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Will mini-ITX lead to disappointment?

Posted on 27th May 2010 at 11:37 by Richard Swinburne with 32 comments

Richard Swinburne
If you've been reading the site recently, you've probably noticed the real resurgence of mini-ITX mortherboards. We've got Intel to thank for that since it's pushing the form factor hard this year - all these new mini-ITX boards are made for its Core i3 and i5 CPus with integrated graphics.

However, mini-ITX has been a real backwater until now, which means that many of the companies are exploring unknown territory.

This is good, because it creates optimisim and competition. Zotac, for example, wouldn't do well making full ATX motherboards and ECS' mini-ITX offering is pretty decent, so we're seeing smaller, less well known companies gaining exposure and driving the market.

This should then encourage the bigger motherboard manufacturers to up their games and come up with decent mini-ITX boards; in turn this will keep prices competitive and encourage case manufacturers and the supporting industry to join in with mini-ITX products, so there will be more choice for consumers.

Great!

The downside though is that mini-ITX has something of the Wild West about it, and I don't mean that you get a free pair of leather chaps in the box with your H55 board.

Intel has done well pushing the motherboard manufacturers to come up with creative mini-ITX designs, but neither it nor the mobo guys have really communicated much with end users about what the expect from mini-ITX.

Many people I've spoken to see mini-ITX as a way to build a ninja PC - complete with a full-fat quad-core overclock in a design that takes hardly any space.

No-one is saying telling people that it is too ambitious on a board that's 17cm square, because currently BIOSes even give ATX-level power adjustments. The fact is that the physical power hardware cannot take it. The size of mini-ITX boards limits them to just three or four phases of power, which equates to 65/75/95W (depending on the exact components used). That's not enough to handle the demands of heavily overvolted CPUs - especially not i5-750s or even i7s.

An analogy: it's like connecting a Ferrari engine to a gearbox and drive-shaft from a Mini. That engine will simply rip the rest of the car apart, and likewise, we expect many customers to not understand the limitations and blow the brains out of many-a-mini-ITX board.

Motherboard manufacturers I've spoken to have unanimously expected customers to only use mini-ITX boards in low power and home theatre PCs. The opinion is "why would anyone want to overclock it?" which is crazy considering their bread and butter is from overclocking. That OC gene doesn't just turn off in enthusiasts because we lost some PCB estate.

There clearly needs to be more dialouge and understanding between motherboard companies and enthusiasts before users sour on mini-ITX as a result of boards breaking, and companies dropping the format because it's costing too much in RMAs.

32 Comments

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proxess 27th May 2010, 11:57 Quote
Mini > Ferrari any day!
NethLyn 27th May 2010, 12:13 Quote
Well it depends on the shape of the HTPC market if there still is one, I'd try overclocking again for definite in the future, but I wouldn't choose to waste money on overclocking a CPU in anything but a standard case, the size below ATX would be as far as I'd go as you could still augment the cooling to what's needed, to help prevent mobo death.

It's the enthusiast version of the netbook, they've been built for one purpose - and for people not that bothered about speed - and a different group is trying to use it for something else - and want all the capabilities of something larger. So you put up with the risk of burnout, or stick to something larger.
Xir 27th May 2010, 12:24 Quote
Well, just because they're smaller, doesn't mean they must have less layers.
A smaller board should have shorter connections, so performance is not necessarily less.

Unless of course the skimp on power phases.

As everything is on board nowadays anyway, a micro or pico ATX wit just a graphicscard on it could be all you need.
EnglishLion 27th May 2010, 13:45 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Xir

As everything is on board nowadays anyway, a micro or pico ATX wit just a graphicscard on it could be all you need.

More likely a graphics card with a pico ATX board on it! The graphics card would swamp the motherboard in size terms...
SteveU 27th May 2010, 13:51 Quote
There's a good few Mini-ITX boards with full fat PCI-Ex16 graphics card slots on now so there is obviously a market for running high power gaming machines in small cases.
KayinBlack 27th May 2010, 14:09 Quote
I'm wondering why something like MSI's DrMOS wouldn't save clocking on those. It will handle whatever you want to throw at it, and it's not nearly as bi as these elaborate (and unnecessary) 12 or 24 phase monstrosities...
Jack_Pepsi 27th May 2010, 15:52 Quote
I'd love to have a high-end mITX board... ymmm! mITX.
Bindibadgi 27th May 2010, 16:26 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by KayinBlack
I'm wondering why something like MSI's DrMOS wouldn't save clocking on those. It will handle whatever you want to throw at it, and it's not nearly as bi as these elaborate (and unnecessary) 12 or 24 phase monstrosities...

We've blown two DrMOS equipped microATX P55 MSI motherboards that had just 3 or 4 power phases with overclocked i5-750s. They can't cut it either. 8-12 is more ideal, any more and it gets a bit silly unless you're extreme overclocking.

Jack - Zotac make one which we have already reviewed and the ECS one from last week wasn't too bad, and I have also just finished testing the Gigabyte H55N-USB3 at 4.4GHz with a Clarkdale CPU, but that too is limited to 95W.
The_Beast 27th May 2010, 16:53 Quote
Do people really buy mITX motherboard for performance and overclocking? If so they're better off with the standard ATX



I'd only buy and mITX for a low power media/server rig, nothing else
jrs77 27th May 2010, 17:14 Quote
People who buy a mITX-board to build a full blown OC-gaming-rig can't be helped... it's totally illogical to do this, as the small sizes of the enclosures can't keep up ith the cooling needed anyways.

I've bought myself a Zotac ION ITX A, as it's the only one with integrated PSU, which makes a case as small as 200x200x100mm possible... and that includes a huge 120mm fan and a Blue-ray drive. Totally silent while watching HD-videos and even capable of playing some games at 1280x1024.
KayinBlack 27th May 2010, 17:23 Quote
Bindi, that's real interesting. I still haven't turnd the screws on my new i7 too hard but I broke 4.0 on air with a first-run 720BE and the DrMos 5-phase handled it (board succumbed to liquid cooling accident in client's hands, not burned out 'fets) but it's possible to put what, 6 on there?

I'm not sure where the problem comes in on there, better designed/built phases always trump more, but are we now on a cost/performance issue? That would honestly make more sense to me.

Mini-ITX wouldn't seem my first choice, but I could see some amazing ideas come out of it. Just not sure what it would take to get there...
Otacon 27th May 2010, 17:25 Quote
We do buy it for performance and some overclocking.

I know I'm not the only one to have built a small lan gaming system using mini itx and its a market that I see growing. The intorduction of cases like the sugo 05 and the up coming 07 means that we can fit high power graphipcs cards now so we naturally want a fairly powerful cpu to go with it.

The mostly likley group to be interested in building a system like this are also probably going to overclock it to get as much performance out of it as possible.

Yes we want it all but why not?

Personally I would like to see a form of extended mini itx (DTX is close but has one expansion slot to many) as cases like the sugo 05 and 07 already allow the space because of the size of graphics cards. This would allow more room for power phases and more room for a bigger cpu cooler around the socket.
capnPedro 27th May 2010, 17:36 Quote
mITX is tempting, but I honestly don't need a machine to be that small. mATX is the sweetspot for me but I have no aversion to ATX either.

Do people really need PCs to be that small? I have to admit having a PC fitted to the VESA mount behind your monitor would be kinda cool, but even for LANs I don't exactly struggle to bring a midi tower with me.
sandys 27th May 2010, 17:45 Quote
I use ITX and its fine for my HTPC, overclocking is not my focus though, course I do a bit because I can but my focus is typically undervolting and undrclocking so my machine uses between 30-40w when its idle as its always on, sitting in the front room making zero noise and just looks like a DVD player, recording TV, used for blueray. used as backup storage for my laptops/PCs etc.

I'd imagine if people wanted overclocking etc in a small form factor then surely uATX is good enough.
ZERO <ibis> 27th May 2010, 17:49 Quote
I think it is nice for a media center rig that you want more power for. For example my current tv computer runs an i7 920 and is total overkill (I had the parts lying around so no I really was not just buying a 920 for a tv). So I would like to make a much smaller system that uses less power but still has more umph than just a ion system. This way I know that I can play even poorly encoded video or do other tasks that come up. Also there is logically the option of running some light bonic work on there when it is not in use. This is why I like the idea of having an system so small. It is also great to take on trips and hook up at other people place.

Lastly there is the enthusiast in me that just wants to stick my 960 in there an OC it to 5ghz, just kidding. Seriously though, I like the idea of trying to build something nice that is in a small package on the cheep. I have built so many huge multi full tower rigs that bankrupt my savings it is nice and refreshing to be able to just build a nice small cheep system that gets the job done so to speak.
Farting Bob 27th May 2010, 21:25 Quote
Id be tempted to buy a mITX board for my main PC and put a 5850 in it if someone came out with a custom PCB that was shorter (having said that i wont be buying a new system until the next gen cards are out, so then my needs may be satisfied by the next grade down which might well be shorter). The only reason i probably wont be able to is that i need 2 Gigabit ethernet ports (1 for internet sicne my house is not wifi friendly even with n rated) and one to connect my fileserver.
If someone made a mITX board with 2 ethernet ports id jump on that, put it all in a tiny case and bask in its tiny dimensions.
Tranquillise 28th May 2010, 08:57 Quote
I always viewed the mini-ITX specifically for HTPC's and small home servers. Having said that I do feel there needs to be some overclocking options and leave it up to the user how they manage it. I would never use mini-ITX for a gaming set up however cute it is. What I'd really like to see is 2 x Gb ethernet ports and if they could some how lever it on, more pci expansion or perhaps the inclusion of riser cards with the boards.
Jack_Pepsi 28th May 2010, 09:04 Quote
In it's current state mITX isn't tailored to the high-end gamers/enthusiasts but if a 'gaming' board was released I'd definitely be interested in one. I've always been a fan of SFF PCs and I whole-hearted regret going from a powerful Shuttle to an equivalent configured midi-tower.

Personally I love small, well designed and crafted rigs that can offer near or the same performance as a high-end huge monstrosity that consumes half of the room it's in.

For the current time being mITX will be the lower power, HTPC based board and nothing more.
Xir 28th May 2010, 09:10 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by The_Beast
Do people really buy mITX motherboard for performance and overclocking? If so they're better off with the standard ATX

Well, if you buy a standart ATX and only equip it with a powerfull graphicscard (as everything else is on-board anyway), you've got a square foot of unused connections.

So why not make a smaller form faktor board that's still powerfull enough?
GiantStickMan 28th May 2010, 09:24 Quote
I have a mini ITX board (Zotac 9300-ITX to be exact) in my carPC.
Being small it fits in a compartment in the boot of my car. Anything bigger wouldn't have fit in there.
That being said heat can be an issue as there is not much airflow in the boot so it's only running a lowly Celeron 440. Haven't had any issues with overheating etc even in the rather hot Australian summers which is good.
DarkFear 28th May 2010, 09:44 Quote
Interesting read especially since I was planning on asking some build advice for a mITX gaming PC over the weekend :)

Personally I think it's silly of board manufactures to expect that there WON'T be people who buy a mITX board wanting to build a small quad-core gaming rig...

I'm currently eyeing the DFP P55-T36 motherboard with the intention of running an i5 750 and my "old" GTX 275.

While I'm not expecting to run the 750 @ 4GHz+ I don't see why I shouldn't be able to run it at say 3GHz or even 3.4GHz with some proper cooling on the MOSFETS. From what I’ve read most 750’s will do ~3.4GHz on stock voltages so I don’t think there should be a problem...

I'm currently running a Q9550 @ 3.4GHz and for what I do with my machine I find that 3.4GHz is perfectly fine for gaming at 1920x1200 with most, if not all, settings maxxed...

That being said, I think it is up to the person building said PC to know (or at least try to find out) what is realistically possible when it comes to overclocking a board with so few power phases.

If you’re going to overclock it like a normal desktop board and it explodes/melts/sends the earth plummeting into the sun, it’s your own fault...
Combatus 28th May 2010, 16:16 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jack_Pepsi


For the current time being mITX will be the lower power, HTPC based board and nothing more.

But it's already exceeded this with compatibility of LGA775 and 1156. Not all mini-ITX boards are embedded VIA / ATOM types. Examples we've seen from Zotac also include a PCI-E port so if you really do have limited space, it's possible to build a half decent gaming rig although to deal with the heat there's only a very limited choice of cases.

I've overclocked an E5300 on a Zotax 9300 Wifi from 2.6GHz to 3.2GHz so while pushing things to max like you would with a m-ATX or ATX board isn't possible, modest overclocks are, especially with dual core CPUs.
Jack_Pepsi 28th May 2010, 17:14 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Combatus
But it's already exceeded this with compatibility of LGA775 and 1156. Not all mini-ITX boards are embedded VIA / ATOM types. Examples we've seen from Zotac also include a PCI-E port so if you really do have limited space, it's possible to build a half decent gaming rig although to deal with the heat there's only a very limited choice of cases.

I completely understand that and being a SFF enthusiast I've even looked into the possibility of moving my system to a GF9300-D-E but with an nVIDIA chipset and only DDR2 support I didn't.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Combatus
've overclocked an E5300 on a Zotax 9300 Wifi from 2.6GHz to 3.2GHz so while pushing things to max like you would with a m-ATX or ATX board isn't possible, modest overclocks are, especially with dual core CPUs.

When I stated "... nothing more." it was mainly due to current target audience for mITX and where it's positioned at. I know that Zotac and DFI are trying to add more to mITX but is there actually enough of the micro-format enthusiasts out there that want high-end performance from that platform?

I know I would invest. Maybe they'll come in the next couple of years due lower power consumption on CPUs and improvements in SSDs and GFXs. Until, a mediocre gaming rig isn't exactly what I want.
Phil Rhodes 28th May 2010, 19:52 Quote
Quote:
their bread and butter is from overclocking

No, their bread and butter is selling fifty thousand boards to Dell, not a couple of dozen grubby Brits with soldering irons.
jrs77 29th May 2010, 01:43 Quote
mITX biggest issue, know after I've thought about it is, that there's no companies building rigs based on this form-factor besides the Atom-powered eeePCs.

The most PCs sold are "off the shelf rigs" from companies like Acer, Dell, HP, Compaq etc etc...
If they'd jump on the train of mITX to build nice little rigs for the masses, then we'd allready have nice mITX-boards to choose from.
There's nothing new AMD-based for example.

Take a look at the macMini... it's capable of all the stuff 90% of PC-users need actually, including Photoshop and some video-editing and there's no single other manufacturer, who does sell something like it for the Windows-market.
Shuttle isn't really comparable here, as it's 4 times bigger actually, then a macMini and costs allmost exactly the same (including all parts and Win 7 Home) as the entry-level macMini.

Manufacturers of PC-Systems need to go ahead marketing mITX-systems, then the manufacturers of mITX-boards will follow and develop some boards.
Combatus 29th May 2010, 11:40 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jack_Pepsi
I completely understand that and being a SFF enthusiast I've even looked into the possibility of moving my system to a GF9300-D-E but with an nVIDIA chipset and only DDR2 support I didn't.



When I stated "... nothing more." it was mainly due to current target audience for mITX and where it's positioned at. I know that Zotac and DFI are trying to add more to mITX but is there actually enough of the micro-format enthusiasts out there that want high-end performance from that platform?

I know I would invest. Maybe they'll come in the next couple of years due lower power consumption on CPUs and improvements in SSDs and GFXs. Until, a mediocre gaming rig isn't exactly what I want.

I think there is a surprising number of people who do - Zotac say their high end mini-ITX boards sell well and these types of boards are very popular in the modding community too (PHINIX NANO TOWER and
MiniMe to name but a few)

It purely depends on the system you want but with Atom proving to be pretty lacklustre in performance, especially where Flash is concerned, the logical step is to go with a 775, 1156 or even AM3 mini-ITX board. Without a high end GPU, you can get away with a smaller case than you would with micro-ATX, but not everyone overclocks their CPU nor can afford 5870's and Core-i7's either - you only have to look at the Steam hardware survey to see that a majority of gamers use hardware that could quite easily be combined with a mini-ITX board in a small case.
Quote:
Originally Posted by jrs77
mITX biggest issue, know after I've thought about it is, that there's no companies building rigs based on this form-factor besides the Atom-powered eeePCs.

Shuttle is one, not strictly mini-ITX but the systems are the same size and boast similar specs and even support Core-i7 and SLI/CrossFire X.
Bindibadgi 29th May 2010, 12:15 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Phil Rhodes
No, their bread and butter is selling fifty thousand boards to Dell, not a couple of dozen grubby Brits with soldering irons.

Bread and butter of boards designed for grubby Brits with soldering irons ;)

JRS77:
Quote:
Take a look at the macMini... it's capable of all the stuff 90% of PC-users need actually, including Photoshop and some video-editing and there's no single other manufacturer, who does sell something like it for the Windows-market.

Dell Zino HD. And it's mostly **** because of the low power AMD CPU.

You're right though, companies like Dell don't screw in a reasonably high power CPU into a small chassis because it cannibalises their higher products, plus, most of the selling point of a Mac is the OS and Mac-verse of products, not the hardware by itself.

DarkFear - DFI has pre-sets for the i5 and i7 within its BIOS that offer some decent OC overhead, but we found the P55 and MOSFETs get very, very hot and need additional cooling.
DarkFear 29th May 2010, 15:12 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bindibadgi


DarkFear - DFI has pre-sets for the i5 and i7 within its BIOS that offer some decent OC overhead, but we found the P55 and MOSFETs get very, very hot and need additional cooling.

I read that too yes. I am planning to cool them should I decide to build a mITX rig though. Would be asking for trouble (and kinda stupid of me) if I didn't...
jrs77 30th May 2010, 20:26 Quote
I just found an AM3 mini-ITX motherboard from Sapphire...

http://www.sapphiretech.com/presentation/product/?psn=000101&pid=319&lid=1

Unfortunately it doesn't have an DVI-output, but HDMI is there, aswell as a PCIe 2.0 x16 slot.

So pair this with an AMD Athlon II X2 240e and some 2-4BG RAM and hammer it into a small case with an integrated 120Watt PSU and you've basically something like the macMini allready, for a comparable price, capable of running your everyday office and media-tasks... with Win7 instead of OSX.
deadlyavenger 31st May 2010, 19:15 Quote
Yeah - I like the mini-itx form factor. It's great for creating media centres/servers or for trying to mod things into really small cases - I had a go at putting a P4 ITX board into an army ammunitions box, and with the exception of nearly electrocuting myself a couple of times it worked well for hosting lan parties of unreal tournament at school :D
Bindibadgi 2nd June 2010, 07:06 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by jrs77
I just found an AM3 mini-ITX motherboard from Sapphire...

http://www.sapphiretech.com/presentation/product/?psn=000101&pid=319&lid=1

Unfortunately it doesn't have an DVI-output, but HDMI is there, aswell as a PCIe 2.0 x16 slot.

So pair this with an AMD Athlon II X2 240e and some 2-4BG RAM and hammer it into a small case with an integrated 120Watt PSU and you've basically something like the macMini allready, for a comparable price, capable of running your everyday office and media-tasks... with Win7 instead of OSX.

J&W and Asus 890GX, 880G mini-ITX are better, but nice find! I'll be reviewing both in the coming months :) J&W claim their board can take a 6-core AMD CPU :D
jrs77 2nd June 2010, 07:49 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bindibadgi
J&W and Asus 890GX, 880G mini-ITX are better, but nice find! I'll be reviewing both in the coming months :) J&W claim their board can take a 6-core AMD CPU :D

If the J&W supports the 6-core CPUs, then we're talking 130 Watts...

...that's enough headroom for a Phenom II X2 550 to do some overclocking. 4GHz might just be a little bit much, but 3.6GHz will sure be doable without problems.

EDIT: Couldn't find any info on Asus or J&W mini ITX boards based on 880/890 yet, but there's another 785G from J&W -> http://www.jwele.com/motherboard_detail.php?792#_cpu
I hate the SO-DIMM-sockets tho.
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