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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  • carldon - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    Nice article, Jarred. I enjoyed it and it was a welcome change from the benchmarks we see regularly (which I enjoy too). I wish we see more articles like this and the earlier Mac experience article.

  • carldon - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

  • CasmirRadon - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    I too am looking forward to building a sff system myself someday when I have the $$$ for it. I just built a new system a couple months back, so it will probably be a while before I can justify that kind of purchase. But that little shuttle is very attractive. Reply
  • klah - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    I don't see the icon on the front page, just an empty box with the alt-text.

  • Andyvan - Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - link

    I'm really looking forward to the roundup, as I'm thinking of replacing my current computer with something smaller and quieter.

    I've also been looking at micro-ATX cases, such as the Antec Aria. That would allow replacing the motherboard but keeping the case.

    -- Andyvan

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