SFF Media PCs: What Hardware To Consider, And What To Ignore (Part 2)

6/26/2013 10:20:00 AM

Pre-built Systems

The beauty of these systems is that they come ready to run, though most require you to add an operating system to make them fully operational. These systems are usually the smallest, though they generally only have enough power to handle media duties, and not gaming.

Here are some popular products, all of which can perform the job of SSF media player admirably

Zotac Zbox Nano Nettop - ZBOX- AD06-PLUS-BE ($335.20 Ebuyer)


Zotac make many SFF systems, of which their Zbox Nano range is part. This model is a minimalist design built around the 1.7 GHz AMD E2-1800 APU, and comes with 2GB of RAM and 320GB of hard drive space pre-installed. The video comes from eh integrated HD 7340 GPU, which is more than powerful enough to play 1080p video smoothly through the DVI or HDMI outputs.

The only proviso is that it has no optical drive, so you’ll need to either have a USB optical drive handy or have an OS ISO on a flash drive to install the operating system.

Sapphire EDGE VS4 ($452.98 Overclockers UK)

Sapphire EDGE VS4

Sapphire makes a range of Mini computers, using both Intel and AMD platforms. The EDGE VS4 is an AMD system using the Trinity A4 APU, which provides plenty of performance and a high degree of efficiency.

The included dual core APU runs at 1.9GHZ, and is combined with 2GB of DDR3 RAM, a 320GB hard drive, and AMD Radeon HD7400G video technology. The very compact design includes Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Gigabit LAN, an SD card reader and comes pre-installed with Free DOS

As with the Zbox, you’ll need to use a flash key or external optical drive if you want Windows or Linux on this system, as it has no optical drive. The best aspects of this design are the good specification and the good specification and feature set, but conversely there are no real expansion possibilities other than expanding upon its existing RAM and storage. As it comes with a VESA cradle, you can mount it to the back of the TV, though.

This system can also be bought as a ‘barebones’ design without RAM or Storage for about $75.5 less, which is good if you have these items spare.

Acer Revo L80 Nettop ($520.95 Ebuyer)

Acer Revo L80 Nettop

The L80 Nettop comes in a range of hardware specifications; all built around what is essentially Intel laptop technology. They have other Revo designs that use AMD technology, but this model uses the Intel Core i3-2377M 1.5GHz CPU connected to their HM77 Express Chipset

Out of the box you get 4GB of DDR3, a 500GB hard drive, a DVD optical drive and Windows 8 OS, meaning that you can get it operationally very quickly. Unusually for a pre-built solution you can expand the memory and replace the hard drive. It even has two PCI Express Mini Card slots, in which you could potentially put a digital TV decoder, turning it into a PVR.

As prebuilt systems go this one has everything you’ll reasonably want for media management and presentation though the Intel HD Graphics is pretty useless for anything more strenuous

Building Your Own SFF PC

I’d wager that most people that read Micro Mart will have built a PC at some point or another. If you’re someone who has, building your own SFF design will be a pretty straightforward exercise. The only warnings I’ll issue are about power and heat, both of which can be critical in very small computers.

In general SSF system has small power supplies. These have a tendency to pop if they’re stressed, and replacing them isn’t cheap. Therefore, it’s imperative that you make sure the system you are building will be operating well within its power budget. That’s especially vital if you’re planning to add a video card, which can easily consume as much power as the rest of the computer when it’s under load.

The other ‘gotcha’, heat, can build up rapidly in a small box. Because the ideal SSF system is silent there’s an understandable, natural resistance to placing fans in these computers, but without them your system could be beset by heat-related problems

“SSF systems have small power supplies. These have a tendency to pop if they’re stressed, and replacing them isn’t cheap”

As a rule, small fans will have high spin speeds that make more noise, so you’ll be best served by putting in the largest ones you can use and connecting them to the motherboard so that it can regulate their speeds based on its thermal sensors.

To build a SSF media system we’ll need a collection of essay-to-source parts, so here is a rough picking-list of what you’ll need to get started:

·         SFF Enclosure: made to accept the motherboard you bought, this will usually come with a small PSU

·         SFF motherboard: usually, this will mean a Micro-ITX or Nano-ITX form factor.

·         Processor: if the motherboard doesn’t come with one pre-installed, of course.

·         Memory: at least 2GBB of RAM, more if you can afford it

·         Hard drive: at least 250GB of storage, but you could get away with less if you don’t intend to hold media on it

·         Controls: keyboard, ideally a wireless model, maybe a mouse, too. For the professional touch you can add a TV style remote

Those are the basic requirements, but you also might want to consider and optical drive, if you have media on disc, and Windows license, unless you intend to use Linux.

SSF Enclosures

Small PC cases are usually defined by the form factor they accept, though it is also possible to find odd enclosures that don’t really fit into any obvious category. The Shuttle box was the archetypal SSF Media system, offering a good amount of space for expansion and, in the higher-end models, plenty of power. These are usually offered as ‘barebones’ solutions including a motherboard, but first let’s look at custom enclosures, and what’s important to consider when buying them

The first critical knowledge you’ll need is what form factor you wish to use, because picking a case and a motherboard that aren’t compatible is a distinct possibility if you don’t consider this detail. At one end of this spectrum you’ll find rack-mountable/separates enclosures, like the ones by Lian Li and Silverstone that can accept a full sized ATX motherboard. These are ideal for those who have a stereo system into which to mount the PC, or space for a large enclosure. Moving down from that you’ll find Mini ITX and Micro ITX cases, made for much smaller systems, usually with motherboards that come with the CPU mounted on them. If small is important to you, the smallest computers use either Nano ITX or Flex-ATX form factor parts, which tend to cost more purely because making parts that small is challenging.

The price range is hug: from low cost solutions that are sub - $75.5, up to relative powerhouses costing over $755. More expensive cases are usually built to a much higher engineering specification and from better materials, and because of that they’re likely to look good for longer.

The critical questions to answer are: will the system fit inside nicely, and will it run reliably in there? After answering those two, you can then consider the aesthetic virtues, and if it fits within your budget. Here are some designs that impressed us, either in terms of specification or price.

Streacom ST-F1CS EVO HTPC ($99.20 Scan)


A very stylish Mini ITX enclosure that takes its cue from the Apple Mini, I’d suggest. What’s critical to realize however, is that you don’t get an optical drive for that slot, and there isn’t a PSU or a CPU cooler supplied either? The ST-F1 CS is lovely to look at, but you’ll need to invest plenty more money before it’s actually a computer.

Silverstone ML02B-MXR ($262.407 Scan)

Silverstone ML02B-MXR ($262.407 Scan)

This case is aimed more at those who have a separates stack, as it’s scaled to fit in with hi-fi equipment. The form factor is Micro ATX, so it will also take smaller Mini ITX motherboards as well. It includes a 120 watt PSU, a 60mm fan alongside all the cabling for a card reader and various front mounted ports. Inside there is room for a 3.5” desktop hard drive, a 2.5” laptop drive and a slim optical drive.

The price includes the LCD panel and a high quality remote control, for a very professional finish.

Coolermaster Elite 120 Advanced ($80.60 Ebuyer)

Coolermaster Elite 120 Advanced ($80.60 Ebuyer)

Not all the cases that Cooler-master makes are huge, and the Elite 120 Advanced is one of their Mini ITX designs that tip its hat to Shuttle. What’s clever about this design is that it accepts a full size ATX PSU by using an innovative rear mounting.

That interesting design decision opens up possibilities that most HTPC enclosures can only dream of, as it’s possible to have a powerful video card to drive the best quality gaming graphics. Also included in this Ebuyer price is a 500W Elite PSU to run it, which makes this enclosure a real bargain.

Not the smallest case, but you can get a full sized optical drive in this one, along with desktop hard drives, and almost whatever type of system that Mini-ITX form factor will allow.

“The critical questions to answer are: will the system fit inside nicely, and will it run reliably in there?”


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