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The PC market has changed greatly for the last couple of years. A lot of users, who need PCs for Internet surfing or as a home entertainment center started regarding them as regular appliances. As a result, the structure of the computer components demand changed drastically. And it was no good for many people, including the component manufacturers.

Since the number of computer enthusiasts is growing down very fast, the mainboard manufacturers started facing the reduction of demand for their High-End solutions. On the other hand, the increase in the level of chipset integration led to the incredible similarity of the mainboards from many manufacturers from the functional point of view. In this case it was really hard for the High-End mainboard makers to make their products stand out among a great lot of analogous solutions. So, those mainboard makers who cannot boast large OEM customers felt very unsteady, because they could hardly rely only on the Value solutions production.

One of the possible ways-out for the mainboard manufacturers in case of the coming crisis appeared business diversification and introduction of completely new products. As we can see, many of the former mainboard companies started making graphics accelerators as well. Some of them entered the server market. Another ones began offering notebooks or PDAs. And some manufacturers turned to production and active promotion of the so-called Small Form-Factor (SFF) PCs. This will be the point of our today's discussion.

SFF PCs are small computers intended for home and office use. All of them have one general feature, which, actually, follows from the name: small size. Besides that SFF computers can certainly boast a number of other advantages, such as low noise level, for instance. But this is most likely to be the consequence and not the reason. Moreover, the manufacturers do their best to design their SFF PCs in such a way, that the unsophisticated users could see no appealing difference between a computer and any other home appliance.

The SFF PCs are supplies as barebone systems, something like "skeletons" for building end systems. And this is actually quite logical. If the mainboard makers are powerful enough to establish the production of PC cases and mainboards for systems like that, then the manufacturing of hard disk drives or CPUs is a too hard task for them to fulfill. That is why the classical barebone SFF PC includes: a PC case with a power supply unit, a mainboard with an integrated graphics core or an add-on graphics card. However, the "package" of different barebone systems may also vary.

Today we are going to take a closer look at the first barebone Small Form-Factor PC from FIC Company. Of course, we couldn't help testing it. Especially since we liked it a great lot for the small size and absolutely "grown-up" features.

Closer Look: PC Case

Well, after about a month of bloody struggle with the Russian customs office, we managed to finally get the SFF PC from FIC aka Samba (SM)-1845.

According to the official specification this barebone is designed for home or office system based on Socket478 Intel Celeron or Intel Pentium 4 processor with 400MHz system bus. The mainboard used in Samba-1845 is based on i845 with PC133 SDRAM support, features an AGP 4x slot allowing slim form-factor graphics cards.

In order for you to get a better idea of hoe small SFF PC is, I took a picture of our Samba-1845 together with a traditional mini-tower case from Inwin:

Note that Samba(SM)-1845 can be set both: vertically as well as horizontally.

The detailed specification of the barebone Samba-1845 system looks as follows:

  • Socket478 Intel Pentium 4 and Intel Celeron processors with 400MHz system bus;
  • Intel 845 chipset with ICH2 South Bridge;
  • 2 DIMM slots supporting up to 1GB PC133 SDRAM;
  • AGP 4x slot and 2 PCI slots;
  • AC'97 CS4299 audio codec supporting SPDIF;
  • One 3.5" internal bay for an ATA/100 HDD, one 3.5" external bay for a standard 1.44MB floppy drive, one 5.25" external bay for an external ATA/100 optical drive;
  • Integrated 10/100Mbit Ethernet Intel 82562 controller;
  • 150W power supply unit from Delta;
  • 4 USB 1.1 ports (2 on the front panel and 2 on the rear panel);
  • Two IEEE1394 ports (4-pin and 6-pin);
  • Two PCMCIA Type II slots;
  • Dimensions: 310mm x 360mm x 93mm (width x length x height).

Also the Samba(SM)-1845 package includes 3.5" 1.44MB floppy drive, and a slim graphics card from FIC based on NVIDIA GeForce2 MX200.

On the front panel of Samba-1845 there are bays for the floppy and CD-ROM drives (the CD-ROM drive is closed with a small cover); two PCMCIA Type II slots, which can be used to connect additional devices usually used with notebooks to your system; a power button and a few connectors closed with a plastic lid. If you slide the plastic lid sideward, you will discover 2 USB 1.1 ports, 6-pin and 4-pin Firewire ports and a microphone-In. These are the "face" features of Samba-1845.

Now turn the system by 180 degrees. There you will see a PSU connector, one serial and one parallel port, network RJ45 port, another 2 USB 1.1 ports. PS/2 mouse and keyboard connectors, audio-In and audio-Out and an optical SPDIF Out. Besides, there is also a D-Sub video-Out on the graphics card shipped together with the Samba(SM)-1845 system. As you can see from the rare panel layout, Samba allows installing two additional expansion cards as well.

When we remove the case cover, we see that to make the barebone Samba(SM)-1845 a fully-fledged SFF PC we need to install a CD-ROM drive, a hard disk drive, a CPU and memory. Besides that you can also install two additional expansion PCI cards, such as a modem and USB 2.0 controller, for instance, but even after that there will still be more opportunities for further expansion. Two PCMCIA Type II ports supported by Samba(SM)-1845 allow connectiong almost any external devices to your system.

Closer Look: Mainboard

Unlike other barebone manufacturers, FIC uses a special mainboard for its Samba(SM)-1845 and not just an integrated mainboard, which can be purchased separately. However, this is very easy to explain. Samba(SM)-1845 mainboard boasts some unique features, which we will touch upon later in this review.

The mainboard bearing the same name as SFF PC is based on i845 chipset and supports 2 DIMM slots for PC133 SDRAM. Unfortunately, this is one of the key drawbacks of Samba(SM)-1845, as you will never be able to use any other memory type and hence the performance of a system based on Samba(SM)-1845 will be severely limited exactly by this memory type. In fact this decision of Samba engineers seems even more strange to us since PC133 SDRAM and DDR SDRAM memory modules cost about the same today. That is why the only excuse for Samba engineers is the fact that i845 with PC133 SDRAM support costs slightly less than its DDR brother.

Since they selected i845 chipset as the basis for their Samba(SM)-1845, the system doesn't officially support Socket478 processors with 533MHz bus. Therefore, suppose we have to stick to the instructions listed in the user's guide, we will have to use either Intel Celeron or Intel Pentium 4 with 400MHz bus. However, as our experiments showed Samba(SM)-1845 works absolutely OK with more up-to-date Pentium 4 processors with 533MHz bus, too.

Among the advantages of this solution we have to point out that luckily the board supports external AGP graphics cards, which implies that in the future you will be able to upgrade not only the system CPU but also the graphics.

The external slots of Samba(SM)-1845 are located on the additional riser-card. This way FIC engineers managed to significantly reduce the height of their SFF system. The riser card designed for Samba(SM)-1845 features 2 PCI and 1 AGP 4x slot.

Since they used an i845 chipset, the mainboard of Samba(SM)-1845 features an older ICH2 South Bridge. In fact, it is not a big deal, as its only noticeable drawback is the absence of the USB 2.0 support, which can be easily cured by an add-on controller card installed into one of the available two PCI slots.

Besides that, the mainboard supports a number of integrated solutions implemented in the mainboard chipset, such as AC'97 sound (CS4299 codec) and USB, and via external onboard chips, such as two IEEE1394 firewire ports.

We would also like to mention PCMCIA controller, which provided Samba(SM)-1845 with a really brilliant expansion opportunity via PCMCIA Type II cards.

I would also like to tress that Samba(SM)-1845 mainboard features only one IDE channel. But I wouldn't regard it as a serious drawback, since Samba(SM)-1845 system has never been intended for more than two IDE devices.

As for the mainboard BIOS, it features a regular Phoenix/Award v6.00PG with the minimal number of settings. Bearing in mind that the mentioned system is positioned as a solution for home and office PCs, easy configuration is its indisputable trump.

The graphics card, which goes together with Samba(SM)-1845 is none other but a common NVIDIA GeForce2 MX200 with 32MB SDR graphics memory. The cards is also made by FIC Company.

This accelerator provides Value graphics system, which can be very easily upgraded: all you need is just to replace the default card with a faster one. By the way, Samba(SM)-1845 allows installing not only slim graphics cards, as the user's guide requires. Some smaller (regular) graphics cards also can fit there.

Closer Look: Power Supply Unit

I would like to say a few words about the power supply unit used in Samba(SM)-1845.

For its barebone FIC used a small form-factor PSU from the Chinese Delta Electronics Company. Despite its relatively low capacity of only 150W, this PSU is compliant with ATX 2.01 specification and features an additional 12V cable for use with Pentium 4 mainboards. However, bearing in mind that Samba(SM)-1845 allows using only one HDD and one optical drive and wouldn't support graphics cards with high power consumption (as only smaller graphics cards can fit inside) 150W should be more than enough even if you build a system with really fast processors working at up to 2.6GHz core clock frequencies.

Also the PSU features three extra power cables, which is just enough for a HDD, CD-ROM and floppy drive of Samba(SM)-1845 system.

The power supply unit we have just talked about is cooled down by a small fan, which is most likely to serve only for PSU cooling purposes. It is definitely far too small and weak to be able to blow the air stream throughout the entire case (and it might be really useful, since Samba(SM)-1845 supports Pentium 4 CPUs).

Closer Look: Cooling System

Since the mere idea of SFF PC implies that it is a computer of small size, it cannot have any traditional cooling solutions. Moreover, the manufacturers tend to make their SFF systems as quiet as possible that is why they try to use very few fans. As I have already told you above, the fan used in the power supply unit is intended only for cooling of the PSU. That is why a very widely spread solution for SFF PCs is a cooler, which reduces the CPU temperature and at the same time provides sufficient air circulation inside the case letting the warm air out and the cold air in.

FIC engineers decided on a very simple solution for their Samba(SM)-1845, which is at the same time highly original. The CPU gets covered with an aluminum heatsink from AVC, which is fastened to the mainboard PCB with 4 spring screws. And above this heatsink there is a bog fan blowing the air outside the case through special holes in the case cover.

   

This provides not only efficient CPU cooling, but also reduces the temperature of other system components as the fan is powerful enough to blow the air stream not only through the processor heatsink but even through the whole system.

As for the noise produced, Samba(SM)-1845 features only one big and one small fan, which are not really noisy. According to FIC's official data, Samba(SM)-1845 noise level doesn't exceed 30dB. By the way, the big fan located above the CPU rotates at low speed, i.e. at around 2,500rpm.

Assembly

Now that we have already described the barebone in detail it's high time we started making it a fully-fledged system. Before you begin the actual assembly, you will have to open the case. All you need is a cross-shaped screwdriver, as the case cover of Samba(SM)-1845 is screwed on in three places. With the cover removed the system looks as follows:

After the bracket with the fan has been removed, the user can access all basic parts of the system easily. Although you will have to remove the rack from above the PSU to install a HDD, we don't think it is a big problem, because you will only have to unscrew it in two places and that's it. Another advantage is the easy HDD installation, as it is stabilized inside the rack with 4 rubber pads, which also contribute to noise reduction.

The only question you may ask when assembling the Samba(SM)-1845 system could arise after you have already installed a HDD, a CD-ROM drive, a CPU, a heatsink, memory and expansion cards, if necessary. Namely you may be confused with the way you will have to connect the mainboard, hard disk drive and optical drive with a single 80-pin cable, especially since the HDD and CD-ROM connectors are located pretty far from one another and face different directions. Luckily FIC took care of it and included a specially shaped IDE-cable, which makes the whole connection procedure as easy as ABC.

As a result, we get the following system:

After fitting the fan inside the case you may get the impression that the system is stuffed really tightly. But this it a Small Form-Factor PC, have you forgotten about it?

I would like to mention one thing we discovered during assembly. It appeared that the DIMM modules marking on the PCB was wrong and if the set was assembled as the marking required the whole thing wouldn't start. However, we found out what the problem was very quickly and as soon as we reinstalled the memory modules accordingly, everything went on wheels.

So, the system is ready to go. And what about you?

Performance

Before passing over to the benchmark results, I would like to tell you about one unexpected incident, which took place on preparation for tests. It turned out that despite the official specification, and the fact that i845 doesn't officially support 533MHz bus, our system started successfully with Intel Pentium 4 2.4B intended for this particular bus. Moreover, the system did really work with 533MHz Quad Pumped Bus. Therefore, we decided to run all tests with this particular Pentium 4 2.4B processor, since Samba(SM)-1845 combined with a powerful CPU like that struck us as something really outstanding.

As a result, we had the following testbed:

  • SFF PC Samba(SM)-1845;
  • Intel Pentium 4 2.4B CPU (533MHz QP Bus);
  • 256MB PC133 SDRAM;
  • Fujitsu HDD;
  • ASUS 32x CD-ROM drive.

The system proved very stable throughout the tests, so that we didn't have not a single complaint about it. The capacity of the 150W PSU was enough for the described above system even when it worked under really heavy load.

So, these are the results obtained:

BenchmarkResults
SYSmark 2002 211
SYSmark 2002, Internet Content Creation 291
SYSmark 2002, Office Productivity 153
3DMark2001 SE, Default 1545
Quake3 Arena (four), Fastest, 640x480x16 169.8
Quake3 Arena (four), High Quality, 800x600x32 50.6
PCMark2002, CPU score 5797
PCMark2002, Memory score 4090

In fact, the results obtained do not surprise us. Samba(SM)-1845 owes its low performance in 3D graphics tests to the weak NVIDIA GeForce2 MX200 based graphics card equipped with 32MB of SDR SDRAM. The working frequencies of this graphics solution were 175MHz for the chip and 167MHz for the memory, so we wouldn't call Samba(SM)-1845 a gaming solution, you know.

As for the results of the processor tests and office SYSmark2oo2 test, we have to admit that they are somewhat lower than those obtained in regular systems with the same processor. The 10-15% lower performance in these benchmarks is a result of slower PC133 SDRAM.

However, trying to eliminate this drawback, FIC is going to start shipping a new version of its SFF Samba PC aka Samba(SM)-1845GL. This barebone will be based on i845GL chipset and will support DDR266 memory. Although this time the chipset will not allow using external AGP graphics cards and will offer only the integrated Intel Extreme Graphics core. However, it will still be possible to upgrade the graphics subsystem with an add-on PCI graphics card, since there will be 3 PCI slots onboard in the new Samba(SM)-1845GL. Also the new SFF PC from FIC will support USB 2.0 implemented in the new ICH4 South Bridge.

Returning to the results of our benchmarks we have to give credit to the highly efficient cooling solution used in Samba(SM)-1845. During all stress-tests the CPU temperature didn't exceed 67oC, and the temperature inside the case has never risen over 37oC.

Conclusion

Small Form-Factor Samba(SM)-1845 PC represents a very good basis for a home or office computer if you are not going to play any 3D games on it. Besides that, the features of Samba(SM)-1845 are just enough to satisfy the user needs in all cases where no high computing power is required. Moreover, Samba(SM)-1845 offers very pleasant exterior design and produces very little noise.

Highs:

  • Stylish look and small size;
  • Low noise;
  • Two additional PCI slots and AGP graphics cards support;
  • PCMCIA Type II support;
  • USB, IEEE1394, Ethernet and AC'97 sound;
  • Easy assembly.

Lows:

  • PC133 SDRAM only;
  • Allows only low-profile (slim) graphics cards;
  • No USB 2.0 support.
 
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