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The Small-Form-Factor trend: From concept to convergence
Vyacheslav Sobolev, DigiTimes.com, Taipei [Monday 31 January 2005]

Small-form-factor (SFF) desktop PCs are still a relatively new concept in the PC market. It was less than four years ago that Shuttle introduced its first SFF PC model, the PC-SV24. The company is now widely recognized as the pioneer of the SFF movement and the originator of the SFF concept.

Last year, Shuttle reported that it had shipped its millionth unit from its XPC family of SFF PCs. Currently the company has a comprehensive SFF PC product lineup, consisting of models for both the Intel and the AMD CPU platforms, based on chipsets from five vendors (Intel, VIA Technologies, SiS, ATI, Nvidia) and targeting various market segments from value systems to solutions for enthusiasts and “overclockers.”

Strictly speaking, there is no “classical” definition of an SFF PC. If the definition is a PC that is smaller than a regular desktop PC housed in a tower case, products that follow those criteria were available before the Shuttle PC-SV24. However, Shuttle was definitely the first company to come to market with a complete concept of a compact desktop PC and its own vision of the future of the product.

The Shuttle PC-SV24 featured the VIA Apollo Pro 133A chipset with integrated graphics and supported Socket 370 CPUs, though the system came with only one PCI expansion slot on the motherboard. The company had chosen its own proprietary form factor for the product, instead of an open standard. This began a trend towards non-standard form factors, with offerings from other vendors in addition to Shuttle. These rival motherboard vendors had recognized the benefits and potential of SFF PCs, and they entered the market with their own solutions based on their own proprietary form factors.

Currently, there are still a wide variety of form factors in the SFF PC market, from tiny boxes with a processor embedded on the motherboard to the larger-sized cases that offer more upgrade options. However, when the industry talks about SFF systems, the reference is normally to the more-or-less cubic designs, similar to the first model introduced by Shuttle in 2001. These products are still mostly sold as barebone systems, comprising case, power supply, motherboard (typically with integrated video, audio and LAN support), mouse and keyboard. Some vendors may also bundle their products with monitors, optical drives, or other components, though key components such as CPUs, DRAM memory modules and HDDs are usually sold separately.

Since Intel introduced its BTX (Balanced Technology Extended) specification at IDF Fall 2003, many vendors have also focused their efforts on bringing this form factor to the SFF PC segment. Until now, however, these developments have not actually resulted in many new products. It is interesting to note, though, how these efforts have also given new life to attempts to use other standard form factors to design SFF PCs, such as Micro ATX or Flex ATX.

The SFF market was also one of the first PC segments to understand that PCs are now morphing into consumer-electronics products, as the vendors offered customers more stylish designs and more accessible products. This general trend to the convergence of IT and consumer electronics is ongoing, and makers now devote as many resources to designing the outside of their products as they do the inside.

Over the next several months, DigiTimes.com will take a closer look at the products and vendors in the SFF segment, as well as the market in general, with the intention of providing a better picture of where the market stands and where it is heading.

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