Summary: Since their inception, Shuttle's XPC systems have won over countless gamers due to their outstanding combination of performance and extremely small design -- about the size of a toaster oven. Shuttle has upped the ante again with the SB61G2. Based on Intel's 865G "Springdale" chipset, the SB61G2 supports the latest Pentium 4 processors and overclocking options up to 255MHz for a blazing-fast 1.02GHz bus! But how does it fare against other P4 systems? We paired the SB61G2 with a RADEON 9800 PRO to find out in this review!
Retired Brigadier General Chuck Yeager once said (and we’re paraphrasing because we can’t remember the exact quote off the top of our heads) “Every 15 years aviation technology takes a giant step forward. We’re at the base of a giant leap right now”. General Yeager would know – during his 60 year flying career he’s flown aircraft ranging from the P-51 Mustang to the F/A-18 Hornet; with Lockheed's SR-71 Blackbird in between. Not only was he the first man to break the sound barrier, he was also the first to exceed Mach 2.5, flying 1,650 MPH in a Bell X1A experimental aircraft.
Just a few short years later, stealth technology was introduced to the public in Lockheed’s F-117A Nighthawk. Air combat hasn’t been the same since.
Why did we say all this? Because if Shuttle has its way, its XPC will shake up the desktop PC market in a similar fashion. Let’s look at things historically. Before Shuttle perfected its XPC formula, small form factor systems were regarded as weak little beige boxes that offered anemic performance and supported outdated technologies. There was little for the hardware enthusiast to really fall in love with other than their small size, especially considering the price premium they typically went for. Shuttle’s initial small form factor offering, the SV24, showed lots of potential, but the VL133 chipset it was based on offered antiquated hardware support, and worse yet, integrated graphics that could not be upgraded. The closed nature of its design was a big turn off to many gamers, but at the same time the tiny chassis was perfect for LAN parties. In an age where everyone wants to be different, what stands out more than a toaster-sized PC that can run with the fastest desktop PCs? This revolutionary ideal was ultimately reached by Shuttle last year with the SS51G: dramatically changing the face of small form factor computing. Shuttle had its equivalent of stealth.
Shuttle has used its new weapon to dominate the barebones PC segment. Actually, dominate is probably an understatement: Shuttle has grown the small form factor PC from a tiny niche into one of the fastest growing markets on the PC. It’s no small wonder that many motherboard manufacturers are now working on small form factor products of their own. Even the big boys ASUS and MSI want a piece of the action.
Today Shuttle is taking another step forward, ahead of even its own SB51G, which is already considered the benchmark in small form factor systems for the Pentium 4. This groundbreaking product is the SB61G2, sporting Intel’s brand new 865G “Springdale” chipset with 800MHz front-side bus support. In fact, we packed our SB61G2 system with the latest technologies -- Intel’s 3.0GHz Pentium 4 with 800MHz bus and Hyper-Threading, and ATI’s flagship RADEON 9800 PRO.
SIDEBAR: XPC stands for Extreme PC
At the heart of the SB61G2 lies Shuttle’s FB61 motherboard. The FB61 is based on Intel’s 865G chipset, formerly known under the codename of “Springdale-G”. Springdale is the chipset we’ve been drooling for. Its 800MHz front-side bus is capable of delivering up to 6.4GB/sec of memory bandwidth to the Pentium 4 processor, which can be mated with up to 4GB of dual-channel DDR400 memory also offering up to 6.4GB/sec of peak memory bandwidth. This combination delivers truckloads of enhanced performance in applications that really tax the memory subsystem, video encoding and 3D games just eat up the added bandwidth, resulting in faster overall system performance. Springdale is based on the same design as the Canterwood chipset introduced last month, with a few key differences.
Extreme Graphics 2
The “G” in 865G denotes the graphics integrated on the North Bridge of the 865 chipset. Dubbed Intel Extreme Graphics 2, this updated graphics solution is largely more of the same of what we’ve come to expect from Intel integrated graphics. The core itself operates at the same 266MHz frequency of its predecessor; Intel has simply updated it with AGP 8X support. Fortunately the 865 chipset’s dual-channel memory subsystem is able to feed the graphics controller with more memory bandwidth than previous Intel graphics solutions, resulting in better performance. You can see those numbers a bit later in this article, but there’s nothing “extreme” to talk about here – performance is roughly on par with GeForce2 MX. Basically, while this is fine for typical 2D desktop applications (Word, email, surfing the Internet, etc), don’t get your hopes up to play Half-Life 2 with this setup.
Second generation chassis
The SB61G2 chassis sports Shuttle’s new look first introduced in its nForce2 XPC, the SN41G2, hence the G2 (Generation 2) designation at the end of its name. A marketing guru would boast of its “sleek new lines” or “bold new look”, but to be honest Shuttle’s previous chassis design was never hard on the eyes. The fact that Shuttle is going back to the G1 look in its nForce2 Ultra 400 XPC (the SN45G) is perfect validation of this.
Speaking of which, Shuttle’s attention to detail is apparent everywhere. The case is dissembled entirely with thumbscrews, while the drive cage itself has a convenient holder for your IDE ribbon cable. There’s a latch on the outside of the SB61G2 chassis that holds external AGP or PCI cards in place, in addition to the standard AGP retention mechanism. Zip ties are included in the packaging for bundling cables together. Even one of the IDE ribbon cables is partially rounded, giving you more efficient airflow within the SB61G2 case. If all this isn’t enough, Shuttle will also be offering a free copy of Personal Video Station to all XPC owners, we’ll be discussing this feature in particular shortly.
Located on the front panel of the SB61G2 are two USB 2.0 ports and a mini-1394 jack. These are more common on home electronics devices, so we can certainly understand why Shuttle has decided to go this route on the SB61G2 front panel (the first XPC with this feature that we’re aware of). You’ve also got microphone and line inputs, and an output for headphones on the front panel of the SB61G2.
On the rear of the chassis, Shuttle has four additional USB 2.0 ports, bringing the grand total up to six ports, two shy of the eight ports supported by the 865G chipset. You’ll have to purchase a USB header if you want the two extra ports; the connector is already present on the FB61 motherboard. In addition, the SB61G2 has an optical input and output, your standard audio connections, VGA output, and Ethernet and 1394 ports. A serial port rounds out the system’s back plate.
SIDEBAR: Shuttle’s accessories page
For easier component installation, external drives are mounted in a removable drive cage. The drive cage supports one 5.25” drive and two 3.5” drives. Like the chassis itself the drive cage is made of lightweight aluminum and as we mentioned previously features a plastic strip that can be used to hold your IDE cable, perfect for neat bundling. The only addition we could really ask for would be drive rails; wouldn’t it be great if you could pull your drives in and out when you need them?
The FB61 motherboard itself is tiny. Shuttle’s designs are definitely among the smallest in the business. Despite this, the SB61G2 still offers expansion capabilities. One AGP and PCI slot are provided if you find the integrated graphics, audio, and networking aren’t powerful enough for your needs. The two slot cooling design prevents GeForce FX 5800 and FX 5900 cards from fitting within the SB61G2 chassis, but ATI’s entire family of RADEON cards will easily fit within the SB61G2 case. Even our GeForce4 Ti 4600 reference card fits; it’s actually slightly longer than GeForce FX 5800 Ultra. Two DIMM sockets bring total memory support up to 2GB, while your traditional IDE and floppy connectors are also present. What enthusiasts will really like however are the two Serial ATA ports, Shuttle has placed them on the bottom of the board for convenient installation.
Audio and networking duties are provided by controllers from Realtek. This may be a disappointment to those of you who were hoping for Gigabit Ethernet and Intel’s Communications Steaming Architecture, which are optional additions for the 865 family, but Shuttle feels the typical SB61G2 end user doesn’t have the hardware to take advantage of Gigabit networking. Quite frankly they’re right, but fortunately if you do find this omission disappointing Shuttle will be offering a future XPC model with Gigabit Ethernet, CSA and dual networking. Shuttle expects to sell these boxes to businesses for use in professional environments, not the typical home user.
In practice, the overall package works incredibly well which is especially impressive when you consider the size of the SB61G2. As you’ll see in our performance testing, this little box can keep up with the best full size ATX systems. Noise level is about the same when the system is under heavy load and the temperature inside the case increases (which is often the case when you’ve got a RADEON 9800 PRO inside) but with active cooling on the North Bridge the system is barely audible when running the integrated Intel graphics. Pair the SB61G2 with a card that operates much cooler than the 9800 PRO, like say, the 9600 PRO, and you’d have one very quiet gaming rig.
SIDEBAR: The SB61G2 also comes with a Serial ATA cable and Serial ATA power cable.
Setting it all up
When you’re dealing with a small form factor chassis, you’d expect component installation of parts like the CPU to be the most difficult step, but with the SB61G2 it’s actually the little things like plugging in IDE cables and power cords for the drives and fans that are the most challenging. If you’re an experienced PC builder, CPU installation shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes, 5 minutes if you’re experienced working with XPCs. This is because Shuttle’s I.C.E. technology is such an ingenious design.
I.C.E. utilizes standard heat pipe technology and comes in two parts: the heat pipe itself and accompanying Sunon case fan. Heat pipe removal is a cinch, simply push down the two latches holding the heat pipe clamp to remove it. Then unplug the case fan, loosen the four thumbscrews holding the cooling apparatus in place, and pull the whole thing out. This process just takes a few minutes and doesn’t require any tools to perform. For those of you who are used to using screwdrivers to remove heatsinks, this is a really welcome feature. Once you’ve got the CPU installed, reversing the procedure is just as simple. And as we mentioned before, the Sunon case fan operates dynamically depending on CPU temperature, if the processor is running cool it’s barely audible. As the CPU temperature rises, the fan’s RPMs increase. At full tilt the SB61G2 will definitely rival or exceed the noise level of a typical gamer’s PC, so try to keep all cables bundled neatly to ensure adequate airflow. It’s a shame for consumers that Shuttle hasn’t licensed its I.C.E. technology out to its competitors: this is the way CPU installation should be.
Once you’ve got the processor installed you’ll next want to install the rest of your external devices, memory, and go ahead and attach the hard drive and CD-ROM cables. This is also the perfect time to attach the included adhesive strips which you can use to keep cables in place. Then once you’re done attach your drives to the drive cage and drop it into the SB61G2 chassis, zip tie and bundle everything up, attach your connections, and you’re ready to roll!
Shuttle has taken some criticism lately for not offering the most powerful BIOS implementations with its XPCs. Well, they’ve definitely addressed their critics with the SB61G2 BIOS, it’s loaded with every setting an overclocker would ever want. You’ve got bus speeds from 100-255MHz in 1MHz increments, giving you that vaunted 1GHz front-side bus if you dare. You can also lock AGP/PCI/Serial ATA devices to settings of 66/33/100, 73/36/100, and 80/40/100MHz respectively.
CPU core voltage ranges from 1.1V-1.85V in 0.025V increments, while DDR and AGP voltages can be adjusted as well. Memory timings can be manipulated to your hearts content as well, and quite frankly, this is where we feel most end user’s will spend most of their time in BIOS. We’ve found that the current crop of DDR400 modules vary all over the place with Intel’s 865 and 875 chipsets. We’ve only been able to get timings of 2-2-2 to work with 865, and even then, only our OCZ Technology DDR400 modules are capable of hitting this. Corsair and Mushkin DDR400 modules can run at these timings for days on the nForce2 platform, but try it on an 865 system like the SB61G2 and you might be able to complete one run of 3DMark 03. This isn’t the fault of Shuttle, rather its Intel’s core logic.
The rest of the Shuttle BIOS has your standard settings for integrated peripherals and hardware monitoring. Kudos to Shuttle for addressing end user’s complaints.
SIDEBAR: The Sunon fan can be adjusted to operate at certain levels within BIOS.
The overclocking dilemma
On the other hand however, we don’t advocate overclocking the SB61G2. Sure, we were able to use our unlocked P4 processor to bump the bus up to 215MHz with complete stability, and overclocked our 3GHz processor 100MHz thanks to the flexible BIOS options, but you’ve got to keep in mind that you’re working with a 200 watt power supply. With a 3GHz CPU drawing 80 watts alone, nearly half of SB61G2’s power is already gone. Then once you add your drives, memory, fan, and choose to go with a power hungry external graphics card like the RADEON 9800 PRO, things can get overwhelming pretty quickly.
SnapStream Personal Video Station
One really unique addition Shuttle will be offering to all XPC owners is SnapStream’s Personal Video Station software. Once the system is in place, XPC owners will be able to download a free copy of Personal Video Station upon registration.
Personal Video Station turns your PC into a TV with digital VCR and Tivo-like functionality. Personal Video Station 3 software (PVS3) supports timeshifting, allowing you to pause live TV, step out of the house for a few hours, and pick up where you left off once you return. You can use the program guide to schedule recordings of your favorite shows for the entire season, or just new episodes that aren’t repeats or re-runs. The program guide is completely free, and stores 2 weeks of U.S. programming data which is updated daily. Setup is similar to Tivo and the Gemstar Guide Plus software used by ATI’s ALL-IN-WONDER series. Just type in your zip code and select your cable service and the program guide takes over.
The real gem of PVS3 is the web admin interface. From this menu PVS3 owners can remotely schedule recordings over the Internet, or from their WAP-enabled cell phone. You can even watch your recordings or live TV programming streamed over the Internet (or home network) by connecting to your PVS3 Shuttle XPC using a web browser.
We haven’t had a chance to fully test the PVS3 software, but what we’ve seen so far looks promising. Stability with our beta copy was pretty good, although the software tends to have a problem closing properly. You’re probably wondering what’s the appeal -- TV tuner cards typically come with similar software and a remote control unit, whereas Shuttle only includes the software.
We can say with certainty that NVIDIA Personal Cinema owners will definitely prefer PVS3 over Personal Cinema once it’s available; it’s a night and day difference. We haven’t played with all the recording options and other features to determine if ATI’s setup is more powerful than Personal Video Station 3, they’re both really slick setups and we wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of it came down to personal preference. At the very least it’s incredibly cool to see Shuttle offering something totally different than what you’d expect, and it’s a free download for anyone who owns a Shuttle XPC.
We see this as a lot of incentive for current owners to pick up a $30 TV tuner and remote control unit. ATI’s Remote Wonder in particular works brilliantly with PVS3.
SIDEBAR: PVS 3 also allows you to transfer your recordings to your Pocket PC.
For this test we swapped the RADEON 9800 PRO in the XPC system for a 64MB RADEON 9000 PRO. As you can see, the RADEON 9000 PRO graphics offers roughly 2.5 times the performance of Intel’s “extreme” graphics. Keep in mind that 64MB RADEON 9000 PRO cards can be found online for under $80.
In all cases, the SB61G2 finishes within 1% of the Canterwood systems in 3DMark 03. Of course, the Granite Bay board is only behind the XPC system by another percentage point, so we also went ahead and ran 3DMark’s CPU benchmark.
3DMark’s CPU test puts the rendering burden on the host CPU itself, rather than the graphics accelerator. As you can see SB61G2 once again is barely outpaced by the 875P motherboards from ASUS and DFI, performance is practically indistinguishable.
3DMark03 – Wings of Fury
3DMark03 – Battle of Proxycon
3DMark03 – Troll’s Lair
3DMark03 – Mother Nature
Serious Sam 2 - OpenGL
The Canterwood boards begin to break away from the Springdale boards we tested in Serious Sam 2, at low resolutions the P4C800 Deluxe takes a 5% performance lead but at 1600x1200 the video card becomes more of a limiting factor and the margin is within 3%.
Quake III - High Quality
Before we go any further, we should point out that the P4C800 Deluxe is the fastest 875P motherboard we’ve seen to this point. Other 875P motherboards offer performance similar to the LANPARTY PRO875, ASUS runs their bus a little higher than Intel spec (808MHz effective) which gives them a bit of an advantage. We do see that the SB61G2 platform finishes roughly 3% behind the LANPARTY Canterwood board, and a hair faster than 865PE-based 865 Dynasty.
Comanche 4 demo
Unreal Tournament 2003 - flyby
Unreal Tournament 2003 - botmatch
Once again we’d like to point out that the ASUS P4C800 Deluxe runs a little faster than typical 875P-based boards, partially due to its faster bus. The LANPARTY PRO875 is included because it’s a better indicator of performance of the 875P motherboards on the market. As you can see, the 865 boards deliver practically identical performance, with both boards finishing 4% behind the LANPARTY board.
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
Splinter Cell is more video-limited than our previous tests, especially focusing on the graphics card’s fill-rate. As a result, performance is roughly the same on all 800MHz FSB platforms.
SiSoft Sandra 2003 Memory Bandwidth
Performance: Thanks to the 865G chipset, the SB61G2 is the fastest small form factor system on the market, rivaling the performance of even the fastest desktop PCs. You want to build something faster? It’s certainly possible, but you’ll need to buy a $170 (or more) Canterwood motherboard and equip it with DDR400 SDRAM and a fast processor. In the end the SB61G2 will still come within a few percentage points of such a setup.
Limited expansion: With only 2 DIMMs, the SB61G2 is limited to just 2GB of memory, even though the 865G chipset supports up to 4GB. Likewise, the FB61 board only features 1 AGP and PCI slot. And while we were able to run a 3.0GHz system with RADEON 9800 PRO graphics just fine, who’s to say the next generation of graphics cards will run properly on the SB61G2’s 200 watt power supply when outfitted with a 3GHz+ CPU? These issues aren’t unique to just the SB61G2, they apply to any small form factor system, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Shuttle’s SB61G2 is the new pinnacle of small form factor products for the Pentium 4 platform. Its 865G chipset is the latest offering from Intel. It’s actually a tribute to Shuttle’s engineers that we’re able to talk to you about the SB61G2 on Springdale’s launch day, remember when we had to wait months for Shuttle XPCs to catch up with developments on the desktop? Shuttle has 1,000 units sitting in their US office waiting to be shipped. This is not including the units that have already been sent to some retailers.
This gives Shuttle a significant jump on the competition. While others are working on their first generation Springdale-based product, Shuttle is working on their second generation of products supporting Intel’s 800MHz chipsets (note the use of plural pronunciation, Shuttle has a lot of upcoming hardware in the pipeline).
When equipped with an 800MHz bus, 3.0GHz Pentium 4 processor, RADEON 9800 PRO, and half a gig of dual-channel DDR400 memory, the Shuttle SB61G2 breaks the small form factor PC sound barrier, rivaling anything available on the desktop and putting the SB61G2 in a class of its own. Can you believe this little box packs more power than the $200+ Granite Bay motherboards that were state-of-the-art just a few months ago? It’s amazing how far technology has advanced in such a short timeframe. The SB61G2 has just made quite a few high dollar workstations obsolete.
The diminutive size of the SB61G2 gives it a world of potential uses in applications ranging from gaming to distributed computing. Home theater buffs have always gone wild with uses for these boxes, and with Personal Video Station now a standard feature these users can turn their XPC into a personal video recorder at prices previously unheard of.
Of course, the size of the SB61G2 can also be its biggest setback. Expansion is limited solely to a PCI and AGP slot, while you’re limited to just 2 DIMMs. And while the SB61G2 features all the overclocking you’ll ever need, there just isn’t enough oomph in the power supply to get very far, nor is there enough space for the cooling you really need. It sure is cool being able to take a 3GHz power rig wherever you need it without breaking a sweat though. It’s like having an M-16 rifle in the size of a handgun.
It’s this type of innovation that goes into any Editor’s Choice product. And when it’s executed this brilliantly in performance, feature set, and price, awarding the SB61G2 our Editor’s Choice Award is a no-brainer.
In a way, it’s fitting that the SB61G2 comes from a company named Shuttle, as they’ve literally taken the small form factor platform to new heights. We can’t wait to see what they think of next.
SIDEBAR: Are you drooling over an 800MHz FSB small form factor system with dual-channel DDR400 memory for yourself, or do you plan on sticking with conventional desktop systems? Discuss this topic and more in the news comments!
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