Book Review: Small Form Factor PCs

Geeks, hobbyists, and tech tinkerers alike will enjoy this readable and informative project-based book about different devices that can be built from small form factor (SFF) computers.  Each project contains easy-to-follow and precise instructions along with plenty of photos to keep you oriented.

Shoebox sized and smaller, small form factor PCs can pack as much computing muscle as anything from a PDA to a full-sized desktop computer. They consume less power, have few or no moving parts, and are very quiet. Whether you plan to use one as a standalone PC or want to embed it in your next hacking project, a small form factor PC may be the next thing you build.

Small Form Factor PCs is the only book available that shows you how to build small form factor PCs — from kits and from scratch — that are more interesting and more personalized than what a full-sized PC can give you. Included in the book are projects for building personal video recorders, versatile wireless access points, digital audio jukeboxes, portable firewalls, and much more. This book shows you how to build eight different systems, from the shoebox-sized Shuttle system down to the stick-of-gum sized gumstix.

There’s more information about the book and authors at the Oreilly website (

Interestingly enough, at my company, Sarrel Group (, we use the Shuttle XPC as our standard PC test platform.  It’s small and well constructed – and I can build one in under 20 minutes.  This is not an endorsement for Shuttle.  I don’t know how the authors managed to get them to donate a unit for the book.  I tried to work a promotional deal with Shuttle and they ended up offering to sell me the units for more than street price!  So kudos to Matthew and Duane for getting Shuttle to work with them.    

Overall, I’m pretty excited about this book because it tries (and for the most part succeeds) to bring the geeky world of custom-built SFF computing to the masses.  However, one criticism I have is that the reader would have benefited from some more general explanation of SFF design and even better, each project.  As it is, the directions are very much centered around using the precise hardware and software configurations that they’ve used, which means that in a year when every manufacturer and software developer has updated their products this book will be pretty close to useless.  How can we do things without using their precise configuration?  I would’ve liked to have seen, in addition to the excellent instructions that are there, more general key points about the hardware, the OS, and the application so that readers could understand the whole design process and begin to explore on their own.

Setting that criticism aside, I highly recommend this book for tech tinkerers.  It would make a great gift for the geek in your life.