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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  • CrystalBay - Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - link

    Hi, How about the dual Opteron Iwill, that keeps flashing on the right. Reply
  • skunklet - Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - link

    there is an ideq with an embedded c3 proc that i would love to see a review of. Reply
  • gerf - Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - link

    I'd been looking at that Biostar SFF, as its specs are better than the equivalent Shuttle version, and is much cheaper. And now you drop a great review for it! I think that both I and my brother are going to use it for our new systems. Thank you for the kickarse review! Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - link

    #6 - fixed, along with a few other things I noticed. If anyone sees anything else, feel free to drop me a line.

    #7/#8 - both of those are on the list of S939 systems we have coming for review. (We haven't received the PCIe one yet, but it should arrive sometime soon.) Unfortunately, most of the "high end" SFFs that we currently have are S775 for whatever reason. I think we have eight 775 units and only three 939 right now. I'd really like to see additional S754 units as well, since Sempron is moving in that direction.

    I think one of the reasons that we're seeing more Intel SFFs is due to the chipset support. 865G is really almost the same price as 865PE, so the integrated graphics are "free". They're not good for gaming, but for most other tasks they work well. The only AMD platform chipsets with IGP are currently the outdated VIA K8M800 and the SiS stuff, although there are some newer offerings.

    In case any of you aren't aware of this, we really can't afford to simply go out and purchase every item that we want to review. Since the reviews are basically "free" advertising (although if a unit has serious problems, it may not be good), the manufacturers have to send us the parts. In case any manufacturers are reading this, get in touch with us and we'll be happy to review any of your SFFs that you send our way! There are quite a few manufacturers that aren't currently represented.
    Reply
  • Phantronius - Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - link

    Im hoping the SN25P turns out to be reliable unlike the SN95G.

    That and the way the PCI-E cards are facing the opposite direction makes me wonder about heat with both slots taken up. Hrmm....
    Reply
  • REMF - Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - link

    AT - don't even consider doing your high-end round up until you have the new nForce4 P-series Shuttle due to be released at the end of the month.

    i would also like to see the nForce3 G5-Series Shuttle compared against it, and other high-end SFF chassis'. :D
    Reply
  • AtaStrumf - Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - link

    WAU, that is one massive review! Good work guys.

    Just one typo to point out on page 8:

    The iDEQ doesn't include any notable extras **included**, but it does have all of the high quality standard features that we like.

    There was one more "it" that shoud have been "if", but I forgot where it was. Sorry :-)

    I thought this article would include a MAC mini, but I guess that will be a separate article altogether.

    If I may, I would suggest you only focus on SFF systems which stand out in a positive way and stay clear of the ones that don't. Just seems like a lot of pointless work.
    Reply
  • MIDIman - Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - link

    Been waiting for anand's SFF reviews. Looking forward to the A64-939 / Intel 775 review that I'm sure will be next.

    arswihart - Note that the SB61G2V3 is Shuttle's latest socket 478, Intel-based system. All of their newer products are socket 775 which will be in a later review. However, I think there are plenty on the AMD side that could've been covered instead that are socket 754...the SN85G4V3 ain't too shabby.
    Reply
  • quidpro - Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - link

    Absolutely no way that 7 bright blue leds in the Aopen (which only get brighter) should be considered acceptable or "minor" for an entertainment system, in my opinion. My shuttle has only two lights and I've had to cover them up with electrical tape with a small pinhole in order to cut down on the extremely distracting glare coming from it while watching a movie...the orange HD led flashes (as it should) which is even more distracting... Reply
  • arswihart - Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - link

    what the hell were they thinking when they chose to review this obsolete Shuttle system? Reply

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