The Stealth Computer
By FORD FESSENDEN
Published: October 23, 2003
MIKE CHIN'S eureka moment came in an Ikea store, on a spring day in 2002.
Mr. Chin, a technology writer in Vancouver, British Columbia, had just gotten a tiny motherboard from a Taiwanese chip maker, and he had been growling that he could not find a similarly small case so that he could build the computer he had promised to a friend's daughter.
Then his eyes fell on a blue plastic Ikea breadbox - the "perfect marriage of cheap modern art, chintziness and utility," he said.
The fully functional breadbox PC that he then built and described on the Web was among the first to spring from an idea that has become a raging obsession in a far-flung community of electronic do-it-yourselfers: the stealth computer.
Across Europe, the United States and the Far East, hobbyists have been stuffing the works of personal computers into toasters, humidors, biscuit tins, lampshades, even a plush E. T. doll.
"It's tiny, it's wonderful, it's all integrated, it's extremely low power, and it fits almost anywhere," said Mr. Chin of the mini-ITX motherboard at the heart of his breadbox computer, which measures about 10 inches by 14 inches by 6 inches.
But the mini-ITX is not just an object of obsession. The stealth builders are the extreme flank of an assault against the status quo by the originator of the mini-ITX boards, Via Technologies. Via, which is based in Taiwan, wants to make the little computer the next big thing.
"We were surprised it was the enthusiasts who were interested," Richard Brown, the vice president for marketing at Via, said when the company introduced the tiny motherboard idea in early 2002. Today, the concept has already spread beyond hobbyists; a few stylish new PC's using Via's tiny boards have reached the consumer market.
The mini-ITX, which often includes the central processing unit, or C.P.U., as well as audio and graphics circuitry and other built-in components, measures less than seven inches on each side, about half the size of a typical board. The Via boards include relatively slow C.P.U.'s, which in terms of raw computing power are "a long way behind the Pentium 4 and top-of-the-line Athlon," Mr. Brown said.
But with sales of personal computers lagging, Via and others in the industry have been pushing the idea of the "second PC" - an inexpensive, quiet device that can take the pressure off the family computer, perhaps even breaking out of the home office and moving into the living room.
This is a perfect mothferboard for low end laptops. They can run Windows or Linux, add in a screen and chassis and you could have a cheap, viable laptop like the old Apple eBook, but running hundreds less. These stunt machines are cute, but they have a business use without the compromises Transmeta had. Talk about a disappointing company. They had so much hype, and some nice machines, but kind of stalled out. VIA could make the same kind of machines with these mobos and charge $4-500 for them. Sure, Battlefield 1942 might be out of reach, but for the surfing/writing most people do on the road, these machines would be perfect. People still use Powerbook 1400's, so a faster, smaller box which was mobile would definitely fill a niche.
If anyone has seen the kinds of machines Transmeta sold in Japan, they would understand what I'm talking about, small machines fast enough to play DVD's, not draw too much power, but have more capabitlites than a PDA and cheaper than a tablet PC.
What people don't get about computers is that there is still a market for people who want to go online but still can't afford it. This caught my eye because there's a lot of potential here.
posted by Steve @ 7:18:00 PM