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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  • hsew - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - link

    I'm lost here. What purpose does an overclocking chip do on a platform that can't overclock?
  • Gigantopithecus - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - link

    Resale value, plain & simple.
  • Mr Perfect - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - link

    One person posted a build and mentioned that with the K series graphics, plus the ability to overclock the graphics, he was able to keep from using a discreet GPU in his HTPC. It would also give you options if you later wanted a Z68 board.
  • Dustin Sklavos - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - link

    The 2500K and 2700K are the only desktop chips that have twelve shader units instead of six on Sandy Bridge. It's an asinine distinction Intel made, but if you want a competent IGP you have to go for the K series.
  • jo-82 - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - link

    are quadratic Mainboards imho, like miniITX with 17x17cm. It would be mouch nicer to get mobos with 23x13cm.
  • shamans33 - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - link

    it's for backwards compatibility with motherboard standoffs
  • rhyscathym - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - link

    What does the quality of HD playback look like on this machine? It would be great to see this system run through media playback benchmarks.

    Also, will this system support the Audio decoding that a distinct video card such as the ATi 5770 provides?
  • Mr Perfect - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - link

    Thanks for doing this article, it's great to see serious ITX machines getting some recognition.

    Now if anyone would bother releasing a Z68 mITX board, I can get on with building something that will outpace even the nicer gaming rig in the guide here.
  • e36Jeff - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - link

    I know they are not the easiest to find, and they do run a bit more, but AMD does have a 250e(as well as a 245e, 240e, and 235e) that is exactly the same as the 250 you had selected, but uses 20W less. seems it would be a better fit for the HTPC or the alternative CPU for the gaming rig. Its extra price would, however, likely rule it out for the budget build.
  • MadAd - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    My friend bought his ancient 10 yo PC around for a fix up, after explaining how every part in the box was pointlessly obsolete, I did have to pause and say, well you could use the ATX case again.

    Isnt it time to move on? Sure there are smaller boards and cases to buy, but as a standard ATX is like the old dog that still barks at the movements in the yard but should have been put to sleep years ago.

    What was it keeping the standard alive? Motherboards certainly dont need to be that big, hardly anyone uses more than 1 or 2 optical drives these days (infact do we need an optical format going forward anyway? but thats a different discussion), HDDs are not limited to 3.5" anymore and theres NAS boxes springing up if we do need more of either of those, e-sata one of those next to it, perfect expansion system.

    Video cards can still be full height and length, and provision can be made for multiple slot boards- but other than that, its the PSUs that arent changing shape and are hard to find smaller, but if a new standard was bought out they would be remade, without having to pay out the wazoo for 1U type kit

    Time for a change?

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