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Small Form Factor PCs

samzenpus posted more than 7 years ago | from the build-it-small dept.

Book Reviews 175

JoshuaBenuck writes "Make Projects: Small Form Factor PCs provides detailed step-by-step instructions on building a variety of small form factor systems, starting from the larger ones (about the size of a shoe box) and working its way down to the smallest (which is about the size of a pack of gum). It includes instructions on creating a digital audio jukebox, digital video recorder, wireless network range extender, home network gateway, network monitor, portable firewall, cheap Wi-Fi SSH client, and a Bluetooth LED sign." Read on for the rest of Joshua's review.

First off, this is a PDF that, as far as I can tell, is only available from oreilly's website. Most of the projects in the book will require at least $300 dollars to complete.

If you who don't know why you would want to use a small form factor PC there is a good discussion of why you might want to consider using one in the introduction along with a list of some of the currently available small form factor PCs. You'll need to keep in mind that some of the systems mentioned would be more commonly referred to as embedded systems so the authors have expanded the definition of what 'small form factor PC' means. Not all of the systems mentioned are used in one of the projects in the book so if you get bored or are looking for another small system to play with, this may be a good resource.

The remaining chapters deal with projects that each use one of the systems mentioned in the introduction. The chapter headings show a picture of the finished product, a list of needed components, a bar showing the time it will take, and a rating of difficulty from 'easy' to 'difficult'. The bars and pictures provide a quick indication of what you are getting yourself into with one glaring exception; they do not tell you how much money you'll need to sink into the project. In order to find this information you'll need to go back to the introduction and read through the paragraph that tells you about the system used in the chapter.

This is followed by an overview of what is going to be built and which system was chosen for the implementation along with a description of its unique characteristics that made it a good fit for the project. A lot of emphasis is put on the power consumption of the various components. They even measure it at startup, shutdown, and during normal operations. This is used to make a couple of power and cooling design decisions.

If you're like me, you don't like when your systems makes a lot of noise (Especially ones that aren't supposed to look like they have a computer in them). This book gives a good overview on what to look for when building a system that you want to be as quiet as possible. They mention whether the system can get away with passive cooling (e.g. no fans) and they show some very non-conventional ways to reduce the noise production of a system (such as hanging a hard drive from wires within an enclosure).

The step-by-step instructions on assembling the hardware components of the systems include plenty of good quality pictures that should make it easy to follow along with the various projects. The pictures are about a third the width of the page which I feel is a good size. They are crisp, clear, and add to the discussion of the topic at hand.

If you are an experienced Linux or BSD user you'll probably be able to skim most of the step-by-step operating system installation instructions. If you are new to Linux and BSD the steps should help you find your way to project completion. Just don't expect the book to have all of the answers all of the time. I feel it is impossible for one book to contain the answers to all the questions that someone new to this area may have. That said, I think this book does an admirable job at giving you what you need to succeed.

Littered throughout the text are various warnings, other options, and lessons learned which I found to be valuable. Some of these include mistakes the authors made (such as using a WinTV-Go card instead of a higher model with a built-in MPEG decoder), using a CF Card Reader if you are unable to use NFS to transfer files to a system that uses a Compact Flash card, and numerous other practical tidbits that should serve to save you some frustration when trying to do the projects on your own.

You don't have to use the hardware platforms or components recommended in this book to gain benefit from its contents. I've used the instructions on setting up the Linux Infrared Remote Control (lirc) project to help with an Iguanaworks USB Infrared Transceiver (a device that sends and receives infrared signals) while the authors used an Irman receiver. The MythTV box I've setup uses Ubuntu Linux instead of Gentoo Linux and uses a spare system instead of the Shuttle XPC used in the book. I found the instructions in the book to be indispensable as I worked through this.

I've never done a case mod before, but I like the idea of being able to hide away a computer in something that looks like a decoration. There is a detailed explanation of how the authors used an old antique radio as a cover for their digital jukebox. I enjoyed the discussion of the various places they could put the power supply, infrared receiver, and other design considerations. It really gave me a feel for what types of questions I'll need to answer as I do a case mod myself.

That leads me to what I think is the biggest strength of this book. It is the very conversational way in which the authors tell you what they did, why they did it, and what they could have done. Along the way they provide links for further information, and search terms that can help you learn more about the topic at hand. The book is packed with information that is up-to-date, accurate, valuable, and easy-to-read.

That said, some of the information will lose value over time. For example, the specific gumstix computer that was used does not appear to be available anymore. This is probably a good thing since the authors had to make some adjustments to get the 200 Mhz Bluetooth enabled version to work. I mention it only to point out that the information on the specific systems and the other instructions will lose value over time. It is impossible to future proof a work likes this.

The projects in this book opened my mind to a whole new world of what is possible with small systems. I haven't had a chance to purchase of the specific systems mentioned, but the information on setting up the various software and hardware components has already proven the book's worth. I look forward to one day getting my hands on the systems mentioned so I can gain the full advantage that small form factors provide. So if you don't mind spending $300+ to play with some a small form factor PC or you love to tinker with networking, or multimedia applications then you might want to give this book a try. I certainly don't regret it.


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Save time, declare victory (2, Funny)

wardk (3037) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742402)

go get a cheapo mac mini, it even comes pre-installed with BSD

Re:Save time, declare victory (2, Insightful)

CheeseburgerBrown (553703) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742540)

Isn't that a bit like solving your home renovation issues by buying a new house?

Re:Save time, declare victory (1)

itwerx (165526) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742670)

Isn't that a bit like solving your home renovation issues by buying a new house?

Er, no, it's avoiding having them in the first place. (Not to mention saving a heck of a lot of time)
      (Wish there was a +1 Offtopic mod for the GP - Offtopic but still useful :).

Re:Save time, declare victory (1)

oh_bugger (906574) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744224)

How is it useful if it doesn't solve the problem? Buying a mac mini != building a SFF PC

Re:Save time, declare victory (1)

NosTROLLdamus (979044) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742660)

Really? The only ones I can seem to find come with OS X.

Re:Save time, declare victory (5, Insightful)

1point618 (919730) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742758)

You know, some people do enjoy building things and getting them to work on their own. Not everything is about having something, the journey to get it can be very important too.

Re:Save time, declare victory (2, Insightful)

archen (447353) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742854)

I feel sort of lucky that my wife at least understands me this way. I got tired of problems with my netgear firewall/router so built my own out of a soekris net4801. When she asked what I was doing, I told her that I was replacing the old one with something that basically does the same thing (and some much more interesting things) but set up on my own.

Usually about this time she'll ask me a couple questions with some inquisitive looks and that's about it. Explaining this stuff to normal people usually results in the rolling of eyes and questions like "why bother" etc. Often the same people who bitch about how much everything costs because they can't do anything themselves.

Re:Save time, declare victory (1)

rsmoody (791160) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743192)

I have been trying to find a good replacement for my PC based IPCop system. Did you use IPCop or another OS? Where did you find the case? How many zones? Red, Green, Orange, Blue for instance. Have you used any mods with it? Thanks for that post, they have some nice NICs that I have been looking for, the 2 and 4 port PCI NIC's, especially the 2 port low profile model. Thanks.

Re:Save time, declare victory (1)

archen (447353) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743438)

I put FreeBSD 6.2 on it since that's what I'm most familiar with. When you cut the kernel options down it's actually pretty agile. I just used the case that Soekris Eng sells with the extra 4 port ethernet card. Because it's an actual PC that means you have to use crossover cables to connect to another PC directly. I'm not sure what you mean by zones.

It's a good time for these kind of PCs actually. You used to have to optimize systems to fit on a card, but a 512Mb CF card is $10 now - you can fit a default FreeBSD install on that with no optimizations easy. Laptop hard drives are also an option but I've been hearing bad things about the long term durability with running these things 24/7

Re:Save time, declare victory (1)

Kensai7 (1005287) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743692)

Often the same people who bitch about how much everything costs because they can't do anything themselves.

Haha, how true!

Re:Save time, declare victory (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744414)

Well, the corollary to that is that anyone who believes the journey is as important as the destination, but still spends $16 on this PDF, is a complete poser. It's like a man who stops to ask for directions. Fuck that, I'm taking this 4WD+chains-only road in my FWD shitpile in the middle of winter! Seriously though, if the point is the journey, why cheapen it by buying this thing?

Re:Save time, declare victory (1)

rustalot42684 (1055008) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744758)

Because perhaps the person knows that they don't know what they're doing, and doesn't want to waste lots of money buying components that they have a high probability of not installing properly/frying/[be creative]. Also, just because they buy the book doesn't necessarily mean they will be following the instructions directly... the same way artists look at other works for inspiration.

Re:Save time, declare victory (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744914)

and doesn't want to waste lots of money buying components that they have a high probability of not installing properly/frying/[be creative]

this was a much bigger deal before the introduction of ATX, SATA, and other technologies that don't let you hook things up backwards.

the same way artists look at other works for inspiration.

I take your point, having watched my artist girlfriend looking through books about art made from found crap, but I still think that this is just silly - especially when you can get that inspiration included in the price of your internet connection by just googling around a little.

Re:Save time, declare victory (1)

rustalot42684 (1055008) | more than 7 years ago | (#17745226)

I never said I agreed with it, but I do agree with the idea of not messing up the components. I wouldn't have paid for it.

Re:Save time, declare victory (1)

L4m3rthanyou (1015323) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742772)

I don't think the "expensive doorstop" project is covered by the book...

Macs do not come with BSD. They run XNU. (5, Informative)

Medievalist (16032) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742868)

They run XNU (perhaps known to you as Darwin or MacOS X) which has exactly as much relationship to BSD as a chevy does to a ford - they use similar interfaces and are derived from the same original innovations.

One of the many contradictions inherent in the Apple Religion is that BSD is bad, but Mac OSX is BSD in all ways that matter, and Mac OSX is good. Go read the wikipedia article [wikipedia.org] if you want to get past the religious dogma.

In reality MacOS is not BSD (BSD is tighter, faster, and uglier). It's the latest version of XNU, and XNU probably has no more BSD code in it than Solaris, linux or Windows does.

PS: I use a mac, so the faithful need not crucify me for these comments. I'm sure simple flogging will do.

Re:Macs do not come with BSD. They run XNU. (1)

The Warlock (701535) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743654)

Doesn't Windows have some BSD code in some of the networking backends? I seem to remember there was a big stink about that here on Slashdot when the Win2000 source code got leaked.

Re:Macs do not come with BSD. They run XNU. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17743934)

The TCP/IP stack was (still is?) BSD code. They acknowledge it, however. No stink to be had.

Re:Macs do not come with BSD. They run XNU. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17743960)

Not in Vista! Rewritten to have brand new bugs!

Windows 98 contained BSD code. (1)

Medievalist (16032) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744252)

I don't know about current versions (perhaps someone else will enlighten us?) but years ago I ran the GNU version of the unix utility "strings" on some of the executables in a win98 install, and found BSD code in the ftp client.

If you are on a dual-boot system, mount your windows partition and do "strings" on the files, look for something obvious like "regents"...

find /windows_partition -type f -exec strings {} \; | grep -i regent ...might do the trick.

Re:Macs do not come with BSD. They run XNU. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17744894)

> Doesn't Windows have some BSD code in some of the networking backends?

No, it was based off SysV STREAMS, and it took til Winsock2 to add a compatibility interface. It has BSD header files, and FTP and tracert are straight ports of the BSD versions, and those all have the BSD copyright in them.

If only Windows HAD used BSD networking code, it might not have sucked so much.

yer .sig (1)

Medievalist (16032) | more than 7 years ago | (#17745198)

I've upped my standards, so up yours.
PDP-11 RSTS/E reference?

If it fits, wear it.

Re:Macs do not come with BSD. They run XNU. (1)

_fuzz_ (111591) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744064)

Define BSD. Is it the kernel, the POSIX API, the userspace tools, or some combination? Is it FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, 4.4BSD, etc.? I would say that the POSIX API and the userspace tools are the essence of BSD. OS X includes those, therefore I would argue that OS X does include BSD.

Does it quack like a duck? (1)

Medievalist (16032) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744406)

I'd argue that an OS is BSD if it's a direct descendant of the Berkeley Systems Distribution. I don't have much truck with Humpty Dumpty definitions, personally.

Are you sure that we agree on what the definition of "is" is? ;)

By your argument, Cheslov is actually the dead guy he got his replacement heart from. Or is he still Cheslov, since your nebulously defined word "essence" implies air and he just got a heart, not a full heart-lung job? I'm not buying it. Mac OSX is not BSD. Neither is Solaris, and neither is Windows 98se. All three contain BSD code but that's the extent of it.

Re:Macs do not come with BSD. They run XNU. (2, Interesting)

drinkypoo (153816) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744368)

PS: I use a mac, so the faithful need not crucify me for these comments. I'm sure simple flogging will do.

Well, here comes your flogging. XNU == BSD kernel on top of Mach. Mach is doing practically nothing in Apple's implementation, and basically acts like a HAL. The benefit of using Mach is that someone else already had written it. The drawback is that it is a crap-ass microkernel and is basically only good for, well, what Apple is using it for.

The entire BSD userland is available on OSX. So I'd say that's pretty much BSD.

If you don't install the BSD userland, you're still using the BSD kernel on top of Mach. Has Apple tweaked the living hell out of it? Yes, that's why it's called Darwin. It's still based on BSD and bears every resemblance. The fact that it also has the NeXT stuff (Objective C runtime and the various libraries) and the other new Apple APIs on top of it doesn't change the fact that it's also BSD. It does however make things potentially a lot less reliable. My own (anecdotal) experience with it suggests that in fact any mainstream *BSD is a hell of a lot more stable than OSX.

Re:Macs do not come with BSD. They run XNU. (1)

Medievalist (16032) | more than 7 years ago | (#17745054)

The entire BSD userland is available on OSX. So I'd say that's pretty much BSD.
If you install the Berkeley VOS toolkit and TGV Multinet on a DEC VAX/VMS system you have the BSD networking stack and user interface. Does that magically transform the VMS kernel into a NO-OP? I've never yet heard anyone say VMS was BSD (not even "pretty much" BSD) although I seem to recall VMS was actually the first POSIX-compliant operating system.

Saying something contains your favorite parts of something_else and therefore is something_else is sounds highly illogical to me.

Re:Macs do not come with BSD. They run XNU. (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | more than 7 years ago | (#17745118)

Saying something contains your favorite parts of something_else and therefore is something_else is sounds highly illogical to me.

You can run Linux on the Mach microkernel (or you used to be able to anyway, dunno about now) but that doesn't make it not-Linux.

XNU is just a BSD kernel on top of Mach. It's still BSD.

Re:Macs do not come with BSD. They run XNU. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17745238)

And a zebra's a horse. I mean, pretty much.

Re:Macs do not come with BSD. They run XNU. (1)

mypalmike (454265) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744404)

FreeBSD is the primary reference codebase for the BSD portion of the XNU kernel. It's fair to say that there is more FreeBSD-derived code in MacOS than in Windows, Solaris, or Linux.

We have no disagreement, then. (1)

Medievalist (16032) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744636)

FreeBSD is the primary reference codebase for the BSD portion of the XNU kernel. It's fair to say that there is more FreeBSD-derived code in MacOS than in Windows, Solaris, or Linux.
I have no reason to disagree with either statement, although I have not personally measured the amount of BSD source in any of those.

I only balk when people equate XNU with BSD. Share the love with Carnegie-Mellon's mach kernel, I say.

DEC's OSF/1 unix was also a choreographed train-wreck of mach and BSD; a pretty nice OS, in some ways quite similar to XNU.

And wasn't AIX's microkernel derived from mach as well?

In other words... (1)

Kelson (129150) | more than 7 years ago | (#17745172)

One of the many contradictions inherent in the Apple Religion is that BSD is bad, but Mac OSX is BSD in all ways that matter, and Mac OSX is good.

That would be XNU's Paradox?

Re:Save time, declare victory (2, Insightful)

jotok (728554) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742892)

Yes...you could also answer a book on "How to Build a Bicycle" with directions to the nearest bike store.

You might do this if you Just Don't Get It.

Re:Save time, declare victory (5, Insightful)

nick.ian.k (987094) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742934)

go get a cheapo mac mini, it even comes pre-installed with BSD

That's fine if the Mac Mini is the right solution.

There are a multitude of applications for a small form factor PC in the first place. The Mac Mini's hardware is of pre-determined specification and the case leaves next to no room for expandability. Coming from the other direction, the review seems to indicate that the book contains projects more along the lines of tiny embedded computers that are substantially smaller than the Mac Mini. Couple this with the fact that just going out and buying a computer is a different experience than selecting your own configuration of components and piecing it together yourself, and you'll see that your suggestion is not an end-all/be-all solution to everybody all of the time.

Re:Save time, declare victory (4, Informative)

cbreaker (561297) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743158)

You're right, and it's worth noting that the cheapest Mac Mini is $600. Wasn't the first Mac Mini only $500?

It doesn't have multiple NICs, either. If you're doing anything networking related, you kinda need more then one NIC. And no, a USB to Ethernet NIC isn't a great option when the unit costs $600 and you need a network device.

I would like to build one of these little machines some day, maybe a few of them, for various purposes. They do tend to be fairly expensive though, but still not as much as a Mac Mini. And, you can opt for solid-state disks, multiple NICs, and your choice of expandability.

I do have one of those WRT54G's (actually, it's a motorola box, but it's the same as the 4MB Linksys) with DD-WRT on it. It's really great! It's like a mini linux box that cost me $30.

Re:Save time, declare victory (1)

nurb432 (527695) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744550)

Actually they arent even the same box anymore.

First generation minis were power pc's.. current is that damned intel crap.

Sort of like comparing apples to oranges.

Re:Save time, declare victory (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17743052)

Well, only you don't get a Mac mini for $300.

The Intel ones cost much more than that, and the PPC ones are dog slow (had one till I switched to Ubuntu on a P4 last week. on Ebay I made 430, which is maybe $500; but maybe the slow PPC one without any memory in it would be affordable)

Not so cheapo (2, Insightful)

cbreaker (561297) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743210)

The cheapest Mac Mini is $600.

The most expensive Mac Mini without monitor is $1600.

Cheapo, huh? You could build three utility PC's $600.

Re:Not so cheapo (1)

jimicus (737525) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743786)

So I can have three PCs or one Mac?

I'll have the Mac, please.

Re:Not so cheapo (1)

PopeRatzo (965947) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743914)

After the announcement a few days ago of the UbuntuStudio project, and this interesting article, I'm jacked about building a fanless, superquiet PC that I can use for music and other audio recording and production. If I used gigabit ether, I could connect to my server and stream the samples from it while it's in another room with it's fans and and bank of hard drives. Laptops were never just right for the recording part because they can be loud too, especially the Dell ones that sound like gas-powered leaf blowers.

Oooh, a project.

Re:Not so cheapo (1)

OrangeCowHide (810076) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744490)

Where do you get the parts to build a small form factor PC for $200? I have built a few and have never managed to get the price under about $750, and it was still bulkier than a mac mini, had a hard drive 1/3 the size (disk space not dimensions).

It is possible (and by that I mean probable) I don't get the best prices, so I could always use some pointers.

I have an Open BSD mini-ITX firewall box, a portable demonstration mini-ITX "server" that alternates OSes (Solaris, various Linuxes, FreeBSD), and a machine I have built for my sometimes girlfriend who wanted something small and quiet that runs Windows. I have one mac-mini (ppc) which I use at work.

Re:Save time, declare victory (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17743248)

Mac Mini has the detested "Intel Integrated Graphics" chipset.

This makes it quite problematic for on-the-fly HD video decoding - a real shame, as it ought to be a great home theater playback unit.

Get something with nVidia onboard if you want to play back hi-def.

Re:Save time, declare victory (1)

bobcat7677 (561727) | more than 7 years ago | (#17745048)

Where exactly could I find one of these "cheapo" mac minis? I have never seen a mini for less then $500...the cheapest on the apple site right now is $600. They would need to be half that price for me to start thinking of them as "cheapo".

Waste of time... (0, Redundant)

creimer (824291) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742434)

Just get a Mac mini... BSD included!

Re:Waste of time... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17743976)

Why live life when you can just die? Asshole

Re:Waste of time... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17744116)

It takes one to know... Dick

new shuffle mod (2, Funny)

dcskier (1039688) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742502)

but how can i turn my new iPod shuffle into a comp? a pack of gum form factor is still too big for my needs

Re:new shuffle mod (3, Funny)

MitchInOmaha (1053116) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742588)

Perhaps this http://gumstix.com/waysmalls.html [gumstix.com] is small enough?

Re:new shuffle mod (1)

MitchInOmaha (1053116) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742678)

Ha! Just noticed they actually talk about the Gumstix in the book.

Re:new shuffle mod (1)

Annymouse Cowherd (1037080) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744588)

No, this [picotux.com] is small enough

$300 is geek price inflation (3, Interesting)

gelfling (6534) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742612)

mini ITX form factor Mobos cost 2x what they should. Their cabinets cost 3x what they should. I want a mini ITX computer, with as small a fan as possible to be a NAS. But the whole project is absurdly expensive compared to what it would cost for a big ugly mATX. So that's what I'll be forced to do - build yet another intrusive grey box and save myself $150.

And while we're at it, why do so many mini ITX cabinets look like early '70's stereo equipment? Just give me a cheap box that's as blank as possible and mounts a CD drive horizontally. That means the case on;y has to be 6" wide, not 11".

Re:$300 is geek price inflation (2, Interesting)

Kadin2048 (468275) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742672)

And while we're at it, why do so many mini ITX cabinets look like early '70's stereo equipment?

Just a guess, but maybe because people want to use them for various media-serving functions in the living room, so therefore they want ones that match their existing butt-ugly early 70s stereo equipment?

Or maybe they're trying too hard to be retro? Next thing you know, they'll be trying stainless steel, dark wood, and avocado green -- all in the same case.

Re:$300 is geek price inflation (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17742810)

If you don't have a requirement for high-speed NAS, have you considered a Linksys NSLU2? There's even a thriving Linux community around it http://www.nslu2-linux.org/ [nslu2-linux.org] . Less than $100.00, add your own external USB 2.0 storage. Data rate is around 4-5 MB/sec. from either Windows (CIFS) or Linux (NFS). Fanless, consumes about 9 watts (without a drive, or with a flash drive), and about the size of a paperback novel. I'm a satisfied owner...

Re:$300 is geek price inflation (1)

gelfling (6534) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743894)

Yeah I'm looking at it. It's got possibilities. I wish that it was expandable and carried the drive internally. I was also interested in the Synology 101j mostly for the purported quality of the OS, file system code and firmware. At $150+ I'd hope so at any rate. But do you see what I mean? a small expanable computer shouldn't command such a premium. I'm almost tempted to buy a used laptop machine.

Re:$300 is geek price inflation (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17742910)

Hmm, maybe they should aim for the late 70s look. [2dehands.nl]

I wouldn't mind a nice blue vacuum fluorescent display (what's that? You thought blue displays were invented 5 years ago?) and some sweet polished aluminum buttons. Rugged as all hell, too.

Re:$300 is geek price inflation (1)

William_Lee (834197) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743044)

mini ITX form factor Mobos cost 2x what they should. Their cabinets cost 3x what they should. I want a mini ITX computer, with as small a fan as possible to be a NAS. But the whole project is absurdly expensive compared to what it would cost for a big ugly mATX.

A more likely reason that the mini ITX form factor is expensive is that the end user market is much smaller than the one for full size ATX motherboards. If volumes are lower, prices are going to be higher.


If all you're looking for is a NAS, why not consider an older Shuttle system that is not going to break the bank (or just buy a cheap stand alone NAS, they're not that expensive these days).

Re:$300 is geek price inflation (1)

gelfling (6534) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743982)

Yeah a standalone NAS has some possibilities. I rather dislike paying money for a non upgradeable machine. For instance I'd like to be able to retrofit a Gigbyte LAN adapter when it becomes feasible to upgrade my whole LAN to that.

BTW did you know that most NAS devices that come with a built in installed drive become worthless if the drive has a problem? Yeah its because most of them store at least part of the OS on a partition on the hard drive. So unless you have a way to rebuild the OS image, the whole unit is trash. On the flip side the flash only units have a fairly limited feature set and based on the reports I see at Toms Hardware and SmallNetBuilder it looks like you get what you pay for - e.g. A LOT of the low end boxes have significant problems with bugs and performance.

Re:$300 is geek price inflation (1)

couchslug (175151) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743866)

A quick search reveals many mATX cases that are stylish, small, and not intrusive or grey.
The improved choice of motherboards and power supplies is also a plus.
If all else fails, there are plenty of sites with information on how to make and mod cases to get exactly what you want.

Maybe I'm a cheapass... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17743932)

Why wouldn't you just buy one of these Stream Box Core [streamframework.com] for $99?

Re:$300 is geek price inflation (1)

arivanov (12034) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744144)

You are not entirely correct.

As far as the mainboards - disagree. A Pentium motherboard which has a good quality audio (every ITX I tried had a superb one which is definitely not the case for most cheap Intel/AMD MBs where you can hear the f*** voltage regulator noise in the audio), a hardware encryption accelerator, a minimal spec video card which still has a built-in MPEG decoder (intel onboard does not have that), etc will pull a hefty 500$ at least. Compared to that the sub-200 price of a mini-ITX is quite competitive. If you do not need any one of these features - you are right. If you need just one, the price evens up. If you need 2+ of these features the mini-ITX wins and that is actually the primary niche for these MBs. They are intended for living room systems where a good audio, decent video playback are key features and the encryption is for futureproofing when all content will go around AES-ed.

As far as the cases - that is not correct either. You are looking at living room cases like Silverstone and the like. These are in the 200-300$ range for both mATX and mini-ITX. No difference whatsoever. If we look at the other major application of mini-ITX, the low power consumption rackmount its case is actually cheaper (http://www.icp-epia.co.uk/ [icp-epia.co.uk] ) than 1U and 2U cases for Pentiums and Athlons.

So, while you may be right for your particular application (I guess this is NAS sitting in your living room), you are wrong for most other niches where mini-ITX is being used.

Re:$300 is geek price inflation (1)

theonetruekeebler (60888) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744248)

I suspect that low volume is a major factor in the pricing. I'll bet something like one hundred twenty million PCs and laptops get built every year. These custom designs have volumes in, optimistically, the tens of thousands. The economies of scale are definitely on the McTowerCase manufacturer's side.

Re:$300 is geek price inflation (1)

theonetruekeebler (60888) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744450)

I'll bet something like one hundred twenty million PCs and laptops get built every year. These custom designs have volumes in, optimistically, the tens of thousands.
I spoke too soon. According to Google Answers [google.com] there were about 230 million PCs, laptops and servers shipped in 2006 and we'll exceed quarter-billion units this year.

Re:$300 is geek price inflation (1)

billcopc (196330) | more than 7 years ago | (#17745190)

I wouldn't be so quick about getting the smallest NAS possible, since hard drives spew heat, and heat kills a drive real quick. Just because they don't come with a bigass heatsink and fan doesn't mean they don't need one. The cheapest solution I've seen so far is an Aspire X-QPack (stupid taiwanese product name). It's a cube-style chassis with a rather quiet power supply and a temperature readout on the front. You can squeeze 6 hard drives in there with an extra 120mm fan. If you go with decently priced 500gb drives you could have yourself 2.5gb of Raid-5 goodness in less than a cubic foot. The temp display is a nice extra too. It's no Petabox, but for something you can build in a few minutes using cheap off-the-shelf components, can't complain too much.

Ultimately, if noise is an issue, just hide the thing far away from your ears. You're going to run ethernet or wifi anyway, so who cares where the actual hardware is. Shove that NAS in a closet!

Sounds like it might be worthwhile. (4, Insightful)

Kadin2048 (468275) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742618)

Sounds like a good resource for someone who was planning on building an embedded/SFF PC in the immediate future.

Not sure if it would be of any benefit to the more casual reader, or one on a longer time horizon. It sounds like they make specific hardware recommendations, which would be invaluable to someone building a system today, is probably just going to be a source of frustration in twelve months, when none of the stuff they recommend will be available anymore.

Their choice to produce it as an ebook is probably a smart one, for this reason. They would barely have time to get it out the door in paper format, before the recommendations were less than cutting-edge; by the time it made its way to most readers, they'd have to hunt on eBay to get the particular parts used in the articles.

I can't tell you the number of times I've read various HOWTOs and other 'How to make a...' articles, only to meet frustration when some small key part is out of production, and the currently-produced alternative creates problems that aren't addressed. That's the limitation of HOWTOs: they only tell you how to go down one particular path, not how to survive in the proverbial woods. They're a map, not a survival guide.

So I guess if you're in the market for a 'map,' getting one that's as new as possible is probably a smart idea, and one that's been written and is produced straight to PDF, without months of waiting to be printed and sold, is probably the best thing going.

everyone else has had more secks tha me (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17742782)

INCLUDES: your mom and dad....

Harold

Mac Minis killed modding (3, Insightful)

sootman (158191) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742804)

Or my interest in it, anyway. Once upon a time, PCs were huge, but had lots of wasted space. You could put them into a smaller box, or make them really tiny once motherboards were all integrated and you could do the whole thing without PCI cards sticking out. I used several SFF Compaq Deskpros over the years and they've all been great--fast, small, cheap, and bulletproof. Then along come tiny ATX boards and neat machines can be made even smaller.

Then along comes the Mac Mini and in the last two years I've seen lots of "We took a Mac Mini and stuck it in something bigger" and I'm like, what's the point? I've got two Minis and they're great. (Though I'll buy a Mac Pro next time they're revved because I need a little more juice (mine are G4s) and a lot more disk than these little guys can hold.) I also plan to play around with a PC mini clone I saw somewhere, or maybe one of these little guys [norhtec.com] that Cringley recently had some fun with. [pbs.org]

Re:Mac Minis killed modding (1)

kahrytan (913147) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743242)

The Mini PC could also be the Koala Mini from System 76 [system76.com] .

Re:Mac Minis killed modding (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744270)

Anyone know of something like that which is a little faster and either had firewire or cardbus pcmcia? I'd like to use one for a file server but 200MHz is a little sparse if you plan to do software RAID.

Re:Mac Minis killed modding (1)

The Phantom Mensch (52436) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744386)

But the Koala Mini costs more than a Mac Mini, at least if you bring the specs up to parity.
  • Koala Mini w/ 1.66 Ghz Core 2 Duo, 80 GB disk: $833.
  • Mac Mini w/ 1.83 GHz Core Duo (not Core 2 Duo, so bump it up a notch), 80 GB Disk: $799.

Whoa......With a name like... (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17742818)

...Duane Wessels, i'd sure go by.. Duane "Nucular" Wessels...

from Alameda!

Question on Purchasing the PDF ? (4, Interesting)

adisakp (705706) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742820)

I have bad eyesight (-13 diopters) and it's hard for me to read long documents on the computer but I have no trouble printing them out and reading them. Does this $15.99 PDF have DRM protection against printing? I've run into that once or twice and it's a pain for me :(

Re:Question on Purchasing the PDF ? (2, Informative)

Tainek (912325) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742870)

Open Office will open and print any PDF

Re:Question on Purchasing the PDF ? (3, Informative)

giorgiofr (887762) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743108)

OpenOffice.org does NOT have PDF viewing capabilities. What are you talking about?

Re:Question on Purchasing the PDF ? (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17743396)

I seem to remember it's trivially easy to modify xpdf to get around the "do not print" flag in PDFs. One statement needs changing and then a recompile.

Have I just broken the DMCA?

Re:Question on Purchasing the PDF ? (1)

The Warlock (701535) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743782)

Possibly. A more important question is why isn't this statement set this way by default?

Re:Question on Purchasing the PDF ? (2, Informative)

giorgiofr (887762) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744074)

I suppose one could also use pdf2ps or some such. But PP was talking about OpenOffice.org.

Re:Question on Purchasing the PDF ? (1)

bcmm (768152) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744292)

KPDF (from KDE) has an option to make it stop following DRM instructions in PDFs (and they are generally simple flags, not actual encryption or anything). Adobe Acrobat reader is a terrible mess IMHO. Loads slowly, installs weird extensions for viewing video which no one has actually ever used, and doesn't let you do anything useful. It really gives me the feeling that the "user" being catered to is the creator of the PDF.

I should point out that alternative PDF viewers aren't like opening word docs in OO.o or even like "alternative" web browsers. As far as I can see, they pretty much always render pretty much exactly the same.

I don't really know of any proper PDF readers for Windows though. GSview can be kind of unpleasant to use, IMHO. If you are using Windows and want to print a PDF, you could always use the Knoppix LiveCD. Or wait for KDE on Windows, probably later this year. Or I have heard you can pay for a small utility to strip DRM flags from PDF files. But that seems kind of wrong.

Re:Question on Purchasing the PDF ? (1)

dan dan the dna man (461768) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744380)

Totally OT.. mine are -12. You are the first person I've ever come across with worse eyesight than me :P

Re:Question on Purchasing the PDF ? (2, Informative)

greg1104 (461138) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744498)

I regularly get PDF files from O'Reilly and have never had a problem printing them. I suspect their employees know the "don't print me!" protection in PDF is trivial to bypass by the kind of people they sell to, and I haven't heard of them using it.

The main protection I've seen them use against PDF piracy is that some of their files, like chapter downloads from the Safari service, are imprinted with a light gray background watermark that contains your customer information. This works as a good deterrant from giving the PDF out to other people without interfering with your personal use of it. I don't know if they're using that scheme on this particular download, but I'd expect that's your worst case problem.

watermark (1)

nurb432 (527695) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744618)

My pc had a trojan and the file was stolen.

Just beacuse its 'out' doent mean I did it.

Re:Question on Purchasing the PDF ? (1)

chromatic (9471) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744672)

I suspect their employees know the "don't print me!" protection in PDF is trivial to bypass by the kind of people they sell to, and I haven't heard of them using it.

More than that, it's fundamentally wrong to use technology to impede fair use. Go ahead--print that ebook! (Putting it on a filesharing network is rude, however.)

Jukebox (1)

skintigh2 (456496) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742830)

All I want in the world is basically a rack-sized iPod. A convenient screen, a cute interface, and a 3.5" HDD with a ethernet jack for transferring songs. Does that exist yet? I've seen all sorts of wired and wireless models that require a 250W file server running in another room. I just want an mp3 player with a screen you can see from across the room and a remote. Is that too much to ask?

Re:Jukebox (1)

egomaniac (105476) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743600)

The Apple TV is pretty close to what you're looking for.

Re:Jukebox (1)

SleepyHappyDoc (813919) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743724)

Sounds like you want an Apple TV. Doesn't have the 3.5 inch hard drive you wanted, but it probably does everything else you listed, and probably easier than most other options.

Re:Jukebox (1)

gnetwerker (526997) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744824)

http://www.olive.us/ [olive.us] or http://www.hifidelio.com/ [hifidelio.com] . Not cheap: US$1100 for 160Gb, but is audiophile quality, works perfectly, runs on hackable Linux (see http://www.hifidelio-user.de/ [hifidelio-user.de] (regrettably mostly in German), had both wireless and wired networking, but works completely standalone if desired. I have two.

Shuttles! (3, Interesting)

edwardpickman (965122) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742894)

I own two Shuttle boxes and the XPC is the best computer I ever owned. They're extremely easy to assemble, actually fun to build, and I've never had a problem with one. A pair of them stacked are smaller than most single towers. I wish they could handle 2 gig memory chips but that's my biggest complaint. Both have firewire connections and frontside USB and sound. My 3200 has a frontside mini firewire plug but my XPC has a fullsize frontside firewire and both have full size backside plugs. I strongly recommend them. The only machine I'd consider for a living room multimedia machine. They even look good.

this FP 7or GNAA (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17742916)

*BSD is dy1ng It is

I want a satchel PC. (2, Interesting)

neo (4625) | more than 7 years ago | (#17742974)

I want to flip open my satch and have a flexible keyboard and monitor with WIFI for surfing the web, ssh, and reading email (which for me is ssh since I read in PINE). Some way to put this into a satchel and still be able to use it as a bag would rock. I still want to carry around my sketch book and pens/pencils in the cafe.

The hard part seems to be the monitor. How to keep it safe and light weight.

Power is another problem.

Don't use a monitor.. (1)

StressGuy (472374) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743614)

At least, not when you are "on the go", use the "virtual display goggles" I've seen on occasion. Expensive, perhaps, but will fit in your "satchel" and be relatively protected.

Re:I want a satchel PC. (1)

westcoast philly (991705) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743708)

You sound like one of them damn hippies... Are you a damn hippy? sketchbook in a satchel?... Feh! what the hell is a satchel? (I'm only kidding..... I know what a satchel is)

Re:I want a satchel PC. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17744412)

This is a joke right? Buy a laptop.

Re:I want a satchel PC. (1)

captainjaroslav (893479) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744522)

Re: the monitor problem

Projectors keep getting smaller all the time, imagine propping up your sketchpad with a blank page showing and projecting your screen onto from a device the size of a cell phone.
http://www.engadget.com/2007/01/08/hands-on-with-m icrovisions-itty-bitty-projector/ [engadget.com]
The technology's not quite there yet, but it seems like this scenario is rapidly approaching reality.

gumstix (1)

tinkerghost (944862) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743284)

I was looking at the gumstix [slashdot.org] line yesterday. They have the basic MB & an audio daughter card. Since the daughter card also has pinouts for LCD displays, I was considering putting together a wall mount box for remote connection to the MP3 server. But totalling it up, I couldn't see spending $300+ in addition to however long it took me to hook up the display & create a mounting case - for that I can get a junk laptop & do more.

ok, do MAME for VSTs!! (1, Interesting)

HelloKitty (71619) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743460)


ok, you know how people build MAME cabinets?

Ok, you know how there are VST software synths, many of which emulate real hardware, and do a great job of it?

ok... merge these ideas...
make tiny boxes the size of a TB303 or so, with MIDI knobs and buttons mounted on the top with a tiny PC running only a dedicated VST on the inside...

I imagine you could design a box that would run several different VSTs, selectable from the outside...

Add a 3" LCD screen, and kickass.

ok... someone make this into a DIY project so I can build one. yeah, i'm that lazy.

Been there, done that, it's crap (1)

yoprst (944706) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743470)

Once you get used to their good looks you'll understand that other kinds of pcs are better for practically all kinds of tasks. Disclaimer: this message was submitted using SFF PC.

I might look into this book. (1)

SeaFox (739806) | more than 7 years ago | (#17743732)

I just built a machine for a gift this last Christmas, and I used the Apevia Q-Pack case. I know the measurements were given on NewEgg, but the case just seemed go big when I actually took it out of the box. One of my ideas had been that it would be possible to push the machine back on the desk and park the mousepad in front of it, but when I swapped out the old computer it was replacing (ancient HP minitower running Win98) I found the Apevia case to be exactly the same depth as the taller, but much narrower, machine it was replacing.

I was expecting the Q-Pack to be a cube in terms of measurements. But due to its wider dimensions with "normal" depth, things seem more crowded than ever on the desk now.

These books don't age well (2, Insightful)

tedgyz (515156) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744418)

I bought a book on overclocking, which at the time was quite useful. I would have written a similarly enthusiastic review. Now that it is 4 years old, the overclocking book is an amusing historical artifact for the average, power-hungry geek.

I've aged as well. :-) I am now looking for articles on underclocking for a low heat, low-noise PC - HTPC for me. The biggest challenge is, it has to play modern games like Q4 and HL2. So it is a bit of a hybrid HTPC.

MiniITX with XGL? (1)

knipknap (769880) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744504)

Can anyone recommend a MiniITX board that has a graphic chip that is fully supported by XGL? With a DVI port?

is only available from oreilly's website? (1)

nurb432 (527695) | more than 7 years ago | (#17744578)

Give it a couple of days.

Convert it to Wiki - O'Reilly - you listening?... (4, Interesting)

almondjoy (162478) | more than 7 years ago | (#17745134)

Here is a key comment in the review:
That said, some of the information will lose value over time. For example, the specific gumstix computer that was used does not appear to be available anymore. This is probably a good thing since the authors had to make some adjustments to get the 200 Mhz Bluetooth enabled version to work. I mention it only to point out that the information on the specific systems and the other instructions will lose value over time. It is impossible to future proof a work likes this.
Actually - I think it is possible to "future proof" a book like this. How?...

Convert the book to a wiki.

I've already bought the book. What if I now want to upload my own storyline as well as pictures of my project to a community maintaining an on-line version of same book? A wiki would allow anyone who has bought the book (thus they have an ID/PWD for accessing the PDF originally) to use the same login to access an online wiki based version of the book. You won't lose any revenue from account sharing, since the same person sharing their login could just as easily share the PDF file. *But*, by putting it into an access controlled wiki for those of us who have bought the book, you give us the opportunity to share our stories... to make major and minor changes as necessary as we go through the different howtos and find that things have changed slightly, components have uprev'd, etc. And, if you managed the wiki properly you might even maintain a revenue stream on the publication long after it has originally published, not because techies will want to buy an old book, but because when they do they know they'll also get access to the latest updates in the "community of users" participating in the wiki. You might be able to harvest the best that the wiki has to offer and spin that back into a PDF version, then spin that back into a wiki again. And of course all this community activity on an O'Reilly hosted site means traffic, eyeballs, impressions, etc. etc....

I know this won't work for every book and every topic. But in the case of this one it seems like a no brainer to try since the book is really just a short intro followed by a bunch of essentially standalone howto chapters. Perfect for a wiki IMO...
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