Via has ultra small PC mobo – now, where do you put it?

The challenges of building markets for Mini-ITX

Via Technologies was in town yesterday extolling the virtues of its Mini-ITX form factor boards, and showing a couple of designs that at least give you an idea of where a PC based on a board measuring 170x170mm might end up. The Mini-ITX now comes in fanless and fanned flavours, based on the Eden ESP processor core and the C3 E-Series respectively, and yes indeed you can install Windows XP on them and have an extremely small PC - but that, in our estimation, is not the point, and we don't think Via thinks that's the point either.

Via has been pushing the Mini-ITX for a while now, and concedes that it's been uphill work, from the point of view both of establishing the form factor and positioning the resulting products. Cases that small aren't exactly common on the component circuit, and then there's the question of how small that is, and what kind of shape sir would like his PC to be. Sure, you could shove the board into a svelte box that accommodated it, and no more, but in order to do so you'd rule out internal everything, including power supply, which you would have to make external. Even going for an internal power supply has questions associated with it, because compared to the board, standard power supplies are huge, and the fan on the power supply kind of impedes your ability to produce a svelte and silent PC.

So you either want to go external, or source something fanless and a little more bespoke that goes with the package size. You thought building motherboards was just about features, price, quality and chucking them at the market? Not if you're trying to get a new form factor together it isn't - you (or in this case Via) have to work hard to get other companies to build the supporting components.

Nor are your customers always entirely helpful. The Register, which has an extremist view of such things, fixed the fan that had sprouted on the newest version with a basilisk glare and queried its introduction. (For your information, we have noted on several occasions the failure of allegedly quality web servers appears to have been attributable to failure of cheap fans. We are therefore heavily fan-hostile, even before you get to the noise question). This however is one of several areas where demand for extra oomph from the CPU requires cooling, and fans are more cost-effective.

In principle Via reckons that CPU MHz is not the way you measure the power of a machine, and that in this form factor in particular it's much more about all of the other features you have built into the board, but in practice, today, the market doesn't entirely agree. Nor, despite it being many years since Microsoft and Intel started saying 'stop including floppies now' is it practical to remove floppy support. People still want floppies, and just telling them they can't have them (unusually, The Reg is in full agreement with Wintel on this) is unacceptable. Some system builders, Via suggested to us, even want floppies because they've got cases that have got holes for floppies, so they feel they ought to put something in them.

Grief. This kind of thinking takes you into Stupidland, where you take a small board, surround it with standard components and end up with a PC which is slightly smaller than, er, a small PC. Which again is not the point, but you can see why it's uphill work for Via.

The company is however trucking around a couple of designs that are more to the point, and while in our view they're still a bit too much on the boxy side, they give you an idea of where we ought to be going. Bleu Jour's is a fairly trad PC in a not unpleasing cube shape, but we still have standardised components in the shape of a full height 5.25in bay and space for twin 3.5in drives. Nice, but in the Mini-ITX form factor we reckon somebody ought to be thinking portable computer form factor, ultra-slim CD/DVD and single 2.5in hard drive. More expensive, sure, but not as expensive as a portable with a TFT in it. If it's nice, of ccourse, they're still going to have to buy an external TFT to go with it, but that's their problem.

The Via Hi Fi Concept PC, which was unveiled at the 2002 Via Technology Forum, is more radical, and particularly interesting because of the questions it raises about the role and configuration of PCs within the world of consumer electronics. It's a little more boxy than it looks in the pictures, but it's a concept, not a product, so we shouldn't mark it down to heavily for that.

What it does, and does rather well, is play music and DVDs. Via proudly tells us it's an item of consumer electronics because the DVD drive is hidden behind a folding panel, so it looks cool, doesn't look like a PC... well, whatever. Anyway, one of the more significant things about this design is that the audio, DVD and general consumer electronics are in the bios, so you switch it on, it comes on immediately, and plays you what you want played. Erm, rather like a piece of consumer electronics.

It's also a PC, of course. If you want to use the PC, you proceed past the bios and - in the case of the demo unit - boot Windows XP. This was, we observed, a jolting experience, but it is not Via's fault that it is, as such. How fast does XP boot? Not very, compared with switching the TV on. Couldn't you just have XP running all the time, play your stuff that way, and have it go into sleep mode and resume at the touch of a key? Well, not really - how confident are you that an XP PC can be as reliable and as easy to work as a TV, and how quickly (or indeed reliably) does yours resume? That's before you even get to the insanity of having a piece of consumer electronics demand you type in your product key when you first switch it on.

Despite Microsoft's view that XP should be the centre of home entertainment, it clearly is not battle-ready in this sector. Nor indeed is any other PC OS, so if you're talking about PC-based devices infiltrating the world of consumer electronics (and in this package size, you clearly ought to be), then more specialist and embedded operating systems are more likely players. It could be CE (coincidentally, CE certification for Mini-ITX was announced this week), but it could equally be Linux, BSD or A N Other stripped-down OS. But it needs to be something that doesn't look like a PC OS - it might give you email, web browsing, various applications, but these are extras on top of the core entertainment/specialist functionality, and they need to be accessible without the jolt.

Seen in that light, success for Mini-ITX type form factors could be seen as subverting the Microsoft pitch (writ large with XP Media Center) that the PC is the centre. The alternative would be the PC, strangely changed and evolved, which infiltrates and fades into the environment. It is, as we said, an uphill task, and Via is nothing like there yet, but it's an interesting experiment that we think deserves encouragement. Foolhardy as always The Register has booked an eval and proposes to try to build something small and cute, rather than just shoving it in a standard box and trying to imagine it's small really. This may take us some time, so don't hold your breath. ®

Further information:
Mini-ITX details
Even more Mini-ITX details

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