Build a PC so small it’ll fit in a drive bay

I’ve built my share of small-form-factor PCs over the years, but Via’s new Artigo kit is by far the tiniest–and most interesting–I’ve laid hands on. The US$300 bare-bones kit provides the starter hardware for a fully functional PC that’s small enough to fit in a desktop PC’s 5.25-inch drive bay, opening up a world of geeky possibilities.

The Artigo is based on Via’s Pico-ITX motherboard form factor. Via has been pushing this mobo format–which is slightly larger than a credit card–as an alternative to bigger products that use AMD’s and Intel’s notably faster processors. The Epia PX-branded motherboard included here uses Via’s VX700 chip set and UniChrome Pro II graphics chip. The Artigo kit also includes a preinstalled 1-GHz Via C7 NanoBGA2 processor and fan.

The Epia PX is a marvel of miniaturization. Within its 10cm-by-7.2cm confines Via manages to cram in everything from a SODIMM socket (underneath) to an ethernet controller with an RJ45 jack (in the back) and support for four USB ports (up front). Oh, and you also get PATA and SATA connectors, as well as audio jacks for speakers and a microphone.

Piecing It All Together

You don’t so much build the Artigo as screw together its various lilliputian pieces according to the detailed instructions. You need a stick of 533-MHz SODIMM DDR2 memory (I bought a 1GB stick for about US$25) and a 2.5-inch notebook hard drive (my 120GB, 5400-rpm unit was on sale for US$99). The build wasn’t effortless–my hands felt downright oversize as I struggled to piece together the parts and handle the extremely small screws–but in less than an hour I was plugging in the power brick and spinning up the unit for the first time.

Since the Artigo lacks an optical drive, you’ll need to connect one through USB to install the OS. I loaded Windows XP without a hitch, and found the unit to be a reasonably capable performer for basic tasks such as Web surfing, E-mail, and word processing. Unfortunately, the graphics chip struggled to play browser-based Flash videos and limited my screen resolution to a paltry 1024 by 768. The chip also supports only DirectX 7, meaning–among other things–no Windows Vista (which needs at least DX9).

Other negatives include a too-loud CPU fan, a smudge-prone black case finish, and the integration of a VGA port instead of a DVI connection (the box includes a DVI accessory, but you can’t use it with the Artigo chassis).

Overlooking the Artigo’s limitations is relatively easy when you consider the possibilities. I could imagine using it as a secondary PC in the kitchen, attached to the underside of a cabinet (along with a small LCD monitor) and using a wireless keyboard and mouse. Or you could use it for software testing, pairing it with a KVM switch to effectively replace the virtual machines I’ve discussed in the past with real-life hardware. Or it could serve as the Linux desktop you’ve long thought about building.

The most intriguing use for me is the potential to pair the Artigo with Microsoft’s excellent Windows Home Server OS. Alas, at press time Via was still working on a BIOS fix for the two products to work together. The Artigo would make a fantastic low-power server (as a desktop, it pulled fewer than 20 watts under normal usage during my tests). Plus, in that capacity its graphics weaknesses wouldn’t be an issue, although I might need a larger hard drive.

It would be extremely cool–and practical–to have my home server living inside my desktop PC. And if it’s on the inside, I’ll avoid those fingerprints on the shiny black case.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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