Some time ago, we interviewed Joshua Sniffen, of NFC Systems fame, about his love for SFF, his passion for design, and the journey from hobbyist to manufacturer. Two and a half years later, the next major revision of his signature chassis line is around the corner, and there have been a tonne of changes in the Small Form Factor world. So, it’s about time we talk to him again, and see how things are going, what has changed, and what he predicts for the future.
This is the first in a series of “Meet the Creators”, a series of interviews with the designers and manufacturers active in our community. Our community helps foster the growth of the SFF world. Join our community today to chat alongside the masters! Lets do this.
SFFN: Where do you see the SFF community in the next few years?
JS: If I get to pass on one question, it would be this one. (Editor: Sorry, no passes!) SFF has exploded in the past two years both in the mainstream, and boy howdy in the indie scene. I’m a little too close to SFF to have a good perspective, but it does seem like the quality of innovation surrounding SFF, especially among creative enthusiasts, is far outpacing that of ATX. Ideas and completed designs I have never dreamed have been bombarding SFFFORUM, which I consider my home. One thing I will say, it sure is nice to not have to convince everyone I meet anymore that small is desirable and that odd things like ribbon cables and power bricks aren’t black magic.
SFFN: Why the changes to the S4 design?
JS: This is a question that has two years of answers. What finally convinced me to produce the new S4M was twofold: my commitment to my customers, and my commitment to my customers.
The S4 MINI (now the S4M Classic) was always an art project for me, and I think that many of my first customers were investing in me based on the idea of having something special. I wanted to preserve the rarity and integrity of the S4M-C for them, and I guess myself.
The second reason is that I was paying attention to how customers built in the S4 MINI Classic and how they used it–both enthusiasts and business customers. The vast majority of enthusiasts put in oversized GPUs that were difficult to install, required modification to the power connectors, and required an expensive custom bezel. (Editor: Sorry we keep pushing the limits.. jeez!) The amount of bezels I sold on the one hand made me happy because the profit margins on the S4M-C are razor thin. On the other hand I saw it as a problem because the the majority of my customers required what I thought was an optional accessory. 100% of my full system build customers this year ordered cards that required the use of an aftermarket bezel. Finally, my business customers, which kinda includes myself, wanted something much faster to assemble.
The third reason for the update is that I needed to completely overhaul my logistics if I were to continue serving my customers. I absolutely am in love with meeting new people from around the globe and getting to know them a bit as we plot out a MINI build. I absolutely hated that getting a MINI to customers was a lengthy, expensive, and a bit confusing with many pre orders and waiting lists, and small batches. I also was being run into the ground by the costs of the S4M-C and operations, both in dollars and time. I had to make major changes if I was going to stay afloat, which meant forfeiting my tooling anyways. I decided this was yet another opportunity to update the design of the MINI to better serve my customers.
So keeping the S4M-C a classic, adapting to how the majority of my customers were using my product, and scaling (intelligently) to meet customer demand were the three drivers for the revision. The revision did give me an excuse to implement a ton of new features and updates that customers, fellow forum members, and I have been dreaming up. Here are a few of them:
- Drop-in installation of the 1080ti mini
- Inclusion of my SILIFLEX riser (and in black!)
- Improved shape for bags
- Improved venting
- Symmetrical (and now replaceable) parts
- Engineered for rigors of travel, but 260g lighter
- Cutout for C8 connector
- Compatibility (and mounts) for HDPLEX 160 AC/DC with standard width GPUs
- New SkyBracket Duo supports drives or fans
- 13 new SkyBracket mounts, 5 SkyBracket Duo mounts
- 50mm fan cutouts
- Panel mount cutout for USB
- Enlarged GPU aperture for modders (think LCDs, Optical drives, specialty ports)
- Multi mount system for front bezels
- Flat bezel for easy modding (in your shop and mine)
- Elegant wrap-over covers add strength with fewer screws and more working room
- Super strong side braces can be separately removed for painting or for LC pass-through
- Internal design allows for less metal in the inside for more working room or mods
- Vertical position as stable as before but now can be screwed to table plate or stand (for public places)
- 16mm Power button attaches to bezel, not to inner frame.
- Lots more but I need to save some surprises for mod videos
SFFN: Skyreach… What’s that name about?
JS: I want to evoke the sense of reaching above and beyond my current self. I want to always be looking above, and striving for perfection. That’s what the wings symbolize in the current NFC logo. I’ve wanted a name for my product line as soon as the first run of MINIs sold, because that’s when I realized that other chassis designs I have might need a home in the distant future, and not all of them could be called MINI. The name came to me as I was looking at a picture of the Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird.” That is a marvel of engineering and displays more than genius, but a passion that both figuratively and literally reaches for the sky. The abbreviation SR meant something different to me that day.
SFFN: Was there a change in focus or ethos with the revision – how does this sit with your no compromise mantra?
JS: Actually there was a change in focus and perhaps ethos. I’ve been selfishly obsessed with my art projects for years. My art is chassis sculpture. That sounds pretty stuffy…but I’ve resigned myself to accept that I can be a bad artist much easier than a bad engineer. The MINI adventure blew open my mind and made me realize my passion isn’t the process of design, or small form factor, or computer components…it’s people. It’s sharing in their creative process. When I realized my passion was my individual customers, then it was much easier for me to move away from stubbornly wanting to do the MINI my way, and do it their way. The new S4M is designed and built by me, and I gave it all my personality, passion, and best thinking–but it was tailored based on the needs and requests of my customers that fit inside the scope of the MINI’s essence. I can’t tell you what determines the MINI’s essence. Some might argue it was the wrap around bezel. Maybe that’s true, but I think essence is deeper. It took hundreds of hours of 3D modeling to get the new S4M to feel right to me. For one, I needed it to feel like the exact same size as the S4M-C. When I look at it, I see the S3 MINI, the S4 MINI Classic, and enough of a new personality to allow me the freedom to go crazy for my personal builds. That’s what I wanted to achieve, and I think I did it.
As far as no compromise is concerned, this is really all about doing things to the best of my ability, and holding my manufacturers, shippers, and distributors to the same standard. That hasn’t changed, but it was extremely challenging finding the right partners–amazingly some of them found me! I am very happy to say that so far any compromise that has been made, is monetary cost to me, not to quality or ethics.
SFFN: SFFLab – Is this an important development for our world?
JS: SFFLab is a genius idea, but my motto is “ideas are worthless.” After reading James Clavell’s shōgun the idea to round up several of the best indie case and accessories and put them under one banner. This would help all of us share costs, technologies, and with careful curation, share customers. But my motto is my motto for good reason; I didn’t have the wherewithal, business acumen, time, or passion to do anything about it. When Dan and Joshua approached me about SFF lab, I couldn’t wait to sign on. Not only is their idea more refined, but they have been working around the clock to make it a reality, and have made more progress than I could have ever imagined. I don’t want to talk too much about it now because this is Dan and Joshua’s creation; I’m just excited to be part of it.
SFFN: Any other projects in the future for us to get excited about?
JS: I think the most exciting thing for me about all these changes is that quality control, boxing, and shipping is going to be professionally handled by people I believe I can trust. This is going to give me hours of my life back to help me keep up with customer emails, YouTube videos, product design, projects that have been languishing in limbo, and best of all, sleep.
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