Incredible shrinking PCs appear at LinuxExpo

If a dictionary-sized PC is too big, how about one the size of a video cassette? Or a pack of playing cards?

Some of the smallest PCs around were on show at the LinuxExpo in London's Olympia exhibition centre last week. One was even smaller than a pack of playing cards.

UK distributor GCI was demonstrating several PCs ranging in size from the classic "book-sized" PC (the size of a large dictionary) to one barely larger than a VCR cassette.

GCI's spokesman said the smaller form factors were aimed mainly at applications such as thin clients, thin servers, point of sale machines and the banking sector. The Sumicom PC, at 250mm deep by 146mm wide by just 46mm high, is only slightly larger than the CD-Rom drive that it holds.

Like many of the smallest form factor PCs, the Sumicom spurns Intel and AMD processors in favour of a lower-powered alternative; in this case, VIA Technology's 800Mhz C3 processor. Prices start at £530 for a system with 128MB Ram.

The company was also demonstrating a video cassette-sized PC which had only just arrived in the country although it had no name, said the spokesman. This PC, which is too small for even a CD-Rom drive, uses for storage a 2.5inch hard disk drive -- the type commonly used in notebooks -- together with Compact Flash. There are five models in the range, with all but the cheapest having a PCCard slot and disk-on-chip too. For a processor it uses National Semiconductor's Geode GX1-300B --- an x86 chip based on the old Cyrix processors.

GCI sells all systems without an operating system, but the spokesman said the Geode-based PCs could easily be booted from a CD-Rom connected to the USB port. Pricing for this system was not available, but is expected to start at around £350.

For those who need something a little smaller, over at the Debian stand Cambridge-based firms Aleph One and Toby Churchill Ltd were demonstrating Balloon -- a tiny (100mm by 55mm) ARM-based computer running a port of Debian Linux. Although the device is aimed at applications for the disabled -- Toby Churchill is a leading manufacturer of text to speech devices -- the companies were demonstrating it running a Web server with PHP scripting, as well as ports of a number of text to speech packages.

"You can think of it as a Compaq iPaq without the touch screen," said Toby Churchill software engineer Nick Bane, who helped port the text-to-speech applications to Balloon. Bane demonstrated Balloon running text-to-speech applications from DECtalk, Babel-Infovox and Elan Speech at the expo, but noted that other companies would be able to use the freely-available reference design for other applications such as for use in car stereos.

The text to speech applications demonstrated at Linux Expo ran from Smart Media cards that were used for very large multiple-language builds of the applications. All single language and nearly all multiple language sythesizers fit within the on board Flash RAM, said Bane.

To aid the practice of running applications from Flash memory, Bane and others are developing a journaling file system called YAFFS -- Yet Another Flash File System, that is intended to overcome the shortcomings of current Flash file systems. YAFFS, said Bane, is about to enter beta testing.

Aleph One plans to produce ready-made Balloon boards, said chief techie Wookey, who is also a Debian developer. Wookey said the company hopes to have ready-made Balloon boards in production sometime this winter, but said it was too early to indicate how much they will cost.

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