An Introduction to Building a Small Form Factor PC
Published March 2, 2018
If you're looking to build or buy a Small Form Factor (SFF) PC and need some help getting started, you've come to the right place! Our comprehensive set of component buyer's guides and hands-on builder's guides will help you create the system of your dreams, whether it's a $500 kitchen PC or a $2,500 ultra-high-end gaming system. We publish these guides because we think SFF systems are the future of desktop computing, and once you've built your own SFF PC, you'll definitely agree! If you're ready to take the plunge, we're confident you'll find the information you need here.
For March 2018, we continue to profile eleven distinct compact PCs, but in light of the massive cryptocurrency mining craze that has caused all video cards to sell out worldwide, we've made some major adjustments to our guides. In short, if you're looking for a gaming-oriented PC today, you're going to want to buy a pre-built machine. That's because PC manufacturers are able to source video cards at prices that you couldn't possibly find as a retail customer at this point. We're specifically recommending some great new SFF PCs from Corsair, MSI, and Zotac this month, and having seen all of these in person, we can honestly say they are not just great PCs - they are also incredibly compact. In some cases, these machines are just half the size of equivalent PCs you could build yourself... assuming you could actually buy a video card. All of our office- and HTPC-focused PCs, however, continue to be true do-it-yourself systems, which we know long-time readers of this guide will appreciate.
But there's more going on in the SFF market than just the case of the missing GPUs! In January, we attended CES 2018 in Las Vegas, focusing a lot of our time on the Small Form Factor market. We saw lots of great products, including the Zotac Magnus mini gaming box, which we had the opportunity to review after the show. You can learn all about it right here! It's actually just hit the market, so we've been able to add it to our guides for this month.
In other news, Intel announced (but did not release) its new "Hades Canyon" NUC, which promises to be the smallest PC in the world capable of serious gaming. In a first, it combines an Intel CPU and an AMD GPU on the same board, in a unique collaboration between these two fierce competitors. It will start at $800 for a 65W system, and will go up to $1,000 for a 100W system with a fully-enabled Radeon Vega chip. Keep in mind that this is a barebones system, so you're just getting the CPU, GPU, motherboard, case and power supply at that price, making these pretty expensive solutions. Unfortunately, Intel did not reveal a release date, and our guess is that these were very much prototypes, as Intel didn't even bother to put any signage on them - they were just being used to run a VR demo!
Now for the bad news: the STX format, and its planned follow-up, Micro-STX format, are on their way out. We've seen the market for STX components dwindling ever since it was introduced in mid-2016, and we've finally decided to pull it from our guides. Worse still, the Micro-STX format that Intel and SilverStone were working on together last year to mate high-end graphics with ultra-small motherboards is not going to ever hit the market. That's because Nvidia is pulling its support for the MXM graphics card format that it relied on, which we learned straight from the head of Nvidia's mobile marketing department at CES. MXM was developed years ago for gaming laptops, but with the ascendance of ultra-thin gaming laptops, these relatively-large daughtercards no longer serve a purpose in the laptop market, which was by far the largest market for such products. SilverStone actually showed off a new Micro-STX prototype, but it admitted at the show that it's stillborn, and will not be coming to market. We've provided a photo here so you can get one last glimpse of what could have been!
As you consider building your own SFF system, keep in mind that every compact case is unique, so no single build guide can tell you exactly how certain components will fit together in that case. SFF cases often arrange components in a way that makes it difficult to install otherwise standard PC parts. That's why in addition to our many SFF Buyer's Guides, we've worked hard to put together a comprehensive set of step-by-step assembly guides covering a wide range of case layouts. We believe these are the most comprehensive step-by-step PC building guides you'll find anywhere!
All of our Buyer's Guides shown below use Amazon's real-time pricing engine to provide up-to-date prices, and we also provide direct links to Amazon Canada, Amazon UK, and Amazon Germany, with regional substitutions made where necessary. If you purchase any of the components profiled in this guide, please use our links, which helps support continued development of this guide.
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