Hardware standardization is one of the greatest assets of desktop PCs. You can mix and match parts to your heart's content. But not all motherboards have the same physical size. There are different form factors for different types of PCs.
Like other PC components, motherboards have standardized form factors, including ATX, MicroATX and Mini-ITX. Almost every motherboard for home computers in your local PC store or online has one of these tastes.
Standardization means you can easily find a processor, RAM, power, and storage that works with your motherboard. It also opens the choices for desktop PC enclosures. Numerous cases support all three main motherboard sizes. The mounting points are drilled in the right places and the correct space is available for the rear gates and the corresponding I / O shield that covers them.
It's a nice thing, but to decide which motherboard is right for you, you have to consider things like space and your experience with building PCs and performance needs.
PC motherboards: the basis
Intel created the ATX form factor and introduced it for the first time in 1995. For almost 25 years, the ATX design has been the dominant form factor for PCs for home and office use.
The largest of the three motherboard formats we look at, the ATX measures 12 inches by 9.6 inches. The specification requires that all ATX motherboards have this size. It also specifies the locations of the mounting points, the I / O panel, the power connectors and all other different connection interfaces.
All these functions are crucial for every motherboard. The mounting points keep the motherboard away from the metal surface of the case to prevent short circuits. With the I / O panel and the corresponding shield you have access to the back ports of your PC for screens, audio and USB. Then you have the power connections and all other interface points that must be in predictable locations to help system builders.
However, not everyone wants an ATX-sized motherboard – especially if the goal is to make something more compact. Enter, MicroATX cards, measuring just 9.6 inches by 9.6 inches. Just like the larger ATX motherboards, the standard determines what all the different critical points must be.
Finally, the Mini-ITX, developed by Via Technologies in 2001, is the smallest of them all, only 6.7 inches by 6.7 inches.
ATX motherboards have the most expansion options. They usually have six (or fewer) PCIe slots for things such as images, sound and network cards. However, there are Extended ATX (or EATX) cards with seven PCIe slots, but they are aimed at enthusiasts and servers and fall outside the scope of this article.
The MicroATX can have up to four PCIe slots, while the Mini -ITX has only one for a graphics card.
RAM is also limited on the Mini-ITX. There is room for only two slots versus four on the ATX or MicroATX cards. However, this does not mean that Mini-ITX cards cannot have a healthy amount of RAM. For example, if you want 32 GB of RAM, simply place two 16 GB modules on it, while you fill the other two motherboards with 8 GB modules.
Motherboards: when to use What
All three of these motherboard types work for almost any type of home PC that you want to build, including a gaming installation, general entertainment system, or Office 365 dynamo.
But each form factor has a number of compromises – we'll deal with the following.
If it is the first time you are creating a gaming PC, then an ATX board is probably your best choice, with the MicroATX in second place. The larger amount of space you get with an ATX makes it more forgiving and you can put all the different components in place relatively easily.
Although ATX is great, there is no reason to stay away from a MicroATX if you are a newcomer and want something more compact. Merging everything together is a bit tighter, but still feasible. If you decide to go with a MicroATX, note the size of the case. You do not want a case that also accepts ATX if you want to build something small. Some MicroATX enclosures are also slightly wider than ATX-friendly center towers, so look carefully at the dimensions of the enclosure.
Mini-ITX is the "hardest" of the three for gaming because there is very little space in the case. You can create a solid gaming PC with a Mini-ITX card, but you must carefully consider the headroom for the graphics card, airflow and cooling. There is not much space in a special Mini-ITX enclosure, especially when compared to a full ATX enclosure.
Home Theater PC (HTPC)
Very often, space is the first consideration when adding another device to an already crowded entertainment center in the living room. This is where a Mini-ITX really shines, because you get a full living room PC in a diminutive. Of course you can purchase an ATX cover that works with Mini-ITX cards. But if you want it to fit on a shelf under your TV, you need something more compact.
We would be negligent if we didn't mention an even smaller Intel motherboard called the NUC. Intel introduced NUC kits as a way to build small but powerful computers. NUC motherboards usually measure four by four centimeters and the covers fit very tightly.
You usually purchase NUC's in a set with the motherboard, the processor, discrete graphics (which vary per set) and RAM. It is up to you to add storage or peripheral equipment; however, current NUC & # 39; s do not accept full-size graphics cards. A NUC therefore only works if you want a PC, mainly for video streaming, home library management or informal games.
The dealer's choice! Family PCs must be suitable, but they don't have to be great artists, because you mainly use them for video streaming, email, social networks and web games. Take a good look at what you can get and let that determine how the build goes. If space is a problem, take a look at the MicroATX or Mini-ITX.
As mentioned earlier, ATX is an old specification. In the technology world, it is difficult to undo anything with that kind of endurance (see Windows XP). Intel tried in 2004 to introduce a replacement for ATX, called BTX, but it never worked.
However, computer manufacturers are still experimenting with alternatives to ATX. At Computex 2019, Asus presented a high-end motherboard concept called Prime Utopia. It looked very cool and totally different from everything we have now. It is a two-sided motherboard, with the voltage regulator modules (VRM & # 39; s) on the back, where they can be cooled more easily and thus improve performance. The graphics card is also located at the rear, in a special room for better cooling, and it is mounted vertically for more stability.
Asus made the I / O ports modular. This means that you can only stop what you need, such as additional Ethernet ports or a lot of USB, and you can dump the microphone and headphone ports completely. And because the graphic card on the back frees up so much space and reduces heat considerations, the Utopia also has four m.2 slots.
Concepts such as the Prime Utopia are great, but it is unlikely that we will see a shift from ATX in the near future. ATX and the associated standards have served the PC enthusiast community well for decades. Everyone is used to it and the best practices for building, maintaining and cooling these PCs are well established.
All three of these motherboard types are reasonably capable of doing any job. Your final choice depends on the amount of space you have, your level of PC building experience, and whether you want expandability for the future.