Reviewing a Small Form Factor System

What we have come up with is a list of items to look at in our SFF reviews, ranked roughly in order of decreasing importance. How each individual evaluates particular features will vary, but this is how we will be approaching the SFF market. The key elements that we will be looking at are as follows:
  • Aesthetic value
  • Features
  • Noise levels
  • Construction, durability, and portability
  • Performance
  • Expandability
  • Ease of use (i.e. upgrading)
The first three are the primary considerations, while the last three are lesser considerations, and the construction and build quality are somewhere in between. This differs quite a bit from how desktop systems are evaluated. There are plenty of people who worry about how a desktop case looks as well as the noise levels and features, but they are not necessarily the most important considerations. If we were to rank a desktop configuration, the order of importance would be more like:
  • Features
  • Expandability
  • Aesthetics
  • Ease of use (i.e. upgrading)
  • Construction and durability
  • Noise Levels
  • Portability
Note that since a desktop system does not include a motherboard, performance is not a consideration. We might consider cooling performance as a separate criterion, but we're lumping that into the features category for now. We've also separated portability into its own category, as for most people, this is a non-issue. Unlike SFF units, any of these categories could be ranked as the most important feature, depending on the intended use.

To reiterate, the value that a person puts on each item is up to the individual. Some might feel that the aesthetics are the most important thing in any computer case, and people who do frequent upgrades would put a lot more emphasis on the ease of use. Our feeling, however, is that people who are into the SFF design are more likely to be - without any intended condescension - similar to iMac owners and case modders.

Some people - let's just call them "engineers" - couldn't care less about the outward appearance; it's all about performance and functionality. For others, price/performance is a major concern. These people probably aren't going to buy an SFF system. Very few people need a SFF system. You get it because you have a desire for something that's smaller, quieter, more attractive, etc. Price will play a role, of course, but it is not the first consideration. If you like a particular SFF a lot, spending an extra $100 or more is really not a deal breaker.

We will have some benchmarks later in the article that will focus on certain aspects of the system, but what we're really looking for is decent performance with some features and qualities that make a unit rise above the rest. Low noise levels will be very important, since we feel part of the goal in getting a SFF is to have an inconspicuous case, and loud fans really don't help in achieving that goal. Also, while we will have quite a few pictures included in the article text, we will be including links for a complete sequence of images that we have composed during the testing if you want to check out some of the finer details. Now, it's time to move on to the systems. As usual, we will proceed in alphabetical order.

Index Aopen XC Cube AV
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  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    #21 - We're working on getting the Iwill dual-CPU system. We'll see what Iwill has to say. :)

    #19 - The unit reviewed was the EA65-II. There is an EA65-IIa as well as an EA65-IIa 2.0. The only difference between the IIa models is the version of InstantON included, and I believe you can download the latest version and turn the IIa into the IIa 2.0. Does that make sense? Also, I don't think the IIa is available in the US yet, but should be within the next month or two.

    If you don't mind a spoiler (yeah, right), the Pentium M desktop/HTPC that I have for review is louder than the SFFs in this roundup (other than the e-bot). However, it is a fully configured and loaded system with two HDDs, a 6800GT, etc. I've checked with the manufacturer about the noise levels and will see if I can get it reduced. Right now, the HSF is really huge - it looks like a Pentium 4 HSF, which is probably overkill for the Pentium M 2.0.

    On a side note, if you haven't seen the die of the Dothan, it's REALLY SMALL! About half the size of a dime. Pretty crazy to see that much power in such a small size.
    Reply
  • SUOrangeman - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    Request the Iwill ZMAXdp ($675 at NewEgg) for the next SFF piece! :) Reply
  • GoatHerderEd - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    NM, the firewire is on the front. I still thing there should be a port or two on the back though. Reply
  • silentcomputing - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    Nice job, Jarred.

    I am interesting in the Aopen EA65-IIa, but got confused about the new model name. You mentioned the new model is EA65-IIa first, but followed by EA64-IIa.... Is it a typo or is Aopen going to release AMD64 version of the EA in the near future.

    When do you think you can have the P-M on desktop review?? I can't wait to have one... enough for the noise from any of my computers...including Shuttle and Dell..... :(
    Reply
  • GoatHerderEd - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    #12, Wow, I got the Shuttle SN95G. But I really want that Iwill dual Opteron! That thing looks so sweet! No fire wire though )=

    #8, Why do you say the SN95G is unreliable? I think its pretty good. Boot up time isnt as fast as my Nforce2 XP 1800+, but its faster otherwise.
    Reply
  • LoneWolf15 - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    Now that it looks like AMD is coming out with additional Socket 754 Sempron CPU's, the Biostar really looks like a good choice. It's not like one needs huge CPU power for a HTPC, as long as it does a good job of encoding/decoding, and the Sempron should also run fairly cool. Add a Hauppauge WinTV PVR-150/250 and a discrete ATI graphics card (for additional hardware-assist MPEG-2 playback and VIVO) and it looks to be a really good choice. Reply
  • smn198 - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    I've said it before but would it be possible to present the non-linear noise measurements on a non-linear scale?

    That would more accurately show that with the IGP, the foxconn is over twice as loud as the others.

    Don't mean to seem critical. Great read. That is why I keep coming back.

    #3. Read the first few paragraphs of the review. Besides, it is very cheap now.
    Reply
  • smn198 - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    "Shuttle is able to use a single fan to fool both the CPU as well as the case"

    I've been trying that for years but have never successfully managed to fool them both at once!
    Reply
  • CrystalBay - Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - link

    Thanks JW, Iknow it's a lot to ask. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - link

    11, 12 - I'll have to see about those two units. For the Iwill, at least, they would either need to send processors or I would have to get some sent from AT HQ. I don't have any server parts at my location for testing. Reply

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