In the past, small form factor computers were known to be either underpowered or suffer from thermal issues. During the past few years, due to more efficient parts, the small form factor computer landscape has greatly changed. Small form factor systems have been rising in popularity because of their small, space efficient designs. Nowadays, you don't need to make many compromises by going small. Who needs a giant super tower computer when most people can easily get by with an mITX system? Most people aren't using more then one PCIe expansion slot on their motherboards. Others don't even need any PCIe expansion slots if all the features they need are packed in the CPU and motherboard. This is where the new mSTX form factor, which is even smaller then mITX, has come into play.
mSTX is a tiny 5" x 5" (compared to mITX 6.7" x 6.7") motherboard form factor that supports upgrading your CPU, unlike NUCs. The boards typically maintain the I/O of a full sized board such as SATA, USB, RJ45, and display out. Most of these boards do use SO-DIMM laptop style memory though, as desktop sized memory would not be able to fit. Unfortunately, since mSTX lacks any sort of PCIe expansion this won't be a solution for people looking to game or add any other sort of PCIe devices. However, that could change in the future as more manufacturers recognize the standard and want to get in on an even smaller form factor.
As of today there isn't many mSTX motherboards available to purchase. However, instead of purchasing the motherboard seperately, you can get a barebones style system with an mSTX motherboard for a decent price. The two popular options in this class seem to be the AsRock Desk Mini 110 and the MSI Cubi 2 Plus . I decided to go with the AsRock Desk Mini 110 do the price and I personally thought it looked better. When I purchased it, the Desk Mini was $139.99 off Amazon. It has some cool features such as an optional COM port, VESA mount, and more USB ports. I paired it up by ordering these parts:
These parts provide a solid non-gaming office style computer build, which is what it will be used for. Here is a quick showcase for the completed build inside the Desk Mini:
At first I was worried it would come with an older UEFI that wouldn't support the new Kaby Lake processors, but to my suprise it supported the i5 7500 out of the box. Installing the processor, cooler, and RAM was just like any other build which made it familiar to build in. I used the stock Intel cooler for this build, however a cooler that is the same size or smaller should fit in here with no issues. The SATA SSD installation was a little odd, however the manual explains how it should be mounted. The header cable for the front panel jacks are all bundled into one cable, which just goes into a pinout on the board. The installation of all the parts was simple enough, except for the M.2. WiFi module antennas which were a pain to get in. It took me about 30 minutes to get the WiFi antenna cables attached to the WiFi module and it seems like other reviewers had that issue as well. Despite that small hiccup, it was all smooth sailing for the build process.
After it's all put together it's hard to believe the sheer power that is packed into this tiny case. A full size desktop class i5 (or an i7 if you opt for it) in a case that is 1.92L in volume is just crazy. Of course, the power of this barebones kit depends on the hardware you put in it. The price for the entire package isn't even that bad, considering for most small computers you pay quite a hefty premium. The $139.99 for this Desk Mini gets you the case, power supply, motherboard, and a WiFi card. Full sized boards can easily exceed the cost of this while providing less. This could easily be your primary computer for workloads that do not depend on PCIe expansion. It can easily be concealed, which is a great option for an incredibly powerful HTPC. This could also work for businesses that want small computers, yet want to have standard desktop components (the optional COM port could be helpful as well). Here is some quick benchmarks of my i5 7500 Desk Mini.
Performance wise, it's pretty good. All the benchmarks run in line with similar hardware on a larger sized platform. Here's some of the numbers:
- CineBench R15: 443 cb
- Unigine Heaven: Avg FPS: 3.0, Score 77, Min FPS: 2.3, Max FPS: 5.1
- LAN Transfers: Ethernet 90-100MB/s, WiFi (AC) 40-45MB/s
- SSD Speed: 545.8MB/s seq read, 118.7MB/s seq write
As you can see, this is an absolute killer build in this form factor. Much better then slightly smaller systems such as a NUC which can't be upgraded or tinkered with as much as this can. The possibilities of building in this form factor are endless because of its desktop class components. You can even run Mac OS X on this for a tiny hackintosh build. I've tested it in Fedora 25 and Ubuntu 16.04 with no apparent issues as well, everything is instantly detected and works. Steam in home streaming is another great use for this build as you can play games in another room and let another, more beefier system, handle the GPU load. Since it isn't much bigger then a Steam Link it wouldn't look to out of place either (although it is much more expensive!).
This is definitely a must have if you like working with small form factor builds, but know what downsides they bring to the table. Of course, this is not the killer PC for everyone, however it fills a niche of really great performance in a nicely sized package. If you're interested in learning more about the AsRock Desk Mini 110, visit AsRock's website.