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 These computers are now all but dead, having been replaced by the explosion of tablets.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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  • Avendit - Thursday, December 6, 2012 - link

    Its not so much signal issues I've had as earthing problems. Using a copper co-ax for digital out on my media PC gave a loud pop every time the audio fired up and dts sync'd. Switch to optical and the problem goes away. I could see the same thing being possible with HDMI.

    It might be something unique to systems a size down from these - I'm talking systems with laptop style power bricks, hence the earthing problem I think. But its also passive and does just enough for a media PC, albeit with most content stored over the network.

  • ender8282 - Thursday, December 6, 2012 - link

    I took the comment to refer to better isolation of the audio system. I believe that the fear is that a a copper cable running from the computer to the audio system could introduce a ground loop and cause issues.
  • Guspaz - Thursday, December 6, 2012 - link

    HDMI is prone to interference, digital or otherwise. If you've ever suffered from interference on an HDMI cable, you'd see it as coloured snow on the image. It's hard to describe, it's like, imagine you have a large number of stuck pixels, except their location changes every frame.

    I get this from my PS3 to my U2711 when using deep colour. It requires more bandwidth, so the signal is less robust (generally, the higher bandwidth your HDMI signal, the more prone to interference). I'm using a rather thin cable (28AWG), so even though the total length of the cable run isn't very long (~15 feet total), there's some interference problems due to the high bandwidths involved.

    I have no such problems from my PS3 to my projector, despite using a much longer cable (PS3 -> HDMI switch -> U2711 or projector), because the cable going from my switch to my TV is a MUCH thicker cable.
  • Midwayman - Thursday, December 6, 2012 - link

    Even two years ago you had to work hard not to buy a unit without HDMI. No reason to eliminate choices, but if you have to pick one or the other, HDMI is the future. Granted HDMI is a pretty crappy standard in many ways, but its what consumer gear uses for better or worse.
  • Guspaz - Thursday, December 6, 2012 - link

    HDMI cables using RedMere chips have similar thicknesses to good optical TOSLINK cables at up to 15 chips. They do cost a lot more, but they're still available at MonoPrice, so at least you know the premium isn't ripping you off.

    Normally, a typical HDMI cable uses 28AWG conductors for up to 15 feet, RedMere can use 36AWG conductors for up to the same distance. That's a pretty enormous reduction in size, and it should be more resistant to interference to boot.

    Over 15 feet, though... At 30 feet, regular HDMI is going to be something like 24AWG, while RedMere bumps it up to 28AWG.
  • HisDivineOrder - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    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.

    Pssst. AnyDVD HD+XBMC 12 Frodo.

    You're welcome.
  • lmcd - Thursday, December 6, 2012 - link

    I'm pretty sure even an AMD A4 can do the off-frame rates more accurately than Intel's IGPs, so I'd consider an AMD build in that case.
  • Metaluna - Thursday, December 6, 2012 - link

    Personally, for HTPC I prefer a slim desktop-style microATX case, like the Antec NSK2480 or equivalent Silverstone. Plenty of room inside for a large GPU and/or tuner card, and several drives. Much easier to work in, and, unlike these wierd shoebox cases, they actually stack nicely with other HT components like receivers or BD players.
  • drewpsu - Friday, December 7, 2012 - link

    Thanks to network tuners from an HDHomeRun, my HTPC is mini-ITX without having to worry about internal tuner cards.
  • cyrusfox - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    When it comes to budget itx builds(media center or file server), I really think the new Celeron Mobile 847(SB) boards Rock. I got one coming to my place tomorrow to be my tv box.
    Check'er out

    Sandybridge mobile performance for $80(superbiiz), Sure it is only 1.1 GHz - 2 cores, but should be able to handle 1080p hulu or netflix streams and the TDP at 17W, tiny, perfect for those insane small ITX cases like a Wesena itx2 case or heatsink streacom case(silent media box). Goodbye brazos, its been a good 23 months.

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