Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/864



In relatively little time, computer electronics multiply in speed and shrink in size. Especially in the last few years, chipsets have begun to include everything from audio to video, high speed serial connections to network connections. Yet, my machine is still a few feet tall and beige. Considering how the commodity PC market is based around completely interchangeable components, this isn't much of a surprise. Most users don't have to consider the color of their case or even the size of their drive bay when they buy a new CD burner. This is a good thing.

Occasionally a company shakes things up with a design that discards some expandability in exchange for aesthetics, but the ever practical consumer usually sends them back to the cookie-cutter world of big beige cases. Most recently, this happened with Apple's G4 Cube, although there were quite a few other factors in its demise. It seems the consumer demands a delicate balance between standard components and innovative design.

The Spacewalker makes this small mid-tower ATX case look huge

Enter Shuttle's SV24 bare-bones system, which adds quite a bit to spice up that boring beige PC. The machine is about the size of a toaster and the aluminum case is quite snazzy. Although the FV24 motherboard it is built on is highly reminiscent of VIA's mini-ITX standard, it is Shuttle's own custom design. The board features VIA's PL133 chipset for Socket-370 processors and like the majority of their best sellers, the PL133 is a highly integrated solution. This review will not focus on the specifics of the chipset as the performance characteristics are largely similar to the Apollo Pro 133A except with integrated S3 Savage4 video; for more information you can read up on the chipset at VIA's website. With nearly everything onboard and only a single PCI slot, there's very little room for upgrade / expansion. Still, one can't help but dream up cool uses.

Our plan was to turn this into an Internet terminal / light work computer. We needed something small enough to fit in the cabinet/entertainment center, quiet enough to go unnoticed, cool enough to work in a somewhat confined space and good looking enough to appease the lady of the house. For input, we'll be using a black USB wireless keyboard/trackball combo from GlobLink. For output, we'll be using a Panasonic TH-42PWD4 gas-plasma display with VGA input. Note that this project would also work with a more average TV; the FV24 motherboard also has both S-Video and composite outputs.



First Impressions

Bird's eye view
Click to Enlarge

Cheap cases usually give themselves away immediately. As the aluminum shell came off this case, it was apparent that this was a well thought out design. The power supply sits in the front, behind the front case holes from which air is sucked into the case. The fan blows out the top/back, pulling front air across the entire motherboard. The single internal 3.5" bay sits below the fan.

This machine was set up in record time. None of the LED jumpers needed to be connected, nor the power supply, nor any fans. This thing was ready to go. In fact, everything sort of fell into place. Even the provided IDE cable was shorter than normal to keep it from cramping the already little volume within this case.

The floppy and IDE cables were especially short avoid restricting air flow

As expected, there is very little room to fit one's fingers while putting things together. We chose to use VIA's C3 CPU, which allowed us to forgo the CPU fan. A Pentium III would have required a low-profile heatsink/fan. This, we hope, will help deal with the relatively restricted air flow this case will receive sitting in the entertainment center.

Motherboard, side profile
Click to Enlarge



Hard Drive Installation

As mentioned before, the hard drive installs below the rear (and only) fan. This is accomplished with an interesting rear-entrance mounting bracket.

The HD mounting bracket, upside down

The mounting bracket slides out the back of the case and is secured with thumb screws. In fact, the entire case came with thumb screws, a total of 5. This picture actually shows the HD sled upside-down. When installed, the HD will "hang" above the CPU. This could potentially create heat issues when combining a Pentium III, a PCI card and a hot hard drive, although we experienced no such issues with our C3 and a 7200 rpm Western Digital HD. One annoyance with this layout is that there is very little room for that small IDE cable we already mentioned. We bent the cable to the outside of the side rails, thus avoiding any air flow restriction, but this made is somewhat more difficult to take off and replace the shell. Perhaps the cable wasn't quite so small, after all.

The PCI riser installed, with the HD cable bent above

Here, you can see that bent IDE cable attached to the already installed HD. After setting up the machine, we realized wireless Ethernet (802.11) would make a nice addition, so we added a wireless PCI adapter (Linksys WDT-11). Here, we noticed a few rough spots.



PCI Card Installation

Actually removing the rear opening proved exceptionally difficult. The metal required quite a bit of effort to remove and to avoid accidentally damaging the internals, we removed everything. Once removed, getting the PCI card in the riser and the riser in the motherboard was just as frustrating. Removing the CPU's heat sink, again, yielded enough horizontal room to convince everything to fall in place.

Things fit rather snug with the PCI card installed

As one can see, things are snug with the PCI card installed. Note that the CPU heat sink hasn't even been put back on in this picture. Once reattached, the card almost touches it. The hard drive hangs directly above the PCI card, leaving about half an inch for air flow. However, our unit stayed within reasonable temperatures even after being left running for a while.

A side shot of the tightly packed case

Here, one can see just how snug things fit from the side. The left end of the IDE cable is connected to the hard drive. The card sits directly below with the CPU behind it.

Note that the card's face fits flush against the case's back. This makes the typical screw attachment interesting as the short end of the card's face actually protrudes out the back. Shuttle addressed this with a small, V-shaped dongle, shown below.

PCI card is secured with an interesting dongle



Software

We decided Windows XP would make a decent OS for an Internet terminal. It installed without a hitch, fully supporting the integrated graphics, sound, networking and FireWire devices.

Since this machine is to be used with a plasma screen TV, the resolution had to be adjusted to work as close to our display's 852x480 native resolution as possible. As the drivers didn't advertise support for this resolution, we had to do it manually in the registry by modifying the registry entries in HKEY_CURRENT_CONFIG\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\VIDEO using regedit. This revealed the first (and only) software issue. Even after modifying these values, the machine booted at 640x480, the closest 4:3 resolution to 852x480. On a hunch, we installed the newer drivers available from S3's web page, which managed to boot at 848x480. Close enough. Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn't officially support anything less than 800x600 and Windows XP complains both on log in (a bubble from the right edge of the task bar) and from the Start Menu, once opened. Perhaps somebody at Microsoft will consider officially supporting HDTV resolutions in a future service pack. Despite Windows' objections, we had no problem running most any application in the low resolution.

Windows XP running on the plasma display



The Keyboard

As mentioned before, we chose a GlobLink wireless keyboard for this machine. Since the computer will be sitting a good deal away from the user on average, we were looking for something with a decent range and integrated mouse. The GlobLink keyboard now advertises 15' range and contains an integrated trackball for the mouse.

The GlobLink wireless keyboard/trackball

Once installed, the keyboard refused to work. Although the drivers had been installed, Windows had recognized it and the base station appeared to work (a light came on when the "Lock" button was pressed), the keyboard didn't work. The trick was to reset the keyboard, which involves resetting the communication channel between the keyboard and base station. Remember, this is RF communication, it works like a cordless phone. To reset the keyboard, one holds down the Channel, Id and 'r' keys at the same time. At this point, the base station blinked a few times and things started to work.

The first thing we did was test the range. With the base station sitting in front of the computer, we were able to still use the machine from a distance of about 20 feet. Not bad. Interference greatly cut into this range, however, so keep the base station away from the monitor.

Neither the keyboard, nor the trackball are best in class, but the package is perfect. Sitting in bed, the keyboard fits perfectly in your lap and it should have just enough range to reach the base across the room.



Final Setup

Now that the machine is fully configured, it's time to actually connect it to the TV and see if we reached our goal.

The Panasonic TH-42PWD4 has a VGA port and a 1/8" headphone jack for audio. We're currently using the TV's minimal internal audio amplifier rather than an external device, so setup should be quite convenient. For purists, there is a DVI daughtercard available for the TV, which should provide a gorgeous display. However, this Shuttle doesn't support DVI, so we're restricted to analog. At only 848x480, it wouldn't make much of a difference anyway.

The final product

So, there it is. The plasma defaulted to stretching and shifting the image off the screen and needed to be adjusted. After fiddling with the screen settings, the display eventually snapped to a perfect 1-1, pixel-to-pixel mapping. Despite the plasma's perfect digital image, we noticed no defects from the digital-to-analog-to-digital display route. In fact, the image is perfect. We also noticed that the sub-pixel components were arranged horizontally, similar to LCD panels. With a sly grin, we enabled the ClearType feature, thinking we might get lucky. Where we went wrong was in sub-pixel component ordering. This display appears to use BRG component ordering for each pixel, while most LCDs are RGB or BGR. Still, perhaps ClearType doesn't make much sense on such a low-DPI display anyway.



Final Thoughts

Overall, we were quite impressed with this little box. It's small, cute and well thought out. However, it lacks the expandability of a desktop, which brings up the whole "beige vs. unique" debate. So, why buy this instead of a desktop? If space, heat or looks are an issue, this is a system to consider. We wouldn't recommend this for a primary machine, nor for an average desktop (which has room to store that big, beige PC), but there are lots of other places in which it excels.

As we found out, this makes a great "living room," or "average use" PC. It also makes a great "TV PC." If the applications you use most include Office, Internet Explorer, Netscape, Winamp, ICQ, AIM, etc, you're fine. Of course, you're probably fine with just about any computer out there.

Gamers should look elsewhere. Although the Savage4 core is now quite mature, it wasn't designed to compete against top-of-the-line desktop cards. It will work fine with 2D applications and will probably make a good mobile 3D chipset, but a Doom 3 tamer it is not.

Finally, this model is limited by its support for (only) Pentium III / Celeron CPUs. Support for newer Pentium III Tualatin CPUs is crucial to upgradability and unfortunately not provided by this version of the motherboard. VIA does offer a PL133T chipset with Tualatin support but it is unclear as to if/when we can expect to see that implemented on the board. Shuttle has informed us however that they will be producing a version of the SV24 based on the Pentium 4 processor. With the 0.13-micron Northwood core producing very little heat and running at speeds greater than 2GHz, the SV24's successor might be able to offer some killer performance.

After this endeavor, we like the SV24; it doesn't rethink everything, it shrinks everything...and covers it in attractive aluminum. It doesn't replace that beige PC, it complements it. We expect that Shuttle should have no problem selling them at their list price of $250 USD. Hopefully, that will eventually lead to more interesting machines elsewhere as well.

The Spacewalker and keyboard's wireless base station

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