The last couple of years have brought about a shift in the paradigm of computing. Instead of the traditional “faster, higher, stronger” motto that was pushing the manufacturers towards delivering as many gigahertz and terabytes in their products as possible, the miniaturization trend has been gathering momentum. Somewhat surprisingly, computers have become so fast and powerful that a small system case can now accommodate every component necessary to solve everyday computing tasks. The impressive intrusion of netbooks into the mobile computer market has been a consequence of that trend and people have come to be very fond of such compact and light devices which are most handy for browsing the Web or watching a movie while travelling. Another consequence is the spreading out of the netbook's desktop counterpart which is called a nettop.
In fact, compact desktop systems have been around for a long time, but they used to be only popular as thin clients, i.e. networked computers connected to a single server. The server performed all computations and ran all applications while a thin client was nothing more but a small local device to connect user interfaces to for data input (keyboard, barcode scanner) or output (monitor, printer). There was also a rather popular Apple MacMini computer. It was fast and versatile, yet also expensive since the manufacturer had to use notebook components.
It was the arrival of the Intel Atom processor series that changed the situation dramatically. Such processors are sufficiently fast for everyday computing. They are also very inexpensive and have such a low level of heat dissipation that they can do well with just passive cooling. Other common components have also improved in terms of using them in compact computers. Slim optical drives have become much cheaper while 2.5-inch hard disk drives have got larger storage capacities, higher speeds and a lower cost of storage per gigabyte. Mainboard manufacturers, in their turn, have been actively developing new products in the mini-ITX form-factor. If you are not familiar with it, we can remind you that in this form-factor all the necessary electronic chips and connectors are placed on a square piece of textolite whose side is but 170 millimeters long.
It does not mean that compact computers can only accommodate low-performance configurations. In our previous roundup about compact system cases we told you how to use a mini-ITX mainboard (Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi) to build a small, yet rather fast gaming computer with a quad-core Socket 775 processor. Want something better and up-to-date? Not a problem at all. Similar mainboards for Socket 1156 processors are available already.
This time around we are going to be modest and limit ourselves to building compact computers based on the Atom processor. To be specific, it is the Pine Trail platform represented by an Intel D510MO mainboard. If you are not satisfied with the humble capabilities of Intel's integrated graphics, yet do not need a more expensive CPU either, you can go for the Nvidia ION 2 platform.
So, we need a good system case for our mini-ITX mainboard. We’ve got as many as five options for us to choose from.