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Up until recently, small form factor PCs were pretty blunt machines. Sure, they were smaller than regular PCs, but size aside, they didn’t have much to show off: their performance was subpar, upgrade options were almost nonexistent, and their prices were prohibitive, so there was no real reason to consider a Mini-ITX form factor PC unless you REALLY needed said PC to be small enough to fit into the best Mini-ITX case you could scrounge up.
Fast-forward to today, and most of those downsides no longer hold true. Hardware advanced in leaps and bounds, so you can find all your favorite components in an SFF-friendly format, which means you’re no longer restricted to low-end parts in the performance department.
Upgradability is also a thing now, as most SFF builds are now future-proof to some degree, supporting decent upgrades.
The growing popularity of this format even captured the attention of gamers, so it’s not uncommon to see powerful gaming setups crammed in an SFF case.
We have already covered the best readily-available mini PCs out there, but if you don’t want to miss out on the trend and want to put together your first small form factor PC yourself, you are just in the right place. In this article, we’ll focus on one core component of an SFF build we’ve already mentioned – the case.
Whereas in a regular-sized PC the case’s role is primarily aesthetical, with most cases providing the essential features needed for a decent build, the case plays a more crucial role in an SFF build, as the range of features it provides is more limited, so you need to make sure you find the one with just the right characteristics for your specs. Let’s go over the basics, and see what makes a case the best SFF case.
Size is one of the definitive traits of a small form factor case. As its name suggests, it should be small, but just how small is small enough? To qualify as a small form factor, a case’s volume should technically not exceed 20 liters.
How this volume is encapsulated depends on the format of the case. The most common formats are:
The size and format of the case will dictate the motherboard format you can fit. Most models can fit a mini-ITX or micro-ATX motherboard comfortably, but smaller designs might only play well with nano-ITX, pico-ITX, or other exotic formats.
Unless you’re really restricted to a very small design, your best bet is to go with a case that can house a mini-ITX or micro-ATX motherboard, as such cases are bound to have some space for additional components like a discrete GPU, decent cooling, and multiple storage options; most importantly, said models can fit a CPU of your choice. With nano-ITX or pico-ITX, what you see is what you get, as these boards usually come with embedded CPU, GPU, and sometimes even RAM or storage.
One of the key differences between modern SFF builds and legacy ones lie in the graphics department: while older models were very limited in terms of graphics horsepower, usually relying on integrated graphics, modern SFF builds can now fit a discrete GPU and provide desktop-grade performance.
The exact specs of the supported graphics card vary from one case to another, most popular being support for two-slots graphics cards with lengths between 250-300mm. We’ve covered GPU support in SFF cases in more detail in our article on the smallest mini-ITX cases that can fit a full size GPU – check it out!
Cooling is a crucial aspect of any PC, so it’s not an overstatement to say that the best small form factor PC case is the one that can cram in the best cooling system. Because of space limitations, cooling solutions are fairly limited. Tower coolers are not an option for this type of build, being replaced by C-style coolers. AIO solutions are highly desirable, but while they do not require much clearance in the CPU area, they do require a considerable amount of space for the radiator.
A decent case should also feature space for at least one case fan. Although there is no room for proper airflow in such cases, a high static pressure cooler can really make a difference.
Most modern mini-ITX and micro-ATX motherboards come with one (or more) M.2 slot(s), which means you can get super-fast storage without sacrificing precious case space. However, most cases should provide space for at least one more 2.5” drive, with two or more bays not being uncommon. Some cases even go as far as offering support for 3.5” drives. If you’re building an HTPC, consider looking for a case that has support for an optical drive as well, so you can watch those Blu-rays without hassle.
There are two main types of power supplies for small form factor builds: external and internal. External power supplies are typically used in smaller cases, where internal space is very limited. These power supplies consist of an internal DC to DC module fitted inside the case and an external power brick that’s similar to the one used by laptop chargers.
Internal power supplies are scaled-down versions of power supplies found in regular PCs. These come in multiple formats such as SFX, SFX-L, TFX, and ATX.
It is important to have a clear idea of the hardware configuration you’ll be using to determine your power requirements, and thus the PSU format you need to go with. Some models such as TFX PSUs provide a lower power output (in the 300W range), so may not be fit for a high-end power-hungry system.
Putting together an SFF build is in itself a challenge, but the end result is always a rewarding one. To smoothen the building process and broaden your hardware options a bit, consider looking for a case with a good design. The design may be mostly about aesthetics when it comes to regular PCs, but in the case of a small factor case, design can make it or break it.
Not only does an SFF case need to look good, but it also needs to be functional and make use of every millimeter of available space. As such, a good design will blend good looks and functionality in a seamless way.
Internally, a modular design will allow you to customize the internal layout a bit. Some cases allow you to remove or move the storage trays around to make room for lengthier GPUs, radiators or case coolers. On the outside, cutouts and grills need to be just in the right places to maximize the cooling potential. Consider opting for a case that has some decent connectivity options as well. Front USB and audio ports are not a luxury, but a necessity.
Now that you know what to look for in the best mini-ITX case for your build let’s see what your best options are.
1. Cooler Master Elite 110
If you want to get into the SFF game but don’t want to shell out big money on a DANCASE A4-SFX (which we totally get), the Cooler Master Elite 110 is one of the best SFF cases budget-wise. This SFF case is very compact, sports an understated matte black finish (that we love), and can fit dual slot GPUs of up to 210mm in length – so no GTX 1080s in here, unfortunately (unless some mini versions come out soon).
Water-cooling is definitely possible to install within the Elite 110, as the case supports a 120mm radiator to be installed in the front. Along with USB 3.0 ports, a no-brainer price, as well as a large fan base that has nothing but love for this SFF case, the Cooler Master Elite 110 should be on your shortlist for your next small form factor PC build.
The Elite 130 mini-ITX case is a great option for those who want to really customize the internals of their case to fit their needs. This is a really modular case, allowing flexibility on what it can do and support, backed up by great build quality, making it feel like a hefty case that feels more like a case twice its size.
Nifty features of this SFF PC case include a handy hard drive mounting bracket that allows customization in its positioning, so you can further optimize the internals for maximum space. With this case allowing space for long graphics cards of up to 343mm long, you will be able to install 99% of full size, dual-width GPUs out there, including flagship cards such as the GTX 1080Ti.
While the Cooler Master Elite 130 does not exactly shine in the CPU cooler clearance department, given the overall dimensions of the case, with a maximum cooler height of only 65mm, the case makes up for it in the overall cooling options, with support for two intake cooling fans and one exhaust case fan, and the ability to install an additional 200mm fan at the top.
For those LED fanboys, this case comes with red LEDs out of the box, but fear not that these can be easily replaced to suit your needs/preferences.
Just look at this thing. Right now, the DAN Cases A4-SFX is currently considered the holy-grail of SFF cases, with its compact 7.5L size, superb design, and build-quality, combined with premium quality components, as well as the ability to fit a full size, dual- slot GPU (295mm long) within this mini-ITX case.
Although we think that the DAN Cases A4-SFX is probably the best small form factor PC case available right now. The v3 version of the case adds the ability to add a high-performance CPU cooler (maximum CPU cooler clearance is 92mm), as well as a water-cooling loop.
What’s big, modular, comes with a plethora of options for cooling and storage, and runs for the “best mini ITX case” title? It’s the Fractal Node 304, of course! With a volume of 19.5 liters that places it close to the upper-limit of SFF cases, the Node 304 sure packs in a lot of features to show for it. For starters, the case can house a 310mm long GPU, which gives you a lot of freedom in choosing the card.
Where the Fractal Node 304 really shines, though, is the cooling department: not only does this case support a full tower CPU cooler (up to an astonishing 165mm – you can even fit in a monstrous Noctua NH-D14 with a bit of tinkering!), but it also comes with three included case fans (two 92mm fans in the front and one 140mm fan in the rear), which means the case will remain cool no matter what you throw in it.
On the storage side, the Fractal Node 304 is equally impressive, being able to house up to 6 storage drives, in modular bays that can be easily removed if not needed. Last but not least, the Node 304 supports ATX power supplies (PSUs shorter than 160mm are recommended when a long graphics card is in use).
If you’re looking for an SFF case that stands out of the crowd, look no further than the Thermaltake Core V1. Coming with a cubic design, the Core V1 features a large grille that spreads across the entire front panel and stretches a bit onto the top panel as well, giving it a grandiose feel. The two side panels feature some vents as well to facilitate cooling, and the top panel comes with a window to allow you to show off your build.
A distinctive feature of the Thermaltake Core V1, though, is the ability to interchange the top and side panels as needed, ensuring proper cooling and best visibility for your hardware.
On the inside the Thermaltake Core V1 doesn’t disappoint either, coming with a two-chamber design that maximizes the available space to support graphics cards of up to 260mm, CPU coolers of up to 140mm, 4 drive bays (2 x 2.5” & 2 x 3.5”), 120mm and 140mm AIO radiator support and a standard ATX power supply.
Whether you’re building an HTPC, a small form factor office PC or an all-purpose rig, the Fractal Design Node 202 will be honored to house it in style. Featuring Fractal Design’s unique style, the Node 202 comes with a design that allows it to be placed either vertically or horizontally, depending on your needs or preferences, and it will look stunning either way.
The Fractal Design Node 202 is not only about the looks, though – this small case (it has a volume of just 10.2 liters) can easily host the usual suspects: mini-ITX motherboard, two 2.5” storage drives, a GPU of up to 310mm and an SFX power supply. Speaking of power supplies – the case comes with one bundled, namely a Fractal Design Integra SFX 450W, custom adapted for the Node 202 case to provide optimum cable management.
On the cooling side, the Node 202 fits CPU coolers of up to 56mm in height and also supports two 120mm case fans. Dust filters are also present to keep the interior of the case dust-free.
The design of the SG05 will not turn any heads, but it’s not meant to do so; rather, it’s meant to be efficient, and that’s exactly what it is thanks to the large grille of the front panel that hides an included 120mm high-pressure cooler, and the easily-accessible USB 3.0 and audio ports also present on the front panel. On the inside, the Silverstone SG05 SFF case comprises of the usual specs for an SFF case: bays for one 2.5” and one 3.5” drives, a 255mm GPU clearance, and SFX power supply support.
Last but not least, the Silverstone SG05 also includes a tray for an optical drive.
For starters, the SG13 improved the storage options, the case now featuring a 1 x 2.5” + 2 x 2.5” or 1 x 2.5” + 1 x 3.5” configuration. GPU clearance was also increased to by 12mm, now totaling 267mm – not a very significant change, but since those millimeters were added and not removed, it’s still a positive change.
The most notable upgrade comes in the cooling department, though – the Silverstone SG13 supports a 120mm/140mm water-cooling radiator, thus greatly improving the cooling options. One more change targets the power supply: unlike the SG05 and its SFX support, the SG13 features support for the more popular ATX power supply format.
Drawing the line, it’s quite clear – if you’re looking for the best mini-ITX case for a tight budget, you just found it!
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We’ve had two entries from Silverstone in our top so far, so why not go for a third? We’re not doing it for the sake of doing it, nor are we paid to promote the brand – it’s just that their products are very good contenders for the title of best SFF case, and there’s no better example than the Silverstone RVZ01.
While the previous models we’ve listed were targeted at budget buyers, the RVZ01 is for those that seek performance. Silverstone assembled a dedicated crew to work on their RAVEN lineup, and the RVZ01 is the first case to come out from said team, and it set a high bar for future models.
With a volume of roughly 14 liters, the RVZ01 is not the biggest SFF case out there, but don’t let that fool you – the case offers some pretty impressive specs: 330mm GPU length support, multiple 2.5”/3.5” drive mounting bays, optical unit support, two included 120mm fans and, the cherry on top, support for 120mm or 240mm water-cooling radiators.
In terms of design, the Silverstone RVZ01 closely resembles gaming consoles both in terms of size, as well as due to the fact that it can be placed vertically or horizontally. Since the case is mainly targeted at gamers, it’s safe to assume that said resemblance is not exactly a coincidence and is part of what makes this quite possibly our current choice for the best Mini-ITX gaming case. This case is ideal for a gaming PC Mini-ITX build.
So there you have it – some of the best small form factor PC cases out there, neatly aligned, briefly reviewed and GPUnerd-approved. If you know something we don’t or feel that we missed something, feel free to let us know in a comment.
While putting together our selection of SFF cases, we stumbled upon some cases that didn’t exactly meet the SFF-requirements by a small margin, but are far too awesome to leave aside, so check out the following near-SFF cases:
Here’s a fun fact about the Cougar QBX: while it technically meets the SFF requirement volume-wise to the very limit (19.9 liters), it misses the mark in terms of actual size due to its atypical design. The Cougar QBX comes with an interesting look that features panels that give the impression that they are distanced from the actual chassis of the case. That, along with the 45-degree angles present all-around the case, and the metal-like brushed finish gives the case a refined look and feel.
Once you get past its looks, the Cougar QBX is ready to impress on the feature side as well with a ginormous GPU clearance of 350mm – enough to fit in even the longest graphics cards out there. The case can also accommodate up to 5 storage drives.
Where the Cougar QBX really shines, though, is cooling – not only can the case support up to 7 cooling fans, it offers great flexibility if you want to opt for water-cooling: up to 240mm radiator in the front, up to 240mm/280mm radiator on the top, 120/140mm radiator on the back.
With a volume of roughly 34 liters, the Phanteks Enthoo Evolv ITX is not exactly SFF material, but once you see just how awesome this case is, you may want to reconsider your desire for an SFF build.
The minimal design of the case comprises of a premium-quality metal build and a windowed side panel that gives you a glimpse of its interior, and whether there’s hardware in it or not, the Phanteks Enthoo Evolv ITX is just as amazing.
Owing to this is the clean interior design that includes a PSU and HDD enclosure to hide cables and improve airflow. Since we mentioned airflow, it’s worth noting that the case comes with a 200mm fan out-of-the-box, but can support up to 5 fans for enhanced cooling. Radiators of up to 280mm are supported as well on the top side, with 240mm radiators being able to fit on the top side or in the front.
Perfection lies in the details, and Phanteks demonstrated that said perfection is part of the package with the Enthoo Evolv ITX. Whether we’re talking about the included dust filters, the Velcro cable ties for wire management, the modular water cooling reservoir mount or the offset radiator brackets, one thing is clear – Phanteks really aimed to impress with the Enthoo Evolv ITX, and it totally worked on us.
What about you?
Last update on 2021-01-23 at 21:20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API