FIC's Condor Small Form Factor PC

By Jason Cross  |  Posted 2004-11-03 Email Print this article Print

Review: Not all small form factor PCs have to be cubes. FIC delivers a new SFF PC with a different shape and an extra slot. Is it a better solution than the little breadbox-shaped PCs we see so often?

We review a lot of small form factor (SFF) PCs at this site, to be sure. And why not? The market for these smaller-than-usual PCs has exploded over the past two years. In fact, you can see eleven of our most recent SFF PC reviews packaged together in our recent SFF roundup. With all those systems, you'll notice they have one thing in common: their shape. Sure the sizes vary a bit, and the internal components and cooling solutions are different from one system to the next, but they are all shaped like little squashed cubes.

We like the typical SFF cube shape, but we're not ready to pronounce it the only desirable form factor for tiny computers. FIC is trying something a bit different with their new Condor barebones PC. It's a bit narrower and taller, with an overall look that definitely conjures up comments about toasters. Let's dive into the new PC and see what makes it tick.

Fit and Finish
On the outside, FIC's new system is nothing if not a breath of fresh air. Though it's about as deep as most small form factor PCs, it's a bit narrower, and quite a bit taller. The silver finish with a black base and black/chrome highlights make it a pretty attractive PC, although everyone who has seen it says that "it looks like a toaster!" That's not meant to be an insult–this is perhaps the coolest-looking toaster you've ever seen.

The front of the system has three doors: one for the optical drive bay, one for the 3.5" drive bay, and one that hides a pair of USB ports, the headphone output, and the digital optical output. These front connections are a bit less than we're used to seeing. Typically, you get a microphone input and FireWire jack as well. This system, in fact, has no FireWire connections at all, on the front or the back.

The optical drive mounts vertically in this system. It's unusual enough to be a bit squeamish about, but most optical drives have little "catches" on the drive tray that will hold a disc just fine in a vertical position. Though the optical drive door worked fine, we are a bit concerned about the long spring that pulls it shut. It's rather exposed and fragile; it doesn't take a leap of imagination to think it wouldn't last too long.

The cooling solution is pretty unique here. A large heatsink/fan on the CPU draws air in through a large vent in the bottom of the machine and pushes it out through the top. We'll have more on this when we take a look inside, but it does present some concern for those who might put the system down on carpet. Without a relatively hard surface to sit on, the vent might be blocked, particularly with deep pile carpet. This design has the advantage of letting the tall and narrow box sit in a crowded area, since the sides don't need to be kept free for airflow.

Speaking of the top, that's how you get into the system. A grey latch in the center of the top is the only means of access; slide it forward and the left half of the system swings down in a manner not unlike Apple G3 and G4 computers. This is supposed to make the system easier to assemble and work on, but as we'll see in a bit, that isn't quite the case. We generally like this external design, but it would be nice if we could keep it closed in a more secure manner for travel or shipment–perhaps with a thumbscrew in the back. Continued...

Open the latch and notice the entire side and front of the machine swing down. The motherboard and power supply remain in the vertical segment, while the drives are mounted on the side that swings down. In theory, this makes the system easier to work on.

Taking a look at the side that swings open, we see mounts for three drives: an external 5.25" and 3.5" drive, and an internal 3.5" hard drive. All drive mounts are totally toolless, which is neat. The drives simply snap into spring-loaded metal clasps that grab the drive where the mounting holes are. It's quite easy to manage and secures the drives well.

The CPU cooler is an array of vertical fins attached to a small fan that draws air up from the bottom of the case, across the heat sink, and out the top. This arrangement is fine in principle, but if you install an AGP graphics card it will block the airflow. Depending on how you look at it, this could be either a good or bad thing: either the cards are getting in the way of the air, or the air is forced to flow around the cards and thus cool them as well. Continued...

This system is sold in a barebones configuration only, including the case, motherboard, power supply, and cooling solution. We fleshed it out with the following components:

FIC Condor
Pentium 4 3.0GHz (socket 478)
2X 256MB (512MB) Kingston DDR400
ATI Radeon 9800 (128MB), Catalyst 4.10 drivers
Hard Drive:
Western Digital WD800JB
Optical Drive:
Lite On LTC-48161H (DVD/CDRW)
Sound Blaster Audigy2
Operating System:
Windows XP Professional, Service Pack 2 installed

If some of those components look familiar, they should. We're essentially using the same parts we used in our recent $800 gaming PC. That was an Athlon 64 2800+ based system, while this one is built around a 3.0GHz Pentium 4, but these CPUs are actually pretty close in price. The Pentium 4 costs only about $30-40 more, so this should make for an interesting comparison. What's more-- the case, motherboard, and power supply for the $800 gaming PC cost about $141, nearly $100 less than this barebones system. So in essence, we'll be looking at the performance of a large, aesthetically plain $800 system with a very similar system that costs about $150 more but comes in a smaller, more attractive package. Continued...

We'll quickly go through a few pages of performance numbers, but almost all the parts in this system have been reviewed, discussed, and benchmarked here before. At its heart this is just another system based on Intel's 865G chipset, and we've seen how that performs dozens of times before. Feel free to examine some of our other recent features to see how this system stacks up.

We've begun to phase out the dated Business Winstone and Content Creation Winstone benchmarks, and not a moment too soon–they don't work with Service Pack 2 for Windows XP and haven't been patched yet. Replacing those tests will be BAPCo's SysMark 2004, a larger benchmark suite that has similar real-world tests: one suite for content creation and one for business applications.

Pentium 4 CPUs excel at SysMark, even in the top-of-the-line models that fall behind the comparable Athlon 64 CPUs in most other areas. It's no surprise to see our slightly more expensive Pentium 4 surpass the slowest Athlon 64 money can buy, especially considering that the Athlon 64 is at a 1.2GHz disadvantage and has a 64bit memory bus. The real takeaway here is that FIC's Condor system performs well for a system based on the 865G chipset, but is within expectations.

PCMark 2004 is a set of synthetic tests that tend to do well on the higher-frequency Intel chips, and we can certainly see the results of that here. The 64-bit memory controller on our inexpensive Athlon 64 system hurts its memory score a lot, too. Interestingly, the hard drive scores are better on our $800 gaming PC–perhaps the drive controller is that much better?

We've updated our standard 3D game benchmarks over the last few months. Gone is UT2003, with our own custom UT2004 timedemo in its place. We run the built-in demo1 benchmark from Doom 3 as well. The only test that really isn't different is Halo, which we still run using the shader model 2.0 path. We ran all our tests at a respectable resolution of 1024x768, with details turned up to their highest settings in the game menus (save for Doom 3, which was set to "high" rather than "ultra"). If you can play all the modern games with their eye candy cranked up at 1024x768, you're in pretty good shape. We've also included Call of Duty and the Source Video Stress Test, a synthetic benchmark made to test video performance in the new Source engine powering Half-Life 2.

We're used to seeing Athlon 64 systems surpass Pentium 4s when it comes to games, often by a significant margin. That's not quite the case here. The Athlon 64 2800+ runs at just too low a clock speed, with too little cache, and is hampered by a 64-bit memory bus. It's still quite fast for the price, but our 3.0GHz Pentium 4 manages to turn in significantly faster game benchmarks scores while only costing about $40 more. Continued...

It's nice to see that not every small form factor PC has to look like a little squat cube. The Condor is an attractive system with an interesting fold-open design that really is quite appealing. It's not really any louder or quieter than most other SFF systems we've looked at, but it's not quite as easy to assemble as they would have you think. The cables coming off the power supply tend to get in the way of whatever AGP or PCI cards you might install, forcing you to do a little squeezing and tugging to get things to fit. It's not a really big deal, but it's something to be aware of. Beyond that, it really is a pretty easy system to work on. The toolless drive cage works great, and it's easy to get to the CPU and memory with the flip-open case.

If we're disappointed by anything, it's the fact that this is a system based on the 865G chipset, which is sort of a dead end. Certainly you'll be able to buy socket 478 CPUs for some time, but all the new models moving forward are for socket LGA775, and the future of PC graphics lies with PCIe, not AGP. Having said that, it performs about as well as we would expect from an 865G based system, and has about the same feature set. The only thing missing we really would have liked is built-in FireWire, but its omission isn't a critical flaw.

FIC's new Condor small form factor PC shows that you don't have to be a cube-copycat to make a good product in the competitive and ever-growing SFF market. It's more than just a novelty; it's a good product in its own right that gives us that second PCI slot we've been wanting. We'd love to see a version with a bit more longevity, based on a socket format with more of a future and including a PCIe graphics slot and bigger power supply.

Attractive and unique new form factor; easy drive installation; two PCI slots.
Wires cause a bit of clutter; 865G chipset is a dead end; no FireWire.
FIC gets points for the neat new form factor, but we would have preferred a more modern chipset and reduced cable wrangling.
Jason Cross Jason was a certified computer geek at an early age, playing with his family's Apple II when he was still barely able to write. It didn't take long for him to start playing with the hardware, adding in 80-column cards and additional RAM as his family moved up through Apple II+, IIe, IIgs, and eventually the Macintosh. He was sucked into Intel based side of the PC world by his friend's 8088 (at the time, the height of sophisticated technology), and this kicked off a never-ending string of PC purchases and upgrades.

Through college, where he bounced among several different majors before earning a degree in Asian Studies, Jason started to pull down freelance assignments writing about his favorite hobby—,video and computer games. It was shortly after graduation that he found himself, a thin-blooded Floridian, freezing his face off at Computer Games Magazine in Vermont, where he founded the hardware and technology section and built it up over five years before joining the ranks at ExtremeTech and moving out to beautiful northern California. When not scraping up his hands on the inside of a PC case, you can invariably find Jason knee-deep in a PC game, engrossed in the latest console title, or at the movie theater.



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