A motherboard with a small form factor fills an important role in areas where space constraints prohibit the deployment of a standard desktop or tower computer. Together with the smaller sized board, the smaller computer usually brings power savings and sometimes reduced cost.
A small form factor board shares most of the characteristics of a traditional motherboard with the exception of size and fewer features. While industry standards define form factors such as ATX, micro-ATX, mini-ITX, etc., a motherboard with a small form factor does not have any defined characteristics: the term is marketing jargon used by manufacturers. In other words, it may refer to an industry standard motherboard, but it may also refer to a proprietary design that will not fit standard cabinets.
To illustrate the variation that can exist between motherboards with small form factors, we will look at a bare bones mini ITX board and a micro ATX board that feature all the latest in power and technology: both are billed as small form factor, but they vary drastically in size, performance, and features.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/VIA Gallery from Hsintien, Taiwan
Jetway J627 mini ITX motherboard
Jetway computer markets its J627 mini ITX motherboard as a small form factor board. This board uses a built-in VIA CLE266 CPU with a VT8235 chipset for a media server, mini workstation, digital security controller, thin clients, industrial controllers, or any other application where modest processing power is needed.
The board features two USB 2.0 ports, one serial port, and one PCI slot for expansion. Dual PATA headers control up to four hard drives. On board video is powered by an S3 Graphics UniChrome Pro IGP. Thie Jetway J627 also features onboard audio and wired LAN. The board takes a maximum of one 1 GB 184 pin memory module. The board measures a remarkably small 6.7 inches square. At the time this article was written, the lowest price for this board is $79.97, according to xpBargains.com.
Gigabyte H55M motherboard
The H55M motherboard from Gigabyte is marketed as small form factor, but it is a micro ATX board, a larger form factor than the Jetway J627. This board combines USB 3.0 support in a small Intel-based package that supports the Intel Core i7, Core i5, and Core i3 LGA 1156 CPUs to bring impressive power to a minimal footprint. Ultra Durable is the Gigabyte feature that builds 2 ounces of copper into the board, lowering system temperature and electromagnetic interference. The additional stability offered by Ultra Durable provides overclocking opportunities for power users. The H55M features high definition video playback and is adequate for productivity and some gaming applications. Don't look for much electrical power savings with this board either.
For a small motherboard, you don't lose much in the way of performance with the H55M. The board has four DDR3 DIMM slots for up to 16 GB of system memory; display port; HDMI, DVI, and D-Sub video ports; gigabit Ethernet; 5 SATA 3Gb/sec ports; 12 USB 2.0 ports and 2 USB 3.0 ports; and 2 PCI-E slots and 2 PCI slots for expansion. This board measures 9.6" x 9.6". Pricing for the Gigabyte H55M-USB3 starts at $108 (without the CPU) at the time this article was written. Expect to get the board and a Core i5-750 processor for around $300.
How to Buy
As you have seen, a small form factor motherboard can mean two completely different things. The Jetway J627 motherboard offers a footprint that saves space and electricity with a footprint much that is much smaller than a full size ATX board. To achieve that, it sacrifices computing power and expansion. The Jetway board is also an economical option.
For Gigabyte, a motherboard with a small form factor is larger than the mini ITX format and sacrifices very little when it comes to processing power and expansion. Its larger size heftier price tag may make it inappropriate for many applications.
When shopping for a small form board, keep in mind that the term is jargon: it can mean boards of varying features, sizes, and prices depending on who you ask, so be sure to get all the details about the products you might purchase before making a final decision.
xpBargains.com. "Review, JetWay J627F800-OC VIA C3 processor Mini ITX Motherboard/CPU Combo Reviews", http://www.xpbargains.com/xpricer.php/product_wreviews__pid--J627F800OC.htm
Gigabyte. "GA-H55M-USB3", http://www.gigabyte.com/products/product-page.aspx?pid=3444#ov