Walking Around in Circles

If you look at history, things tend to go in cycles. The climate of the earth transitions between ice ages and global warming; political power ebbs and flows over the face of the world; fashions come and go, only to return again as something "new" and "exciting". It should come as no surprise that we see the same thing in the realm of computers.

The first home computers were crude by today's standards. They came in large boxes that were beige in color, they weighed a ton (folklore claims that the first executives to see the IBM PC prototype looked at it, picked it up, and declared that it would never sell because it was "too light" to be a real computer!), and it goes without saying that they were slow. The expansion options were also rather limited. You could add a second floppy drive, or if you were really wealthy, you might try out a hard drive; but for the most part, you bought the box and then used it until it was time to upgrade.

Over time, we began to see a larger array of options. The cases began to come in different sizes and shapes, and no longer were we confined to two or three drive slots. The mid-tower case was created with room for three or more external 5.25" drives, two external 3.5" drives, and three or more internal 3.5" drives. It was even possible to make use of all of these expansion options at one time. Back in the early 90s, we had 5.25" and 3.5" floppy drives, hard drives, tape backup drives, and there were even devices such as the old Iomega Bernoulli drives (precursor to the Zip/Jaz drives). We also saw the introduction of CD-ROM drives, followed by CD-R, DVD-ROM, and now DVDR. Some of the devices have faded away, of course, but at one point in time, it was conceivable for a case to hold at least two external storage drives (floppy and Zip), a CD-ROM, and two or more hard drives. Then there were the other expansion cards. You might have a graphics card, hard drive/floppy drive controller, network and/or modem, sound card, SCSI card, and possibly even one more card for some specialized use - a SCSI card for a scanner was not uncommon.

Thankfully, we no longer have these issues - at least not to the same extent. What has changed? Maybe things are cycling back around to simpler days? Maybe this is progress? Perhaps it's a story of convergence? In actuality, it's probably all these things and more. Why have a CD-RW and DVD+RW drive in addition to a DVD-ROM drive when a single DVD+RW drive can do the work of all three? At most, you might need a second drive to allow for disc to disc transfers. Contrast this to several years ago when some CD-RW drives would have difficulty reading CD-ROMs and CD-ROM drives could have difficulty reading CD-Rs. Now, one drive can handle all formats properly - not just in theory, but also in practice. Having two hard drives might be nice at times, but there are very few instances where it's absolutely necessary - one large, fast drive is usually sufficient. As for expansion cards, who needs them? You get sound, network, hard drive, etc. all on the motherboard, and often graphics as well. You might get a graphics card, and even sound and SCSI are still possibilities, but that's usually as far as it goes. External interfaces have now been merged into USB and Firewire, which offer simplified connections along with higher performance. So, why stick with a large, heavy case when you don't need all that extra space?

Obviously, Shuttle asked this exact question of their engineers back in 2000 or so, and the answer was that we don't need the large cases - or at least, most of us don't. It's worth mentioning that Apple has been asking these same questions for a long time. In fact, it was only later in Apple's history that they started to give more expansion options. Maybe Shuttle just wanted to copy Apple, but regardless of what sparked the idea, the Shuttle XPC was created and released on an unsuspecting world. Thus was born the Small Form Factor (SFF) case.

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  • archcommus87 - Friday, December 10, 2004 - link

    Sounds good to me, looking forward to the review!

    My main issue is two expansion slots, does not allow for sound card and TV tuner.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, December 10, 2004 - link

    You'll have to pardon a few errors and omissions on my part. As I stated in the article, this is my first time using such a system. Combo floppy/flash drives are a possibility, as are external devices. There are *numerous* add-on parts available for the Shuttle XPC line, including WiFi and LPT. The main point that you simply can't fit as much stuff in a SFF case as you can in an ATX case still stands, but you have to take that point with the general tone of my article: you don't *NEED* to have that much stuff inside your case - at least, most of us don't.

    The upcoming SFF roundup will try to address such concerns as the integrated audio solutions, heat output, noise output (measured with an actual dB SPL device), case temperatures, upgradeability and optional components, etc.; and of course, price will also play a role. This was a first look/first encounter article and not a formal review. This is more of a "why should *anyone* consider an SFF in the first place" article. In two words: noise, size.

    Comments in this thread are certainly noted and I will do my best to take them into account in the formal reviews. Thanks!
    Reply
  • darkrequiem - Friday, December 10, 2004 - link

    Contrary to the author's statement, you CAN have a flash card reader, floppy, LPT, wireless, etc. in the Shuttle system. I have an SN45GV2, and I bought Shuttle's 802.11G module, which uses a USB header on the motherboard, and I got a Mitsumi floppy drive, flash card reader combo drive that uses the external 3.5" bay, and the card reader connects to the motherboard's other USB header. The motherboard has a header for an LPT port, and Shuttle sells a ribbon cable to connect it to a punch-out on the back of the case. This leaves me room for my NEC 2510A DVD burner, a 120GB ATA133 Maxtor drive, a Radeon 9800Pro 256MB AGP card, and a currently free PCI slot that will eventually be home to an ATI HDTV Wonder. For the curious, I'm running an Athlon XP 3200+ and 1GB of Corsair TwinX DDR400 with 2-2-2-5 timings. Reply
  • Phantronius - Friday, December 10, 2004 - link

    #31

    Depends on peoples need. In my case, I use my Audigy 2 as onboard sound for the Shuttles still takes up to many CPU cycles.

    You cannot use any other PSU except Shuttles mini PSU and no other party makes PSU's that will fit inside shuttles case. You COULD hook up an ATX PSU to the outside, but then its gonna look like hell. Shuttles do not need large PSU's as you can only put in so much into them.

    Floppies are only really needed for BIOS flashing , RAID installations and other applications, again, it boils down to users needs.

    If you need pics of the inside of the SN95G go here and look at the pictures to the left

    http://www.newegg.com/app/ViewProductDesc.asp?desc...
    Reply
  • archcommus87 - Friday, December 10, 2004 - link

    Thing is with Shuttles, since there are only two slots in the back, and since we'd all have AGP or PCI-E video cards, we can only have one PCI card. Many of us have a TV tuner. So...what to do with sound? Must you use an onboard solution?

    How cramped is it inside exactly? I'm sure some pics will help with that when the review comes around.

    Can you use any PSU? Of course not. Can you buy ones individually that are the right size?

    And, back to the floppy drive issue, you can use a jump drive for transferring small files from place to place, and a bootable CD for Memtest. What about flashing BIOSes? Can that be done without a floppy? And, if so, do we need our floppies at all?
    Reply
  • nostriluu - Friday, December 10, 2004 - link


    Jarred, thanks for your comment. Anandtech is a pretty influential site, perhaps they could pick up a serious green edge before we are drowning in all the hardware you made us buy. ;) Lessee.. performance in games, databases, heat, noise, and company environmental committment, yes I think that works. Difficult at first but leading edge.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 09, 2004 - link

    My personal take is that most people that buy a SFF are going to get rid of the entire system when they're ready to upgrade rather than just replacing components. In fact, I think a lot more people do that with ATX systems than most frequent upgraders think. About the only time I swap motherboards within a case is when a motherboard dies an early death; otherwise, I'm more likely to just buy a new case and sell the existing system. Granted, SFF cases cost a lot more than an ATX case, but when you really look at what's included it isn't such a terrible price to pay.

    As far as heat is concerned, we will be attempting to address that in our SFF roundup by including a more modern graphics card and running some system stress tests. I've played quite a few games and have not noticed any heat issues yet, but when paired with a 6800 GT or X800 Pro (or faster) graphics card, it may cause the fans to run at a higher RPM.

    Nostriluu, the environment certainly can use some protection. I can assure you, however, that my introduction had nothing to do with clearing a guilty conscience. It was just an itroductory paragraph - when you're experiencing writer's block and trying to get an article written, you never know what will come out. :)
    Reply
  • Andyvan - Thursday, December 09, 2004 - link

    Note that micro-ATX based SFF have 1 AGP and 3 PCI slots.

    -- Andyvan
    Reply
  • archcommus87 - Thursday, December 09, 2004 - link

    Also, with an SFF, how likely are you to be able to buy a new mainboard but keep the current case if you ever want to upgrade?

    And how much of an issue is heat really when gaming?
    Reply
  • archcommus87 - Thursday, December 09, 2004 - link

    Bootable ISO CD images. Sounds good, but is it as convenient as a floppy? What about flashing a BIOS?

    Who here doesn't have one?
    Reply

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