We have been discussing the recent trend of Small Form Factor (SFF) or Ultra-Compact Form Factor (UCFF) PCs and their subsequent rise in the market during our last couple of system reviews. But when you shrink the size, the first compromise that comes is in terms of hardware. Often, low end parts are just what they are – low end. That means performance leaves much to be desired and expandability is nonexistent. With the progress on lithographic process for processor manufacturing at least, some of those issues are being tackled head on. We now have completely fanless systems with desktop class processors which was a far cry a couple of years back. For the GPU, it is a different thing altogether. For the last couple of generations, the GPU manufacturing process is stuck in 28nm, meaning that most SFF/UCFF systems are forced to rely on Intel/AMD’s on-die GPU solutions to save power and thermals. While that compromise sounds fine for most HTPC scenarios, in a situation where the user wants a HTPC that can run games at 1080p with acceptable frame rates, it becomes hamstrung. This is where our today’s contender, the ROG GR8 comes in.
ASUS has been diversifying their ROG moniker for the last couple of years. Initially introduced with their range of motherboards and GPUs, we now have ROG line expanding into peripherals, monitors and laptops. This isn’t ASUS’ first foray into SFF systems but in terms of design and hardware, the GR8 (abbreviation for great) is a major departure from the boxy enclosures that we have been familiarized with till now. Whether the performance makes up for it is the point of this review.
Before we begin to dissect the GR8 we need to remember that this is a first generation product and should be treated that way. Every first generation technology that we have seen till now (the recent MacBook 12 comes to mind as an immediate reference) have been subject to controversies, some for design choices, some for their price and some for the flexibility or rather the lack of it, and mostly for not adopting to an industry standard. But as further iterations arrive (another Apple example, the MacBook Air), the view and general acceptability changes towards it to favorable. In that regard, judging the GR8 is a little precarious. With that said, let’s delve into what’s being offered here.
The base model of GR8 being offered comes with an Intel Core i7-4510U processor, NVidia GTX750Ti GPU, 8GB of Dual channel Samsung memory at 1600MHz, a SanDisk U110 128GB SATA3 SSD and a 500GB mechanical hard drive. That is plenty of juice when we consider the sheer volume of the GR8, and having a full fat desktop class GPU certainly adds to the appeal. Choosing a mobile i7 processor keeps the heat and power consumption limited, and the i7-4510U is a nice 2core, 4thread part that fits the job. Choice of Samsung memory and the mix of flash and mechanical storage is also a strong point for GR8, since most of the SFF systems have the option of choosing any one from the two. Being an ROG product, the usual ROG additions are also here – ASUS’ AI Suite with an ROG theme, SupremeFX audio with Sonic SoundStage 2, GameFirst III network and packet prioritizing software etc. The gigabit Ethernet provided is courtesy of an Intel I219-V controller, while the Wi-Fi 802.11ac module is a Realtek 8811AU 2×2 solution.
The inspiration for ASUS while building the GR8 has been the small volumes of the current generation consoles. ASUS pits the GR8 as a console level gaming PC with its 2.5L chassis volume. In person, the GR8 looks smaller than either the PS4 or the Xbox One. The design is an all metal amalgamation of two parts and from the side it looks like the square body sits inclined on a trapezoidal base, resulting in an edgy design. From the front the middle section looks wedged between two tapered metal pieces that are given a red paintjob on the inside but the black matte finish on the outside. The red inners are further stylized by using a pattern that we have seen in ASUS’ recent ROG products (a Mayan inspired one according to them). This gives the GR8 a very premium and distinct look. The side plates have the ROG eye stamped on them.
In front, from top to bottom, we have the power button (which glows orange when the system is powered on from the socket but isn’t running, and changes to red when the system is running) on the topmost position. The button is big and tactile. Below that is the Miracast receiver. The GR8 features a media streamer that can be used to stream videos with any compatible device. The bottom half houses the headphone and microphone jacks and two USB2.0 ports. One of the two USB2.0 ports can be used for fast charging. A pulsating ROG logo is placed on the near bottom where the front tapers in. the ROG logo can be set to on/off and pulsate and adds to the overall look and feel.
The host of I/Os are at the rear end of the GR8. We get the HDD status indicator, full quota of audio jacks with S/PDIF optical output, HDMI and DisplayPort display outputs, an Intel GbE port, four USB3.0 ports, the DC IN power input and a Kensington lock port. The amount of I/O provided is far more than what we see in traditional SFF systems, but then the GR8 is larger than the systems we have reviewed before, opening up the chances for cramming in more features. I would have liked to see the HDD status LED in front of the device, but for HTPC a flickering light can be a distraction while consuming media.
As previously stated, the choice of Intel’s Core i7-4510U as the heart of GR8 is interesting. At 2GHz base and 3.1GHz boost frequencies, the 4510U isn’t as fast as the flagship mobile CPUs from Intel, and neither is it a true quad core offering, coming at 2C/4T. But the 4510U has an ace up its sleeve – the 15W TDP. While TDP isn’t really a measure of a component’s power consumption, it represents a median that gives us an idea of what it may end up consuming from the wall, and here adding the 4510U effectively means ASUS can get away with a smaller power brick that most gaming laptops, adding to the mobility of the entire GR8 unit. Let’s come to the GPU section now. NVidia’s GTX 750Ti is a capable card, representing first generation of Maxwell based GPUs that ultimately gave way to stronger, more efficient second generation offerings like the GTX980/970 and the likes. What that means is the 750Ti is the baseline Maxwell – and comes with power/thermal improvements that made Maxwell so popular, a perfect fit for a portable machine like the GR8. Using the full fat desktop version means it gets 2GB of GDDR5 instead of the obscene 6GB models that some of the competitors are using (seriously, 6GB on a 750Ti?). Some may snigger that the 2GB video memory, but for most games running at 1080p it should be fine, albeit with lower detail in a couple of them. ASUS is aiming the GR8 at online games and LAN parties, and the GTX750Ti should play titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, DoTA2 and CS: GO just fine, even with high details. That being said, I would love to see a card like the GTX970/R9 380 make the cut here. Since the TDPs of those cards are less than 150W, I think ASUS can get away with a little thicker power brick while pushing out a lot more performance. Maybe we will see something like this in GR8 version 2.0.
The base version of GR8 ships with 8GB of DDR3L-1600 memory from Samsung that is upgradable to 16GB. For most gaming and daily needs, 16GB should be enough, and I am happy to see ASUS use Samsung memory. The big draw for GR8 is also the easy upgradability for memory and storage. Both the DRAM slots and an additional storage slot (for an SSD/2.5inch HDD) are housed in a separate enclosure and can be accessed by opening the side panel. This is a welcome addition since despite the limited amount of RAM that can be added to the system, the storage space can be upgraded significantly, adding to overall system performance.
There are vents on the bottom and top of the system to allow air to circulate.
For the base model there are two variants of the GR8 in terms of bundled accessories. The barebones model comes with just the GR8 and the power brick, whereas the other model ASUS bundles in their ROG Gladius mouse and M801 mechanical keyboard. Both are new offerings from the company, with the Gladius being older than the M801 in terms of release. The M801 uses Kailh mechanical switches and comes with red backlit illumination. I personally liked the heft of the overall keyboard, the key travels and the lighting – though tenkeyless may not be everybody’s cup of tea, the keyboard feels solid. It also features gold plated USB2.0 connector, a removable chord, N-key rollover, anti-ghosting and special gaming modes that disable the Windows key. The illumination is also configurable.
We have covered the ROG Gladius in our full review before, so I won’t discuss it in detail here. In brief, this is ASUS’ flagship gaming mouse as of now, featuring a 6400dpi optical sensor, Omron switches that can be replaced, a two-level DPI switch and slide-to-press side switches.
Inclusion of both M801 and the Gladius should be part of the default bundle in my opinion since they both are great additions to the GR8 and gives the user more peace of mind rather than going out and buying one from thousands of available choices. That will make the bundle more appealing to the general user as well.
BIOS & Bundled Software:
The BIOS is a red and black concoction akin to the ROG motherboards that we have seen. The options provided are fairly limited and concern onboard devices for the most part. The CPU section has the options to disable C states, Hyperthreading as well as hardware prefetch.
The pulsating ROG logo can be disabled from the BIOS as well. ASUS lists out Sonic Studio options in the BIOS too, though finer tuning is done by the desktop app. It would be nice to get a screenshot option too in the BIOS like we have in new-gen UEFIs.
For bundled software the GR8 comes with quite a few, including a one year full license of Kaspersky Antivirus. As far as ASUS utilities are concerned, things start with their system monitoring and tweaking tool, AI Suite III. The AI Suite in the GR8 is limited to only system monitoring, updater and Wi-Fi utilities, so there are no CPU/DRAM tweaking tools available from the desktop. ASUS WebStorage & ASUS HomeCloud are web based storage applications available in the GR8. ASUS provides 100GB of cloud storage with the GR8, which should come in handy if you have a speedy internet connection.
SupremeFX implementation means that the audio software package is included.
The network packet prioritizing software, GameFirst III is ASUS’ custom layer on the popular cFOS suite.
For benchmarking, I compared the GR8’s CPU to the previous SFF PCs that went under the review scanner. For GPU testing however, I spared the iGPUs because the GTX 750Ti was a far superior option and the comparison won’t be fair.
Disk and Memory Benchmarks:
It is rather difficult to sum up a product like the ASUS GR8. At one side, the design and the hardware offered is stellar. It also offers some expandability which is good for a system of just 2.5L volume. The desktop class 750Ti is in no means a flagship, but it is miles ahead from the onboard GPUs that most small systems rely on. The processor chugs along nicely for most day-to-day work and does not become a bottleneck in games. The bundled M501 keyboard and Gladius mouse are great additions. But in all aspects, the GR8 is a niche product as the appeal for a small form factor gaming PC is rather limited. Considering it does not have as much as upgradability as a normal desktop computer, most users will be deterred by it. I see the GR8 to be a competent HTPC solution that can double up as a casual gaming box – since we are already seeing major influx of 4K televisions and the 750Ti is just not equipped to handle gaming at UltraHD resolution. It is an excellent media consumption device however, and should handle 4K video with ease.
Talking about design choices, I quite like the GR8 in its current avatar. It has the suave looks that can fit a modern room without looking too gaudy, and the subtle lights make it an attractive option to be kept on the table rather than being hidden in a corner. The specifications are great too – a Core i7 processor, 8/16 GB of DDR3-1600 Samsung memory, a Sandisk U110 128/256GB SATA3 SSD, desktop grade GPU, make it pretty appealing.
There’s nothing much to say about the 750Ti in GR8. It performs as it should, offering great performance across almost all games in 1080p at high settings. The 2GB of VRAM is starting to show its age, but for most modern titles it is just fine as long as the settings are not cranked up. The Core i7-4510U also offers a decent show and should be enough for HTPC/gaming duties. Expandability is severely hamstrung by the GR8’s form factor. One can upgrade to a fast SSD and more RAM, but ultimately SATA SSDs will be bottlenecked by their interface speeds. In future iterations I would love to see a PCIe based SSD which is much faster than the traditional ones.
The last major flaw against the GR8 is its India pricing. At almost 90K, the GR8 is asking you to pay almost double for its sleek design and form factor. For most gamers and enthusiasts, that is a tough pill to swallow. It would have been justifiable with a GTX970, faster processor, more memory and storage, but at the current base configuration it is just too expensive to recommend. But as I said in the beginning of my review that GR8 is a first generation product. I can only hope that the Skylake refresh of GR8 will come with all its caveats removed and at a cheaper price. That will make a truly ‘GR8’ SFF gaming machine, possibly the one to have.