Low End PC

Little Computers, Big Possibilities

Part 1 of a Series

- From the Jargon File, version 4.3.1, 29 June 2001:

bitty box /bit'ee boks/ n.
1. A computer sufficiently small, primitive, or incapable as to cause a hacker acute claustrophobia at the thought of developing software on or for it. Especially used of small, obsolescent, single-tasking-only personal machines such as the Atari 800, Osborne, Sinclair, VIC-20, TRS-80, or IBM PC.
2. [Pejorative] More generally, the opposite of "real computer" (see Get a real computer!). See also mess-dos, toaster, and toy.

This entry in the Jargon File is actually several years old. 1996 to be exact. In the past couple of years, there have been several advances which have meant that truly capable computers in small packages are a reality. Perhaps it's time to reframe the term "Bitty Box" this way:

bitty box /bit'ee boks/ n.
1. A small form-factor desktop computer, particularly one with aesthetics that can be characterized as "cute." (see kawaii) These small desktop computers emerged during the late 1990s and came into their own at the dawn of the 21st Century of the Common Era with the introduction of Nvidia's nForce motherboard chipset and ATI's Radeon IGP motherboard chipset. These machines became replacements for both laptops and desktops amongst many computer enthusiasts, particularly those who enjoy participating in LAN parties. See LAN party.

In the article I did about rescuing a $30 dot-bomb casualty computer, I mentioned just how useful a physically lightweight a desktop computer can be. For years, the portable computer market has belonged to the laptop. However, laptops are expensive and incredibly proprietary. And low-end used/refurbished laptops that are powerful enough to be truly usable are few and far between, and they command prices almost as stratospheric as their new counterparts.

For the LAN Party crowd, there's another consideration: Laptops usually have very crappy video that cannot stand up to the demands of gaming.

My little $30 PC is not necessarily the answer to replacing the laptop. While small, it is still too big to be carried around casually. It weighs a little less than 20 pounds, but who wants to lug 20 pounds back and forth from office to home and back?

Luckily there are alternatives. With some recent advances, including perhaps the first motherboard chipset that yields usable onboard video and audio, we stand at a point where a useful, readily portable computer is a reality.

What can one do with a small computer? Well, the LAN Party phenomenon is one application, but certainly not the only one. This will allow a person who needs to work partially at home and partially in the office to physically take their computer home with them - and do so at far lower cost than with a laptop. All one would need at both locations would be a keyboard, a monitor, a pointing device, and maybe speakers.

For traveling, you certainly would not have the mobility of a laptop (try balancing a keyboard, pointing device, and monitor on your lap along with something even as small as the Eden Platform when in an airplane seat!), but if you can live with in-flight movies or in-flight DirectTV as your on-plane entertainment, a "bitty box" could serve beautifully as a traveling presentation computer.

In the next few articles, I will be covering several aspects of small form factor computers. One will be the smallest of small computers, like the Cappuccino and the Via Eden Platform and various Book-size models. Another will be about building set-top box sized computers with microATX motherboards, including my experiences building a Pentium III-based one. Still another will be about the two chipsets I foresee driving a revolution in really capable little computers: The Nvidia nForce series and the ATI Radeon IGP series.

I'm sorry that this article took so long coming out. Hopefully this serialized format will help me cover all the bases. I feel that, even with the trend towards very elaborate and customized mega-towers amongst the gaming elite, the "bitty box" will be the new face of computing, one that can give the low-end, economy consumer some amazing power at a very reasonable price tag. Here are some "first looks" at some of the computers I will be delving into in-depth:

Next time: Let's get real small. LEPC

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