Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/952
Shuttle SS51 XPC - A True High Performance Small Form Factor PCby Anand Lal Shimpi on July 24, 2002 4:57 AM EST
- Posted in
Diversification is key to running a successful business; if you're only producing one type of product, should demand dry up or competition intensify your earnings will suffer. Having another product segment helps to supplant earnings if market conditions change.
Case in point is motherboard manufacturing; if it hasn't already become blatantly obvious to you, motherboards are becoming increasingly similar. It used to be that motherboard manufacturers could differentiate themselves by including value added features, but as chipset manufacturers continue to integrate more and more into their solutions, the job of the motherboard manufacturer becomes more difficult. Take the nForce2 for example, outside of IDE RAID there's very little that motherboard manufacturers can use as basis to differentiate themselves from one another. The motherboard market is full of competitors that are quickly losing their unique identities.
Over the past few years we've seen motherboard manufacturers branch out into different areas to help offset an extremely competitive market. Outside of the top five volume manufacturers, the rest are pretty much forced to either diversify their product lines or consolidate heavily to remain afloat. Even the big names in the industry have taken the diversification route; ASUS is entrenched in the mobile market with their notebooks and PDAs, Gigabyte and MSI are spreading their wings with offerings in the enterprise sector and we can't forget about ECS' very popular Desknotes.
Although not the biggest fish in the sea, Shuttle has made a name for themselves by expanding into a very lucrative market - the Small Form Factor (SFF) PC business. The problem with the conventional desktop PC is that no one wants a large, ugly and noisy tower sitting in their living room; herein lies the key to commoditizing the PC, making it look less like a PC. Apple has capitalized on this idea with contributions like their iMac but high prices and a lack of x86 compatibility have held them back tremendously.
Not too long ago, Shuttle introduced their first XPC, the SV24, a SFF PC based on the Socket-370 platform. The idea was neat and we even found a niche application for it, but we dreamt nightly (not really, we're not that bad) of a faster version; a SFF PC with an AGP slot and support for either an Athlon XP or Pentium 4. Shuttle answered our prayers and today they've introduced the world's first SFF PC that can be used by just about anyone.
Introducing the SS51
The Shuttle SS50 was their first XPC (Shuttle's name for a Small Form Factor PC) based on the SiS 650, a Pentium 4 chipset. The biggest limitation of the SS50 was the fact that it had no AGP slot; it relied on the SiS 650's slow integrated video, which made it out of the question for most gamers and power users. The SS51 improves upon the original SS50 design by adding, you guessed it, an AGP slot.
The chassis is about 8" wide, 5" tall and 11.5" deep (20.32 x 12.7 x 29.21 cm), making it around the size of a toaster but not quite as small as Apple's PowerMac G4 Cube.
With the SS51 Shuttle also introduces a new type of face plate for their XPC line. The translucent blue fascia is much more appealing than the rather rugged look of the first few XPCs. Although it wasn't ready for the SS51's launch, Shuttle's future XPCs will have the option of changing faceplates and even include elegantly lit front panels as we reported about in our Computex coverage.
There are two external drive bays on the SS51 - a 5.25" and 3.5" bay, with a hidden internal 3.5" bay for a hard drive. Getting something this small with more expansion would be borderline impossible without significantly reducing the size of the motherboard, which is already extremely small as you're about to see.
The front is fairly simple with power and reset switches and two lights - blue for power and orange for drive accesses. The lower part of the fascia has cutouts for optical SPDIF audio output, a microphone input, a headphone jack, two USB 2.0/1.1 ports and an IEEE-1394a (Firewire) port.
Spinning the box around, we see a good number of ports; starting with the top row (from left to right) we have two serial ports, a 10/100 Ethernet jack and a PS/2 mouse port. On the very right there's the usual set of 1/8" analog audio connectors that can be remapped to give you analog 5.1 channel outputs. Moving on to the bottom row of connectors, you can pick out (from left to right) a VGA connector, an optical SPDIF output, two IEEE-1394a (Firewire) connectors, two USB 2.0/1.1 ports and finally a PS/2 port for a keyboard. We would like to see more USB ports on the rear, especially considering that the chipset supports two more than are used by the SS51.
The two slot cutouts on the right are indicative of what we're going to see on the inside of case in terms of expansion.
However, as is the case with most things, the beauty of the SS51 lies on its inside and is only hinted at by its stylish exterior. It's time to dissect the SS51.
The Motherboard - Shuttle's FS51
The FS51 is the heart and soul of the SS51 XPC, it's Shuttle's small form factor motherboard. As we've mentioned before, the motherboard is based on the SiS 651 chipset, comprised of the SiS 651 North Bridge and the SiS 962 South Bridge.
The SiS 651 North Bridge supports the 533MHz FSB, AGP 4X and DDR333; what sets the 651 apart from other SiS P4 chipsets is the integrated SiS 315 video core. The AGP 4X controller in the 651 North Bridge is what drives the external AGP 4X slot on the FS51. The FS51 supports all currently available Pentium 4 CPUs and it should have no problem supporting future speeds.
The SiS memory controller powers the two DIMM slots on the FS51 motherboard; the memory bus frequency is controlled from within the Award BIOS setup.
The SiS 962 South Bridge is much like the 963 which we just wrote about in our SiS 648 Review. The 962 includes a 6 port USB 2.0 controller and a 3-port IEEE-1394a (Firewire) controller in addition to the usual features (AC'97 audio, Ethernet MAC, ATA/133 controllers) that you can expect from a South Bridge. The highly integrated nature of the 962 South Bridge makes it the perfect candidate for the FS51's role in an XPC.
The tiny ALC650 codec next to the tower of 1/8" jacks
The AC'97 link on the motherboard is the latest from Avance Logic (a brand of Realtek), the ALC650. The ALC650 is a 6-channel AC'97 codec that drives the optical and analog audio ports on the outside of the SS51. Using the ALC650's driver control panel you can remap the three 1/8" ports on the I/O panel of the motherboard to be used as analog 5.1 outputs.
Finally, an AGP slot
The board features two expansion slots, a single PCI slot and the AGP 4X slot that adds so much value to the SS51 offering. Because of the highly integrated nature of the motherboard, Shuttle can get away with only a single PCI slot. On-board Firewire, USB 2.0, 6-channel audio and Ethernet leaves very little else to be desired, but if necessary you can use the remaining PCI slot for a SCSI controller or anything else that is missing from the FS51 board.
The FS51's Award BIOS allows for jumperless adjustment of the FSB frequency in 1MHz increments, as well as lets you choose the memory operating frequency for DDR200, DDR266 or DDR333 speeds.
As impressive as the layout and features of the FS51 motherboard are, it is the motherboard that ended up being our biggest complaint about the SS51. Initially in our testing the FS51 would not install Windows XP with ACPI enabled in the BIOS. A BIOS update from Shuttle fixed that issue but another problem remained - we could not get the on-board ALC650 codec to work. Using a sound card in the PCI slot fixed the problem but that obviously shouldn't be necessary.
We ran into a number of stability issues that could be attributed to the FS51; including a strange problem where a Word document became corrupt while it was open on the system. Shuttle has a new FS51 board on its way to us, insisting that the problem was isolated to our sample but we'd hope for better quality control on Shuttle's part.
Successfully Cooling the XPC
The primary reason for the SS51's attractiveness from a performance standpoint is that it is able to house a Pentium 4 running at 2.53GHz, a GeForce4 Ti 4600 and a 7200RPM IDE hard drive all while being cooled by only a single fan.
The beauty of the SS51's cooling design is in the use of heatpipes to cool the processor's heatsink. The heatpipes help conduct heat away from the Pentium 4 CPU much quicker and are cooled by a large fan mounted at the rear of the case. The use of heatpipes allows Shuttle to get away with a lower profile heatsink and use a slower spinning and thus quieter fan in the system.
The single fan in the SS51 pulls air from the inside of the case and exhausts it through the rear vents. Holes in the sides of the case act as cool air intakes that are functional through the low pressure that's created on the inside of the case courtesy of the single exhaust fan.
The fan is also temperature controlled meaning that it can adjust its speed according to the cooling needs of the processor. The fan has two operating speeds: ~2000RPM and 3000PM; in the BIOS you can configure the CPU core temperature at which the fan should kick into the higher operating speed.
With the fan at its highest operating speed we measured 58dB using a sound meter 6" from the front of the case, with the fan in its low speed setting the noise level dropped to a near-silent 51dB. At this level the loudest thing you could hear other than the hard drive was the fan on the system's Gainward GeForce4 Ti 4600 card.
For comparison purposes we took an identically configured system in a mid-tower ATX case with a CPU fan as well as a case fan and measured its noise levels. The 64dB the conventional system produced clearly overshadowed what Shuttle was able to accomplish with the SS51.
The virtually silent cooling system of the SS51 is arguably the best contribution Shuttle's engineers made to the construction of the system.
Powering the SS51
With an AGP slot on board, Shuttle had to be a bit more selective in their choice of components, including the power supply they used. The SS51 employs a very thin power supply manufactured by ACHME that is mounted on the right side of the case.
A small exhaust fan cools the power supply's internals and because of its size, is effectively silent (the system's main cooling fan is louder than its small fan).
Power is delivered to the motherboard through two connectors - a conventional ATX connector and a 4-pin connector carrying the ATX12V line for the CPU.
The power supply doesn't provide an incredible amount of current on its power rails, but it should be enough to cover the needs of anything you can throw at the SS51. The 200W power supply delivers 10A on the +12V and 20A on the +5V rails.
The most impressive part of the power supply is obviously its size and its ability to deliver enough current to a power hungry CPU like a 2.53GHz Pentium 4.
Assembly and Packaging
Shuttle has done a top-notch job with the SS51 in terms of putting everything together in the best way possible. Since the SS51 is sold as a "barebones kit" only some of the hardware should come installed when you purchase the system, it's usually up to you to add things such as a processor, hard drive, CD/DVD drive, video card, etc Luckily, Shuttle makes dealing with the incredibly small size of the case quite simple.
The system is bundled with a very handy user's guide that details exactly how to install components, including build order. For example, Shuttle is quick to point out the proper way of routing the floppy cable from its connector on the motherboard to the exposed 3.5" drive bay.
Installing drives in the SS51 is made a simple task by the removable drive cage that's in the system. Two screws hold the cage in place, removing those from the top will let you slide the cage out of place for easy drive installation.
Installing cards in any of the two slots on the FS51 motherboard is simple; two screws at the rear hold a bracket in place that flips up to allow you to insert a card into either the AGP or PCI slot, or both. Even the long GeForce4 Ti 4600 fit just fine in the confines of the case.
Other than those screws, dealing with the SS51 is made easy through the use of thumbscrews. Four thumbscrews hold the single cooling fan in place from the outside, and another three thumbscrews hold the case cover in place.
Routing the power cables is made easy through the use of little plastic guides spread around the inside of the case. The cables running to the front I/O ports are a bit more difficult to work around since they run very close to the two expansion slots, but dealing with them isn't too difficult.
One short and one rounded cable.
Shuttle was clairvoyant enough to realize that cooling could become an issue if cables blocked the sole exhaust fan in the system, so the SS51 comes bundled with cables that are not only the perfect length for the system but Shuttle has also rounded the longer of the two IDE cables. The rounded cable is used for reaching the furthest driver from the controller (located in the 5.25" bay); the rounded parts of the cable lie perfectly in the path of the cooling fan, without the rounding you'd have a wide ribbon cable restricting airflow.
Overall we were very impressed with the construction and assembly of the SS51; Shuttle's attention to detail was quite evident here as well.
The beauty of the SS51 is that it has the potential, from a feature standpoint, to be a perfect replacement for a large desktop PC. While it doesn't have the upgrade path of a conventional PC, it can easily offer the same features and for the first time it can also offer similar performance to a full fledged desktop. But we had our reservations about the SiS 651 chipset and Shuttle's implementation, so we put it to the test and compared the SS51 to our own identically configured 845G setup to see if this system could really pass as a high performance PC.
Windows XP Professional Test Bed
Intel Pentium 4 2.4GHz
Asus P4B533-V - Intel 845G
Shuttle FS51 - SiS 651
1 x 256MB DDR333 Corsair DIMM
120GB Western Digital Special Edition 8MB Buffer
|Video Cards (Drivers)||
NVIDIA GeForce3 Ti 200 (64MB) - v29.42
Content Creation & General Usage Performance
SYSMark has become a solid measurement of overall system performance since its induction into our benchmarking suite. Although the Internet Content Creation suite caters to more of a niche market, the Office Productivity tests are a perfect measurement of overall system performance in the applications all of us use on a daily basis.
The applications benchmarked include:
· Internet Content Generation: Adobe Photoshop® 6.01, Adobe Premiere® 6.0, Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 7.1, Macromedia Dreamweaver 4, and Macromedia Flash 5
· Office Productivity: Microsoft Word 2002, Microsoft Excel 2002, Microsoft PowerPoint 2002, Microsoft Outlook 2002, Microsoft Access 2002, Netscape Communicator® 6.0, Dragon NaturallySpeaking Preferred v.5, WinZip 8.0, and McAfee VirusScan 5.13.
For more information on the methodology and exactly what SYSMark does to generate these performance scores check out BAPCo's SYSMark 2002 Whitepaper
The difference between the SS51 and an identically configured 845G system is no more than 6% here, not too shabby for a system this small.
Quake III Arena Performance
There's virtually a tie under Quake III Arena, the two platforms seem to be performing at relatively similar levels.
Unreal Tournament 2003 Performance - High Detail
We introduced the latest Unreal Tournament 2003 benchmark in our GPU Shootout article a few weeks back and we're continuing to use it as an example of a next-generation game test.
We benchmarked under two different levels and detail settings; the first was DM-Antalus with High Detail settings, an overly GPU bound benchmark, and the second was DM-Asbestos with Medium Detail settings
With the highest detail settings we're entirely GPU bound here and thus there's no real performance difference between a conventional system and the SS51.
Unreal Tournament 2003 Performance - Medium Detail
The biggest difference is here where the 845G system is a little over 5% faster than the SS51, but it's nothing that is noticeable in the real world.
High End Workstation Performance - SPEC Viewperf 7.0
The latest version of SPEC Viewperf proves to be an excellent stress test for memory bandwidth and overall platform performance as you're about to see. The benchmarks included version 7 of the benchmark suite are:
3ds max (3dsmax-01)
Data Explorer (dx-07)
The SPEC scores for the two systems are relatively close, with the SS51 trailing by a little over 10% in the DRV-08 test.
High End Workstation Performance - SPEC Viewperf 7.0 (continued)
The final set of SPEC scores continue the trend, there's generally no performance difference between the two platforms except in handful of occasions. The 845G is significantly faster (~20%) in the ProENGINEER test compared to the SiS 651 in Shuttle's SS51, but other than that everything is very close.
Shuttle has come a long way with their XPC line of barebones systems; from making neat niche systems to finally producing something that can replace just about anyone's desktop computer, but the real question is "Is it worth it?"
The size of the SS51 chassis is attractive not to mention the appearance that is not only elegant but something that can look good on your desk. The PC is virtually silent, even with a 2.53GHz Pentium 4 and a GeForce4 Ti 4600 running beneath the hood. Every single feature you could possibly want (sans wireless and Gigabit Ethernet) is provided onboard and assuming you want more, there's always an available PCI slot for expansion. Drive bays are limited but with 120GB IDE drives already available and 200GB drives on the way, many users are only running with a single hard drive and a CD/DVD/R/RW drive. The performance of the platform is just about on par with an 845G setup with DDR333 SDRAM, which doesn't leave much to complain about.
The solution is more than feasible for even the most scrutinizing user, although you do sacrifice an viable upgrade path by going with the SS51. Upgrading CPUs and video cards shouldn't be a problem but when it comes to motherboards, you're pretty much stuck with what you've got. Shuttle has talked about plans to make more motherboards to fit in the SS51 chassis but as power and cooling requirements change with future processors and chipsets, a guaranteed upgrade path is almost impossible to ensure.
By far our biggest complaint about the solution is with Shuttle's FS51 motherboard and the problems we encountered; we compared the system directly to an ASUS machine we built and there were noticeable differences in stability. Only further testing with a new motherboard will let us know if the problems we encountered were an isolated case, but assuming our sample was a fluke - the SS51 should be on its way to making many computer rooms quieter and classier. If we could resolve the issues we had with the motherboard we'd gladly use SS51s as our machines in the lab and at home.
What's up next from Shuttle? An nForce2 based XPC; if paired up with a All-in-Wonder Radeon 8500DV (or maybe even the R300 version) we'd have one killer Home Theater PC on our hands with that one...