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Less really is more: Why pint-sized PCs finally punch above their weight

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Once upon a time, you could either buy a small, quiet PC, or a large, powerful one. It was one or the other – buying a pint-sized, quiet, high-performance PC wasn’t possible. In fact, the world is full of bitty, boring business PCs that run office applications just fine but can’t meet the performance demands of gamers or digital media-centric home users.

The reason these small, high-performance, quiet-enough-for-the-home-office systems were previously unheard of was due to one major complication: heat. Powerful CPUs and GPUs used to generate vast amounts of heat, requiring noisy cooling fans. The power supplies needed to drive these killer systems contributed to the problem, with noisy fans of their own. It was simple physics: you needed enough airflow to keep hot CPUs and GPUs cool enough so the system wouldn’t melt. 

However, a funny thing happened on the relentless road to improving performance. CPU and GPU designers realized that increasing performance without considering power usage is a losing proposition. For laptops and tablets, that’s obvious; power efficiency is critical to improved battery life. But efficiency is also important in desktop PCs. Users started demanding compact, sleek-looking PCs that didn’t sacrifice performance.

So, the new mantra for the latest generation of CPUs and GPUs is performance per watt. People still crave performance, but they also want features that come with low power: modest in size, attractive cases, low power bills, and smaller desktop or deskside footprints. No, these are not all-in-one PCs. All-in-one systems may work fine as mainstream systems, but they lack the ability to choose you own monitor.

Curious about building or buying compcat, high-performance PCs suitable for gaming or digital media editing? Below, we’ll discuss more mainstream systems that are becoming tinier than ever. But first, a little history…

Before Mini-ITX

PC motherboards are designed and built to a set of standards. The most common board size is known as ATX. The ATX form factor is 12 inches by 9.6 inches, and a typical ATX boards have seven expansion slots. A smaller version of the ATX form factor, called micro-ATX, are 9.6 inches square, and have four expansion slots. Smaller boards existed, but they were often designed for industrial use or used for diminutive office PCs using only integrated graphics.

If you’d wanted to build or buy a petite, high-performance system five or six years ago, you had a couple of choices. First, you could get a slightly smaller version of a desktop system built around a microATX motherboard. About 25 percent shorter in size than a standard ATX, these boards measured 6.7 inches square, so were notably smaller than even micro-ATX boards.

Alternatively, you could buy a system from companies like Shuttle, specializing in mini systems. Shuttle’s PCs weren’t perfect, however. Shuttle’s tiny, cube-like PCs were fine as low-end or midrange systems, but if you tried to load up on higher-end components, noise from the relatively small cooling fans ramped up substantially. Plus, the power supplies were comparatively tiny. High-end gaming rigs built around Shuttle PCs often suffered from power supply problems. Shuttle’s motherboards were proprietary, so no third-party cases existed with more robust air-cooling.

A few case manufacturers shipped relatively compact cases using micro-ATX motherboards, but these really weren’t that much less in size than a standard deskside tower PC. Cube-shaped micro-ATX systems even had larger floor footprints than standard PCs due to their broader base.

In the end, thermal loads from high-end GPUs and CPUs still required substantial cooling, and under-sized cases still suffered from the problem of either too much heat or requiring fans that sounded like little jet engines when performance ramped up.

Mini-ITX

In 2001, Taiwanese company VIA introduced a new motherboard form factor they dubbed Mini-ITX. The inexpensive, petite, and powerful boards allow users to build full computers by simply adding memory, a hard drive, and a power supply. Mini-ITX isn’t an official standard in the way that the ATX motherboard form factor is, so it was slow to take off. Eventually, though, the form factor became popular as users who wanted to build very small PCs adopted it. Even Intel got on board, shipping Intel-branded Mini-ITX motherboards. 

However, Mini-ITX boards have been something of a mixed bag. For example, some boards require an external power brick, like those used in laptop computers, while others ship with normal, ATX-style power connectors.

Motherboards have been shrinking steadily over the years, without sacrificing much capability.

Motherboards have been shrinking steadily over the years, without sacrificing much capability.

In the past couple of years, Mini-ITX boards with more robust features suitable for high-performance systems have emerged, such as the Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe. This board offers a robust voltage regulator that even allows you to play around with overclocking, if that’s of interest. 

The Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe offers a rich array of features usually found only in larger boards.

The Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe offers a rich array of features usually found only in larger boards.

An ecosystem of cases and related parts for hobbyist system builders has also emerged. Cases with more robust cooling and better power supply support have arrived on the scene. These include the Coolermaster Elite 120 Advance, Bitfenix Prodigy, Silverstone’s SG06, and Fractal Design’s Node 304. These cases vary in size and footprint. Some accept normal size, ATX power supplies, while others ship with smaller, but efficient power supply units, which enable even more compact sizes. 

Four mini-ITX cases, next to a more traditional mid-tower PC case on the right.

Four mini-ITX cases, next to a more traditional mid-tower PC case on the right.

In the above photo, you’ll see Corsair’s Graphite 600T on the right. This mid-tower case can accept full-size boards. While the Bitfenix Prodigy is by far the largest of the bunch, it offers the ability to load up on hard drives and solid-state drives, so you can create a compact server with lots of storage. It also has enough room for sealed liquid coolers, if you want better CPU cooling with less noise. The Silverstone SG06 includes a compact, 450W power supply suitable for current generation, midrange graphics cards and CPUs.

 CPUs and GPUs get efficient

As Intel pushed manufacturing processes to even higher densities, it began shipping high-performance processors that required less power. Intel’s most current Ivy Bridge processor line tops out at the 3.5GHz Core i7 3770K, which is rated at 77W. This a step down from the high end of the previous Sandy Bridge product line, the Core i7 2700K, which maxed out at 95W. (The current Intel Extreme CPU line is based on older Sandy Bridge technology; the core i7 3970X is rated at 150W, but these high-end CPUs are a niche market and even require different sockets and motherboards than Ivy Bridge. The majority of users don’t need the extreme memory bandwidth that’s the main draw for CPUs like the 3970X.)

GPU designers from AMD and Nvidia started paying closer attention to power efficiency. AMD was first out of the gate with a relatively efficient design using the current Radeon HD 7000 series GPUs. A few months later, Nvidia began shipping its product line based on the Kepler architecture. GPUs like the GTX 680 are extremely efficient when idling and are rated at under 200W at maximum load.

It’s the combination of more efficient CPUs, GPUs, and an ecosystem of accessory manufacturers that enable pint-sized, powerful PCs. Smaller, elegant PCs, like Falcon Northwest’s Tiki and Alienware’s X51, have garnered a lot of fans. These PCs sacrifice little in the way of performance, yet still offer low noise levels and consume relatively little power.

falcon northwest tiki gaming desktop pc

Falcon Northwest manages to cram a high performance PC into slim chassis and still manages to keep it pretty quiet.

Build or buy?

Now that a rich array of cases, resourceful power supplies, power-efficient components, and mini-ITX boards are available, hobbyist builders can choose to build their own compact, powerful, and quiet PCs. On the other hand, products like Falcon Northwest’s Tiki offer a degree of polish, performance, and lack of noise that may be difficult to attain for hobbyist builders – if you’re willing to pay the price. A midrange Tiki sporting a Core i5 3570K, 480GB SSD, and GeForce GTX 670 GPU will set you back about $2,500. Plus, if you’re particular about the components you want, building your own system may be your only option. 

Let’s look at a couple of DIY build options, along with pricing, to see just what a hobbyist builder can do. The first system is based on the somewhat bulky, but colorful, Bitfenix Prodigy. This build certainly qualifies as a high-end gaming rig. (Note that all prices listed here are based on mainstream Internet resellers, and don’t reflect sales tax or shipping costs.)

Component Price
Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI Mini-ITX motherboard $120
Intel Core i7-3370K CPU $330
16GB Kingston HyperX LoVo DDR3 memory $150
Asus GTX 680 4GB $550
Intel RTS2011LC sealed liquid CPU cooler $80
Crucial M4 512GB SSD $380
Seagate 2TB, 7200RPM secondary hard drive $92
BitFenix Prodigy Case (Red) $90
Seasonic 660W Power Supply (80-plus platinum) $156
Asus BW 14D1XT Blu-ray recordable drive $110
Windows 8 $100
Total $2,158

For just over $2,000, we’ve built a killer gaming rig. Now let’s take a look at a little more mainstream system…

Component Price
Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe $185
Intel Core i7-3470 (3.2 GHz) $199
8GB Kingston HyperX LoVo DDR3 Memory $70
EVGA GTX 660 (2GB) $230
Intel stock CPU cooler (included with CPU) $0
Corsair Force GT 240GB SSD $215
Coolermaster Elite 120 Advance Case $40
Seasonic 520W Passively cooled, fanless PSU $150
LG BD-ROM/DVD Recordable Drive $40
Windows 8 $100
Total $1,229

Our second configuration will save you more than $900 from the first, and we still have a pretty capable system in it. We’ve built both PCs, which are up and running. 

Of course, you can even go lower than that without much effort. Although we haven’t actually built the below system yet, we’re more than confident it would work.

Component Price
Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI Mini-ITX motherboard $120
Intel Core i5-3350 CPU $180
Corsair XMS3 8GB Kit $63
Gigabyte Radeon HD 7790 Graphics Card $149
Intel stock CPU cooler (included) $0
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB $95
Silverstone SG06 Case $150
Silverstone 450W PSU (80-plus gold) included $0
LG BD-ROM/DVD+/-RW $40
Windows 8 $100
Total $897

We still have a pretty capable system costing under $900, well suited as a mini home theater PC, and even capable of pretty good gaming performance on 1080p monitors. The cherry on top? It’ll even play Blu-ray movies. 

So far, we’ve discussed systems that deliver performance desired by gamers and higher-end PC enthusiasts, but those PCs still cost at least $900. What if you need a more mainstream system? Are you still stuck with relatively ugly business class PCs? The short answer is no.

The ever-shrinking mainstream PC

If you don’t need the high performance levels hardcore PC gamers require, you can find even smaller PCs that hit acceptable performance levels. For example, Zotac builds a nifty little chassis around a Mini-ITX socket FM motherboard, which can handle an AMD APU. Without going into details of configuration and pricing, it’s possible to build a system around the Zotac system for a little over $500 if you’re willing to live with the Radeon HD 7660D integrated GPU.

Zotac’s small Z-Box is the heart of an AMD APU-based compact system.

Zotac’s small Z-Box is the heart of an AMD APU-based compact system.

If you want to go even tinier, Intel is now offering its NUC, or Next Unit of Computing. The NUC currently ships in three flavors: two with a Core i3 2317u low voltage CPU, and one using a low voltage Celeron class processor. Intel even includes a Thunderbolt interface for high-speed expansion capability on one of the boards. You can buy the bare boards or a kit including a tiny case and external power brick. The board includes an M-SATA socket, so you can mount an SSD card. A system built around the Thunderbolt-equipped DC3217BY kit and a Crucial 256GB MSATA SSD will cost around $600 (without the operating system).

Intel’s NUC offers an extremely tiny system that’s just 4-inches square.

Intel’s NUC offers an extremely tiny system that’s just 4-inches square.

Smaller, faster, quieter

The laws of physics haven’t been trumped; instead, they’ve been put to work to enable smaller, quieter, and faster systems. As process technologies shrink, lower voltage components with sophisticated power management technologies enable systems that sacrifice little in terms of performance, yet are compact and quiet. 

So the next time you look at the beige or black mid-tower case and start thinking about upgrades, don’t forget to think small. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how little you give up. 

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