ITX Buyers’ Guide
SIZE MATTERS; OR DOES IT?
Big ain’t better - discover how to build a gaming powerhouse in half the space!
Here we are in 2018, where people are using all manner of small, lightweight and portable devices. Almost everyone has a smartphone or a tablet or a laptop, and sometimes all three. Why is it then, that the stereotype of the desktop PC is still one of the chunky box mostly full of empty space, about 50cm high and 20cm wide? This view has been prevalent for decades!
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME
Firstly, a bit of background on why the PC typically looks like it does. The ATX (Advanced Technology eXtended) standard goes back to 1995. It was introduced by Intel and was designed to bring a level of standardisation and interoperability between different components. Power supply voltage specifications and connectors were introduced at the same time. And some of the adopted sub-standards still make perfect sense, such as the rectangular I/O area that makes things easy for case manufacturers. The ATX standard mandated a 305 x 244mm motherboard dimension that to this day is still adhered to. Other standardisded form factors, such as SSI for servers, MicroATX and Mini–ITX, came much later. ATX is still by far the most common consumer DIY form factor however.
1995 is almost a quarter of a century ago. Computing technology has changed so much, but at the same time, so little! Back in the 90s and 2000s users needed a lot of expansion slots for things like graphics, audio, USB, SATA, FireWire, modems, or even network cards, among other things. Advances in chip design and integration means that 2018-era technologies, including the ones that are still with us mentioned above, are all included as standard on virtually every consumer motherboard. The majority of users simply don’t need more than one expansion slot. Of course there’s still a place for the good old ATX motherboard. If you are running multiple GPUs or expansion cards, then the choice is obvious. Even then though, it’s clear that multi GPU systems are a shrinking minority.
DO YOU NEED ALL THOSE EXPANSION SLOTS?
The need for expansion slots is becoming less and less. There’s USB 3.1 and the forthcoming USB 3.2 or Thunderbolt 3 interfaces that are easily capable of providing enough bandwidth for the majority of devices. Even the ultimate bandwidth sponges, external graphics cards, are becoming viable. There’s M.2 E-Key slots popping up on motherboards, you can output high bitrate audiophile quality audio to an external DAC, and you can run something like 8-10 storage devices off of SATA and M.2 slots or connect to a NAS. We wonder just how many users with ATX motherboards use more than one slot for a graphics card. That would be an illuminating figure.
So, why does the ATX motherboard make up the vast majority of motherboard sales, and hence by necessity, the chunky ATX computer case? We wish we knew the answer. Does the main street buyer assume a small PC is a weak PC? Do motherboard manufacturers lack the marketing will to push Mini-ITX? It’s a mystery to us.
It cannot be denied there is something appealing about having a PC the size of a shoebox. You can stick an i7-8700K or Ryzen eight-core processor and a full sized GTX 1080 Ti or Vega 64 into a tiny little case that performs exceptionally well at all tasks, while still
staying cool and quiet. You can even bling it out with some RGB lighting if you’re inclined. Here, we’re showing off a supremely capable Mini-ITX gaming build that cranks out frames and can multi task just as well as any ATX PC without compromise.
WE LOOK AT THE BEST SMALL FORM FACTOR COMPONENTS
Now that we’ve explained that MiniITX doesn’t mean compromising on performance, let’s get into what we’ve got in our guide.
We’ve selected a set of ITX motherboards from all the major manufacturers that are perfectly suited to various tasks and market segments. What do you use your PC for? Everything? Gaming? Do you want a home theatre media centre? Or do you just want something cheap, yet fully functional? Our motherboard selections have you totally covered, whatever your task may be.
It also must be said that some manufacturers embrace ITX more than others. We take a look at some of the mini graphics cards on the market, featuring both Nvidia and AMD GPUs. There’s also a look at some of the wizardry that PSU manufacturers are doing. You can get SFF PSUs that are as technologically advanced as anything on the market.
One of the few areas that is well represented in the market is cases. Almost every manufacturer has many options to choose from. We don’t go into them here as there are so many options to choose from. That said, our Computex coverage includes some new ITX models that caught our eye.
For our ITX build, however, we’re featuring the Corsair Obsidian 250D. We loaded it up with some choice gaming hardware, and amazingly the 250D had space left over after we were finished - yet it’s still half the size of a comparable full sized case, with the same components.
Here, we’re showing off a capable Mini-ITX gaming build that cranks out frames...
It seems like every other computing device is being miniaturised. Thinner laptops, slimmer phones, lighter tablets, heck, even a watch can do some amazing things. It’s about time the venerable PC went on a diet. Is the perception of the PC as a big space hogging box part of the reason for the decline of PC sales? Perhaps, perhaps not, but having more and more small form factor options that don’t compromise on anything in the way of performance is a step in the right direction for the good ol’ PC.
Corsair make some very fine small form factor cases. 350 mm 290 mm