Diablo 2. Guild Wars. StarCraft. Team Fortress. Quake 3 Arena. Entire weekends used to be lost to the standard bearers of the LAN party era; games that supported local network play while still allowing for Internet-based carnage. It's an era that I dearly miss, along with the friends who made up the weekly competition. Sort of like TV moving from 3 channels eventually to cable, the industry evolving to today's anything-goes Steam model with its thousands of mobile ports inevitably leaves us with fewer shared experiences. We might meet someone through a favorite indie, or the rare AAA game with dedicated servers where the same people can congregate, but that community experience is largely gone and forgotten when playing online.
Reason for build
While Internet speeds and platforms like Discord have enabled us to feel closer while playing online, small form factor (SFF) gaming has also re-kindled the ability to actually drive out and visit friends, and slimming my LAN profile has been in my interest for years. That said, I realized quickly after my DADBOD VR build project that I had more of a server than a desktop, and trucking it to LANs was uncomfortable at best.
Thus began a months-long effort, spurred on by a friend who converted to a Node 202 SFF build, for me to find the perfect SFF LAN case for travel, form and function.
Fit in an Osprey Farpoint 40L daily driver backpack;
Fit as many full-size parts as possible, such as a full-length GPU, to allow hand-me-downs from the larger build.
Research quickly took me down 2 paths, the 'console' form cases, and the 'shoebox' forms. Beautiful as they are, I had to quickly throw the shoebox Dan A4 and NCASE M1 cases out for backpack fit concerns. That left the console style - namely the Node 202, Dr. Zaber Sentry, Skyreach 4 Mini, and Cryorig Taku (which turned out to be far too big). One thing stuck out, though. Why was the Taku the only case with symmetrical venting? Why was the biggest case the only one that could go horizontal? Why couldn't any of these designs handle horizontal OR vertical orientation without heating concerns?
Enter the Salvo Studios S400, which took me from "I like the idea of SFF but maybe one day" to "OK, nevermind, let's do this right now." What sold me? The emphasis on putting a flexible PCI-E extender ribbon cable underneath the video card, so it could orient and vent all to the same side. That allows the S400 to sit flat, like a monitor stand, or to stand up vertically. It fits in the linked Osprey backpack and when paired with the ROCCAT Tusko monitor carrier, I can take all my supplies in one comfortable trip from the car. (The backpack can actually fit the case along with accessories, like headphones and controllers, as well as a spare 17" laptop for other gamers!)
Salvo makes some ridiculously well-considered, well-thought-out cases, and I'll admit some hipster pride in being one of the relative few who could obtain the original S400. It's aluminum, built with a clamshell design, and has a few clever metal adapter pieces that allow you to secure the SFX-L PSU and full size GPU with screws to the underside of the case. Once the clamshell comes off, just 8 screws, you have full access to everything. Even better, I was able to take most parts from an aborted mid-range mATX LAN build and bring them down into this build. You'll see a size comparison with the ubiquitous NXZT S340 in the photos. Not easy to maneuver and not light, like this case! I also compared it to a Taku, for science, and the Taku is simply too big for travel as well.
What's fun about building in SFF? The challenge. What's frustrating? How challenging it actually is. You need custom cables. You need precision tools. You need to pre-plan your components and look at 'recipes' for what works in what cases. You need to consider connector placement on mITX mainboards. You need band-aids for all the scraping and fitting. You need custom cables. (In fact, the guts photos are out of date, and the braided Corsair cables have mostly all been replaced.)
SFF is worth it, especially as a second PC, or as a laptop alternative. I can't recommend enough buying a quality bespoke case and moving all your parts laying around into one.
All thanks absolutely and without hesitation go to Brian Anttila of Salvo Studios, who is one of the most active, magnanimous and inventive types you'll find on smallformfactor.net. Not only that, his recent purchase of a laser cutter and allowing me to hound him for a fresh panel is what really helped me feel the build was 'complete', and ready for posting on PCPP after a year of futzing with it.
Guys like Brian helped me extensively through getting used to thinking and building in SFF size, and I'm addicted to the challenge, now! Give Salvo your support if you're thinking SFF, and do your research on SFF.net and /r/sffpc if you'd like to pursue a small build.