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 These computers are now all but dead, having been replaced by the explosion of tablets.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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  • 96redformula - Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - link

    Not sure how you couldn't include Silverstone SG-09 as a case. Yeah, I know, the style is hit or miss, but hard to argue vs all the capabilities and features of it.

    I have a full blown gaming system in mine and the advantages are huge; the option of going crossfire/SLI, full sized CPU tower, water cooling capable, and smaller than the Bitfenix Prodigy case.
    Reply
  • bim27142 - Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - link

    it's more expensive i think that's why... Reply
  • JohnMD1022 - Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - link

    Requires a slot load optical drive... $70. Waiting for mine to arrive.

    Needs the special ODD cable ($9).

    For all intents and purposes, requires a Silverstone full modular power supply ($80 and up) plus the short cable set ($25).

    We're over $100 already, plus the $100 for the case.

    Hmmmmmmmmm...
    Reply
  • lmcd - Sunday, January 13, 2013 - link

    Brief correction: slot-load dvd is $30 Reply
  • JohnMD1022 - Saturday, February 09, 2013 - link

    $30?

    Where?

    Half height tray loads are $30.

    Slot loads are 70+

    :)
    Reply
  • Cygni - Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - link

    These tiny ITX systems also have another use not really mentioned: as a full blown media center PC (often with CableCard tuners). It's a combo of features that's hard to nail right now in the market place... quiet, small, presentable in the middle of a living room, optical audio out, half height PCie bracket you dont have to bend to get to work, etc.

    I currently have a G530, BIOSTAR TH61ITX, and Antec ISK 310-150, with a Ceton 4 tuner card. Looking pretty hard at going to a 35w Ivy Bridge Celly/Pentium when they become available, because even the dainty G530 is enough to spin up the fans with 3 channels recording.
    Reply
  • pdffs - Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - link

    I was thinking this too, but...

    Optical audio should pretty much be phased out now that HDMI is so prevalent (HDMI audio is vastly superior, and carried by all equipment for the past few years).

    And it'd be hard to recommend a capture card for such a build, since there are so many standards in different regions.

    I'm looking at replacing my aging ION box with some Ivy Bridge (though I wish Intel would fix the 24p frame-rate issue).
    Reply
  • Rick83 - Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - link

    I disagree: The stereo amplifier I bought two years ago features optical in, but no HDMI.

    Optical also means less conducitivity, so more resilience against interference.
    Optical cables are much thinner. I run one under a door, where it is all but invisible, an HDMI cable would be a huge eye-sore - and would not fit.

    HDMI audio may be somewhat superior, if you have sources that get you "HD" codecs, but those are only on BDs anyway, so no point for most of us, who can't be bothered with BDs due to the DRM breaking free players - and just use a stand alone device.

    Music, games and everything else wil mostly be fine with optical. While multichannel PCM is nice to have, you'll need support on both ends, to gain anything over DTS/DD encoded audio.

    Plus, you don't always want to logically bind display and audio together.
    And then there's display port, which I'd prefer over HDMI.
    Reply
  • erple2 - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    <quote>less conducitivity, so more resilience against interference.</quote>

    What? HDMI is a digital signal, which means it either works or doesn't, much like how an HDMI video signal is NOT affected by the 'quality' of the cables. Unless you're talking about something else.
    Reply
  • Bender316 - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    HDMI IS copper cable, and the signal is just voltage on that cable - whether Analogue or Digital, neither are totally immune to interference. So there are limitations and are potential interference issues.

    If you want a very long distance (cabling through doorways is mentioned) - I believe the Low-Voltage Differential Signal standard it uses recommends max 15m? I'd have to check. At the same time the LVDS signalling is very robust, and should be fairly good at dealing with interference.

    Optical on the other hand is light in a glass tube. Electromagnetic interference should not be an issue. Distance obviously impacted by the driver, but I seem to recall max distances are a lot higher than HDMI.
    Reply

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