Building A PC: How Big Should it Be – Tower, Mini, or Small Form Factor

Written by:  • Edited by: Bill Fulks
Updated May 20, 2011

Avoid the PC equivalent of being a solo commuter in a massive SUV by choosing a case that fits your needs and space.

Go Small and Come Home

The last article explained that powerful computers generally require large cases, but that users who don’t push the envelope can get by with a smaller case. Now this isn’t necessarily the way to go: if your computer is going in a home office and you have the space, a Mid- or Full- Tower has a few advantages. Most obviously the larger cases give you more room to work when you are building or upgrading your system. If you are new to building your own PCs or lack manual dexterity, you may be more comfortable working in a larger case. It is also worth noting that towers have been around forever (in computing terms) and that there is little change from one to the next insofar as how one goes about building a system in them. The smaller cases we discuss below require more careful attention to instructions as they aren’t as standardized and often include a few extra steps, such as removing and replacing a structural brace at the beginning and end of assembly.

The other advantage of Mid- and larger Towers is that they can fit both standard ATX and the smaller μATX (pronounced and sometimes written Micro-ATX) motherboards. There is a far wider selection of ATX boards available, and some features, such as Wi Fi, are much easier to find on ATX boards.

If you can find the features you need on a μATX board however, and you are willing to have less room to work while inside the computer in exchange for more room to work at the computer, you can get not only a smaller case, but forgo the Tower altogether. Smaller, non-Tower cases are loosely grouped under the banner of Small Form Factor (SFF) cases. One of the most common configurations is a “cube," a term that some people use interchangeably with SFF. Not actually a cube, these are about a foot high, a couple inches more than that across, and several inches deeper than they are across. Though they have a bigger footprint than towers, the diminished height means they can often be placed on a shelf or slid under furniture more easily. Make sure you leave plenty of room for ventilation though: all those components in a small case need air to stay cool.

Since they can fit a decent sized (though not massive) power supply and video card while being easier to transport than a tower, they are often used to build gaming systems, meant to be taken to LAN parties, in which case the PC can be referred to as a LAN Box.

As a result of their being meant for gamers, many cube cases are flashier than their tower counter parts, but there are also many targeted to people looking for a discrete solution, both in terms of aesthetic and fan noise, for their bed and living rooms. People building Home-Theater PCs can avail themselves of specialized enclosures that are meant to look good and fit well in an entertainment cabinet. People who don’t use their computers on the road and would rather adjust their screens and keyboards than neck and wrists might prefer a Mini-PC with a stand alone screen and keyboard to a laptop.

Putting it All Together

As mentioned above, these more specialized cases have less conventional assembly procedures. Mini-PCs in particular may not only be put together in unique ways, such as using an external power supply (like the block on a laptop power adapter) to save space on the desk, but many use parts that can be hard to come across and offer limited options, such as ITX (as opposed to μATX) motherboards.

Not all SFF’s are so finicky however; cubes may have a few quirks, but most of the assembly procedure is not all that different from the traditional tower. Combined with the selection of cube cases available and their uses as home, office, LAN Box, and Home Theatre PCs, the SFF cube is by no means a niche configuration.

This breadth of application, particularly in the home, where a tower PC may not fit in terms of space or aesthetics, is why the rest of this series on how to build a PC will use a SFF cube case (the Silverstone Sugo SG02) as an example. The other parts used, detailed as we continue, are very representative of what most common systems will look like.

As the build progresses, we will discuss the differences and similarities between assembly in a tower and in a cube. If you are new to building PCs, the guide will teach you how to put together a tower or cube, according to your preference. If you are used to building in a tower, the following articles will show you what you can expect if you decide to use a Small Form Factor cube case for your next PC.

Ready to Get to Work?

If you are going to be building your new PC yourself, be it a SFF, mini-tower, or full-size monster, then you will want to check out the rest of the series on how to build a PC over on our new Hardware Channel.

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