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Buying Guide

WARNING: This guide is the product of years of experience on my part. You are responsible to verify all the information provided. We cannot assume responsibility for any errors or problems that may arise.

Buying a computer can be tricky. Buying a small form factor computer can be very tricky. A lot of competing virtues have to be taken into account. We want to present a series of options to you, the reader, so that you can make an informed decision.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. LIST OF TERMS
  2. LIST OF SPECIAL CHIP TERMS
  3. WHY SHOULD YOU EVEN BUY A SMALL FORM FACTOR COMPUTER?
  4. PICKING A CPU
  5. AMD VS. INTEL
  6. RAM
  7. PICKING A GPU
  8. WHAT IF YOU ARE A GAMER?
  9. WHAT IF YOU ARE VIDEO EDITING?

LIST OF TERMS

Before one reads this guide, one should familiarize oneself with a list of common computer terms/abbreviations. These are used in every computer, whether a normal computer, a small form factor computer (SFF) computer, or a small NUC.

  • APUAccelerated Processing Unit/All-in-One Processing Unit
    – Made famous by AMD chips. Essentially, a CPU plus a GPU in one chip. However, this usually refers to AMD chips, as AMD puts good dGPUs on it chips. Intel also puts dGPUs on its chips, but they are not as highly regarded at this time, though that is changing.
  • CPUCentral/Computer Processing Unit
    The brains of the computer, where all the computing and number crunching occurs.
  • GPUGraphics Processing Unit
    – Where the graphics are processed. This can be an integrated or a dedicated GPU.

    • dGPUdedicated Graphics Processing Unit
      – A GPU which is not on the CPU chip, a graphics card. These are usually more powerful that integrated GPU’s which are built into the CPU/APU.
    • iGPUintegrated Graphics Processing Unit
      – A GPU unit which is built into/part of the CPU/APU. These are usually far less powerful than dedicated GPU’s on a graphics card.
  • GTXGTX
    It is a brand given to NVIDIA‘s top tier graphics cards, like the GTX 1070 or the GTX 1080.
  • HDDHard Disk Drive
    – The older form of storage where permanent files are stored. Think of it as long term storage. HDD’s are slow but durable. Inside they resemble a record player. They are also cheap, which is why they are still used to save costs.
  • NUCNext Unit of Computing
    – An extremely small computer, often 5 pounds or less in weight. Intel is famous for selling NUC’s.
  • PSUPower Supply Unit
    – These can be internal power supplies inside the case, or external power bricks. Often with SFF’s, an external PSU (power brick) is needed. The MacMini had its power supply internally built in.
  • RAMRandom Access Memory
    – The short term memory of a computer. One should factor in the amount of RAM needed, and its speed in MHz.
  • SSDSolid State Drive
    – Also called flash drive. Much faster storage. About 4 times faster than HDD’s. However, they are more expensive. Be careful, there are drastically different forms of SSD.

    • SSHDSolid State Hard Drive – Hybrid Drive
      – A compromise where a small flash drive is attached to a regular hard drive. Usually, the operating system is on the SSD, so the computer boots faster, with most files being stored on the hard drive.
    • NVMeNon-Volatile Memory
      – This a super fast, and more expensive, form of storage, with speeds up to eight times faster than regular SSD. However, it has to be installed in a proper connection, such as a PCIe connection, to take advantage of those speeds.
    • OptaneOptane
      – Optane is a cross between storage and RAM memory. It is superfast, but limited in size to 16GB or 32GB. Usually only the operating system is loaded on Optane, initially. After that, there are algorithms on the Optane memory which decide what programs you commonly use; and these are loaded to speed up your computer. The rest of the storage would be on slower HDD. The drawbacks are that Optane can only be used on Intel CPU’s that are 7th generation Kaby Lake or newer, and the storage is limited. However, it is meant as a cost cutting option where, for a minor price, some people could get faster storage without having to pay for full SSD.
  • SFFSmall Form Factor
    – A smaller computer, often under 15 pounds in weight, which is easily portable.
  • TDPThermal Design Power
    – The maximum amount of heat that can be safely generated by a CPU, and cooled down. It is one factor relating to the amount of power/performance the CPU has – not the only one. Bigger TDP’s means more power, but requires more cooling. Smaller TDP’s are necessary for laptops, NUC’s and some SFF’s.
  • ThrottleThrottling
    – The more a CPU works, the more it generates heat. When the CPU gets too hot, it lowers its frequency,
    which slows down the performance. Low power -U chips found in laptops may be rated to turbo boost to high frequencies, but they can often overheat, and slow down, to cool off, and limit power consumption. Hence they will often rev up and slow down in cycles, which reduces performance. A full desktop, with good cooling can afford to run and stay at full power all the time; but these rigs can be large and unwieldy.

LIST OF SPECIAL CHIP TERMS

CPU’s chips have confusing appendices on them. Here is a short explanation of what they mean.

THIS FIRST LIST APPLIES TO INTEL CPU’s:

  • Core MCore M
    Extremlely low power CPU’s, used in ultrabooks, without fans. The new 12″ Macbook uses Core-M chips. They are not that powerful.
  • HQHigh Performance Grapics/Quad Core
    – A rating for mid-range power CPUs.
  • MMobile
    – The -M CPU’s/chips have lower power requirements, and put off less heat. Cooling requirements are less. M CPUs are usually found in laptops. They often are a bit more powerful than U processors, but will drain down a battery faster.
  • KOverclockable
    – This means that the chip can be adjusted to run higher than its usually manufacturer recommended operating frequency. With Intel CPU’s, -K CPU’s do not come with stock coolers, because overclocking overheats a CPU, and one needs a better cooler. Count on it! If you want a -K CPU, then you are usually operating outside the parameters of a small form factor computer. The heating will often require larger coolers, sometimes liquid cooling. This will add up to greater size.
  • TPower Optimized
    – The -T CPU’s/chips are mid-range CPU’s when it comes to power requirements. Their operating frequency has been offset to produce lower heat, and require less cooling. Of course, at the expense of some performance. An laptop CPU might use 15W. A regular desktop CPU might use 65W. A T CPU might use 35W or 45W. The loss of performance is not too bad, and these are perfect for SFF’s. Though extremely small NUC’s might require a U CPU.
  • UUltra Low Power
    – The -U CPU’s/chips have really low power requirements, and put off less heat. Cooling requirements are less. These are usually found in laptops, and NUCs. U CPU’s are less powerful though; and will throttle when they overheat due to a workload.

THIS SECOND LIST APPLIES TO AMD CPU’s:

  • X – eXtended FREQUENCY RANGE –
    – This means the AMD CPU will clock a bit higher than a non-X CPU, and will have a higher TDP. For a YouTube explanation (Click Here).  X chips are better at automatically overclocking.
  • UUltra Low Power
    – Same as Intel. Means ultra low power.

WHY SHOULD YOU EVEN BUY A SMALL FORM FACTOR COMPUTER?

One chief advantage of small form factor SFF computers is their portability. If you are on vacation, or on a business trip, and you need to bring your work with you, it is nice to be able to bring your main computer with you. You cannot do that with most desktops. They are too big and/or too heavy.

Or if you want a computer to operate as a media control center, a small form factor SFF computer can fit unobtrusively in a small shelf, barely visible. A desktop would be too big, and would upset the decoration of the area.

But what about bringing a laptop?

Laptops confine you to their small screen size, and to an often uncomfortable keyboard. With a small form factor SFF computer, one can use a full-size keyboard, and whatever monitor is available, or whatever monitor one chooses.

Yes, one can use a laptop as a main computer, if one uses a docking station; and that may serve in many cases, but it will not work if one wants the computer to be a media center in a living room. A laptop and a docking station would be noticed.

However, even if one uses a laptop with a docking station as one’s main work station, the laptop will be using -U, lower power chips and will be subject to more heat throttling, which will affect performance. An SFF may use a -T, or an -HQ CPU, and will throttle less often.

A small form factor computer might be what you are looking for.


PICKING A CPU

The CPU is the brains of a computer. To compare it to a car, the CPU is analagous to the motor.

A) An Intel i3 CPU is roughly analogous to a good 4 cylinder engine.
B) An Intel i5 CPU is roughly analogous to a good 6 cylinder engine.
C) An Intel i7 CPU is roughly analogous to a good 8 cylinder engine.
D) An Intel i9 CPU is roughly analogous to a specialty 12 cylinder engine.

Of course, it is never that simple; but analogies are helpful

From: Hardware Canucks

Note: There are Intel Celeron and Pentium CPUs available; but these are often weaker and I do not deal with them at this time.

Ryzen has just come out with some promising low power Raven Ridge APUs; but these are mostly available on laptops. I have not seen them on SFF’s or NUC’s, yet.

The things one must look for in a CPU are these.

A) What is its base frequency?
The higher the frequency, the more powerful it is per core.

B) How many cores does it have?
A core is like an added Central Processing Unit. A dual core is like two CPUs. A quad core is like 4CPUs?

C) Does it have turbo boost, or precision boost?
Turbo/Precision boosting allows the CPU to speed up above its normal frequency for high workloads. Often CPU’s will be rated with their base frequency given, as well as their Turbo Frequency. For example: the i7-7700 (Click Here) has a base frequency of 3.6 GHz, with a Turbo boost of 4.2 GHz.

D) What is its thermal rating?
The thermal rating (TDP) indicates how much heat the CPU can produce, and is one factor – not the only one – relating to the power of the CPU. Usually, the higher the TDP, the more powerful the CPU will be. But it is also a warning. Higher power chips may be more productive, but they cannot be put in laptops, or SFF’s, without causing heating problems. They often require special cooling units, especially if they are overclocked. A mid-range i7-7700T will have a rating of 35W. A regular CPU like the i7-7700 will have a TDP of 65W. An i7-7700K, which is overclockable, has a rating of 91W. But the i7-7700K does not come with a stock cooler, due to its extra heat. The user has to buy a cooler.

To see the frequencies, cores, ratings of all three of these CPU’s at Intel’s Ark Sites: (Click Here)

Practically speaking, the i7-7700T is probably best for an SFF, with its lower heat output, though an i7-7700 is acceptable, if it is cooled well enough. A good example of a 65 W CPU in an SFF would the the case of the ASRock DeskMini 100 (Click Here).

The overclockable i7-7700K, or any K chip will run too hot, and may require liquid cooling. They are not usually SFF material.


AMD VS. INTEL

Until recently, the usual advice was to get a computer with an Intel CPU.

Intel made better chips. AMD were bargain basement chips, with bargain basement performance, for people who could not afford Intel.

However, with the release of AMD Ryzen CPU’s, that all has changed. AMD starting selling multi-core desktop chips which competed against Intel – in some cases, for half the price.

Prices tabulated Nov 2017
Chip Cores Base Freq. Turbo Boost Cost Cost/Core
AMD Ryzen 7-1700 8C/16T 3.0 GHz 3.7 GHz ~ $353 ~ $44
Intel i7-7820X 8C/16T 3.6 GHz 4.3 GHz ~ $590 ~ $74
Intel i7-6900K 8C/16T 3.2 GHz 3.7 GHz ~ $1090 ~ $136
Intel i7-8700 6C/12T 3.2 GHz 4.6 GHz ~ $300 ~ $50
Intel i7-7700 4C/8T 3.6 GHz 4.2 GHz ~ $300 ~ $75

The recent releases of the Ryzen CPU’s have been a game changer.

But there are things to consider:

1) AMD Ryzen CPU’s have lower clock speeds. This may mean nothing if one is doing video or photo editing where the number of cores outweighs the slower speed; but in gaming where individual core speed is important, this can still leave Intel with an edge.

So the Coffee Lake i7-8700 may outperform the Ryzen 7 1700 even though the i7-8700 has two (2) less cores, especially when it comes to gaming.

However, with video editing, this may mean nothing, as Ryzen’s extra cores will prove their worth.

2) The Ryzen 7 desktop CPU’s do not come with iGPU’s (integrated GPU’s), while the Intel chips cited do. So, that cost has to be factored in, if compared against an Intel CPU which is running only with its own iGPU.


RAM

RAM is Random Access Memory, the immediate short term memory your computer needs to operate. The minimal suggested amount of RAM necessary seems to be increasing over time.

A) 4GB – the absolute minimum for a desktop. Though your computer may run slow on it.

B) 8GB – An amount necessary for the average user. As long as you are not doing heavy photo or video work, this should be enough.

C) 16GB – If you are doing heavy photo or video editing work, then this is what you need.


PICKING A GPU

Basically, when dealing with Graphics Cards, one is faced with generally two types. NVIDIA brands or AMD RADEON.

For years, AMD was considered the bargain basement maker of CPU’s. No more! Now, AMD is giving Intel a run for its money. However, when it came to GPU’s, AMD was always a competitor of the first rank.

When considering a GPU, one has a few options:

1) COST
Believe it or not, there is not much of a difference between AMD and NVIDIA graphics card. Their performance vs price costs are roughly the same, so it should not be a consideration.

2) COMPATIBILITY
Make sure the GPU is compatible for your build. If you are planning to build an SFF in a custom case, do not buy an outrageously large GPU, which won’t fit.

3) NECESSITY
This has to be addressed. If you will not be doing massive photo or video editing, and if you are not planning to play high-end games, then the iGPU’s (integrated graphics units) found in AMD or Intel Chips may be more than sufficient. Some of these iGPU’s are getting quite powerful. No, you can’t play high resolution virtual reality games with them, but you can do photoshop editing, word processing, browsing, and play YouYube videos, and even some lower-end games on moderate settings.

If you are going to video editing, rather than gaming, more emphasis should be placed on the CPU, as rule. One can settle for a less than the best graphics card.

4) POWER
If you are building a custom SFF in a small case, you may be limited to a small external power supply. Do not buy a GPU which will gobble up power. Even if the power is no concern, there is the issue of heat dissipation in a small case. GPU’s generate heat.

4) COST
Right now, there is a massive demand for GPU’s because they are useful for bitcoin mining. This has driven prices through the roof. If you can do without a dGPU (dedicate Graphics Proocessing Unit, a graphics card) and if the iGPU now found in chips is sufficient then go with that. Save yourself some money.


WHAT IF YOU ARE A GAMER?

Gaming requires a powerful setup. Ideally with a powerful CPU and GPU. However, in gaming, the emphasis is on a powerful GPU. One should not scrimp on a graphics card.

For ex: an i5-8600K has 6 cores, but no hyperthreading. Certainly, not as powerful as an i7-8700K with 6 cores with hyperthreading.

However, it is good enough for gaming if paired with a powerful GPU.

With gaming, if one has to choose where to scrimp, it usually should be on the CPU.


WHAT IF YOU ARE VIDEO EDITING?

Video editing, along with gaming, is one of the most intensive uses that a computer can be put to. But, it requires a slightly different package than a computer one would use for gaming.

Don’t get me wrong! Video editing requires power, just like gaming.

Where it differs in on the emphasis.

Video editing really emphasizes the CPU, as it is essentially pure number crunching of data – and for that one needs a powerful CPU. One should get a powerful CPU, one with as many cores as is possible or affordable. Ideally, one should go with an Intel i7 or i9 CPU, or higher end Ryzen CPU.

Now that 8th generation chips are coming on board, one should aim to buy an SFF with an 8th generation CPU.

A decent GPU is also recommended, especially for more demanding video editing such as 4K or 5K video editing; but if one is short on cash, one can usually compromise and choose a lesser graphics card on a video editing computer, if one has to.

These quotes from Logical Increments, express one’s options succinctly.

Source: Logical Increments / How to Build the Best PC for Video Editing

The CPU is the foundation of an editing PC. The processor’s core count and speed determines how quickly you can accomplish editing tasks. If your editing PC doesn’t have a powerful processor, it’s going to be slow, regardless of anything else. Modern editing software such as Adobe Premiere, Sony Vegas, and Final Cut Pro will take advantage of many CPU cores and hyperthreading, so investing in a good CPU is crucial when building an editing PC. (If you’re using DaVinci Resolve, the CPU is still important, but comes secondarily to the graphics card.)

Generally speaking, the CPU is where you should invest the largest amount of your budget.

This might sound counterintuitive, but the graphics card (AKA video card) is a less important component when it comes to video editing and other creative work with most software. Compared to the CPU, it’s usually OK to go a little cheaper with your graphics card.