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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