MINI INTEL & AMD MOTHERBOARDS COMPARED
Bennett Ring reckons small doesn’t have to mean meagre, as these eight mini-ITX and micro-ATX motherboards can attest.
SMALL DOESN’T HAVE TO MEAN MEAGER, AS THESE EIGHT MINI-ITX AND MICRO-ATX MOTHERBOARDS CAN ATTEST.
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.
BUILD #1: OFFICE/PRODUCTIVITY MINI PC
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.
BUILD #2: COMPACT GAMING PC
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.
BUILD #3: LOUNGE ROOM-FRIENDLY MEDIA BOX
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.