Lately, all the rage among computer enthusiasts seems to be RGB lightning, both outside and inside their computers. It’s a race to make the ugliest, worst-looking piece of hardware manufacturers possibly can, with the result that, more than computers or peripherals, those poor objects appear to be black Christmas trees. It’s really a sad sight, especially when you consider that keyboards with single color backlight are disappearing because they’re not what the market wants. As if enthusiasts were the only people who buy computers and peripherals.
But there’s also another trend in computing: small form factor cases. Small computers are more fashionable now than they’ve ever been and they’re also more affordable than they have ever been and apparently some manufacturers are involved in a race to the smallest case that can fit the most components inside. Look at the DAN Cases A4-SFX, for example: it’s not larger than a shoebox, but can fit a mini ITX motherboard with a desktop processor, up to three 2.5 SSDs or hard drives (or a combination thereof) and a desktop graphics card. In case you don’t know, modern graphics cards are huge, sometimes being longer than the width of a motherboard.
With that said, I think we should ask ourselves whether a microscopic computer is actually worth it in order to make a better informed decision before we jump ship, potentially hurting our work experience in the process.
My experience with mini ITX
Being an enthusiast myself, I too have a fondness for small form factor computers. I’ve written in the past about the Raspberry Pi, an ARM-based (the same type of processor used on most phones and tablets) computer the same size of a credit card. Using the Raspberry Pi is a beautiful but infuriating experience. At first you think it can’t do much, then you get amazed at how many things it can actually do, and then you get mad because you overestimated its potential. Repeat ad libitum and you get an idea of what using the Raspberry Pi is like.
So, it was almost natural for me to try out a mini ITX computer. Since I had upgraded my Core i5 processor to a Xeon E3, I was left with a spare processor and decided to build a small form factor computer to use as a light workload machine. I grabbed the cheapest mini ITX motherboard I could find, two RAM sticks and a case that I thought was a decent choice: the Cooler Master Mini 110. Oh boy, how wrong was I.
Woe is me, this case stinks!
Not in actuality, but it was a terrible case all around. True, it didn’t have any sharp edges, but that’s about everything good I can write about it. Where should I begin?
First off, it didn’t have a real hard drive cage: the only suitable spot is either inside the 5.25″ slimline bay, which prevents you to install a laptop DVD reader, or under it, which makes the whole thing vibrate like crazy, especially if you use a 3.5″ drive. Secondly, it didn’t have good airflow, making my processor run hotter than it should have.
And the power supply. Oh god the power supply. Of course, being a very small computer case, Cooler Master couldn’t fit a standard ATX power supply, so they had to resort to a different form factor. But instead of choosing one that makes sense, like SFX or TFX, they did the stupidest thing they could have. They used Flex ATX power supply. What do you say? You’ve never heard of that type? Neither had I up to that point.
It was a 200 W model, which would have sufficed for a computer without a graphics card (which wouldn’t fit inside that case anyway), but it has a few issues. First, its form factor is almost extinct, so finding a replacement in case it died was going to be impossible. And God knows how much I hoped it would die, so I could replace it with something more silent. Because that thing was incredibly loud. I wasn’t using a computer. I was listening to a fighter jet taking off less than 1 m from my ear. It was terrible. Its single 20 mm fan simply couldn’t keep that atrocity cool. The longer you used that computer, the louder it got even at idle. This case was so bad that Cooler Master didn’t even bother to provide outlet with review samples and fased it out at the end of last year.
This is sounding like a rant, but I promise it only serves to illustrate my point, which is don’t get into small form factors computer just for the sake of having a tiny computer. You’re going to regret it if you do.
My second mini ITX case
Since I already had a mini ITX motherboard with an older Core i5, getting a new computer to replace my secondary rig was out of the question because it would’ve been wasteful. Thus, I decided to ditch my older case and replace it with a better one. I picked up an Obsidian 250D, a relatively high-end case which can house a mini ITX motherboard, a graphics card, a standard ATX PSU, 2 3.5″ hard drives, 2 2.5″ hard drives or SSDs and a 5.25″ optical disk drive. Compared to the Mini 110, it’s about the same width, but almost four times as tall and slightly deeper.
Assembling it was an experience that can be best summed up as “okay”. It took me almost double the time I would need to build a standard tower, mostly because the space is much more crammed and I needed to find a proper way to route the cables. The end result is acceptable, but I’m far from satisfied. I’m still waiting for a hard drive to put inside it, but after I do get it, I’ll probably never open it up again.
However, I’m much happier with this case. For starters, the PSU I got for it is much quieter, with the fan rarely ramping up. Additionally, it features a big 200 mm fan on the front and a smaller 120 mm one on the side. All in all, it’s a very silent case and I’m glad I got it.
I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that you should consider your priorities very carefully before you buy into the mini ITX craze. It’s undeniable that mini ITX cases have their own appeal and some people may benefit from a smaller footprint. For example, you may not have that much room on your desk and you can’t put your case on the floor because you have carpet underneath your workspace. That’s a pretty good scenario where you may want to get a small footprint computer case, although you may also benefit from getting a laptop or an all-in-one, in that particular case.
However, as useful a small computer may be, there’s also the downsides to consider. In particular:
- Limited RAM support: mini ITX motherboards support up to 2 RAM modules. Although most people will be fine with just two RAM sticks, others like creative professionals may find them to be too limiting after a while;
- Only 1 PCIe slot: although some people are going to be perfectly fine with the processor’s integrated graphics, having only a single PCIe slot may put you in the awkward position of having to decide whether you want to install a graphics card or you prefer to have another type of expansion card in your computer;
- Tight spaces make maintenance more difficult: sometimes, even bigger tower cases present users with a few challenges when it comes to maintenance and upgrades. This issue is even more exacerbated in mini ITX cases, where ending up with a lot of cable clutter is a very common occurrence, even to experienced PC builders. A modular power supply can help with that, but those come at a cost;
- Depending on where you live, your components may run much hotter: I live in South Italy and using my main computer during the hottest hours of the day isn’t a very pleasing experience. And that one actually runs rather cool, thanks to its very big case. Mini ITX cases can make your components run even hotter, making for a subpar work experience during the summer.