||Biostar iDEQ 200N Review
August 18, 2003 Chris Angelini
Summary: Shuttle has dominated the small form-factor PC market with its highly successful line of XPC products. Biostar plans to change all that though, starting with the product we're reviewing today, the iDEQ 200N. Based on NVIDIA's nForce2 IGP chipset, the iDEQ 200N supports up to 2GB of DDR SDRAM, Serial ATA RAID, dual VGA, and NVIDIA's Dolby Digital audio. See why Biostar's iDEQ 200N gives Shuttle's equivalent SFF system a run for its money in Chris' review!
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 14 )|
It’s been quite a while since Shuttle unveiled its small form-factor design. And for the most part, the XPC family has persisted, relatively unchanged, since then. Of course, Shuttle has religiously refreshed the lineup with modern chipsets and updated functionality, but as far as aesthetics are concerned, little has evolved. The XPC is immensely popular, is selling exceptionally well, and continues to inspire similar systems from competing manufacturers. Nearly every other player in the motherboard market, it seems, is marketing its own rendition of what a small form-factor system should be. We’ve already evaluated a couple of Shuttle systems in addition to FIC’s ICE Cube. The aforementioned systems maintain a prominent PC feel, while others (MSI’s MEGA, for instance) assume a hi-fi persona. Today, Biostar throws its own hat into the saturated small form-factor marketplace.
But if you’re looking for something completely new, you’ll have to search elsewhere. In fact, it is difficult not to draw parallels between Biostar’s iDEQ 200N and the XPC family. Should that have a negative impact on the system’s utility? That’s for you to decide – as far as we’re concerned, Biostar took an award-winning recipe and added a splash of this and a pinch of that. The result is a sleek chassis enveloping wholly capable innards. Without taking too much away from Shuttle’s fantastic showing, we’d even go so far as to say the iDEQ 200N is what Shuttle’s SN41G2 should have been.
Introducing the iDEQ 200N
Your mother may have told you it is what’s on the inside that matters, but on some level, outward appearances dictate interest level. There are plenty of attractive small form-factor systems, and so the job of building something unique becomes that much harder. Nevertheless, Biostar’s iDEQ 200N sports the sharpest, most elegant chassis we’ve seen to date.
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The top and side panels are constructed of brushed aluminum. Further, each is independently removable via thumbscrews, making it easy to work on one side or the other. The box’s front panel is silvery-grey with a glossy cover that ships with plastic sheeting to protect it from damage. It has two chromed buttons – power and reset – along with an integrated IR receiver. A single Firewire port, a pair of USB 2.0 ports, an optical output and two audio connectors also grace the chassis’ front. But the most important feature, and perhaps the most subtle, is a plastic cover that hides the 5.25 and 3.5” external drive bays. Consider that most of the SFF systems currently available have well-designed front covers, yet most of the CD-ROM and floppy drives floating around are beige. By covering that whole area, it doesn’t matter if your I/O devices match or not; the whole system maintains its appearance.
SIDEBAR: Biostar’s iDEQ 200N product page.
| Specifications||Page:: ( 2 / 14 )|
The iDEQ’s back panel is strikingly similar to that of Shuttle’s XPC. It has 1/8” audio connectors, PS/2 ports, an optical output, two 15-pin VGA connectors, Firewire connectivity, a pair of USB 2.0 ports and an RJ-45 port. There are also two bays available to accommodate the system’s AGP and PCI slots.
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Even the bottom of the iDEQ is specially engineered. It has three distinct indentations, each making contact with a different hotspot on the motherboard above it (IGP, MCP-T and power circuitry). Rather than have heat from the platform circulate within the chassis, the indentations conduct it into the chassis itself. As a result, the iDEQ gets noticeably warmer, but the components inside are purportedly that much cooler.
Centering on the nForce2 IGP, Biostar’s M7NBA motherboard is, once again, comparable to the Shuttle SN41G2. The nForce2 IGP ensures mainstream buyers have access to suitable 3D, even if hardcore enthusiasts will add their own adapters. Unfortunately, it also limits the processor upgrade path to an Athlon XP 3000+ because the IGP doesn’t offer support for the 3200+’s 400MHz front side bus. Two memory slots accept up to DDR400 modules with a 2GB ceiling. However, as we established in our ASUS A7N8X Deluxe review, DDR333 settings deliver optimal performance due to the synchronous memory and processor buses.
Expandability is one of the most important aspects of a SFF system, especially since wireless hasn’t yet caught on in that segment. The iDEQ 200N comes equipped with one AGP 8x slot and a single PCI slot as well. Moreover, the M7NBA has the option to install a WLAN module; however, our evaluation sample only had a silk-screened outline where that slot would normally reside. According to Biostar, the slot can be added if it sees significant demand in the future. Other models of the iDEQ, the 200T for instance, may include the slot. Additionally, the iDEQ 200N is set up to accept Realtek’s RTL8180 WLAN chip, giving it 802.11b compliance right out of the box. And because Biostar engineered the chassis to function as an antenna, wireless functionality is nearly transparent. As with the WLAN slot, though, the integrated wireless chip isn’t part of the package quite yet. Then again, Shuttle has been working on its wireless solution for over a year, so Biostar’s progress thus far is commendable.
One of the most significant departures between the iDEQ and XPC is Biostar’s Serial ATA implementation. The nForce2 chipset doesn’t have native support, of course, so Biostar added VIA’s VT6420 controller with RAID support. There are also two standard IDE channels, each featuring ATA-133 capabilities.
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Beyond the USB 2.0 capabilities offered by NVIDIA’s MCP-T, Biostar also employs the Realtek RTL8801B PHY to enable a pair of IEEE 1394 ports. The Realtek RTL8201BL brings 10/100 Ethernet to the table. And finally, Realtek’s ALC650 gives the iDEQ six-channel audio support through the MCP-T.
SIDEBAR: Biostar has four other iDEQ models spanning various Socket A and Socket 478 platforms. Check them all out here.
| Setup and Installation||Page:: ( 3 / 14 )|
There are plenty of small form-factor systems with impressive specifications. It’s ease of use that separates the mediocre from exemplary, and Biostar has clearly spent some time working on the iDEQ’s interior. To begin, processor installation is extremely straight-forward; the self-contained heat sink/heat pipe mechanism takes all of two minutes to remove and reaffix using a retention mechanism instead of screws. Installing memory is similarly simple, as is adding a hard drive. The system’s IDE cables are plugged in at the factory, as are the power cables – the only job left is to connect them to the drives. Or, if you’d prefer a Serial ATA drive, unplug the primary IDE cable and use the included SATA data and power cables.
Upgrading to an add-in graphics card is a little trickier. There is plenty of room between the top edge of your graphics card (a RADEON 9700 Pro in this case) and the iDEQ’s drive carriage. However, wedging the card up, over, and down into the AGP 8x slot requires some bending. Biostar could have avoided that problem by moving the slot mere millimeters closer to the motherboard’s outside edge. Otherwise, setup is quick and painless – just be sure to abide by the detailed instruction manual
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Power, Cooling, and Noise
Biostar is particularly proud of iDEQ’s thermal performance. The aluminum cooler resembles an ordinary heat sink; however, a heat pipe runs from the unit’s copper base to the top, distributing heat evenly across two sets of fins using a constant evaporation/condensation cycle. Then, an integrated fan pushes air over the cooler, simultaneously pulling air over the passively cooled IGP (Shuttle’s IGP is actively cooled, contributing to its noise output). A second fan exhausts air from the system, while a third cools the 200W power supply. Heat pads on the bottom of the iDEQ dissipate heat throughout the chassis, as previously mentioned.
SIDEBAR: According to Biostar, it owns seven patents that went into building the iDEQ, including its cable routing system.
| Power and Cooling (Continued)||Page:: ( 4 / 14 )|
Although it appears that the iDEQ 200N and Shuttle SN41G2 utilize the same power supply, Biostar’s is in fact more robust. Both units are manufactured by Enhance Electronics and are rated for 200W, but the iDEQ boasts 15A on the 12V rail, while the SN41G2 is limited to 10A. As Alan showed in his guide, that is an important specification.
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Despite its three fans, Biostar claims that the iDEQ is significantly quieter than Shuttle’s XPC. At idle, the iDEQ reportedly enjoys a 2dB advantage, while under full load, it’s nearly 5dB quieter. The differences are much more difficult to qualitatively identify, though. Both systems are definitely audible.
Most of the SFF systems lauded for exceptional functionality actually lack potent BIOS’. Shuttle is a notable exception, as it enables front side bus manipulations, voltage modifications and configurable AGP/PCI bus frequencies. Biostar’s implementation is comparable, but not quite as aggressive. It does sport incremental FSB frequencies and adjustable voltages, but the AGP and PCI buses can’t be locked down.
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CPU voltages are available between 1.3 and 2.0V in 0.025V steps. AGP voltages range from 1.5 to 1.8V in .1V steps; meanwhile, DRAM can be set between 2.5 and 2.8V and the IGP can run between 1.6 and 1.9V. FSB settings span 100 to 200MHz in 1MHz steps. Of course, all of the memory settings are fully configurable as well. Finally, if you elect to use the integrated GeForce4 MX graphics, you can delegate between 8 and 128MB of system memory to be used as a frame buffer.
SIDEBAR: Initial reports from Biostar indicate that a new CPU cooler is being designed to support up to 3.6GHz Pentium 4 processors!
| System Setup||Page:: ( 5 / 14 )|
Biostar iDEQ 200N nForce2 Small Form-Factor System
Shuttle SN41G2 nForce2 Small Form-Factor System
AMD Athlon XP 3000+ (333MHz FSB)
512MB Corsair XMS3200LL CAS2 Memory
ATI RADEON 9700 Pro
120GB Seagate Barracuda SATA V 7200RPM 8MB (Biostar)
80GB Western Digital ATA-100 7200RPM 8MB (Shuttle)
Windows XP Professional
Desktop resolution 1024x768, 32-bit color, 75Hz refresh
All power saving options were turned off, as were the Automatic Update and System Restore services. Graphics options under the ‘Performance’ tab were all disabled for maximum performance.
PC Magazine Content Creation Winstone 2003
PC Magazine Business Winstone 2002
PC Mark 2002
Quake III v1.32 ‘fscrusher’ custom benchmark
3D Mark 2003
SiSoft Sandra MAX3
Unreal Tournament 2003 Demo
Both the Biostar and Shuttle systems were configured for optimal performance per each BIOS. The iDEQ overclocked stably to 2.3GHz using a 177MHz front side bus. We were able to boot at 2.4GHz (185MHz FSB), but the system wouldn’t complete the benchmarking suite. According to Biostar, it can do much better, but because the lowest available multiplier setting was 13x, and because the 3000+ utilizes a 13x multiplier, we couldn’t shoot for a 200MHz front side bus without modifying the processor itself.
SIDEBAR: Would you care for an All-in-One LCD PC? Check out Biostar’s eDEQ lineup.
| Content Creation 2003||Page:: ( 6 / 14 )|
Content Creation Winstone 2003
Shuttle’s design takes a small victory in Content Creation Winstone 2003, bested only by the overclocked Biostar machine. It should be noted that opting for integrated graphics impacts the system’s score slightly, perhaps as a result of lost bandwidth.
SIDEBAR: If you buy an iDEQ, you’ll want to bookmark Biostar’s 200N support page.
| Business Winstone 2002||Page:: ( 7 / 14 )|
Business Winstone 2002
The iDEQ 200N regains lost ground in Business Winstone 2002, besting Shuttle’s SN41G2 by nearly nine percent. That score jumps even higher, of course, with some minor overclocking. And again, the iDEQ 200N takes a performance hit (on the order of 10 percent) without a discrete graphics card. Functional as the twin, integrated VGA outputs may be, performance stands to be significantly augmented with an add-in AGP card.
SIDEBAR: Biostar is reportedly working on an nForce2 400 Ultra variant of the iDEQ. Of course, it will support the 400MHz front side bus and forgo integrated graphics.
| PC Mark 2002||Page:: ( 8 / 14 )|
PC Mark 2002
As expected, all of the CPU scores fall in line, excluding the overclocked platform, which performs significantly better. Memory scores are also relatively inconclusive, though it is clear that enabling integrated graphics indeed does have a profound effect on overall memory throughput.
SIDEBAR: Though Biostar’s North American motherboard presence isn’t as prominent as many other manufacturers, its 875P board seems surprisingly capable - check it out.
| Quake III: Arena||Page:: ( 9 / 14 )|
Quake III v.1.32 ‘fscrusher’ – OpenGL
The difference between iDEQ and SN41G2 is nearly imperceptible. Even the overclocked configuration doesn’t demonstrate a massive performance improvement. The integrated GeForce4 MX lags, but is entirely playable, even at 1280x1024.
SIDEBAR: The VIA VT6420 Serial ATA controller Biostar uses actually supports RAID 0, 1, and 1+0. Biostar claims that the iDEQ 200N will even accommodate a pair of SATA drives, though they may give off too much heat.
| 3D Mark 2003 v330||Page:: ( 10 / 14 )|
3D Mark 2003 – 3D, CPU, and Audio Tests
The 3D Mark 2003 graphics tests summarily emphasizes the difference between ATI’s RADEON 9700 Pro and an integrated graphics core, though it does so to an extreme. The CPU score shows the two platforms performing fairly evenly, with the overclocked configuration about five percent ahead. Because the integrated GeForce4 MX only supports one game in the 3D Mark test suite, it cannot complete the processor test either. Finally, the audio tests synthetically demonstrate the effect of increased complexity on overall performance. In this case, it reflects the effectiveness of NVIDIA’s MCP-T processing power.
SIDEBAR: Biostar’s GeForce FX 5900 card sports two cooling fans. There isn’t an Ultra card to speak of, though.
| Unreal Tournament 2003 Demo||Page:: ( 11 / 14 )|
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby – DirectX 8
Unreal Tournament 2003 Botmatch – DirectX 8
The iDEQ flexes its muscle with the RADEON 9700 Pro installed. Even the integrated core performs well, though Unreal Tournament 2003 probably won’t run smoothly at any resolution above 1024x768.
SIDEBAR: Because the iDEQ is particularly attractive, it would make a great foundation for a home theater PC. Add an ALL-IN-WONDER 9800 and an 802.11g card for ultimate performance.
| SiSoft Sandra MAX3||Page:: ( 12 / 14 )|
SiSoft Sandra MAX3 – Arithmetic, Multimedia and Memory Bandwidth
SIDEBAR: One of Biostar’s touted features is its “shark-grill blowholes” that enhance the case’s cooling characteristics.
| Ballistics Report||Page:: ( 13 / 14 )|
Form Factor: One of the obvious benefits of a small form-factor system is, of course, compactness. But not only is the iDEQ compact on the outside, it is surprisingly roomy inside too. So much so, in fact, that Biostar claims there is room for another hard drive below the included drive cage. Thermal limitations keep that from appealing as an option today; however, Biostar is looking for ways to give its iDEQ the flexibility to accommodate two drives.
Performance: Even if your subjective opinion differs from ours, it’s hard to ignore the iDEQ’s benchmark results. The system is fast with its integrated graphics core enabled and even faster equipped with a discrete card. It enjoys the benefits of NVIDIA’s nForce2 platform in a miniaturized chassis. Though the iDEQ isn’t yet available in nForce2 400 Ultra trim, Biostar claims to be working on such a variant that will appeal to the performance-oriented.
Functionality: Shuttle’s SN41G2 is a spectacular system in its own regard, and has enjoyed a long run of dominance. The SN45G replaced it with performance over functionality and Biostar’s iDEQ fits somewhere between. Features like Serial ATA and WLAN should already be standard on Shuttle’s XPC, but they aren’t. And as a result, Biostar has a leg-up with regard to functionality. A bundled Windows-based overclocking utility and Linux-based media center sweeten the deal (though not nearly as much as Shuttle’s Personal Video Station 3 bundle).
Elegance: We only needed one look at the iDEQ 200N – it’s safe to say we know how Chris De Burgh felt when writing “Lady in Red.” The system is subtle, understated, and elegant. It doesn’t get any sexier than that, does it? Even if you’ve got an “ugly duckling” beige floppy drive or goofy looking CD-RW, you can hide them behind the iDEQ’s front cover.
Availability: The iDEQ 200N is pretty hard to find, though there are a couple of online outfits selling the system. They are priced comparably to Shuttle’s own XPC, so price shouldn’t be an issue. But you’ll have to find one first.
400: It almost seems silly to compare Biostar’s latest small form-factor system to a product Shuttle has been selling since the beginning of 2003. In all fairness, Shuttle also offers the SN45G, based on NVIDIA’s nForce2 400 Ultra chipset. Performance enthusiasts: give that one a look before limiting your upgrade path. Until Biostar implements the newer chipset, it won’t be able to compete with 400MHz FSB processors.
SIDEBAR: Biostar’s StudioFun media player is based on the Linux kernel and can be booted to instead of Windows.
| Final Verdict||Page:: ( 14 / 14 )|
After all of the good things we have said about the iDEQ, would you believe that this is Biostar’s first-generation small form-factor system? It sports some of the most sought-after features, performs a hair better than Shuttle’s own SN41G2, and looks hot to boot! Considering that Biostar hasn’t offered such a functional system before, it’s fairly amazing that it has packed Serial ATA and the potential for WLAN onto its rookie effort. Then again, there’s a distinct Shuttle influence about the iDEQ, so it isn’t hard to surmise that Biostar had the recipe right the first time. It just needed to make a few improvements. Isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery, after all?
Not all is perfect with the iDEQ, of course. It currently suffers from limited availability, though Biostar is probably working on that. Further, the system lacks support for the Athlon XP 3200+ and any K7 that may follow. We’d gladly forsake the integrated GeForce4 MX core in favor of the processing horsepower made available through the SPP-only nForce2 400 Ultra. The two north bridges are pin-compatible, too, so it shouldn’t be hard for Biostar to revamp the platform in short order. We’d also like to see a working implementation of WLAN support, just to show that the feature is fully functional.
Minor shortcomings aside, Biostar’s iDEQ 200N compares favorably to its competition. We’ve yet to see a Socket A platform come anywhere near Shuttle’s lauded SN41G2 or SN45G small form-factor systems. But as we mentioned previously, the iDEQ 200N really is what the SN41G2 should have been back in January. Granted, Biostar is significantly tardier, but Shuttle has already reaped the financial benefits of early execution, so it doesn’t matter much at this point. Today is what’s important, and today, Biostar’s iDEQ 200N is the small form-factor box to own if you can accept its few limitations. Otherwise, Shuttle’s nForce2 400 Ultra-equipped SN45G is the way to go.
SIDEBAR: Think Biostar is giving Shuttle a run for its money or is Shuttle still entrenched in first place? Regardless, the small form-factor market just got a bit more interesting. Sound off and let us know what you think!