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Small Form Factor, One-Hit Wonder?

Talking Heads: Motherboard Manager Edition, Q4'10, Part 2
By , Chris Angelini

Question: Small form factors were extremely popular five years ago because they provided a diminutive footprint and similar performance attributes as any other desktop machine. Largely due to the economic climate, price-conscious buyers have shifted towards ultra-low-voltage configurations like nettops and netbooks. Do you see this as another temporary trend?

  • No, because the performance is acceptable for daily use and the low power consumption addresses environmental concerns as well.
  • The PC industry is diversifying to fit different customer needs. That's why nettops, netbooks, smartbooks, and tablet PCs have been born in the past few years. Some of the form factors might be replaced by the others, but we would still see different "light clients" growing over the time.
  • It seems that more and more people are embracing the green movement. As a user, if you could have the same performance with lower voltage, why not? In the desktop area, it’s not just about keeping your system safe, but also saving on your electric bill.
  • As the power design of the CPU becomes lower and lower with smaller architecture and EuP sets stricter and stricter power consumption standards to electronic products, vendors who generate the least heat can lead market trends.
  • The small footprint of mini-ITX solutions will limit functionality and cost; that's why ITX is only popular in medical/ATM machine and kiosk markets. All users of ITX are looking for a stable, lower function, less-expandable, and long-life product. Therefore, they can afford higher cost.
  • The industry has always been on a smaller, faster, cheaper trend, and that's never going to change. Netbooks are here to stay, until something smaller, faster, and cheaper replaces them.
  • As the ASIC footprint becomes smaller, connections converge, the environmental concerns grow, and it becomes an irresistible trend--smaller form factor products grow.


Wind the clock back five years; every motherboard manufacturer from tier-one to -three was making Small Form Factor (SFF) PCs (by which we mean the cubic variety of the Shuttle XPC/mini-ITX flavor). Sure, Dell has Zino and Apple has the Mini, but those in the motherboard business are basically done with SFFs. Today, we are looking at a market populated instead of nettops.

According to the general consensus, these ultra-low voltage (ULV) platforms are here to stay, though no one really forecasted the speed at which this would occur. When Intel released its Atom processor family, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Over the past few years, the changing economic and social climate forced the tech industry into developing "environmentally-friendly" products (even if this still strikes us as a misnomer). At the same time, buying habits changed in ways not immediately evident. SFFs were great, but its hard to justify a tiny platform that still gobbles up ~250 W, keeping in mind most users were not using these platforms for intensive gaming or 3D content creation. The majority of users were simply Web browsing, watching videos, answering email, and performing some basic word processing.

The reason for all of the hype behind Shuttle's XPC (and its imitators) was mainly because it could deliver plenty of speed in a diminutive footprint. Consumers educated themselves, calling into play a platform that could deliver on the basic performance demands minus the desktop power requirements. Fast forward to the present day, we are looking at a market that now sells mini-ITX PCs at a premium. For $600 or $700, we can go buy two nettops or netbooks for every XPC-esque PC, so it is easy to see how Intel hit a home run in this economy. That's not to say Atom is particularly impressive from a performance standpoint--that's something we hope to see Intel address over time.

One respondent summed everything up best: “The industry has always been on a smaller, faster, cheaper trend, and that's never going to change.” For the immediate future, it isn’t so much “faster” as it is “fast enough.” If Intel started talking about nettops that consumed ~250 W, we’re pretty sure someone’s head would be on the chopping block. In fact, Intel remains the only game in town for ULV processors on the order of Atom (<10 W TDP). AMD will be in that neighborhood soon.

At the moment, Intel's low-voltage product (Atom) is often criticized for poor multimedia performance on netbooks, but we want to reiterate that for the most part, 1080p content is not needed on netbooks. When we are talking about all-in-one desktops and nettops, this is more understandable complaint because we are dealing with larger screens. However, when you factor cost into the equation, for most people it is still hard to justify spending close to $100 to $200 more for the simple ability to play 1080p content. If you can play 720p and 480p with decent bit-rates for $100 to $200 less, why not? This type of buying decision is naturally going to be a short term phenomenon.

The next generation of ULV products are slated to perform much better and perhaps even deliver decent gaming performance (AMD's Ontario) at today's prices. It is important to remember that Atom's success is due to low pricing, which cannot be understated. If you currently have a HTPC that employs a desktop CPU, power consumption is likely higher than it needs to be. Greener isn't always about the color of the trees in the Amazonian jungle that delusional technologists want to save; it is also the color of money (at least for those of us who pony up dough to Uncle Sam). So until buying habits shift again, there are three words companies should live by for the low-end sector: smaller, greener, and cheaper. Fortunately, in the next twelve months, it looks like we won't have to sacrifice performance to get any one of the three.

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