Ben­nett Ring reck­ons small doesn’t have to mean mea­gre, as these eight mini-ITX and mi­cro-ATX motherboards can at­test.

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The days of the bulky PC tower are well and truly num­bered. As our PC com­po­nents con­tinue to shrink in size and use less power, it’s pos­si­ble to pack the power of a mid- or full­sized PC into a pack­age not much larger than a shoe box. It’s the same with all forms of tech­nol­ogy, where minia­tur­i­sa­tion makes for much less ob­tru­sive pieces of tech­nol­ogy. Ob­vi­ously, though, it comes at a cost; shrink­ing many com­po­nents re­quires ex­tra engi­neer­ing, though al­ready most com­po­nents these days are small enough to fit into these tiny tow­ers of power.

The most ob­vi­ous cost is a loss of func­tion­al­ity — the back­bone of your PC — and when you shrink this dra­mat­i­cally, there sim­ply isn’t room for ex­tra out­puts and good­ies. There are two main small form fac­tors for motherboards. Mi­cro-ATX, which mea­sures a max­i­mum of 24.4 x 24.4cm, and mini-ITX, which is even smaller at 17 x 17cm. Boards of this size have been around for sev­eral decades, but they were lim­ited to the most prim­i­tive of du­ties, such as pow­er­ing elec­tronic signs and re­tail point of sale ter­mi­nals. To­day’s mini-PCs are dif­fer­ent beasts, and there’s a va­ri­ety of con­fig­u­ra­tions de­pend­ing on your needs. One thing to re­ally bear in mind is that, due to their smaller size, these mini-PCs tend to be louder than a stan­dard PC, as they need faster fans to push air through their con­fined spa­ces. On that note, though, let’s look at the var­i­ous types of con­fig­u­ra­tions you can build into a mini-PC, as there are sev­eral dif­fer­ent ways to make the most of their ver­sa­til­ity.


This type of small form fac­tor (SFF) PC is by far the sim­plest. Tasked only with run­ning email, web browsers and spread­sheets, they don’t need a lot of power to get the job done. As a re­sult, they can be so small that they’ll even at­tach to the rear of your mon­i­tor if you go the mini-ITX route.

When it comes to the CPU, both AMD and In­tel have ex­cel­lent op­tions. We’d rec­om­mend go­ing for a low to midrange pro­ces­sor, along the lines of an In­tel Core i3-8100 or AMD Ryzen 3 1300X pro­ces­sor, both of which go for around $150 and have enough grunt to han­dle ba­sic du­ties. Both are quad­cored, mean­ing they’re adept at run­ning mul­ti­ple pro­grams at once. When it comes to mem­ory, 8GB is plenty, but you’ll need to check what type your moth­er­board re­quires. Some will take stan­dard DDR4 mem­ory, while oth­ers re­quire smaller SO-DIMM mod­ules. If you do go for stan­dard DDR4, en­sure it doesn’t have a huge heatsink, as this may not fit within your small case.

As for graph­ics, this box isn’t de­signed for gam­ing, so we’ll leave a graph­ics card out of the In­tel-pow­ered box. Un­for­tu­nately, Ryzen doesn’t have in­te­grated graph­ics, so go for the cheap­est graph­ics card you can find that’ll fit in your box; some­thing along the lines of an ASUS GeForce GT 1030 Low Pro­file Pas­sive Cooled 2GB will set you back an­other $100 or so, but the up­com­ing A-Series Athlon will solve that is­sue. Be­sides, with a dis­crete graph­ics card, this box will of­fer bet­ter gam­ing per­for­mance than the In­tel so­lu­tion. So it won’t rock Bat­tle­field, but World of War­craft should be fine. Stor­age is best left to a bud­get SSD due to space con­cerns, though you may have room in­side for an ad­di­tional 3.5-inch me­chan­i­cal drive. Fi­nally, most SFF cases come with their own PSU, but you may need to buy a SFX/ TFX/mi­cro-ATX/miniITX power sup­ply to squeeze it into the con­fines of the case.


It’s now pos­si­ble to build a SFF PC that has the same oomph as a full-sized tower. You’ll need to go for a mi­croATX board to en­sure you can fit in a graph­ics card which, in turn, means you’ll need a slightly larger case. Even to­day’s top-end cards will fit in these mini-boxes, though don’t go for a be­he­moth with a triple slot cooler as it may not fit. Also check the height of the card to en­sure it won’t hit the side of your case. As for the CPU, sky’s the limit. How­ever, due to noise is­sues, we’d rec­om­mend aim­ing lower than the fastest of the fastest, such as an AMD Ryzen 5 1600X ($300) or an In­tel Core i5 8400 ($250). Both CPUs hit 4GHz and have more than enough horse­power for to­day’s games. 16GB of stan­dard DDR4-2666MHz is a per­fect amount, while a 256GB SSD and 1TB me­chan­i­cal drive will take care of your stor­age needs.

The big­gest de­ci­sion will be which GPU to go for. You can spend any­where

“We’d rec­om­mend go­ing for a lowto mid-range pro­ces­sor, along the lines of an In­tel Core i3-8100 or AMD Ryzen 3 1300X Pro­ces­sor, both of which have enough grunt to han­dle ba­sic du­ties.”

“En­sure that your moth­er­board has the nec­es­sary out­puts for your AV setup, be it HDMI, Dis­playPort, SP/DIF or 3.5mm mini­jacks.”

be­tween $400 and $900 on your GPU, and the more you spend, the bet­ter your per­for­mance will be. How­ever, more pow­er­ful cards tend to get much warmer, lead­ing to in­creased fan noise. In­stalling a cou­ple of quiet case fans can help to re­duce this is­sue. Fi­nally, thanks to the slightly larger case, you could get away with a stan­dard ATX power sup­ply.


This PC is very sim­i­lar to the of­fice/ pro­duc­tiv­ity PC, as it doesn’t re­quire that much horse­power. So we’d rec­om­mend the same specs as that ma­chine, though would lean to­wards the In­tel 8th-gen Core so­lu­tion as it has in­te­grated graph­ics. Just en­sure that your moth­er­board has the nec­es­sary out­puts for your AV setup, be it HDMI, Dis­playPort, SP/DIF or 3.5mm mini­jacks. If you’re run­ning 4K videos, check your pre­ferred play­back soft­ware’s CPU re­quire­ments, as they vary by pro­gram. You’ll also want to make sure that it has at least HDMI 2.0 or Dis­playPort 1.2 to get full 4K res­o­lu­tion at 60 frames per sec­ond.

As you can see, you don’t need to com­pro­mise too much if you want a PC that can be tucked away out of sight. Ob­vi­ously, power users run­ning dual GPUs, mas­sive water cooling sys­tems and over­clocked beasts will stick with to­day’s mid-tow­ers and tow­ers, but for the rest of us, an SFF sys­tem is a very vi­able op­tion that won’t stick out like a sore thumb.

If you’re build­ing a gam­ing mini-PC, a Mi­cro ATX case will bet­ter han­dle the ex­tra heat gen­er­ated by higher-end com­po­nents.

Of­fice users will find the in­te­grated GPU in In­tels CPUs is more than fast enough for pro­duc­tiv­ity tasks, as well as less de­mand­ing video tasks.

Even NVIDIAs GeForce GTX 1080 will fit in­side most mi­cro-ATX cases, and even some mini-ITX cases, per­fect for mini gam­ing PCs.

The Radeon RX 460 is per­fect for HTPC boxes that re­quire 4K play­back, as it has hard­ware de­cod­ing for most 4k file types.

The Frac­tal De­sign Ar­ray R2 is a great for of­fice PCs as it in­cludes sound proof­ing ma­te­ri­als.

This HTPC case is specif­i­cally de­signed for small the­atre PCs, as it looks just like an­other piece of AV equip­ment and will fit in an en­ter­tain­ment unit.

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