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Tom's Hardware's 2010 Holiday Gift Guide: Part 2, Last-Minute Luxury

Mini PC: VIA Artigo A1100 Pico-ITX Kit
By: William Van Winkle

How about a full-blown PC you could actually fit in a stocking? We’ve seen a lot of Atom- and Optimus-based nettops arrive over 2010, and all have been pretty decent if you have your expectations adjusted accordingly. These aren’t gaming machines. Some aren’t even video machines. Today’s nettops are meant to be secondary or tertiary systems that probably fill a certain need. Plenty get used as home theater PCs (HTPCs), and why not? Throw Windows or Linux on one, plug in via Ethernet, and you’ve got a system that will probably trounce the likes of a Logitech Revue (Google TV) or Boxee Box in terms of flexibility and performance.

Many years ago, VIA created the various ITX form factors, and while Intel may have tried to borrow some of VIA’s brilliance in its post-BTX SFF designs, VIA deserves credit for pioneering the low-power, ultra-compact PC movement. The Artigo carries VIA’s efforts to a new Lilliputian extreme, packing a complete PC into a 5.7" x 3.9" x 2" package. That’s less than a one-liter volume. As a point of reference, Intel defines “ultra SFF” as a system in the four- to eight-liter range. In a one-liter design, you’d normally expect the system to be integrated and made proprietary to the nth degree, but VIA has crafted the Artigo A1100 into a respectable DIY affair.

Sure, some of the A1100’s design is fixed. The Pico-ITX motherboard features a hard-mounted 1.2 GHz Nano processor and VX855 chipset, both shrouded under an aluminum heatsink that covers most of the motherboard. VIA’s Chome9 integrated graphics chip accelerates MPEG-2, MPEG-4, WMV9, and H.264 decoding, and it’s sufficient for 2D gaming or just about any Web work you want to throw at it. The system features analog audio and three USB 2.0 ports (one mini) up front. In back, you’ll find VGA, another two USB 2.0, HDMI, and gigabit Ethernet. All that’s missing are one DDR2 SO-DIMM module, a 2.5” storage drive, and the optional wireless ($45) and SD reader ($25) parts. If you’ve ever taken a screwdriver to a PC, you’ll find that installing these parts is pretty similar to working in a notebook. All told, you should be in and out in under ten minutes.

You’ll have to decide if the SD reader makes sense. We’d pass on the wireless adapter since it’s only 802.11b/g, which is insufficient for streaming video, and instead prefer an 11n USB dongle. If you skip the options and figure $35 for 2 GB of memory and $60 for a 320 GB laptop drive, you’re out the door for under $350.