Commell's P4 Mini-ITX board

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ANALYSIS

While the VIA M-ITX systems can generally be made not only small but also very quiet, the Intel & AMD SFF competition is virtually as powerful as PCs in bigger conventional cases (though usually noisier). A very important aspect of the M-ITX form factor: It does not offer an AGP slot, only built-in video and one PCI slot. This means that M-ITX cannot appeal to gamers or anyone heavily into video. The other SFF boards are mostly micro-ATX based, and they all offer an AGP slot even if built-in VGA is offered. They can thus draw in gamers who want the convenience of small size.

The P4-based M-ITX is something of a crossbreed between optimized efficiency and all-out brute power. While the processor core is now on the same power curve as those of other SFF boards, the video is still limited to an onboard Intel graphics engine which is adequate but no gamer's rig.

The gist of this P4-based M-ITX board is that it seems ideal for applications that call for very small size, high computing power, modest video capability and relatively modest electrical power needs.

The Commell P4 M-ITX board is hard pressed to compete against the powerful video / multimedia capability of SFF micro-ATX systems that provide a separate AGP card slot. Having no such slot, the Commell LV-670 boards are limited to PCI cards only.

Price is also a key issue. The VIA M-ITX boards are aimed specifically at the lower end of the market. The VIA M10000 can be found on Pricewatch currently for

In contrast, the retail price of the less costly Commell board, the LV-670, is $175. Add a suitable CPU: The most affordable socket 478 CPU is probably a Celeron P4-2.0, which sells for around US$60. The combination then comes to $235. Then there is the challenge of quietly cooling >50W of heat generated by this CPU in a small Mini-ITX case. (Some would also argue that this CPU isn't much faster in real computing terms than a VIA 1GHz C3-Nehemiah, that you need to move to a P4-1.8 / 512kb cache at well over $100 to get the computing power benefit of the P4 platform.)

Even more serious competition comes from the makers of SFF barebones systems. Take the recently reviewed ECS EZ-Buddie Desktop (SFF) PC for example. For the same price as the LV-670, the ECS machine provides not only an integrated motherboard, but a complete chassis and power supply and the AGP slot option along with 2 other PCI slots. It's certainly not as small as the LV-670, but it's an example of the kind of competition that comes from SFF barebones systems, and there are others which come closer in size to a M-ITX PC.

CONCLUSIONS

The combination of very small size but rather high heat and high computing power but low video power puts the Commell LV-670 Mini-ITX boards in a very small niche. For most of the PC market audience, this niche is sort of between a rock and a hard place. The VIA M-ITX boards are as small, cooler and cheaper, while the microATX P4 / XP SFF boards are as powerful, have much better VGA potential and are cheaper. It is surely no accident that this product is being marketed by an industrial computing company.

Commell may very well have the attitude that if we build it, they will buy. Or because it could be done, it was. There are surely applications where this combination of high computing power, small size and modest video performance will be perfect. It's probably my lack of industrial imagination or exposure that keeps me from detailing potential ideal applications for this P4-M-ITX. Perhaps in business file servers or database servers where big number-crunching power and small size are important. But desktop systems are unlikely to be among those applications.

Our thanks to Commell Systems Corporation for the review samples and for their kind support.

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