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 These computers are now all but dead, having been replaced by the explosion of tablets.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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  • batguiide - Sunday, December 09, 2012 - link

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  • yhselp - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    It’s great that you do an SFF guide, but this one feels somehow … toned down. You say “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.”, and then proceed to recommend rather conservative builds. I’m not saying we should be on the extreme thermal edge, but none of the configurations you suggest are optimized and focused (except for the file server on the condition one needs all the HDD bays).

    For the budget build you could use an M350 enclosure, sure, it’s more expensive but it’s also much more compact. At $100 (including a picoPSU and a power brick) I think it’s a great deal for what you’re getting. You have to use a 2.5” HDD for it, but then again you can find those (1TB) for as little as $70 now. What you end up is an impossibly small toy-a-of-box which you can slap on the back of your monitor if you wanted to.

    For the gaming build you could use a Silverstone SG06-450 – you can fit any (single GPU) video card in there and the PSU would take it. It also has two drive bays (3.5” and 2.5”). It’s well-ventilated, trust me – I used to run an i5-750 and a GTX 470 in that thing. I even installed a closed-loop liquid CPU cooler in one of those. Heck, for the BitFenix Prodigy’s size you could build a full-fledged system. I mean that, two GTX 690s, or one 690s and a dedicated PhsyX video card, or anything that fits in 4 slots, a number of HDD bays, ODD, ATX PSU, liquid CPU cooling – the works. There are at least 4 enclosures from Silverstone alone that can pull this off.

    I respect what you’re doing, I’m an SFF proponent myself, but I’d really like to know the motivation behind your conservative choices. Anandtech is a very reputable source (if not THE source) and many people read what’s on the site as ‘law’, that’s the reason why I’m being so thorough – I think more SFF options should be voiced.
    Reply
  • pvdw - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    Zach, if you want your buyer's guides to be taken seriously you need to do more research.

    I'm certainly no expert, but as I mentioned in a previous review of small server builds, part selection is completely different from gaming machines. A 500W PSU for a server build??? You really need to check out the Seasonic S12II-380 and 330. They have no problem handling 6 drive home server builds, are practically silent, and much more efficient. You could go with the modular if you need space.

    Also, an alternative to the Node 304 is the Lian Li PC-Q08, which may well be a better choice noise-wise. There's no way to tell from the Node 304 review since Anandtech simply doesn't have the equipment to compare quiet builds.

    BTW, I love most reviews and articles on this site, but some like this are just annoying.
    Reply
  • war59312 - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    Hi,

    Small typo on page 3:

    "hopefully a 4GB model will be available soon."

    That should of course be 4TB, not GB. :)

    Take Care,

    Will
    Reply

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