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 These computers are now all but dead, having been replaced by the explosion of tablets.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

    Does anyone know if you can store an Outlook profile on this file server so you could use the same profile with any computer that is connected?
  • vectorm12 - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    In theory yes. You could hardlink the directory to the directory on the server using a NTFS hard link. Although I haven't tried anything like that before(other than the mobile archive feature of Exchange Server which works in a similar matter) it should again in theory work as any outlook related services will launch well after the network stack and thus prevent the risk of invalidating the hard link.
  • beisat - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    Building a relatively small and quiet system today is much easier than a few years ago, and I perfectly see the evolution on all the parts you mentioned. As well I see much quieter and more efficient PSU these days - but will there be a point in time where their size decreases as well? So far ATX PSU still seem the norm in the online shops of my country, and at that all are 350W+, pointsless for one CPU without a dedicated GPU and an SSD.
  • bobbozzo - Friday, December 7, 2012 - link

    There are smaller power supplies, and some cases require them, but the current problem is there is no standard form factor for them; every case manufacturer has a different size or mount.
  • Cyleo - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    I really like the file server systems. Maybe a real guide (install, WHS etc) is an idea? I for one would be excited to read about it.
  • SeanFL - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    I've built this case 5 or 6 times for a really tiny build. In Win did a nice job with it. Initially put in an i3 2120t, but their new design also allows for the i3-2120 or any i3 or i5 you would want to put in. The samsung 830 really made it fly.

  • jhoff80 - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    It's probably just me, but I would absolutely love to see a super-slim mini-ITX case, designed for gaming, that has zero drive bays (why bother, when many boards have mSATA), a full-sized ATX PSU, and a PCIE x16 riser board and then two slots out the back of the case in order to use a gaming GPU.

    Most of these gaming cases have like 4 drive bays and a full sized 5.25" too, but that's really overkill these days, as far as I'm concerned.
  • Ananke - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    Lian Li Q-series. Check them, They have several of the type you look for.
  • jhoff80 - Thursday, December 6, 2012 - link

    Really? All of the Lian Li Q models that I've seen have a bunch of drive bays (too large) or have 0 or 1 expansion slots, and/or a SFX 300W PSU, making them not conducive to gaming.

    Maybe I missed one though.
  • bobbozzo - Friday, December 7, 2012 - link

    How slim can it be with a full ATX PSU?

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