First off, mini-ITX gaming systems aren’t for everyone. They are certainly not a widely accepted gaming platform. I can’t tell you why you might want one. I can only lay out some possibilities and help you decide if a mini-ITX gaming system might be a good fit for you.
Traditionally, mini-ITX systems are valued for their compact size. They are affordable and require less power than standard desktop systems. They make an economical option for basic computing needs such as office software and internet. The ability of newer models to playback high-definition video and Blu-ray discs make them a popular choice for home theatre PCs.
However, recent developments in mini-ITX motherboard design have opened up a new possibility for mini-ITX systems. They can now be used to build a powerful gaming computer. I know, that sounds odd, but now that major manufacturers are producing mini-ITX motherboards with a PCI Express 2.0 x16 slot and support for standard voltage CPUs, it’s starting to make a lot more sense. Couple these features with new mini-ITX case designs that allow the use of ATX power supplies and double-wide video cards and you have the beginnings of a powerful mini-ITX gaming system.
There is a bias that exists in the computer gaming world. It says that in order to play the latest video games you need to have the biggest, baddest, most expensive computer that money can buy. If you’re not rocking an ‘Extreme’ series processor, 16 gigabytes of RAM and a thousand dollars worth of video cards, you shouldn’t even try. Oh yeah, it also has to be in the biggest, bulkiest case you can find and needs to have enough flashing lights on it to land a large plane.
Now don’t get me wrong. I admit that these full sized systems do fulfill their intended purpose. In fact, they do it very well. Nothing has the ability to crank out high frame rates like an ATX system. I should know; I used to have one. It was big. It was bad. It was green. Lots of flashy lights and plenty of power to spare, but it needed its own desk and it was a pain in the neck to try to take anywhere.
I enjoyed gaming on it, but I began to wonder what it would be like if I built one with similar power, but in a smaller form. After some research I discovered that not only was it possible, I was not alone in my quest for a smaller gaming computer. There were more gamers out there who were also looking for compact systems.
It doesn’t matter to me whether I get 30 frames-per-second or 130. As long as the game plays smoothly, all the extra fuss for more frames that I can’t see anyway seems superfluous. Also, I just didn’t have the space on my desk for a giant, glowing box. I downsized to micro-ATX a year ago. It was a step in the right direction but even a micro-ATX case takes up a fair bit of desk real estate. I knew there had to be a way to go smaller.
Enter the mini-ITX gaming rig. It was perfect. Small and compact, it can be tucked away even on a small desk or slid into an entertainment system. Turns out it is even powerful enough to run games that my micro-ATX couldn’t touch. It might not support SLI or Crossfire, but I challenge anyone to show me a game that cannot run well on a single video card. Remember, these new mini-ITX motherboards can handle any video card that you see fit to stick in it, limited only by your choice of power supply.
Choose your ATX power supply and install it in your case with a quad-core processor and 4 gigabytes of RAM. Park the biggest video card you can afford (maybe even an ATI Radeon 5950) in the PCIe slot and show me a game that it can’t run. Did I mention that it has the same footprint as a six-pack? Exercise a little restraint when choosing your video card and your new gaming system will likely cost you less than a thousand dollars. The video cards in some of the full tower gaming systems cost more than that and the games are no more playable.
Mini-ITX systems aren’t for everyone. You need to choose your hardware carefully, as there is little room for expansion. But if a compact, affordable and powerful gaming system is something that interest you, give some serious thought to using mini-ITX in your next gaming system and join the ranks of ITX gamers.