Monday, August 10, 2009

ATX: Why it must die, why it never will

About three weeks ago I picked up a used Dell Dimension of indeterminate model. (Long story, but the motherboard (as far as I can tell, a Pentium 4/Northwood board with an Intel chipset) is substantially older than the case. Why and how, I don't know, as long as it contains what the guy who sold it to me says.) It's nothing to get excited about -- I had to cannibalize my old PC for a sound card, and the video card is a complete joke -- but it's sufficient to run Ubuntu and will probably hold me at least until I can afford a MacBook. I actually like the design -- it's designed in the same vein as the fliptop/drop-down cases that Apple used to be famous for until the G5/Mac Pro case. It's completely screwless, and the inside also replaces some inside screws (for example, for the PCI slot brackets) with latches -- you just lay it down, flip it open from the back, and have at it. I'm not a huge fan of Dell and likely would never buy one new (they tend to play fast and loose with standards and Michael Dell is basically a dullard who had a good idea once), but this is a pretty awesome case, and it rather sucks that their current cases are pretty much the same crappy single-ply ATX cases that everyone else uses on their budget systems.

There really aren't enough easy-access cases like this out there; I imagine they're rather expensive, and, well, you get right down to it, there's this slight problem with cable length and a few generally ignored issues about heat transfer and cable routing and the fact that working in the average ATX case is like building a model train in a goddamned BATHTUB and the few times I've ever seen a workable drop-side ATX case it was a complete cheezy disaster and WHAT THE BLOODY HELL WERE THESE PEOPLE THINKING anyway. The Dell case (which I have dubbed the "butterfly" case) seems to solve the cabling problem pretty effectively, since you lay it down and open it from the back, meaning you don't have to worry about yanking out a drive cable or something like that because the drive cages are right on top of the headers.

So every few years someone, usually Intel, comes out with the latest specification meant to supplant ATX, which is now closing on fifteen years old and exists in several vaguely compatible revisions to compensate for increasing demand for cooling and board neatness. There was NLX, which was supposed to replace the poorly-specced LPX for small form factor systems; there are a few NLX boxes out there, but it wasn't that popular. There was WTX which was supposed to replace ATX for higher-end boxes and had sophisticated thermal management; it went nowhere. There was BTX, which got some traction with some of the larger system builders like Gateway and Dell, but went nowhere on the DIY front and is apparently now a zombie standard. ATX, however, continues.

It was good for its time, don't get me wrong; it was relatively friendly for full-size desktop cases, but no one uses those anymore. And it might have been pretty easy to ignore the lessons of Apple's industrial design; this was during the Spindler/Amelio days, when the Macintosh was still a joke among informed techies and they blew most of their ad budget on product placement rather than actual effective advertising. But the first PCI PowerMacs should have served as a lesson to someone out there -- they were very nice to work with, as were the 630/6x00 series cases with the slide-out motherboards, and Apple went one better with the blue and white G3 models, which could actually open up while the system was still live. (If there had ever been any real market in internal USB or FireWire devices, this would have come in very handy indeed.) But Intel missed that lesson when designing WTX and BTX -- wouldn't it have made sense to put the drive headers on the left or right side of the board so the cables don't stretch in a drop-side or fliptop configuration or have to be, you know, YANKED OUT to get at anything in a regular case? Dell's butterfly case is the only workable solution to the problem of front-mounted headers I've ever seen, and nobody seems to have bothered to copy it.

But that's the disappointments of the PC world -- in a commodity business, even when someone gets something utterly and completely right, it's still based on some obnoxious compromise somewhere, and often isn't cost effective because no one else will cut into their profit margins. So Dell went back to the ATX bathtub like everyone else, because it's what everyone else knows and works with. And that comes back to the title of this post: ATX must die because it's half-baked and barely adequate, but it never will because it's so strongly standardized that it will probably be a standard for at least another decade. That's inertia for you.

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Anonymous said...

I've come across a number of well layed-out HP cases at work. They're recent, and basically all toolless - using latches instead in a pretty clever way.

They also use air guides to manage cooling, which works well for a pre-baked case but isn't something that I'd want in a system that I was building myself. The advantage in having a completely open ATX case is that you're free to manage that airflow on your own.

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The Dell case seems to solve the cabling problem pretty effectively, since you lay it down and open it from the back, meaning you don't have to worry about yanking out a drive cable or something like that because the drive cages are right on top of the headers.

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