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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  • Gigantopithecus - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    "Should" being the operative word - in my experience, up-plugging is hit and miss - more hit than miss, but still enough misses that I'm hesitant to recommend doing so without strong qualifications and very specific card/board pairings (none of which are appropriate for this guide). Reply
  • medi01 - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    Very strange choice of components in general. Reply
  • fujii13 - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    Some of us aren't looking to have a separate HTCP from our NAS and/or server and would prefer it to be all in one box. I'm currently running Windows 7 as my head, but have Remote Desktop hacked to allow multiple simultaneous logins and the second login is doing all of my downloading/renaming/organizing of my media mostly automatically without disturbing the login that's running on my KURO. Unfortunately I'm stuck with a crappy USB 2.0 enclosure and have no way to upgrade.

    What options do we have for SFF computers that also house 4 hard drives?
    Reply
  • jrs77 - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    The statement, that an Sugo 05 is noisier because of the plastics etc is totally wrong. Additionally the new version of the case gets shipped with a 450W PSU instead of the 300W one allowing for more decent hardware.

    My current rig: Sugo 05-450, i5-760@stock, GTX 460, 4GB DDR3-1333, 120GB SSD, 500GB 2.5" HDD. The CPU-cooler is a Prolimatech Samuel 17 with an 120mm Akasa Apache PWM. The fan in the front is a Scythe S-Flex 800 and the PSU is turned upside-down and draws air from the top-grill in the cover.
    Or you can use a Corsair H60 to cool the CPU and get rid of a second 120mm fan there to reduce noise even more.

    There's nothing noisy about this case... nothing at all and it is the smallest case you'll find to house a full setup... 11 litres... and you can even put a 6850 or similar into the case with ease.

    The LianLi Q8 is overrated there!
    Reply
  • Gigantopithecus - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    Don't get me wrong - I really like the Sugo 05 - but I simply disagree with you in regards to its noisiness and overall build quality. I think both the Sugo 05 and Q8 are excellent cases - I simply prefer the Lian Li when the budget permits. Reply
  • floobit - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    This comment is one vote for encouraging Anandtech to have higher writing standards. This article has a conversational style, and generally lacks professionalism. I want to be able to forward articles like this to professional peers without fear of seeming uneducated by association. This sentence is especially cogent:

    "Second, because they are small, they are also less massive." (p. 1).

    Thank you.
    Reply
  • Darknite39 - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    I don't necessarily view a slightly conversational article in a negative light, but that ridiculous sentence caused me to do a double-take. Reply
  • Gigantopithecus - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    You're welcome.

    How often have you heard people complain about their mid and full-size towers simply weighing too much? When describing the advantages of a SFF, I think it's worth explicitly stating that smaller systems weigh less than larger systems. In my experience customers and friends, especially older individuals, often really appreciate having a computer that is physically easy to manage.

    As for the rest of your criticism, the point of the guides I've written for Anandtech is to detail a selection of components that work well together to perform a specific task. It is not to give detailed technical specifications of individual components (other articles on this site often do that). My guides are starting points for readers interested in researching different types of computers with suggestions for builds. My writing style reflects how I speak with my customers, friends, and colleagues about PCs, so I'm at a loss when you state that this article "generally lacks professionalism."
    Reply
  • Mr Perfect - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - link

    It looks like Zach is using "massive" to refer to weight, with that odd sentence boiling down to "Second, because they are small, they are also less heavy.". I know AT has some international writers, so it's worth pointing out that in the States, massive is used to describe volume. The sentence reads to us as "Second, because they are small, they are also less big.". You can see the confusion. Reply
  • cjs150 - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    If you want an HTPC that will allow you to rip Blu-rays at 100 fps then fine go with intel i3/i5 but if all you want in an HTPC is stream, play blu-rays, rips some music, watch TV then the suggestions from Anandtech are just plain wrong.

    A simple HTPC should be built along following lines

    1. Passive Zacate board (ASus do one)
    2. 4 Mb low voltage memory.
    3. 64g SSD
    4. 2.5" HD but in a silence box (Scythe do a nice one)
    5. Case is tricky - check out the cases from Wesana. New company to me and look rather nice - totally fanless is possible with something like Morex 3500 but it is a bit plasticky
    6. Power supply. Pico-ITX is the way to go, but they really need to produce 24 pin version in less than 150 W, this is a company that needs to refresh its product a bit
    Reply

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