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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  • chaoticlusts - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    you could have a look on the freenas forums and such if your curious, I've built a freenas box though it's not small cause I wanted to be able to put a lot of HDD's in there (got 8 atm)

    requirements vary drastically depending on what your doing with it, if your running a RAID setup then there's bugger all requirements really...but if your going with FreeNAS you really should be running ZFS in which case you need a little bit of cpu power (though still a low budget celeron or similar is fine, just don't reuse and old single core that might be pushing it) actually in the end you can get bottom range components for basically everything the couple of bits you should *not* skimp on is PSU (never skimp on that) get a decent amount of RAM (4-8GB) doesn't need to be fast though just a decent quantity and obviously get the case your happy with..

    FreeNAS can be a bit of a headache to find your way around if your not used to FreeBSD or similar but once you learn it's damn easy and saves you *tons* of money over a dedicated NAS box (not to mention ZFS is far superior to standard RAID) I think my box cost me about 300-400 total not including HDDs....a 8 drive dedicated NAS would probably cost a few grand normally without HDD's...

    course this does all depend on how much storage you need..like people pointed out...if you only need a little a NAS might be overkill :)
    Reply
  • 2korda2 - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - link

    +1 on that.
    Been looking at Synology 411 series, but not sure the J-series is enough. '+' costs a lot more.
    Reply
  • JFish222 - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    I have to agree. I would love to see this discussed.

    While there are a number of inexpensive NAS appliances out there, there is only so much you can do at the lower price points(based around arm cores).

    Having advnaced media streaming/transcoding, wan side access (even providing vpn support) etc are where custom boxes pay off.

    Expecially if you want more than 2 HD's or want to push hardware RAID 5 (cheap adaptec cards on ebay "raid adaptec sata" < $20)

    The only issues become time and effort. Would never knock an off the shelf system, but I'm far to interested in going beyond what an ARM core can offer at a price point I'm able to afford.

    Though I'm still researching, projects like Amahi are attempting to make this even more of a "user friendly" process.
    Reply
  • chrone - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    really love this SFF part, unfortunately there's very limit component choice sold here in indonesia. :( Reply
  • StanFL - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    I built a WHS box based on the Apex case used in the Budget SFF. Dual core Atom mini ITX board with four SATA ports. By foregoing an optical drive, I shoehorned three 3.5" hard drives in it. I can add a fourth hd if necessary with a Esata bracket occupying the lone expansion slot. It's a nice little low power box thats been running 24/7 for nearly a year now. Reply
  • EddyKilowatt - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    Same here, WHS on Atom mobo (from Intel) in the Apex case. 18 watts at idle. Just two 1 TB green drives for me though... so far they're about half full.

    I didn't expect full benchmarks on each build in this article, but a couple of basic numbers and an idle/loaded power reading from a Kill-A-Watt would've been nice. Great article anyway, though, keep 'em coming.
    Reply
  • Shadowmaster625 - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    I have a sempron 140 running at 800 MHz @ 1.1V. The cheapo $20 motherboard I am using will not let me take the volts any lower... But anyway the point is this thing surfs the web and plays youtube videos just fine. It has no fan. I took the fan off the stock hsf. I ran rthdribl all day long and the core temp reads just 68. lol. The main cpu thermal sensor reads 52. Reply
  • dagamer34 - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    I recently built a SFF HTPC and this was my setup:

    Case: Thermaltake Element Q case w/ 220W PSU: $70 from Micro Center
    CPU: Intel Core i3-2100: $99 from Micro Center
    Motherboard: Gigabyte H67-USB3-B3: $110
    Video Card: AMD Radeon HD 6570 1GB DDR3: $70 from Amazon
    Memory: 4GB Corsair DDR3 1333Mhz RAM (CMX4GX3M1A1333C9): $41 from Amazon
    SSD: OCZ Vertex 2 60GB: $110 from Micro Center
    HDD: old 120GB HD from Apple MacBook Pro
    AMS Dual SATA Enclosure (DS-112SSBK): $20 from Newegg
    Antec Veris Elite IR Receiver: $59 from Amazon
    OS: TechNet Subscription

    I got a separate video card because of all the post-processing that the card can do, as well as correctly outputting 23.976 fps video.

    I'd also argue that any serious HTPC needs to have the cost of an IR dongle included. No one should be using a mouse and keyboard.
    Reply
  • StormyParis - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    I really think the review would be a lot more informative if you did two things:

    1- differentiate by function: Netttop, NAS, HTPC, Gaming. You're kinda doing it now, but still not fully.

    2- include ready-made PCs, and give more choices for components.

    Case in point: I recently replaced my micro-ATX rig with 2 mini-itx ones:
    - a NAS/ HTPC, in an ElementQ case with an aftermarket PSU. This allows 3x3.5" HDs, one can be a DVD/BR instead, in the size of a shoe box.
    - a VESA-mounted Nettop in an M350 case. (T-3410 would have been much cheaper)

    Both with the Asus passive E-350 motherboard, which is surprisingly adept in the nettop: it drives 2 screens, one can run full-screen SD video while I play Civ4 on the other.

    I think you're going overboard with the CPU power, too, except for the gaming rig.
    Reply
  • vnangia - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    Wouldn't something like the PC-Q08 be a better choice for a NAS? That plus either the Zotac H55/H67 or DTX D510 gives you the ability to put in six drives easily stock, and possibly eight with a cheap addon card and a 5.25-3.5 adapter. Reply

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