Building a PC with the NCASE M1

When I relocated from England to New York last year, I left behind the desktop PC I'd been using for years, mainly because it was too big and too fragile - thanks to a top-heavy CPU cooler - to be worth shipping across the Atlantic. After a few months with only a laptop to take its place, I decided to build a new machine based on the tiny NCASE M1. I've documented the process for anyone curious about trying their own build (click the images to view full size).

In the past, I've built my own computers in gigantic tower cases to maximize airflow and get the most reliability out of my components. This time, I wanted something smaller and more convenient, and the crowdfunded NCASE M1 seemed to offer the best compromise between size and cooling potential.

- NCASE M1 mini-ITX case
- SilverStone SX500-LG SFX-L power supply
- ASRock Z170 Gaming-ITX/ac motherboard
- Intel Skylake i5-6500 CPU @ 3.2GHz
- 16GB of Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4 RAM
- ASUS GeForce GTX 970 4GB video card
- Right-angle PCI-E power connector
- Samsung 850 EVO 250GB M.2 SSD
- Samsung 2TB 5400RPM 2.5" HDD
- Cryorig C1 top flow cooler
- Cryorig QF120 case fans

First up, the motherboard! So far, the best-rated mini-ITX boards based on the Intel Z170 chipset are made by Gigabyte and ASRock. I've used a number of Gigabyte boards and was initially planning to do the same here, but the ASRock had two major advantages: three fan headers instead of two (marked here in blue), and SATA connectors that face upright instead of toward the front, where they'd be blocked by the front-mounted power supply in the M1.

However, the outermost SATA ports (marked in yellow) share a bus with the M.2 slot, and are disabled if you use a SATA-based M.2 drive. Since this is exactly what I'm doing, that leaves only the ports marked in green. This doesn't happen when you use a PCI Express-based M.2 drive, but they're still expensive and the currently available models have limited lifespans.

Here's the board with the Skylake CPU installed, two sticks of low-profile Corsair RAM to leave enough headroom for the cooler, and the power and SATA cables hooked up since I won't be able to reach them once the heatsink is mounted. The two most difficult connections to make will be the front-panel audio header (lower left, marked in blue) and the power button/LED headers (lower right, marked in blue). I'll have to connect these after mounting the board in the case, so I'm leaving out the video card until then.

Installing the Cryorig C1 cooler was probably the most challenging part of this build. In the photos above, note how the CPU socket is very close to the center of the board. The C1, however, is an asymmetrical design. Three of the four possible orientations extended nearly a centimeter beyond the edge of the board, where they'd be blocked by the power supply or the sides of the case. The fourth option was a better fit, but the bottom edge of the cooler came so close to the PCI Express slot that I had to remove the decorative plastic trim just to avoid blocking the video card.

The final insult came when I realized that the 140mm fan included with the C1 is even wider than the cooler, and once installed it completely blocks the slot. Rage and fury ensued.

Fortunately, the circular 140mm fan had the same mounting holes as a square 120mm fan, so I broke out one of the Cryorig QF120 fans that I'd planned to install on the case. The acoustic dampener pads made the fan slightly too thick for the mounting screws, but removing the pads on the top solved that problem while still letting me keep the ones on the bottom.

With the motherboard assembled, I turned my attention to the case. Here's the M1 with all the panels removed and the SilverStone SX500-LG installed. Standard SFX power supplies have tiny, loud fans that don't keep them very cool, but the slightly larger SFX-L form factor allows for better airflow. The fan on the SX500-LG doesn't actually start spinning until it heats up, so I mounted it with the intake facing inward so I could point a case fan at it.

While prepping the case, I realized that the fan from the C1 would be perfect for cooling the video card, which is a miniaturized design and vulnerable to overheating. Because it's a slim fan, I needed to give it some extra clearance from the bottom of the case, and the dampener pads I removed from the QF120 were perfect for the job. I attached the fan using the QF120's rubber mounting pins, and trimmed the ends flush with the housing.

The motherboard was a tight fit inside the case, but after some careful maneuvering I got it mounted and bolted in. Notice how close the edge of the board comes to the power supply (the gap highlighted in red). This is why I couldn't use the Gigabyte board, and also what made mounting the cooler such a challenge. Sadly, the stiff ribbon-style cables that came with the PSU made cable management more nightmarish than it needed to be, but fortunately no air needs to flow from the front of the case to keep all the components cool.

Once the case headers were connected to the board, I could get the video card in. This bit was pretty nerve-wracking, as the card has a thick backing plate and I wasn't sure it would line up perfectly without hitting the cooler. It just about fits, but with almost no clearance. In fact, the fins near the bottom of the cooler are resting gently against the backing plate. Still, nothing got bent or broken, so that's good enough for me. Note the right-angle power connector; the card is rather tall, so this keeps the cable from hitting the side of the case.

The M1 does have mounting points for desktop hard drives, but each one blocks an entire vent. Cooling is more important to me than read/write speed, so I mounted a 2TB laptop drive at the front of the case, just behind the faceplate. A 250GB M.2 drive went onto the back of the motherboard, and I could finally start closing up the case panels.

The last step was installing the fan bracket over the motherboard, with the remaining QF120 pointed directly at the power supply intake. The asymmetry between the two fans is only slightly infuriating, but if it ventilates well, I can live with it.

And here's the finished product, proudly enthroned on my desk next to a gorgeous 21:9 ultrawide monitor from LG. Already looking a hell of a lot more stylish than the maximalist abominations I've built in the past!

A quick install of Windows 10 64-bit, and my masterpiece is complete. I'm not one to do exhaustive performance benchmarks, but a brief romp through the first half-hour of Crysis yielded 80 to 110 FPS, with a maximum CPU temperature of 44°C.

I was prepared to deal with elevated temperatures compared to my last full-size tower, so this is beyond my wildest expectations. Building a mini-ITX PC is never easy, especially when you're concerned about performance and cooling. The NCASE M1 takes some of the pain out of that process, and if you choose your components well, the results can be spectacular.