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 These computers are now all but dead, having been replaced by the explosion of tablets.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

    Sorry about the last post--the Anandtech comment system doesn't like HTML in comments. Here is a fixed version:

    I'm guessing that the power supply in the budget build is an Apex AL-8250SFX from Allied Leader International, manufactured by Deer Electronics/Solytech. Deer/Solytech is a name you probably recognize only if you read reviews[1] of cheap power supplies for their entertainment value[2].

    As far as I can determine, a decent power supply cannot be built for less than about $40. Back in July, Anandtech published "350-450W Roundup: 11 Cheap PSUs." Martin Kaffei's conclusion about the $28 unit: "Some PSUs have no right to exist."[4]

    Based on price and pedigree, I'd wager that the power supply in the budget build is crap. If I'm wrong, that's a "man bites dog" story and Anandtech should do a full review of this PSU.

    Footnotes:

    [1] http://www.hardocp.com/article/2007/10/03/50_power...

    [2] http://www.hardocp.com/article/2007/05/23/450w500w...

    [3] http://www.anandtech.com/show/6013/350450w-roundup...

    [4] http://www.anandtech.com/show/6013/350450w-roundup...
    Reply
  • pvdw - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    My first thought was that the power supply was junk, but SPCR reviewed this case and recommended it. Not that I would buy it, but I'm usually a step above budget builds. Reply
  • Dug - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    Try some Wesena cases that look really nice.
    http://www.shop.perfecthometheater.com/Wesena-chas...
    Reply
  • Don-Roland - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    >AMD gaming system
    >AMD gaming
    >AMD
    Reply
  • hasseb64 - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    Come on Zach!
    A 500W PSU with bronze as a fileserver PSU?

    First: A PSU in that application is an investment, smaller and higher efficency is a must!
    2: You would NEVER EVER need more than 300W, I would gladly recommend even lower if more were on hand on this broken PSU market.
    Reply
  • KAlmquist - Sunday, December 09, 2012 - link

    Good catch. I was so surprised to see Zach recommend a no-name power supply in the budget build that I missed this one. He says he chose it because it "is one of the smallest ATX power supplies available." The ST50F-P is 150mm by 86mm by 140mm, which is the standard size for an ATX12V power supply. For the same price or less you could get a high quality Gold rated power supply with the same dimensions and a wattage rating more than adequate for the system. For example, the SeaSonic SSR-360GP (360W) is about $66. That said, if you insist on modular connectors then the ST50F-P might be the best you can do. Reply
  • StardogChampion - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    Realan (the folks who bring you the Habey EMC-800/600) also have a nice line of mini-ITX HTPC cases with built-in power supplies. Check these out:

    http://www.ecosmartpc.com/ei3.html
    http://www.ecosmartpc.com/ei5.html
    http://www.ecosmartpc.com/ei7.html
    Reply
  • Foeketijn - Friday, December 07, 2012 - link

    In my experience, the parts that break the most are the powersupply , and then a tie between the mobo, HDD and videocard. I can't remember ever having to replace something else and not having coffee involved. Years ago I quit selling the budget builds, because one out of five systems going bad in lets say three years was just to much troubles for my likings. In most cases you trow in e extra 50 euro (same story probably goes for dollars) and have much happier customers in the long run. Since these days you can really buy a lot of processing power in the budget area I am tempted going for a m-ITX build for the silent tiny office boxes. Only which PSU to select.
    I am not really confident in selling a system with an ST50F-P when an in-depth analysis from Anandtech (one of the most trustworthy sources) says:
    "Most capacitors are made by CapXon and OST; these are very cheap capacitors compared to other brands and may not hold up as well long-term."

    Especially in a fileserver, I don't get skimping on the power supply.
    Ideally I would take an low power, silent part designed for workstations/servers. Only they are as far as I can find not in ATX size.
    Is there a good alternative when the bar for endurance is a bit higher?
    Reply
  • Wrathgar11 - Saturday, December 08, 2012 - link

    Great write-up. SFF has been a central feature of computing to me for some time.

    My fileserver is a Mini ITX Supermicro X7SPA based system in a Fractal Core 3000 case (used with various larger boards beforehand), my media PC is another atom based system in a Node 304 case and my desktop is a DH61DL based i3 unit in a Core 1000 case.

    All are mini-itx boards, two fanless and silent and all very reliable (the HTPC and desktop have no moving parts, are SSD equipped and also run silent Pico PSU's).

    My gaming system is a PS3. That uses more power than the 3 PC's combined.
    Reply
  • philipma1957 - Sunday, December 09, 2012 - link

    FIRST off the asrock z77e-itx is a great board but it should have a crucial msata 256gb ssd.

    it has sold as low as 169. that adds 100 bucks to the price. no need for the 1 tb hdd in a gamer.

    second the cooler master case fits a hd7970 so just do it.

    that adds 200 to the price.

    third the cooler master elite needs 1 mod a 4 inch circle saw cuts a hole right where the cooler master logo is put in a cheap grill

    and temps drop 5-10c. this saves you 20 over the bitFenix case.

    fourth a full size psu drops in cost of 75 to 90

    so price is about 1200

    but top of the line cpu

    top of the line graphics card and a full sized psu. if you want to cut costs get the hd7950 save a hundred 1100 gives you a full

    powered gamer. I like this cooler master build so much I have 3 of them under my belt.
    Reply

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