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PCs shape up as masters of disguise

Is it E.T.? Is it a gas can? No, it's a PC in an unusual guise, thanks to Via Technologies, which hopes to change the face of desktop design with its new mini-motherboard.

Got a burning desire to build a PC out of a gas can? Here's your chance.

This week, Via Technologies released a new version of its Mini-ITX motherboard. Because of its comparatively small size, the Mini-ITX--a circuit board complete with the processor and many of the other components necessary to build a PC--is altering what desktops look like.

Smaller PC manufacturers in Europe and Asia are putting the board into desktops clad with aluminum cases, so they look more like stereo equipment. Universities are using it in class projects, where students have to incorporate PCs into electronics systems inside cars. And do-it-yourself types are also getting into the act, building Mini ITX-based PCs inside shells such as a desk drawer, a cigar humidor and an old E.T. doll, as well as in lunch pails and briefcases.

"We get about five or six things a week, people doing crazy things with a PC. There are car PCs, PCs in a bread bin," Richard Brown, vice president of marketing for Taiwanese-based Via. "It's the new overclocking." (Overclocking, which involves running a processor at speeds far in excess of the manufacturer's recommended megahertz, has been a running craze among techies for the past few years.

Although manufacturers have tried, and mostly failed, to turn computers into fashion statements for years, the tide may be changing, say Brown and others in the PC industry. The catalyst for change looks likely to be the popularity of digital music, digital video recorders and DVD movies, which has carved out a place for the PC in the home entertainment pantheon as a vault for pictures and other media.

As a result, the PC should gradually adopt the design flair of the consumer-electronics world.

One of the small Asian PC manufacturers, for instance, has come up with a computer where the DVD/CD drive is hidden behind the liquid crystal display panel that controls volume, balance and track selection. The screen pivots to reveal the drive when discs need to be changed.

Some PC makers have come up with special applications that let consumers watch DVDs or play music without booting up the operating system, he said.

The growing popularity of wireless networks, which make devices easier to move around the house, is also prodding the trend. "Wireless networks enable a platform. Clients become more varied and interesting," said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at research firm IDC.

In addition, declining PC prices continue to make it easy for consumers to justify having a second or third home computer. The $199 PCs being sold by Wal-Mart aren't going to new users, Brown said, but to experienced PC owners. Via's chips are used in these low-priced Microtel computers, sold on the retailer's Web site. Companies involved in the $199 PC say that the boxes are profitable, said Nathan Brookwood, president of consulting firm Insight 64.

The Via EPIA M-Series Mini-ITX motherboard measures 17 centimeters by 17 centimeters and comes with either a Via C3 processor running at 933MHz or an Eden processor, an energy-efficient processor that does not require a fan. By the end of the year, the C3 will run at 1GHz.

The board also comes with a chipset for DDR memory, USB 2.0 and 1394 ports, and a hardware MPEG-2 decoder. It sells for around $105 at retail, Brown said.