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Evolution of the Small Form Factor

The first small form factor systems I built used Shuttle Computer barebones, back in 2006. One had an AMD Athlon 64 X2 CPU installed, and the other used an Intel Pentium D (Pentium 4 dual-core) CPU in it. If you remember these processors, you might already raise your eyebrows at the wisdom of putting these chips in a small form factor system. Compared to today's processors, the AMD dual-core put out a lot of heat, and the Intel dual-core could practically be used as a space heater. Combined with 80mm case fans, non-80+ power supplies, and 2.5V DDR memory, these systems ran hot and ran loud. I ended up having to extensively modify the AMD-based Shuttle to get it to operate to my satisfaction, and I never got the Intel-based system running as well as I wanted it to—and that's putting it diplomatically. [Ed: I reviewed many a Shuttle system back in the day; I would say only about a third of the units ran without trouble past the  two year mark! Other brands were similarly unreliable.]

Nevertheless, the potential benefits of the small form factor were apparent, despite technology that wasn't quite there. Small form factor systems take up very little space, which is especially appealing in cramped conditions, like cubicles, dorm rooms, and when you want more room on your desk for a bigger monitor. They're easy to transport because you can fit it under one arm and they don't weigh much. There's also an aesthetic appeal to minimalists like me who like the efficiency of having no more computer than necessary to accomplish computing purposes.

Early last year I wrote a guide featuring nettops, small form factor computers that were useful for the most basic computing tasks. These computers are now all but dead, having been replaced by the explosion of tablets. However, more powerful small form factor systems remain a viable option for a desktop computing solution. Intel's current Ivy Bridge-based CPUs have very low TDPs—even some quad-core SKUs have TDPs of 55W or less under full, sustained load. And AMD's current Trinity APUs pack a quad-core CPU and discrete-level GPU into a 100W thermal envelope. Both Intel and AMD solutions will typically produce far less heat than that, too, considering most people do not put their computers under 100% load for extended periods of time, and these chips idle at low power consumption levels. Furthermore, any PSU worth its salt features 80% efficiency or better, and DDR3 memory pulls 1.5V or less. We've come a long way since 2006!

In this guide we've outlined small form factor gaming desktops, a file server, and on the next page, a diminutive desktop that won't break the bank.

Budget Small Form Factor Systems
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  • jackstar7 - Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - link

    I still build the occasional Shuttle and going Open Box from Newegg makes them often an excellent deal. Given that power needs have dropped significantly over the years, a Shuttle can stay cool and quiet these days and deliver a very solid experience.

    While folks might want to have their hands in all of the parts of a build, there's still value in what Shuttle brings to the desk. My most recent build included a 3770S and serves its owner very well so far. I also have a very minimalist Shuttle running with a 2400S for my HTPC and it runs more quietly than my PS3.
    Reply
  • marvdmartian - Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - link

    Hopefully their power supply problems have been solved by now? Last time I bought a Shuttle SFF system (~5 years ago), it ran fine for the first 2 years, then fried a power supply, which eventually led to a fried motherboard (lasted ~2 weeks, then died). Being a micro-BTX system, it was easier (and cheaper) to simply replace it with a standard micro-ATX case & motherboard. Reply
  • jackstar7 - Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - link

    They started using rated 80+ PSUs that have shown me no trouble at all. Even the ones from a few years back rarely gave me any trouble at all and I was packing the things with high-power GPUs and OC-ing my CPU.

    I use a full tower for myself these days, but I still keep an eye on Shuttle because there are times when it's just a plain good deal.
    Reply
  • roland12321 - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    I can't believe he's hammering at Shuttle there... I bought a Shuttle back in 2004 and only stopped working last year, because I accidentally damaged the motherboard because I had to replace its bios battery. Even that system was an AMD (single core, though), also using an 80mm fan and it worked fine. The only things I replaced over the years was a hard disk and a video card. Mind you, the power supply of the old Shuttle was only 250W. Maybe people were overloading their power supply without realising it, causing it to pop.

    As a matter of fact, because it ran so well, earlier this year I bought a new Shuttle SH67H3 and it still runs like a dream! I can't overclock my CPU (which is logical) but I have zero complaints. My next PC will also definitely be a Shuttle! It's powering the i5-2500 with a HD 7850 without any issues at all.

    Also, Shuttle make their own motherboards, and are WAAYYYY ahead of any other competitor on the small form factor field. Have a look at their website, all their products are quite impressive. And I agree with jackstar7, Shuttle PCs don't make any noise. I accidentally turned it off once because I didn't hear it being on. Maybe the reviewer was running his fans at 100%?

    Imo Shuttle deserves more respect...
    Reply
  • max347 - Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - link

    I think page 2 should read 4TB instead of 4GB (last paragraph) Reply
  • sligett - Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - link

    "the plural of anecdote is not data."

    Well said.
    Reply
  • Mumrik - Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - link

    Best sentence in the entire article. Reply
  • tjcinnamon - Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - link

    I have a Synology NAS and one thing I like is that it sleeps until it's hit with a request for data. Can a fileserver be set to sleep after a set amount of activity but then awake on data request (not WOL because it's a data request).

    Thanks,
    JOe K.
    Reply
  • bobbozzo - Friday, December 07, 2012 - link

    Probably not, but you can tell the OS to put the disks to sleep after a inactivity timeout. Reply
  • Guspaz - Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - link

    In my Shuttle SZ77R5, I've got an i7-3770k, a GeForce GTX 670, 16GB of RAM, two SSDs (with room for a third in mSATA format), and a BluRay burner. There is also room for an mPCIe wifi adapter if I should feel so inclined. Alternatively, I could have gone with one mSATA SSD and two 3.5" HDDs for bulk storage, but I have a big file server and so don't need bulk storage in my desktop.

    It's hard to imagine what else you might need in a typical gaming PC. I guess there could be people who have need of more than one optical drive, or more than three hard disks, or some monster dual GPU graphics card, but those people would be few and far between.

    There is one critical flaw in the system, though. The BIOS (even the latest update claiming to fix the problem) can't read the temperature properly from IvyBridge CPUs, and as such, will let the thing fry before spinning up the CPU fan. Your options are either to permanently run it on jet-engine-loud mode, or to do what I did and use something like SpeedFan to do a custom fan profile.

    Having to use SpeedFan isn't a problem for me, but someone less technically inclined may not be able to solve the problem like this, and would consider it a fatal flaw.
    Reply

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