Small Form Factor (SFF) PCs are designed to be space-efficient and packed full of features. Since appearing on the market in 2001, they've matured from a fad into respectable Mini PCs ideal for transporting (to your friend's house for example) or building an entertainment setup around.
Mini PCs are also largely do-it-yourself jobs shipped as "barebones" systems - you supply the processor, memory, hard disk and optical drive.
Although on-board graphics are included, you'll want to use your own graphics cards if gaming is your thing. That said, some vendors (ASUS and AOpen included) also offer built-to-order systems that are ready to go straight out of the box.
Although PC World tested a bunch of Mini PCs in March, we've looked at the following two systems separately as, unobtrusive size and noise aside, both have interesting multimedia touches ideal for the bedroom or lounge room.
Both of these ASUS and AOpen models have an "autonomous" feature, letting you access multimedia tasks without the hassle of waiting for Windows to load. Both Mini PCs use front controls combined with software to browse through and play back content on CD/DVD media, or pretty much every type of multimedia photo card.
The ASUS S-Presso has touch-sensitive buttons that light up when pressed, whereas the AOpen XCube AV uses a mode button to jog through the functions.
Both vendors bundle TV/FM tuner cards as standard (complete with remote control) and each configuration is ready to optionally run Microsoft's Media Center Edition of Windows XP.
Both Mini PCs are structured around an Intel platform. The S-Presso is based upon the 865G chipset (Socket 478) whereas the XCube is based on the newer 915G chipset, supporting Socket 775. Ports at the rear of the case on the motherboard are similar for both systems, with connections for USB 2.0, Ethernet, S/PDIF audio-out, 3.5mm stereo audio and VGA (monitor). The XCube AV has the edge though, with support for FireWire and PCIe built into the motherboard.
Both systems are severely limited in expansion due to their size, so it's wise to chose components carefully instead of buying additional parts haphazardly. The XCube offers better cable management inside the enclosure and installation of components was easier with the removable case lid, in comparison to the hood design of the S-Presso. We had no technical issues in connecting various peripheral devices, as both have the same connectivity as their bigger PC counterparts.
In use, we did find the autonomous features were a little slow on both units. If Mini PCs are to appeal to the masses used to instant-on consumer electronics, then this will need to be looked at in future revisions.
SFF PCs have come along way since their inception and although not perfect, they have embraced the latest multimedia trends and are integrating well into the lounge room. The less tech-minded may be daunted by the DIY approach, but such fears can be overcome by ordering a pre-configured system.
ASUS S-Presso S1-111
The S1-111 is aesthetically attractive and well priced. However, it's bigger than most SFF PCs, has an older chipset without FireWire and it can be a challenge to install components.
Price: $599 Vendor: Cassa Australia Phone: 1300 278 788 URL: www.asus.com.au
AOpen XCube EA915 AV
The XCube has a simple, straightforward design that is supported by a newer chipset and Windows XP MCE. The integrated features alone are enough to keep the upgrade demon at bay. Price: $799 Vendor: Bluechip Infotech Phone: 1800 803 802 URL: www.bluechipit.com.au