Introduction

It has been a while since our last Small Form Factor (SFF) article, though we have taken a look at several micro ATX offerings that target a similar market. While there have been numerous socket 775 units launched during the past year or more - including the Biostar 350G and the Shuttle SD31P with Pentium D support - the fact of the matter is that socket 775 and SFF make a mismatched couple. Having looked at quite a few of the socket 939 offerings, the lower temperatures, lower noise levels, and higher performance that Athlon X2 offers relative to Pentium D (and Athlon 64 relative to Pentium 4) simply make it the better choice for anyone interested in building a smaller computer. The best socket 939 SFFs -- the Biostar 330P and the Shuttle SN25P (or perhaps the SN26P if you want SLI support) -- are also the best SFF systems overall, so until now those have been our overwhelming recommendations.

Of course, there are other interesting markets in the SFF arena, for example HTPC systems like the Shuttle M1000. Some people might also appreciate lower power and noise levels, in which case AOpen and Shuttle both have Pentium M platforms available. Unfortunately, we have yet to see any Core Duo compatible SFF units in our labs. That should hopefully change once Core 2 Duo launches, but so far the majority of the products we have seen have been targeting performance more than other areas, or else they drop nearly all expansion options and look purely at making a small system, like the AOpen MiniPC.

Not everyone wants a small computer anyway, so if you're interested in a high-end multi-GPU configuration with a discrete sound card, one or two TV tuners, and multiple hard drives you're still going to have to stick with a standard ATX case and motherboard. However, as we have said in the past, the vast majority of people should be able to meet all of their computing requirements with a SFF system; the question is whether or not you're willing to pay little bit more money for a more attractive case while sacrificing future expansion options.


With the launch of AMD's new AM2 platform, it's time for a whole new series of supporting products. We've already looked at the platform performance, and we're working on motherboard reviews. Waiting in the wings is Intel's new Core 2 Duo platform, but as that is not yet available we can only provide previews of performance. For now, AM2 is the new kid on the block, and it will also remain the platform of choice for AMD enthusiasts for the foreseeable future. Shuttle has always been one of the first companies to come out with a SFF for a new platform, and AM2 is no exception. Only a few weeks after the AM2 processors and motherboards first became available, Shuttle announced their new SN27P2 barebones unit. The SN27P2 includes several firsts for Shuttle, but it also aims to continue their trend of offering high-quality, attractive, small computer systems.

Given that this is the only currently available AM2 SFF system, the SN27P2 is in something of a unique position. If you want a SFF right now, and you want to go with an AMD configuration, your choices are either this new Shuttle system or else you can purchase a socket 939 system with the understanding that the platform is being phased out. As we've shown in our other AM2 coverage, there really isn't a huge benefit to upgrading to the new platform right now. Basically, you get performance very similar to socket 939, but you use DDR2 memory instead of DDR memory. However, if you are about to purchase a new AMD system, then we would recommend the new platform, as all other things being equal it does have more longevity. The Small Form Factor market is a bit different, though, so let's find out if new SFF buyers should stick with the tried-and-true platform, or if they should go with the next big thing.

Aesthetics
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  • Calin - Monday, July 03, 2006 - link

    Most any ATX case will be quiter and possibly cooler inside than one of those SFF computers. However, they will be twice as big (or more). If that's ok with you, that's great - ATX all the way. If not, a laptop or a SFF certainly makes sense (even if the price is much better on the full ATX front). Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, July 03, 2006 - link

    I don't know - it depends on the ATX case you're talking about and how many fans you want to install. If you install two or three case fans (or more) and they aren't temperature controlled, a lot of the less expensive ATX cases will be louder than many SFF cases. Lower quality power supplies will also make a lot of noise. If you don't want a big case, and you are interested in getting an extremely easy to set up bare-bones system, SFF computers are really very nice.

    I do wish prices were about $100 lower, however. $300 for a SFF I can justify; $400+ is a lot more difficult to stomach. For that much money, you can get a good power supply, motherboard, and pretty much any case that you want. I suppose part of it has to do with economies of scale; I don't know how many SFF cases Shuttle has sold, but I doubt they sell as many SFFs someone like ASUS would sell motherboards. That means all of their R&D costs that go into creating a smaller case have to be passed on as a larger percentage of the price.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, July 01, 2006 - link

    There was no opinion given on which CPU to choose, was there? I simply stated (and this is the expanded version) that even if you're going to buy AMD anyway and couldn't care less about Core 2 Duo, AMD has price cuts scheduled for July 24th so you can pick up an X2 CPU for a lot less than current prices. Here's my opinion:

    Core 2 Duo will be faster than anything AMD has to offer at least in the short term. AMD X2 will cost less at most (all?) price points, and in some cases (gaming), you're probably GPU limited either way since the current maximum for an SFF is going to be the 7950 GX2. I expect Shuttle will have the SD37P2 out some time after C2D launches, but since they're already 1 month behind the AM2 launch and you still can't purchase the SN27P2, that trend will likely continue and the SD37P2 won't be available until probably early September or so. (I could very well be wrong on that account, but I'm simply going by recent history.)

    Which is the better choice? As you have so clearly demonstrated, that's a matter of personal taste. Some people are only going to buy AMD at present; others will only buy Intel. Most would like to buy whichever offers the best performance at a specific price point. I would guess that AMD will be competitive in the price/performance area even if C2D is faster overall, so in the end they get what they're happy with. I still wouldn't purchase an AM2 chip until those price cuts take affect.
    Reply
  • VooDooAddict - Saturday, July 01, 2006 - link


    Simply.

    Will the 7950 Fit?
    Does the BIOS support the card?
    Can the powersupply keep it running with 2 gigs of RAM and a AMD 5000+?

    As soon as I saw the 7950 anouncement all I could think about was building a new SFF system around it.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, July 01, 2006 - link

    I don't have one available, but my understanding is just about any motherboard with an X16 slot will work with the 7950 GX2. Since I managed to install a 7900 GTX in the SN37P2, I'm pretty sure the GX2 is actually a bit smaller overall, so it will certainly fit. Is it compatible? Well, the SN27P2 uses an NVIDIA chipset, so if it's *not* compatible, NVIDIA has a serious problem with support of GX2. In other words, I'm 99% certain that it will work. Reply
  • VooDooAddict - Monday, July 03, 2006 - link

    I didn't think the issue was the chipset ... I thought it was the BIOS. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, July 03, 2006 - link

    Right, the BIOS needs to support non-graphics devices in the X16 slots. My point is that if a board using NVIDIA's chipset doesn't support NVIDIA's top GPU, what's the chance of getting everyone else to support it? Reply

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