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The Case for the AMD Radeon R9 Nano - Powerful Gaming in Small Spaces

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Manufacturer: AMD

Four High Powered Mini ITX Systems

Thanks to Sebastian for helping me out with some of the editorial for this piece and to Ken for doing the installation and testing on the system builds! -Ryan

Update (1/23/16): Now that that AMD Radeon R9 Nano is priced at just $499, it becomes an even better solution for these builds, dropping prices by $150 each.

While some might wonder where the new Radeon R9 Nano fits in a market that offers the AMD Fury X for the same price, the Nano is a product that defines a new category in the PC enthusiast community. It is a full-scale GPU on an impossibly small 6-inch PCB, containing the same core as the larger liquid-cooled Fury X, but requiring 100 watts less power than Fury X and cooled by a single-fan dual-slot air cooler.

The R9 Nano design screams compatibility. It has the ability to fit into virtually any enclosure (including many of the smallest mini-ITX designs), as long as the case supports a dual-slot (full height) GPU. The total board length of 6 inches is shorter than a mini-ITX motherboard, which is 6.7 inches square! Truly, the Nano has the potential to change everything when it comes to selecting a small form-factor (SFF) enclosure.

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Typically, a gaming-friendly enclosure would need at minimum a ~270 mm GPU clearance, as a standard 10.5-inch reference GPU translates into 266.7 mm in length. Even very small mini-ITX enclosures have had to position components specifically to allow for these longer cards – if they wanted to be marketed as compatible with a full-size GPU solution, of course. Now with the R9 Nano, smaller and more powerful than any previous ITX-specific graphics card to date, one of the first questions we had was a pretty basic one: what enclosure should we put this R9 Nano into?

With no shortage of enclosures at our disposal to try out a build with this new card, we quickly discovered that many of them shared a design choice: room for a full-length GPU. So, what’s the advantage of the Nano’s incredibly compact size? It must be pointed out that larger (and faster) Fury X has the same MSRP, and at 7.5 inches the Fury X will fit comfortably in cases that have spacing for the necessary radiator.

Finding a Case for Nano

While even some of the tiniest mini-ITX enclosures (EVGA Hadron, NCASE M1, etc.) offer support for a 10.5-in GPU, there are several compact mini-ITX cases that don’t support a full-length graphics card due to their small footprint. While by no means a complete list, here are some of the options out there (note: there are many more mini-ITX cases that don’t support a full-height or dual-slot expansion card at all, such as slim HTPC enclosures):

Manufacturer Model Price
Cooler Master Elite 110 $47.99, Amazon.com
Cooltek Coolcube  
Lian Li PC-O5 $377, Amazon.com
Lian Li PC-Q01 $59.99, Newegg.com
Lian Li PC-Q03 $74.99, Newegg.com
Lian Li PC-Q07 $71.98, Amazon.com
Lian Li PC-Q21  
Lian Li PC-Q26  
Lian Li PC-Q27  
Lian Li PC-Q30 $139.99, Newegg.com
Lian Li PC-Q33 $134.99, Newegg.com
Raijintek Metis $59.99, Newegg.com
Rosewill Legacy V3 Plus-B $59.99, Newegg.com

The list is dominated by Lian Li, who offers a number of cube-like mini-ITX enclosures that would ordinarily be out of the question for a gaming rig, unless one of the few ITX-specific cards were chosen for the build. Many other fine enclosure makers (Antec, BitFenix, Corsair, Fractal Design, SilverStone, etc.) offer mini-ITX enclosures that support full-length GPUs, as this has pretty much become a requirement for an enthusiast PC case.

Continue our look at building Mini ITX systems with the AMD Radeon R9 Nano!!

While I’m all for full GPU compatibility as a system builder, the appeal of a super compact enclosure with a footprint no larger than a 6.7-in square mini-ITX motherboard, that also supports a powerful GPU like the R9 Nano, is undeniable. I’ll be interested to see if the enclosure industry reacts, but that will depend on the success of AMD’s newest GPU (and subsequent competition).

It should be noted that just because we put a case on that list above, it does not guarantee that it will work correctly with the R9 Nano. As I will demonstrate below (and in the video above), there are other concerns than space to watch out for when picking a compact chassis.

Getting Started

For this project I ordered in a few of the cases from the list above that interested me to build a powerful mini ITX gaming system inside each. The goal was simple: prove that you can assemble one of the fastest gaming and enthusiast PCs in cases that would otherwise be limited to much slower GPUs. 

Other than the cases you'll see listed below, I decided to get some impressive SFF componentry to make the builds stand out. That includes an Intel Core i7-6700K Skylake quad-core processor, the flagship of the consumer brand from Intel, a Noctua NH-L9x65 low profile CPU cooler, 250GB SSD, 16GB of DDR4 memory and a retail purchased Radeon R9 Nano graphics card from XFX.

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The Noctua CPU Cooler

To keep it all together we are using the brand new MSI Z170I Gaming Pro AC motherboard that packs a performance and feature punch in a Mini ITX form factor. It includes 802.11ac wireless connectivity, Intel-powered Gigabit networking, M.2 storage support, USB 3.1 and full overclocking support should your CPU cooler support it.

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Case 1: Cooler Master Elite 110 - Buy on Amazon.com

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At just $40 or so, the CM Elite 110 is a fantastic mini ITX case and was the chassis we used in our initial R9 Nano review to test enclosed performance. The design is straight forward and you can use a standard ATX power supply (that sticks out the back of the case some) though it does mean you will have very little space between the top of the CPU cooler and the bottom of that PSU. Building in the Elite 110 was as easy as most other mini ITX cases (which is, by definition, not fantastic) and the short but wide form factor presents a unique appearance.

Case 2: Lian Li PC-Q33B - Buy on Newegg.com

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This Lian Li option offers a compelling feature for builders: the front and top of the case actually open forward on a hinge once the side panels are snapped off. This makes building in the small form factor easier than with any other case we have used, just be sure you tuck all the power and data cables well so they don't interfere with other components (fans, etc.) when you open and close it. It's important that you get the non-windowed version of this case to allow for air intake for the R9 Nano cooler, despite your desire to show off the goods.

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Case 3: Lian Li PC-Q30X - Buy on Newegg.com

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By far the most interesting looking of the cases tested, the Q30X with its curved window on the front allows for easy viewing of all the components inside, which is great as long as you take time with your build and clean things up accordingly. This case does require an SFX power supply (a form factor that limits your PSU selection) but the rest of the construction process was simple. Note that this is the only case that cannot support a 3.5-in hard drive: 2.5-in only here. If you want a mini ITX case that will demand attention from visitors but still allows for impressive gaming performance thanks to the R9 Nano, this is the way to go.

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Adding some red LEDs to this build really made it stand out

Case 4: Raijintek Metis - Buy on Newegg.com

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With a blue brushed aluminum finish, the Metis is attractive but has some issues we need to get past. First, building in the case was difficult - it can support a full size ATX power supply but it mounts on the front of the chassis and uses an internal extension to route power to the back of the case. The MB/GPU are mounted upside down and the window is a bit smaller than we'd like if you are going to show off your new system build.

The biggest problem was airflow - the R9 Nano did not have access to cool air intake near the GPU fan - the card was jammed along the top panel of the case with no ventilation holes to be found. The result was a R9 Nano GPU clock speed that throttled horribly after just about 10 minutes of gaming.

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The fix? We sent the top panel home with Allyn to use his drill press and punch about 50 holes along the top. It solved the problem - after reinstalling the system it ran without issue and maintained the expected clock speeds for the R9 Nano.

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This is the message our experience provides: just because the case supported the dimensions of the Radeon R9 Nano doesn't mean that it had the airflow design to support it. Chances are if you find a case you love that does exhibit similar behavior, you'll be able to mod in a fix (probably cleaner than ours) but you need to be willing to accept that possibility.

Closing Thoughts

What does our little experiment tell us - is the Radeon R9 Nano the perfect GPU for everyone? Clearly not. Unless you have a system build or a custom mod that you want to do that requires the small size of the Nano's 6-in PCB, you are better off with another GPU including other Fiji products like the Fury and Fury X. The systems we built in the video above prove though that if you want to, you can get gaming performance that is nearly unrivaled in any consumer built system in small mini ITX form factor thanks to products like the MSI Z170I Gaming Pro AC and the AMD Radeon R9 Nano.


November 2, 2015 | 12:26 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

AMD to PCPer: We need to sell more Nanos! They aren't selling!

PCPer: We'll do an article showing the very low number of cases that make sense for it.

Conclusion: The Nano still makes no sense at its price point and audience.

November 2, 2015 | 02:54 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I have to agree. The only people that love it are reviewers that got it for free...

November 2, 2015 | 12:32 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Anyone serious about building their own PC should have a drill press.

November 2, 2015 | 01:14 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

*drives to Home Depot*

November 3, 2015 | 12:34 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Do you know if XFX is sending any of their watercooled non-X Fury cards for reviews? Or if you know someone at XFX who would send you one to review? Or if someone's already reviewed it and I've somehow missed it?

November 2, 2015 | 04:50 PM - Posted by Master Chen (not verified)

How is it, to still live in the late 90s/early 2000s?

November 2, 2015 | 01:20 PM - Posted by MJVR1 (not verified)

In my opinion, these cases you showed are not very space efficient. They're other cases on the market that take up the same volume as some of these but also fit full size GPU's. The NCase M1, RVZ02, Node 202, and the SG13 all come to mind. The place the R9 Nano truly shines is in "console sized" cases. These are extremely hard to come by but some are in the horizon. The NFC S4 Mini is about same size as the PS4 (4.3 liters compared to the 4.2 liters of the ps4) and fits this GPU. The MC600 fits this GPU nicely but requires modding of the top panel for adequate airflow. (Build of this case on the internet, its called Little Mac)Some other cases are in development by the community but it will be a while until they are released. THESE are the cases that i believe will let the true beauty of the Nano shine. The Nano is still a Niche item, but as the trend towards ITX "consoles killers" continue, im sure the GPU manufacturers will start building more cards like the Nano and case makes will finally create a true ITX case that is space efficient and cost effective (Some of these are truely quite expensive)

November 3, 2015 | 04:28 AM - Posted by djotter

I agree with you here. The fact that you can't fit a full size graphics card in the Lian Li PC-Q33B at 31.5 litres is an atrocity. The Silverstone SG13 at 11.5 litres houses a full length card.
That NFC S4 Mini that you described is quite interesting (http://nfc-systems.com/s4-mini/) I would love to see how they shoehorned all that kit in such a small case. The MC600 (http://www.logicsupply.com/mc600/) looks very function over form, but is a blank slate for modding.

November 2, 2015 | 04:50 PM - Posted by Master Chen (not verified)

"NO." (c) Prodigy/Elite 120-god

November 2, 2015 | 07:26 PM - Posted by quest4glory

This really is a case of AMD coming to market with a solution to a problem before the market is ready for it. A slim console style case (original XBOX 360 size) would be ideal, not a cube. Or, a smaller case but with a single slot bracket, full cover water block and external water cooling would make some sense in a limited number of customer circumstances. That would be where presentation and display in an entertainment center are important, but the "ugly bits" can be hidden away or even housed in another box on a separate shelf. I have a modding idea now...

November 3, 2015 | 12:42 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Agreed.

AMD is way ahead of their time with the NANO. They should've included a number of case builders to launch new small form factor cases along with the NANO for people to see how forward thinking the card really is.

Right now the market has to catch up to AMD.

November 3, 2015 | 02:05 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Sounds like AMD's experiences with Bulldozer - an architecture designed for a software world that didn't yet exist

November 4, 2015 | 11:22 AM - Posted by gtxer (not verified)

"AMD is way ahead of their time.."

there's a mini card 'couple months before Nano... and most big manufacturers (top of my head, Asus, Gigabyte, Evga) made custom cooler with it. Yeah, it's from the green team.

November 4, 2015 | 11:26 AM - Posted by itxbuilder (not verified)

True. Search "gtx mini", google images. How do you feel knowing you're not ahead of your time? Happens a lot huh?

November 2, 2015 | 10:23 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

It is the beauty and fun abaut SFF builds, you often have to mod, you have to find evry way of increase airflow and so on, i myself prefer slim SFF, witch meens a ricer card has to be used.

It is not for evryone to build a performance SFF, lots of the cases that some think is SFF is actually just small towers, no fun.

Dremmel, drill and so is a must, but alemineum is quite easy to work with.

But i do like that Ryan as one of the few review sites that understand the nano, and what it is , pure fun for a case modder that want a close to high end gaming SFF system.

November 3, 2015 | 01:35 PM - Posted by Master Chen (not verified)

You really don't have to mod Prodigy. It's a very self-contained case by default, with very good spacing, comfortable placing of slots, and air flow chart. And if you want window, you can always buy version with a window/buy panel with a window for it separately. Also, it might look tight if you try to shove very big ATX PSU in it, but it only looks like that, in reality it supports most good ATX PSUs just fine. And if you're building a full-blown FCWCL in it, it's simply perfect and actually pretty easy to do (actually, most people buy Prodigy EXACTLY to build ITX-based FCWCL machines for them or their friends/relatives/clients. That's what I personally did several times in the past, and the results were always top-notch perfect).

November 3, 2015 | 06:39 AM - Posted by Justin150 (not verified)

Being a big fan of custom loop water cooled PC, the nano just screams for a custom water block with cooling loop covering both CPU and GPU probably with a 180x180 radiator (only just larger than a mini-itx board).

Couple it with using some shiny hard tubing and an SFX power supply would make for a really pretty system but I suspect custom case design would be needed to really show off the potential

November 3, 2015 | 07:22 AM - Posted by AS118 (not verified)

If they even reduced the price of the Nano to $600 (or launched it at that price) people would have liked it more and it would probably sell better.

As it is, pricing it the same as the full-fat fury was a bad idea, imho. They need marketshare, and making it $650 was too arrogant.

November 3, 2015 | 10:02 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Congratulations to Matt Bevin !

November 5, 2015 | 03:06 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I know I'm a little late to the party, but I've been quite fond of the PC-C50 for the last 4-5 years. Compared to almost everything on this list, I think it makes more sense as an HTPC/SFF case. The closest thing available to it today is probably the Silverstone Grandia (ex: GD09/GD10), which is granted slightly longer to accommodate longer gpus but should still fit on most shelves/racks.

While all these 'tiny' cases are neat, I still don't know if I would buy something that didn't have the height for 120mm fans (which is also the height of a graphics card, and vicariously should allow you to use a decent size HSF; something like the Noctua C14 or C14s). For a true 'enthusiast' rig you're probably going to want a mini-atx board, which any that size should also accommodate.

Believe me, I've been trying to shrink my enthusiast-leaning HTPC footprint for years, and it's supremely difficult. So many factors come into play, such as airflow/venting all the heat as well as power supply length, if just not spacing between all the components.

Going into the last couple years I would've asked for a few things: shorter high-power psus to power sli/crossfire, shorter graphics cards above the performance-midrange (as in >~175w) class, and low-profile coolers adequate for high-end cpus (if not an AIO that cools both gpu and cpu with minimal space needed inside the case).

While we've gotten most of the former for which the Nano is a great addition, and in theory case depth could shrink a little (back to the size of my pc-c50b which allows ~250mm cards, or roughly 9.5 or inches if not shorter), there still remains the question of how much tech you can not only fit, but also cool within a small space, especially if overclocking.

I understand it's all relative, and certainly there are diminishing returns. Many people will be happy not overclocking their parts to the edge, or will forever be content with one gpu (which totally makes sense if you're staying with a 1080p display, for instance). That said, for a real 'enthusiast' rig, especially in the era of 2160p, we still have a ways to go before shrinking any smaller than mATX makes sense IMHO.

November 6, 2015 | 06:09 AM - Posted by itxbuilder (not verified)

oh come on! you made me look, argh my eyes!!

November 23, 2015 | 02:55 AM - Posted by CZ (not verified)

I think this card is awesome for custom fabricators who want to build a console size PS4/XB1, high end pc gaming system. I think this is the future for living room pc gaming. Personally I love the idea of fabricating a custom case, psu, and cooling system, and integrating it into a sexy looking, custom, console size system. The only people I see complaining about this card are the fanboyz living at home with mom, who build a parts pc and think they are experts.

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