Buying the hardware to build a very compact, very powerful gaming PC has never been easier, so long as you’re willing to fork over a premium for a particular mix of parts optimized for saving space. (Building that tightly packed PC is another matter, but we’ll talk about that in a moment.) In recent years, we’ve seen a bunch of PC chassis from the likes of SilverStone, Thermaltake, Cougar Gaming, and others that allow you to install the biggest of video cards alongside a Mini-ITX mainboard and make your own mini-gaming PC. With the right card, you can power through almost any game at any resolution and detail setting.
These days, so long as you can stuff into your rig an Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 TiGeForce GTX Titan XAMD Radeon R9 390X or one of AMD’s Fury cards (such as the compact Radeon R9 Nano), you’re good to go for gaming at up to 4K resolution. Those cards are enough even for nascent VR-ing around with your Oculus Rift or HTC Vive headset. Today, few buyers, even the most demanding of PC gamers, need anything more powerful than that.
The actual size of the video card is the key thing here, though. VR headsets are looking like they’ll need a baseline of a GeForce GTX 970 minimum or the AMD equivalent, and these cards are, with few exceptions, not all that small. So a small-form-factor (SFF) gaming PC can get only so “S,” the size being dictated by that of the video card and its needed power supply.
Trim down the case fat around those components, though, and you’ve got a challenging PC build ahead of you. Wiring will need to go into tight spaces. You’ll have limited thermal flexibility. You’ll have to balance the size of the necessary power supply against the space available. And that’s just the start.
But what if much of that trouble could be sorted out for you in advance?
That’s the theory behind MSI’s Nightblade x2, a bare-bones PC that’s roughly akin to an oversize Intel Next Unit of Computing (NUC)Zotac ZboxCore i7-6700KSilverStone Sugo SG12Cougar QBX Mini-ITX, but you’d be measuring power supplies, routing lots of cables with zip ties, and dealing with tiny mainboard connectors in tight confines. Here, MSI does all that work for you, in a handsome aluminum chassis that, if you like the MSI Gaming branding, is one of the classiest and most solid-feeling cases at its size, to boot.
The pricing for this bare-bones unit is a relative thing, depending on how highly you value a quality aluminum chassis and the convenience of pre-done cable routing. MSI’s price of $399.99 was mirrored at the major resellers’ sites, and while we think the pricing is about right, if maybe a little bit high, for what’s in essence a decent compact case, a modest power supply, and a respectable Wi-Fi-equipped motherboard, we nonetheless would be willing to pay for the convenience here if we were building a small gaming PC.
When building a small PC from the chassis on up with off-the-shelf parts, there are too many unknowns and things that can get in the way of other things. With the Nightblade x2, most of those possible conflicts go away.
“Small form factor” (SFF) is a term much abused in recent years; enough that we now like to distinguish true “mini-PCs” (the Intel NUCs of the world and their like) from SFF ones. That’s especially necessary seeing as some vendors call their foot-square cube PCs or mini-towers “SFF” models.
The Nightblade x2 is one of this latter, bigger kind. It’s small compared to a tower PC, but we’d never call it a mini-PC by today’s standards. The chassis measures 6.9 inches wide and 11 inches high, with a slight slope from the top of the front down the back. It’s unavoidably very deep, in keeping with its ability to accept a long video card, at just shy of 16 inches. You can stow the Nightblade x2 in a niche on your desk, but it’ll have to have a lot of depth, plus clearance behind it for protruding cables. It’s basically a long aluminum shoebox standing on one of its edges.
A built-out Nightblade x2 won’t be light—our final test build weighed in at close to 30 pounds—but MSI integrated a front stand that doubles as a handle. Included in the kit is a padded wrap for the handle that cushions the bare aluminum, which seemed like frippery until we lifted the unit. You’ll indeed want to use that pad if you carry the Nightblade x2 around much. The edges of the aluminum are a tad sharp and press into the hand, especially with the weight of a fully loaded system built inside.
Inside the Nightblade x2, the front half is taken up by a full-ATX power supply mounted against the back wall. Beside it is a single 3.5-inch drive bay, and in front of that a slimline DVD burner, the tray-loading type that ejects vertically out the front of the unit.
SATA power connectors were positioned, thoughtfully, right next to the bays; you’d just have to add SATA data cables. The mainboard has three SATA connectors, enough for these three bays. One is a SATA Express connector that can swing either way; we’re still waiting to see anything real-world that you can plug into one of these ports, though.
Beyond that for storage, the mainboard has an M.2 slot near the case bottom, behind the video card. (It’s only for M.2 drives of 80mm length; unlike some M.2 slots, it has no intermediary screw mounting points for shorter modules.) A second M.2 slot is hidden behind the right-side panel, on the back of the motherboard below the CPU-mounting backplate…
This slot is also good only for 80mm-long drives. Although you can install other things in these slots, they are geared toward solid-state drives (SSDs) in the M.2 form factor. The slots support both kinds of M.2 SSDs, SATA and PCI Express (see our explainer and shopping guide, The Best M.2 Solid State Drives), and the motherboard also brings support for RAID and NVMe (more on NVMe at the link, as well). The NVMe support allows for the potential to install two of the fastest consumer-available SSDs—defined at this writing by the Samsung SSD 950 Pro NVMe M.2 drive—in a striped or mirrored RAID arrangement.
Another onboard slot is occupied by a Killer 1535 Wi-Fi card, which trails some wiring that terminates in two antenna mounts on the rear of the chassis.
On the back, the port selection matches up well with that of many premium late-model Mini-ITX motherboards…
From the top down, you have a pair of USB 2.0 ports, a PS/2 connector, a couple of USB 3.0 ports, DisplayPort and HDMI outputs (in the event you need to tap Intel’s CPU-integrated graphics), two more USB 3.0 ports, an Ethernet jack, a USB Type-C connector (with a “10” in superscript above it, indicating support for USB 3.1 Gen2), the screw-on mounts for the Wi-Fi antennae, and a bank of audio jacks. The audio connectors include an optical S/PDIF connector. The rest of the audio-port mix is for front, side, and rear speakers, as well as line-in and mic-in.
Drive-mounting options are pretty extensive for a case this size. If you use one of the M.2 slots on the mainboard for a boot SSD, and also employ the hidden M.2 slot, you can outfit the Nightblade x2 with up to five total drives. Two 2.5-inch SATA drives will fit inside a metal bracket at the top of the chassis…
…while a 3.5-inch drive fits between the power supply and the optical drive, mounted vertically, in the front of the case. With, say, a large 4TB or 5TB drive in the 3.5-inch bay, a pair of 2TB laptop-style drives up top, and a pair of 500GB M.2 SSDs mirrored or striped, it’s easy to approach 10TB of local storage inside this unit, if you’re so inclined. And with the advent of 8TB 3.5-inch drives, you can do even better than that, if money is no object.
Cable pre-routing, as we mentioned earlier on, is a definite strength here. The 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch bays all have appropriate power leads positioned nearby, and two 6+2-pin power leads for a video card lie on the case bottom. An internal cable extender for the power supply, which runs across the top of the case from front to back, allowed MSI to position the power-supply unit (PSU) at the front of the case but have the AC outlet connector at the rear.
The main entrée for any gaming PC, you might say, is the video card, and the Nightblade x2 is designed to house a big one. You’ll still need to be a little discretionary in your pick, though. MSI rates the chassis for video cards up to 11.4 inches long and 35mm thick (occupying two slots on the mainboard). We were able to install a stock GeForce GTX 980 Ti without much trouble beyond some tilting and wiggling…
…but some other cards we had around the lab wouldn’t quite make it. The Zotac GeForce GTX 970 Amp Omega, for example, is a very chunky factory-overclocked video board with a cooler that juts into the airspace for a third PCI Express slot, and it scraped the case bottom. We also wedged in a 12-inch Sapphire AMD Radeon R9 390X card, and while we managed it with some contortions, we wouldn’t recommend cutting it that close. Take the length and width suggestions as real limits.