PC builders will be used to the ATX form factor, which has been the desktop default for some time, and for which cases are primarily designed, but there are several other form factors out there that are supported by component manufacturers. One of the most exciting of these is Mini-ITX.
Mini-ITX is proof that good things can come in small packages. Thanks to a standardised 17cm x 17cm motherboard design, that you can build a PC that is a fraction the size of your standard desktop, and you don't have to compromise on performance.
What is Mini-ITX
Mini-ITX was initially invented by VIA in 2001 as a way for it to sell its processors. VIA's CPUs were unable to compete on raw performance with offerings from Intel and AMD, so the company looked to low-power, tightly integrated motherboards that measured 17cm x 17cm and came complete with a CPU at retail as a way to push products in a new niche.
These ‘EPIA' platforms achieved moderate success - especially with those looking to perform case modifications, who took to the form factor with gusto. They ended up in all sorts of unlikely places, being built into the likes of remote control cars and manikins. But ultimately the form factor was held back by the relatively low performance of the EPIA platform, which excluded it from a lot of computing implementations.
|Thermaltake's Element Q Mini-ITX case supports desktop CPUs and full-sized drives
If it was just VIA behind the form factor it might have died, but Shuttle has been building systems using Mini-ITX for some time, and recently a lifeline came from an unlikely source. When Intel introduced its Atom CPU it wasn't just used for netbooks: it also released a Mini-ITX motherboard that featured an embedded Atom 230.
This generated renewed interest in Mini-ITX, and since then several manufacturers have released Atom-based Mini-ITX motherboards. Additionally, motherboards that pair the Atom with Nvidia's Ion integrated graphics chipset. Intel has continued to release Mini-ITX Atom offerings, the latest of which uses the ‘Pineview' platform.
While Mini-ITX's strength has long been in tiny systems, that fit into tiny cases, with tiny power requirements, these days, you can do much more.
Your first step, then, is to choose whether you want to build a system based on a all-in-one motherboard that includes an embedded processor or use a mini-ITX motherboard with no embedded processor to allow for more expansion and component options.
If you opt for a motherboard with an embedded processor, you'll also have to decide whether or not you want it with the additional home theatre performance offered by Nvidia Ion graphics.
Over recent years manufacturers have managed to build Intel's desktop chipsets into Mini-ITX boards. This opens up a secondary market for Mini-ITX, where fully-featured desktop systems can now be built into tiny packages. Gigabyte's H55N-USB 3 is a good example of this kind of motherboard: it uses Intel's H55 chipset to create a board that supports LGA 1566 processors, has a x16 PCI-Express graphics slot and even features USB 3.0 onboard.
Where Mini-ITX gets a little complicated is in choosing the right components to build a system. If you are going for a low-power solution like Atom you have different power and space requirements than a system that uses a desktop CPU. On the plus side this means that you can build a system that matches your needs perfectly.
Read the rest of this article in the September 2010 issue of PC Authority magazine.