- Review Price: £100.00
Broadly speaking there are two types of Small Form Factor (SFF) computers. On the one hand there are the stylish cubes made by the likes of Shuttle which use PC technology throughout, and on the other hand we have mini-ITX PCs which are built into cases such as the Travla C158.
A Shuttle SFF is ideal for LAN parties as it’s easy to transport, yet it has all of the gaming power that you need. You can, for instance, specify a Shuttle XPC with a 3.4GHz Pentium 4, a 160GB hard drive, 1GB of PC3200 memory and a ATI X600 Pro PCI-Express graphics card. That little lot will cost you £1139 without a monitor, and it is effectively a regular PC with a footprint of 320 x 210mm, and stands only 220mm tall.
Inside a Shuttle the emphasis is on cooling as you have all of the usual problems of heat production, yet the volume of the case is about one third that of a regular mid-tower ATX case so heat dissipation is more complicated than usual.
By contrast a mini-ITX PC is absolutely tiny. The Travla C158 case has a footprint that measures 305 x 279mm but it’s only 54mm tall, so its volume is about one third of a Shuttle or one tenth of a mid-tower PC. In fairness we should point out that the Travla C158 uses an external power supply, which is much the same size as a hefty notebook adapter, so you’ll have to make an allowance for it.
Apart from their size, mini-ITX computers also tend to be strange devices, with only 20 per cent of mini-ITX computers being used in the home to replace a regular ATX PC or notebook. The vast majority of this 20 percent will be used as a media PC in the living room of your house, leaving the other 80 percent of mini-ITX computers to be used in industrial applications.
You get a flavour for this when you see that the specification for the Travla C158 case boasts that it can accommodate three extra Serial ports, over and above those on the back plate of the motherboard, if you break out the appropriate blanking plates. Personally, this reviewer hasn’t used a Serial port on a PC since the dark days of Windows 95, but clearly someone, somewhere, has plenty of aging equipment that runs on COM ports and Travla is there to meet the demand.
Other mini-ITX PCs end up inside robots, or in 1U servers in Gateway House in Docklands where the Internet connects to the UK. A great many low-traffic websites have no need for high-powered servers so the ISPs pack their racks with loads of cheap boxes instead, which can be built into the Travla C146 and C147 1U chassis among others.
The power supply for the Travla C158 comes in a choice of three ratings, 60W, 90W and 120W, and if you want more power you pay a higher price, while at the business end – inside the case – you’ll have to make suitable allowances for cooling. An external power supply may sound a bit of a pain, but it means that mini-ITX is the ideal form for yet another type of computer application, the vehicle kit for cars. This is a growing market which caters for enthusiasts who want to build a computer into their car to handle DVD and GPS duties, and mini-ITX is well suited to the 12V electrical system of a car.
Getting back to the Travla C158 power supply, the 60W version is suitable for a system which uses an EPIA motherboard and passive VIA C3 processor, but if you install a Hauppauge PVR video card you’ll need another 20W of supply, so the 90W power supply will be more appropriate. The third approach is to install a mini-ITX motherboard with a Socket 478 Celeron or Pentium 4, which will definitely require the full 120W option, and that’s the route that we chose to go down.
We built a mini-ITX PC around an Insight P4-ITX motherboard (price £116.33), which uses a VIA P4N266A chipset, a 2.6GHz Pentium 4, a single 512MB module of PC3200 memory, a Seagate Barracuda V 40GB hard drive and a slim line Matsushita Combo drive. If we had also fitted a floppy drive we’d have had to use low-height memory, but as we left the floppy out we were able to install regular memory.
The P4-ITX has a single PCI slot and the Travla C158 is supplied with a riser that allows you to install a PCI card horizontally above the hard drive. You could install a PCI graphics card, instead of using the integrated S3 graphics; however we chose to install a TV card. We had a Chaintech DTT-1000 TV tuner card lying around the Labs so we installed it in our test system, but that isn’t the set-up that our supplier, mini-itx.com, recommends as the Chaintech doesn’t have hardware MPEG decoding. In fact we were flying in the face of most of the advice that mini-itx.com offers as, for starters, it supplies Hauppauge cards. Furthermore the only Socket 478 processor that it lists on its website is the 2GHz Celeron at £57.58 as the vast majority of mini-ITX systems neither want nor need a great deal of processing power.
The package that we received included a Speeze 1U Heatsink/fan unit which sells for £17.63, but we should point out that mini-itx.com was loath to supply us with this unit as it is incredibly noisy in desktop use. The rated noise level of 30dBA may or may not be correct, but with the fan spinning at its full 4,800rpm we can report that it is uncomfortably loud. Happily we had a Zalman Fan Mate controller to hand (mini-itx.com sells them for £9.99) which quietened the HSF down to a whisper without compromising cooling. The only other fan inside the Travla C158 is a tiny 40mm unit next to the power board which is practically silent in operation.
Assembly of the Travla was simple enough, as the top of the case slides backwards and then lifts away, revealing the innards. The tiny motherboard occupies the rear part of the floor of the case and the hard drive sits next to it. The power board is at the front of the case, along with the connectors that join the motherboard to the audio jacks and USB ports which are on one side of the case. The optical drive is secured by three screws and effectively floats in mid-air above the memory. It ejects to the side of the case, and in many respects the layout of the Travla C158 resembles the chassis of a notebook. With the current trend towards Pentium M processors in SFF computers and desktop PCs this would seem a likely avenue for mini-ITX, but it would be an expensive approach.
Probably the trickiest part of the build was the routing of the IDE cables, but no doubt SATA will make its presence felt sooner or later in mini-ITX and that will be a great help. The final task is to wiggle the PCI riser and card into place and the job is done.
So, we’ve got a near-silent 2.6GHz PC with 512MB of RAM and a full copy of Windows XP Pro, but what did we think of it? It’s certainly small and light, with the main unit weighing in at 4kg plus 0.7kg for the power supply, but we were unimpressed by the integrated S3 graphics. You can dedicate 8, 16 or 32MB of system memory to the graphics and the resolution can be adjusted between 640 x 480 up to 1,400 x 1,050 so the graphics have a satisfactory specification for regular 2D desktop usage and movie playback but the quality wasn’t very impressive as the display isn’t as sharp and clear as we expect these days, and in many ways it was reminiscent of a PC display from ten years ago.
As the single PCI slot was in use we had no option of a graphics upgrade and if we wanted to add a wireless connection to a media server we’d have had to use a USB wireless adapter. There’s no doubt that mini-ITX has plenty of potential if you need to build a small, cheap PC to fulfil a set of specific requirements, and the Travla C158 is a good case for the job, although you may find yourself having to make compromises with your build, as we did.
A quality mini-ITX chassis which looks equally at home in the office and the living room. But if you’re planning on building a PVR box, bear in mind that you’ll have to compromise on the graphics.
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