The Netbox Cubit - Angus Morrison talks to us ...

Some people don't care what their PC's look like and real tinkerers have the covers off most of the time anyway. Others looked wistfully at the nice looking offerings from Apple and wondered why PC makers couldn't come up with something groovy that wasn't a bad and cheap looking copy of something else.

Apple's ill-fated Cube in particular excited a lot of interest. Apple nearly sunk their own boat by not testing it properly and then being too cheap with its manufacture. The cube was compact and silent and looked cool. Now for PC's we have the 'Cubit' from Netbox. It's a beautiful little aluminum box that comes in a variety of colours and has some nifty features. Here we talk to Angus Morrison about it.

Tell us about the design ideas of the cubit.

Well, i have always wanted to make really nice enclosures for PCs, but the stuff that goes in them hampers any way of making them look good! It was a response to a new motherboard that fuelled the design. I had known about the new EPIA board from VIA for some months, but had expected it to be (like all other previous embedded motherboards) very expensive. When it came out and was very reasonably priced we realised that we could make something really nice that was still affordable for most people, but in a size as yet unheard of in anything but industrial computing. More importantly, we could create a truly solid, elegant enclosure.

At the beginning we were just going to construct using Acrylic Plexiglas (called Perspex here in the UK). Where we live there are a lot of small metal fabrication outfits, so we decided to start in aluminium. Our final design uses 5mm solid aluminium for the whole box - giving a really solid feel, with altogether 2kgs of metal per box. After cutting, each box we hand engineer ourselves. We have a friend here who runs a bus company - so we are planning on having him drive one of his buses over it - just to make the point thats its utterly bombproof...

What spec CPU, motherboard do you use?

The mobo has an embedded 800Mhz VIA C3 CPU inside - which by all accounts is tiny, requiring only minimal fan cooling. I think they have used a 0.13 micron process and integrated both MMX and 3dNow technology - so it's indiscernable from a P3 800. The 667Mhz version has no active cooling at all! The benefits of this board are that unlike most embedded boards I have worked with it is really solid and reliable - i am continually impressed by this.

You have some interesting ideas about running Linux on your computers. Like to talk about the plugin card?

Yes, it was from my background in a previous venture. We were designing and making little Linux webpads with 802.11b wireless inside them. We soon realised that the thin client was going to rule - as with this much bandwidth, local storage would be a thing of the past. Well, as with many things in computing it didn't happen quite as fast as we thought. The linux thin client was certainly not going to take off in 1999/2000 - as even for volume manufacture back then they were going to cost us at least 800-1000 USD!

With the Cubit we realised that we could bring the thin client idea home and in an utterly stylish way - so we integrated a micro Compact Flash card (Type I and II) interface on the back. This is a plain IDE device, so it means you can boot any OS from it from any CF (type I) or microdrive (type II) card. The price of flash memory is now so low that this is quite feasible.

The great thing for us is that we have created a really good-looking box that can house a power supply, board and CF card running something open source like Linux - providing a versatile, elegant solution for offices where a fat server is sitting somewhere else in the building delivering the internet, or something like Citrix Metaframe. An OS change is as fast as replacing a CF card - and there are obvious savings on both hardware and MS license fees.

Earlier we were talking about how these might be quite nice boxes to do audio on. What implications does your design have for hardware latency and other factors that interest people working on music?

The board has only AC97 sound (VIA VT1612A onboard) but does have the addition of consumer mode S/PDIF. For non-professionals its as good as any place to start, but it is unlikely to be the choice of anyone wanting to create professional audio at the moment. Our next version, however, will allow a horizontal PCI slot,which means an Emagic or similar audio processing/DSP card can be used. Then it can really be a portable alternative to a large audio workstation.

With the compact flash cards acting as an IDE drive, is it feasible to stream audio to/from them? The read/write times should be less than an ordinary disk I should imagine.

The normal read/write times for a hard disk are between 8.5 and 12ms - I think that non-volatile flash memory CF cards (excluding the Microdrive) will do this in approx 2.5ms - a 3-4 fold benefit.

Thanks Angus.

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