Defining Small Form Factor

What, exactly, is a small form factor (SFF) system? Like many computing solutions, there’s no industry standard definition everyone follows. Typically, SFF systems accommodate either a mini-ITX or micro-ATX motherboard, a desktop-class CPU, desktop (or in some cases laptop) RAM, 2.5” or 3.5” hard drives, slim or standard optical drives, flex ATX (slim) or standard ATX power supplies, and sometimes (but not always) a discrete video card. SFF systems usually are not the way to go if you need room for housing more than a couple hard drives; likewise, they generally aren’t optimal for very high-end (and therefore hotter) CPUs like Intel’s and AMD’s hex-core chips, or high-end GPU configurations including SLI/CrossFire setups. Most ITX SFF systems only offer one expansion slot, and that one is usually low profile, though the micro-ATX sized systems frequently have room to accommodate more potent configurations. Thus, depending on your definition of SFF and system size, you can build everything from tiny and silent boxes up to very powerful and capable systems.

SFF systems offer a number of advantages compared to larger traditional desktops. First and perhaps foremost, they are of course small in terms of physical dimensions. This is an especially important consideration where real estate is at a premium, like in a dorm room, smaller apartment, or work cubicle. Even if you’re not particularly limited for space, a smaller computer frees up space for things you’d rather look at—like a larger monitor! Some SFF cases are as tiny as a shoebox. Others are a bit larger, but none of them approach the dimensions of a full-size or even mid-size ATX tower. This makes SFF systems ideal for HTPC use, placed alongside other smaller (relative to a traditional desktop chassis) home theater components like receivers.

Second, because they are small, they are also less massive. SFF systems are light enough for all but the puniest computer nerd to carry with one arm—or less flippantly, more convenient for elderly or disabled computer users to manage. The combination of small size and light weight makes them far more portable than traditional desktop computers. That leads us to the third point: you can pack a lot more computing power into a SFF system than a similarly priced laptop. If you don’t need the portability of a notebook and you need more power on a budget, SFF systems are reasonable alternatives to laptops—especially if you have peripherals ready to go wherever you’ll be taking your SFF. For example, SFF systems make great LAN party gaming rigs, and I carried an SFF between a research lab and my apartment for a semester twice a week when I couldn’t afford a sufficiently powerful laptop.

SFF systems do have a number of limitations as well. As noted above, you simply can’t fit a lot of components in a tiny space. Perhaps the most important considerations in assembling a SFF system are heat and noise. Cramming a bunch of heat-generating parts in a small space makes for a toasty chassis. Given the small dimensions of a SFF case, you’re often stuck with 80mm (or smaller) case fans, which typically move less air and generate more noise than 120mm (or larger) case fans—though many newer SFF cases (particularly mATX sized chassis) feature 120mm fans. The advent of small computer cases with improved airflow and larger fans has greatly mitigated the heat and noise concerns of their predecessors from even a few years ago. However, noise and temperature are still a concern for SFF systems. This point highlights the need for a well-managed interior—larger chassis are more forgiving of messy cabling, but SFF systems typically demand neat (i.e. time-consuming) cable management.

So with that out of the way, if you’re looking to go small and go home with your small system, let’s get to the builds. This month’s guide features two builds—one Intel-based, one AMD-based—for each of the following types of computers: basic, general purpose office type builds for the budget-conscious; HTPCs with an ear toward low noise; and gaming rigs with an eye toward graphics performance. We also discuss alternative components for some of the systems. As with our nettop guide, we are including six different cases—two for each of the builds. Unless otherwise noted, the “Intel” and “AMD” case choices are interchangeable, and the same goes for the storage and other components. Only the CPU, motherboard, and potentially memory (and IGP in situations where we’re using integrated graphics) differ, so when looking at the final price we will only compare AMD and Intel based on those differences.

Budget SFFs
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  • fujii13 - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    Thanks. This is the first time I've seen the PC-Q08. Might be exactly what I'm looking for for a SFF All in one HTPC and NAS with 4+ drives. I only wish they'd nix the 5.25 drives and make it a little smaller.
  • Forrest319 - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    I built a Zacate based HTPC yesterday. Using the same antec case they used for the intl HTPC in this article. I'm happy so far.
  • vnangia - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    Hi Zach, thanks for the write up, but I've got to say, your choice in cases for the SFF HTPC leaves something to be desired. I'm not sure whether you're going for a certain budget (don't see any such considerations in your text), so perhaps consider some alternative cases, especially in place of the Lian Li.

    Some inexpensive suggestions:
    -Thermaltake's Element Q - $80 and nicely takes the stock AMD cooler and the full-wattage Core i stock cooler as well. The smaller T/S 2011 Core i cooler leaves even more space.
    -Compucase's ITX200A - a $50 case that leaves $30 to spend on a Big Shuriken or a Kozuti.

    If money is no object, then there's the Luxa case and a couple of others as well. I agree there aren't nearly enough good ITX cases, but the Lian-Li seems the worst of all worlds - there's no way you're going to be putting that in a media cabinet.
  • ganjha - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    One more case I'd like to suggest., the In-Win BK6**. I built hundreds of budget computers in those cases (BK623) and it's a decent option when you factor in it's size and that it can accommodate a µATX motherboard and includes a 300W SFX powersupply that is pretty quiet. Not a particularly reliable PSU in the long run, but does it's job.

    I see it's available at Newegg for $60.
  • Gigantopithecus - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    The BK6s are nice cases - but their PSUs are in my experience unreliable, and I'm personally willing to make less money if it means I'm less likely to hear about a problem with a customer's computer!
  • vnangia - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    I think if you're going up to the mATX size cases, the Silverstone ML03B works really well - relatively compact for a mATX case, and a ITX or DTX fits in there with much less difficulty.
  • Gigantopithecus - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    Perhaps not in a traditional, horizontally-oriented media cabinet, but many of my customers do not have traditional media cabinets (if they have cabinets at all!), and the Lian Li I suggested works well for them. I should have made that clearer in the article, though, so your criticism is certainly understandable!

    I've used the Element Q before and found it very plasticky with an underwhelming PSU. However, I agree that it is spacious and a good budget choice. I wanted the case selections in the article for the HTPCs to be a marked contrast.

    I have not used the Compucase ITX200A, and will be ordering one of those soon, as that looks an intriguing piece of hardware - thanks!
  • vol7ron - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    Forgive me for saying, but isn't the Home Theatre portion of HTPC missing in this review?

    I would think that streaming/decoding digital TV via cablecard would be one of the basis of my HTPC. I'm looking at the mobos and the features and there isn't any incentive in getting the HTPC vs getting the gaming, or other alternative.

    Am I wrong?
  • Gigantopithecus - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    No. The article should have explicitly described that since most mini-ITX boards do not have a PCI nor PCIe x1 slot, you are limited to USB interface TV tuner cards if you will be using one with an HTPC. Forwarded to Jarred...

    As for incentive vs the gaming systems, HTPCs need less CPU power and at this point, they generally don't need discrete GPUs.
  • dagamer34 - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    And any PCI-Express board fully in spec should be able to let you stick a PCI-Express x1 card into a PCI-Express x16 slot and have it work fine.

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