Mini-ITX is the New Mainstream, But What About Other Form Factors?

Mini-ITX is the New Mainstream, But What About Other Form Factors?

Mini-ITX is the New Mainstream, But What About Other Form Factors?

Since VIA introduced the Mini-ITX reference design back in 2001, it has now become the predominant small form factor mainboard choice for the masses. There have been quite a few alternatives that have cropped up over the years, with the primary focus to decrease the overall footprint of the PCB. Based off of our own history, we have seen these alternatives—Pico-ITX and Nano-ITX —gain little traction in comparison to Mini-ITX. It would appear that VIA really hit the nail square on the head with their innovative form factor almost 10 years ago. It’s a shame they weren’t as successful with the others.

Mini-ITX has shown tremendous versatility, as we have seen a slew of different CPUs paired with this form factor. Everything from 1-watt AMD Geodes to 95-watt Quad Core Desktop processors have graced the form factor we have all grown to love. Companies like MSI have even pushed the envelope on some board iterations to include PCI Express x16, x1 and traditional PCI expansion slots all on a board that measures just 17 x 17 cm. This type of flexibility has allowed Mini-ITX to spill out of the Industrial market and into the consumer market, something that other small form factors haven’t been able to do.

The challenge with going to anything smaller seems mostly to do with the compromises that have to be made. You lose important I/O real estate, chips tend to get cramped and as a result heat becomes more of an issue, and then there is the added cost of producing a smaller board. The outcome is that manufacturers have to make difficult choices in terms of I/O, CPU, expandability, and market price to ensure that their engineering efforts produce a board that is appealing and cost effective. The same challenges exist in the supporting ecosystem for these smaller alternatives, as there is no standard back plane for these boards. This limitation proves to be a deterrence for case manufacturers to build any compatible enclosures around these boards. Their only option is to build something specific for just a single board, which is obviously quite a gamble.

If there was a form factor currently available that would be a viable alternative for people looking to cut down on size and not sacrifice too much in the process, 3.5” or Intel’s original Embedded Compact Extended (ECX) would be it. This PCB size seems to strike the balance of features and size better than other sub Mini-ITX platforms, as we have seen options for full size expansion slots and more plentiful I/O. Not to mention that the I/O is generally already pre-populated with a physical interface as opposed to other embedded boards that rely on break out cables to utilize I/O off of headers.

Of particular note is a motherboard we recently introduced to our line up, the Portwell PEB-2771. Where this board truly differentiates itself from the other sub Mini-ITX form factors is in its processor choice and plethora of I/O. It sports an Intel Dual Core Atom D525 along with dual LAN, 3 COM ports, 6 USB ports, CompactFlash slot, GPIO, LVDS and more. Compared to its Mini-ITX cousin, the Portwell WADE-8075, the sub 20% price increase is very well justified in relationship to the nearly  50% reduction in overall footprint (289 square cm versus 149).

While I believe that the widespread adoption of smaller form factors is inevitable with cloud adoption, I don’t see the Mini-ITX form factor poised to be over shadowed by any other form factor in this segment for quite some time.

Let us know what you think. Does ECX have lasting appeal and should it make up more of our product line?

Comments (11)

  1. Andrew Frink
    September 12, 2011

    As nothing more than a consumer, i’ll give you my thoughts on this subject.

    I recently built a am3 based mini-itx based system. An AMD 1055T x6, 8GB ram, and an nvidia gtx460 in the silverstone sg-05.

    One of the reasons I think that they(mini-itx and smaller) have not caught on in the consumer space as much as the embeded world is that are hard to find with enthusiast consumer features.

    For gaming that would be enough sata ports(3-4), and a full pci-e x16 slot, and a desktop grade CPU(this means at least 95W). These do exist but are few and far between.these boards seem to be doing very well in the consumer space.

    Another side of that is the “I want to build a tiny lowish power home sever/gateway” crowd. Here it is hard to find enough sata ports, and connectivity. Is there a mini-itx or smaller board with 6 – 8 sata ports, dual Gigabit nice, and has replaceable ram? If you know of one I would be very interested in it. What about if I add the requirement that it has room for a TV tuner and the above? There is an amd fusion board that gets very close to meeting all of that, but it requires choosing between the TV tuner and the dual nics.

    For a consumer HTPC, video performance is important. Many of the sub mini-itx boards do not have the performance to do bu-ray decodes and or they are missing the high-def outputs required for HTPC duty. Mini-itx seems to be doing well in the HTPC market.

    A less general note, the limited availibilty of the sub mini-itx boards makes running Linux on they hard to determine before hand. Spending several hundred on setup to monkey with for a week or two and then send it back tends not to pass the wife test very well(at least not where I am, sigh). Very few vendors advertise Linux support even when everything works just fine. I’m most concerned with the sata, networking and video chips.

    Taking a look at the 3.5″ board linked in this post, as a consumer I have no use for the com ports on this board, and all I see is how they are taking space that could be devoted to 2 more sata ports. For the cost of that board I could go for a more traditional uATX, mini-itx, or mini-dtx. And get enough I/O to handle my home server/gateway needs.

    I agree with the fact that as a consumer I just have to make too many compromises to go much smaller than uATX or a handful of mini-itx boards. Maybe someone will step up and provide a good home server, HTPC or gaming platform smaller than mini-itx.

    Cases for these smaller form factors are hard to come by as a consumer, and that usually means more compromises as well.

  2. James Floyd
    james
    September 13, 2011

    Thanks for your insightful response Andrew.

    You are absolutely right, there hasn’t been a real concerted effort by any manufacturer to build a versatile, sub Mini ITX platform that appeals to the enthusiast. And the reason why I don’t think you will see this for quite some time, is because I don’t see any real demand to shrink things down further than Mini ITX by consumers. I know that when I went to build an HTPC, my main concern was putting together a system that was comparable in size and appearance to my existing AV equipment, so it wouldn’t look out of place. I think Mini ITX handles this perfectly.

    In regards to your question about a board that supports 6-8 SATA with dual Gigabit NICs and replaceable RAM, we have a couple of options that you could work. The Jetway NF99 fits the bill with 6 SATA interfaces and the NC9C-550 with compatible Jetway ADPE4S SATA expansion card will get you 8 SATA ports.

    BTW, is that an Elise I see?

    NF99:
    http://www.logicsupply.com/products/nf99fl_525
    NC9C:
    http://www.logicsupply.com/products/nc9c_550_lf
    ADPE4S
    http://www.logicsupply.com/products/adpe4s

  3. Michael Cianchetti
    September 14, 2011

    Where I see the possibility of an increase in interest in the 3.5″ form factor would be to the linux firewall crowd. I’m very much interested in the new portwell to run pfsense. Not sure of it’s freebsd compatibility, but it looks promising. Will logic supply be carrying any of their cases for this?

    http://www.portwell.com/products/detail.asp?CUSTCHAR1=WEBS-1341

    With 4GB ram, 2 gig nics, com port(s), USB for external storage, onboard power, CF slot… it’s PERFECT!!!

  4. JP Ishaq
    September 16, 2011

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for your feedback. Naturally, we’re always interested in expanding the ecosystem for a given form factor, especially one with as much potential as the 3.5″/ECX. You’re right in alluding to the need for a case, as well as potential for a firewall system. We’ve been looking into both items, so stay tuned!

  5. Andrew
    September 16, 2011

    James,

    A while back i stumbled into Black Dwarf a custom NAS case built around a 3.5″ motherboard. (i think there was some help from Logicsupply with that build) Now if only that motherborad had dual NICs, and that case were production it would make an awesome home server/router. It doesn’t really have any extra expansion left so no good way to add a second nic.

    Ahh I forgot most people are trying to make AV gear shaped HTPCs. Next to the roku, WII, PS3, and cablebox, i’m not sure it would really matter what shape it was, but smaller would be nicer (especially in an apartment). I’m thinking something in the WII form factor.

    In the mini-itx form factor i could also add the Asus E35M1 [1]. 6 SATAIII ports, an onboard radeon 6310, and a PCI-e x16 (4x mode only). That seems like it could play triple duty with only the addition of a GbE port to the PCI-e slot.

    Yes that is an Elise, if only it were mine and not just parked next to me once.

    [1] http://www.asus.com/Motherboards/AMD_CPU_on_Board/E35M1I/

  6. Zack
    September 17, 2011

    I have been fascinated with ultra small sub-mini-ITX form factors ever since I heard of Nano-ITX. I own a VIA P820 mini-itx board and have been coninually frustrated with it’s single SATA port and annoying IDE interface. Since my project I am using it in requires a disk drive, I absolutely have to use the IDE port for it since it’s almost impossible to find a decent IDE laptop hard drive. Fortunately, the P830 clears that up with 2 SATA ports and 2 mini pcie expansions for even more sata ports as well as other utilities. Also of annoyance is it’s lack of USB ports, and the pin headers for them mean that I have to do a lot of cutting and splicing to make it work.

    Speaking of pin headers, I think that is the absolutely most annoying thing for sub mini-ITX form factors; the 2.0mm pitch pin headers. It’s almost impossible to find audio ports with a 2.0mm pitch, as well as just header blocks that I can actually combine with normal size audio ports or what ever. That would make an extremely valuable product here, empty header blocks with places to solder other wires to.

    VIA isn’t helping the issue either, some of the pin layouts on the P820 are just plain stupid. The power LED has its positive on pin 1 of its block, and its negative on pin 11, clear on the other side of the block. The USB layouts are also messed up in ways I’m not even sure yet, as my USB module has so far shorted out one of my flash drives and a mouse. I assume these deviations from any kind of sense are so they can make proprietary I/O modules for each of their boards, but so far… I don’t see any! I think this would be an extremely useful product, if you could find some, Logic Supply.

    Anyways, my point of all this rambling is that the reason Pico-ITX and Nano-ITX haven’t caught on nearly as wildly as Mini-ITX is because it’s.. well… it’s extremely hard to work with them! There aren’t really any design standards for I/O pin headers, nor are there hardly any cases for them. And I think that’s a huge problem.

  7. James Floyd
    james
    September 20, 2011

    Hi Zack,

    Yeah I hear you, working with smaller form factors takes a lot of patience. We have a quick fix that should help with your header issues. We carry 2.00mm to 2.54mm adapter cables that work very well with Pico ITX boards in particular:

  8. Michael Cianchetti
    September 29, 2011

    Any update on getting the Portwell case for this?

  9. James Floyd
    james
    September 30, 2011

    Hi Michael,

    Right now I can tell you that we have made a decision to bring in a case to support the PEB-2771 and I believe our choice of enclosure will make you happy. Hang tight, we should have it hopefully by the end of October.

    James

  10. Michael Cianchetti
    October 7, 2011

    Great! Most companies tell you to pound salt! Thanks so much!

  11. James Floyd
    James Floyd
    December 6, 2011

    Good News! We now have the WEBS-1341 live on our site and ready to ship:
    http://www.logicsupply.com/products/webs_1341

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