ITX Buy­ers’ Guide

SIZE MAT­TERS; OR DOES IT?

PCPOWERPLAY - - Contents -

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

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