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MINI-ITX and the Future of PC Case Design?

CmdrTaco posted more than 4 years ago | from the still-waiting-for-a-spherical-motherboard dept.

Hardware 164

An anonymous reader writes "One of the interesting things to come out of the recent Computex electronics show in Taiwan was striking new PC cases — in particular systems built around tiny Mini-ITX boards. What may have once been regarded as the weird little brother of the more common Micro-ATX, the popularity of PCs built with these boards seems to be gradually building. This year at Computex saw the first Mini-ITX boards to support USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps, and a variety of new shapes and styles in both Micro-ATX and Mini-ITX case design. This photo gallery shows some of the more striking examples of these new PC cases from Computex, including one that appears to be modelled on an Xbox 360, and one with a VESA mount for strapping to the back of a monitor. Interestingly, while these designs have usually been associated with home theatre system PCs, or for saving space on office desktops, there is also now a trend towards pushing 'gamer' features like windows and multiple fans into these small form factor cases."

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Golden Girls! (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32523146)

Thank you for being a friend
Traveled down the road and back again
Your heart is true you're a pal and a cosmonaut.

And if you through a party
Invited everyone you ever knew
You would see the biggest gift would be from me
And the card attached would say thank you for being a friend.

Re:Golden Girls! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32523748)

Your heart is true you're a pal and a cosmonaut.

So... Mondegreens in space?

Re:Golden Girls! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32524336)

Scuse me while I kiss this guy

That's cute and everything.... (2, Interesting)

AnonymousClown (1788472) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523152)

That's cute but if you put those small motherboards in a small case, what's going to happen with all that heat generated by the processor and all the other components for that matter?

Or put to it this way, if you have to put it in a large case to allow for enough air flow, what the point in having such a small motherboard?

Re:That's cute and everything.... (4, Informative)

tepples (727027) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523228)

what's going to happen with all that heat generated by the processor and all the other components for that matter?

You don't have to use the fastest CPU. You can use a CPU with a lower thermal design power, add liquid cooling tubes, and fit it into a smaller case. Hey, it works for Microsoft (or at least it does as of the Jasper revision of the Xbox 360 console).

Re:That's cute and everything.... (5, Informative)

Willuz (1246698) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523532)

I run a mini-ITX with Core 2 Duo Mobile chip and it runs fast, cool, completely silent and still plays HD video flawlessly. Having a large case actually makes it harder to move the air since there's more volume to be moved. The low volume of a mini-ITX case allows it to exchange it's hot air for cool air much faster even with low RPM quiet fans.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (2, Informative)

moonbender (547943) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523904)

Small cases do limit the size of the heat sink, though.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (1)

Willuz (1246698) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524210)

That's why I run a mobile processor instead. They are still quite fast but use a tiny heat sink and produce less heat.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (3, Insightful)

0100010001010011 (652467) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524352)

Unless the case IS the heat sink.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (5, Insightful)

default luser (529332) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524376)

having a large case actually makes it harder to move the air since there's more volume to be moved.

No. It is easier to move a volume of air through an unconstrained space than it is through a constrained space. Just try breathing through a 2-inch PVC pipe and then a garden hose, and tell me you're getting the same amount of air for the same amount of work performed by your lungs. Ducting is essential to cooling inside of a case (thus the enclosed space), but wider-open ducts are way less of an impediment.

Small cases also have the disadvantage that the airflow is rarely straight-through: there are often very tight turns inside the case required to pack so many components inside. Every time the airstream has to turn, it slows down. An open mid-tower ATX case has very few blockages between the front and back, so airflow is much less impeded.

The low volume of a mini-ITX case allows it to exchange it's hot air for cool air much faster even with low RPM quiet fans.

That logic is terrible. Just because you can replace the air inside of a case faster with air outside does not mean you are cooling things faster. It's not the air volume of the case that matters, but the continuous air flow that cools things down. The size of the case has NOTHING to do with cooling potential, so your sentence shows you have no clue what you are talking about.

As far as airflow goes: smaller cases are typically limited because they cannot use larger fans - and since quiet operation is usually the goal for these things, you are severely limited by how much airflow you can push through while maintaining silence.

Most MiniITX cases use 60mm to 80mm fans for airflow, as-opposed to the much more efficient 120mm (and larger) fans used on quiet ATX cases. It's a well-known fact that the larger an axial fan gets, it can generate more CFM per watt / per decibel. Smaller cases just can't leverage that fact, and so they are limited to low-wattage operation only.

I'm not trying to disrespect your setup, but PLEASE don't spread bullshit you know isn't true. The only reason your MiniITX system is silent is because you started by paying extra for (or compromising on) low-power components (like your mobile core 2 duo, which is slower than desktop equivalents, and costs more). You really can't build anything like a powerful gaming system or a 6-core processing behemoth, and expect it to remain silent inside of a MiniITX case (it's going to sound like a wind tunnel). But you have the potential to do this in a full-sized case.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (3, Insightful)

InsertWittyNameHere (1438813) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523244)

I'm in the market for an affordable mac mini sized computer (with similar specs, i.e. no Atom) to use with my TV. I find my PS3 just doesn't cut it anymore since it won't play ALL media formats (lame).

So ya, I agree with parent. MAKE THE CASES SMALLER!

Re:That's cute and everything.... (1)

jedidiah (1196) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523494)

No Atom?

The only thing that Atom excludes you from is HD Flash video and that's because Flash isn't adequately exploiting the available hardware.

If it fully exploited the GPU (like mplayer or xine), even Flash wouldn't be a problem.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (2, Informative)

GNUALMAFUERTE (697061) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524034)

You can solve that easily.

The problem is that even if you have properly configured GLX for your Intel GMA or similar, Flash thinks it's not a supported GL environment, and uses software rendering. That's because Flash sucks donkey balls.

Just go and edit /etc/adobe/mms.cfg, and set OverrideGPUValidation to 1.

I did that with several atom-based motherboards, including several mini-itx mobos from Intel and Foxconn (with Atom 230, 330 and 510) and several GMA cards, including the 950 and the 3150. I can play HD flash video just fine.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (3, Informative)

rwa2 (4391) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523638)

I have one of these on my desk:
http://www.mini-box.com/M350-universal-mini-itx-enclosure [mini-box.com]

You'd need to throw in an external optical drive, but then you could get whatever you wanted.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (1)

0100010001010011 (652467) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523738)

My 1.6 gHz Celeron will play 1080p with 0 skipping.
Granted I have an Nvidia GT220 that does VDPAU, but you don't need a fast CPU.

The awesome guys over at xbmc are working on wrapping up a huge merge [xbmc.org] to release 10.05 that should bring VDPAU, VAAPI, and BroadCom decoder support. Once Again, you DON NOT need a fast CPU.

Acer Revo 1600s [google.com] can be found for around $150 refurbed or used. People get them working with XBMC with minimal problems.

Or if you want to hold on, supposedly there are rumors of people getting XBMC running on a PopCorn hour, running on a BeagleBoard is a Google SoC project.

You have plenty of options.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (1)

travisco_nabisco (817002) | more than 4 years ago | (#32525012)

That's funny, my PS3 has no problem playing LAME encoded MP3's

Re:That's cute and everything.... (4, Informative)

LWATCDR (28044) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523248)

You do not need a big case for good airflow. In fact the best cases often have ducts to direct the airflow. Also people are working hard to cut down on heat.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (2, Informative)

level_headed_midwest (888889) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523378)

You are correct in the fact that you don't need a big case for good airflow due to ducting. However, you need a larger case to fit large enough fans to get good airflow quietly. A 1U server case generally has good enough airflow to passively cool several hundred watts' worth of CPUs, but those little fans have to spin so quickly to provide that airflow that they're almost deafening.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (1)

LWATCDR (28044) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523964)

Well A 1U case is an extreme example.
But CPUs are getting cooler and cooler per mip these days.
No I wouldn't use a tiny case like this for a CAD workstation or gaming rig but for a small business PC or student PC it will be fine.
The truth is that most PCs are a lot faster than they need to be for most users. Speed issues tend to be slow ram, drives, and frankly malware.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32523432)

Or no airflow at all. Some of the best Mini-ITX cases use heat pipes from the processor and use the entire case as a heatsink.

Take a look at some of the Serener cases for example:

http://www.serener-case.com/

Re:That's cute and everything.... (4, Funny)

Rogerborg (306625) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523640)

people are working hard to cut down on heat.

They'd be more successful if they took it easy.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (4, Informative)

IndustrialComplex (975015) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523258)

That's cute but if you put those small motherboards in a small case, what's going to happen with all that heat generated by the processor and all the other components for that matter?

I've built several systems using these small form factor items, and with careful placement I've built fanless systems that are still running 2-3 years later. I was on a budget, so I dind't use flash storage, and even then, the heat remained 'manageable'.

What I would do today is this: I'd run a standard wall-wart power supply to provide the DC power and thus remove the powersupply as part of the equation. I'd use the mounting as a heat-sink near the heat generating portions of the board. I'd also use a flash drive for data storage. I didn't do any of those things with my current setup and as I mentioned, it is running well.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (1)

b4dc0d3r (1268512) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524032)

Would a "standard wall-wart" be able to supply the required power for all of the internal components and all connected USB devices? I have big and small adapters, some are noisy, but they output very few watts compared to what's going to be needed to run a PC - even a low power PC - with everything connected.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (1)

IndustrialComplex (975015) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524408)

Would a "standard wall-wart" be able to supply the required power for all of the internal components and all connected USB devices?

Most Laptops seem to be able to get by. Though those are less on the wall and more in-line. But I don't see why you couldn't do the same using modern components. I'm certain you would probably push the envelope of what that type of powersupply could deliver if you tried to build it as a top end machine, but if you designed it with power consumption as a limiting factor, I'm certain you could do it.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32524480)

Believe it or not, you CAN get fairly powerful wall warts. An example is the infamous Targus "universal laptop charger" kit, which outputs more than 60 watts of juice. (but has a voltage of 18v, instead of 12. Would require a voltage regulator inside the ITX case.)

Re:That's cute and everything.... (4, Informative)

Enleth (947766) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523276)

It's probably going to be removed by the means of air ducts and high flow fans. The size of a case is not directly linked to its heat removal capacity. Sure it helps with piss-poor heat management with no ducted or at least heavily directed air flow and semi-random fan selection and placement as seen in most generic ATX cases, but it's still perfectly possible to remove a huge amount of heat from a very tightly packed case. It's somewhat more expensive and requires more know-how and though wchich increases the final cost, but it's nothing for someone who can afford dual 5790s.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (3, Interesting)

level_headed_midwest (888889) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523336)

These mini-ITX units are more or less laptops in a slightly larger case and without an integrated monitor and keyboard. They generally have to use low-TDP processors (45-65 watts or less) because you can't fit a high-capacity ATX PSU in a mini-ITX case and the small fans required by the small cases can't dissipate the heat from high-TDP parts. They are popular for HTPCs and business desktops since you generally want a small, unobtrusive machine that can be easily connected to a separate monitor, has standard, replaceable parts, and does not need to be particularly powerful. But you certainly won't see anybody who does much for heavy work using one of these machines. They'll continue to use larger desktop boards and cases that fit high-TDP, high-performance parts and multiple disks.

Using a larger case to fit a smaller board is not necessarily a bad idea. Larger cases can accommodate more disks, a larger number of larger fans for better cooling, and give more room to work in while building and maintaining the computer. Mini-ITX cases are seriously small and a real PITA to work with, but putting one of those boards in a micro-ATX case solves that problem very well. I learned my lesson trying to shoehorn parts into cases that were technically large enough but a very tight fit with everything installed and now almost always buy a case that fits a board one size larger than what I'm intending to install. A good desktop setup with an ATX motherboard, a decent GPU (which is generally about 9-10" long) and a few disks is a tight fit in an ATX mid-tower case but has plenty of room in an Extended ATX-capable full-tower case.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (1)

jedidiah (1196) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523550)

There's a lot of potential space in the A/V footprint. PCs just don't use it terribly
well because they have their own history and a tendency to grow in different directions.
A big case could be built to fit in an A/V cabinet. Big PCs cases just aren't built with
that in mind. Even the highend HTPC cases from speciality vendors fail in this respect.

Book PCs have been around for a long time (longer than the mac minis). They aren't really
showing off anything new here. This is just more of the same designs that have been around
for quite awhile now.

Re:That's cute and everything.... (2, Insightful)

Logibeara (1620627) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523518)

I expected crazy case designs when reading the summary, i.e. Non box shapes. However, I was very disappointed to see that cases have been more or less similar for the last 5 years.

When do I get to see boards mounted inside of hollowed out encyclopedias?

Re:That's cute and everything.... (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32523996)

http://www.mini-itx.com/projects/encyclomedia/

Re:That's cute and everything.... (1)

UnknowingFool (672806) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524524)

Depends on what you want the computer to do. People who want a small computer footprint may not need the penultimate gaming machine. They might just want one to handle office computing like emails, web surfing, etc. Such a machine does not need the most power hungry/cooling intensive components like a quad-core CPU and 3-way SLI GPU. It may even use an all-in-one MB that has a mobile components specifically designed for lower power and cooling.

I'm no expert, but I'm curious (3, Interesting)

IndustrialComplex (975015) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523170)

These boards are getting very close in size to some of the microcontrollers I've worked with in the past (HC12, etc) It was just for college, and I've no real world experience in them, so I was wondering if some of the more advanced hobby builders or professionals could comment on this:

These boards are getting much lower in power-consumption and seem to offer a lot more in terms of flexibility, and by providing the ability to run standard operating systems through the use of SSDs you have available to you a vast number of open projects which you can tailor for your purposes. The cost is now around $100 or so, which is what I remember the microcontrollers costing.

So, given the choice between some of the newer mini-ITX systems, what are the advantages that a basic microcontroller would offer?

(Again, it's been a while since I did anything with them, so I might be missing something big)

Re:I'm no expert, but I'm curious (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32523354)

Microcontroller boards have different I/O. Such as an LCD controller (to connect directly to a panel, not through a VGA cable), general purpose I/O pins to control or take input from any wire you want, SPI and I2C for communicating with other chips. They'll have USB, but are likely to have a device or on-the-go port in addition to a host only port. And they usually need fewer chips to build a working system, sometimes only one, so they can be smaller.

Re:I'm no expert, but I'm curious (3, Informative)

Enleth (947766) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523486)

There's no such thing as a "basic microcontroler". There's so much variety amon microcontrollers that your question almost makes no sense.

An ATmega88, a lower-end uC, costs $0.50, measures about 10x10x3mm and consumes less than 15mA at 5V when running at full speed, which is 20MHz and less than 250uA at 1.8V, 1MHz. With a few kilobytes of RAM and a few more of flash it might look like a joke, but a skilled programmer can implement quite a lot on one and it will work on a single AAA battery for weeks. Years on a sealed AGM.

Re:I'm no expert, but I'm curious (2, Insightful)

jwietelmann (1220240) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524496)

There's no such thing as a "basic microcontroler".

BASIC Stamp Microcontroller Module [parallax.com]

(Yes, I know that's not what you meant.)

Re:I'm no expert, but I'm curious (1)

Tetrarchy (1651907) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523700)

Well, they're really two different things when it comes down to it. a mini-ITX is a pc platform, while a microcontroller is a well, microcontroller. you add all your pc components into a motherboard including cpu, ram, graphics card, etc, and you can run windows/linux/whatever on the finished hardware and software. The microcontroller development boards i believe you are talking about are really much more basic. You might have additional components like ram or video output, and even might be able to get an embedded linux system together, but you're not going to be able to stick windows on there and play games or anything.

Re:I'm no expert, but I'm curious (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32523724)

The microcontroller will offer you much less power consumption. Down to the mili/microwatt. A microcontroller is all in one. doesn't require external memory / bridges / storage etc. The program is stored on the chip. Microcontrollers are more application specific. You get many combinations of DAC ADC PWM communication options (SPI TWI/I2C CAN UARTs). They can have DSP specilizations, built in audio functions and radios and for voice or data. etc etc

Basically low power, low complexity for hardware and software. low cost (usually a few bucks +/-).

Re:I'm no expert, but I'm curious (1)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523744)

So, given the choice between some of the newer mini-ITX systems, what are the advantages that a basic microcontroller would offer?

Power is one. The MiniITX boards I've worked with have tended towards 22W or so. Last I measured was with a Via, now using Atoms but not with the low-power north/south-bridges yet (they're available, but more expensive currently).

So you might want to run an Arduino on a AAA battery in some applications and then that would be a much better solution.

Re:I'm no expert, but I'm curious (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32524532)

Apples and oranges.

Your college "microcontroller" looks big because it's the dev kit. The industry certainly isn't plugging 18gauge wire into breadboards, screwing the thing into a box and sending it out to consumers. What the industry is doing with those microcontrollers and systems on a chip solutions is building chips and boards for small electronics - things comparable to the electronics inside of remote controllers, phones, walky talkies, audio equipment, etc. A much different beast than personal computing.

1st? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32523182)

why is nobody commenting?

optical illusion (2, Insightful)

buback (144189) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523186)

I thought the first picture in the gallery was a joke for a couple seconds. The angle of the shot makes it look like it's the size of a coffee table!

Re:optical illusion (5, Interesting)

KlaymenDK (713149) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523438)

Yeah, I was paging through that slide show thinking "hideous, hideous, also hideous ... and hideous." Are these the more notable ones because they're fugly, or is that just the state of the art?
I mean, individuals can make cases that are so much more attractive ... such as the "Deco Box" or the "Rundfunker", or even toaster fer cryin' out loud!
http://mini-itx.com/projects/decobox/ [mini-itx.com]
http://mini-itx.com/projects/rundfunker/ [mini-itx.com]
http://mini-itx.com/projects/toasterpc/page3.asp [mini-itx.com]

I was looking for a case for an htpc recently, and the only useful case I could find that didn't come with un-covered front (usb, fiwi, headphone) ports was a Silverstone LASCALA LC16M. Seriously, one case?

Re:optical illusion (1)

Corporate Troll (537873) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523596)

That "Deco" style case is lovely... My wife would even allow that in the living room, methinks :-)

Re:optical illusion (2, Informative)

vlueboy (1799360) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524562)

That "Deco" style case is lovely... My wife would even allow that in the living room, methinks :-)

But would she allow the Manga Doll case there? [mini-itx.com] ;)
Maybe changing the Doll to look like a french maid girl?

Re:optical illusion (1)

Corporate Troll (537873) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524618)

Ah, oldie but goodie... Don't think I'd get through with that one....

Re:optical illusion (2, Insightful)

CharlyFoxtrot (1607527) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523600)

No kidding. PC design needs more Dieter Rams and less Liberace.

Re:optical illusion (1)

Rogerborg (306625) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523590)

The first case is microATX, which (in typical "99% of people over-use hyperbole" fashion) is larger than miniATX.

Uhm.. no (1)

Kjella (173770) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523190)

The huge majority of the market is laptops. Of the people that don't want laptops, most of those do it because they want large - for relative values of large - towers with big hot cpus, big hot gpus, many hdds and so on. The intersection of small and !mobile is very slim outside the HTPC market.

Re:Uhm.. no (1)

LWATCDR (28044) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523270)

Not really.
Walk into any bank, insurance company, or government office. Lots of PCs that are not using big hot cpus or big hot gpus.
For those type of places small is good as long as it is cheap.

agreed (1)

butterflysrage (1066514) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523330)

the market for these are slim... people who want small and portable and are willing to sacrifice upgradability to get it are going to get a laptop (maybe hook a big monitor to it via a base station at home), and those who want upgradability and are willing to sacrifice size to get it are going to buy a full sized tower.

I've had enough headaches trying to fit stuff into a full sized tower without conflicts, I would hate to try it with one of those tiny things.

Re:agreed (1)

mr_mischief (456295) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523664)

Think "restaurant" or "retail shop". A POS system generally doesn't move around much. Buying an all-in-one is expensive. Messing with long cables and big boxes hidden under the counter eating dust isn't a very good use of tech time (usually billable per hour since these businesses rarely have any IT staff, or traveling staff if it's a chain) or of space at the checkout station. Screwing a VESA-mount PC onto the back of an LCD monitor and running really short cables makes loads of sense. If you think POS isn't a big enough market to make it, remember that IBM and NCR both got big that way.

Also, HTPCs really don't need their own monitors, and small is good there too.

Office complexes could be much nicer if when moving people around you picked up their tiny little PC and carried it to their new desk, not to mention the same problems with dust, heat, and rats' nests of cables as in POS but across many more machines. Getting a PC up off the (carpeted!) floor in the corner of the office or under the desk where it'll be kicked repeatedly is a good thing.

I don't really want a full tower or a laptop on my kitchen counter or on my nightstand. I'd rather have something small, quiet, and cheap. Hook it up to a cheap LCD, a cheap keyboard and a trackball or touch pad. I can use cordless I/O if I want, and slide the pointer and keyboard into a drawer when I'm not using one or the other. I don't really need to pay for a laptop or have the bulk of the keyboard on my table or counter when I'm not using them this way. A laptop may be portable, but even the smallest netbook has more footprint than an LCD monitor.

Oh, you were just talking about a person's main all-purpose consumer PC? That's all well and good, but the market is so much bigger than that.

Re:Uhm.. no (1)

tepples (727027) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523362)

The intersection of small and !mobile is very slim outside the HTPC market.

Perhaps they want to expand the HTPC market. The market could use more gaming-capable HTPCs.

Re:Uhm.. no (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32524956)

Perhaps they want to expand the HTPC market. The market could use more gaming-capable HTPCs.

What the hell is a 'Hot Top PC'?

Re:Uhm.. no (1)

TheLink (130905) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523366)

Yeah, and though some people want low power computers - media or 24/7 home servers, nowadays I wonder if they could just use a laptop for most such stuff. Not all laptops are that expensive.

Built in 3-6 hour UPS (especially with the screen off). Compact, built in keyboard and screen.

Re:Uhm.. no (1)

mr_mischief (456295) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524164)

A cheap APC UPS is more capable and easier to replace than a laptop battery for use as a UPS. The runtime of a full-powered PC on an entry-level UPS is terrible compared to a laptop, but you're talking UPS here and not primary power source. Most laptop batteries are terribly expensive to replace after the laptop is only a couple of years old. They are often literally more expensive than replacing the laptop with a like model from eBay. I've had good luck with some batteries, but others like to fail as soon as the warranty is over. APC's UPS batteries to to last for years longer than the warranty, and usually until they have been abused in some way.

A built-in keyboard and screen is much harder to upgrade. Laptop keyboards are also much more expensive to replace. Laptop keyboards mostly suck. A laptop keyboard adds to the footprint of the screen, unless you pay for a back-folding tablet/conventional.

Laptop touch pads and pointing sticks are a pain to replace and sometimes a pain (literally and figuratively) to use. A nice external touch pad or trackball works nicely in a cramped environment, especially if it's cordless.

There's no hinges to bust on a small box. If the stand for your external LCD monitor wears out, you don't have to ship the computer off to get it fixed.

While expansion of these things is limited, it's still often better than a laptop.

Yeah, you could get a netbook for the price of a cheap monitor, keyboard, mouse, and mini-ITX or flex-ATX system. If you're not going to carry it around though, why give up other features for portability?

That's all not to mention running a full PC compatible headless in the size of a consumer electronics component. For $200 you can use netfilter as your firewall, make it an access point, use it as a NAS, run dedicated game server software for the likes of the Battlefield series or the Valve games, make it a print server, serve boot images to other systems on your network, use fetchmail to grab your mail off your accounts and use IMAP locally to store as much as you want (just make sure to back it up), set up a backup server (no, a NAS is not a backup server although a backup server can write to a NAS or back one up), use it as a node in a file/application level/MPI/single image cluster, have it run security scans on your other systems, use it as a music player, make it stream video to systems that do have monitors, use it as a dedicated development box for non-graphical server software, use it as your own intranet web server, or more.

Then, of course, there are KVM switches out there, too. You could get a four-port KVM or KVMA and hook up three of these little boxes right next to your main desktop without shelling out for a monitor apiece. It's much handier than putting four full desktops at one desk or putting a telecom rack in your home office next to your desk.

Re:Uhm.. no (1)

TheLink (130905) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524580)

1) Once the laptop battery goes, just buy a UPS :). BTW I suspect the runtime of a laptop on a UPS can be quite long ;).
2) The hinges, keyboards etc aren't going to wear out fast or matter much if you use the laptop as a home server.

The main problem I'll have with laptops is they don't come with multiple Ethernet NICs (but the usual 1 x Ethernet + 1 x WiFi might be good enough for many popular scenarios). The other major problem is many crappy ones will probably die fast if they run 24/7 without extra cooling[1].

[1] In one of the companies I worked for, an old laptop was once used as a temporary firewall. It would sometimes hang from overheating. But after I put it on the cool metal case of a "real server" it was fine :).

Re:Uhm.. no (0, Offtopic)

Nadaka (224565) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524292)

I have been planning on retiring all my old worn out laptops into home servers. The problem is that old worn out laptops is that not only have no battery life to speak of, but they tend to have broken cooling systems as well that make running a reliable server difficult.

Re:Uhm.. no (1)

TheLink (130905) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524330)

My cousin's old but nonretired laptop seems to work much better after I bought her one of those laptop coolers - you put the laptop on it and it has fans that blow on it. Doesn't need to be expensive.

The battery life bit sucks too.

Re:Uhm.. no (1)

Corporate Troll (537873) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523492)

I replaced my MILs computer (huge ass hand-down old gaming machine from her son) with a Atom D410PT with 2GB RAM, 250GB SATA disk and DVD/RW. All fit in a nice shiny "piano black finish" case [ms-tech.de] . She doesn't want or need a laptop and when I installed it for her I got a lot of "oooohs-and-aaahs" because it was pretty and tiny and silent.

It runs Ubuntu 10.04 by the way and from what I gather very well. (My first contact with the Atom platforms was an ION 330, which might be quick on Win32, but was hellishly slow on Ubuntu 9.04 or was it 9.10. NVidia drivers were the cause... My brother uses that one now with XP and it seems to be working perfectly fine)

There are a lot of people who prefer to work at a desk on standard keyboards with big LCD screens, instead of what a laptop has to offer.

Re:Uhm.. no (1)

sznupi (719324) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523922)

You forget about China, Indonesia, India, the general region; also parts of South America or Africa...you know, places with plenty of growth and where people do care about cost a lot more. And those machines will be cheap.

(or some variant could just as well be a standard building block for "laptops" which aren't densely packed inside and don't ship with much of a battery (if any), but do include monitor, keyboard, etc.; and still cheaper)

I've been thinking about this (3, Informative)

Pojut (1027544) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523192)

Be sure to take a look at the [H]ard|Forum worklogs [hardforum.com] , there are a lot of active, small form factor projects going on right now. One guy has a SUPER awesome mITX rig in the process of being built [hardforum.com] , complete with custom case and watercooling solution.

Also, for kicks, my (non-impressive) [H]ard|Forum sig:

Display: Asus VH236H | Dell 2005FPW
Foundation: Cooler Master Storm Scout | OCZ ModXStream Pro 700w
System: Gigabyte GA-MA785GM | AMD Athlon 64 X2 5400+ @ 3.2 GHz | Corsair XMS2 4GB DDR2 800 | ATI 4850
Internal Storage: Diamondmax 21 system | WD15EADS archives
External Storage: 1.25TB in a KINGWIN DK-32U-S | WDMER1600TN
Input: Kensington 64325 Expert Mouse | Saitek Eclipse II | M-Audio Axiom 25
Headphones: non-amped Audio Technica ATH-AD700

Not a huge surprise... (1)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523198)

With the increasing levels of integration(heck, you pretty much can't buy a motherboard without NIC and sound and scads of USB ports, and buying one without basic video isn't getting any easier), and the fact that we have all the lessons learned about cooling during the Prescott/space-heater era being applied to much cooler chips, the rise of mini-ITX seems like a obvious development. Multilayer PCBs aren't crazy expensive; but every square inch isn't free.

1 Step Closer... (3, Interesting)

FinchWorld (845331) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523266)

...to building my own laptop? Ok, I can technically do this now, but parts are often motherboard specific, with ITX and smaller form factors it might be possible to buy generic laptop cases/batteries and swap parts as it ages.

Well, I can dream anyway...

Re:1 Step Closer... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32523560)

With SFF PCs, light weight LCDs, and flexible/foldable keyboards, you almost don't need to build a laptop so much as just figure out a portable power solution.

Re:1 Step Closer... (4, Interesting)

IndustrialComplex (975015) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523578)

Well, I can dream anyway...

5 years ago I had the idea to build a briefcase sized laptop. I was going for style over performance, and changed my design half-way through due to the expense (I was just out of college and still on ramen budgets) so I didn't invest in a laptop LCD. However, I kept the laptop formfactor for my internal components. Here is what I did:

Using only non-laptop components. I found a very slim power supply that was typically designed for a 1U rack. This ran alongside the motherboard and was about as tall as the entire board (PCB+RAM height) I used a board that had built in video,ethernet,sound so I wouldn't have to have any vertical PCI cards. Since I didn't have to use the PCI ports, I placed the HDD over this location and it rested on the plastic risers (Top of the HDD on the plastic) I couldn't do much about the RAM but it didn't stick up above the capacitors very much. I used a processor heatsink with a fan since this would let me get away with a smaller heatsink, though the processor in the board would probably run with just a basic heatsink and no fan. I used a standard 5.25" DVD drive which sat next to the power supply and next to the motherboard.

I took two aluminum sheets and drilled holes to attach the motherboard to the bottom sheet, and the HDD, DVD, and Powersupply were attached to the upper sheet. They were then sandwiched together and I used short bolts to hold the two halves together.

The result was something on the order of 12" x 12" x 1.75" (can't remember the exact dimensions). Due to the way the components were sandwiched, it was fairly robust and I was able to mount it with shock absorbers inside a travel case.

Later when I had more cash, I built it into an ammo-can and included a fold-out monitor and keyboard/touchpad. It turned into an AMAZING little portable server for things like LAN parties.

With it's 1'x1'x1.75" dimensions, I'm sure that I could have easily put it inside a briefcase and built in a display. I just went with the ammo-can because having a truly rugged portable computer was useful to me. (in addition to being waterproof)

With today's boards and SSD storage It would probably be no trouble at all.

form vs function (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32523308)

I don't care about the dimensions, as even in a mini apartment a tower does not eat up too much space.
Smaller is nicer, but in 1988 with the apple //gs and in the 92 with the mac lc, i had cases that could be disassembled without needing even a screwdriver. I installed an audio card and ram in the //gs more easily than i did in my 2002 tower pc. Are we sure we have our priorities right? Make cases like in the eighties and add an optional lock for those needing to secure the boxes, case solved! (pun intended)

Think HTPC (1)

tepples (727027) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523408)

even in a mini apartment a tower does not eat up too much space.

Think "home theater PC". A smaller, quieter, less boxy case would fit in better next to an HDTV monitor.

i had cases that could be disassembled without needing even a screwdriver.

Every Dell desktop PC that I've owned has had latches that pop open to reveal the inside of the case.

Re:form vs function (1)

jedidiah (1196) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523614)

> I don't care about the dimensions, as even in a mini apartment a tower does not eat up too much space.

Are you nuts?

Even in a 3000 sqft house, not having an oversized monstrosity in the home office is nice if you aren't
treating that room as a mini data center. Most of the space in a desktop PC is totally wasted. Many of
the name brand systems aren't particularly upgradeable despite their size. The last brand name crap-box
I bought was like that: no more upgradeable than a mini.

Re:form vs function (3, Informative)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523620)

If you want toolless, your best bet is actually soulless corporate drone-boxxen. They tend to be crushingly ugly; and slightly more expensive per unit spec than gamer homebuilds; but they are explicitly designed so that a monkey could replace pretty much FRU(with the possible exception of the motherboard, which is often screwed down) with its bare hands, and an experienced tech can replace all the FRUs in ~5 minutes.

Generic whitebox cases have gotten somewhat better in the toollessness department; but corporate drone-boxes have always been two steps ahead in that department.

Wow, rectangles! (2, Insightful)

Junior J. Junior III (192702) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523374)

I fail to see what's so striking about rectangular boxes. These aren't really any different from what we've been seeing for the last 10+ years or so. Some of them are a bit stylish, but I don't see any new innovations in the photos posted in TFA. What's so striking about these, exactly?

Re:Wow, rectangles! (1)

Logibeara (1620627) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523564)

Hey, one looks just like an xbox 360. Amazing amirite?

Re:Wow, rectangles! (1)

newcastlejon (1483695) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523592)

While a sphere may enclose the most volume with a given surface area a square object wastes none from a stacking perspective.

Re:Wow, rectangles! (1)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523784)

That and the fact that making boxes out of sheet metal is cheaper than making spheres out of sheet metal...

And PC-boards that aren't flat rectangles are very much special order items.(can you even get curved PCBs? There are those flexible plastic ribbon cables that sometimes have an IC or two soldered on; but I don't think I've ever seen a PCB of any nontrivial size that wasn't flat.)

Re:Wow, rectangles! (1)

newcastlejon (1483695) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523834)

That and the fact that making boxes out of sheet metal is cheaper than making spheres out of sheet metal...

Depends how big they are; I'm sure you could spin a mini-itx one fairly easily if you wanted to.

Re:Wow, rectangles! (1)

adeft (1805910) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524942)

You wouldn't happen to like Apple products would you? ;)

I'd consider the families a little differently. (4, Informative)

mr_mischief (456295) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523384)

Micro-ATX is the little brother of ATX, and Flex-ATX is the little brother to Micro-ATX. ITX is a different nuclear family (call them cousins). Mini-ITX, micro-ITX, nano-ITX, and even pico-ITX boards exist.

ATX was initially designed by Intel and the official updates to it have been specified by them as well. The original design was as a replacement for the dated AT boards as a general-purpose desktop and server role. Smaller versions have become popular as more circuitry has been built onto the motherboard, requiring fewer expansion slots. ATX, EATX, Micro-ATX and Flex-ATX use the same mounting hole layout (except that EATX uses a few extra holes).

AMD designed DTX to be hole-compatible with ATX cases, BTW.

ITX was initially designed by Via, as are the updates. ITX was initially designed as an embedded or industrial form factor where size, cooling, and energy efficiency were key factors. The smaller sizes (mini, nano, and pico) have been around for some time, but have been slow to become popular for general desktop use as they have been primarily built for Via's own low-power processors.

The industrial and embedded form factor PC/104 is actually smaller than all of these form factors, with mobile-ITX (which requires an additional I/O board) being the only open standard board smaller. PC/104 was developed by AmPro and has been around since 1987.

The Beagle Board is smaller still, but is not x86/x86_64 compatible. The only current ways to get smaller that I'm aware of is to ditch the motherboard altogether and go with a computer-on-module or system-on-chip design or to pony up and design your own motherboard standard.

Re:I'd consider the families a little differently. (1)

CAIMLAS (41445) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524436)

Companies like Dell haven't used the 'standard' board formats for some time. Why they do this, I don't know; maybe it's to lock people into buying a new computer instead of simply replacing the failed-motherboard-on-account-of-shit-PSU with a new board. And now there's Mini-BTX as well.

Don't forget microATX can get quite small! It's only just-barely larger than mini-ITX. It's out there and has been for quite some time, just not terribly popular.

Ironically, all these board formats are ATX power supply compatible (20 or 24 pin): they can use the same PSU.

We probably won't get much smaller in the 'common workstation' arena until we move away from slot expansions and on to pinless sockets, fiber optic connectors, or something similar. It's simply not possible to cram too many more connectors onto the boards (I mean, look at some of those pictures). There are also the limits of the RAM and PSU connector form factor in addition to the card slots and breakouts. Even taking those off, you're not likely to shave more than 1/2" dimensionally: there's too much room dedicated to that backside breakout and support chips/electrical systems.

Nice (1)

lennier1 (264730) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523390)

Should be enough for a living room system with a bit more power or an office machine that doesn't have to run more than an office suite and a browser. But it won't beat a dual socket Xeon graphics workstation built to run 3D software.

Re:Nice (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32524712)

Thanks for that, Captain Obvious.

Blame Nvidia (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32523610)

From a (non-free) Linux point of view, Nvidia single-handedly made mini-itx a mainstream useful thing. Yeah, a few years ago there were still uses for mini-itx, but they were all on the fringes (who really wants a car computer? yeah, some people, but not many).

ION came along, and suddenly a mini-itx computer became the nearly perfect ass-kicking PVR. The only thing keeping it from being perfect, is the closedness (and all the inconvenient consequences that brings) of the VDPAU drivers. Eventually there will be free-driven alternatives to Nvidia's hardware, so there will be a second wave of enthusiasts, but that'll just be an echo of the first thunder.

Mini-itx is here now, in a way that your girlfriend or grandmother wants one. It just wasn't quite like that, before.

Yes, this is looking at the world through a pinhole. Get away from Linux, and tiny machines were around (e.g. I'm typing this on an Apple Mac mini) but they all kind of suck compared to their bigger brothers. (Would anyone really want one?) The difference with the ION Linux PVR, is that while it is also underpowered too, it's good enough for the specific job of PVR stuff. That makes it a great appliance in a way that the non-Linux mini-itx systems just never really match. Windows Media Center is just horrible, and Apple's stuff is too low-performance (at least the last time I tried it). Outclassed by the often-justifiably-flamed MythTV, and even XBMC. Who would have guessed this would happen? Three cheers for VDPAU for making good hardware finally available.

*sigh* (4, Insightful)

sootman (158191) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523644)

Looking at the "striking examples" I have to ask, does anyone other than 14-year-old gamers build computers anymore? Whatever happened to six flat sides? A basic cube-ish design is inexpensive to manufacture, easy to open up and get into, minimizes wasted space (are any of your components curvy? no? then your case shouldn't be either!) and you can easily lay it down, stand it up, or put things on top of it. I can understand no one wanting to put together a gallery of beige boxes but it would have been nice to see at least one clean example.

Re:*sigh* (1)

mewsenews (251487) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524168)

The great thing if you want a "clean" case is that there is usually a manufacturer offering one, stock. If you want a great example of a cleanly designed Mini-ITX case, I'd suggest you check out the Lian Li PC-Q07B. It's very spartan, all aluminum, and has room for a regular ATX-sized power supply.

Here's a youtube unboxing video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZceNJAW7AU [youtube.com]

One of the weird down-sides to the case is that some Mini-ITX boards consume so little power that they come with laptop-style power supplies, which would end up leaving a big gaping hole.

Re:*sigh* (1)

HolyLime (926158) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524402)

So umm... at what point did that kids need to get off your lawn?

Re:*sigh* (1)

CAIMLAS (41445) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524450)

"First adopters" have always been into the pretty curvy thing. Think: sports cars. Nobody makes boring first-release products; the early ones are "sexy", with the $20 just-the-facts-ma'am variety will come later.

Re:*sigh* (1)

DragonWriter (970822) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524778)

Looking at the "striking examples" I have to ask, does anyone other than 14-year-old gamers build computers anymore? Whatever happened to six flat sides?

If you check any place that sells cases (newegg, etc.) you'll find plenty, for just about any motherboard size.

Re:*sigh* (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32525054)

Hey I'm 29....

Re:*sigh* (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32525114)

are any of your components curvy?

One of mine is...

21st Century Calling! (2, Insightful)

Shuh (13578) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523730)

These smaller form factors are overdue. Tower PCs the size of a labrador retriever are 90's technology.

original xbox case (1)

OrangeTide (124937) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523794)

There were a few vendors many years back that made a MicroATX case that looked like a slightly large Xbox1. So that someone makes a 360 case is not all that exciting to me.

Where is the AMD one? at least with that on video (1)

Joe The Dragon (967727) | more than 4 years ago | (#32523980)

Where is the AMD one? at least with that on board video is good for most uses unlike intel where a add on video card is need for much of base use for a small system that has VESA mount

Design FAIL (1)

Itninja (937614) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524052)

The best (read: worst) one is this one [pcauthority.com.au] with the DVD drive upside down.

Re:Design FAIL (1)

InsprdInsnty (1793100) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524130)

Thats the case on the back of the monitor, of course its gonna be upside down from that side. If you looking at the monitor from the correct side then obviously it would be the right way up.

Re:Design FAIL (1)

hoboroadie (1726896) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524256)

It shows that more clearly on the previous picture. I was wondering about that, I guess it would be pretty intuitive reaching over the monitor and fitting the disc in the carrier; It does look weird.

Video Card Sizes (1)

lymond01 (314120) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524070)

What are these little "gamer" cases doing about the massive video cards these days? Without a fairly long case, most gaming cards won't fit.

Re:Video Card Sizes (1)

adeft (1805910) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524918)

I know this is slashdot, and no one looks at the article, but there are several examples of very large cards fitting in very small cases.

I love mine (1)

Lord Ender (156273) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524096)

Zotac makes mini-ITX boards with decent NVIDIA cards onboard, and with the ability to use quad-core CPUs and DDR3 memory. It's pretty cool to have a system which takes up almost no space and uses almost no power, but is capable of playing games passably!

Too bad Zotac support sucks--I needed to flash my BIOS (with a DOS disk of all things! WTF? In 2010??) before the damn board would boot, and the drivers available from Zotac are broken and out-of-date. But once I finally got it working it was wonderful.

The next time someone asks me for hardware recommendations, I will tell them to go with mini-ITX unless they are a hardcore gamer who needs SLI.

Re:I love mine (1)

mdwntr (1367967) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524264)

Yep, love mine too. Runs cool and quiet, fits on my desk easily, takes some decent video cards and looks great in my opinion (AMD build in a SilverStone SG05). It's a bit of a pain to work inside, but that's a minor issue. I don't imagine I will ever build a larger computer again.

These may have some interesting uses in HPC (1)

deadline (14171) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524280)

I just wrote and article Low Cost/Power HPC [linux-mag.com] using Atom processors and Mini-ITX boards. The first table is rather interesting (HPC = High Performance Computing):

The Nehalem Xeon runs 1.8 times faster, generates 7.3 times as much heat and costs 22 times as much as the D510 Atom. The performance is 7.7 times faster, but when you factor in the price-to-performance the Atom is 3 times better than the Xeon solution. Interestingly, the TDP/performance ratios are almost identical for both processors.

WWAD (What Would Apple Do?) (1)

Ukab the Great (87152) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524692)

I'd like them to bypass the futuristic sexy case nonsense and concentrate on getting rid of 30 year connectors that have no business on a minimalist form factors like Mini-ITX.

They don't seem that stylish.. (1)

91degrees (207121) | more than 4 years ago | (#32524836)

They're variants on cubes and monoliths. Curves and colours are nice but nothing new. The VESA mountable ones are a pretty decent idea though.

In front of me I have a DVD player. it's about 4cm high and has a steel finish. No fan, and an internal PSU. Can we put a PC into one of them please?

Or build one into a keyboard like many 1980's home computers.
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