Motherboard makers think shrink

Several manufacturers are releasing or developing core computer cards significantly smaller than today's norm, as they attempt to move into new product niches.

Stephen Shankland
Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science Credentials I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
3 min read
TAIPEI, Taiwan--In an attempt to move into new product niches, several motherboard makers here have begun releasing or developing products significantly smaller than today's norm.

Two manufacturers, Via Technologies and AsusTek, announced smaller motherboards at the Computex trade show here, while a smaller Taiwanese company, Shuttle, has begun selling them already. Intel, meanwhile, began an effort this month to create a major new motherboard standard that includes smaller options.

Computer motherboards are the cards that house primary electronic components such as processor, memory and chipset. Today, the vast majority of PCs shipped use motherboards based on the years-old standards, 12-inch-by-9.6-inch ATX or 9.6-inch-by-9.6-inch MicroATX.

The vast majority of motherboards are manufactured by Taiwanese companies such as AsusTek, Elitegroup Computer Systems (ECS), Micro-Star International (MSI), Giga-Byte and First International Computer (FIC).

Shuttle, a 500-person company based in Taipei, builds small motherboards and uses them in a computer called the XPC, similar in size to Apple's discontinued Power Mac G4 Cube.

Shuttle shipped 47,000 XPCs in August, said Ron Carlson, senior marketing executive for the company. "This market is ours to lose right now," he said.

Motherboard makers, punished by a declining PC market in recent years, stand to benefit if they can convince buyers to use standard computer technology for new jobs, such as handling video and audio.

Via, also headquartered in Taipei, is looking beyond the PC with its small motherboards. More than a year ago, Via released a motherboard 6.7 inches on a side, a size it called Mini-ITX. And Wednesday, the company said it will begin shipping by the end of the year the even more diminutive Nano-ITX motherboard, just 4.7 inches on a side.

Though one British PC maker, Hush, sells a tiny computer based on the Mini-ITX, the motherboard is intended primarily for embedded computing devices such as routers, said Chief Executive Wenchi Chen in an interview. For example, one company uses the Mini-ITX in a computerized fingernail-polishing machine, he said. Via developed the Nano-ITX in response to customer requests for even smaller motherboards for such applications, he said.

Asus, too, is using smaller motherboards to move into new territory. Its PQS4 motherboard is used in a new gadget it's showing this week called the DigiMatrix, a small multimedia computer that can handle audio and video information. The DigiMatrix is 11.2 inches wide, 11.4 inches deep, and 2.1 inches tall.

Meanwhile, Intel is focusing on traditional PCs.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company sells motherboards, and its market power could be influential in establishing its new specification, called BTX (Balanced Technology Extended). Two sizes aren't smaller--BTX at 10.5 inches by 12.8 inches and MicroBTX at 10.5 inches by 10.4 inches--but PicoBTX is a relatively compact 10.5 inches by 8 inches.

One of the main reasons for developing the new design is to align the three hottest components of a computer--the processor, chipset and graphics card--so that the cooling airflow can travel directly through the machine. Dealing with these thermal issues is one of the main challenges of compact computers, especially as processors get faster.