The Pros and Cons of Building a Mini-ITX Gaming PC

In the immortal words of Jacobim Mugatu, mini-ITX gaming PCs are “so hot right now.” While home-assembled gaming computers have generally been focused on the larger mid-tower ATX standard for decades, a recent wellspring of tiny, powerful components have made more compact builds worth considering.

But what are you giving up if you decide to go for a smaller form factor? Not much, as it turns out. Even with high-power components, there are only a few things you need to look out for. Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons of going for a smaller build.

Pros

Let’s start with the good stuff: why would you want a Mini-ITX build in the first place?

Mini-ITX Saves Space (Obviously)

Okay, you probably realized this already, but it’s dramatic how much space you can save with a Mini-ITX build. My ATX mid-tower is 232 x 464 x 523mm, approximately 56,000 cubic centimeters of space. A Mini-ITX case from the same manufacturer, with room for a full-sized power supply and gaming-grade GPU, is 203 x 250 x 367mm, about 18,600 cubic centimeters. So you could stack three Mini-ITX cases together and they still wouldn’t be as big as a standard mid-tower. You might even be able to put your computer on your computer desk—what a concept!

Mini-ITX PCs are Lighter

A fully-loaded mid-tower in a steel case can be 40 pounds or more. Anyone who’s had to carefully move one knows it’s a hassle. Though Mini-ITX builds use most of the same parts aside from the motherboard, that smaller case makes it dramatically lighter, not to mention much, much easier to pick up and move around. It really lessens the fear of dropping it and snapping all of your components in half. LAN party, anyone?

Mini-ITX PCs Generally Cost Less

This one’s a no-brainer. While it’s still possible to trick out a Mini-ITX build with insanely expensive components and the latest designer case, the smaller physical dimensions and lessened complexity of the motherboard and case mean they’re generally cheaper than their full-sized counterparts. Of course, that also means things are generally less flexible (which we’ll get to in a moment).

They’re Just Really Cool

It’s hard to define the specific appeal of a tiny machine packed with just as much polygon-pushing power as something much bigger, but it’s undeniable. A well-constructed Mini-ITX build is like a tricked out Honda Civic that can beat a European supercar off the starting line. While you can get most of the same benefits with an expensive custom-designed Mini-ITX PC, like the Falcon Northwest Tiki or the Digital Storm Bolt, it’s a lot more satisfying (and a lot less expensive) to select and assemble the components yourself.

Cons

Alright, so what’s the catch? As long as you build smart, there aren’t that many downsides—but here are the things you’ll want to consider.

Not All GPUs Will Fit

The simple physics of a smaller case means that you’ll have to carefully select your graphics card if you’re building a gaming PC. The extra-long high-end cards from NVIDIA and ATI may not fit in some Mini-ITX cases, even those specifically designed for compatibility with gaming builds. Luckily, GPU manufacturers are not blind to the desire for smaller, shorter cards, and they’re designing high-end GPUs with compact PCBs and coolers specifically for Mini-ITX cases. You may be able to use a bigger GPU, but you’ll just have to check first—sites like PCPartPicker are really useful for determining the compatibility of your build.

Mini-ITX Offers Less Room for Expansion

Mini-ITX motherboards have to cut corners, almost literally, so that means that most of them don’t offer multiple PCIe card slots for multi-GPU setups (though multi-GPU setups are rarely worth it for the average gamer, so this shouldn’t be too big a concern.) Most of them only offer two RAM slots as well, so in order to get a beefy 16GB or 32GB memory setup, you’ll have to pay for more expensive high-capacity DIMMs.

Most Mini-ITX cases have room for at least one full-sized 3.5-inch hard drive and a 2.5-inch SSD, covering the needs of most gamers, but for truly capacious storage or backup, you might need to look at some kind of external solution. Some cases also omit a standard 5.25-inch disc drive mount, which is less of an issue now that the majority of PC games are downloaded from services like Steam.

Cramped Space Means More Heat

Mini-ITX gaming builds run a little hotter than bigger systems, simply as a function of the design—the same components running in a smaller space concentrates the heat. This problem is compounded when you try to add in extra fans: mounting area for air intake and output is limited. There’s also less vertical space for elaborate CPU cooling setups, so gamers who like to overclock their systems would probably be better served with a larger build. Water cooling with a small radiator/fan combo is an option, though.

Mini-ITX Is More Challenging to Work On

Building computers is pretty easy, but when you have such a small case, component access and cable management can be like working on one of those extremely finicky LEGO builds. This issue is compounded by cables that are designed with the length of standard ATX builds in mind. To help resolve this, you can go for aggressive cable management with ties and routing (many Mini-ITX cases have this built in) or look for a short cable set specifically designed for compact builds. For the most part, though, it just means you’ll need to be careful, patient, and—if you have hands like the Incredible Hulk—have someone with slender fingers help you out.

Image Credit: Newegg, olgaiv/Flickr, athan902/Flickr

Michael Crider has been covering technology on the web since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order. He wrote a novel called Good Intentions: A Supervillain Story, and it's available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.