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CTS 2005: BTX - Fear the factor

by David Ross on 20 April 2005, 00:00

Tags: Intel (NASDAQ:INTC)

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Motherboard and case designs go hand-in-hand and never more so than with BTX – the Balanced Technology eXtended format – debuted at the Intel Developers' Conference in the autumn of 2003.

This new motherboard and allied case format was hailed as the solution to overheating and noise problems suffered by ATX boxes fitted with the latest and greatest graphics cards, RAM and Intel CPUs. The board is designed so that these heat-generating components are more or less in line and, thus, can be cooled by a single fan.

Product was intended to be on sale in the Q4 2004 but, with Q1 2005 just ended, there's still little evidence that system builders have adopted BTX or that the components are out there to let them do so in volume. Gateway and Dell look to be the only tier-one makers to even offer BTX solutions – and they've hardly gone mad for it.

Dell's Dimension 5000 range is targeted at home and small-business users and has been on sale in Europe for a few months but we could find no sign of it (or an obvious alternative) on the company's North American site. The range offers high-performance components tied with a cool, quiet and efficient chassis. Prices start at £399 (excluding VAT and delivery but including a 15in LCD monitor).

Gateway's 9310 series offers a similar chassis configuration (well, it's the nature of BTX) but isn't available in Europe – the company pulled out a few years back and now does business only in the North America, Mexico and Japan. Pricing in the USA for a BTX system with 17in LCD monitor starts at US$1,100 – equivalent to £582 (ex-VAT, ex-delivery)

Intel, of course, is the format's big backer and it's said it will only be shipping a small selection of BTX motherboards this year – the plan now is for a big push in 2006.

Third-party motherboard makers don't look to be in any hurry to rush in and fill the gap, and case makers are being hesitant, too. Consequently, there's little product available for system integrators and self-builders, and public knowledge and awareness of the format remain low.

Intel argues that BTX is cheaper to produce than ATX and it would be dead right if we were starting from ground zero and choosing which of the two routes to follows.

Trouble is everyone's already spent big on developing their ATX productions lines and the move to BTX represents a cost that they'll not have to meet if they stick only with ATX. So, with margins being so slim all round, it's understandable that progress has been slow.

My visit to CTS this week only confirmed that BTX remains a long way from becoming mainstream. There was no fear of me running out of fingers when I set out to count the number of BTX-specific cases being shown. And, with Intel and Dell (and Gateway) having, presumably, no good reason to be there, BTX generally took a back seat.

But, when I looked a bit closer, it became apparent that there were more cases with BTX features than I'd at first thought – because some ATX cases could be used for BTX as well!

Jerry Lee, the Assistant Manager of Marketing at ThermalTake showed me the company's latest ranges. These included cases sold under its new ThermalRock brand – each dual-format, but with its BTX capabilities being played down in the marketing handouts.

PCI Case Group had a number of BTX-only cases nestled in among a lot of tiny Small Form Factor (SFF) models, the nicest BTX offering being a home theatre PC (HTPC) case with a steel chassis.

We asked the developer, who'd flown in from China, why the company had opted to use steel, and the answer was to keep down costs. The case will sell for under £30, and that could give it widespread appeal with those trying to build a PC or an HTPC on a tight budget.

BTX, I'd imagined, would be an idea that appealed to makers of Small Form Factor (SFF) cases, so I was disappointed to discover at CTS only one SFF BTX design – Shuttle's SB86i. This was sitting pretty in a corner of the stand and made no noise at all. Mind you, that's not surprising; it wasn't even powered up!

As an owner of one of Shuttle's devices, I was hoping that the newcomer could take a high-end graphics card. Sadly, though, the answer was no. The SB86i is aimed at the business market and fitting such a card wasn't thought to be a good idea at all.

And that, I fear, will be same with most SFF BTX models. Your average graphics card is no problem but these tiny boxes can't take the sorts of card that gamers want to use. Their low-noise fans simply can’t deal with the heat, and there's no obvious way of getting sufficient air throughput to prevent things starting cooking.

I checked out a number of SFF sites and these seemed to indicate not simply that no one was producing the sort of product I wanted but also that Shuttle had been virtually alone in even considering BTX for SFF cases.

Finally, though, buried deep within Intel's site, I found some links to studies of experimental Entertainment PC that looked at the viability of SFF BTX solutions. But these were heavy reading and no cause for optimism. They suggested the use of plastic deflectors to modify the airflow – contrary to the BTX SFF spec, of course – showing that the spec itself was flawed from the outset.

And, what needs to be realised is that a case that doesn't meet the spec can't carry the BTX logo. That logo is Intel's stamp of approval and is only awarded if a product successfully passes through the company's hardware-qualification labs.

That qualification process, I know, has already delayed designs reaching market because Intel absolutely does refuse approval if cases are not bang-on spec – and the steps involved in preparing product for each testing are costly and time consuming.

The bottom line seems to be that the confined space of an SFF box means that BTX is a non-starter for anything requiring a fancy graphics card – presenting Intel with something of a dilemma. The company wants BTX to succeed but, if the format can't be applied across all platforms, then ATX will continue unchallenged in SFF products aimed at enthusiasts.

With SFF expected to be a massive area of growth in many market sectors, Intel clearly needs to have a rethink and modify the spec so that high-performance can be delivered in a BTX-format shoe-box sized case.