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

Small Form Factor, One-Hit Wonder?

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.

Chris Angelini
Chris Angelini is an Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware US. He edits hardware reviews and covers high-profile CPU and GPU launches.
  • pandemonium_ctp
    Excellent read. I love seeing you guys get real world answers from companies willing to participate. It really shows where the industry is heading.

    This means having a small budget can’t stop you from building a reasonably heavy-duty computer. If you don’t believe us, look at our latest $400 System Builder Marathon configuration.
    Absolutely agree. This is basically where I've been placing my builds for the last 10 years; at the bottom of the price curve where performance hits the sweet spot for price. I alone typify that logic.

    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.
    Smartphones/PDA? They've existed for a long time now. The problem is the technology wasn't around to give them the power they needed to do everything a Netbook can do. That is rapidly changing. I hate to say it, but I disagree with Netbooks being a long-term investment. The consumer now is driven by convenience. If my smartphone can be my multimedia outlet, document editor, day planner, browser, camera, accessory portal (ear pieces/headsets, printers, scanners, etc...) and telephone, they why would I want to lug around seperate devices for each of those?

    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.
    Very short-term. At the way things are going, that will be one to two years worth of earnings at the most. Hardly worth the R&D IMHO.

    I think the most valuable feature for future motherboards is saving power and enhanced performance.
    This is the bottom line for everything, basically. This motto can not falter.

    The fact that hybrids migrate graphic functionality to the processor might not actually change that much. As one person noted, the construction of the motherboard hasn’t gotten any simpler. Quite the opposite, in fact. We are now looking at motherboards that are more complex than ever before.
    Complexity is definitely the direction the industry has taken. However, I would think if a manufacturer wanted to baseline a board with IGPs, they would do so in terms of finding a way to allow additional discrete GPU and/or CPU installments for those that tinker. I know this has been tried in the past, but I'm not talking about simple onboard graphics processors.

    The baseline board would be for the general consumer and could handle day-to-day tasks found in every household. While additional GPU and CPU configurations that would work in conjuction with the onboard processors appeals to the specializing category. We just need a manufacturer to take that step to allow them to co-exist in the same environment and provide that extra benefit of accessorizing.
  • dennisburke
    The Future Of Motherboads And Their Makers
    The P55 is a great middle of the road platform, and if one graphics card (even two) is enough to wet your whistle, you could'nt ask for more.

    I think brand loyalty comes about by great customer support and innovation, and it doesn't hurt to have a well used and supportive attached forum.

    I've hide my eggs with Intel, WD, Corsair, ASUS, and EVGA for many years now, and they are safe.
  • Onus
    I agree with everything the first poster said, except for one STRONG disagreement; that he is the only one who typifies that logic. "How low can you go" is a recurring theme in every build I do, especially for myself. If I want more future resistance, I'll go a step or three above that, but the base thinking still tends to be at the bottom in terms of cost (including power usage).
    In an economy where it is more important that things last, what I want to see is a focus on durability. Gigabyte advertises this very well, but I find that ASRock has many of the same elements (e.g. all-solid, Japanese caps, ferrite chokes) and costs a lot less.
  • nutriment6464
    fix the manfucaturer graph ;)
  • Th-z
    I am surprised MB makers didn't talk about speeding up the boot process, or UEFI, if it can speed up the boot time. I think really fast boot up is what everybody really wants. Now we can get SSD to speed up the loading for the OS part, but the very first thing when you turn on the computer, you still have to wait couple seconds for the slow BIOS to finish its tests, etc. That's probably the one thing that hasn't improved a lot when comparing to the speed improvement in other components.
  • WarraWarra
    Wow extremely confusing heading for this article.
    Thought it is some software that does what with motherboards ?
    And talking heads music band has got what to do with this ?

    If not for the weird article name the rest is very nice.

    Good to see Toms getting serious about hardware and reality from a users point of view.

  • Stardude82
    I don't know if competition in motherboards has decreased that much.. Zotac and EVGA are new. It's not like the CPU market which went from 4 competitors to 2.
  • palladin9479
    Hm might want to look at that ULV comment in reference to Intel. With such small and highly integrated parts you can't just use a processors wattage requirements but instead use the platforms requirements. In this case I believe Via's Nano processor wins.
  • chumly
    I am impatiently waiting for UEFI as well. I think it would be amazing to have a 4TB single hard drive. BIOS is ancient, it needs an update. I also don't believe that the competition in the market of GPUs is reflected at all in the Motherboard market, especially on the AMD side. Nforce boards are terrible in both price and features. It seriously affects my decision on which new GPU to purchase.
  • dEAne
    I can count on this, thanks tom - more to do.