Like all-in-ones, SFF PCs are aimed at those on a space budget, but they’ve got a huge secondary benefit: power.
Small form factor PCs are basically the computing equivalent of a TARDIS -- tiny on the outside, with an amazing amount of hardware on the inside. We’ve seen SFF PCs with quad-GPU solutions paired up to high-end overclocked CPUs, all tamed by miniature water cooling kits, in a case the size of a shoebox. It’s quite amazing what manufacturers of these devices can squeeze into such a small space and most of them use full-blown desktop hardware to get the job done.
It wasn’t always this way, though. SFFs suffer from the same thermal issues as all-in-ones, the result of stuffing hot hardware into a tiny space. Add minimal airflow and you’ve got a one-way ticket to crash land. To solve this, early SFFs came stocked with low-end hardware. Shuttle was arguably the first to deliver an SFF PC back in 2001, in the form of the SV24. Armed with a low-end Socket 370 CPU, there was no AGP slot and just one PCI slot. Yet fan noise was still an issue, even with these low-end components. A look at Shuttle’s offerings in 2012 reveal machines that can play Battlefield 3 on Ultra settings, while remaining whisper quiet.
Today’s SFF PCs are broken down into multiple categories. Cubic systems are named after their square dimensions, while mini systems resemble the shape made popular by the Apple Mac mini. Home theatre PCs (HTPCs) are built to look like a piece of AV gear such as an amplifier or DVD player and will fit comfortably into the shelf of your Ikea AV wall unit.
A barebones SFF refers to a kit that only includes the case, cooler, power supply and motherboard -- it’s up to the buyer to figure out the rest of the components. This used to be the most common method of buying an SFF PC, but nowadays many come fully prebuilt. You’ll get the best bang for buck with a barebones kit, but prebuilt machines can have a major benefit. Unlike a home build, prebuilt SFF PCs have been put through the thermal wringer by the maker, so you shouldn’t have any problems with overheating, and they’ll run nice and quiet. They also tend to use the space most efficiently. On the flipside, if you stock a barebones unit with stupidly hot components, chances are you’ll need to modify the cooling system to cope with all that heat. Even then it’ll probably be extremely noisy when running, thanks to the high-speed cooling fans necessary.
Thankfully, the latest silicon from AMD, Intel and Nvidia all has a heavy focus on performance per watt. In fact, Nvidia’s latest GPU delivers twice the performance per watt over the last generation and this will go a long way to helping SFF PCs maintain desktop-level performance, without melting into a pool of molten slag. Once again we see the benefits of notebook technology flowing into the home-based PC. With SFF PCs set to offer as much bang as a full-blown tower, but in a case a quarter of the size, there’s no doubt that this tiny form factor will see huge growth in the future.