Hands-On With Five Mini-ITX Cases

Cases For The Smallest PC Platform

Mini-ITX systems are much more compact than standard desktop computers. The format revolves around motherboards that measure just 170x170 mm and the standard is now well-adapted. Mini-ITX 2.0 was actually set and defined by VIA back in 2008, but initially created in 2001, and it is perfectly suitable for creating some of the smallest PC platforms thinkable today. Mini-ITX is about 61 percent smaller than full-size ATX, takes less than half the area consumed by microATX, and it is even a third smaller than FlexATX.

More Powerful Than Standard PCs

The first Mini-ITX computers were based on relatively weak CPUs like VIA's Eden, and thus were at best only suitable for thin clients or entry-level PC applications. However, manufacturers have shaped up since then, and now offer a wide range of Mini-ITX motherboards that can, in fact, compete with standard PCs in terms of performance. An increasing number of highly-integrated platforms ensure that all key features and interfaces are available, even in this smallest form factor. As a result, the possible applications have expanded considerably, and the small computers no longer live a niche existence.

Crucial: The Mini-ITX Case

Current Mini-ITX computers can make just as good gaming PCs as they make home theater PCs (HTPCs). But there are very different demands on the system because of the various possible applications. Therefore, you have to take into consideration the inside and the outside of the case when buying one. Even the very best Mini-ITX motherboard is of little use if the chassis it drops into doesn't offer enough space for a graphics card, if the PSU is too weak, if the USB connections are all in the wrong place, if the ventilation is inadequate, or if there is no room for expansion.

Five Mini-ITX Cases Tried

Choosing the right Mini-ITX motherboard and matching the right CPU can be a science in itself. Of course, the first question you should ask yourself is what you are actually going to use the computer for. The same goes for the Mini-ITX enclosure. According to the manufacturers, there are considerable differences in appearance, internal volume, and accessories/expansion. So, depending on whether the case will host a miniature workstation, a gaming rig for LAN party duty, or a multimedia system for the living room, you will have to make sure that the chassis is apropos.

We put five current cases for Mini-ITX boards to the test. We reveal strengths and weaknesses in order to determine what role they play best. As reference hardware, we're using Gigabyte's H55N-USB3, fitted with an Intel Core i5 and standard (boxed) Intel CPU cooler. These are the test candidates: Antec's ISK 310-150, the Chieftec BT-02B, Lian Li's PC-Q08, LUXA2's LM100, and the SilverStone SG05. The cases all ship empty and, apart from the Lian Li, they all come with a power supply.

Not All PC Hardware Fits

The small dimensions of most Mini-ITX cases don't always make it hard to fit standard size PC components. In many cases, plenty of standard hardware pieces fit just fine. Almost all of our test candidates simultaneously accommodate a 3.5” hard drive and a standard 5.25” optical drive. More likely is that some CPU coolers and graphics cards will be too large or too long to fit. And things might still be extremely cramped, even if the case is supposedly ready for the installation of discrete graphics cards and components like that.

  • rohitbaran
    Q08 supports expansion cards of length upto 300mm. It is mentioned on the Lian Li website and prople have built systems with cards like Radeon 5870 in it.
  • doomtomb
    Lian Li PC-Q08 is my pick everytime but why did you guys not look at the SG07?
  • jeraldjunkmail
    I (custom) build an element Q with an H50 water cooler. I had to (custom) move the PSU to the front of the machine under the 5.25" drive bay. This involved drilling out the rivets and reriveting them in order to hammer the pieces into shape. It also can fit a large video card in there (but this is not a gaming rig). There is a 6 2.5" hard drive software raid array in it and it is running Debian 6.0... Smallest water cooled rig in the world? Maybee.... Sorry if double post... Not sure...
  • gti88
    Please, do something with picture gallery.
  • Matask
    Perhaps its worth mentioning that you can get the SG05 with silverstone 450watt SFF psu instead allowing a bit more power. My current setup consists of the same Motherboard as used in this test Zotacs gtx460 AMP edition, an 0verclocked I7 860 at 3,5ghz with the H50 cooler and 4 gigabytes of 1333mhz 8-8-8-21 memory. Runs like a dream. And temps are actually quite good as the gfx card blows the heat directly out the side, and the push-pull airflow works very satifactory. Only thing to beware of is cable clutter as it can really mess up the airflow in these small cases.
  • Sharro
    I've been buying Shuttles for the last 10 years and I feel sad for not seeing any model included in this review.

    They are reliable little boxes :-)

    All the best,

  • gti88
    MataskI7 860 at 3,5ghz with the H50 cooler i5 2500@3.5GHz can be really cool with Big Shuriken@800rpm.
  • I love the Chenbro ES34169. You can find it for under $100 and quality is great. The only thing I would change is the stock fans, which are too loud on full speed.

  • Matask
    gti88i5 2500@3.5GHz can be really cool with Big Shuriken@800rpm.
    Yeah prob would have gone another direction than the H50 should i buy something now since performance pr dollar isnt that high. However the new SB cpu's do overclock better than my 860..so its really no suprise you get good temps at 3,5 ghz with your I5..you prob would with stock cooler as well..at least from what i have read around the interwebs..
  • dogman-x
    The Silverstone SG05 only accepts a slim optical drive, which really limits you for BluRay burners.

    I ended up buying the Shuttle SH55-J2. This is a Mini-ITX case plus an ITX motherboard for an Intel LGA1156 processor. The case accepts a double-slot graphics card and a standard optical drive. And unlike past Shuttle products, you can upgrade the system with any standard ITX motherboard. It's also very quiet, which is a big plus for home theater.