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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  • shamans33 - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    I think there are problems with the component selection and they gimped the AMD platform in so many unnecessary ways such as: $136 400W PSU paired with a dual core cpu for the SFF HTPC. Why would someone need a $136 400W PSU.....really.........Can't we find a cheap ATX PSU where the fan does not spin in a reasonably wide temperature range?

    I'm not 100% sure but I think the AMD SFF HTPC can run on the PSU of the Antec ISK 300-65 (or similar) as well.

    The Intel platforms are more thought out while the AMD platforms tend to sport "alternative parts" that don't make sense together.

    In addition, there's a large emphasis on noise and power requirements (which is good) but where's the case fan or cpu heatsink recommendations (which is bad)?

    If heat is such a problem with SFF Gaming systems, why not add a Coolit ECO ALC on a case that sports a 120 mm fan (and has enough clearance around it).

    Again Anandtech uses the term "Buyer's Guide" loosely. They should call it an Introduction. This article CANNOT be taken seriously.
  • shamans33 - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    I'd love to see what load temps are for the AMD SFF HTPC considering that case fans weren't added.

    Makes me think that the cpu heatsink fan would spin faster, negating the benefit of a "silent PSU".

    Other than temperatures, you need to post idle and load power usage to back up your claims.
  • Gigantopithecus - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    I dismissed the silent SeaSonic PSU as a boutique item when Anandtech reviewed it but after trying it out, I was very pleased with its performance. While it is not cheap, it's worth mentioning. Yes, we can find cheap ATX PSUs - see the other builds.

    The AMD SFF HTPC will NOT run on the ISK 300-65's PSU. The system loads at higher than that model's rated output. The system using a 7200rpm 3.5" HDD + 7200rpm 2.5" HDD instead of the guide's suggested SSD + 5400rpm 3.5" HDD loaded around 95W. Its idle draw was in the high 50s.

    As for your other question, load temps on the AMD SFF HTPC measured in February (60F ambient, I don't run my heat in the winter) were in the low 100s (i.e. 100-109F), so 40+ degrees delta vs ambient. At that temperature, the stock HSF is certainly not quiet. However, that system is not going to run at load as an HTPC often (if ever), and its operating temperatures were about 20 degrees over ambient, which for typical 'room temperature' is less than 100F, and at that temperature, the stock HSF can barely be heard across a room, and not at all during a movie.

    Your point about fan recommendations is noted.
  • shamans33 - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - link

    One thing you might want to mention is that ASUS M4A88T-I Deluxe does not support dual display. This is a big deal for some people.
  • Spazweasel - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    Once again, the low-profile question arises. For gaming purposes, what is the best low-profile card?

    Powercolor made a low-profile 5750, but it's discontinued, and I can't find it for sale anywhere.
    Palit makes a low-profile 450 GTS, but it has a reputation for running very hot and very loud. It is also quite long (by SFF standards).
    There are a few 5670 and 6570 low-profile cards available, but they're a little on the lightweight side for gaming.

    The best answer would be the promised 6670 low-profile card, which AMD has a reference design for, but which nobody seems to actually be making. Does anyone know whether low-profile 6670s are actually being made by anyone? I've checked a few major manufacturers, but haven't seen any 6670 in that form factor.
  • StormyParis - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    I guess it's on to a Silverstone Sugo, there's a handful of choices depending on legth of card.
  • SquattingDog - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - link

    THIS - have been having major difficulties coming across a 6670 low profile - none of my suppliers are stocking them - curious if anyone knows of ANY brands which are actucally doing them?
  • Sharro - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - link

    C'mon, not talking about Shuttle in this is ...sort of a crime...looking at all these boxes I do not see where they excel some of Shuttle models in any task...

    A pitty.

    All the best,

  • jrs77 - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - link

    Shuttle uses their own mainboards, which is kinda against the premisse of switching components at will.
  • Mr Perfect - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - link

    Shuttle is sort of a crime. >_< Proprietary motherboards, weak PSUs, old last generation components(or at least, the last time I bothered looking at them).

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