SFF Rises Again: Small Form Factor Just May Save the Desktop
By William Van Winkle
Cover Story (See original article)
[ Shuttle's Spectrum ]
In the small form factor world, there is no higher name than Shuttle. Five years ago, the company was a significant voice in the channel when it came to motherboards. Then came the XPC line and soon enough its flood of imitators. Shuttle moved to sell fully configured XPC systems direct and its barebones largely through e-tail. However, conditions keep evolving, and Shuttle now feels the time is right to return to system builders and VARs with renewed focus.
"We focused on the gamer market in the beginning," says Shuttle spokesperson Sheila Dy. "That's where it all started. People needed something portable yet powerful and good looking and small enough to fit in your backpack. That hasn't changed. We want to work with the channel now because gamers buy from the channel. It's like a chain reaction that spreads from the gamers to everyone they touch. We have to listen to this community. They're asking for something, and we need to make it happen. They ask for Bluetooth, faster CPUs, SLIthose kinds of technologies. So we cater to that. Our job now is to arm our resellers so that they can offer those advantages to their customers."
For ammunition, Shuttle is currently crafting a new reseller program that will emphasize marketing as much as margin opportunities. Of course, the company's product mix may be all the ammo you need to start collecting orders. The XPC cube made Shuttle's name, but times have definitely changed. The XPC still thrives, naturally. The classic G2 and newer, sleeker G5 are very recognizable, but you may not have noticed the 1337 series. (Rotate the number 1337 180 degrees and you get something that looks like LEET, which is short for elite in hacker parlance.) The 1337 SDXi is a pre-configured monster sporting an Intel QX6700 CPU, twin ATI X1950 Pro CrossFire cards, a 150GB Raptor drive, and 2GB of Crucial Ballistix memory. The sweetest spot here is the breakthrough internal liquid cooling system, a feat Shuttle has been trying to pull off with XPCs for years. Those who think a SFF machine can't outplay a tower should reconsider. That said, you could argue that, at 14.8L, the SDXi isn't really a true XPC box. We're willing to call an exception to the rule in this case. Obviously, there's not much you can add to the inside of this machine, so crafting a solution through peripherals is your best chance to move product.
The T 3100 (Intel) and T 2100 (AMD) series are Shuttle's unique spin on a conventional mini-tower for businesses, but the larger height pushes this group out of the SFF category. More interesting in this context is the P2 series, which comes in 3700 (Intel) and 2700 (AMD) varieties. The P is for professional market, and we think the most interesting SKU in the group is the new P2 3700W, which can support an Intel Xeon X3210 quad-core processor alongside either an ATI FireGL or an NVIDIA Quadro FX 1500 or 4500 graphics card. This is one of the most persuasive examples we've seen of a mobile workstation that doesn't settle for a lot of the trade-offs found with notebook solutions.
And no surprise here, Shuttle has two product groups gunning for the living room: the M and X series. The M family follows the conventional set-top design, and you'll be hard pressed to find a sexier media center machine than this. Shuttle has matching wireless peripherals and Windows XP Media Center Edition included, and the unit was recently upgraded to being pre-configured with a T5500 Core 2 Duo processor. The only thing missing herethrough no fault of Shuttle'sis CableCARD support so that the PC could replace a buyer's cable or satellite tuner. Unfortunately, the broadcast industry is keeping CableCARD from the channel, and Shuttle had to go to market without it. Still, if you want a stunning, ready-to-run Viiv unit, this is the one to get.
The X series is Shuttle's proprietary, tiny design, measuring a scant 3.35 liters (11.8" x 8.3" x 2.2"). You can nearly fit your hand around it. The X100 and X200 are Shuttle's spin on the MoDT initiative, which in part explains why all models use Core Duo processors. We had a chance to tool about in an a pre-release X200 and found it all fairly straightforward if a bit more time-intensive than an XPC owing to the dictates of such a small space. But if you can build a whitebook, you can tackle the X series on your own, because as part of its new channel efforts, Shuttle is offering the X series to resellers in a barebones configuration. Also be sure to leverage Shuttle's environmental friendliness as a sales tool. Most models are Energy Star compliant (see us.shuttle.com/EnergyStar.aspx). Shuttle also engages in a trade-in program through a third-party recycler, so anyone turning a PC in to Shuttle will receive credit that can be applied to new system purchases.
[ Antec For Anywhere ]
Shuttle's M series is obviously a media center, the X series is generally aimed at being a media box, and of course the many generations of G-style XPCs have been used as everything from server cluster machines to HTPCs for years. But Shuttle by and large is a proprietary solution, and some system builders prefer a more standardized approach. Of the major case manufacturers in the channel, no one has been more proactive than Antec about courting resellers into the SFF space. That doesn't mean, however, that encouragement always yields optimal results. "Media center still hasn't gotten to where we'd like it to be. You, uh, might have heard that from other people too," quips Antec's Scott Richards. "But our greatest growth has been in the NSK 1300 cube chassis. That said, the Minuet is a seasonal best-seller for back-to-school, not the holidays. Holiday buyers tend to be more serious and don't want the Minuet's half-height card restriction. The back-to-schoolers are putting in all-in-one motherboards." Let's back up a step. The NSK 1300 is Antec's update to the microATX Aria, one of the channel's few non-barebones cube form factor offerings. Perhaps predictably, the Aria proved to be more popular with system builders than with the consumer market, and few people seemed to care that it was aluminum. So Antec essentially stripped out a few of the value-add features, namely some of the styling and the card reader, but otherwise it's the same chassis with a different name. The aluminum side panels remainactually two aluminum layers sandwiching a plastic layer for noise dampeningbut the inner construction is now steel.
The NSK 1300 ships with a 300W active PFC power supply and sells for about $100, which puts it pretty close to what a premium mini-tower would cost. Unlike many cube designs, Antec here uses a flip-up cage able to hold a remarkable four drives and still leave an unobstructed view of the case floor. We know from working with the Aria that this is one of the tech-friendliest boxes to assemble and not just because it uses standard microATX motherboards. Antec also provides perks like RoHS compliance for green-minded companies and thermal tape to help better dissipate heat from hard drives to the cage. The best part of this case is that it's so universally styled that it's equally at home in a cubicle, dorm room, or bedroom. Keep an eye on the thermals as you build with higher-end CPUs and make use of the four expansion slots. Also consider the limitations of a 300W power supply. But otherwise, this case can unlock a lot of diverse market opportunities. For a more stylized slim design, look to Antec's Lifestyle series, most of which come in Antec's deservedly famous piano black finish. The Minuet 300, as Richards mentions, is a slimline desktop boasting four half-height slots, and good luck finding four different half-height cards to put in them. Like the NSK 1300, the Minuet 300 has a flip-up drive cage (two external, one internal) and very convenient interior access. The Minuet 300 can sit horizontally or stand upright, making it a more versatile fit for cramped environments that value feature-packed technology without scrimping on style or performance. Antec's full-blown living room play is the Fusion case, complete with VFD and oversized front panel volume knob. The Fusion is a microATX design made for silence as much on the inside (triple chamber architecture, TriCool fans, etc.) as dazzle on the outside. In fact, responding to many requests, Antec just released an all-black version of the Fusionsame full-height expandability and interior cooling smarts, just a better blend with most home theater components. And keep your eyes out for a forthcoming "Fusion Jr." chassis. We have no details yet, but a slim version of the Fusion should be drool-worthy. No matter what the specifics are, we remain big fans of Antec's Fusion, Overture, and Minuet lines as affordable, easy ways to access the media center market without declaring allegiance to Viiv or LIVE!.
[ AOpen Goes Industrial ]
After Shuttle, no manufacturer has shown more dedication to small form factor systems than AOpen. The company has a solitary set-top, the EPC945-m8, which has yet to make much of a dent in the U.S. More noticeable is the XC Cube line, which often mimics the XPC line, but note that the XC Cube EU945V is a Viiv part and the new XC Cube EZ965 blends the Core 2 Duo with Intel's best IGP chipset.
These models aren't what excite us about AOpen, though. The real story here is the miniPC, AOpen's proprietary reply to the Mac mini, and its more recent iteration, the Digital Engine. The MP945-VDR is the flagship model on the consumer side, boasting the 945GM chipset and Core 2 Duo (Merom) support. This version is not only Viiv-ready but also Vista Premium Ready and equipped with an HDMI interface. Like Shuttle's X series, the miniPC may not fit into the usual home theater console rack, but it's so small that it doesn't have to. You could literally mount it behind the flat screen on a home theater wall, something you could never do without considerable sheet rock surgery in a larger form factor. Needless to say, this could be a persuasive value-add. Taking that idea to the next level, AOpen's Digital Engine (DE945) is a plain, black, semi-ruggedized take on the same hand-sized (6.5" x 6.1" x 1.9") form. Only a power button adorns the front panel, and the slot-based ODD has been replaced with a conventional, slim tray drive. Under the lid, the DE945 supports Intel's Core 2 Duo, one 2.5" SATA drive, dual display output (a DVI connector is standard), 1080p high-def, and an optional mini-PCI Wi-Fi or TV tuner.
AOpen has beefed up the unit's temperature and vibration tolerances, and, more importantly, come out with a line of accessory brackets able to bolt the Digital Engine to many surfaces, including the VESA FDMI mounts on the back of an LCD monitor. While not as graceful-looking as an iMac all-in-one, AOpen's solution is one of the very few channel-friendly, barebones options suited to planting SFF systems in a wide range of industrial settings, including embedded into walls and in vehicles.
"Small form factor has usually been about personal computing," says Chris Liu, AOpen's vice president of product and marketing, "but with this new generation we think the first wave of adoption will come from the industrial side. This includes areas like signage and medical. The medical field needs new technology to help improve efficiency and drive down medical expenses. And look at hotels. They're upgrading their TVs to LCD TVs along with their wireless hot spots, etc. An LCD TV with a media player PC can be an entertainment hub within each room. We think that the consumer side will grow when it sees things to pick up from the industrial side."
We all know that savvy peripheral bundling is essential with consumer SFF offerings. Picking the right wireless desktop, for example, can make or break a home theater installation. Similarly, having the right wireless network technologies and products in play can make all the difference between fluid high-def video and a stuttering, mis-synched mess. The same principle applies with commercial SFF systems, and AOpen has been smarter than most about recognizing and developing this. Working with Ingram Micro and other vendors, AOpen has assembled a roster of components able to craft a complete signage solution based on its Digital Engine. These include names like Peerless and Ergotron for stands, Belkin and StarTech for connectivity, and 3M for distributed signage content. Another potential advantage with AOpen is that the Digital Engine is unbranded so that resellers can better promote their own house branding. And don't think that the Digital Engine stops with today's DE945FX. In the second half of this year, following the arrival of Intel's Weybridge digital office platform refresh, look for a new Digital Engine based on vPro that will let admins and resellers push remote management services and improved security along with their SFF products.
Beating the Barriers
Troy Daenzer, owner of Michigan-based Daenzer Computers, has been selling XPCs since 2002, and he comes highly recommended by NVIDIA as a SFF reseller. We spoke with Daenzer about his views on the sub-mini market and reseller prospects in small form factor systems. His comments were surprisingly blunt. "In terms of the cost difference between a standard PC and a SFF, there's still too much cost delta there," he notes. "The average is like a $150 to $250 premium. If that were reduced significantly, I think you'd have people getting into SFF all over the place. A lot of times, when I'm dealing with customers on small form factor, they like them a lot, but then we get into the cost aspect of adding more components and special things. Then they back out of it because you can add an up-level graphics card or upgraded processor for the same price as small form factor. And they figure they can take the space hit for better performance. "I think Shuttle is probably one of the best small form factor designs out there," Daenzer adds, "but the models have actually been increasing in size. Their newer models are quite a bit larger than their older ones. If you could get a smaller version with less than a $100 premium and quad-core support, you'd have buyers beating a path to your front door."
Getting the best of both worldsthat's the kicker, right? Antec's Scott Richards wryly commented to us about the wish lists he gets from channel resellers who don't always pause to think about issues from the manufacturer's side. He often hears about how people want a low profile media center chassis but then they say they don't like using half-height expansion cards. Well, what can you do? It's one or the other...unless VIA's Alp Sezen is right. He expects motherboards to eventually shrink to 8" x 4" or 8" x 6.5" dimensions, and at that point your mainboard practically becomes a riser card, able to rest along the short face of the case rather than the larger bottom. Given the trends of the last couple of years, we tend to think AOpen's vision with the Digital Engine hits closest to the mark for where the channel's best opportunity exists in small form factors. Retail will continue to dominate the all-in-one group, and niche VARs will generally do better with tiny and ultrasmall designs than system builders. But whether we're talking about cubes or tinies, the corporate/vertical arena is largely untapped when it comes to SFF benefits and long-term cost savings. "The best markets for small form factor?" muses Intel's Peter Brandenburg. "I think it's the office for several reasons. The system trade-offs to get small form factor are easier in office than consumer. For example, a high-end graphics card. Very few office applications require that. Same with wireless or two hard drives. The systems can be smaller just because the feature set demand on those systems is less.
The other thing is that the focus on cube space and square footage makes small form factor more attractive. You can put it on your desk whereas most towers end up on the floor, which is a lot less convenient for both use and maintenance. Honestly, while I think the need varies, the third reason in 2007 is the focus on Energy Star and total cost of ownership throughout government, education, and corporate. It's becoming either more important or mandated. When you do that, small form factor makes a lot more sense because you're limiting what can go into the system. You're not going to get two hard drives in there, which would violate some of the more stringent Energy Star specs." The channel can overcome its hard-learned prejudices and build small form factor PCs into a competitive advantage. It has to. Otherwise there's not going to be any change in the look and feel of desktop PCs, and IDC's data clearly shows where the conventional desktop market is headed. The longer you continue to play the conventional desktop game, the less business you're likely to earn. You must get smaller; you must consider style. If you've been having trouble cracking the gaming market, perhaps a Shuttle box or a tricked out Antec microATX is your ticket to the fast lane, particularly if you partner with someone who does custom paint jobs or similar, bling-oriented value adds. (We even know of a company that does custom wood veneers for computers.) At the opposite end of the SFF universe, cozying up with VIA's platforms could open up a whole new range of niche opportunities in fields like entertainment and signage. Naturally, each of these markets carries its own high-margin set of peripherals and services.
"People are always talking about convergence," says Antec's Richards, "but the reality is that divergence is what really happens in business. A few years ago, you had one type of beige box PC. Now, you have all stripes and colorsniched for gamers, niched for media center, niched for small business. Unlike what many think, I would say that small form factor is an expanding and evolving market that's still in its early stages. It has a lot more potential than might meet the eye."Read More >> Previous | Back to the Beginning