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One For The Little Guys
Small is in. Once filled with massive beige boxes, the PC market has diversified into thousands of different products, some of which are extremely small. There is good reason for this. As the performance of PC components has increased, the performance needed to complete basic PC tasks has not done so as quickly. No one needs a 3Ghz Quad-Core to check email or surf the web. As a result, companies are putting a focus on building low-performance computers that are small, quiet, and cool.
PC builders have benefited from this in a number of ways, including a increase in the number of high-quality small components available. Mini-ITX motherboards are a great example. These motherboards were once considered the worst of the worst, suitable only for specialized applications where size was the most important factor. But there are now many extremely attractive Mini-ITX motherboards available, including some that might even be considered good enough for a hardcore PC builder.
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Intel G45 Mini-ITX
Intel's chipsets are great, but its retail motherboards are often considered exceedingly average. Popular vendors like Gigabyte or Asus offer their own technologies to spice up motherboard products. But making motherboards for retail sales is not a major part of Intel's business, and so Intel's motherboards, while reliable, are usually lacking in features and flexibility.
It would be hard to argue that Intel's G45 Mini-ITX bucks this trend. It is an incredibly simple board, covering the basics of everything you'd expect in a motherboard of any size. The G45 supports Intel's Core 2 Duos and Celeron processors. It can support 4GB of DDR2 RAM, it has integrated sound and Gigabit Ethernet, and it has six USB ports. If you're yawning at this point, I forgive you, and there isn't much more that can be said about the board.
But that's okay. Because unlike in most sections of the market, the G45 Mini-ITX board has only a handful of competitors. Granted, many of those alternative options are more appealing. They offer better integrated video, a higher maximum RAM capacity, and other perks. But at only $117.99, the G45 Mini-ITX beats them out on price. And that matters, because some of the applications a PC using a Mini-ITX board are best suited for are also applications where performance and features are not a major issue. If that's the case in your mini-ITX PC build, then the Intel G45 board is one to buy.
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Zotec GeForce 9300-ITX
Mini-ITX boards have long had a reputation as being the bottom-of-the-barrel in terms of performance and features, and most PC builders take one look at their small size and assume that nothing worthwhile would fit. But the Zotec GeForce 9300-ITX disproves those assumptions. It's an Oldmobile with a supercharged V10 dropped in the engine bay. You'd never expect it go anywhere fast, but get your hands on it, and you'll quickly be proven wrong.
Based of the same GeForce 9300 chipset as many Mini-ATX and ATX boards, the Zotec's tiny wonder manages to pack a wonderful integrated graphics processor beside an LGA775 socket capable of supporting quad-core processors. And it doesn't end there. This tiny board also features integrated wireless internet, integrated audio, and an HDMI output. It even has a PCI Express slot running at full 16x speed. That's right, gamers - if you're looking for a project computer, why not try making a PC that can conquer Crysis but is no larger than a 12-pack of soda? Such a PC could actually make for a very interesting LAN-party machine.
While the features are great, the most remarkable thing about the Zotec Geforce 9300-ITX is that you don't have to pay through the nose for it. Most retailers are selling this motherboard for only $150 dollars. Throw in a low-price Core 2 processor and some RAM and you've made yourself a HTPC small enough to fit nearly anywhere for under $500 dollars. There simply isn't anything else that can offer as much performance for so low a price.
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Jetway 780G Mini-ITX
Since the above two motherboards are for LGA775 processor, it is time to look at what fans of AMD can look to buy. The selection is somewhat less attractive for those who choose AMD processors, as most of the boards offered either available from either JetWay or Zotec, and Zotec unfortuantly doesn't offer anything as modern as the GeForce 9300 chipset for AMD processors.
This leaves JetWay, a motherboard manufacturer with a remarkable lack of reputation. If you'd never heard of them before, don't worry - their company is so small that they don't even seem to have a Wikipedia entry. But if the products available through most retailers are any indication, JetWay has a fair amount of experience in Mini-ITX boards. They offer several different Mini-ITX boards based off chipsets for both AMD and Intel processors, and customers seem satisfied with their products.
Their best product is likely their 780G-based Mini-ITX board. When it comes to features, it is essentially bone-stock. But that is fine, because AMD's 780G is a great chipset even in its stock form. This is thanks to the inclusion of Radeon HD3200 integrated graphics processor. This solution is roughly comparable to the GeForce 9300, and should be able to tackle high-def content without trouble so long as it is supported by a dual-core processor. JetWay's 780G Mini-ITX board can even support some Phenom processors, should you have the need to cram a quad-core into this small package.
The only real downside to the JetWay 780G Mini-ITX board is that its price of $159.99 is steep compared to the more feature-rich GeForce 9300 board from Zotec. However, this JetWay board is certainly the best option for AMD-powered Mini-ITX systems.