Michael Brown Jun 16, 2010

VIA ARTiGO A1100 Barebones PC

The tiniest DIY PC around. Microscope not included.

How should we classify VIA’s ARTiGO A1100 ? It’s technically not a portable, since it lacks a display and input devices (e.g. a keyboard and trackpad);  but the desktop label doesn’t really fit, either: You could stash 50 of these things inside the Lian Li mid-tower case of the PC we used to write this piece. We’ve seen the term “nettop” floating around, so we’ll use that.

Hobbyists will enjoy building VIA's ARTiGO A1100.

The ARTiGO A1100 is a do-it-yourself PC kit not much larger than a couple decks of cards. It comes with almost everything it needs to handle common computer tasks, except memory and storage, which the user/builder is expected to provide. The Pico-ITX motherboard hosts VIA’s media-friendly 1.2GHz Nano 64-bit CPU and VX855 chipset, which provide gigabit Ethernet; internal SATA; four USB 2.0 host ports; an integrated VIA Chrome9 AGP graphics chip that accelerates MPEG2, MPEG4, H.264, and other popular codecs; HDMI and VGA ports; and more.

It’s easy enough to install the required DDR2 SODIMM and the 2.5-inch hard drive required to make the A1100 a complete PC. The former goes into a slot covered by a metal plate on the bottom of the unit, and the latter goes inside the case up top. Builders simply need a small Phillips-head screwdriver for access to the internals. An experienced user will have the thing apart and back together in less than five minutes.

It took us 10 minutes, because we had a couple of optional components to install: An SD card reader, and an 802.11b/g Wi-Fi card complete with antenna. Holes and slots in the case accommodate these components, so installation was a simple matter of connecting a few wires and securing a couple of cards.

VIA sent us the optional Wi-Fi and SD card-reader kits for our review.

We installed Windows 7 Home Premium x86 on the machine via a USB flash drive. Installation went smoothly and all of the drivers worked out of the box; within a couple of hours, the entire installation, complete with updates, was done and all the devices were readily accessible. Now it was time to see what a computer the size of most notebooks’ battery packs could do.

We used the little box as a media streamer first, and it worked flawlessly streaming music to other devices in the house (including an Xbox 360 and several computers) using both our wired and wireless networks. Standard-def video (480i) also worked well, but HD video stuttered over the wireless network; not surprising, since the included Wi-Fi card is limited to 802.11b/g.

We then connected the A1100 to our HDTV’s HDMI input (the device supports video resolutions up to 1920x1200) and used Windows Media Center to play DVDs ripped to the internal hard drive But the absence of three features prevent the A1100 from serving as a tiny home-theater PC: There’s no TV tuner (although we suppose it could host a USB tuner), and it has no optical drive (although it did a fine job of hosting an external DVD drive). More importantly, it doesn’t have a video input that would enable it to record video from an external source. And more importantly than that, the A1100’s analog audio quality—for lack of a better description—sucks. Audio I/O is limited to analog line-in, mic-in, and line-out; there is no digital-audio output (other than HDMI or network streaming).

We provided our own 2GB 800MHz SODIMM for testing.

Circling back to the “nettop” concept, the A1100 ran Microsoft Office 2007 without a hitch; and adding Mozilla’s Firefox and Thunderbird turned it into a tiny productivity center. We could definitely see the A1100 sitting beneath an HDMI-capable display in a college dorm room—as long as the student doesn’t try playing games on it; the A1100 couldn’t get through a single instance of PCMark Vantage without crashing. We didn’t bother running any current-generation games besides Peggle , which it handled gracefully. But to be fair, VIA didn’t design this box with gaming in mind and the company isn’t targeting that market.

The ARTiGO A1100 is a capable small form-factor PC and a fun DIY project, but its $245 price tag rises quickly when you add in the cost of memory, storage, display, mouse and keyboard, and operating system (unless you install a Linux distro). You could buy a netbook for less, although the limited video resolution you’ll encounter in that type of product renders it unsuitable for watching movies .


VIA ARTiGO A1100 Barebones PC

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