When size matters, mini PCs make sense
Aug 3, 2008, 9:29 GMT
Washington - Notebook computers are the ultimate space-savers, but you give up a lot when you use them. The screens are small, the keyboards often uncomfortable, and expansion options are limited. Full-sized desktop computers, on the other hand, come with their own downsides - and foremost among them is the fact that they take up a lot of space and consume gobs of electricity.
Enter the small form factor (SFF) PC. Marrying the space-saving, power-sipping advantages of a notebook with the comfort and power of a desktop is their forte. Add in competitive pricing and a growing number of models from which to choose, and you end up with a compelling alternative to traditional PCs for those who don't necessarily need to carry their computer with them.
--- Sizing up your options
SFF PCs actually come in many sizes. The smallest models are no bigger than a conventional hardback novel, while the largest models can be about half the size of a traditional desktop or mini tower computer. The larger models generally offer more flexibility with expansion - providing more space to put internal hard drives, for example.
But all SFF PCs can integrate gracefully with their surroundings, something that no traditional computer - with its gaggle of wires and bulky exterior - can hope to accomplish. And that's good news for lots of PC users today. Instead of having to put up with the unsightly mess that often surrounds a typical computer, owners of an SFF PC can rediscover the tops of their desks or say good-bye to the dust balls and jumble of wires that accompany the floor-standing models. Pair an SFF PC with a sleek flat-panel monitor and a wireless keyboard and mouse, and you can compute in complete comfort yet quickly reclaim your workspace when not using the PC.
--- The players
Small form factor PCs are all but mainstream now, so you'll find SFF models from the major computer manufacturers. But the SFF movement started with a big push from lesser-known computer makers, and those smaller manufacturers are still among the most active participants. All of the major players in the SFF market ship internationally.
CappuccinoPC (http://www.cappuccinopc.com) is often credited as the earliest proponent of the SFF PC, and this New York-based manufacturer still offers one of the widest selections of small form factor units around.
Most of CappuccinoPC's more than one dozen models are about the size of a large hardback novel but still sport some of the highest-performance technology available, including dual-core desktop processors, gigabit Ethernet, and midrange graphics processors.
Many of CappuccinoPC's models also tout very low power consumption, fanless construction for noise-free computing, and industrial-strength cases for durability.
If CappuccinoPC was one of the first to push the SFF PC, Apple's entry into the market with its Mac Mini (http://www.apple.com/macmini) can be credited with putting SFF PCs in front of the masses. The Mac Mini first appeared in early 2006, and Apple's emphasis on style, along with the Mac Mini's diminutive profile, quickly won the model a sizable following. The Mac Mini originally ran on PowerPC processors and was therefore not compatible with Windows, but current models are powered by Intel processors and can run Windows as well as Mac OS X.
Shuttle's (http://us.shuttle.com) is another mainstay of the SFF category. The company's SFF PCs may represent the best option for former desktop owners who don't want to sacrifice any performance whatsoever in achieving the goal of small and unobtrusive. Shuttle's units, many of which are a tad bigger and higher than the tiny Mac Mini or other book-sized computers, reward their users with high-end performance and enclosures that are just big enough to house some heavy-duty storage in the form of two or three hard drives.
Dell, one of the largest of all PC makers, is playing catch-up in the SFF market. While Dell does not have a conventional SFF PC in its lineup, the company does offer the pint-sized Inspiron 530 and XPS 210, mini-tower PCs that are about half the size of a standard mini-tower or desktop. Dell's XPS One is an 'all in one' model that has no freestanding computer box at all but rather integrates the computer into the unit's monitor. Each of Dell's small form factor offerings gives up something that the other SFF PCs provide. The XPS One owners have to settle for one size when it comes to the monitor, and the 530 and 210 models, while small, can hardly be tucked away among a stack of books.
--- Expanding a SFF PC
If SFF PCs give up anything to their bigger brothers in the desktop realm, it's lots of space for additional storage and powerful graphics suitable for serious game playing or heavy-duty multimedia work. On the graphics front, SFF PCs are often simply limited in their upgrade potential, since the small space inside an SFF PC can mean that there's not enough room to house or cool today's fastest - and hottest - graphics cards. So pay close attention to the type of graphics card provided with any SFF PC you're considering buying. The graphics card you purchase with the unit may be one you'll have to live with.
In the area of storage, though, you have plenty of options, even if your SFF PC cannot accommodate another hard drive internally. External hard drives come in all shapes and sizes today, and many SFF PC owners rely upon one or more external hard drives for additional storage or space to back up critical files. Your best course of action is to get an SFF PC with as large an internal hard drive as you can, but don't stress too much about not having enough space, since adding more is relatively painless.
SFF PCs take us one step closer to ridding ourselves once and for all of the clutter that has accompanied PCs for the past few decades. Their most significant downside is cost. They tend to run for about twice that of traditional, larger desktop computers. The good news, though, is that traditional computers have become commodities, with prices as low as 300 dollars, so even twice that for a small form factor PC is still a lot less than we all paid for a computer just a couple of short years ago.