VIA ARTiGO Builder Kit: smallest full PC we’ve ever seen

VIA’s ARTiGO Pico-ITX Builder Kit is really really cool. Now coolness isn’t often a factor when choosing computer hardware (even if you’re an Apple aficionado there’s usually some semblance of power vs performance or at least a smidgeon of justification as to why you’re getting a particular piece of kit) but the ARTiGO is one of those times when you can take a deep breath scrabble for your credit card and decide to get one without second thought.

We’ve spent a few weeks with the ARTiGO kit and after the stage where the novelty should have worn off it’s still cool. What makes it so enamouring is its size. It’s really really small. Reaaally small.

Measuring in completely built and functional at 150 x 110 x 45mm (plus a notebook style power adaptor) the Kit is designed to fit nicely into a 5.25in drive bay. And it does. Better than most DVD drives.

Consisting of a combined motherboard & CPU combo plus a small chassis and oodles of extras for the tinkerers there’s not much to it but that’s the point. The Kit is built around a VIA C7 1GHz processor and the CX700 chipset it’s perfectly capable of being a small very low power little work machine. It’s what else you imagine doing with it is where its strength lies. More on this later.

The ARTiGO’s mainboard includes a single SODIMM slot for DDR2-533 memory up to 1GB a 2.5in IDE connector and a SATA connector (which was definitely appreciated) for a build in the provided chassis. There’s a 10/100 ethernet port four USB2.0 ports plus on board audio with mic and lineout. The CPU is cooled by one small fan which draws air from the back of the unit and the whole lot slots together like a geek’s dream version of Lego.

We built our system into the included chassis popping a 30GB IDE 2.5in drive and 1GB of DDR2 memory in it. Obviously when the system is the same size as an optical drive one isn’t included so we set about trying to get a Linux installer booting off a thumb drive. A short while of wasted effort proved our thumb drive wasn’t up to the task so we resorted to a SATA optical drive to install Ubuntu 7.10 on the system.

Full driver support for Ubuntu 7.10 was found on ViaArena and we were up and running with a minimum of effort to a surprisingly snappy little desktop.

What the ARTiGO (and many of VIA’s current offerings) is really about is a platform for creativity. Mainly where a moderate amount of computing power is required but needs to be or is ideally out of sight. Think presentations digital installations & signage in-car computers systems built in nooks and crannies desk drawers for the minimal look or home entertainment and you’re on the right track. Probably of most use to APC readers is installing it in your main PC. With a simple KVM like the Belkin Flip it would be easy to keep an always on system even when your main PC is powered down. For if you just want to check your mail quickly or look up the movie times. Even keeping it on overnight for some Torrenting isn’t out of the question.

But for those of us who want to get more hands on the ARTiGO Kit has more in the box. VIA includes a number of items mostly cables that increase the flexibility of the system. For example a simple thing a 12 to 20 pin power adaptor is included so you can run the system using an ATX power supply. It might not sound that exciting but when you realise you can then start using some components designed for more classical systems it starts making sense. There’s nothing stopping you putting a 1TB hard disk drive on the ARTiGO’s SATA port for a small and smart NAS device or network server. There’s also RS-232 for the tinkerers and electronics hobbyists and some alternative output cables like DVI and PS/2 for other uses.

Linux-phobics are catered for as well as the system is capable of running Windows 2000 and XP though it isn’t Vista capable (the thought of running Vista with a 1GHz processor and 1GB of RAM is enough to raise a panicked sweat).

The VIA ARTiGO isn’t going to revolutionise computing. It’s not the fastest computer we’ve seen by a long shot but it’s very small flexible enough to be a hobbyists best friend and run Linux well enough to get some work done. We still think it’s pretty cool.