An Introduction to Building a Small Form Factor PC

Published April 8, 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, we know you'll agree! If you're ready to take the plunge, keep reading and you'll find all the information you need.

For April 2018, we continue to profile eleven distinct compact PCs, and thankfully, you can actually build them all, now that the the massive cryptocurrency mining craze that overwhelmed video card supplies worldwide has died. The only lasting effect is that video cards have gone up in price by about 35%, and we mean officially - MSRPs were actually reset by most manufacturers. Luckily, when building a full system, this price increase has only a marginal impact on the overall budget, but we've made changes where necessary to help you pick the best video cards at every pricepoint.

Indeed, in the process of re-working a number of our guides, we made some very exciting changes, including adding an In-Win case to the guides for the first time in a while, specifically the mATX-based 301 shown above. In-Win is no stranger to the SFF arena, and has done a great job integrating the lastest trends (namely RGB and tempered glass) into its SFF cases at very reasonable prices. This is no small feat, given that the market for SFF cases is pretty price sensitive, and it's harder to amortize the costs of these features into cases that SFF builders will accept. You can find the 301 in our $1,400 Micro ATX Guide. Achieving a similarly-impressive pricepoint is the new tempered glass version of the Phanteks Enthoo Evolv Mini, shown below. It's in fact among the only tempered glass ITX cases on the market, and the only one we currently recommend. You can find it in our $2,000 Ultimate Gaming ITX Guide.


In other news, Intel continues to tease the SFF community with a trickle of annoucements on the next-gen NUC ultra-compact form factor PCs. It announced its new "Hades Canyon" NUC at CES 2018, and plenty of tech websites have tested it by now, but guess what... you still can't buy it. Since The Tech Buyer's Guru is all about what you can actually "buy" today, we're not going to spend a whole lot of  time waxing poetic about Hades Canyon, other than to say it's a cool, expensive concept. Also trickling into the market are the mainstream 8th-generation NUCs, which use Intel's latest quad-core ultra-low-voltage CPUs to offer performance that really is a step ahead of 7th-gen models. The problem: they are priced way too high, in our opinion, if you can find them at all. For example, the Intel NUC BLKNUC7i7DNK shown below is currently $600, which is far more than the previous-gen Devil's Canyon system, despite being slower. You know what that means? It's not getting a buy recommendation from us! 


Finally, as we reported last month, the STX format, and its planned follow-up, the 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 had to pull it from our guides, as we don't want our readers to be stuck with obsolete components that they can't bring over to their next build. That being said, if you really, really want a micro-STX system, you might want to hold out for ASRock's latest DeskMini Z370, which like Intel's Hades Canyon, has been reviewed by a large number of tech websites, but is similarly missing in action. It sports an 8th-gen Intel Core i7 and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 6GB in a case that's just 2.7 liters in volume. Impressive? No doubt. And with a tentative MSRP of $850, it would be a pretty good deal, if you could actually buy one. Our bet is that ASRock really can't deliver the product in quantity, as the MXM-format video cards it requires are in very short supply, with Nvidia pulling support for the format going forward. We're all for interesting proof of concept products, but sticking with our theme of recommending products that you can actually buy, the newest DeskMini doesn't appear in our guides!

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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