What to look for in a Small Form Factor PC

Looks can be deceiving, and as you're about to find out, although anyone can make a SFF PC look like a Shuttle XPC, it is very difficult to actually duplicate the engineering and design that goes into one of Shuttle's XPCs. So if you can't base your buying decision based on looks alone (when is it ever the case that you can?), then what is it that you look for in a SFF PC?

Although we quickly discredit looks, one of the major selling points of these SFF PCs is that they look much more attractive than the conventional "beige boxes" we're used to building our PCs in. The outside of your SFF PC should not only be attractive to you, but the case itself should be small enough that you don't forget that this is a small form factor PC you're putting together. A number of companies have tried to disguise their microATX designs as this new breed of SFF PCs, but they definitely don't fall into the same category as Shuttle's XPC line.

Quite possibly the most important and unfortunately weakest link in today's SFF PCs is the motherboard. Since none of the SFF PCs following Shuttle's lead are actually built on a standard motherboard form factor, the only motherboards you can use with these PCs are the boards bundled with the SFF PC itself. This unfortunately limits us to motherboards from Iwill, Jetway, Shuttle, Soyo and Soltek; while there are more than a couple of options, absent are the major players whose reliability and quality control records significantly outshine everyone we just mentioned. Before purchasing a SFF PC, make sure you do your research on who's actually inside the PC - the manufacturer of the motherboard, the type of chipset being used, and look for any issues involving that particular motherboard. A major downside to these SFF PCs is that the volume is so low relative to regular ATX motherboard shipments that it takes longer for bugs to be discovered in the field, thus resulting in longer lag time between boards ship and when bugs are fixed.

As is the case with most motherboards these days, the performance of SFF PCs based on identical chipsets should be well, identical. Your focus shouldn't be on which SFF PC based on the 845GE chipset gets the highest Winstone score, it should instead be which manages to offer reasonable performance along with quiet operation. The amount of noise these SFF PCs put out is much more important than knowing which system performs 2 or 3% faster than another.

The idea of evaluating these systems based on the amount of noise produced also leads us to the next point of interest for potential buyers - cooling methods. With SFF PCs that are designed for the power user, cooling becomes a major issue. How do you remove an incredible amount of heat from a very small, cramped space, without making a lot of noise? Variable speed temperature controlled fans and heatpipes are the most innovative of the technologies implemented in today's SFF PCs, and we'd expect to see advanced evolutions of these technologies in future generation SFF boxes.

Functionality is a very important feature to consider as well; the number of front and rear USB/Firewire ports, and any other features that would make one SFF PC any better than another.

Going back to the idea that looks can (and will) be deceiving, how cramped the interior of the case happens to be will determine if you're happy with your system or if you want to toss it out of the window before you're done building it. There are many companies that will copy the way a Shuttle XPC looks from the outside, but as we've seen in the past once you crack open the case, things can change considerably.

With these rules of thumb out in the open, let's get down to the competition.

Index The Contenders


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  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    Oops -- I should've included this:

    The above link has a "spec sheet". Takes a P4 up to 2.8G, etc. etc.
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    MSI has a new "MegaPC" SFF PC with built-in stereo tuner (has a spiffy LCD on the front), model MS6251. If anyone has any experiences with this one, esp. with Linux, please let me know -- I'm emailable at:
  • Odeen - Thursday, August 07, 2003 - link

    Speaking of taking up space on the desk...

    Is it just me, or is it more "efficient" to have a PC on the floor where you'd otherwise have... floor (under a desk, or near it) than to have a cube PC take up desk space that you can otherwise use?
  • Odeen - Thursday, August 07, 2003 - link

    Well, except that the keyboard is two inches thick, there is no AGP slot, the chipset is SiS, and the performance _really_ stinks. :(

    Build an nForce2 IGP in there, let it use standard drives and memory, and make it as inexpensive as shuttle boxen, and it'll be worthwhile :)
  • joedivino - Wednesday, July 30, 2003 - link

    There is an alternative to the Box PC. It is called the "zero-footprint-pc" by Cybernet, it is a complete Pentium 4 based PC inside a normal size keyboard. The CUBE PC types are nothing more than a mini-tower still taking desk space. The Keyboard PC does not take any more than a keyboard on your desktop. Reply

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