Mini-ITX Through the Eyes of an Art Student (Namely, a Photographer)

Mini-ITX Through the Eyes of an Art Student (Namely, a Photographer)

Mini-ITX Through the Eyes of an Art Student (Namely, a Photographer)

Introduction to me: In art school, you constantly hear the term “think outside of the box” thrown around like cooked fettuccine in a trattoria kitchen. When it’s ready to be eaten, it sticks; otherwise it rebounds and falls to the floor to mingle with the rest of the crumbs. Basically, with some students it has relevance, with others it is an annoyance to be quickly forgotten and swept away with the other loosely-thrown, artsy lingo. The term is meant to be inspiring, but with most over-used colloquialisms, you cringe when it is uttered. Being in art school, one would assume that everyone there already thinks outside the box, and doesn’t need to be reminded. I was told something a little different. A teacher once commented that I had the tendency to “think way outside the box,” meaning, I wasn’t even close to returning to Earth any time soon.

I have a very unconventional way of approaching life. “Congratulations,” you must be thinking, sarcastically. Way to place myself beyond the norm with all the other hipster, new age, artsy Mac users. Yeah, I own a Mac. However, imagine exiting grad school, fresh-eyed and ready to apply all those creative juices to any appointed task. Then, you discover yourself, after a slew of failed professions, in a purely technical business having to write about some technology you never heard of before…and really loving it, but simultaneously feeling shipwrecked in a sea of terms like D-Sub, Northbridge, and solid state. Being the least technically inclined in an office of tech-whizzes while having the sole responsibility of presenting the company to the world is a little scary. Are you a little concerned knowing that someone like me maintains the Web site and enters in all the products’ specs? You shouldn’t be.

Learning about Mini-ITX was, and is, very exciting. I approached my career in Mini-ITX in the same manner as I had done everything else in my life. Find out what I can do better than everyone else and tackle it from the only place I seem to know best—way out of the freaking box. This forces me to look at a concept from every angle possible, then determine which facet I want to show to the public. With Mini-ITX it wasn’t easy, but I learned quickly that, as in photography, details count and I had to be sure to get them right the first time around.

I initially found myself operating in a realm I considered to be beyond my understanding, computers. Moreover, Mini-ITX isn’t your everyday desktop PC—it is a niche market focusing on distinct industries each with even more specific requirements. Mini-ITX isn’t for everyone. But the people who benefit from it know exactly why it beats the pants off of your everyday desktop PC—low-power consumption, compact size, low-thermal output, integrated processors, solid state capabilities, etc. Figuring this why part out wasn’t too difficult for me. But, the how part, is what had me staring out the window at first, wondering if my life would have been different it I had just remained an English major. How does it all work, how does it all fit into that little Travla C134 case, how come one processor is soldered on and one isn’t? These questions plagued my very existence.

My solution: It came down to the details. In photography, every detail, even one itsy-bitsy blade of grass, could make or break an image. I fretted over these trivialities, constantly running back into the frame of the photo to move a coffee mug 2 mm to the right or have the model turn his/her eyes slightly more to the left. So now, instead of moving in and out of the frame, I flip between tabs on my Internet browser or product manuals, checking and rechecking the technical specifications of a mainboard.

Perhaps I could have applied the above technique to any sort of outside-my-comfort-zone career. I suppose with computers, it is about the details, be it ATX, microATX, or PC/104.

The details: A Mini-ITX mainboard is laid out in a 17 cm x 17 cm square format. I can easily relate to this: I shoot all my photographs on 6 cm x 6 cm square positives (this is also termed 2 1/4, 6×6 or Medium format as opposed to the traditional 35mm). So, I have to admit, with a square format, I was biased from the start.

In photography, for some die hard fans, the square format is the only way to photograph a subject. Why? Because there is a notion that the square format is more stable, more solid, it locks details in, and it is the ultimate medium for telling a story (my professor in grad school embedded that one into my brain). Can the same be applied to the square design of Mini-ITX? It certainly isn’t the only form factor out there in square format (microATX is 244 mm x 244 mm). But, this is where it became necessary for me to think outside the box (or “square” in this example), and determine why this medium was different from the others.

In photography bigger is better. The film resolution is highly kissable and the depth of color (or gray scale, in b/w) is flawless. But, with Mini-ITX, the unit is smaller (instead of bigger) than the traditional ATX, 305 mm x 244 mm, form factor, but bigger than standard embedded boards like PC/104, 90.17 mm x 95.89 mm. Well, according to VIA, “Small is beautiful,” and that does offer some distinct advantages. In both instances, the available options and how to use those options are really the focus.

With larger film, you have more printing options. You can enlarge your image without sacrificing crispness and clarity or losing your details to poor resolution. With a smaller form factor mainboard, such as Mini-ITX, you can expand your platform without compromising the already limited space available in most embedded applications. For instance, almost all Mini-ITX mainboards have one PCI slot. Some have more, while others are now coming equipped with PCI Express, Mini PCI, and Intel’s new Mini PCI Express. Most mainboards have 1–2 IDE slots and 1–2 SATA connectors, while some of the newer boards allow for up to 4 SATA connectors. And, with the latest chipsets and faster CPU speeds, most of these boards can support up to 8–10 USB 2.0 ports, the more advanced DDR2 533/667 memory, and HD audio/video.

As I mentioned above, Mini-ITX is larger than PC/104, the typical solution for embedded applications. The advantages here are Mini-ITX mainboards have a backplane and one single Mini-ITX board has a range of integrated I/O, a CPU, and chipset, so you can build a system around one mainboard without relying on stacking SBCs to achieve the same results.

So, if you allow me to use another hackneyed colloquialism here, size does matter. But, only to a certain degree. What is most important is utilizing the correct tool and correctly applying it to a certain task.

Larger format film is excellent for photographs that can wait for the time required to set up. But for photojournalism, a smaller, less bulky 35mm camera does the job more efficiently. However, as I mentioned earlier, there are certain compromises being made when choosing one medium over the other. Does your application need to be mobile, more versatile, discreet? Or does it need more horsepower and premium graphics capabilities to run a high-powered image processing application? VIA has introduced the Nano-ITX, 12 cm x 12 cm, and now the Pico-ITX, 10 cm x 7.2 cm, form factors to provide solutions for the former, or your can remain in the “box” and opt for a fanless VIA- or AMD-based platform. For the latter, an industrial Mini-ITX mainboard with a Core 2 Duo Mobile processor is the best bet.

Keep in mind, though, many customers want the latest and greatest Intel Core 2 Duo platform to run an application that a VIA mainboard can adequately handle and do it more efficiently, and with less of an impact on cost. The exception here is the Intel Little Valley mainboard, which runs at about $70 per unit (lower than any current VIA EPIA mainboard), but has a modest I/O and a soldered-on Celeron 215 1.33 GHz processor.

So, back to the square format. There are other similarities I could identify between my 6×6 camera and the 17×17 Mini-ITX form factor. As I noted, I used to be an English major, so I am keen on the skills of analysis. But, I won’t waste your time, if I haven’t done so already. Here is where my inspiration lies for this post: I have always thought I had the ability to study objects from an angle different than what most people see. So, in an office population of 20, I didn’t wait for people to tell me to “think outside the box” in order to grasp the new technology I was about to learn. I was way ahead of them. I had already been there and, now, after years of allowing my mind to float in the nether regions of space, I had come to a conclusion. It is equally as important to remove yourself from the confines of a rigid framework as is it is to study that framework and discover what it can offer. I am not a technical person. I can’t even recite the technical components of my camera, but I know what they do. After all the time I invested in coming at life from every which angle, it feels good to follow the outline of a square and think about how all the pieces are working together within the box.

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