Gaming computers come in all shapes and sizes these days. And while super massive, RGB-filled towers with custom liquid cooling may get all the attention, there’s something to be said for smaller, more modest gaming PC builds. Enter the micro ATX form factor. Micro ATX straddles the line between small form factor and full-sized ATX builds, offering a compact, portable size while still fitting powerful components.
For gaming specifically, a properly configured micro ATX PC can deliver stunning performance on par with larger systems, all while taking up less space on or under your desk. The reduced size also makes micro ATX builds ideal for carrying to LAN parties or gaming on the go.
In this guide, we’ll dive deep on everything you need to know about building your own micro ATX gaming PC. From picking parts, choosing the right case, configuring the hardware, and understanding the benefits and limitations of going micro ATX. Let’s get started!
What Exactly is Micro ATX?
First, a quick primer on what micro ATX is and how it compares to other common form factors.
ATX is the standard full-size motherboard used in most desktop PCs. These boards measure 12 x 9.6 inches and offer expansive space for multiple PCIe slots, RAM slots, connectors, and more.
Micro ATX shrinks things down to a more compact 9.6 x 9.6 inches. This reduced size means you have less space for expansion slots and other connectors. But it’s still enough to build a formidable gaming machine.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is mini ITX at just 6.7 x 6.7 inches. Mini ITX boards allow for tiny PC builds, but have just one PCIe slot and limits options for RAM and storage.
Micro ATX strikes a balance, usually providing 2-3 PCIe slots, 2-4 RAM slots, and decent connectivity in a smaller footprint. This allows you to build in a smaller micro ATX PC case, while still having room for powerhouse components.
Why Go Micro ATX for Gaming?
So why would you opt to build a micro ATX gaming PC instead of a full ATX build? Here are some of the biggest benefits:
- Smaller physical size: Your PC takes up less space on or under your desk. And it’s more compact if you want to transport your rig to LAN parties.
- Cheaper case and motherboard prices: Micro ATX parts are usually a bit cheaper than their standard ATX counterparts. Less materials used means lower costs.
- Excellent performance potential: Don’t let the small form factor fool you. A micro ATX gaming build can pack a punch with the latest high-end CPUs and GPUs.
- Aesthetic options: Going micro ATX gives you different case style options compared to mid and full towers. And your desk setup may look cleaner.
- Quieter operation: Smaller cases mean fewer fans needed, which can result in a quieter PC. Less noise is always welcome, especially in shared spaces.
The trade-off is you have less room for expandability compared to ATX. Cooling can also be more of a challenge. But the pros usually outweigh the cons, making micro ATX a smart choice for many PC gamers.
Top Micro ATX Gaming PC Cases
The first part you’ll want to choose for your micro ATX build is, of course, the case. Here are some of our favorites:
Cooler Master MasterBox Q300L
This compact, cubical case comes in at under $50, making it a budget-friendly option. The angular aesthetic and mesh front panel stand out while still fitting in almost any environment. It supports micro ATX and mini ITX motherboards, with enough room for large GPUs up to 400mm long. Just watch out for cramped cable management space.
Thermaltake Core V21
Unique is the word for the Thermaltake Core V21. It stands vertically and can switch layouts from standard to chimney style. Excellent cooling from 2 big 200mm fans, support for giant GPUs and CPU coolers, and fully modular drive cages round out the features.
Fractal Design Focus G Mini
You can’t go wrong with the sleek, minimalist styling of Fractal Design. The Focus G Mini exemplifies this with sound-dampened panels, smart storage options, filtered intakes, and support for big GPUs. If you want micro ATX without the flashy gamer aesthetic, this is it.
Cooler Master MasterBox MB320L
Another affordable option from Cooler Master, the MB320L has a rugged, industrial look. The mesh front panel, large side window, and support for multiple cooling options make it great for showcasing your micro ATX gaming hardware.
Lian Li TU150
On the premium end, the Lian Li TU150 brings signature Lian Li style in an ultra-portable case. The suitcase-style handle and compact dimensions while still fitting E-ATX motherboards make this one stand out. It’ll cost you, but is perfect for gaming on the go.
Choosing Micro ATX Motherboard, CPU & RAM
Now that you’ve decided on a case, it’s time to look at the core components. This starts with the micro ATX motherboard.
The CPU socket and chipset options will determine what processors you can use. For modern gaming, you’ll want an LGA 1200 board for Intel’s 10th/11th gen chips, or AM4 socket for AMD’s Ryzen 3000/5000 CPUs. Both platforms have excellent micro ATX options.
For the CPU itself, prioritize gaming performance. Look for benchmarks on FPS performance in the games you play for any CPU you’re considering.
- For Intel, the i5-10600K or i7-11700K offer great gaming speeds at a more affordable price than top-end chips.
- On AMD’s side, the 6-core Ryzen 5 5600X or 8-core 5800X beat out pricier models in many games.
Don’t skimp on RAM either. 16GB is the new minimum, but 32GB lets you multitask without worry. Aim for faster DDR4-3600 memory. With just two or four DIMM slots on micro ATX motherboards, you may want to start at 32GB instead of later upgrading.
GPU: The Most Important Component
Now we get to the real powerhouse of any gaming PC – the graphics card. Your GPU will have the biggest impact on gaming performance.
The first choice is between NVIDIA and AMD. Both offer compelling options, so read reviews and benchmarks for the games you want to play.
- On the NVIDIA side, the RTX 3060 Ti, 3070, and 3080 deliver superb 1080p and 1440p performance.
- AMD’s RX 6700 XT and 6800 XT likewise beat out any last-gen cards.
Pay close attention to the card’s length. You need to make sure it physically fits in your micro ATX case! Most mid-range models below 300mm will work fine, but measure twice to be safe.
Memory size also matters. You want at least 8GB of VRAM, with 10 or 12GB better for future proofing. The GPU core counts, architecture, and memory speed impact FPS as well. Read reviews thoroughly!
Don’t overlook your PSU requirements. Many new GPUs need hefty power supplies, sometimes 850W or more. Ensure your power supply has enough headroom and the required 8-pin/6-pin connectors.
Storage: SSDs Are a Must
With your CPU, GPU, RAM, and motherboard decided, let’s look at storage.
SSDs are mandatory for any gaming PC in 2022. The days of putting up with a slow, noisy mechanical drive as your primary storage are over.
For your main drive, get an M.2 NVMe SSD. These offer blazing speeds of over 3,000 MB/s read/write. Western Digital, Samsung, and Crucial make excellent models from 500GB to 2TB capacities.
A secondary SATA SSD or HDD can supplement your game storage. Pick up a 1TB or 2TB drive for this. Store less-played games here instead of on your high-performance NVMe drive.
Keep an eye on M.2 slot and drive bay availability in your micro ATX case. You may want an external HDD if you need a lot of storage. But a single 1TB NVMe SSD may suffice if you manage game installs closely.
Cooling: Air vs. Liquid for Your Micro ATX PC
Here’s where micro ATX builds get trickier than standard ATX towers – cooling. The limited space makes it harder to keep all your components chill.
AIO (all-in-one) liquid coolers are almost a necessity for processors in micro ATX cases. A 120mm, 240mm, or 280mm radiator has the best chance of keeping your CPU frosty.
Big air coolers can work, but check dimensions. Tower coolers over 160mm tall likely won’t fit. The Thermalright AXP-90 is a solid micro ATX-friendly option at just 47mm tall.
Supplement case fans carefully. Front, top, and rear fans can improve airflow and cooling. But too many fans can get noisy in a cramped micro ATX case.
Consider a blower-style GPU. These exhaust heat from the rear instead of dumping it into your case. Founders Edition cards do this. It prevents the GPU from heating up other components.
Undervolt your GPU if temperatures are worrying. Apps like MSI Afterburner let you reduce voltage to improve thermals at a small cost to performance.
Building Your Micro ATX Gaming Rig
Once you have all your parts, it’s time for the fun part – putting it all together! The actual building process is largely similar to a standard ATX system.
Carefully organize cables and connectors before installing anything. Micro ATX builds leave little room to hide a cable mess. Plan this out like the wiring of a server rack for clean results.
Install the CPU, RAM, M.2 SSD, and cooler before putting the motherboard in the case. Much easier access to install these components outside the cramped case interior.
Connect and route all front panel cables before mounting the board. Another tip for clean wiring. Don’t forget the front USB 3.0 and audio headers.
Insert the GPU last. This is usually the tightest fit. Seat it firmly in the PCIe slot and connect power cables.
Manage expectations around temps and noise. Components packed closely together can run a bit warmer and louder. Optimize fan curves and consider undervolting.
Take your time, think cable management, and don’t force anything. Before you know it, you’ll power on an awesome new micro ATX gaming PC!
Micro ATX Gaming Build Tips and FAQs
Here are some final tips for planning your micro ATX build, along with answers to frequently asked questions.
Aim for an 80 Plus Gold power supply for the best efficiency in a compact case. Units from Corsair, EVGA and Seasonic are rock solid.
Add case fans gradually if needed. Start with just the included fans, monitor temps under load, and only add more if cooling demands it.
Check clearances before buying massive tower coolers. Compact 120-140mm AIO liquid coolers are safer bets for micro ATX cases.
Get a GPU support brace if transporting your system. This prevents PCIe slot damage or sagging.
Prioritize high single core clock speeds for the CPU. Most games can’t utilize tons of cores. A moderate core count with great single thread speed boosts FPS.
Are micro ATX gaming PCs powerful enough for modern games?
Absolutely yes. A proper micro ATX build with a high-end GPU like an RTX 3080 or RX 6800 XT and a fast processor like AMD’s 5600X or Intel’s 10700K can run any game at max settings above 60 FPS at 1440p resolution, and well over 100+ FPS for esports titles. The smaller motherboard has minimal effect on performance.
How difficult is it to build a micro ATX system compared to ATX?
The core process of assembling the components is almost identical. The main difference is having less interior space, which means you have to be more meticulous with cable management. Setting up a modular PSU ahead of time helps tremendously. As long as you choose compatible parts and take your time, it’s straightforward to assemble your first micro ATX build.
Can you still overclock components in a micro ATX PC?
Yes, you can still overclock processors and GPUs, although thermal overhead is reduced. Make sure to get a motherboard with decent VRMs if you want to overclock a CPU. And use a quality tower air cooler or AIO liquid cooler. Just know that achieving max OC results is tougher in micro ATX cases compared to a full ATX build.
Are there any downsides to a micro ATX gaming PC?
The two potential drawbacks are expandability and cooling. You have fewer PCIe slots for add-in cards compared to ATX. And the compact case can make cooling high-end components tougher. But careful planning and component selection minimizes these downsides for most builders.
Maximize Your Micro ATX Gaming Build
Building a killer micro ATX gaming PC takes a bit more forethought and smart part considerations compared to traditional ATX towers. But the result is a compact powerhouse stuffed with the latest components able to play any game out there on ultra settings.
If you like the idea of a smaller PC footprint without sacrificing speed or GPU power, micro ATX is a great option. Follow the tips and advice in this guide, choose the right case and parts for your budget, and enjoy putting together an awesome high-end gaming rig in a fun, more portable form factor. Your future high FPS gameplay starts here!