STX

If you want to build the smallest fully-customizable, high-powered PC available anywhere, this is the guide for you! It's not often that we get to help promote a brand new form factor, so we're excited to share the wonders of the mini-STX format with our readers. Building on all that has come before it, most notably mini-ITX, the mini-STX format takes into account the vastly different PC ecosystem that exists today. That means fast M.2 and 2.5" drives, compact DDR4 SODIMM memory chips, ultra-efficient desktop processors with potent built-in graphics, and cutting-edge connectivity. What does this all add up to? A system that is literally half the size of the smallest mini-ITX-based home office PCs, despite costing the same and offering the same expandability. Indeed, at under 2 liters, this PC is downright tiny, nearly as small as Intel's NUC, but vastly more powerful and expandable. We've published a step-by-step assembly guide to ensure that you'll be able to get your system up and running in less than an hour, just as we did!

For November 2017, we're continuing to recommend a cost-effective "barebones" setup from AsRock, which includes the case, power supply, motherboard, and WiFi card, but still leaves room for plenty of customization. We suggest you complete this kit with the potent but low-priced Intel Pentium G4600 3.6GHz dual-core CPU with Hyperthreading, the best CPU you can buy anywhere near its price, along with 8GB of DDR4-2400 RAM and a blazing-fast Samsung 960 Evo 250GB PCIe-based solid-state drive. All told, these componetns will really allow your system to perform like the "big boys." Even better, you can choose any number of upgrades, including up to two 2.5" hard drives or SSDs, a massively-powerful Core i7-7700 CPU, or up to 32GB of RAM. In other words, unless you're a serious gamer, this system will do anything you want it to, and is a true replacement for a full-size desktop. In fact, one of our readers followed this guide to build the ultimate STX system - see all the details in The Gallery if you need a little inspiration!!!

Now we do have to share just one unfortunate issue: memory prices are spiraling out of control. For example, the RAM kit we recommend for this build has increased in price 50% since the beginning of 2017, and will undoubtedly climb higher each month as the three big chip producers (Samsung, Micron, and SKHynix) have decided that they will not increase production capacity to meet demand. This is a problem for all PC builds, but it has a very noticeable effect on a $500 system, as it makes up a significant part of the budget. What does this mean to you? There's just no way to actually hit our $500 target price anymore. We're close to 10% over, and will certainly climb higher as RAM prices continue to climb into 2018. Sorry about that - there's not much we can do!

To see past versions of this system, just flip to The Archive, and to ask questions about this build, feel free to stop by our Reader Forum. And if 2 liters isn't quite small enough for you, feel free to stop by our NUC Buyer's Guide for more information on the smallest full-fledged PC you can buy! And don't forget - your use of the links we provide helps support further development of these guides.

The $500 Home Office / Theater Mini-STX PC - November 2017

    The Pre-Built Option:

    AsRock DeskMini Barebones System

    While we previously recommended a complete "do-it-yourself" solution, AsRock, the manufacturer of our preferred STX motherboard, actually sells a "barebones" kit, which comes with that motherboard pre-installed in a case, and includes a 110W power supply, WiFi card, and WiFi antennas in the box. That makes it a fantastic deal, especially after a recent price cut!

    The Guru's Tip:

    Being a barebones kit, this system still needs a CPU, RAM, SSD, and operating system, so make sure to add the items listed to your build!

    CPU:

    Pentium G4600

    Despite its unassuming name, the Pentium G4600 is a truly amazing budget processor, far more powerful than anything that's ever been available under $100. That's because Intel has endowed it with Hyperthreading, a technology that was previously reserved for its Core i3 lineup, starting at $120. That means its two cores running at 3.5GHz can emulate a quad-core PC, and combined with its potent built-in HD Graphics 630 chip (the same thing you get in the Core i3), it's a perfect all-in-one home office solution! Note that we now strongly recommend this CPU over the slower Pentium G4560, which was our previous recommendation, as Intel has apparently ceased production of the G4560, driving the price way up.

    The Guru's Tip:

    If for some reason you want to turn your bookshelf PC into an absolute rocketship, feel free to upgrade the CPU to the Intel Core i7-7700. Yes, this system can handle it with no other upgrades, and for a total price of under $750, you'll have a PC that can outperform most full-size desktop PCs, let alone every ultra-compact PC ever released!

    Memory:

    Crucial 2x4GB DDR4-2400 SODIMM

    For this build, we recommend an economical but extremely-fast 2x4GB kit. The CPU and motherboard support up to DDR4-2400 RAM, and that's what we go with here. Want to max your system out? Then go for either the Corsair 2x8GB DDR4-2400 Kit or the Ballistix 2x16GB DDR4-2400 Kit for extreme multi-tasking! Alas, due to an unprecedented chip shortage that's crippling world markets, prices are going up on a monthly, and sometimes weekly basis.

    The Guru's Tip:

    Note that we do not recommend equipping this system with one stick of RAM, whether it be a 4GB, 8GB, or 16GB stick. Using two RAM sticks rather than one results not only in 2-3% faster CPU performance, but also a very significant 20-25% boost in graphics performance. That's because Intel's built-in HD video chip relies on system memory for video data, and the higher bandwidth provided by dual sticks (which enable dual channel mode) is priceless in a system dependent on built-in video.

    Solid-State Drive:

    Samsung 960 Evo 250GB PCIe

    There's no better way to make a PC feel really fast than to equip it with a solid-state drive, and PCIe-based drives like this one are leagues ahead of standard SATA-based drives, offering sequential data rates up to 4x higher and random data rates around 2x higher. And please take note: the motherboard we've selected only supports PCIe-based M.2 drives, not the similar-looking SATA-based M.2 drives, so we strongly recommend you stick to our recommendation here. It's by far the best drive for the money (and is available in 500GB and 1TB capacities if needed).

    The Guru's Tip:

    To install this drive, you'll need a jeweler's-type screwdriver, as a standard #2 Philips will be too big.

    Operating System:

    Microsoft Windows 10 Flash Drive

    Windows 10 was released way back in July 2015, yet Microsoft is adding new features to it all the time. It's a truly stable, powerful OS, and one that will go down in history as a true success story, much like the pioneering Windows 95.

    The Guru's Tip:

    We recommend the USB 3.0 Flash Drive version of Windows 10 as it's incredibly easy to use, taking around 5 minutes to install. And given that this system doesn't have an optical drive, the use of the DVD version isn't all that feasible.

Optional Components

    Hard Drive (Optional):

    Seagate 2TB Barracuda 2.5" (Opt.)

    Pair this high-capacity hard drive up with the SSD recommended earlier in this guide to create the ultimate mini media server! The Windows 10 "Storage" control panel makes it incredibly easy to designate on which drives your data and apps will go by default.

    The Guru's Tip:

    The motherboard comes with the STX-specific SATA adapters required to connect this drive, and the case has all necessary mounting hardware and two open 2.5" bays.

    Case:

    SilverStone VT02B

    If you prefer a do-it-yourself option (for example, if you already have an STX motherboard or want to use a high-end wireless card), go for the VT02B from SilverStone, which is very similar to the case in AsRock's barebones build, but is actually a bit smaller and sleeker.

    The Guru's Tip:

    The VT02 is the smallest STX chassis that can fit Intel's stock CPU heatsink, which is what we recommend you use with this build. Based on our extensive cooler testing, you won't find another cooler that will fit in this case and actually provide better overall performance than Intel's model.

    Motherboard:

    AsRock H110M-STX Mini-STX

    This is the very same board AsRock provides in its DeskMini barebones kit recommended earlier in this guide, so only purchase this board if you're going the full DIY route. This tiny STX board has all the right features at a very nice price! It has a full-size M.2 slot that supports PCIe 3.0 x4 solid-state drives (the fastest models on the market), plus HDMI, VGA, and DisplayPort out. It uses laptop-style SODIMM memory modules to save space, just like every STX motherboard, and has four USB ports (one USB 2.0 and one USB 3.0 in the rear, plus one USB 3.0 and a USB Type-C in front).

    The Guru's Tip:

    With out-of-the-box support for the Pentium G4600, this is the only STX board we recommend - most only accept older CPUs like the inferior G4400. And yes, we purchased this very board to ensure that AsRock's support claims were true - and they were!

    Power Supply:

    SilverStone AD120-STX 120W Power Supply

    This powerful PSU will support any CPU you can install in the VT02 chassis. It's a laptop-style unit, meaning it simply plugs right into the back of the PC with a round power plug. There are no internal connections necessary.

    The Guru's Tip:

    Note that this isn't exactly a small power adapter - it weighs about as much as the entire PC. But to get 120W from a silent fanless power supply, it has to be large to allow for natural heat convection.

    Wireless Card (Optional):

    Intel 8265 Wi-Fi/Bluetooth Adapter M.2 2230 (Opt.)

    This is the wireless card you'll want to purchase if you need built-in wireless in a do-it-yourself build. It slots right into the motherboard, and provides both dual-stream 802.11ac networking and Bluetooth functionality. The big advantage it has over lesser cards, including the Intel 3160 included with the AsRock DeskMini barebones PC, is dual-stream and MU-MIMO capability. This means it's going to be far faster in multi-user networks when used with a high-end MU-MIMO 802.11ac router. That's the benefit you get from being able to pick your own components rather than going with a less expensive barebones kit.

    The Guru's Tip:

    Please be careful selecting antennas for use with this card. Many will not work, because most compact antennas are for use with mini-PCIe cards, not M.2 cards. The antenna kit below is the one you'll need. And yes, you really do need antennas - the card won't pick up a signal without them (we tried!).

    Cable (Optional):

    Porjet M.2 (NGFF) WiFi Antennas (Opt.)

    These are the M.2-specific antenna you'll need to use wireless with the Intel 8265 WiFi card. Due to the tight attachment mechanism, you'll probably need a pliers to snap them on. As for the antennas, they can be easily affixed through two "punchout" holes in the back of the VT02 case, an undocumented feature that we tested to make sure it would work!

    The Guru's Tip:

    Note that this kit is not available outside the U.S., so for our Canadian and European readers, we've linked to a different product that's designed for desktops, but should work with the Intel 8265 card.