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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.