Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/1026

It's rare that I do one of these first-person 'editorially' pieces but they do come around once in a blue moon. What inspires them, you may ask? Usually there's a handful of information that I've come across but it lacks any sort of common theme, there's just new news from all over the industry that I'd like to update you all on.

A couple of weeks ago I was out on the West Coast visiting a few manufacturers and that's where the basis for this piece comes from. So without further ado, let's talk about one of my first stops - Shuttle.

The XPC Revolution

Well over half of Shuttle's revenue these days comes from their line of XPCs, more commonly known as the Shuttle "cubes" or small form factor PCs. This is rather interesting as just a few years ago you would not find a motherboard manufacturer making most of their money off of something other than motherboards.

We are in very difficult times, and the motherboard guys have been feeling the pain for quite some time now. Unless you're one of the big guys (ASUS, Gigabyte, MSI), surviving in the motherboard industry is very difficult. A lot of the smaller players have been fading away, while others have put in the extra effort to find new ways of generating revenue in a highly commoditized and price competitive industry. Looking at both the CPU and GPU markets where only a handful of competitors remain, it may not be long before the healthy list of motherboard manufacturers is reduced to 4 or 5.

Shuttle's bet was on this XPC idea, something that would let them not only survive as a company but flourish as well. The bet turned out to be the right one as Shuttle ships tens of thousands of these XPCs per quarter, currently at 70,000 units per quarter and steadily approaching 100,000.

We got the chance to sit down with the brains behind Shuttle's XPCs as he gave us a tour of Shuttle's XPC - past, present and future.

XPC - Past, Present & Future

Most people will recognize Shuttle's first XPC as the Socket-370 based SV24, however very few have seen what the original prototype for the XPC looked like:

The new SB51G (left) vs. what could have been the first Shuttle XPC (right)

Shuttle is also demonstrating their new XPC chassis:

There are more ventilation holes on the rear of the chassis, designed to improve cooling by 3 - 5 degrees Celsius.

The case now has holes at the bottom of the front in order to provide a source for cool air for installed drives:

The picture above shows the holes on the outside and on the inside we have holes to bring air to the drive bay itself:

Drive cooling is by far one of the biggest issues with the Shuttle XPC and this new chassis hopes to improve things. All new Shuttle XPCs will begin shipping with this chassis, starting with the first AMD Athlon XPCs using the KM266 and the nForce2 chipsets.

Speaking of nForce2, Shuttle had their brand new nForce2 XPC on display for us as well:

The new face of the Shuttle nForce2 XPC

...also available with a black face plate.

The system is nearing completion, however it has been working under a delayed schedule thanks to delays with NVIDIA's nForce2 chipset. In theory, if NVIDIA is in mass-production then these boxes should be available in the not-so-distant future.

Currently the system requires active cooling on the North Bridge but that will supposedly change to just a passive heatsink before the system ships.

Shuttle had to redesign their heatsink/heatpipe setup for the nForce2 product in order to accommodate the upcoming Athlon XP 3200+ which is fully supported by this platform:

The nForce2 XPC will also ship with a shim to prevent cracking your Athlon XP core when installing the heatsink.

Shuttle had a wide variety of colors available, ranging from Porsche's Arctic Silver to Ferrari Yellow:

XPC Accessories

There's a big push from Shuttle to provide as many accessories for their XPC line as possible; we got a glimpse of just some of the offerings:

Finally available are the glowing front panels for the Shuttle XPC; through a simple power connection, these front panels will produce a very bright glow. Some may find it distracting, especially if you have your XPC sitting on your desk but at $45 for the panel there may be some customers for it.

The carrying case is another popular item:

Not bad for carrying your XPC to/from the office or LAN parties.

Coming down the pipe is a 802.11b upgrade, here you can see the antenna being mounted on the back; Bluetooth support will be offered as well.

And finally we have the card reader which reminds me a lot of the reader in the new HP Media Center PC…

NVIDIA's GeForce4 Ti 4800?

Shifting gears a bit, there's a lot brewing at NVIDIA these days. Unfortunately timing for NV30 doesn't seem to be working out as perfectly as once hoped. Although there may be something to show off later this year, NVIDIA is telling their partners that chips will be available early next year. The whole situation is very much like the GeForce3 launch where we'll see a technology release at the end of the year but with actual product shipping in the 1st quarter of next year.

In order to shift focus away from the delayed NV30, there is an increasing amount of attention being given to NV28 - the AGP 8X version of the current GeForce4 (NV25). NVIDIA has already released the GeForce4 Ti 4200-8X, which is nothing more than an AGP 8X version of the Ti 4200. As you can expect, the performance of the AGP 8X offering is virtually identical to the AGP 4X cards give or take one or two percent.

For a while NVIDIA had been planning releasing a GeForce4 Ti 4600-8X similar to the Ti 4200-8X that I just mentioned. However, just very recently the Ti 4600-8X has been scrapped (or should I say renamed) and now roadmaps show two new GeForce4s to debut before the end of the year.

For starters we have the GeForce 4 Ti 4800, but don't let the name excite you - the card is nothing more than a GeForce4 Ti 4600 with AGP 8X support. Even more disappointing is that there's talk of a GeForce4 Ti 4800-SE that runs at the same clock speed as the current-gen Ti 4400 but with AGP 8X support.

We can't only fault NVIDIA for misleading nomenclature though, the difference between ATI's Radeon 9500 and Radeon 9500 Pro is huge yet the difference in name implies nothing more than clock speed changes.

Luckily not all of NVIDIA's graphics announcements are along the lines of delays or the Ti 4800. NVIDIA was over today showing Matthew and I something very impressive that you'll be able to read about in the coming week(s).

Getting aggressive with nForce2

With the original nForce one of the biggest problems was that NVIDIA had no discrete solutions available (without integrated graphics) making the chipset cost significantly more than VIA's KT266A and KT333. While NVIDIA later corrected the problem, the performance of the nForce platform at that point wasn't competitive enough with VIA's offerings.

Oh how things have changed; currently the nForce2 SPP with the regular MCP costs a total of $2 more than VIA's KT400. Looking back at our latest review of the nForce2 chipset, for significantly higher performance a $2 increase in manufacturing cost isn't bad at all. To the end user this means that nForce2 motherboards could theoretically be priced within $5 - 8 of their KT400 counterparts.

If you want the MCP-T with dual integrated Ethernet controllers and Firewire support then the cost differential increases to $4. The overall motherboard cost increases as the manufacturer now must include Firewire headers, making the total solution around $8 more than a competing KT400 board.

What's important to note here is that even the base nForce2 not only outperforms the KT400 but also offers vastly superior integrated Ethernet and audio engines for just $2 more; NVIDIA is being very aggressive with nForce2 and frankly, I like it.

Motherboard manufacturers are taking different approaches to integrating the nForce2 into their product lines; remember that the nForce2 competes directly with the KT400, so a bare nForce2 solution would theoretically cannibalize KT400 sales.

ASUS seems to be enjoying this possibility and is going to be aggressively pricing and promoting their nForce2 solutions. Other manufacturers however seem to be playing it safe and waiting on hearing feedback from their customers; interestingly enough, most of the major players don't anticipate much demand for nForce2. At only $2 more per chipset I'd expect nForce2 SPP to sell like hotcakes over the KT400, but stranger things have happened.

On the mobile side of things it doesn't look like nForce2 will be transitioning to a mobile platform anytime soon. The reasoning behind it is simple; AMD's mobile CPUs aren't exactly all that competitive with Intel's solutions. From a performance perspective they are, however in terms of battery life, form factor and low power operation they are not up to par with competing solutions from Intel (e.g. ULV P3 parts and the upcoming Banias processor). It is because of this that NVIDIA will be waiting until mobile Hammer before making aggressive moves into the mobile sector with their chipsets, which does make a lot of sense.

Trading Places - SiS & VIA

Things are shaping up quite nicely for SiS as they are making huge gains in the Pentium 4 market. With an official license for the Pentium 4 processor bus and competition from VIA nowhere in sight, SiS is doing quite well for themselves selling Pentium 4 chipsets.

Unfortunately the biggest limitation SiS has right now is that they are stuck in the low-cost segment. If you look at any manufacturer's line of SiS based motherboards they are all low-cost solutions, simply because Intel's Pentium 4 solutions are top-notch and it's tough to compete with the 845 series. SiS today is much like where VIA was a couple of years ago, thrust into a position of leadership that they have not seen before.

Moving from their current position as a low-cost leader, it would take a pretty major slipup on Intel's part (akin to the i820 fiasco) or some pretty serious technological leadership from SiS. Until then, if that day ever does come, SiS will just have to be content with being the only major third party chipset manufacturer for the Pentium 4.

VIA on the other hand is facing much tougher times. Without a Pentium 4 bus license no major manufacturers are willing to touch their Pentium 4 chipsets, which limits them to the Socket-A and Socket-370 markets to sell their chipsets. On the Socket-A side of things, it will be interesting to see how pressure from nForce2 effects VIA's once tight grasp on the market. There will be a KT400A; the project was started a little over a month ago.

The Socket-370 world is actually very interesting for VIA at this point because of their ability to offer low cost/low power platforms for set top boxes. VIA's partnership with Interact-TV is a step in the right direction for VIA as it provides another avenue for growth that isn't limited by their lack of an official Pentium 4 license.

As you can see, the majority of VIA's troubles today do come from this pesky license - so what is being done about it? Apparently the current offer on the table is a reasonable fee for the license but coupled with that fee is the stipulation that Intel would receive partial ownership of VIA. This part I haven't been able to confirm but it does sound like an interesting proposition to say the least…

What about VIA's announced support for Quad Band Memory (QBM)? Because of the lack of interest in their Pentium 4 chipsets, VIA has been talking about bringing QBM to an Athlon solution. The downside to this is that without some serious work under the hood of their chipsets, the Athlon XP will not see a benefit from that much additional memory bandwidth which will limit acceptance of a QBM enabled Athlon XP design. What could be done to change this? VIA would have to implement something very similar to NVIDIA's DASP in their Athlon chipsets, but even then does the performance improvement really justify moving to a brand new memory platform?

VIA is facing some very tough times, luckily with WenChi at the helm there is a good deal of hope. What form will it come in? That, I cannot predict but it must come soon.

Final Words

For now it's back to the piles of servers, CPUs, systems and video cards to review before Comdex. We're two weeks away from the show and there's a lot to cover before we head out to Vegas, stay tuned.

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