Midsize PCs haven’t lost their style—as one of the most flexible (and affordable), they’re an easy choice for contractors. But these days, small form factor personal computers (SFFs) are becoming fashionable. Enthusiasm around them continues to spread as well, with large component sellers jumping on board to add their spin to the process.
For starters, a small desktop computer might not make much sense, since the middle tower system is quick and straightforward to assemble. Prices start much lower, too. If you’re not familiar with PC SFFs, Intel’s launch of the Dragon Canyon NUC, an 8-liter modular gaming PC, may seem like an incredibly expensive luxury place to go.
But once you delve into the details about SFF computers, it becomes quite clear why people subscribe to these little systems. Here are the five main points to know about the miniature side of building a PC.
#1: SFF is all about case size
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These days, compact volume is generally defined as any system in a canister that has a volume of less than 20 liters. You might see some case manufacturers expand the definition (for example, SilverStone raises the cap to 23 liters), but the SFF community holds 20 liters.
What goes into the system is not strictly defined. However, in almost all cases mini-ITX motherboards are considered the largest in size. Most also limit you to smaller power supply form factors (SFX, SFX-L), with very small cases that only support sound effects. Having said that, don’t take this as a rule. Modern SFF cases include models that support ATX power supplies, just like larger cases.
Shapes and layouts are also different – there are now a lot more options than in previous years. More emphasis is being placed on computers that can use a discrete graphics card. In such cases, the shoe box is the most common form. And while you downsize, sandwich layouts (where the case is split in two, with the GPU occupying one half and the other CPU/motherboard) are popular to improve airflow. You can not see many classic schemes, where all the components are included in one room.
#2: Case prices are no longer so high
Not long ago, spending between $180 and $250 for a case of a small form factor wasn’t uncommon. While you can find some models for less, those with a discrete GPU tend to run around 20 liters and are made of cheaper materials.
But in the past two years, the market has started to change. Big case sellers like Cooler Master and Lian Li at SFF have fought for revenge, and they’re not only taking advantage of the current zeitgeist. They’re hitting it with democracy, too. The Cooler Master made waves with the stunningly stylish but affordable NR200, which launched at $80. Even at higher price points, which reduce case space, include more features, or boast more luxurious materials, the cost is on par with larger cases of similar quality. Spending $130 on the Lian Li A4-H2O doesn’t seem like an overspend compared to the company’s O11 Air Mini – just a different path taken.
#3: SFF PCs still cost more overall
We would love to see lower prices in cases of the small form factor, as this brings more people to the SFF scene. But the total cost of building an SFF PC is still higher on average, due to some factors.
The main sticking point is the need for a mini-ITX motherboard. Although they have fewer features compared to ATX boards due to their small size, they tend to start at higher prices. And while you can find a case here and there that can accommodate an ATX power supply, most SFFs require an SFX or SFX-L power supply, which also starts at higher prices. You don’t pay more for less, per se – you pay more because you start with better equipment. Manufacturers don’t usually make barebones mini ITX boards or SFX PSUs.
Additional purchases can creep in, too. They’re things you don’t usually need in a larger build, like fan grills or various power cables. In more spacious accommodations, your wires can be routed more easily around the fans so they are not chewed by the blades. Likewise, you don’t need to sweat the inflexible power cables. Even in the case of a small tower, it does not need to be stuffed and crammed into narrow crevices. And if you want to get the most out of your hardware — or live in mortal fear of sub-optimal temperatures — you might end up investing more money in high-performance cooling, too. You don’t have to plan to build a perfect image until you end up spending more. The costs can still add up because you make up for having less space to work in.
#4: Your Hardware Won’t Fry
You cannot escape the laws of nature, but stuffing devices into confined spaces is not a death sentence. Modern SFF cases pay more attention to airflow, and most importantly, they better accommodate closed-loop coolers, which can help reduce temperatures without taking up too much space.
The biggest factor with temperatures in building a small form factor is layout. Unlike a mid-tower computer, you can’t pick out a bunch of cheap or appealing parts, slap it inside, and expect a perfect result. To keep your CPU and GPUs within the recommended ranges, you should consider your chosen state layout and how your parts list will interact within that layout. But even though a PC SFF will run a little warmer than building an average tower, you can still reach great temperatures with some effort (and maybe a little more money than initially anticipated).
#5: It often takes longer to build
Alaina Yee / IDG
In larger cases, you can install the parts in almost any order. With smaller PCs, installing components usually follows a perfect order – and it always takes time to figure this out. Even when the manufacturer provides instructions for the process, you can still find yourself doubling down on this or that. For example, you probably should have routed the 24-pin power supply cable from a different angle before mounting the motherboard.
YouTube videos can take the hassle out of figuring out a sequence of steps, but either way, you’ll still invest more minutes (or hours) overall. Cable management can require extra work in particular—when a PCWorld employee built his first SFF computer, that was the first thing he learned.
Why go SFF?
A small desktop computer that can fit just about anywhere and move easily between those places is really cool. Being able to pack high-end parts like the Ryzen 9 5900X and GeForce RTX 3080 into the same computer is pretty impressive. The little one doesn’t have to be a performance sacrifice.
And as more attention is paid to the SFF scene, the space for different tastes only increases. (No pun intended.) This is why news regarding newly announced or launched issues gets so much hype. Enhanced aesthetics and innovative designs continue to enhance the building experience, while providing more flexibility and choice. Full versions of SFF versions like Intel’s Dragon Canyon NUC are particularly exciting – you can run an 8-liter computer in less than an hour.