Summary: Looking for a high-end small form factor PC for your brand new Athlon 64 3800+? Shuttle's SN95G5 might be for you! This XPC sports Shuttle's latest G5 chassis design and features NVIDIA's nForce3 Ultra chipset with support for the latest AMD Athlon 64 processors. Take a look at what improvements Shuttle has made as we explore how this XPC performed with NVIDIA's GeForce 6800 GT inside!
This little black box is based on NVIDIA’s nForce3 Ultra chipset and packs enough performance to keep a smile on the face of the most demanding gamer, but more on that later. We’ll first go over the SN95G5’s key features and take a look at some of its critical components before it goes on the test bench for benchmarking.
The first aspect you’ll notice is Shuttle’s new G5 chassis. Unlike a lot of small form factor (SFF) manufacturers, up until now Shuttle has resisted using drive bay doors. This gave their previous SFF designs an ungainly look when they were paired with beige floppy or CD/DVD-ROM drives.
For G5, Shuttle has integrated three stealth drive bay doors. One for the I/O ports on the bottom of the chassis, one of the 3.5” drive bay, and a third for the 5.25” drive bay. This gives the new G5 chassis a clean look.
Shuttle has also redesigned the I/O ports for better functionality. The USB ports are spaced further apart from each other. As an example, this change allows a user with an oversized thumb drive or USB dongle like Metapass to connect this and a second USB device at the same time. Shuttle has also moved the line-in jack to the SN95G5’s back panel.
Another change Shuttle has implemented with their new G5 chassis is the removal of the integrated card reader. First introduced with their G4 chassis, the card reader sat in the 3.5” drive bay and support six different media formats, including SmartMedia, CompactFlash and Memory Stick. This feature was pretty convenient for digital photography buffs as you had front panel access built right into your SFF PC. Sure, you lost the use of a 3.5” floppy drive, but with only 1.44MB of storage and outdated performance, most have ditched the floppy disk drive anyway.
But many gamers and hardware enthusiasts complained both in public (on web forums) and privately in emails to Shuttle. Many of these guys used the external 3.5” drive bay for adding a second hard drive. Because of this, Shuttle decided to ditch the media card reader on G5. If you want the media card reader, it can still be found in Shuttle’s “P” series SFFs (an nForce3 P-series variant hasn’t been announced), but everyone else misses out. (In case you’re interested, Shuttle also offers it as an optional accessory on their website for $24.)
Shifting to the back of the SN95G5, you’ll find two USB ports (two are provided on the front of the system) one Firewire port (a second mini-1394 port is included on the front) an Ethernet port, serial port, PS/2 ports, Line-in, SPDIF and audio ports. To the right of them you’ll see a small hole, inside sits a button that is used for clearing the SN95G5’s BIOS when pressed.
Inside the SN95G5, you’ll find NVIDIA’s nForce3 Ultra chipset. If you recall, nForce3 Ultra supports Gigabit Ethernet natively. For SN95G5 however, Shuttle has elected not to use the nForce3 Ultra’s built-in capabilities, instead relying solely on Marvell’s 88AE8001 GigE transceiver. As a result, you lose out on NVIDIA’s dedicated 2Gbps bi-directional link, relying instead on the PCI bus, which is capped at 133MB/sec. This is a significant downgrade in performance.
Besides the drop in performance, this means that you’ll also lose out on NVIDIA’s integrated Firewall software. With Internet security being a hot topic right now, this is definitely a double whammy of missed opportunities for Shuttle.
Realtek’s ALC655 audio CODEC handles audio duties. ALC655 is the successor to the popular ALC650, which was used on practically every nForce2 motherboard that we can recall. It’s a six-channel CODEC that supports HRTF 3D positional audio as well as jack-sensing technology for hooking everything up properly. Audio quality of the CODEC is good, but certainly not up to the levels of the newer Envy24 or Creative Audigy cards. It is adequate enough however for casually watching movies, listening to MP3s, or gaming, provided you’re willing to give up a few CPU cycles for this.
Supplying the SN95G5 with juice is a 240-watt power supply unit. Shuttle claims the SilentX PSU generates just 32 decibels of noise. A medium-sized fan that sits above the CPU, just behind the optical and hard drives cools the fan.
The PSU supplies 16 amps on the 12V rail, which is a pretty healthy amount for a 240W PSU. In comparison, our 480 watt Antec True480 PSU provides 22 amps on the 12V rail. We setup our SN95G5 system with an Athlon 64 3800+, 1GB of OCZ DDR400 SDRAM, a 16X DVD-ROM drive, 250GB Maxtor hard drive, and, most surprisingly, a GeForce 6800 GT graphics cards. The entire system ran with no problems.
Speaking of cable management, Shuttle has gone out of their way to improve in this regard with SN95G5. A long, round IDE cable is pre-installed on the SN95G5’s inner chassis. It’s neatly bundled along the inner rail of the SN95G5, eventually resting right behind the optical drive along with two Molex connectors. Shuttle also carefully ties up an additional Molex connector along with Serial ATA power and floppy drive cables for powering those devices.
Lying at the heart of the SN95G5 is Shuttle’s FN95 motherboard. The board supports the latest AMD processors and is thoughtfully laid out. For instance, Shuttle places the jumper to clear CMOS near the right edge of the board for easy access. The IDE connectors are located nearby, and, as we just mentioned, the secondary IDE cable is already pre-installed to run along the inner edge of the case, out of the way of critical system components to improve airflow.
Shuttle also continues to provide a plastic holder for the IDE/floppy cables, which rests underneath the drive cage. This can be used as an alternative solution for arranging these cables if you wish. We would like to see Shuttle provide round IDE and floppy cables though. Included in the packaging are a conventional IDE and floppy cable, the pre-installed round IDE cable, an additional Molex power adapter, cable ties, thermal paste, Serial ATA data and power cables, and additional feet for the SN95G5’s chassis.
Shuttle places the AGP slot on the outer edge of the motherboard, so double-slot graphics cards like the GeForce 6800 Ultra or GeForce FX 5900 Ultra won’t fit with the case cover in place. There’s plenty of room for long cards like GeForce 6800 GT though.
Shuttle places the floppy connector and two DIMM sockets on the opposite side of the board. This hinders airflow if you use the floppy connector, but is understandable considering the motherboard’s diminutive size. Fortunately, dropping RAM in the SN95G5 is a snap.
Taking a look at the nForce3 Ultra itself, you’ll notice that Shuttle, like most motherboard manufacturers, integrates an active cooling on the nForce3 Ultra chip. Shuttle uses a large heatsink and ingeniously places the fan on the side of the heatsink rather than directly above it. This allows the fan to cool not only the chipset, but also the MOSFETs and capacitors behind it.
For keeping the Athlon 64 CPU cool, Shuttle continues to rely on their ICE (Integrated Cooling Engine) cooling system for the SN95G5. Shuttle has revamped the cooler’s design to make it more effective.
If you recall, Shuttle’s ICE technology is heat pipe based. The heat pipes themselves are composed of copper and are filled with distilled water. As the CPU heats up, the liquid in the heat pipe begins to boil, forcing hot vapor to the other end of the heat pipe where it is cooled. From there the vapor condenses back to the liquid phase and returns to the other end of the heat pipe. This cycle is continually in motion, working to keep the processor cool.
Shuttle uses a larger heatsink for increased surface area, improving the cooler’s effectiveness. The copper heat pipes themselves are nickel-plated.
On the other end of ICE tech is Shuttle’s 92mm Smart Fan. This means that the fan operates dynamically – if the CPU begins to get too toasty, the SN95G5’s fan kicks up the RPMs for better cooling. Once the processor’s temperature settles down, the fan will then revert back to its lower level. This can all be preset in the SN95G5’s BIOS based on temperature thresholds you desire. The fan can move up to 50 cubic feet per minute of air if necessary, but fortunately for our ears, we never hit that setting during gaming sessions or while we were running benchmarks for this article.
Setting up the SN95G5 was a breeze. If you’re familiar with previous Shuttle small form factor systems, you’ll be right at home with the SN95G5 as the concept hasn’t changed one bit. Simply remove the drive cage and ICE cooling systems, which are already housed inside the chassis. The ICE cooling module is removed by pressing down on two latches, which reside on the retention mechanism. No tools are required. Once the retention mechanism is removed you’ll need to unfasten four thumbscrews, which hold the Smart Fan in place. After this is done you can then pull the entire apparatus out of the SN95G5’s chassis, drop in the processor, and then reverse the entire process.
For overclockers and enthusiasts, Shuttle goes out of their way to deliver a solid BIOS for the SN95G5. Bus speed options range from 200MHz-280MHz in 1MHz increments, while CPU voltages of up to 1.7V are available in increments of 0.025V. Like other nForce3 motherboards, you can lock the AGP frequency to run at the speed you specify. Clock speeds ranging from 66MHz to 100MHz are available in the SN95G5’s BIOS. Memory voltages top out at 2.9V, while 1.8V is the maximum AGP voltage available. Shuttle also includes voltage settings of 1.7V, 1.8V, and 1.9V for the nForce3 Ultra chipset.
Lock On: Modern Air Combat (Mig-29 custom demo)
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB - OpenGL
Lock On: Modern Air Combat – Direct3D
Unreal Tournament 2004
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
Tomb Raider – Direct3D
Halo – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
DOOM 3 – OpenGL
Performance: Thanks to the superb performance of its FN95 motherboard, Shuttle’s SN95G5 is capable of running just as, if not faster than a fully-fledged desktop ATX system. This probably comes as no surprise to those of you who are familiar with Shuttle’s XPCs, their motherboards have always been top-notch performers. nForce3 Ultra motherboards tend to perform similarly to each other as well, in part due to the Athlon 64’s integrated memory controller.
Networking: With nForce3 Ultra providing native Gigabit Ethernet and Firewall software, we just don’t understand why Shuttle decided to forego this in favor of a PCI-based Marvell Gigabit Ethernet transceiver. Why go through the hassle of providing GigE if it’s going to be saddled by the PCI bus, especially when a native solution with additional features is available?