could put it all together yourself, but considering the space constraints, we're rather glad our review sample came fully configured and ready to go.
Nightblade is so intricate, in fact, that getting inside just to take a look at the parts takes some doing. We can see the power supply is stood upright, with a removable dust filter covering the fan, and the graphics card is installed in the base of the chassis. What's handy is that MSI has included a support bracket, ensuring that extra-long graphics cards don't sag.
There's a lot going on, and it's interesting to see that MSI has chosen not to overlook certain 'legacy' components. We've seen other mini-ITX chassis eschew support for optical drives, 3.5in hard disks and even ATX power supplies, but the Nightblade makes no such compromise. It is geared to compete with much bigger towers in terms of performance, though as a consequence of supporting so many traditional parts, the steel-framed system can get quite heavy when fully built-up.
So how will all that hardware stay cool when there's so little room and so much cabling to contend with? Well, only a single fan is installed in the barebone Nightblade package - a 92mm rear 'Dragon Fan' capable of spinning at up to 4,000rpm - but Mesh builds on that by attaching a 120mm Asetek 550LC liquid CPU cooler to the chassis' spare side mount. There's an air-vent at the front of the chassis in line with the graphics-card bay, and though the mesh inserts on the chassis' side and top are unprotected, the bottom is lined with a good-size filter to help minimise the build-up of dust.
Being small is an added bonus, but any £1,499 gaming PC needs to be extremely fast in the first instance. Let's find out if the Nightblade 3 HEX fits the bill.