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Little Computers

I like low powered computers.  It’s nice to use dedicated hardware for certain functions like file servers, routers, media players, etc.  Dedicated hardware means you don’t have to disrupt other functions to do an upgrade.  It also means that the dedicated hardware can be sized appropriately for the task, which helps avoid wasting energy for systems that are running around the clock.

For these reasons, I’m always on the lookout for hardware options.

VIA’s mini-ITX products have long provided a combination of small size and relatively low power consumption.  I’ve had a second hand motherboard/CPU combo powering my home file server for the last 5 years or so.  And their Pico-ITX boards shrink things down even further.

In the past year or so, Intel has gotten into the act with their low-powered Atom CPUs.  For under $100 you can get a barebones system with a compact case, a low-wattage power supply, a motherboard and an Atom CPU from NewEgg.  Unfortunately, these cheaper Atom systems pair their efficient CPUs with relatively inefficient supporting chipsets that can consume 4x the power of the CPU.  Options are starting to emerge.  Boards with the NVidia ION chipset draw less power and the included GPU can help with playing back 1080p video, but these carry a big price premium. In addition, some time this year, Intel is supposed to be shipping revisions more integrated options that draw less power.


Right now though, there are some interesting options based on embedded Atom chips.  Fit2-PC sells tiny barebones systems (4″ x 4.5″ x 1.05″) that pair the 1.1GHz Atom z530 with a chipset that includes hardware assisted HD video decoding and uses a max of 8W.  The basic version, with 1GB of memory, room for a laptop hard drive and gigabit ethernet is $245.  Not exactly cheap, but these things are TINY. For another $10 you can add WiFi.  All of them have HDMI for video, and 6 USB ports.

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