Electronic Design

VIA ARTiGO: Small But Powerful

VIA Technologies’ Pico-ITX packs most of the punch of a mini-ITX motherboard in a substantially smaller package. The ARTiGO kit (Fig 1.) includes a Pico-ITX motherboard, plus the power supply, case and all the cabling needed for a full system. Internally, you need to add memory and if you should desire one a disk drive. Externally you can connect USB devices and Ethernet network and VGA monitor. As with many systems, the ARTiGO boots nicely as a diskless device with network boot support, via a disk drive or flash drive. I tried a number of these combinations successfully.

The first thing to note about the ARTiGO is that it is very compact. The exploded stack view (Fig 2.) shows how much stuff gets packed into something about an inch high. There is little room for options but you can trade off a hard drive for a custom PC board if you choose a network boot configuration or a compact flash solution. The top view (Fig 3.) just reiterates the tight quarters of the system.

The Pico-ITX board has a 1-GHz C7 x86-compatible processor. It also includes a VIA VX700 Unified Digital Media IGP chipset that can accelerate video nicely. These days, it pays to have the hardware handle the chores. Otherwise, the C7 will not keep up. There is a single DDR2 SODIMM socket that I filled with 1 Gbyte of memory. There are four USB ports, PS/2 ports, and a 10/100 Ethernet port. A microphone in and audio-out jack provide audio support.

The Pico-ITX board has its IDE edge connector on one side. This allowed the ARTiGO designers to create a PCB to link the IDE connector with a hard drive (Fig 4.). The laptop-style connection includes power as well as the data and control signals. The power supply (Fig 5.) delivers power to the hard drive through the Pico-ITX board.

VIA includes cabling for other connections not used with the ARTiGO case such as PS/2 connections. This is handy if you have PS/2 devices or an operating system that prefers these over USB devices but they will not be easily accessible with a closed case.

Flash In The Pan
There are three choices when it comes to installing an operating system on the ARTiGO: network boot, flash drive, or external optical drive. I have network boot support in the lab but it is not something the average developer will have handy.

The flash drive option is probably the best. I used a 16-Gbyte Corsair Flash Voyager to boot (Fig 6.) and install Ubuntu. This is the same flash drive I used on the road for a previous review (see “ Carrying A Corsair: A Trip With A Memory Stick”). Having an installation version of Ubuntu, or any other operating system on a memory stick, turns out to be quite handy these days as even optical drives begin to disappear.

Installing Windows was more of a challenge. It is easily done via a network install but most people will not want to set up that option. It is not easy. An external USB DVD drive turns out to be the easiest approach for most people. Doing the USB flash drive install with Windows is not an easy task. Likewise, coming up with a compact IDE cable that will support both a hard disk and DVD drive at the same time will be out of reach for most users.

Still, once Windows was installed on the ARTiGO, including the drivers that come with the package, all is well.

Need More Space!
The only flaw in the ARTiGO is the lack of a SATA option. The Pico-ITX motherboard does have a SATA interface but the tight IDE PCB interconnect will not work with a SATA drive. I tried various cable options and found that it is possible to pull power from the Pico-ITX board for a SATA drive. Unfortunately, the chink in the proverbial armor is just that. I was unable top find a short enough SATA cable with a header that is low enough to fit inside the ARTiGO case.

The reason why moving to SATA is imperative in the long run is that drives like Fujitsu’s 2.5-in., 320-Gbyte MHZ2320BH SATA drive (Fig 7.) is where high capacity storage is moving. This 5400-rpm drive is what all the new laptops will be wearing and it is likely to be the drive of choice for server RAID systems as they move away from 3.5-in. drives.

First, a little overview of Fujitsu’s drive. It employs perpendicular magnetic recording (PMR) to pack 320 Gbytes into a 9.5-mm high package. It is very quiet (2.4 bels) and has a 1.5 ms seek time with an average latency of 5.56 ms. Its SATA 2 interface runs at 3 Gbits/s. The onboard buffer is 8 Mbytes. It requires 5 V and 1 A at spin-up but only needs 0.13 W in standby mode.

As noted in the figure, the Fujitsu drive and Pico-ITX board were tested outside the ARTiGO case. The photo does not show all the cables attached, only the SATA cables. An external power supply was employed to make this easier.

Operationally this worked just fine so finding a different case is the best bet if you need more storage or IDE drives become hard to get. At this point it is getting harder but not impossible. On the other hand, if you are looking for higher capacity drives the like the Fujitsu then the options are dwindling fast. New drives are likely to be SATA or SAS only, not IDE. Performancewise, the Fujitsu drive is a nice match to the Pico-ITX although an even higher performance processor will take better advantage of the drive’s speed. Overall, the ARTiGO is a neat package and having all the parts, with some exceptions, included makes it a snap to move to other development and deployment chores. I’ve used the system as a diskless MythTV client so I can take advantage its improved performance compared to the mini-ITX system it is replacing.





VIA Technologies

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