2003 Winter Case Review Part 1: MicroATX Case Madness

MicroATX Mayhem

The popularity of "cube type" small footprint systems has led users to investigate the possibility of building their own small form factor systems. On the surface, building a small form factor system might seem to be utopia solution, but it does come with a price. The applications for small form factor PC vary greatly from user to user and situation to situation.

THG users continue to seek the flexibility that is offered by these "cube type" based systems, while at the same time users want the flexibility to select their own parts to make up the system that they are building. While the MicroATX and FlexATX form factors have been available to motherboard vendors for some time, it is only in the last year or so that these form factors have gained significant momentum in the marketplace. Much of this lack of prior interest has been due to the fact that high performance motherboard solutions are not easily available in either the MicroATX or FlexATX form factors, greatly limiting the choices that consumers have.

Case manufacturers have grappled with this issue as well. With the limited number of MicroATX motherboards that are available, this greatly limits the potential market for MicroATX cases. Still, several motherboard manufacturers have answered the call and are producing products that could now be considered sufficiently high performance that they are worthy of consideration by consumers.

The application for high performance MicroATX systems seem to fall into three areas: PC TV/Home Theater Applications; Gamer/LAN Party/Transport Applications; and Small Form Factor for the Sake Of More Space Applications. While we do not deny the existence of other applications for the MicroATX form factor, at least for the moment the majority of these areas seem to be dominated by the "bare bones" system companies offering products in "cube type" form factors. Shuttle single handedly pioneered this market space, hence the reason that the term "Shuttle Box" is often used when referring to these systems. Now, it seems as if everyone is copying this concept and adding new "cube type" products to their portfolio of products.

While it is possible to find a MicroATX motherboard that will fit your application and the level of performance that you desire, be prepared to do a significant amount of research and shopping around to find exactly what you are seeking in a high performance MicroATX motherboard. Why is there a need for these high performance MicroATX motherboard solutions? This is mostly because the PC TV/Home Theater Applications and gamer/transport applications for the MicroATX solution require more performance and sheer power than is available in typical integrated MicroATX offerings that are commonly available. Still, you may have to put up with some idiosyncrasies with your MicroATX motherboard selection as it doesn't seem that many motherboard manufacturers have caught on to the growing trend and requirements of designing a high performance solution in a MicroATX form factor. Another point of note is that you may have to consider motherboard vendors beyond typical top name companies to find the MicroATX motherboard solution with all of the features that you want or need.