Compared with the tower-case computers that squat under desks in millions of homes and offices, the tidy black box I have set up at home is a midget of a machine. Not only does this desktop actually fit on top of a desk, at roughly 7 1/4 inches tall by 7 7/8 inches wide by 12 inches long, it takes up no more room than many shoeboxes.
And at roughly 11 pounds, it weighs less than some laptops; its manufacturer even sells bags and backpacks to carry it around.
This computer didn't come from Apple or Sony, the two most prominent dissidents from the PC industry's beige-box orthodoxy -- although it's unmistakably reminiscent of the Power Mac Cube, Apple's brief experiment at building an ultra-compact desktop.
But where Apple's jewel-like machine debuted at $1,799 and never got cheaper than $1,499, Shuttle Computer's XPC line of desktops starts at $699.
This Taiwan-based manufacturer has sold these models to other manufacturers and in unassembled versions to hobbyists for the past several years, but recently began offering complete systems in some stores and on its Web site (www.us.shuttle.com).
To judge from the computer the company loaned, a $1,100 G4 6100M running Microsoft's Media Center edition of Windows XP, Shuttle's designs are every bit as usable as traditional configurations. This machine includes a powerful processor, a capable graphics card, copious amounts of storage -- just under 150 gigabytes of room on the tested PC -- and numerous connections for peripheral gadgets.
But for all its clever engineering, the XPC also seems a few ingredients shy of being ready for the mass market. It's a machine better suited for enthusiasts and tinkerers (such as the reader who e-mailed me to explain how he'd added a Shuttle computer to his home theater to manage his digital-music library).
Shuttle fits the essentials of a desktop in the XPC's cramped quarters with some crafty engineering. For example, the processor is kept cool -- not an easy feat with the tested XPC's 3 GHz Pentium 4 -- using a system of tiny metal pipes that conduct heat away from the chip and toward one moderately hushed fan, instead of the usual, raucous array of fans.
(This machine's overall quiet is undercut slightly by the way the power supply's own small cooling fan continues to whir quietly even when the computer is in sleep mode.)
Where compromises were necessary, Shuttle opted to include only items that most customers actually need. There's only one CD or DVD drive (a DVD+RW unit in the model I tried), but that's enough unless you routinely duplicate discs. Instead of a floppy drive that will collect dust in most homes, the XPC includes a memory-card reader that accepts most cards used in digital cameras, MP3 players and handheld organizers.