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 These computers are now all but dead, having been replaced by the explosion of tablets.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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  • Taft12 - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    A 40mm fan? No, no, no, no and no.
  • DanNeely - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    It's a 17W mobile part. A slow 40mm fan is more than sufficient when combined with the improved airflow of even a SFF case when compared to a laptop chassis. The similar sized fan on my 18W E-350 file server has never gotten gotten loud enough to be heard.
  • dananski - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    He's probably concerned about the pitch of the sound. I've avoided anything smaller than a 120mm fan in all my builds as even quiet high pitched noise is a nuissance. Your file server probably has a low CPU load compared to the video playback cyrusfox intends to do, so I'd expect it to stay nice and cool with the fan barely on. He might not be so lucky.

    As for the board & integrated CPU, seems pretty good value for money, though I'd like to see some more powerful mobile chips in this sort of design. Will probably become more common with Haswell.
  • cyrusfox - Thursday, December 6, 2012 - link

    Board came today, I am load testing it currently. Bios is nice, fan is fully customizable(so much so that you can set it low enough to not turn on) and cpu and gpu power can be altered(step down, you can also underclock the cpu or diable a core-won't be doing that). Trying to see how low it can go and be stable. So far it is silent and not even in its case yet(cardboard build, waiting for the last parts to arrive).

    You don't need much air flow for a tiny 17watt chip. The fan is removable, so you could just add some heat pipes and make a passive build out of it, CPU good to 100°C. It really is a low profile board, highest part is the audio connector on IO. Whenever Temash gets out, I'll probably replace it, but this should be more than good enough to emulate, stream, and surf on the couch.
  • ricardoduarte - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    Why are you suggesting 1TB hd, and no SSD in the gaming systems.
    I would one of these would be better:
    -2TB hd, and 256gb ssd would be a better choice.
    - 3TB hd and 64gb ssd for cache
  • Norseman4 - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    True it's double the price of the OS, but it looks like Win8's Storage Spaces revives and possibly improves the best part of the original WHS ... Drive Extender.

    It's be nice to see an investigation into SS and it's direct comparison to DE, though. (I've only seen pages on how to set up a SS, so how it functions is still unknown to me)
  • DanNeely - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    I looked at W8 + Storage Spaces recently; but benches put it significantly slower than rival fakeraid options. Hopefully MS will be able to patch it up to more competitive levels in an upcoming service pack (Blue?) or W9.
  • bigfire - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    I've had my AMD Athlon 64 X2 for about 6 years and it still works well. I've never had any troubles with this guy.
  • DanNeely - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    What mobo chipset did you use? Both of mine have been dead for over a year after nForce4 boards 4 and 5 followed my first 3 into the grave.
  • amdwilliam1985 - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    Same here, I have x2 2.5ghz with stock fan, it's probably been 5 years now.
    It's still running as a champ for my workload. The only upgrade I'm made in the past 2 years is the $99 5770 :) great investments.

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