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 These computers are now all but dead, having been replaced by the explosion of tablets.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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  • shurik_1 - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    As I wrote in comments to ASRock Vision HT 321B review there is at least one ASRock product that has issue with silent data corruption that it refuses to fix and does not inform users that their data is in jeopardy. How can you recommend the MB from the company with such track record?
  • just4U - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    "Though the K-series chip is easy to overclock and doesn't produce much additional heat (vs. stock)"


    THIS is somewhat misleading.. and readers need to be very aware of the fluxuations in temperatures on the new Intel cpu's regardless of what casing and cooling solutions they use..

    Personally I am quite upset with intel. I'd thought they'd finally moved away from the heatscore solution which in my opinion hurts the longevity of a computer. If I can get them I still default to a sandybridge cpu over these newer proccessors.
  • Piano Man - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    I don't get all of the adulation Prodigy gets, especially for gaming. Look at it's dimensions and weight. Over 17lbs and 9.84" x 15.91" x 14.13" . And its mini-ITX.

    Temjin TJ08-e is around 12 lbs and 15.16" x 8.27" x 14.72". And its Micro ATX and can hold 2 GPUs and a Heatsink like the Noctua D14. Not to mention it has a massive 180mm intake.

    The Prodigy would be better if it got rid of those stupid handles that waste space. Hard to recommend a mini-ITX that is bigger than a uATX case.
  • just4U - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    I quite like the case your refering to.. (my 2700K build here..) http://imageshack.us/a/img607/4497/dscf0512k.jpg

    Your right to you can fit a whole helluva lot into it and it still seems quite roomy. It's not the easiest case to work with though..
  • abrogan - Friday, December 7, 2012 - link

    I just finished two high-end builds, with the first computer using the Temjin and the second the Prodigy.

    The Prodigy is surprisingly large but easy to build (especially with a stubby screw driver). Lots of room to put extra cables along the sides. Be careful to buy a 140mm psu, as the first PSU I purchased didn't fit. I liked all the colour options (-:

    The Temjin fit all standard supplies 160mm or shorter so it gets the nod from me for wide compatibility. Perfect for the professionals. My friends all liked the look of the Temjin better but the Prodigy is for the oddballs out there who like high quality soft touch plastic looking Mac Pros.

    The Prodigy was just fun because of its unique nature however I would ask Bitfenix to make the plastic fins an optional feature as well. There are no rubber feet to provide access to the PSU on the bottom without the fins installed and there are gaps on top without the top fin. If you could remove the plastic fins I'd say it would be pretty awesome and 30 dollars cheaper than the Temjin!

    Both are pretty nice!
  • Wrathgar11 - Saturday, December 8, 2012 - link

    You are so right.

    I thought seriously about the Prodigy case before I bought my Node 304. No regrets, IMHO the Node beats it hands down and fits under my TV too.

    An under-rated case is the Core 1000, which Fractal sell as a mini ITX/micro ATX case. In reality the internal dimension are too small for an mATX board, but as an enclosure for a mini ITX desktop system (my current setup) it is brilliant.

    Core 1000 is no good as a gaming case, but for this application it rocks.

    Great price too, I got it from Enta around £25.
  • pvdw - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    Love the TJ08-E! It's almost completely inaudible with a Seasonic S12II-430 and the front fan slowed ever so slightly.

    Plus, how are gamers supposed to do a dual-GPU config in mini-ITX? Easy in the TJ08-E.
  • pvdw - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    BTW, forgot to mention that it also gets an Editor's Choice from SPCR.
  • xismo - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    I've been interested in a small form factor build for a while but for a different reason. I travel around and live in different places usually for extended periods of time (1+ year). So the possibility of putting my pc in a carry on and only having to buy a $200 display after I get where I need to go while still getting double the power of a laptop was always very intriguing. But I never pulled the trigger mostly because I should eventually settle down and so want to build a full build.

    Can you guys recommend the smallest possible case that can accommodate either mini-ITX or preferrably micro-ATX (would like to have 4x ram slots) while also having enough room for a GPU (nothing too powerful something like 630 or 640). Do you think it's even possible to cool the specs mentioned above appropriately with a quad core i5 in a small case that can fit in a carry on?
  • KAlmquist - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - link

    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 <a href="http://www.hardocp.com/article/2007/10/03/50_power... of cheap power supplies</a> for their <a href="http://www.hardocp.com/article/2007/05/23/450w500w... value</a>.

    As far as I can determine, a decent power supply cannot be built for less than about $40. Back in July, Anandtech published <a href="http://www.anandtech.com/show/6013/350450w-roundup... Roundup: 11 Cheap PSUs</a>." Martin Kaffei's conclusion about the $28 unit: <a href="http://www.anandtech.com/show/6013/350450w-roundup... PSUs have no right to exist."</a>

    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.

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