Is it a bad idea to check a bag on an airplane with a small form factor (SFF) computer in it?
May 10, 2006 1:22 PM   Subscribe

Is it a bad idea to check a bag on an airplane with a small form factor (SFF) computer in it?

My parents live on one coast and I dorm on the other. I would like to be able to bring my PC back and forth. I wanted to buy something like a Shuttle (except more do it yourself, I can put in my own motherboard and processor) and build my own SFF to bring back and forth. Yes, I know there is such a thing as a laptop and I happen to have one. In my experience though, everything goes slower on them. It burns DVDs slower, it processes slower etc. and they usually have smaller hard drives. I usually end up using my parents computer when I am home b/c I can't stand using my laptop. My laptop isn't even old. It has been slower than my desktop since the day I bought it. (I know this may have been unnecessay information but I am trying to quell the inevitable response, "Why don't you just get a laptop?") So my question is: Is it a bad idea to travel with a small form factor PC in my checked luggage. Obviously, I will put padding around it (clothing, bubble paper etc.). Is it likely to break? Or should it be ok?

(As a side note, if anyone has any suggestions as to SFF cases (I don't want anything with a mobo/processor inside, I just want a case) that are durable and cheap, suggestions would be appreciated.)
posted by D Wiz to Computers & Internet (29 answers total)
Keep in mind that checked baggage is handled pretty roughly. It'd work, but you would want to open up the case and re-seat all of your cards and connectors after you get there. You would probably experience premature component failure in things that don't like shocks like hard drives. (In laptops, hard drives are cushioned against shock. Not so much in desktop PCs.

It's probably more trouble and expense than buying a newer, faster laptop would be, or learning a little patience.
posted by SpecialK at 1:32 PM on May 10, 2006

It's going to get thrown around worse than if you had shipped it UPS. It will probably be ok, but there's no guarantee.

I once packed a small DVD player in my checked luggage, carefully surrounding it by clothing to keep it safe. Apparently, TSA opened the bag, took out everything in the back, and repacked it with the DVD player on the *bottom* of the suitcase. When I opened my suitcase, the player was horribly dented and scratched, although it still works ok.

Have you considered buying a Mac mini? It's small enough to bring in your carry-on luggage instead of being checked. Otherwise, perhaps you can put a polite note in your luggage reminding TSA to re-surround your computer with your clothing?
posted by helios at 1:38 PM on May 10, 2006

maybe get one of those aluminum flight cases and line it with foam with a space for the computer inside. That would have the added bonus of being pretty sweet.
posted by cosmicbandito at 1:40 PM on May 10, 2006

For a seriously SFF, check out Travla. They travel pretty well, although I did manage to break the small plastic piece that holds the processor in place. But that was when I had opened it up to dink around inside. It is small enough that you could pack it in carry-on. I would never check any computer. You just don't know what might happen to it. Someone else may have checked their magnet collection.
posted by team lowkey at 1:41 PM on May 10, 2006

I took a 17" LCD in my checked luggage (sans stand) and carried my Shuttle on in the original box when I moved out here. It survived fine that way, and wasn't too bad as carryon - though I was in first most of the way, so my advice is to become an elite-level frequent flyer. :) You can send it through the scanners, etc., without a problem.

I only did it because I was *moving* and my laptops have always been my employer's. At this point in my career, I'd welcome my only computer being infuriatingly slow on vacation / travel so that I could have a good excuse to be offline.

FWIW, I like my SN25P. I have an Athlon64 3200+, Geforce 6600GT, and 2x300GB SATA HDs in it. It's portable. It's sturdy. You're generally going to NEED their motherboard, because it's so integrated and specialized, but I suppose you could do a mini-ITX thing.
posted by kcm at 1:41 PM on May 10, 2006

Response by poster: I usually take my desktop hard drive with me either way, the only difference is I take it in my carry-on. I could conceivably do the same thing with the SFF (put the HDD in my carry-on and stick the rest in my checked bags). What is the likelihood of rough handling messing up my mobo or processor?

As far as it being the same expense for a laptop, I disagree. Besides having most of necessary components in my current desktop that I could just transfer over I find that my laptop is slower. My laptop is a 3 Ghz Pentium 4 (hyperthreading) with 1GB of Ram. It is not an old laptop. My Athlon XP 2800+ desktop with 1GB of Ram smokes it. In order to get a faster laptop than I currently have I would have to buy something around $2000, correct? I can build a nice SFF for less than $1000.
posted by D Wiz at 1:46 PM on May 10, 2006

Response by poster: previous answer was in response to SpecialK...
posted by D Wiz at 1:46 PM on May 10, 2006

I wouldn't trust a soft case. Get a hardcase like a Pelikan or good piece of plastic luggage with about 2" of high-density foam around the item and you're good to go. I ship scientific instruments all the time this way, both cargo and as cheked baggage. We rarely have trouble.

Airlines are pretty good most of the time, but 3' drops aren't unheard of.
posted by bonehead at 1:49 PM on May 10, 2006

A shuttle would fit in carry-on baggage, which is probably what I'd end up doing. Rough handling can dislodge heatsinks and if it gets seriously dislodged, it could do some real damage. Mostly though, I just don't trust baggage handling practices.

As for the slowness of your laptop, what's the HDD RPM? Your RAM and CPU seem pretty comprable between your laptop and desktop, but laptop hard drives are typically 4200 or 5200rpm, while a lot of desktops are 7200rpm which will have both better transfer rates and access times. Unless you are 3d gaming, that's the most likely bottleneck holding back your laptop. The optical drive is probably slower too, but that's probably not economical to upgrade.
posted by Good Brain at 1:56 PM on May 10, 2006

If your laptop is slower than a comparable desktop then there is either something wrong with the configuration/setup of the laptop, or some crucial component sucks (I would suspect the hard drive but it could also be the ram). I've used laptops a lot over the years, often as a "desktop" machine that I rarely use, and they work great. Some laptops that I have used suck and seem slow, though. You may find the a SFF computer will have some of the same problems since I am guessing you are going to end up using sub-standard components in them. I don't know how small you're going for but the mini-itx motherboards usually use processors that are several generations old, so that they can be run fanless or with small quiet fans. To conserve space you're going to want notebook hard drives anyway. Video, sound, networking, you're probably going to want built into the motherboard, which often comes with serious compromises. All I'm suggesting is that you might want to find out, first, if a SFF computer is even going to perform better than your laptop.

Some of the smaller SFF computers (most mini-itx based ones) can probably fit in a carryon bag. Most of them are more awkwardly shaped than a laptop (more like a cube or a shoe box and less like a, well, notebook, but you can probably find a bag that would work OK.

It's much cheaper to make a full size computer than an SFF computer, especially if you can cannibalize. I regularly take old computers from people and upgrade them by replacing the motherboard, ram, cpu, and sometimes the hard drives. I usually have all the other stuff I need sitting around (case, cdrom, network drives) but even so you can make a complete decent athlon based computer for just $300-400. Might be worth doing that and leaving it at your parents? Maybe not, part of the appeal of travelling with a computer is that it'll have all the music, video, etc, that you want.
posted by RustyBrooks at 1:59 PM on May 10, 2006

er, I mean, often as a "desktop" machine that I rarely MOVE not USE as I wrote in the previous message.
posted by RustyBrooks at 2:00 PM on May 10, 2006

UPS it, or Priority/Express mail. Checked baggage is subject to a loss replacement amount that is lower than just the cost of a case for a Shuttle box. That's putting aside the hassle factor and the fact that luggage as a percentage probably goes missing (at least temporarily) more often than UPS packages.

Alternately, look into something like Delta Dash rather than checked baggage. It'll cost you an additional fee but at least it's a valuation of $750 rather than $100.
posted by phearlez at 2:04 PM on May 10, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses:

Helios/team lowkey- I'm a PC guy... Plus I want to take the hardware out of my current desktop and put it into the SFF, I don't want to buy a whole new computer. I believe my current mobo is a mini-atx (or maybe a microatx, i have to check) so I need a case that fits that plus a 5.25" Dvd Burner and a 3.5" HDD and if possible a wireless card and a video card. That's why I said something like a Shuttle.

cosmicbandito- Please elaborate more. I am not really sure what you are referring to. What is an aluminum flight case?

Bonehead- What exactly is high density foam and where can I buy it. Do you mean I should wrap the actual item in the foam or coat the whole inside of the suitcase with the foam (as cosimcbandito mentioned)?

Good Brain- It is not an option for me to carryon. I usually have 2 other carryons as it is. Maybe I could fit it into one but I think it would be too big. You are correct. I believe the RPM on the latop is 4200 and on the desktop 7200. That is the reason I thought it is slower too. Bottom line, if they make laptops that are as fast as my desktop I probably can't afford them. I am going on a students budget here, lol.

RustyBrooks- How would I find out if there was something I could fix about the configuration of my laptop. The only thing I ever added to it was 512MB of ram to the already existing 512MB. Other than that it is the same as I got it.

Phearlez- Shipping is too costly and time consuming for me. I need something I can take with me.

I am getting the feeling that checking it is not a good idea. Would taking out the HDD and putting that in my carryon and wrapping the rest in high density foam still be a bad idea? Is there anything that can be put inside a case to hold things in place? Some sort of foam or something that would make sure the HSF didn't come off and destroy my mobo and vid card?
posted by D Wiz at 2:11 PM on May 10, 2006

Here's how it breaks down to me:

$1000(or less, dell small biz has deals) to get comparable laptop
- cost of components that break
- cost of time switching components back and forth, in SFF or mini-itx(a pain in itself)
- cost of time rebuilding system, re-installing and repatching and retweaking OS when something breaks
money you'll save doing it this way.

If the total is significantly less than $1000, you're wasting your time, and should just get a laptop you're happy with. If not, what are you valuing your time at, and can I hire you as a consultant for that rate?

on preview, I didn't even think of the massive HSF combos fats systems have these days - UGH! Think of that snapping off and crashing into your vid card!
posted by Mr. Gunn at 2:13 PM on May 10, 2006

Response by poster: Mr. Gunn... Interesting breakdown. I will have to think about it. What type of consulting job? ;-)
posted by D Wiz at 2:17 PM on May 10, 2006

I can't speak to time consuming - if waiting till 9am the next morning is too long for you then it's too long. As far as costly, I'm just suggesting you remember what it's going to cost you when the airline breaks it and gives you nothing for it.

American assumes no responsibility for loss, damage or delayed delivery of transferred baggage not acceptable for transportation by American as checked baggage, items damaged as a result of items contained in checked or transferred baggage, and items accepted by American pursuant to the execution of a release form. American does not accept in or as checked baggage any of the following items:[snip], china, computers and other electronic equipment, computer software, [snip] or any other similar valuable items. American does not accept these items in or as checked baggage and assumes no responsibility or liability for such items, regardless of whether American knew or should have known of the presence of such items in checked or transferred baggage. If any such items are lost, damaged or delayed, you will not be entitled to any reimbursement under American's standard baggage liability, or under any declared excess valuation. Do not attempt to check these items.

Don't check it if you're not prepared to lose it completely or lose the value of it if it breaks.
posted by phearlez at 2:36 PM on May 10, 2006

You can upgrade laptop hard drives. $100 for a 7200 RPM model would get you more space and performance than you have now.

Assuming that you have an mATX motherboard, the smallest case you'll probably be able to fit your existing components into is an Antec Aria, which runs ~$100 with a power supply. The shuttles are smaller, but you basically have to use their motherboard, which adds significantly to the cost of the bare bones system. Also, at this point, you're chances of getting one that take your old CPU and memory are pretty slim.

As for other options for small form factor PCs (and Macs)...

The smallest desktops like the MacMini and the AOpen Mac Mini acheive their small size by using laptop comonents for things like processors, video, HDD and optical drive and so have many of the same price performance constraints as laptops.

The next step up are the miniITX systems. Most of them use VIA chips, which are indeed behind the times, performance wise, but there are some options that use modern processors. Again though, you end up paying a lot for the small size and have a lot of limitations on using low cost components in the rest of the system.
posted by Good Brain at 3:39 PM on May 10, 2006

It is not an option for me to carryon. I usually have 2 other carryons as it is.

can't you just check one of the other carryons? the ones with your clothes in it and/or not-breakable stuff? a SFF case in a bag should fit well within the carryonspace.

also, if you're flying coast-to-coast a lot, you should be a member of a frequent flyer program. often frequent-flyer benefits include allowing an additional piece of luggage, so you might in fact be able to take 3.

that said, i loathe those people who bring every fucking thing they own via carryon and use up all the space so that i have to go way to the back of the plane to put my backpack somewhere and then struggle my way against the stream just to get it back when it's time to deplane. dammit. so if you DO decide to carry it on and you're bringing a lot of stuff with you, please check some of it so that there's space for all of us. kthx!
posted by sergeant sandwich at 4:27 PM on May 10, 2006

sergeant sandwich: "
you should be a member of a frequent flyer program. often frequent-flyer benefits include allowing an additional piece of luggage, so you might in fact be able to take 3.

that said, i loathe those people who bring every fucking thing they own via carryon and use up all the space so that i have to go way to the back of the plane to put my backpack somewhere and then struggle my way against the stream just to get it back when it's time to deplane. dammit. so if you DO decide to carry it on and you're bringing a lot of stuff with you, please check some of it so that there's space for all of us. kthx!

frequent flyers board first and put their luggage where they like. :)
posted by kcm at 4:53 PM on May 10, 2006

high density foam is foam that doesn't deform much when crushed. you pack it inside the suitcase, cut to size leaving a hole just big enough for the item. most shipping suppliers will sell it. if you can't find it, wrapping with bubble wrap (small bubbles) is a reasonable alternative. don't leave any gaps. you don't want the 'puter to rattle in the suitcase.

make sure that you have 2-3" of cushion on all sides of the box. tha's the most important thing.

demounting the hd if you have time may be a good idea, but i've shipped pcs with them installed. maybe i'm just lucky, but its worked several times for me.
posted by bonehead at 6:21 PM on May 10, 2006

You can get a decent notebook for $800 and in addition to the benefits of being able to watch movies on the plane. If it is costs, only for your decision, another idea is to have a computer at your parents' place and one at school. You'd move schoolwork and MP3s and stuff on an USB drive you carry on. I know Office Student Teacher edition lets you run it on three systems and licensing on other apps sometimes allow you to keep it on more than one system provided you are using on one at a time.

What hasn't been mentioned about carrying on a SFF desktop -- or just the HDD -- is having to deal with the rocket scientists from the TSA. Sometimes they'll know what it is. Other times not. And the checked bags will be opened to see what that is. The money you're saving now will be made up by the time and frustration of going through the machines. After about the third trip you'll hope it does get broken so you have an excuse to buy a notebook.

About checking PCs... I used to work for an PC OEM and would always check the desktops and in the original packaging they did fine in the belly of the plane. But the box and packaging will break down after about 4 flights -- and you'll see wear marks on the bezel after a few flights even if you pack it in the original plastic/foam sheet. Of course I had an infinite supply of new boxes and a corporate card to get have a shipper pack it up nicely in a new box. My criteria wasn't cost, but the computer had to be with me when I got there --- and I'd often not get it until after the FedEx cutoff time.

Also, although elite frequent fliers can sometimes carry on three bags, most only allow two for people that aren't platinum or executive level. The other thing is to make money many airlines are testing charging extra for the SECOND bag you carry on.
posted by birdherder at 8:29 PM on May 10, 2006

TSA pried my laptop latch open with a screwdriver - left scratches on the inside - and never responded to my repeated requests for compensation.

I no longer check anything that I would not just as soon throw in the trash.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:53 PM on May 10, 2006

I goto school in Canada and just this week flew back to the US for the summer with my ATX computer(no monitor). I removed the hard drives, wrapped them in clothing and put them in my regular baggage, then packed my aluminum cased computer in a cardboard box with ample paper padding. Then I basically mummified the box in duct tape(what a sight to behold). Upon leaving, I checked the box with the rest of my baggage.

After arrival, everything was fine, and I am typing this right now from the very same computer. (I do hope I didn't lessen the lifetime of any of my PC's components.) It was a bit nerve racking though; I don't think I'm going to do it again.
posted by archae at 12:28 AM on May 11, 2006

I would be less concerned about it getting beaten up in-flight, and more concerned about it being STOLEN. I have heard nothing but horror stories about checked-bag high tech items. I never put anything into my checked luggage that I think would reasonably be stolen (camera, mp3 player, etc) for precisely this reason.
posted by antifuse at 1:55 AM on May 11, 2006

If you're only commuting between two places, why not take the cash you'd be putting into a second case/PS/carrying case and build a second full-size machine to stash at your parents' place, then install a removable drive drawer, and just carry your drive back and forth in your carry-on?

Most road shows that I see checking computer equipment through luggage handling use something like an SKB Roto shock case, combined with a industrial-style server PC case. And stuff STILL shows up broke occasionally.

Remember: Airline baggage handling has very tight time requirements and almost no accountability. They ARE going to beat the hell out of anything you check. Period.
posted by Orb2069 at 7:33 AM on May 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Two words: Pelican Case.
posted by soundslikeobiwan at 8:58 AM on May 11, 2006

Response by poster: sergeant sandwhich- If I had room to check things I would... when I go home for 2 months over the summer, I have a lot of stuff with me. People don't bring a lot of stuff on the plane because they like dragging it around. They do it because they have nowhere else to put it. I almost always check two full sized bags. Checking another bag would cost me more money.

Antifuse- I check valuables (including high-tech items) all the time and have not had any problem with it.

Wow... So many great answers. (There is no one best answer since all of you contributed to my decision!) Thanks guys! I love ask mefi!!!
posted by D Wiz at 1:10 PM on May 11, 2006

I think this is a bad idea.. the heatsinks in modern systems (on both the CPU and, increasingly, the GPU) are of such great mass (many over 500g) that should they become detached due to rough handling, they'll almost certainly ravage the guts of your SFF. And frankly, I don't imagine that padding will significantly reduce the stress on your motherboard when some baggage handler drops your system from ~4ft.
posted by unmake at 1:47 AM on May 12, 2006

I checked in a Shuttle box on a flight from Vancouver to Toronto. I put it in it's original box with all the form-fitting foam. But here's the key: Air Canada has a Fragile Baggage tag you can put on things like computers. They treat these tagged items more gently and it comes out at your destination from a different belt than the other baggage. Mine came out without a scratch. Ask your airline if they have something similar.
posted by reformedjerk at 9:24 AM on May 12, 2006

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