Motherboards keep getting more components, you can fit several terabytes of storage on a single 3.5-inch hard drive, and the need for an optical drive keeps diminishing. Despite these developments over the past few years, the typical desktop chassis still tends to be a large tower with tons of internal space. If you do want to go smaller, what are the best options out there? Hardware.Info tested 12 micro-ATX chassis to find out.
The size of modern desktops is primarily determined by the motherboard. The ATX form factor is about 30 cm x 25 cm. These large motherboards are starting to look like something from a bygone era. Even Hardware.Info readers typically don't have more than two graphics cards and perhaps one more expansion card, so at least two of the traditional seven expansion slots are just gathering dust in most deskop PCs.
When you remove those, the result is the micro-ATX form factor measuring 248 mm x 248 mm. It's as wide as ATX, just not as long. You still have plenty of expansion options, especially not what sound cards, network adapter and even extra hard disk controllers have become integrated. You could even go a step smaller, to the 17 cm x 17 cm mini-ITX size, but this form factor costs more than micro-ATX. It's expensive to fit all of the circuitry onto such a small surface area, and it requires dedicated production facilities.
Micro-ATX boards are cheaper in comparison. They used to be seen as budget alternatives, but more and more motherboard manufacturers are starting to realize there is a market for fully-featured, high-end yet compact motherboards. ASUS is ahead of the curve with its Gene series, but brands such as Gigabyte and MSI are starting to have more boards with high-end chipsets and high-quality components.
All of the motherboard form factors next to each other.
In a standard computer chassis such a small motherboard will feel out of place. But just like a full ATX motherboard is overkill for most consumers, the same is true for all of the space in a standard ATX chassis. The era of three or four 5.25-inch modules has passed, now that optical drives are used less and less. Having multiple hard drives is no longer necessary, with high-speed and affordable external drives and NAS devices being widely available.
There is still one useful aspect of having a large chassis, and that is for silent and efficient cooling. Large and quiet fans can provide this, or radiators for water cooling. The increasingly energy-efficient processors and graphics cards are diminishing the need for so much cooling, so it's really only the enthusiasts with the most expensive high-end components that have a need for a large tower. Nowadays, all other users are better off with one of the 12 micro-ATX chassis from this article.