An Introduction to Building a Small Form Factor PC
Published February 10, 2018
If you're looking to build 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 February 2018, we continue to profile eleven distinct compact builds - just scroll down to the bottom of the page to select the one that's right for you. Over half of these systems are what we'd call "true SFF" builds, using the mini-ITX, STX, or NUC form factors, which all allow the use of ultra-compact cases smaller than a shoebox. We also have three options that use mid-sized micro-ATX motherboards, one that uses the ATX format (but in the smallest ATX case on the market, the SilverStone GD09), and an ITX-based build in an extra-large chassis that allows extreme gaming gear to fit. With all that being said, by far our most popular model is the $1,500 Ultra-Compact Mini-ITX PC, based on the SilverStone SG13 chassis, shown above.
Last month, we attended CES 2018 in Las Vegas, focusing a lot of our time on the Small Form Factor market. It turns out there's some good news and some bad news in this arena, so let's get you up to speed. We'll start with the good news. First, we spent a lot of time at the Zotac booth, checking out the latest in its line of barebones ITX (and smaller) machines. You can see our full coverage on YouTube, but in short, if you want to push the limits of high-powered, ultra-compact PCs, going with a custom OEM design may make the most sense. We'll be testing one of Zotac's new Magnus ultra-small gaming PCs shortly, so stay tuned for that. We may be recommending Zotac's barebones systems in the near future!
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: you can't buy GPUs, period. The cryptocurrency mining craze has simply wiped the Earth clean of GPUs, which means you can't build any true gaming PC today. We have therefore substituted pre-built PCs in all of our SFF gaming PC guides that we think closely match the capabilities of our preferred builds. The other bad news, which came directly from a private discussion we had with Nvidia at CES 2018, is that the Micro-STX format that Intel and SilverStone were working on together in 2017 is not going to happen. That's because Nvidia is pulling its support for the MXM graphics card format that it relied on. 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.
Scroll down to find your dream system!