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Posted on August 1st, 2012 by Mike Jennings

What’s the point of a big PC?

Big empty PCBit-tech and Custom PC writer Antony Leather strolled into the Labs the other day and, proud of his work, showed me a system he’d just built for an upcoming feature. It’s an impressively slick machine: Core i5-3570K, Nvidia GeForce GTX 680, 8GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and a custom water-cooling loop, all put together with the sort of fastidious tidiness you’d expect.

The best bit? It’s the size of a couple of shoeboxes thanks to this case.

It got me thinking. That’s enough power to sweep aside every single PC game on the market: Skyrim with dozens of mods, Starcraft 2’s hundreds of units, Football Manager with every league loaded. It’s enough to play games across a trio of screens, and to run high-end work applications without breaking a sweat.

If that amount of power can be squeezed into such a small PC, along with water-cooling and even room for expansion, what’s the point of full-size towers?

Most of the space inside the modern PC is redundant. Look at the fast, quiet and capable systems that turned up in our Ivy Bridge Labs: many of their cases are so big they make ATX motherboards look lost, most of them have four or more hard disk bays that will never be used, and they usually include one or two optical drives bay that’ll never be needed.

It’s true of my home machine. I’ve got a Cooler Master CM 690 II, and it’s a fantastic chassis, but it’s also home to a huge number of slots and bays that, literally, gather dust.

If further evidence is needed, take a look at the components industry. MicroATX and mini-ITX motherboards now provide every feature the vast majority of users require – Antony’s Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe includes WiFi, USB 3, SATA 6Gbit/s, PCI Express 3.0 and more – and the current generation of top-end graphics cards are now often smaller than their equivalents of a year ago.

Solid-state drives are smaller than hard disks and cheaper than ever, and the increasing efficiency of Intel’s processors means that huge coolers aren’t needed, even to keep overclocked chips chilled.

That leaves those who actively choose larger computers, with modders and enthusiasts picking towers and components for their aesthetic appeal as well as performance.

I can certainly appreciate the skill and appeal of a well-designed and executed mod or build, or the requirements of the small number of people who want to use multiple graphics cards, complex water-cooling or high-end RAID setups, but those people occupy a niche, and I’m not sure that a relatively small group of high-spending enthusiasts can sustain the hundreds of companies who sell the products they like to buy.

I’ve been reading doom-saying reports about the “death” of the desktop PC for years and, while the industry isn’t exactly growing, it’s not going away either. The full-size tower, though? Full of wasted space, unnecessary slots and pointless ports in a world where every other bit of technology is getting smaller, slimmer and more efficient. When so much can now be crammed into something so small, what’s the point?

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29 Responses to “ What’s the point of a big PC? ”

  1. Steve Millar Says:
    August 1st, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    It keeps your feet nice & toasty under the desk?

    Double as a occasional table for resting magazines & coffee cups on?

    A Freudian metaphor?

  2. pctech Says:
    August 1st, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    Some of us still use optical disks for backup and of course an OS clear out and reinstall

  3. mr_chips Says:
    August 1st, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    nice system gaming rig he’s built but I take it that isn’t his PC in the picture above the article ;)

  4. Surefire Says:
    August 1st, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    There seems to be something of a problem in the supply of cases. It’s very difficult to get anything out of the ordinary. Once upon a time you could get Desktop (horizontal), full tower, midi tower and small tower. Now, unless you want a standard tower you have a VERY limited choice. Even if you are prepared to spend a lot.

  5. NeoGothicToaster Says:
    August 1st, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    I guess I’m one of the minority – My huge tower case has around 4 drive bays free out of a total of 13…

  6. Steve Millar Says:
    August 1st, 2012 at 3:57 pm


    Time to upgrade those 80GB drives… ;-)

  7. wittgenfrog Says:
    August 1st, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    I’m all for smaller kit. I mainly use a laptop connected to a 2nd Monitor as my workhorse machine. I have a coupe of other dedicated dcevices: a ’server’ which holds my media, and acts as a file-server\backup device, a video renedering PC and a Media centre.

    Over time I intend to reduce the system count and go smaller on all the boxes.

  8. dyagetme Says:
    August 1st, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    I checked out the case and I must admit that I am tempted to build a new system (one piece at a time in this depression!).

  9. Matthew Says:
    August 1st, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    You know you have to pay quite a bit more for a smaller case and they have inferior cooling compared to a large case?

  10. JD Says:
    August 1st, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    Check out the Silverstone FT-03. I’ve just built a completely passively cooled i7/8GB/ATI 7750/240GB SSD system and it is has a very small footprint – and still has space for another 2 3.5″ drives. My server is a book-sized tranquil system with 2.5″ drives.

  11. JohnAHind Says:
    August 1st, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    @JD – Glad to see someone else is a convert to the Silverstone vertical case design. My heavily modified FT-02 is probably twice the size of the unit above, but overall it probably fits in the same space envelope. Magazines should photograph the standard lousy case designs like the above in use – with the CD tray open and cables and adapters protruding in an ugly space consuming rats nest at the back. And then you need to leave airflow space on at least three sides.

    On my FT-02, you only ever need access to the top, the cable terminations are all enclosed, and the air flows cleanly from the bottom to the top co-operating with the laws of physics.

  12. Tony Baker Says:
    August 2nd, 2012 at 7:26 am

    I run a school network with 200 pcs. Most are are small form, from several manufacturers, but we have been plagued with power supply unit capacitor failures, even in aircon rooms with protected power.
    Standard power supplies hardly ever fail and are cheap and easy to replace if they do.

  13. Tim Brown Says:
    August 2nd, 2012 at 7:50 am

    The main issues we hit with the SFF PCs are in the maintenance. Often at present parts are difficult to obtain as general standards are not always adhered to with proprietary parts often being used. Also, the time taken to do simple things like a RAM upgrade can take two or three times longer due to having to remove drives, PSUs etc to gain access. We’ve also seen overheating issues on older SFF boxes, but this may change with the move to the lower temp core-i processors.

    Having said this the most powerful machine we use in our own building we just put together and is based on mini-ITX components put into a Lian-Li spider case as a demo piece and it runs easily as well as my gaming tower at home. How well it will last, time will tell.

  14. David Says:
    August 2nd, 2012 at 9:17 am

    I’m responsible for a network of about 120 computers, and apart from high-end Dell workstations (which are only available as towers) I’ve not bought anything with a tower case for a few years. The small form factor ones are much better – can go on the desk (thereby keeping them cleaner than if on the floor) and can double as a monitor stand.

    @Tony Baker – the small form factor ones I get are Dell, and I’ve not had any PSU problems. In fact, the only time I’ve had a spate of PSU burn-outs in recent years was in a batch of Dells in tower cases bought about five and a half years ago, most of which have been retired now.

  15. Craig Says:
    August 2nd, 2012 at 10:16 am

    The problem with that case is you either have a few harddrives or you have a long graphics card… Some of us actually want both. I mean it is great for a machine that is just for gaming bar that upgrades rather limit you, but for an all round workstation it seems far too limiting. Having gone to the silly size Lian Li PC-A77 I would not consider going back, everything is easier and everything fits without issue.

  16. gavmeister Says:
    August 2nd, 2012 at 10:51 am

    awesome! who can I get to build me one? now just need a decent touchscreen monitor. I wish Lenovo would sell the screen for the ideacentre a720 separately. thoughts?

  17. Merlin Says:
    August 2nd, 2012 at 11:14 am

    Surely the point is….that it’s what people Want to use for a case as opposed to need.
    Gamers for instance (like me) use powerful mobo’s and g/cards, these produce a lot of heat, and regardless of what these smart arsed know-alls say, the standard fan that come with processors JUST DON’T CUT IT, especially if you overclock
    I would dearly like to see anyone fit any of these mobo’s into a standard ATX case,
    The EVGA Z68
    EVGA P67 FTW
    Gigabyte GA-X79-UD5
    The G1.Assassin 2
    Asus Rampage
    IV Extreme,
    these are all e-atx mobo’s and will not in some instances fit into a standard full tower, and even if they did the graphics card would foul the hard drive column, as most of them are over 10″long even today. Having a larger than normal case improves airflow, allows for larger fans(120-130mm) which move at least as much air if not more than 80mm fans and don’t have to spin as fast, this cuts down on noise and power usage.
    If PC componant makers listened to what customers want ,,,rather then assuming what they make is what customers need, then they wouldn’t be making the same mistake as Microsoft is with windows 8,
    But that’s another story

  18. JohnAHind Says:
    August 2nd, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    There’s no point in having a tiny case if you have to leave massive amounts of space all round it for access, cabling and airflow. By arranging to have all the access and air venting on one face, the total envelope can be massively reduced. Using the top face is quite radical, but it brings big advantages not least that everything is to hand without having to grovel about on the floor. Once you have the MB and expansion card external connections at the top, the boards are oriented to avoid obstructing convective airflow so cooling works better.
    Also, who needs more than one optical drive bay these days? Even that is too much, you can save massive space by using a laptop optical drive and these can work opening their trays upward like a toaster.

    Trouble is case makers *do* listen to what their customers say they want, and their customers are all teen-age boy gamers!

  19. tech3475 Says:
    August 2nd, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    I also have a CM 690 II and I’ve made use out of most slots and full ATX mobo.

    All my HDD bays are used up, I have to ODDs, one FDD and I plan to pick up a front IO panel at some point.

    In the back I have a two slot 5770, sound card, IDE/SATA board (for a third IDE HDD and extra SATA ports) and a couple of slots are used for extra ports panels.

    Plus the case still leaves airflow so I can keep my temps reasonable (needed in the summer).

    The 690 II is an enthusiest’s case in many ways so to complain about its size is a bit premature IMO.

    If however we are talking about my parents, you are right because they would be ok with a slim PC or just a laptop.

    Ultimately it’s down to the user as to what size is appropriate.

    Also, SSDs while improving still have a worse £/GB, so if you want to store large amounts of data a HDD is still a better option (or a combination of the two which is common).

  20. Bjorn Toulouse Says:
    August 2nd, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    Nice looking case. Reminds me of smaller version of something else – can’t quite put my finger on just what, though.
    Who ever said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?

  21. 3dpro Says:
    August 2nd, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    The “niche” is called the professional users.

  22. Joe Says:
    August 2nd, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    I just built a very fast and small computer for under 200 bucks, it has USB 3.0, HDMI, S/PDIF and runs cool and is low wattage.

    It stands about 13 inches high, so big PCs are getting better and less inexpensive.

  23. Renio Says:
    August 2nd, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    C’mon guys, you’re missing the point here! it’s all about slot-emptiness phobia, a known syndrome among geeks! I myself quite completed all slots & bays in my full-tower and it just gets better! Besides that it all depends on the user needs: some just like it big…

  24. Mr Tom Says:
    August 3rd, 2012 at 8:13 am

    I’m just adding my voice to the Silverstone FT-02 noise; it is an excellent case (and I’ve owned many over the years), the vertical design is a great innovation that any manufacturer serious about good case design should work to adopt.
    The hard drive racks work well, especially with the hot swappable option installed.
    I also like the custom SSD mounting point and the PSU tethering system, which is quite literally belt and bracers.
    The only weaknesses are a slightly floppy power button (maybe it’s just mine…) and a missed opportunity for some front ports at the base of the case.

  25. AndyTGD Says:
    August 4th, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    Easy access for repairs, my friend. Easy access.

  26. wayne Says:
    August 5th, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    I think desktop machines are greatly important, they are easier to fix, and better to upgrades and access over all, yes i do have a laptop. I find laptops good for on the go, but not for upgrading. I still make proper use of my desktop much more so than my laptop and also my desktop is much much much much cooler in temp to use. I made sure i fully modded my machine and made use of all the slots in the case, that is why purchased the chassi to explore and understand hardware better, some thing i think we forget to do and get into a habbit of doing. The over all problem with customers who buy pc,s, is they don,t know enough on about the machine and interaction with the sales person and the customer is very very poor in stnadards, i have puposely gone into a few big shops of IT sales, and actually fired dummy questions at the sales people, and i know they are not even in any way shape or form related to IT software or hardware, and yet they still answered them, completely wrong of cause. So i think we should ensure that employee,s know excactly what they are talking about and not guessing at IT and know what goes where and how it all works as a basic level. In case and pcs and how we decuss them, i think to many are cutting corners in certain area,s of sales, its so easy to catch them out on the basics of computers to see if they are telling you the truth and not just fobbing you off with silly mumbo jumbo last min thinking. My opion make sure you know before diving in and having a go, desktops can be very useful more so than a laptop and easy kit to work on, anything more or less can be replaced so easily compared to laptops and overheating is still a major problem for laptops, so futher that – why are we not seeing more fans in laptops on overall now they are pennies to buy and my sony laptop has 3 fans and it has never let me down and runs great, best laptop i have ever owned, i seen a few hp which seem to be able to cook an egg and burn your lap, this was for a friend to help them we had to get a good quality cooling stand to make it function pretty poor for the moeny paid, and i serviced it and reseated everything in the machine to no avail. So my point is do you really need a laptop at all. For me laptops are slightly over rated, and im not saying don,t buy one, but i find my self using desktops more and more and are easier over all to operate and run. Whilst laptops are a good mobile choice there are still many problems with these machines and im still confused as to why manufactureres have not put them right. For instance replacing your OS on desktop easy job right, on laptops its over complecated and i dare say a nightmare for there calls centeres on getting operating disks. I know i have seen it first hand, and can be a lenghy process over all form recieving to order to packing to paper work to delivering. This is all extra work. When you could of just sent a cd rom with your laptops, its still the best way and customers i speak to are highly frustrated on that fact.

    My over all opoion on desktops get one, and lets face it we spend more time at home on pcs than any where else and are easier to network over house hold, and esier and more secvure on a Broadband system and it can all be locked down, if you are that desperate get a thumb drive get decent phone for internet use, you wont be on ii all day the rest you can do at home.

    MY fav is always going to be the desktop pc, and you can learn better and understand pcs better and they give a better idea of how things connect together and use of a few books you can understand the over all function of a pc better as well, if something goes down in the pc depending what it is you can nip out in your car and have a replacement in 1 hour easy done, i know i have done it, replaced the part and up and runing in less than 20 mins after that, no stress, no call center staff who don,t know what they talking about, no lenghty telephone ques, all done in my own sweet time.

    yep the desktop is very fixa friendly by miles and easy first place winner, as everything comes apart in a desktop ie basic form its a bolt on and a bolt off, best pc idea ever, for me i want it to say around for ever.

  27. Trash Says:
    August 11th, 2012 at 4:30 am

    I have the other problem too many hard drives & optical & not enough connectors. I boot off a 250gb with a cloned 2nd copy in the draw – updated every month. No files are kept on the C drive. Drive 2 in 1TB split into 2 My documents on 2-1 & Photgraphs on 2-2. Drive 3 2TB split in 2, 3-1 Programs in normal use. 3-2 Multimedia Drive 4 3TB Split in 2 4-1 Backup for above files. 4-2 Clone images of all my PCs & Laptops, plus all I have sold . Add to this 2 x 500gb & 1 x 1tb in usb cases all for external backup. The 1TB lives elsewhere only returning to be updated.

  28. coolstuffontheweb Says:
    August 16th, 2012 at 4:33 am

    Oh, joy! I could really use more room under my desk for my circular file, items that didn’t quite make it into my circular file, my dog, and whatever my dog scavenged out of my circular file.

  29. common Says:
    December 12th, 2012 at 10:44 pm

    I’m one component away from owning a completely silent air cooled (basically no moving parts) PC (GFX Card/PSU/CPU Cooler/SSD etc)with acceptable quad core performance. I hate unnecessary noise and my big case has space for my ridiculous yet sensible CPU cooler. (Thanks No-FAN) I will actually be able to hear a pin drop…
    It’s also nice to have potential scaleability. But most important of all, a large case reassures me that the message on the C64 version of Parallax applies – a raspberry pi just doesn’t have the same impact…


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