Small Form Factor Buyers’ Guideby Zach Throckmorton on May 25, 2011 10:30 AM EST
Budget Intel SFF
The budget Intel SFF is capable of basic computing, but you aren’t going to want to play games more demanding than, say, Farmville on this system. In a similar vein, the inexpensive case, power supply, and fan are not going to be particularly quiet. If the primary use will be online shopping, checking sports scores, emailing, working on basic documents and spreadsheets, and removing red eye from pictures taken with a point and shoot camera, this system will handle those tasks easily without breaking the bank.
|Intel Budget SFF|
|CPU||Intel Celeron E3400||$44|
|Memory||Patriot 2GB PSD32G13332||$20||-$7|
|HDD||Western Digital Caviar Blue WD5000AAKS||$45|
|OS||Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit OEM||$100|
|Intel Basic SFF Upgrades|
|CPU||Intel Core i3-2100||$125|
|Total Price with Upgrades||$445||$438|
While the LGA775 platform won’t see any new budget CPUs—it’s EOL, which makes sense considering
we’re now two cycles away from when it was Intel’s current platform—a more powerful (used) LGA775 chip could be a viable drop-in upgrade as prices on CPUs like the venerable E8400 continue to drop. If you’d rather go with a more up-to-date Intel setup, we’ve included a Sandy Bridge Core i3 CPU and an appropriate motherboard for reference. That combination will substantially increase the system’s computing and graphics capabilities, as well as providing more potential longevity if you want to upgrade the CPU down the road, but it will also increase the price by about $100.
We’re going with a single 2GB DIMM, since that makes it easy to upgrade to 4GB later should that be deemed necessary—you’d just drop in another 2GB DIMM. The APEX case measures 11.8” x 8.7” x 5.1” (Length x Width x Height).
Budget AMD SFF
In a rather bizarre twist, even though AMD is usually associated with budget computing, mini-ITX solutions featuring AMD platforms are not nearly so numerous as those featuring Intel CPUs. Of the mini-ITX AM3 boards that we can find, many sport very outdated chipsets (e.g. NVIDIA’s now-defunct 6100/8200 chipset). The recommended motherboard manufacturer, Giada, is a relative newcomer to the North American market, but of the dozen or so Giada boards I’ve used in builds, they’ve all been acceptable and unremarkable for budget-oriented products. (Note: some of you will undoubtedly noticed there is a less expensive AMD-based mini-ITX board available at Newegg. I cannot recommend it because it uses an ancient (six years old!) chipset that will artificially limit the performance of AM3 CPUs, uses more expensive DDR2 instead of cheaper DDR3 memory, and lacks DVI and HDMI outputs.)
Like the budget Intel SFF system, this inexpensive AMD machine is capable of basic computing, and the cheap case and power supply are not going to be as efficient or quiet as higher quality components. I’ve built multiple systems with each of these budget cases, and they’re really a wash—neither is notably superior to the other. While this AMD system’s integrated graphics are superior to the Intel system’s IGP, it’s still not a gaming computer. The Foxconn case recommended with the AMD SFF build measures 14.2” x 11” x 3.8” (LxWxH).
|AMD Budget SFF|
|CPU||AMD Athlon II X2 250||$61|
|Memory||Patriot 2GB PSD32G13332||$20|
|HDD||Western Digital Caviar Blue WD5000AAKS||$45|
|OS||Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit OEM||$100|
We really don’t have any recommend upgrades for the AMD budget SFF. If you want to reduce the price, there’s a $55 Athlon II X2 245 clocked at 2.9GHz; however, that particular CPU is an OEM model so you’d need to buy a separate HSF, which would likely cost far more than the $6 you save by going with an OEM CPU. AMD also has the single-core Sempron CPUs, like the Sempron 145 for $36 (plus shipping), but we’re not willing to go that far in pursuit of cost savings. A better way to reduce cost would be to skip mini-ITX altogether and go with a mATX case and motherboard instead; pricing on mATX boards with the AMD 880G chipset starts at a far more palatable $55.
Recommended Budget SFF
The Intel SFF has two primary advantages over the AMD SFF. First, the cheaper CPU and motherboard contribute to a less expensive system. Second, the E3400 CPU loads at much lower wattage than the Athlon II X2 250 CPU, which is especially important in a cramped SFF chassis. There are “E” suffix AMD Athlon II X2 and X3 CPUs with a 45W TDP, but while these energy efficient chips erase the E3400’s thermal advantage, they are also more expensive than the regular 65W TDP Athlon II X2 250 CPU—and they’re also becoming increasingly difficult to find in retail channels. Furthermore, the average user doesn’t load their CPU very frequently, especially in budget systems like these, and the two CPUs idle at very similarly low wattage (i.e. most of the time, neither will be noticeably hotter or noisier than the other).
The two CPUs trade blows on benchmarks; regular desktop users will likely not be able to tell the difference between them in terms of performance. The total price difference is $30 in favor of Intel (looking at just the CPU and motherboard costs, as the cases are interchangeable), and while we don’t have either of these CPUs in Bench, you can get a reasonable idea of how they stack up by looking at the Athlon II 255 vs. Pentium E5200. (The 255 is clocked at 3.1GHz vs. 3.0GHz, and the E5200 is clocked at 2.5GHz with 2MB cache, compared to 2.6GHz with 1MB cache on the E3400.) Intel generally gets better optimizations for multimedia work, but the AMD CPU is faster in many general-use tasks (which the gaming results help to show, though those are with a discrete GPU installed).
If you have to buy right now, we give a slight edge to Intel’s old platform, but remember that the impending release of AMD’s Llano platform could shake things up at the budget end. We’ll have to wait for mini-ITX Llano boards to hit retail channels, and then we’ll see how expensive they are. That could take several months, so waiting for a budget Llano-based system is an individual decision.
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Simozene - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - linkI am currently in the market for a small NAS box and was debating on whether to buy a 2 drive model or build my own FreeNAS system. I think it would be useful if you guys did a similar guide for building a low power FreeNAS system that supports 2 to 4 hard drives as it becomes very difficult to figure out what parts to select in such a system.
chrone - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - linkyeah need a guide too, especially when using ubuntu as the NAS OS.
obsidian009 - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - linkSave yourself some time and headaches -- pickup an inexpensive Synology NAS like a DS211j, a couple hard drives and be done with it! I agonized over the details of building my own NAS for months -- ended up doing the Synology and have never looked back!
dcollins - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - linkJust want to second the Synology NAS recommendation. I used two of their boxes at work and absolutely love them. Excellent web GUI and 90% of a full linux system if you ssh to the box. If you want to be able to install new software, try to get one of their Intel Atom based boxes because there is more software available in the repository. For me, that meant being able to install python for scripting.
Great boxes with excellent online documentation through their wiki.
Simozene - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - linkThanks for the suggestion. The DS211j seems to be exactly what I need for a small home NAS. I doubt I could build a small and power efficient system for under $200 anyways so it is probably not worth the effort to go with FreeNAS. I would still like to see a NAS building guide on Anandtech though; as another reader pointed out a FreeNAS box that supports more than 2 hard drive is often a fraction of the price of the retail counterpart.
StormyParis - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - linkI'd go with an element Q case, replacing the PSU if silence is paramount. These fit up to 3x3.5" HDDs (on in the 5.25" slot), then any Atom MB, preferably a very simple one without ION, single core is enough if you do neither RAID nor encryption. I just built one such, except it doubles as an HTPC, so I went the Windows route, with an AMD E-350 whch is both overkill and a pain (FreeNAS ?) for a pure NAS. I got one internal 3TB drive for it, and an external one for backups. I'd rather start off with a single large drive and be able to add another one later on.
iahawkeye - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - linkI completely agree and am in the same boat. I've been planning on building a small NAS box based on FreeNAS or some flavor of Linux for a while now, but I have little to no experience in selecting parts for such a PC. I'm also completely new to Linux and have been wanting to branch out, so a walk through or guide on this topic would be awesome.
'nar - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - linkI went with a HP MediaSmart, mostly because I couldn't find a box that took 4 hard drives and was so small and easy to swap drives with, FreeNAS not-with-standing. I'd love a guide as well, but that is predicated on there being any suitable devices that actually exist.
Mediasmart has been discontinued now, and I really need a simple workgroup backup/storage device.
sullrosh - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - linkhttp://usa.chenbro.com/corporatesite/products_deta...
kepstin - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - linkI have one of those; It's a nice case, but the included fans are quite noisy. I keep mine in the basement, so it's not a real issue for me...