Summary: Fresh off the success of its 845G-based small form-factor PC, the VG61, FIC is back again with a new system based on Intel's 865G Springdale chipset, the VL67. Like its predecessor, the VL67 packs all the performance of a desktop system in a tiny design that's ultra portable and a snap to setup. But is it enough to dethrone Shuttle? Find out in today's review!
Slowly but surely small form-factor (SFF) PCs have evolved from niche items to one of the fastest growing segments in the PC market. While companies like Shuttle have garnered all the attention from gamers and hardware enthusiasts, the unsung hero in this evolution has been the system chipset. Just as the Chevrolet Corvette would be nothing without its 350 horsepower 5.7-liter LS-1 V8 engine, the small form-factor PC is tied to the chipset it’s based on.
Because of this, initial small form-factor setups garnered little interest among the PC hardware crowd. The chipsets they were based on were too mundane, supporting outdated technologies and with little or no expansion options, most setups didn’t even offer external AGP graphics, forcing end user’s to rely on the chipset’s integrated graphics instead. As you can imagine, this is far from ideal, especially when you can pick up an equivalent motherboard, case, and power supply for significantly less money, albeit without the portability a small form-factor system provides.
Small form-factor comes of age
Fortunately, 2003 marked the end of those days. NVIDIA’s nForce2 IGP chipset brought Dolby Digital audio, GeForce4 MX-level graphics (with external AGP expansion capability), and support of AMD’s fastest 333MHz Athlon XP processors earlier this year. FIC’s own ICE Cube VG61 was based on Intel’s 845G chipset, which was Intel’s best offering until the dual-channel chipsets like Granite Bay came along. In fact, we found the ICE Cube VG61 to be superior to Shuttle’s equivalent offering. The ICE Cube VG61 was equipped with a beefier power supply and sported spiffy case windows and a blue LED on the CPU cooler, giving it a sharp look.
As we just mentioned, the ICE Cube VL67 is based on Intel’s 865G chipset. This is Intel’s dual-channel chipset for the mainstream market with support for the latest DDR memories. The key differentiating factor between it and Intel’s 875P “Canterwood” chipset is Intel’s Performance Acceleration Technology, otherwise known as PAT. PAT improves performance by accelerating the timings within the North Bridge of the chipset, in some applications by as much as 5-8%.
If you’re familiar with the ICE Cube VG61, the VL67 should look familiar to you, as the chassis design is practically identical. To keep the weight of the system down, the frame is constructed of aluminum. FIC tops the case off with an integrated handle, making the VL67 the perfect choice for the LAN party gamer: just grab the handle and go! When you combine this with the lightweight aluminum chassis, transporting the ICE Cube is painless. The VL67 and VG61 are the only small form-factor systems we’re aware of with this feature.
The sides of the case are removable via thumbscrews, so you can get into the system without tools. In fact, case windows on both sides of the chassis are present, so you can see into the systems innards. For an added level of decorative flair, the fan on the North Bridge of the chipset is equipped with a blue LED, as is the CPU fan. This gives the inside of the system a light blue glow at all times, which is sure to attract even more attention (especially if you put the VL67 on your desk).
One drawback of the VL67’s chassis however is its dated look. The front panel is composed of the same clear plastic as the ICE Cube VG61 and Shuttle’s first generation XPC designs. As a result, when you line the VL67 next to a newer small form-factor system like the SB61G2 (which features a brushed aluminum front panel), the VL67 looks like a toy. Biostar and ABIT’s small form factor systems also have doors covering the 5.25” and 3.5” drives; unfortunately the VL67 doesn’t have this.
Of course, keep in mind that this is highly subjective, what looks good to one person may look terrible to another. The translucent plastic front panel of the ICE Cube VL67 is definitely more durable; anyone who has owned an aluminum case knows that they’re more prone to knicks and scratches, something that’s easy to do during a large LAN party.
SIDEBAR: If the VG61 and VL67 are too big for you, FIC also manufactures mini-barebones systems that are even smaller: the ICE Brick.
Inputs and outputs
The front panel of the case sports a blue power LED, as well as shiny power and reset buttons, which are located on opposite ends of the chassis. Just below them are outputs for your speakers as well as a line output, while microphone and digital inputs are provided as well. To the right of them are two USB 2.0 ports and a FireWire port, while FIC finishes the system off with a grille at the bottom of the chassis for additional cooling (a second grille is located on the bottom of the chassis, on the front edge of the case).
Located on the back of the VL67 are two more USB ports, bringing the grand total of ports provided on the VL67 to four. Since the 865G chipset natively supports up to eight USB ports, we would have liked to see FIC support at least six ports (like the Shuttle SB61G2) as USB devices are being used in more applications (and thus, becoming more popular) everyday. We actually see a nice empty space right above the two FireWire ports located on the back of the chassis that would work perfectly. A digital output is also present as are your standard connections for audio and networking, as well as PS/2 ports for your keyboard and mouse, and finally, a VGA output and serial port is provided for legacy use.
Power and cooling
Just above the rear panel connections is a grille that is tied to the VL67’s auxiliary cooler. Fortunately the cooler itself is very quiet, as is the cooling unit used for the 220-watt power supply (which is located above it). We’ve heard complaints from ICE Cube VG61 users that the auxiliary fan can get pretty loud when it cranks up to full tilt, but to be honest, in all our testing with the VG61 and now the VL67, we’ve never experienced this, even when the system is equipped with components such as a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 and GeForce FX 5900 Ultra video card. In fact, we’ve found that FIC’s ICE Cubes operate quieter than Shuttle’s small form factor setups when both systems are operating under heavy load.
At 220 watts, the ICE Cube VL67 PSU is more powerful than Shuttle’s and also boasts more power on the 12V rail, 12A versus 10A on the Shuttle. As we saw in Alan’s power supply guide, this is an important distinction; especially as the processor’s clock speed increases. One aspect of the VL67’s power subsystem that we didn’t like however was the fact that it only shipped with two Molex power connectors! With the CD-ROM and hard drive both consuming one connector each, this leaves no connections for anything else. Fortunately GeForce FX and RADEON 9800 cards ship with Molex power adapters, but we still feel that FIC should either include another power connection or include an external adapter with the VL67.
Other than this omission, the rest of the ICE Cube VL67’s packaging is excellent. FIC includes two short rounded IDE and floppy cables, Serial ATA data and power cables (one each), and an optical cable. A small Ziploc bag is also included with extra screws and zip ties for tying pesky cables together.
SIDEBAR: Like the VG61, the VL67 is a result of FIC’s partnership with Chyang Fun.
One of the chief concerns of a small form-factor system like the ICE Cube VL67 is the motherboard layout. Component placement is critical on these boards, as space is at a premium. If a connector is located in an awkward location that is hard to reach, working within the system can become a nightmare.
Fortunately, we really can’t find any gotchas with the VL67. The floppy and IDE connectors are located towards the back of the motherboard, just above the ATX power connection. This puts them close enough to hard drives and floppy drives that connecting the components isn’t a huge hassle. In addition, since round IDE and floppy cables are provided with the chassis, airflow within the case isn’t constrained too severely. The Serial ATA data connector is located opposite of the IDE connectors, on the other side of the chipset’s South Bridge. One Serial ATA connection is built on the motherboard; in comparison, Shuttle’s SB61G2 XPC features two.
We were initially concerned that the three capacitors located between the AGP slot and the edge of the motherboard would prevent us from installing GeForce FX 5900 cards, but we found that this wasn’t an issue with ASUS’ V9950 Ultra, which is a GeForce FX 5900 Ultra card that doesn’t require two slots.
Another potential issue that initially concerned us was the location of the CPU fan header. Rather than place the header near the CPU interface, it’s located on the other side of the DIMM sockets, right along the edge of the motherboard. Once it was time to assemble the system however, we found that this location wasn’t difficult to get to, even with two memory modules in place.
Realtek’s venerable ALC650 is used for audio duties. This is an extremely popular CODEC that is used on a wide range of motherboards, including nForce2 designs. The VC67’s audio sounds good, but audiophiles will want to upgrade to something more robust (assuming you have the right set of speakers). Meanwhile, the Realtek RTL8100B 10/100 Ethernet controller is responsible for the VL67’s networking functionality. Since the 865G chipset doesn’t offer native FireWire support, a controller from Texas Instruments is built-in. And if you’re concerned about any of these component choices, don’t be. These are the exact same chips you’d find on a full-size ATX motherboard from FIC or any other motherboard manufacturer for that matter.
After the drive cage has been removed, installing the processor and cooler is easy. FIC doesn’t have any exotic form of processor cooling, it’s just a standard heatsink/fan unit, so if you’re familiar with CPU installation it’s nothing new: just seat the processor in the Socket 478 interface and drop the heatsink/fan unit in. The heatsink included with the VL67 is very similar to Intel’s reference heatsink design, copper slug included. The fan however is considerably slimmer, just as quiet, and sports a blue LED. Personally, we’d rather go with Intel’s reference cooler, as the larger fan is more reassuring, but unfortunately it’s just too tall to fit comfortably. The ICE Cube VL67 cooler is definitely an improvement over its predecessor however.
Once you’ve got the processor and cooling installed, you’ll want to install your system memory. After that, it’s just a matter of populating the drive cage with any 3.5” or 5.25” drives you desire (you’ll have space for one external 5.25” and 3.5” drive as well as one internal 3.5” drive) and fastening it back to the VL67’s chassis. Once that’s done, connect your data and power connections to the drives, and you’re all set! Putting everything together shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes and should be an easy process for even inexperienced computer builders. The only issue you’ll want to look out for are the edges within the case as well as the ICE Cube’s flip-up top. The edges on the top aren’t rounded so you can hurt yourself, but probably not enough to draw blood.
The ICE Cube VL67’s BIOS is nothing extraordinary. You’ve got your standard settings for monitoring temperatures and fan settings, as well as shutdown and alarm temperature thresholds, disabling integrated components and setting boot sequences, as well as memory timings.
The most notable omission for enthusiasts is that there are no settings available for overclocking. No bus speeds, no CPU multiplier settings, and no CPU/AGP/DIMM voltage settings. This will likely disappoint those of you who had plans for overclocking your VL67.
SIDEBAR: FIC is the only manufacturer we’re aware of with both ATI and NVIDIA motherboards.
NASCAR Racing 2003 Season (Bristol custom demo)
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB
Quake III - OpenGL
Unreal Tournament 2003 – Direct3D
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
865G chipset: Intel’s 865G chipset packs all the punch of 865PE, but also includes Intel’s “Extreme” graphics solution, giving the ICE Cube VL67 all the performance of a desktop Springdale board in a considerably smaller package. FIC does not include a BIOS setting for PAT-like performance, but we found that the VL67 runs neck-and-neck with Shuttle’s highly regarded SB61G2.
4 USB ports: While the 865G chipset supports more USB ports than its predecessor, FIC ships the ICE Cube VL67 with the same number of USB ports as its precursor, the VG61. It would have been great to see FIC integrate four USB ports on the front and back of the VL67, and thus matching the spec Intel lay out for Springdale.
The VL67 builds largely on the VG61’s success. FIC has stuck with the same chassis and power supply unit. In fact, other than the new chipset and motherboard, (which is now equipped with a blue LED on the 865 North Bridge) the VL67 is basically a VG61 reprise. We wouldn’t be surprised if some of you confused the looks of the VL67 with the VG61, both setups are practically identical externally.
This is both good and bad. On one hand, the VL67’s light weight and integrated handle make it ultra-portable. This is important for gamers who find themselves at LAN parties on a frequent basis, especially at larger events like QuakeCon. After all it isn’t fun lugging a huge PC from your car, and then up a crowded elevator or escalator. The chassis design of most small form-factor systems doesn’t account for this, forcing gamers to improvise or purchase an accessory bag. The VL67 doesn’t have this problem thanks to its convenient handle.
On the decorative side, the VL67 has case windows for peering inside your system. When combined with the blue LEDs for the chipset and CPU cooler, the VL67 is sure to stand out when it’s up and running.
The new heatsink/fan unit FIC has implemented for the VL67 is definitely more robust than its predecessor, but still seems underpowered for use with the fastest Intel processors. Our 3.2GHz FIC setup wasn’t as stable as the Shuttle system similarly configured, we suspect that insufficient cooling was the culprit. FIC’s heatsink looks up to the task, but the fan does not. Remember, these small form-factor systems have little room to work with when it comes to airflow; combating heat is a difficult task for traditional air-cooling in this environment. This is why companies like Shuttle and Biostar rely on heat pipe technology for their CPU coolers.
In addition, the VL67 is based on a chassis that was initially released six months ago, and conceived sometime last year. Quite frankly, it shows. When you line the VL67 next to one of the newer small form-factor designs from Shuttle or Biostar it looks awkwardly out of place.
Overall the VL67 is a nice follow-up to the VG61 but it isn’t the showstopper we were hoping for. FIC has essentially transplanted an 865G motherboard (with the same basic board layout) into the VG61 chassis and given it a new name. Despite this, the FIC ICE Cube VL67 is still an intriguing product for gamers and hardware enthusiasts looking for a powerful system with a small footprint (especially if it’s priced aggressively). We would like to see FIC come up with something a little bolder for their next small form-factor system however.
SIDEBAR: Does FIC have another hit on its hands with the ICE Cube VL67, or does its design look too dated to compete with today’s latest SFF PCs? Voice your opinion on the matter in the FS news comments!
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