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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  • henan - Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - link

    I liked your article, even if it is something I would not buy unless I had lots of money to spare and wanted an extra toy. I like having the possibilities and as many of us I often install or just play around with a device, wich would not be as easy with an SFF.

    About that LPT port, as some suggest shuttle offers the addons. Another option would simply be to use a USB to LPT converter. About 20 dollars here in sweden. Why not a printserver? Many do have a home network setup. Of course you could spend that on a new printer, but why not use a printer that works? The converter will make it last until it finally brakes down (the enviroment issue...). Call me old fashioned, but I still use one!

    /Henrik of Stockholm
  • willndowed - Tuesday, January 11, 2005 - link

    I've got a shuttle SN45G system w/ a Athlon2800+, 1G of Ram... it was one with the 8X AGP port and I've got a 128M ATI 9600 video card in it.

    It's getting a little on the aged side, about a year old or so, but I've had nothing but good luck with it. It's been a great little machine. It's pretty good on overclocking, it' lets me OC the CPU to 3200+. It's got the ICE heat pipes that does a pretty darned good job of keep it cool.

    I've done a few things to it, put a couple small 12v headlight tinting lights into it for case l ights and put a clear acrylic case on it. I've also put Battlefield on the front behind the acrylic front which gives it a little of a 3d look to it.

    The real plus to this system is LAN parties. It's got a bag that fits it, so instead of making 3 or 4 trips hauling a 20 pound case huge monitor and a ton of other stuff... I load it into a bag, strap the keyboard and mouse to it, grab my monitor and go.

    For the last year it's been a great machine...

    ... though I am going to build me a huge monster, this little system I'm going to keep it around.
  • RedWolf - Tuesday, December 14, 2004 - link

    Nice article, Jarred. I completely understand about the little ones and the need to put the pc on the desk. I acquired an Antec Aria a month ago (traded a lanboy/mobo on the forums for it) and have been trying to make it better for high-end gaming.

    After lots of modding I got a BFG 6800 OC. Well, the 6800 was pretty loud, even at 50% speed. I bought an Artic Cooling VGA Silencer and it doesn't quite fit.

    So, I gave up on the Aria as a high-end gaming case and will be moving my wifes component's into it.

    I am looking into smaller atx cases now that have 120mm fans AND have a locking door on the front. That should keep little fingers away from the reset and power buttons. I guess I should have just taken my Lanboy and put it on my desk.

    Anyway, I look forward to the SFF roundup you guys are doing. Don't forget to include the Aria and maybe even the Hornet.
  • flachschippe - Monday, December 13, 2004 - link

    Talking about trends going to and fro:
    The Apple II of about 1978 *had* expansion slots. There was an enormous number of different cards available. It was said that the IBM PC's design
    copied this aspect. Surprisingly, the first Apple Macintosh, of about 1984, was not user-upgradeable at all.
  • Phantronius - Monday, December 13, 2004 - link

    As nice as SFF are, they simply just won't work for me. As frequently as I upgrade my equipment, my overhead costs and assache to upgrade using SFF would be a nightmare.

    I use Shuttle as workstations at work and build them for clients but for my gaming stations, I'll stick with ATX for a good long time.
  • flachschippe - Monday, December 13, 2004 - link

    Talking about trends going to and fro:
    The Apple II of about 1978 *had* expansion slots. There was an enormous number of different cards available. It was said that the IBM PC's design
    copied this aspect. Surprisingly, the first Apple Macintosh, of about 1984, was not user-upgradeable at all.
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, December 12, 2004 - link

    Gioron - I just didn't want to be too hard on Shuttle when I haven't tried all of the other cases. The ASUS didn't give me any trouble, but maybe that was just luck, as I was using a different drive in that unit. I figure that many of the models with the drive covers are going to have some issues, and while Lian Li may have gotten it right, I haven't ever used one of their cases so I can't speak from personal experience.

    Anyway, it was about 10 minutes of work to get the drive positioned where it needed to be, so while annoying at the time it isn't a problem after assembly. Frequent upgraders would really have issues with most of the SFFs I've tried.
  • Gioron - Sunday, December 12, 2004 - link

    err, correction: "adjusting the screws with the case open _and the computer turned on_"
  • Gioron - Sunday, December 12, 2004 - link

    Since I have an sn95g5 the one thing I was looking for (and found) in your article was mention of that dang CD drive button. I had the same problems getting the drive properly aligned, and personally feel that the tolerance is actually much less than 1/16" (though that might vary with the model of drive that you're installing). I eventually resorted to adjusting the screws with the case open, which is not exactly a good thing.

    In regards to your "there is no perfect solution" line about this, go find a lian-li case and one of its universal drive covers. The button is _under_ the drive plate, giving direct pressure to the CD's button and a much longer travel length and tolerance for misajustment. I see no reason (well, aside from possible patents or something) that Shuttle couldn't have coppied the same basic layout and put the drive button below and eliminated the funky lever system thats eating up most of the button travel distance and making the drive placement so difficult.

    Of course, aside from that one minor pet peeve I'm happy with my SFF case, and feel the advantages are more than worth the limitations.
  • IceWindius - Saturday, December 11, 2004 - link


    You gain some, and you loose some. Either use the onboard sound or stick with ATX.

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