Since VIA introduced the Mini-ITX reference design back in 2001, it has now become the predominant small form factor mainboard choice for the masses. There have been quite a few alternatives that have cropped up over the years, with the primary focus to decrease the overall footprint of the PCB. Based off of our own history, we have seen these alternatives—Pico-ITX and Nano-ITX —gain little traction in comparison to Mini-ITX. It would appear that VIA really hit the nail square on the head with their innovative form factor almost 10 years ago. It’s a shame they weren’t as successful with the others.

Mini-ITX has shown tremendous versatility, as we have seen a slew of different CPUs paired with this form factor. Everything from 1-watt AMD Geodes to 95-watt Quad Core Desktop processors have graced the form factor we have all grown to love. Companies like MSI have even pushed the envelope on some board iterations to include PCI Express x16, x1 and traditional PCI expansion slots all on a board that measures just 17 x 17 cm. This type of flexibility has allowed Mini-ITX to spill out of the Industrial market and into the consumer market, something that other small form factors haven’t been able to do.

The challenge with going to anything smaller seems mostly to do with the compromises that have to be made. You lose important I/O real estate, chips tend to get cramped and as a result heat becomes more of an issue, and then there is the added cost of producing a smaller board. The outcome is that manufacturers have to make difficult choices in terms of I/O, CPU, expandability, and market price to ensure that their engineering efforts produce a board that is appealing and cost effective. The same challenges exist in the supporting ecosystem for these smaller alternatives, as there is no standard back plane for these boards. This limitation proves to be a deterrence for case manufacturers to build any compatible enclosures around these boards. Their only option is to build something specific for just a single board, which is obviously quite a gamble.

If there was a form factor currently available that would be a viable alternative for people looking to cut down on size and not sacrifice too much in the process, 3.5” or Intel’s original Embedded Compact Extended (ECX) would be it. This PCB size seems to strike the balance of features and size better than other sub Mini-ITX platforms, as we have seen options for full size expansion slots and more plentiful I/O. Not to mention that the I/O is generally already pre-populated with a physical interface as opposed to other embedded boards that rely on break out cables to utilize I/O off of headers.

Of particular note is a motherboard we recently introduced to our line up, the Portwell PEB-2771. Where this board truly differentiates itself from the other sub Mini-ITX form factors is in its processor choice and plethora of I/O. It sports an Intel Dual Core Atom D525 along with dual LAN, 3 COM ports, 6 USB ports, CompactFlash slot, GPIO, LVDS and more. Compared to its Mini-ITX cousin, the Portwell WADE-8075, the sub 20% price increase is very well justified in relationship to the nearly  50% reduction in overall footprint (289 square cm versus 149).

While I believe that the widespread adoption of smaller form factors is inevitable with cloud adoption, I don’t see the Mini-ITX form factor poised to be over shadowed by any other form factor in this segment for quite some time.

Let us know what you think. Does ECX have lasting appeal and should it make up more of our product line?