Desktop computers aren’t getting much smaller. Whitebox PCs often still come in a full “midi” tower case, brandname department store things are usually microtowers, and then there’s a bit of a gap until you’re looking at laptops (pretty much as small as you can make a computer while still keeping it usable by ordinary humans).
There’s good reason for this. A full ATX board will give you six or seven PCI slots (or some combination of those and PCI-E), micro-ATX usually has two or three, and until recently, you often kinda needed that room to expand. Onboard sound was frequently crap, and rarely had better than two channel (stereo) output, so you’d want a decent PCI soundcard; onboard video was generally the same; and there was that tender period before onboard SATA where controller cards for that were useful.
Small form factor PCs have been around through most of this, but were never really popular. They were often cramped, full of nonstandard and irreplaceable parts, and way too expensive for what you ended up with.
Now, though, everything’s grown up a bit more, and you can get a very decent computer the size of a shoebox for not a lot more than you’d pay for one a lot bigger.
Here’s mine. It’s a Shuttle SD32G2, a model number meaningless except for the bit at the end. Shuttle make a bunch of different-looking faceplates for these, and the G2 looked the prettiest to me. On reflection, though, I wish I’d gone with a black one.
You can get Shuttles for Intel and AMD setups; this one takes Intel LGA775 CPUs, meaning Core2 Duos. I may end up with a quad core in this at some point, but a friend of mine was already doing a quad upgrade and sold me his 2.4GHz E6600 for $200.
The motherboard backplate really leaves you wanting for nothing. Intel 945G onboard video, a PCI-E slot if you want something more (I did), four USB and one 6 pin Firewire port (the one on the front is 4 pins), gigabit networking, PS/2 for mouse and keyboard if you need it, surround sound (7.1!) outputs, a legacy serial port to talk to an old camera or a UPS or embedded device or something, and a plain PCI slot that won’t get a whole lot of use.
There are cutouts in the metalwork for optical audio I/O, a 25 pin parallel port (there’s a pin header on the board for this) or more USB ports (more on that later) and the round one’s for a wifi antenna (which connects to a proprietary adapter inside). These are all actually filled out and usable on some models, but not on mine. I’d have to buy the little internal plugs and things if I wanted to use them.
It looks a bit cramped inside, but airflow is actually pretty impressive for a computer this small. Cold air’s drawn in from the sides (the cover has rows of low holes) over the motherboard and CPU and a little around the disk drives, and then has nowhere else to go except out through the huge speed-controlled fan at the back. That also doubles as the CPU cooler; that metal block, the heatpipes and the radiator are one single unit, what Shuttle called their “Integrated Cooling Engine” when it was a new idea.
The power supply cools itself with a 40mm fan at either end. It’s a proprietary part, but every Shuttle in this shape uses the same PSU, so they’re actually pretty easy to get replacements. Mine came with a 250 watt unit, but AusPC Market (where my XPC came from) do sell 300w ones separately.
250w doesn’t sound like a lot – it’s hard to buy less than a 400w PSU new for normal ATX cases, and they go up to about 1kw at the moment – but it’s absolutely all you need for a machine this small. I have a Core2 Duo, Geforce 8600, two large SATA hard drives and a SATA DVD burner and I’ve never had an issue with it.
Brandnames probably don’t advertise how powerful their PSUs are because the numbers are small to keep their costs down, but don’t sound impressive as a result.
Speaking of SATA drives, the motherboard has two SATA connectors and one PATA, giving you connectors for up to four drives in total but only two of either type. The easiest way to get 3 serial drives going here is a parallel to serial adapter, a very small, cute, cheap and surprisingly difficult-to-photograph card. They look like this, can be had for about $15 delivered on eBay and let you plug a SATA drive into a PATA controller.
Make sure you get the right kind, though. The first one I bought adapted the wrong way (PATA drive, SATA controller); best way is to get a “bidirectional” one.
The PSU also only has two SATA power connectors, so you’ll need a power adapter as well.
You get one 5.25″ drive bay, and two 3.5″ bays. Running two hard drives like this gets them pretty warm; when I set up a proper MythTV box, I’ll put one of those hard drives in it and just use it over the network (or in an eSATA enclosure or something).
The blank faceplates (it comes with one of each size) just screw into the front of the drive cage if you don’t want external drives. There’s also a little plastic clip on the bottom to help keep cables a little neater inside than otherwise.
XPCs may be easy to carry, but if you’re buying a poser PC you really ought to get a proper bag for it. Shuttle have two, the PF40 and PF60, the latter having stronger straps or bigger pockets or something. The bags are a bit rarer than the PCs, but not difficult to get ahold of; my PF40 cost $60 delivered from some random Australian computer shop’s website, and the 60′s about $90.
That’s a lot for a small bag, but it’s perfect for what it is; a Thermaltake Xaserbag can be had for $30 for bigger cases, but is basically a bunch of straps you could reproduce with an old climbing harness or rope or something.
The PC fits pretty snugly; the easiest way of getting it in/out is to put the bag on over it instead of trying to drop it in.
The pockets aren’t huge either. The lid fits a small Hangover Kit(tm), the front pocket could holdtwo power cables and a number of small items, and the side pockets seem to be the exact right size for 3.5″ hard drives.
It’s not the only bag you’ll ever need; I usually take another to netgames as well for cables/mouse/blank CDs/etc.
I’m pretty happy with this thing. It’s a neat little PC that fits all kinds of standard bits, isn’t too expensive, and can fit a nice niche if you want a very portable computer that isn’t a freaking laptop.
This is my only real annoyance:
The USB header pins (in front of the CMOS battery) aren’t the usual kind. They’re a weird 5 pin plug (there’s an extra ground lead), and don’t fit any connector I’ve ever seen. They’re meant for use with an internal wireless networking kit, or two more external USB ports (google PC9); I would’ve preferred a flash drive for Linux or an internal Bluetooth radio. Oh well.
Gamers too rich for their own good should beware also – you won’t get a Geforce 8800 in this, at least until they come out without double height coolers. They just won’t fit. An 8600 is the best you’ll get.
Apart from those, though, this is a great computer everybody wants the instant they see one. If you can deal with paying an extra $200ish over an equivalent ATX or micro-ATX machine, they’re perfect.