Small Form Factor PCs, UCFF or NUCs rule

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Small choice UCFF Form factor

This idea of a next unit of computing (NUC) that Intel gave name to is just the next in a series of very small form factor PCs that are mainly fanless. So SFF has given way to UCFF (Ultracompact) We have had an Atom based processor a while ago, but the integration of tablet-scale processors makes this a cheaper reality. Here are some choices from smallest (and least capable) to largest:

  • Zotac ZBOX Nano CI540. This uses the new Haswell-Y processor and it has decent graphics performance and GPU capability, not to mention being 802.11ac capable:
  • System. It is $350 and just needs an SSD and a single stick of SO-DIMM 204 DDR3-1600 memory to complete the picture. Lowest price is on Rakuten

  • SSD. Sandisk Extreme Pro 480GB with $309 on Rakuten. It is relatively expensive but very, very fast. Saturates an SATA 6GB connection easily in real world performance.

  • Crucial 8GB DDR3-1600. Unfortunately, this is only a single stick system so the 8GB is maximum memory for this small machine. Lowest price is on Newegg of $70 right now.

Here are some other choices in this UCFF world:
– Gigabyte GB-BXi7-4500. This stuff an low power Core i7 (which is more Core i3 desktop class) into a small form factor and a Core i5 as well. The main issue is the poor quality ratings Amazon folks have been giving them. It is about 1.5 faster than the Zotac.

  • Gigabyte GB-BXi5G-760. This is uses a mobile Core i5-4200H and an nVidia GTX-760 mobile chip. Interestingly, it has about the same performance as the Core-i7 graphically, so intel has really caught up with nVidia for mobile.
  • Gigabyte GB-BXi7-4770R. This uses a Core i7-4770R so a higher performance part with Iris Pro graphics.  It is about 2-3x the graphics performance of the Zotac Nano CI540.

  • SFF PC with half tall PCIExpress Slots

    We built a system like this last year. It used a The above systems don’t have PCIexpress so they are really good for dedicated systems. But if you need a PCI Express for a special card then your choices scale up to a mini-ITX board with PCI Express slots and you need to decide how many you need. So we are mainly updating the analysis from last summer:

    • Processor. Intel Core i5-4590S at 65W right now $205 at Tiger Direct (4590 is $199 at Amazon, 4590S is $204 at Amazon). ( There have been some updates to the desktop Haswell, so the analysis the tweaked ships that shipped in summer 2014 with some small clock rate bumps. Tom’s Hardware recommends at the low-end is the Intel’s Core i3-4130 at $125 and 45w TDP, the midrange the Core i5-4460 at $190 with 84W TDP (but these don’t have VT-d for VM support which is why used the 4570 last year which has been updated to the 4590 this year and at the high end the Core i7-4790K for $340 running at 4GHz but still with 84W TDP. Last year, the best mid-range choice was a very similar to the 4460, but with VT-i being the 4570/4570S at $200 and this has been updated to the 4590/4590S which is just 100 MHz faster.
    • Motherboard. ASUS H97I Plus. The big news is the update to the Z/H97 Wildcat Point which is a modest update but does add M.2 so you can direct attach an SSD. The Z97 allows SLI and also overlocking. Form factor wise, we want the mini-ITX but there don’t seem to be many reviews of H97 mini-ITX but looking through Newegg, it looks like the ASUS H97IPlus ($207). Last year it was ASRock H87M-ITX. $104 from Newegg.
    • Ram, Amazon Ratings. This shows that it does make a difference so get something faster than DDR3-1333 or 1600 but only if you overlock otherwise 1600 is fine. Amazon has the Crucial Ballistix Sport DDR3-1600 CL9 PC12800 at $140, CL11 is $135  ($160 at CL9 at Newegg). Newegg folks seem to like the Team Elite DDR3-1600 CL11 PC12800 8G x 1 stick for $70 each. Last year, ram was cheaper and we got the  top rated G.SKILL Ripjaws X Series 16GB (2 x 8GB)  (PC3 12800) F3-1600C9D-16GXM for $119 with a coupon at Newegg.
    • M.2 SSD, Newegg and Amazon reviews. Tom’s Hardware liked the Crucial M500 M.2 but this doesn’t seem available and the Intel 530 80GB part is small. But Amazon folks like the Transcend M.2 ($250). Crucial M550 M.2 ($280) for 512GB. It is 2280 which does fit on the ASUS. Crucial M500 480GB M.2 ($250 Amazon) and supports 2280 card was recommended. The Last year, we used the $175 for the Mushkin Enhanced Chronos Deluxe 240GB at Newegg. Note don’t get mSATA, that’s a completely different form factor.
    • Enclosure or Newegg reviews. Antes ISK300-150. Looking for a smaller system, the Jou Jye 568i (smaller but has a 250W ATX supply but is low PCI Express) but is impossible to find, so going with last years, the Antec ISK 300-150 (specs or 6.9 liters, $75 at Rakuten or $90 Newegg) with 150 Watt SFX supply worked well, was $80 last year now at Newegg. 5.25, 2 x 2.5? and half height expansion with a better fan. Another option is the Intek BP-655 8.2 liters with a 200 watt TFX supply and low profile slot space
    • Cooler. Use the NL-9Li with 37mm height and , Nothing much has changed here so the NH-9L is a good choice. The Antec needs a cooler lower than 65mm (hardwaresecrets.com) and most importantly because there is an AC adapter next to the CPU (why didn’t they move it a inch over!), no 120mm cooler base will fit, so there are three dimensions to worry about. Height which is often discussed and then clearance around the socket. The problem here is the Antec has limited clearance around the socket because of the AC power cord. So you need something with a 92mm stock Intel fan foot print.  The top cooler is the expensive Noctua NH-L12 a bit of overkill for a 65W non overlocked system. The Big Shrunken Rev B also fits at 58mm  with the Noctua NH-9L being expensive but good or the Noctua NH-L12 also being in range but expensive. $50 from Newegg, $47 from Amazon. f you want whisper quiet then use the Noctua NH-L12 with just the 92mm fan for $64 at Amazon and is 66mm high so should just fit with a little scrunch.

     

    SFF PC Full size slots

    • SFF Cube. These are close to the original Shuttle PC. They are cube shaped and have room for a few cards and an enclosed power supply.

     
    From Newegg.com, Cooler Master Elite 130 is a cube case and is just $40. Ready for water cooling and room for 5 SATA SSDs too.
    From miniitx.com The main difference is that they can store things and have room for a full height PCI Express card. Mini-Itx case Sugo SG05B with USB 3.0 with a 300 watt SFX supply and also a SG-05b 450 watt SFX with room for 87mm cooler and 9 inch PCI Express cards. Antec also has the similar ISK 600 but it support full length 12 inch PCI Express so is slightly biggt.

    • SFF Mini Case. These are about half the size of a full case and can have a full ATX power supply, a bunch of hard drives and more slots. You can typically put a micro ATX board in them so you get more slots. Mini-ITX recommends the Fractal Node 304 which can have up to 6 drives in it and you can have an ATX power supply (you want it short than 170mm) so as not to conflict with the PCI Express slots. Maximum card length is 300mm.

    SSD

    For a small machine like this, what kind of SSD makes sense. Well, for things like caching lots of data, it’s interesting to see how prices have come down. Right now a 1TB mSATA SSD is about $440 so it is actually cheaper on a cost per bit level than a 512GB at $250 or a 256GB at $125. The one caveat is that these consumer grade SSDs don’t have much over capacity for write leveling and so forth. So if you really care, the enterprise grade SSDs will last a lot longer.
    The winners are really dependent on the type of flash that is being used. So for example, the new Samsung 840 Evo (a very well liked model) does about 175MBs on the Anandtech StorageBench benchmarks in reality (compared with theoretical 440MBs).
    Another factor is encryption so it would be nice if you had Opal
     

    Performance

    But if you want high performance
    – The ‘Pro’ models of the Samsung 850 Pro and the Sandisk Extreme Pro for instance are rated at 10 years endurance for about a 10% price increase. And the big news is the arrival of PCIe storage (go Intel!) and also of vertical NAND by Samsung.

    • They are also benchmarking at 2x the speed of the value models below so both of these are good values if you can find them on newer or whatever.

     

    Value

    Tom’s Hardware has a good evaluation of the overall market although it is “old” being from July 2014. And the actual real world differences are pretty small, so price shopping isn’t a bad idea.
    So here are some recommendations for people on a budget
    256GB. Sandisk X210. $160 on Amazon. This is a decent boot drive and is fast. The Plexstor M6S, Adata Premier Pro and Samsung Evo 840 are the next level down.
    512GB. It could be me, but storage seems to be something you can never have enough of and it is about $240 to get these drives, so a good value in terms of price/performance. The fast one is the Adata Premier Pro. The other good ones are the Sandisk X210, Toshiba Q Series Pro (very fast). Crucial M550 (more expensive, but it is actually bandwidth limited by SATA 3.0!
    1TB. At this level, you can use it for extensive caching of things like videos and things. ) and the Crucial M500 is the value choice while the Samsung 840 Evo is the performance choice.
    Finally now that SFF machines are using M.2, you don’t have to burn a whole SATA slot for storage:

    • 256 M2. Crucial M500. A lot of capacity in an M.2 slot for your notebook. Or get an M.2 to PCIe adapter for a poor man’s PCIe SSD if you can’t wait for Intel’s P3500 (but do wait if you can!).

    • 256GB m.SATA. This is a smaller port but still a nice way to get a lot into a small place. The Samsung Evo 840 is the winner here.

    • 1TB Samsung Evo 840 m.SATA. Wow, now this is convenience, incredible density and performance in a tiny slot

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