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An Ultra Small Form Factor machine (USFF) - a hardware review

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Thomas Zucker-Scharff
Veteran in computer systems, malware removal and ransomware topics.  I have been working in the field since 1985.
Recently I had the dubious luck to have a nearly new computer system, which my boss had upgraded from, placed into my hands.   The computer is a fairly good system and even had an SSD as a boot device.  I thought this would be a great system until the problems started.

The first thing that happened is that intermittently the computer would hang or it would lose connection to the Internet.  This could only be remedied by rebooting.  Then the computer lost its trust relationship to the domain (that was the message).  

Trust Relationship Problem
Previously, I had been able to solve this problem on other computers by removing the computer from the domain at the console and then logging in locally and rejoining the domain.   I tried this and the computer wouldn't even let me log on locally.  I tried everything, including removing the network cord.  The error I kept receiving indicated that there was no login server even for the local machine.

No Logon servers available
This was disturbing to say the least!  I tried to reinstall windows 7, but that failed as well (first while trying to decompress the windows files and the second time half way through the initial boot where there is only a white line before the install screen even comes up.  I was able to boot to windows several times and then all I could get was the BIOS.  The company replaced the power supply when they determined that it wasn't working (although when the technician came, it looked like it may have been the power cord – which I thought I had checked).  It booted up one more time and then stopped working displaying the previous symptoms. The company sent me a new pre-imaged boot drive.

Installing the new drive:

This seemed rather easy to me until I tried it.  The actual installation was no problem, the problem was that the computer body is an Ultra Small Form Factor (USFF), so everything is so tightly put together that nearly everything needed to come out in order to put the new drive in.  Once in the removable bay, I merely attached the cable and then put the bay back into the system case, that is when the trouble started.

The technician that replaced the power supply had had to take out the drive bay also and had had great difficulty putting it back in, even though this is what he did all day.  When I tried to put the drive bay back in, it kept on popping back out.  It was supposed to snap in, there were even several notches for it to fit into.  I tried to do this several times, because if the drive bay didn't snap in properly, then the optical drive, which snapped in on top of it, would not fit in correctly, everything was tight.  After several attempts I was able to get it all together, only to find when I tried to use the optical drive (DVD - RW), it couldn't pop out because the case was in the way.  After several more attempts, I gave up.

The next day I tried again a few times without much luck.  I called the company in the hopes of getting technical support, but when I finally got through, they hung up (I hope accidentally) on me - usually they have excellent support.  I tried one more time and was able to get the drive bay in correctly and the optical drive worked correctly when I was done!

A word about Displays and display options:
I have been working with this machine for some time and one of the more annoying things is that although the graphics card is an excellent one, it has only one output DVI and this particular flavor is 3 rows of pins with no tab.  

Display card DVI 60 pin female port
Finding cables to go with this is a pain and unless you go into the BIOS and reenable the Display Port and VGA connectors that are on the motherboard, you get error messages every time you restart the computer.

What is the lesson?

The take away here, in case you haven't guessed, is never build or purchase an Ultra Small Form Factor (USFF) or even a Small Form Factor (SFF) computer.  In the end it just isn't worth it.  The cons (trouble upgrading and near impossibility to do any repairs, limited connection options, display options)  outweigh the pros (smaller footprint, solid performance, quiet, cool).

Pros and Cons Website reviews:
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Expert Comment

More of a story of a bad experience of a computer (USFF) than an actual review of the hardware. It's suppose to be tight, they are making it as small as possible. I've done this several times with no issues.  Maybe just not your paticular model was all the great.
LVL 31

Author Comment

by:Thomas Zucker-Scharff

I have a couple of these still around (USFF Dell 990).  The review was aimed more at the model than anything else.  The ones I have are troublesome period.  This is the only model I have ever ordered in USFF, and I am not interested in finding out if another model would be better - I've had enough grief from this model.

Expert Comment

Ah, I apologize, yeah some models just.... to put it plainly, suck. Sorry, my comment was not necessary then, it was just to say that there are some decent USFF, but you get what you pay for too, I prefer to stick with SFFs they work much better and less mess. At one point it's just not even worth repairing, if that makes sense.
LVL 31

Author Comment

by:Thomas Zucker-Scharff
Makes perfect sense.  I have one USFF sitting next to me right now that has a slight bulge because the innards wouldn't go back in properly.  Just the sight of it drives me nuts (even the Dell tech took an hour trying to put it back together when he replaced a piece).

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