Small Form Factor Face-Off! We Compare 5 Compact Contenders

Cody Cardarelli

From the caliber of their parts to the breadth of their abilities to their unconventional shapes and sizes, today's small form factor PCs are a tasty treat for power users

It has long been considered common wisdom that the smaller the size of a PC, the greater its compromises. Notebooks, no matter how fat, for example, will never touch the power of a desktop machine.

The same held true for small form factor rigs. But is that still the case? To find out how today’s SFF rigs compare with their full-size desktop brethren, we tasked five top PC makers with sending us their best and brightest, and, well, smallest machines.

We didn’t put any hard and fast limits on size or price. Instead, we wanted the vendors to go nuts with the definition of “small form factor rig.” As a result, what we received for our shoot-out was an incredibly diverse assortment of shapes and sizes that completely upended our old notions of the category. It also proved to us that small PCs can pack a mighty punch.

To judge these little wonders, we looked at price, aesthetics, power consumption, acoustics, and, of course, performance. What you’ll see is that this contest yielded some unexpected challengers and results.

Falcon Northwest FragBox

Falcon Northwest’s FragBox is no new face around here. We’ve seen various iterations of this SFF over the years, but the latest is perhaps the most impressive. In a chassis that’s the second-smallest of the bunch—just slightly larger than CyberPower’s LAN Party Evo—Falcon manages to jam in not one, but two GeForce GTX 580 cards, along with a 3.4GHz Core i7-2600K overclocked to 4.2GHz.

Storage is handled by Crucial’s new 256GB M4 SSD and a 1TB Western Digital HDD. RAM is maxed out on the Asus P8P67M with 16GB of DDR3/1600.

There isn’t much space to work in the FragBox, but that also means it doesn’t take up much room either.

Despite the abundance of hardware in such a confined space, the FragBox is an amazingly well-behaved machine. It stood out in contrast to other boxes in this roundup whose dual videocards were pushed into thermal detonator mode by our gaming benchmarks, forcing the system fans to spool to noticeable or unacceptable levels.

The FragBox exhibited none of that. You could play a game for hours at 2560x1600 resolution and not notice that the machine was working hard.

So what’s the FragBox’s big problem? It’s majorly outgunned by the iBuypower, Origin PC, and AVADirect rigs’ four-way GPU setups and higher-clocked or higher-cored CPUs. It also doesn’t help that the FragBox is priced at a painful $4K. That’s the same as the iBuypower rig, which not only has dual dual-GPU cards, but a Blu-ray burner and more RAM. Heck, even the Origin PC is $200 less. Ouch.

The FragBox is amazingly quiet considering that it packs an overclocked Core i7-2600K and SLI’d GeForce GTX 580 cards.

What the FragBox does bring, however, is a top-notch build quality, acoustic bliss, and performance that’s damn respectable considering its displacement of roughly 1,200 cubic inches. By comparison, the three much larger rigs are about 2,000 cubic inches. So, while we can’t give the FragBox the nod for breakout performance, it offers the best blend of size and performance in a shape and size that meets the traditional definition of an SFF box.

Falcon Northwest FragBox
MARS ROVER

An SFF rig with two GTX 580 cards in SLI!

MARS CLIMATE ORBITER

Pricey; no Blu-ray drive?

$3,975, www.falcon-nw.com

Specifications
Processor Intel 3.4GHz Core i7-2600K (over-clocked to 4.2GHz)
Mobo
Asus P8P67-M Pro (Intel P67 chipset)
RAM 16GB DDR3/1600
Videocard
Two GeForce GTX 580 cards in SLI
Soundcard
Onboard
Storage 256GB Crucial M4 SSD, 1TB Western Digital 7,200rpm
Optical
LG DVD burner
Case/PSU
Custom / Silverstone 1,000 watt

BENCHMARKS

Zero Point
Falcon Northwest FragBox
Vegas Pro 9 (sec) 3,049 2,528
Lightroom 2.6 (sec)
356
300
ProShow 4 (sec)
1,112
883
Reference 1.6 (sec)
2,113 1,722
STALKER: CoP (fps)
42
83.8
Far Cry 2 (fps) 114.4 179.9

Our current desktop test bed consists of a quad-core 2.66GHz Core i7-920 overclocked to 3.5GHz, 6GB of Corsair DDR3/1333 overclocked to 1,750MHz, on a Gigabyte X58 motherboard. We are running an ATI Radeon HD 5970 graphics card, a 160GB Intel X25-M SSD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Ultimate.

AVADirect Compact Gaming PC

For our shoot-out, AVADirect came loaded for bear… as well as grabboid, sandworm, and arachnid, too. Yeah, basically AVADirect enters the scene packing a cartoonish amount of hardware firepower.

In what arguably pushes the definition of a small form factor rig, AVADirect’s Compact Gaming PC sports an Intel 3.46GHz Core i7-990X, 12GB of DDR3/1600, and two of AMD’s Radeon HD 6990 cards in CrossFireX mode.

Tucked in behind the 1,200W PSU are two Radeon HD 6990 dual-GPU cards and a Prolimatech Megahalem.

Also jammed into the Lian Li PC-V354R chassis are an Asus Rampage III Gene X58 board, a 250GB Intel 510 SSD, a 2TB Barracuda XT, and an LG Blu-ray burner.

Interestingly, instead of using a closed-loop liquid cooler, AVADirect cools the CPU—overclocked to 4.4GHz—using a gigantic Prolimatech Megahalem cooler.

This being our first encounter with a Radeon HD 6990 in a shipping system, we were curious to see how the new dual-GPU cards performed. It was hit or miss against the two rigs outfitted with Nvidia’s dual-GPU GTX 590 cards. In our Far Cry 2 benchmark, which is mostly a CPU benchmark these days, the AVADirect was even. But in STALKER: CoP, the quad-SLI configs blew the doors off the CrossFireX setup. In the Heaven benchmark, the AVADirect was about 17 percent slower, as well. The AVADirect got within striking distance in 3DMark 2011, but only if you consider a 7 percent disparity close.

AVADirect’s SFF is a head-turning rig loaded to the gills with firepower.

In app performance, the AVADirect’s hexa-core saves face by acing all other machines in Sony Vegas Pro 9 and also sliding past the Sandy Bridge boxes in our MainConcept test. The major problem with the AVADirect is acoustics. In CPU-only tasks, there’s no problem, but kick on any 3D game at higher resolutions for longer than 15 minutes and the fans in the system begin to howl at intolerable levels. Like ruin-your-music-or-gaming-experience kind of loud.

And that’s really a shame because when we originally uncrated the AVADirect box, we were floored by its configuration. Overall, performance, especially in multithreaded tests, is superb, but in gaming, the CrossFireX takes a back seat to quad SLI. Combined with the noise, it’s a deal breaker and a bit of a heartbreaker, too.

AVADirect Compact Gaming PC
FONZIE

Hexa-core and CrossFire X in pretty compact package.

CHACHI

Unacceptably loud under gaming loads and pricey.

$4,976, www.avadirect.com

Specifications
Processor Intel 3.46GHz Core i7-990X (overclocked to 4.4GHz)
Mobo
Asus Rampage III Gene (Intel X58 chipset)
RAM 12GB DDR3/1600
Videocard
Two Radeon HD 6990 cards in CrossFire X
Soundcard
Onboard
Storage 250GB Intel 510 SSD, 2TB Seagate Barracuda 7,200rpm
Optical
LG Blu-ray burner
Case/PSU
Lian Li PC-V354R / Silverstone 1,200 watt

BENCHMARKS

Zero Point
AVADirect Compact Gaming PC
Vegas Pro 9 (sec) 3,049 2,142
Lightroom 2.6 (sec)
356
275
ProShow 4 (sec)
1,112
883
Reference 1.6 (sec)
2,113 1,499
STALKER: CoP (fps)
42
83.1
Far Cry 2 (fps) 114.4 202.2

Our current desktop test bed consists of a quad-core 2.66GHz Core i7-920 overclocked to 3.5GHz, 6GB of Corsair DDR3/1333 overclocked to 1750MHz, on a Gigabyte X58 motherboard. We are running an ATI Radeon HD 5970 graphics card, a 160GB Intel X25-M SSD, and the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Ultimate.

CyberPower LAN Party Evo

If you stopped a nerd in an electronics store and asked her to describe a small form factor PC, she’d just pull up a picture of CyberPower’s LAN Party Evo on her smartphone.

In many ways, this is the ultimate evolution of the original SFF design. The LAN Party Evo isn’t much bigger than the original SFFs of yesteryear, but peep these specs: a 3.4GHz Core i7-2600K, a GeForce GTX 580 card, a 120GB Intel 510 SSD, and 1TB hard drive.

The Evo can’t beat the others here, but a GTX 580 and 2600K in this chassis are impressive nonetheless.

Cooling is handled by a deftly installed Asetek 550LC. And thanks to the Mini-ITX P8H67-I Deluxe, the sucker boots from dead cold to desktop in 24 seconds.

In performance, there were no surprises. There was no chance the LAN Party Evo could outbox any of the other rigs here considering how the others are loaded to the gunnels with hardware. We won’t even bother to get into performance comparisons because there’s no need. Certainly overclocking the 2600K could have helped, but you have to remember that you can’t really overclock on the H-series chipset, and CyberPower told us there are no P-series chipsets in Mini ITX available today. Turbo Boost 2.0 is still functioning, though, so you do get some clock bumps.

Lest you think the LAN Party Evo is some drag-ass slow system, it’s not. With its 2600K part and GTX 580, it’s probably faster than 90 percent of standard desktop systems today, and will comfortably play today’s games at 1080p resolutions. In app performance, it really isn’t that far behind the other rigs.

If you look up “small form factor” in the dictionary, you will see a picture of CyberPower’s LAN Party Evo.

But against the hardware in this roundup, it’s got no chance of winning any gaming tests. Despite all this, we’re really tickled pink by the LAN Party Evo. It’s quiet, lightweight, and is even relatively easy on the electricity. Its idle power consumption is a third of some of the machines here. And at half the price of the other rigs (as it should be), it’s really a damn spiffy rig.

Overall, the LAN Party Evo is an impressive box. Unfortunately, it’s just not as impressive as the others in this roundup.

CyberPower LAN Party EVO
BLEACH

Small, quiet, relatively power conscious.

BELCH

Simply can’t compete with the other machines here.

$2,100, www.cyberpowerpc.com

Specifications
Processor Intel 3.4GHz Core i7-2600K
Mobo
Asus P8H67-I (Intel H67 chipset)
RAM 4GB DDR3/1333
Videocard
GeForce GTX 580
Soundcard
Onboard
Storage 120GB Intel 510 SSD, 1TB Western Digital 7,200rpm HDD
Optical
LG Blu-ray combo drive
Case/PSU
Silverstone SG07 / Silverstone 600 watt

BENCHMARKS

Zero Point
CyberPower LAN Party Evo
Vegas Pro 9 (sec) 3,049 3,030
Lightroom 2.6 (sec)
356
310
ProShow 4 (sec)
1,112
1,054
Reference 1.6 (sec)
2,113 2,064
STALKER: CoP (fps)
42
44.8
Far Cry 2 (fps) 114.4 109.5

Our current desktop test bed consists of a quad-core 2.66GHz Core i7-920 overclocked to 3.5GHz, 6GB of Corsair DDR3/1333 overclocked to 1750MHz, on a Gigabyte X58 motherboard. We are running an ATI Radeon HD 5970 graphics card, a 160GB Intel X25-M SSD, and the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Ultimate.

Origin PC Chronos

The Origin Chronos was an early bet on which system would be the fastest here, as we’ve seen what other vendors can do in Silverstone’s fabulous FT03 case.

Despite it having the same volume as the AVADirect and iBuypower machines, the FT03 occupies a smaller footprint than all others here, including the CyberPower LAN Party Evo, yet it accommodates an incredible amount of hardware.

The open access of the FT03 case makes wrenching inside the system a joy compared to the other rigs here.

Yeah, we know, it’s tall. But for folks who want to stuff their machine under a desk, or even keep it atop a desk, system height is rarely a problem. We can’t really see the FT03’s height being an issue unless you have to store your rig in a foot locker or a cubby.

Inside the FT03 is a Core i7-2600K overclocked to 4.7GHz, a pair of GeForce GTX 590 cards, and an Asus P8P67-M Pro board. To keep costs low, Origin runs a pair of 64GB Crucial C300 drives (what no M4 available?) and keeps the system RAM to 8GB of DDR3/1600.

The Origin PC’s performance is quite competitive. It walked past the others in our ProShow test, but it just couldn’t wrest the crown from the wicked-fast AVADirect machine in Sony Vegas and MainConcept Reference.

Think of the Origin PC Chronos as the Manute Bol of PCs. It’s tall, but really doesn’t take up that much room.

So it’s fast and it’s beautiful, there’s gotta be a catch, right? Unfortunately, yes. Like the AVADirect, the Origin’s fans are tweaked to increase as the system heats up. With Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 590 cards producing the heat of a phaser on overload (even with the case drilled out to add ventilation), the Origin PC’s case fans spool up to unbearable levels. And due to the pitch of the fans, you get a din that’s annoying as hell during gaming. It’s as bad, if not worse, than the AVADirect’s dual Radeon HD 6990s under gaming loads. To be fair, if the Origin’s acoustics could have been better managed, it likely stood a chance of winning this affair—the same goes for the AVADirect. But as it is, they are both too loud.

And that’s just a shame. Because, like the AVADirect, Origin’s is a majorly fast system that costs even less than the Falcon Northwest FragBox. But it’s just too damn noisy for us to recommend it.

Origin Chronos
FRIDAY (THE MOVIE)

Fast and sexy, with a small foot print to boot.

FRIDAY (THE VIDEO)

Extremely noisy under gaming loads.

$3,800, www.originpc.com

Specifications
Processor Intel 3.4GHz Core i7-2600K (overclocked to 4.7GHz)
Mobo
Asus P8P67-M Pro (Intel P67 chipset)
RAM 8GB DDR3/1600
Videocard
Two GeForce GTX 590 cards in SLI
Soundcard
Onboard
Storage Two 64GB Crucial C300 SSDs in RAID 0, 1TB Western Digital 7,200rpm HDD
Optical
Optiarc Blu-ray burner
Case/PSU
Silverstone FT03 / Silverstone 1,200 watt

BENCHMARKS

Zero Point
Origin PC Chronos
Vegas Pro 9 (sec) 3,049 2,256
Lightroom 2.6 (sec)
356
261
ProShow 4 (sec)
1,112
778
Reference 1.6 (sec)
2,113 1,537
STALKER: CoP (fps)
42
124.6
Far Cry 2 (fps) 114.4 203.8

Our current desktop test bed consists of a quad-core 2.66GHz Core i7-920 overclocked to 3.5GHz, 6GB of Corsair DDR3/1333 overclocked to 1750MHz, on a Gigabyte X58 motherboard. We are running an ATI Radeon HD 5970 graphics card, a 160GB Intel X25-M SSD, and the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Ultimate.

iBuypower LAN Warrior II

Remember those “kids” in Little League who shaved and had college-age girlfriends yet their birth certificates said they were 14 years old? iBuypower’s LAN Warrior II is kind of like that.

What else can you say when the LAN Warrior II looks an awful lot like a small mid-tower case. Or maybe a mini-tower. We had a tough time actually figuring out whether the LAN Warrior II even qualified for our SFF roundup. In its defense, the actual volume of the case is roughly 2,000 cubic inches. That’s about the same as the Origin PC and the AVADirect, so any bias is strictly superficial.

Air blown directly onto the GPUs seems to tame the noise of the GTX 590 cards.

Like those other two rigs, the LAN Warrior II takes advantage of its volume by packing in the hardware. Its Core i7-2600K is overclocked to 4.6GHz, with Turbo Boost taking it to 4.9GHz for some workloads. In the GPU department, two GeForce GTX 590 cards push the frame rates through the roof, and two 120GB Intel 510 SSDs in RAID 0, a 3TB HDD, and Blu-ray burner fill in the gaps.

To keep the system cool, a massive fan and mesh side keep air moving over those hot-as-hell GTX 590 cards. Originally, we thought the LAN Warrior II’s acoustics were excessive when compared with the nearly silent CyberPower and Falcon systems, but actually, the noise level wasn’t bad. Noticeable, certainly, but probably only half as loud and half as annoying as the Origin and AVADirect boxes.

In performance, the LAN Warrior II does quite well. It’s a pinch behind the very fast Origin system, in most of the app tests and gaming. The LAN Warrior II’s lone win was an oddly fast score in our Lightroom test. Considering the similar clock speeds of the systems tested, the only thing that might explain that result is the storage subsystem and choice of SSDs.

It might look like a mini-tower, but the LAN Warrior II actually offers no more internal space than the AVADirect rig.

Frankly, the LAN Warrior II’s form factor and performance would have put it in second place to either the AVADirect or Origin machines, but with those two rigs’ intolerable acoustics, the LAN Warrior II leaps to the front of the line by easily clipping the Falcon’s wings in pure frame rates and app performance.

If you don’t mind the nontraditional SFF shape, the LAN Warrior II’s performance, stellar price, and configuration make it the contender to beat.

iBuypower LAN Warrior II
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE

Quad SLI without the noise, and a pretty amazing price.

JUSTIN BIEBER

Does not resemble a small form factor as we know it.

$4,000, www.ibuypower.com

Specifications
Processor Intel 3.4GHz Core i7-2600K (overclocked to 3.7GHz)
Mobo
Asus P8P67-M Pro (Intel P67 chipset)
RAM 16GB DDR3/1600
Videocard
Two GeForce GTX 590 cards in SLI
Soundcard
Onboard
Storage Two 120GB Intel 510 SSDs in RAID 0, 3TB Western Digital 7,200rpm HDD
Optical
Optiarc Blu-ray burner
Case/PSU
NZXT Vulcan / Corsair 1,200 watt

BENCHMARKS

Zero Point
iBuyPower LAN Warrior II
Vegas Pro 9 (sec) 3,049 2,376
Lightroom 2.6 (sec)
356
233
ProShow 4 (sec)
1,112
829
Reference 1.6 (sec)
2,113 1,595
STALKER: CoP (fps)
42
122.9
Far Cry 2 (fps) 114.4 190.9

Our current desktop test bed consists of a quad-core 2.66GHz Core i7-920 overclocked to 3.5GHz, 6GB of Corsair DDR3/1333 overclocked to 1750MHz, on a Gigabyte X58 motherboard. We are running an ATI Radeon HD 5970 graphics card, a 160GB Intel X25-M SSD, and the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Ultimate.

Small Form Factors: The Final Analysis

How a controversial winner emerges from a field full of surprises

Believe it or not, a showdown of full-size super PCs can get pretty boring. What you usually end up with is five systems all packing the same internal components.

But a contest among computer makers that restricts physical size? Now that seemed bound to yield some interesting results. Just as any race sanctioning body, such as NASCAR or FIA, sets weight limitations or adds restrictor plates, we thought that by limiting vendors to the simple term “small form factor,” we’d rein in the out-of-control system specs and benchmark-crushing performance that we see with full-size systems.

Our plan worked and it didn’t. It worked because we received an incredibly diverse set of machines that show what can happen when you’re thermally and spatially constrained by a SFF rig. Our plan didn’t work because the machines we got blew our mind in specsmanship. We really did not think it was possible to cram as much hardware into such small machines as the vendors did here.

CyberPower’s LAN Party Evo impressed us with its size, power consumption, and capability. It actually serves as a good zero-point for the kind of performance you get out of the prototypical small form factor machine. As we said in our review, it’s enough firepower to keep most of us happy, and when you consider its small footprint, who can complain? And yet it gets no cigar and shouldn’t. The other rigs’ performances were simply superior.

Next we had Falcon Northwest’s FragBox. It’s not much bigger than the CyberPower machine, yet it packs GTX 580s in SLI and its P-series chipset allows for some overclocking. Its main limitation is its size. Like the CyberPower, the size imposes a thermal ceiling on the rig. There’s no thermal headroom to run this generation of dual-GPUs in the FragBox, nor crank the processor clock very far. While we feel the Falcon is the best of bunch for folks who are severely space-constrained, the quad-GPU configs rip up the GeForce GTX 580s pretty handily. Of course, Falcon could have opted to add more fans and increase airflow, but we’re kind of glad it didn’t.

That’s perhaps a lesson that AVADirect and Origin PC should have taken to heart. Instead, we suspect the builders decided to throw caution to the wind in their pursuit of victory. In performance, both boxes are certainly fast—fast enough to put some full-size boxes to shame.

AVADirect’s use of the overclocked 990X is perhaps that machine’s most eyebrow-raising feature. Well, that and the use of the Radeon HD 6990 cards. The HD 6990 cards have a reputation for being loud—a reputation that’s well deserved, we discovered. Ultimately, that cost AVADirect serious points.

Similarly, acoustics were a serious failing with Origin PC’s Chronos, which was even more obnoxiously loud. Part of that may come from the innovative Silverstone case. With the AVADirect, the loud-as-hell 6990 cards at least have the audio directed out the back. With the Silverstone, the audio emanates from the top and the side panels, which makes it sound even louder.

With Origin and AVADirect penalized for audio, that left iBuypower’s LAN Warrior II as the last man standing. From what we can see, the GeForce GTX 590s can be kept running at lower fan speeds if you have enough fresh air moving over them. With the NZXT Vulcan case, a massive 20cm fan ducts external air directly onto the GTX 590 cards. The LAN Warrior II is certainly not quiet, mind you—especially when compared to the CyberPower LAN Party Evo or Falcon Northwest FragBox—but the fan whir is fairly low-pitched and more comparable to a standard full-size gaming machine.

The LAN Warrior II’s performance numbers are certainly all smiles. It’s a smidge slower than the Origin PC Chronos in the Heaven 2.5, STALKER: CoP, and 3DMark 2011 benchmarks. Application performance is also competitive, but not the best.

The only issue we have with the LAN Warrior II is its size and shape. Even though it has the same volume as the AVADirect and Origin PC rigs, its shape is closer to a mini-tower than a small form factor. In that respect, is it a fair competitor to the more conventional Falcon and CyberPower SFFs? In the end, we decided that philosophical arguments aside, the fact remains that the iBuypower LAN Warrior II is not only a fine machine but the overall winner in this contest.

Benchmarks

Falcon Northwest FragBox
AVADirect Compact Gaming PC
CyberPower LAN Party Evo
Origin PC Chronos iBuypower LAN Warrior II
Chip
3.4GHz Core i7-2600K
3.46GHz Core i7-990X
3.4GHz Core i7-2600K 3.4GHz Core i7-2600K 3.4GHz Core i7-2600K
CPU Clock
4.4GHz
4.4GHz
3.4GHz 4.7GHz
4.6GHz
RAM
16GB DDR3/1600
12GB DDR3/1600
4GB DDR3/1333 8GB DDR3/1600
16GB DDR3/1333
Mobo Asus P8P67-M Pro Asus Rampage III Gene
Asus P8H67-I Deluxe Asus P8P67-M Pro
Asus P8P67-M Pro
SSD Crucial 256GB M4
Intel 250GB 510 Intel 120GB 510 64GB Crucial C300 RAID 0
Intel 120GB 510 in RAID 0
HDD 1TB
2TB 1TB
1TB
3TB
ODD
DVD burner
Blu-ray burner Blu-ray burner Blu-ray burner
Blu-ray burner
GPU
GeForce GTX 580 in SLI
Radeon HD 6990 in CrossFireX
GeForce GTX 580 GeForce GTX 590 in SLI
GeForce GTX 590 in SLI
PSU Silverstone 1,000 Silverstone 1,200
Silverstone 600 Silverstone 1,200
Corsair 1,200
Price
$3,975 $4,976 $2,303 $3,800
$4,000
Vegas Pro 9 (sec) 2,528 2,142* 3,030 2,256 2,376
ProShow Producer (sec)
883
883
1,054 778*
829
MainConcept (sec)
1,722 1,499* 2,064 1,537
1,595
STALKER: CoP (fps) 83.8 83.1 44.8
124.6*
122.9*
Far Cry 2 (fps) 179.9 202.2* 109.49 203.78*
190.9
Lightroom 2 (sec) 300
275
310
261
233*
3DMark 11 Extreme X3,695 X5,140 X1,995 X5,577*
X5,496
Heaven 2.5 (fps) 32.4
41.1
16.6
50.8*
49.7*
Idle Power (watts) 140 218 85* 190
176
CPU Load Power (watts) 281
385
173*
368
356
GPU + CPU Load (watts) 500 715 320* 750
750
Weight (lbs) 24.6
30.7
17.05
32.9
30.7
Height (inches) 8 12.5 7.5 19.25
15.75
Width (inches) 10.25
10
8.75
9.25
7
Length (inches) 15 16 14 11
18.25
Displacement (cubic inches) 1,230
2,000
919
1,958
2,012
Acoustics Very Good Poor Excellent Poor
Fair
Appearance Very Good
Very Good
Good
Very Good
Good

Asterisk (*) denotes best score. Height does not include handles.

SFF vs. Full-Size Desktop: Fight!

Can small be the new standard for power users?

If you’ve seen the specs on the machines in our roundup, you know that you can indeed stuff a lot of hardware into a smaller-size machine. But is it enough to sway you from building a full-size desktop for your next build?

We’d say probably not. We have much respect for the vendors’ ability to cram all manner of performance parts into these machines, but there are still compromises inherent to SFFs.

The most obvious are thermals. The two smaller SFF rigs here don’t have the thermal chops to run dual-GPU cards. And two of the three machines here had to run their fans at such excessive speeds that it’s not worth it.

But what about performance? We decided to compare the SFF rigs against the Maingear Shift Super stock—a state-of-the-art desktop that’s reviewed on page 70 of our July issue. With its CPU running at 5GHz, the Shift SS is faster than the fastest of the SFF machines, from 5 percent to 10 percent.

Even better, the Shift SS is very well behaved. The machine can run two dual-GPU cards without having to crank the fans to maximum speed.

Noise and performance aren’t the only things to consider when looking at a desktop though. There’s also serviceability—how easy a machine is to work in. The Origin PC Chronos is actually very serviceable, but the rest of the SFFs here have so much hardware crammed into such a small space that wrenching on them is a major undertaking.

The final category is obvious: expandability. All of the SFF machines are pretty much maxed out on hardware. There’s no option to add a soundcard, additional hard drive, or secondary optical drive.

A full-size desktop machine has space to grow into. Let’s not even mention that finding Mini-ITX or microATX motherboards with enthusiast features is very difficult. Yes, SFFs certainly have power and capability previously unimagined, but they still aren’t as versatile, powerful, or serviceable as that dinosaur, the desktop PC.

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