Mini-ITX: Two Cases And Four Motherboards Compared

Make It Mini, Please!

Alright, so maybe this story's front page lead exaggerates a little bit. Not everyone is as sensitive to power consumption as the hardware industry might lead us to believe. Power consumption is only one of several key points that influence the buying decision. Fortunately, progress has given us not only more efficient products but also many small form factor (SFF) designs that are very powerful and even smaller than previous generations. With two small form factor enclosures and four integrated motherboard solutions in-hand, we got a good idea of where today’s diminutive-footprint market is at.

Is Small Beautiful?

This certainly is a matter of taste and personal preference. A huge gaming system with a tricked-out case may be considered just as cool as a sleek, stylish, small form factor PC. One might be regarded as beautiful for its dominating presence and the other for its humble minimalism. Either way, you cannot deny that a compact system capable of doing virtually anything you want is indeed attractive. If the PC is small enough, you might not even need a dedicated HTPC system in your living room. You could just carry the box from the one place to the next and have everything on it ready to go.

Limits to Smaller Designs

Since a mini-ITX configuration, which is the most popular form factor for ultra-small PCs, only offers limited space, manufacturers obviously can’t provide as many features or as much connectivity compared to larger boards. Forget about multiple expansion slots, multi-card graphics subsystems, flexible storage interfaces, and an array of memory slots. These just don’t fit when you go ultra-small.

In the same context, it’s important to realize that overclocking features might still be available, but also much more limited due to space constraints for powerful voltage regulators and high-capacity cooling. In a nutshell, it may be technically possible to overclock a small form factor system, but overclocking features and margins suffer from physical confinement of components.

Does Small Equal Power Saving?

This is indeed a statement most people would tend to support, although size has little direct relation with efficiency. Yes, small form factor systems may tend to be easier on power consumption due to the more limited number of components. But a clean and efficient layout is still more important than size reduction. Most of the systems in this review use little power, but they don’t reach new records on efficiency.

One thing is for sure, though. Since only one out of the four mini-ITX motherboards reviewed here offer a PCI Express x16 slot, it seems extremely unlikely that the other three will ever be equipped with a power-hungry graphics card. As a result, all systems running on integrated graphics are relatively power-light anyway.

Processors: Everything Goes

We have good news when it comes to processor support: between the platforms in this article, we have support for almost every available processor in the existing AMD and Intel lineups, meaning you can choose fast quad-cores models should you need the speed. We went for the fastest available dual-core processors--AMD's Phenom II X2 550 and Intel’s Core 2 Duo E8600--since they deliver the best performance at relatively low power consumption, and probably make the most sense for small systems today.