What Are Small Form Factor PCs?

Computers the size of a shoe or pizza box

Mac Mini
Apple Inc.

Since the early days of desktop personal computers, the size of the systems has been fairly large. This was originally due to the number of size of the components required to make even the most basic computer run. Over time the technology has greatly improved allowing for the processors and microchips to shrink such that fewer components are needed. This means that many of the functions that used to require a full-size expansion card can now reside on a chip on the primary motherboard helping to reduce the size. With the introduction of new features such as solid-state drives and tiny drive formats like M.2 cards, systems can get even smaller.

There is a growing interest in purchasing smaller computer systems. Sure, laptops are small and portable, but many people want to integrate a PC into a small office or even a home theater system without the need for a large case. Small form factor (SFF) PCs enable full PCs that are unobtrusive in our homes and lives. Often there is a tradeoff though in features, performance, and size. There are really three types of small form factor systems available.

The Earliest Small Form Factor PCs

Slim PCs were the earliest style of small form factor system. Essentially, they were desktop systems that removed some of the bulk by reducing space for full-sized expansion cards. This cut desktops height or width by half. Since that time, they have reduced their size even more. They still tend to have PCI-Express expansion slots but have half-height slots that require specific expansion cards that are difficult to find. Some may use a riser card system that rotates the card 90-degrees to fit a full-size card but often at the expense of the number of cards it can hold.

Businesses tend to prefer standard computers that don't have a lot of expansion capabilities. This is done because the companies depreciate the cost of the computers over their lifespan or they lease them. Once a system has reached its "lifespan" it is replaced by a new, updated computer. Because there is no need for expansion, an integrated system such as a slim PC makes perfect sense. The computers don't have to be top of the line when it comes to components since most business computing is done for word processing, spreadsheets, and corporate communications.

Expandable SFF PCs Cubes

The cube small form factor systems have gained in popularity recently primarily from the enthusiast and PC gamer marketplace. These systems are called cubes but they tend to resemble a large cube. They still fit all the normal desktop computer components but unlike slim PCs, they tend to have a limited number of full-sized expansion slots. It is this expansion ability that has really driven the cube computers to the enthusiasts.

Prior to the rise of network gaming and LAN parties where people bring their PCs to a single location to network them together, manufacturers never saw the demand for small-sized systems that included an advanced graphics capability. Integrated graphics are more than sufficient for corporate computing tasks. Trying to run a brand new 3D game title on one of these systems was like watching a slideshow. Gamers need the ability to install graphics cards with the latest technology. And that is just what they have gotten in the cube small form factor PCs.

The Latest Small Form Factor PCs

The latest in the small form factor PCs is the mini PC. These are very small systems that are about the size of a large format paperback book or several DVD movie cases stacked. They gained in popularity with the release of the Apple Mac Mini and newer desktop computer releases by various PC manufacturers. The systems can get as small as they do because they are based on laptop components and lack the display, keyboard, and mouse to help reduce the size. Power supplies also reside outside of the computer systems.

Advantages of Small Form Factor PCs

So why should one look into getting a small form factor PC over a full-sized desktop? The primary advantage, of course, is the size. These systems take up a relatively small amount of space on one's desk. Because of their reduced size and components, they tend to use less power than a normal desktop. Since they only have space for one or two hard drives and maybe two expansion cards, there is very little demand for power outside of the primary processor.

  • Small System Dimensions
  • Lower Power Consumption
  • Portability When Required

Disadvantages of SFF PCs

But what does one give up in a small form factor system? The biggest disadvantage is the lack of expansion. In order to save space, many internal expansion slots and memory slots are removed. Generally, a system will only have two memory slots compared to four in a normal desktop system. The lack of expansion cards means that the user can only fit one or two cards into the computer if any. With the rise of USB 3.0 and the introduction of USB 3.1, expansion isn't as much of an issue as it once was.

The other issue is cost. Even though the systems have fewer parts than a desktop system, the cost for them tend to be a bit higher. Of course, the engineering to make all these components work in such a small space is probably the reason why they cost more. This is becoming less of an issue now if you are not as worried about performance.

  • Limited or No Expansion Capability
  • Cost for Performance Relative to Regular Sized Desktop

What Small Form Factor PCs Are Available?

There are a wide range of choices for consumers now that small systems have taken off. The majority of consumer systems fall into the slim or mini category. Most of the systems in these categories are looking for consumers that are looking at lower costs. Cube systems are generally found in the gaming market segment for those looking to get a system that offers the same performance as a large desktop system but in a relatively smaller size.

If you are not happy with any of the systems that are currently offered by the manufacturers, consumers also have the option to build their own PC from a variety of parts. Kits and components are available from a variety of companies to build tiny mini-PCs up to high-performance gaming systems.