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.

Reactions to the SFF


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  • nostriluu - Thursday, December 9, 2004 - link

    OK, I realize this is going to get erased as a troll, but its not meant to be one.

    The first paragraph on this article seems to be trying to clear people's conscience on the issue of e-waste.

    Its undeniable that there are huge cycles that are our of our control, but there is also an impact from e-waste that creates minor disasters and disease for people around the world.

    Anandtech could try to be a responsible site by acknowledging this factor and encouraging efforts, such as "cradle to grave" enviromental consideration for hazardous(!) material, recyling for needy organizations, encourage vendors to "green" their products (which is already happening) and so on.

    Ignoring this issue, or trying to dismiss it, puts Anandtech into a category of conscienceless consumerism that makes the world a worse place to live.

    Tech enthusiasm and responsible living can go hand in hand, otherwise you can only consider yourself greedy, and tech enthusiasm becomes a form of putting ones head in the sand.

    And yes, individuals are responsible for messes that are created.
  • PrinceGaz - Thursday, December 9, 2004 - link

    #18- "We all run Memtest, of course, so how can we escape the floppy?"

    They provide bootable ISO CD images you can download and burn, so you don't need a floppy.
  • Saist - Thursday, December 9, 2004 - link

    Just wanted to state that I picked up Solteks EQ3801 and have been quite pleased by the case...

    What concerns me about SFF units is the power supply... or rather, lackthere of.
  • archcommus87 - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    Not here.

    My computer's loud, because I run all four of my fans at top speed to keep temps okay with my 467 MHz overclock. But after awhile you just get used to it and it really doesn't bother me anymore.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    20 - Are you listening to them on a Windows machine? I've tried them on three computers (a 1.13 GHz P3, a 2.8C P4, and my own Athlon 64 3200+) and didn't have any issues. They should be relatively quiet, and the quality isn't great but should be sufficient. Anyone else having issues with the WAV files? Reply
  • Avalon - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    All the sound wavs sound extremely distorted, like bombs going off in WW2 :D Reply
  • snowman - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    I just posted the following Review on New Egg's site this week. Looks like we're on the same page.

    Snowman,12/4/2004 7:22:20 AM

    I'm a 55 year old Extreme Gamer. I've been building gaming rigs since before it was cool. I build a new box every year and, with my experience, I try to beat Max PC's Dream Machine. My wife gets my old rig. She was OK with it, but she always said they were too big, noisy, lit-up, and intimidating. So I built her one of these for Christmas.

    I was concerned that it might be very difficult because I wear a XXL glove size and still can palm a basketball. All I can say is "WOW". The quality is first rate, instructions are easy to understand and the design is superior. I really took my time and had it up and runing with XP Pro w/SP2 installed in under 3 hours. Everything is well thought out and, if you take your time, goes together in a logical manner. The onboard sound is even good for all but gamers. Nothing got scratched during assembly, because I took my time and used my head. This was by far the most trouble free build ever.

    What impressed me the most was the quiet. You can hardly hear it. The heatsink and fan that comes with it is high quality (TT) and quiet too. Sure, I put an Antec slot fan in for more air flow but it is still very quiet. Boot time is quick. This is a dream and she just loves it. That was the goal.

    AMD Athlon 64 3400+
    1 Gig Kingston Hyper-X 3200
    eVGA 6800 GT
    Lite-On 52x32x52x16 Combo drive
    Samsung FDD
    200 gb Seagate HD SATA
    Antec slot fan

    A quick note. I tried installing 2 WD Raptors in Raid 0. It worked fine, but the noise from the drives was distracting and louder than anything in the case. 1 SATA 200 GB Seagate did the trick and preserved the quiet.

    I highly recommend this product. It won't take a 6800 Ultra and it does get hot during gaming sessions of more than 1 hour with Doom3, Far Cry, Impossible Creatures, etc. If your goal is to build a super fast, super quiet, high quality computer about the size of a 4 slice toaster this is definately for you.
  • archcommus87 - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    I have looked at Shuttles and other SFFs in the past, however I noticed that, although they have two PCI slots, do they not only have TWO expansion slots in the back? So wouldn't that only allow for a video card and one PCI card? That automatically counts me out, as I must have my Audigy 2 and TV tuner. But that's just now, with my computer in my basement, where there's no space for a TV. In college, where I won't even have cable in my dorm, I won't need a TV tuner, and may even have onboard audio. In such a case I guess an SFF could fit me okay, as I only use one HDD, one optical, and one floppy.

    As far as companies not letting go of older tech, yes, that bothers me sometimes, as well. I really didn't think parallel ports have been necessary for awhile now for most users. For floppies, well, when I put together my current system this past summer, I DID at first try to not have one, but I ended up giving in and putting one in, because I needed it for BIOS flashes and for running Memtest. We all run Memtest, of course, so how can we escape the floppy?

    Still, I don't like the idea of hardly being able to fit a 6800 Ultra, and having a hotter computer, and it being harder to assemble the thing because of space. I always like a roomy interior. So, perhaps I will always prefer the roomier, more robust case for my main computer, even though I don't use a ton of extra features. However, for a kitchen, living room, or HTPC, an SFF sounds like a great idea.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    I have noted the availability of a parallel port connection on the last page. This was not meant as a formal review of either product - just a first impression of use with the equipment that was included with the box. The roundup will include all the details about front and rear connections as well as expansion options, so have no fear.

    I haven't actually used a SFF before, as I mentioned, and I actually agree with the sentiments of Wernst (if that wasn't clear from reading the article). The whole point of the "history lesson" at the beginning was to show how large cases really *aren't* necessary these days.

    Regarding the heat issue, the fans in the SFF cases can actually spin up to very high RPMs if the case gets too hot, so I don't think it will be any more of a problem than with ATX cases. Unfortunately, since it's winter now, I don't have a good way to simulate 95+ F temperatures in my house. (Well, maybe not too unfortunate...)

    Finally, regarding the "patience" required to use an older P3 1.13 GHz: trust me, things have changed enough now that a 1.13 GHz really does struggle to keep up with certain common tasks these days. Many HTML sites use dozens of tables on each page, and rendering tables really taxes the CPU. There's a forum I frequent where page loads for longer threads (15+ posts) on the 1.13 GHz take 10 seconds or more to complete. You can live with it, but when you're just going back to a thread that has one new post, a 10 second delay is irritating. In comparison, an a P4 2.8 and an Athlon 64 3200+, threads all load and render in about 2 seconds. Playing DivX or Xvid movies on a P3 can also have problems - the audio will often get out of synch due to the processor being pegged at 100%. Anyway, as I said, you *can* live with a 1 GHz machine, but there are going to be some things that require patience.
  • wernst - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    I've always built beige boxes, but my latest machine is an SFF from Soltek. It is small, quiet, easy to transport to LAN parties or gaming conventions (I can bring it on the airplane as a carry-on item too, complete with its own backback that came with the system), as fast as anything I see at a gaming convention, and it looks nice to boot.

    The "lack of expandability" statement always bothers me. Now that we have USB2 and Firewire, the vast majority of expansion can (and does) take place outside of the computer case. I mean, I have a high-end AGP video card, a SB Audigy PCI card, and room for three drives (1 HDD and 2 Optical, or 2HDD and 1 Optical), and a floppy drive in this little SFF case. What more do I need these days inside the box? I don't need a SCSI card any more, or a RAID controller, a silly tape-backup system wired into the floppy cables, or multiple parallel ports, since USB and FireWire handle all these things wonderfully. Networking is built-in too.

    The other argument against SFF that I always wonder about is the "I can just get a new mainboard and reuse the case for upgrades." OK, that's true, and I have done it many times in the past, but not lately. Lately, I'd rather spend a few extra dollars on a new case for the new maiboard so that I can have TWO comptuers that actually work at the same time. Instant LAN party! A test machine for troubleshooting! A spare box a friend can use while I'm on mine!

    The main reason you don't see more people clamoring for SFF boxes is because the average PC Consumer doesn't know about them. When clients see my SFF system, they tell me they want me to build them one the next time they need something new. When Dell starts selling such systems, I guarantee that people will start wanting them too.

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