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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  • fitten - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    I have had two Shuttle SN41G2s for almost two years now and I like them a lot. However, for my next SFF build, I'm going to go with an Antec Aria case and a microATX motherboard because it gives more options than the barebones SFFs while being only a little larger (but still plenty small enough to carry to our frequent mini-LAN parties).

    As a sidenote, my wife really likes her SN41G2, even more than the A64 3000+ I built for her a few months ago (mid-tower case), just because the Shuttle is "cute" and small.
  • jediknight - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    Maybe it's just me, but personally I don't find the idea of spending more money for something that's less expandable appealing.

    Certainly, for some a SFF case is a godsend.. but for me, it's the big 'ol beige case or bust :->
  • Scott333 - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    For the roundup, please mention the number of front and back USB ports, not that Anandtech would leave it out ;)

    My only complaint about the article was the description of the lacking Parallel port (like ieya). It's practically a non issue for most people, and in a sense I have distaste for computer makers that insist on essentially useless legacy support. For example, I want my next PC to not have a 3.5 inch floppy drive nor a cd-rom, so even if they came free I wouldn't buy it.

    The option for people who need it is exactly what they should have. Besides, you can get USB printers for free (plus 50 dollars for ink of course :).

    Then again, I'm sure most readers wouldn't see your comment as a true fault of the Shuttle, just that I agree with Ieya, its very far from a deal killer.

    Good article, looking forward to the details.

  • nastyemu25 - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    jkostans, software has changed since 200mhz was top of the line... and it has also changed since 1.13ghz was top of the line. i use office suite 2003 apps at work on my p4 2ghz that run significantly faster than they do on my 1 ghz tb at home. Reply
  • jkostans - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    I'm sorry but if you feel you need patience to use a 1.13Ghz P3 computer then you've got some problems. You must have been going out of your mind when the pentium pro 200Mhz was top of the line....... I use a 600Mhz SPARC processor at work everyday and it's no slower for browsing than my XP 3000+ back home. Reply
  • ieya - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    As to the lack of parallel port on the Shuttle SFF, it's almost certainly an option; I built my mum a Shuttle box recently, using the nForce2 based one with integrated graphics.

    It, too, lacks a parallel port (interestingly enough the newer and higher-end SN84G4, which I built my dad's XPC around, does have a parallel port), however there's a cutout at the top of the case for one, and it's a cheaply available option from the same suppliers as you get the Shuttle XPCs on. Basically a parallel port with a cable which plugs onto a header on the mobo ...

    So basically just to note that the lack of parallel port needn't be a 'deal killer' on the XPCs :)
  • athrap - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    One thing I want to be addressed in the next article on SFF is the heat issue. I live in a HOT area and my computer room does not have air-conditiong. Even with a normal case, heat builup becomes a problem here in summer. Therefore, I want to know how much difference is there between an ATX case and SFF case as far as cooling is concerned. Reply
  • bandrade - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    I'm also looking forward to the roundup. Especially if it includes high end SFF with 939 sockets and the best mid-level ones according to price vs. performance. This will definitely help me decide what to get. Reply
  • IceWindius - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    I really wish Shuttle would get with fixing the Cold boot, SATA and incorrect temp problems with the SN95G Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    Thanks for the comments! I believe the front image is now fixed - I missed the standard format size initially and had to tweak it.

    If this wasn't entirely clear, I *really* like the change from a large ATX case to a SFF. The Shuttle in particular is really sleek. Now I just need to get around to the actually replacing most of my furniture. Brown particle-board desks that have seen better days with a hodge-podge of couches and chairs - it's pretty bad. (And we won't even talk about all the computer boxes and parts around the house.) :)

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