In the recent past, I was hoping to assemble a budget PC. I had a few spare parts sitting around and I figured that they should go to use. As I was shopping around I came to a few conclusions about mATX motherboards (micro ATX) vs ATX boards.
The first consideration for me (aside from AMD vs Intel) was what cheap motherboard I could get. I was looking at AM3+ as being near (or at) end of life with some still decent processors out there. I was impressed to see some real blowout prices on a MSI and Asus mATX motherboard. The question eating at me was why. Why do I want to take compromises for the sake of a $20 or more savings.
So ultimately the question to first ask regarding ATX vs mATX is why. What is it that you want to achieve. Small or cheap? That is ultimately the question.
The fact is when you’re building your own PC, you are likely to deal with regrets after the fact. Those shortcuts you took at the time come back to irritate at a later time. Trust me I’ve experienced this many times. For this reason, you should be reluctant to get a motherboard that is going to limit your options in the future.
So when it comes to mATX, you really need to decide if that size is worth it. Will the case end up being really that much smaller? If that case is smaller, can you get a cool and quiet build? Can you fit a quality CPU cooler in the case and on the board itself? From what I determined, the cases available were not that much smaller. There were some expensive custom looking designs, but then I’m getting out of that budget realm that I was looking for. If you’re keeping budget focused, you likely not to find a case that can keep the same theme going with mATX which is supposed to be smaller and compact.
So back to the compromise aspect of a mATX build, let me be clear. You’re looking at less expandability because the PCI slots will be fewer and depending on the motherboard, you may find that certain graphic cards will block off some of those PCI slots. Depending on the mATX that you’re looking at, you may also be limiting your options for RAM. Some boards will have 2 RAM slots, and some mATX boards (more expensive) will have 4 RAM slots. As you can tell, if you get more slots or more features on a mATX board, the price goes up which in turn defeats the purpose for those looking for a cheap build.
So the deeper I got into this, the more I realized that the compromises I was making to build a mATX PC were not worth it. I decided to spend more on a full featured board for the sake of future proofing. Part of the essence of building your own PC is that you can add and tweak parts. If you’re squeezing into a micro ATX board, you are simply going to run into roadblocks down the line. That could come in the form of a larger graphics card that either won’t fit or it blocks off other PCI slots. It could also come in the form of wanting more RAM but realizing that your 2 RAM slots are full and that means a complete RAM replacement. If you want USB 3.0 there is another added feature which will add cost to that so-called budget build. Sure you could add a USB 3.0 PCI card, but there goes some future expandability for other cards you might want in the future.
Consider also that mATX is ultimately a niche product. That means what? It means that fewer cases are made, fewer motherboards and made for micro ATX. This means those blowout deals aren’t going to be as easy to find. The real deals for cases as an example are going to be on the big volume movers which are ATX PC builds. The marketplace is geared towards ATX and as a result you will have many more bargains to find and you will have many more products to choose from.
Can you have your cake and eat it too? When it comes to mATX vs ATX the short answer is no. I would suggest that mATX will only make sense if you’re dead set on making a small size PC. In that situation, look at the available mATX cases to see what you can build. The innards of the mATX build are going to be limited, but if small is what you’re ultimately after, make sure that there is a case that suits your needs at a price you can accept. I say this because if you want a small build, the case is the key component and it’s best to get an idea of just how much you’re going to spend for that case. Perhaps your interest in “small” will quickly vanish.
I hope this gives you some things to consider and saves you the hassles later on. I simply don’t advise anyone to get mATX as a cost saving measure.