by Ilya Gavrichenkov
12/03/2003 | 06:27 AM
Computer mini-systems have become very popular during the last year. You can see it by the sheer quantity of such computers available in shops as well as in the product lists of various manufacturers who offer you barebone or Small Form-Factor PCs. The pioneer in the field, Shuttle, is now probably mostly known for its mini-systems rather than mainboards, although mainboards were the company’s main products just a year or two ago.
The arrival of mini-systems was provoked by the changes in the structure of the PC market. Computers today serve not only enthusiasts or gamers. A majority of PCs is used as office or home computers for processing text documents and spreadsheets, listening to music, watching video, and surfing the Internet. Oftentimes, small and stylish-looking systems with enough opportunities for peripherals connection are preferable to full-size “towers” stuffed with powerful and expensive components.
That’s why we, at X-bit labs, have to pay more attention to mini-systems and review them more often. You are now reading one of these reviews devoted to another representative of the Small Form-Factor PC class, AOpen XCcube EX65.
The “cube” form-factor introduced by the founder of the genre, Shuttle, proved to be highly successful. Most barebone systems come today in this form-factor, which has become a de facto standard. The AOpen XCcube EZ65 is another variation on the topic, so I can’t avoid drawing parallels with Shuttle’s products. It doesn’t mean, however, that every “cube” in the market is an analogous to the SFF PC from Shuttle. Every company tries to bring something new and exclusive into the design of their mini-systems. The barebone from AOpen also offers a couple of interesting innovations that might be quite useful after some improvements. Let’s not guess though, but examine the features of the AOpen XCcube EZ65 one by one.
Barebone systems usually have the CPU cooling system, mainboard and PSU pre-assembled in the system case. That’s how the AOpen XCcube EZ65 is organized. This system is designed for Socket478 processors of the Pentium 4 and Celeron families, including the newest models. The mainboard features Intel 865 chipset. Thanks to this fact, the AOpen XCcube EZ65 supports such technologies as the 800MHz FSB, dual-channel DDR SDRAM and Hyper-Threading. This is evidently an appeal to the most demanding user.
The formal specifications of the AOpen XCcube EZ65 are listed below:
Thus, the AOpen XCcube EZ65 provides support for practically every modern protocol and interface for you to connect peripheral devices. The default color of the XCcube is white, but the manufacturer also ships other color versions to match the interior of your room: gray, blue, red and black. The device comes with a user’s manual, software bundle and cables (FDD, Parallel ATA, Serial ATA, and power). Moreover, you can find a copper CPU cooler inside the case. We will take a closer look at it shortly.
The color of the AOpen XCcube EZ65 seems to have been chosen on purpose. Barebone systems and “grown-up” PCs usually have silver or black cases with front panels of various colors. The XCcube has a case painted white and lacquered. In other words, it looks more like a refrigerator, microwave oven or washing machine. The manufacturer obviously wanted to emphasize that this device is closer to simple and plain household appliances rather than to sophisticated computers. The disadvantages of such painting were soon to show up. The colored coating of the case easily peels off from the aluminum surface. So, you should be careful when handling the AOpen XCcube EZ65 in order not to hurt its virginal whiteness.
The AOpen XCcube EZ65 resembles the systems from Shuttle in its dimensions, there’s only a difference of half a centimeter in depth and height. This similarity has led to a similar placement of the internal components.
The front panel of the AOpen XCcube EZ65 is made of white plastic. There are a massive Power on/off button and a HDD activity LED in the center. The power on/off button is highlighted with blue around the rim. AOpen made sure that the installed optical and hard drive or card-reader not to spoil the appearance of the front panel – the bays that are accessed from outside are covered with lids. These lids are not well fitted into the bays, though, and leave those not very nicely looking slits around the perimeter. There is also the indispensable Eject button next to the lid of the optical drive bay.
The front panel connectors are also seated in a separate bay, under a lid. The connectors include two FireWire (6-pin and 4-pin) and two USB 2.0 ports, microphone and headphones mini-jacks and an optical SPDIF output.
By using the lid-covered bays, AOpen made sure the color design of the XCcube’s front panel wouldn’t be spoiled by installation of optical or floppy drives of any color. That’s a big advantage of this barebone system. I only regret the lack of the Reset button. Yes, you rarely use it now, but it’s still necessary in some situations. Note also that the AOpen XCcube EZ65 comes without a floppy drive or card-reader we often find included with barebones from other manufactures.
Let’s now rotate the thing by 180 degrees to look straight at its back panel.
So, we have got the back panel of the PSU with a plug for the power cable, a switch between 110V / 230V input voltage, and an 80mm cooler. The connectors panel of the mainboard carries 3 audio mini-jacks, an RJ-45 network connector, two High-Speed USB ports, an optical SPDIF input and coaxial SPDIF output, a 6-pin FireWire connector, serial and parallel ports, two PS/2 ports for the mouse and keyboard and a D-Sub video output.
I consider this set of connectors satisfying for a modern computer system. You can even use the LPT (parallel) port, which many barebone manufacturers simply omit. This port serves not only to connect older printers; there is software that uses hardware HASP keys, which should be plugged exactly into the LPT port. Meanwhile, this set of connectors is deficient in some respects. First of all, it may be not enough for a modern computer system to have only four USB 2.0 ports. Although the connectors panel of the mainboard has some free space left, AOpen gave up the implementation of all six USB ports supported by the chipset. Secondly, I have been long waiting for a barebone with DVI and TV outputs. For some mysterious reason, the manufacturers very rarely equip their barebones with these connectors. The AOpen XCcube EZ65 lacks the two, too. Moreover, AOpen doesn’t even offer any daughter cards with DVI and TV-out ports that would certainly increase the functionality of this platform.
The mainboard is the basis of any small form-factor PC. The manufacturers have to develop special mainboards, since those of other form-factors do not have the necessary dimensions and functions. So, the mainboard our “cube” is based on has to combine small size with huge functionality similar to “grown-up” Full ATX mainboards. Designing a mainboard for a barebone system is a truly hard task for the developing team. Let’s see how well the AOpen engineers coped with this task.
The AOpen XCcube EZ65 PC uses an AOpen UX4SG-1394 mainboard:
You won’t find a description of this mainboard at the AOpen website, since it was developed especially for the XCcube. The board features the Intel 865G chipset, which mostly determines its functionality scope.
This mainboard supports Socket478 processors with 400/533/800MHz FSB, with and without Hyper-Threading. You should note that the CPU voltage regulator circuit is not adapted for older Willamette-based CPUs and you can only use processors on Northwood core in the AOpen XCcube EZ65. However, AOpen didn’t hesitate to announce processors with a frequency of up to 3.2GHz. I was all doubtful about a processor with such high heat dissipation and power consumption to function properly in a cube-like system with a 220W PSU. My doubts flew away as soon as I saw the AOpen XCcube EZ65 working with a Pentium 4 3.2GHz without any stability-related issues.
It’s all standard with the supported memory. You can slip DDR400/333/266 SDRAM modules into the two DIMM slots available. If the modules are identical, the mainboard works in the dual-channel mode. We should give credit to the engineering team from AOpen who made sure that the AOpen UX4SG-1394 works not only stably, but also fast enough. I was much pleased to see something similar to PAT (Performance Acceleration Technology) in the BIOS Setup. In AOpen’s terms, it is called Performance Boost Engine.
The upgrade and expansion capabilities of the mainboard are naturally limited by its small size. It has only one AGP 8x slot and one PCI slot. On the other hand, with all those controllers available in the AOpen UX4SG-1394, you will hardly need anything else. The i865G chipset used in the mainboard has an integrated graphics core aka Intel Extreme Graphics 2. Although this core doesn’t allow playing modern 3D games because of its limited capabilities and speed, it is strong enough for working in office applications, playing videos and running previous generation games. If you want something more, just upgrade the barebone with an add-on graphics card. The AGP 8x slot is located at the edge of the PCB, so you can only install cards that don’t require extra space for their cooling systems. This limitation doesn’t seem to be much important, though.
The AOpen UX4SG-1394 mainboard uses the ICH5 chip as the South Bridge. It supports two ATA-100 channels, two SerialATA-150 channels (without RAID support, as you simply cannot get two hard drives into the “cube” at a time) and six USB 2.0 ports. Again, the XCcube EZ65 uses only four ports of the six supported; the remaining two ports are implemented as onboard connectors. As for other onboard things, we have three fan connectors, only one of which is actually used for the CPU cooler.
The rest of the mainboard’s functionality is provided by extra onboard chips. Thus, the manufacturer offers Gigabit Ethernet by using a PCI controller from Broadcom instead of the CSA bus. A FireWire controller from Agere works with the three FireWire ports, while the six-channel sound (together with SPDIF inputs and outputs) is implemented via an AC’97 ALC650 codec from Realtek. I think the decision not to use the CSA bus for the network controller could have been caused by financial (licensing) issues. As for the AC’97 codec, it is not new and doesn’t support the AC’97 specification revision 2.3, but it does provide acceptable sound quality.
The PCB layout of the AOpen UX4SG-1394 has a lot to do with the fact that it is used in the XCcube system. Nearly all the components and connectors onboard are conveniently placed and don’t make you show a sleight-of-hands performance when assembling the system. You may only have some difficulty with the ATA/100 connectors (when the system has been already assembled). The Clear CMOS jumper is present and sits in an easily accessible location, like most of the onboard connectors.
Speaking about the functionality, I cannot leave the BIOS aside. Barebone systems are developing fast and their BIOS Setup programs become ever more complex. First barebones to enter the market offered no options for fine-tuning the system or overclocking it. Now we see the situation changing for the better. The BIOS of the AOpen XCcube EZ65 is a definite evidence of the improvements.
So, it is the first time we see a barebone offering CPU overclocking options. The AOpen XCcube EZ65 allows changing the FSB frequency from 100 to 400MHz as well as adjusting the voltages of the CPU, memory and AGP port. The Vcore is adjustable in a range from 1.1V to 1.85V with 0.02V increment. The Vmem can be set from 2.6V to 2.775V, while the Vagp can be boosted to 1.85V. Of course, the mainboard also allows you to change the key memory timings and memory frequency manually. On the other hand, this is still not enough for the poor overclocker to be happy. The overclocking options of the BIOS Setup lack one important thing: an option to fix the PCI/AGP bus frequency. As a result, the AGP/PCI frequency depends on the FSB frequency and is set by a divisor that is determined by the nominal FSB frequency for the processor you use. The frequency of the AGP bus is set as FSB/1.5 for CPUs with 400MHz FSB, as FSB/2 for CPUs with 533MHz FSB and as FSB/3 for the newest CPUs with 800MHz FSB. This fact makes it impossible to overclock processors at your wish. However, the AOpen XCcube EZ65 allows speeding up your processor by 5-10% above the nominal.
AOpen is making power-supply units among everything else, so the AOpen XCcube EZ65 uses a “home-made” PSU. It is called FSP220-CU(PF) and has an output power of 220W. It seems insufficient at first. Processors of the Pentium 4 family can consume up to 100W under peak workloads, and competitive systems from Shuttle that are also designed for powerful processors have long been shipping with 250W PSUs. However, the PSU of the AOpen XCcube EZ65 handled well enough a system with a Pentium 4 3.2GHz and an ATI RADEON 9700 PRO in our tests.
Besides the 20-pin (main) and 4-pin (12V) power cables, the AOpen FSP220-CU(PF) has three 4-pin 12V and one 5V connectors (Molex). The barebone package includes a power adapter for the SerialATA power connector. Thus, if you install a HDD, floppy-drive and optical drive into the AOpen XCcube EZ65, you will have one power cable free to give the additional power to the external graphics card.
One of the advantages of this PSU is that its cooling is performed by a standard 80mm fan with a reduced rotational speed. The noise from this fan is lower than that produced by fans of a smaller diameter that other manufacturers use. The solution is quite efficient; the fan is capable of cooling the PSU as well as the interior of the XCcube.
Note also that the PSU is universal as it can work with both 110V and 230V input voltages. However, you should remember that you have to switch between the input voltages manually.
The hardest task confronting every developer of a barebone system is creation of an efficient and quiet cooling system. It must be efficient as the hot components of the computer are all grouped close together in a limited space. Noise requirements are universal for any type of system: you don’t buy a computer to listen to its roar.
So, what the solution from AOpen looks like? The XCcube EZ65 uses a traditional cooling system with a simple active CPU cooler plus 80mm fan on the PSU. Thus, this barebone has only two fans and a massive aluminum heatsink mounted on the chipset North Bridge.
The CPU cooler stands on a copper sole. It is cooled down by the “side” fan, which provides the most optimal airflow inside the case. Overall, the cooling solution works like this. The cool air is sucked in through the numerous holes in the left side of the system case. This air stream cools down the memory and the HDD and splits in two. One portion of the air goes to the CPU cooler and then vanishes through the right side of the system case with its no less numerous holes. The other portion goes though the PSU to be taken outside by the 80mm fan.
The whole affair is simple and at the same time efficient. Our tests proved the ability of this cooling system to handle even a Pentium 4 3.2GHz. You should keep in mind, though, that the “cross-cut” airflow requires the sides of the system case to be open to the outside air. That is, when choosing a place to put this barebone into, make sure that nothing prevents proper cooling of the system.
Now, to the noise matters. AOpen has the exclusive SilentTek technology up its sleeve for this. The key point of the technology is evident: the CPU cooler speed depends on the temperature inside the system case. The XCcube EZ65 is quite flexible in controlling the CPU fan; the rotational speed can vary from 1500 to 6000rpm. Under small CPU workloads, the temperature inside is low enough and the barebone is practically noiseless, as the CPU cooler is rotating at a reduced speed. When the temperature goes up, the rotational speed does the same reaching a notch of 6000rpm in critical situations. The noise level goes beyond the boundaries of the acceptable in this case (I would compare it to the noise of a washing machine in the wringing mode), although the fan does prevent overheating quite successfully.
Note that AOpen doesn’t grant the users of the XCcube EZ65 the right to configure SilentTek in any way. You are only allowed to turn it on or off in the BIOS Setup.
The AOpen XCcube EZ65 comes with an exclusive monitoring utility instead. This is a unique feature of the barebone, since most other manufacturers don’t equip their mini-systems with software for tracking system health parameters.
By the way, the hardware monitoring system of the AOpen XCcube EZ65 has a couple of other peculiarities about itself. First, the CPU temperature is for some reason taken by the under-socket sensor instead of the CPU-integrated thermal diode. Second, the system temperature from the XCcube’s point of view is the air temperature at the output of the system case. That’s why the system monitoring utility often shows the system temperature exceeding the CPU one.
The AOpen XCcube EZ65 looks much similar to other barebones from inside. Well, it must be hard to suggest anything new and better in this respect, I assume.
To transform the AOpen XCcube EZ65 into a fully-fledged computer, you should install the CPU and memory and attach the HDD and optical drive. An expansion card, external graphics card, floppy-drive or card-reader can be installed at your wish. Of course, the developers did their best to ensure easy installation of the components. The assembly process is simple and you can do it even without any previous experience with small form-factor PCs and without the user’s guide.
The engineers also ensured that the cables in the system case wouldn’t hang about. Every cable goes through a “pipeline” riveted to the case, while the interface cables (IDE, FDD) can be tucked neatly by special clips. The inter-case space of the AOpen XCcube EZ65 is absolutely clear, without the usual web of cables.
I won’t describe the assembly process in detail. It’s typical enough, so you can refer to our previous reviews, like that of the Shuttle SN85G4, for instance. The assembly procedures for the AOpen XCcube EZ65 are actually the same with only one difference: the bay for the FDD and optical drive is detachable in the XCcube: you have to unscrew it to install the devices. The HDD bay is also released by removing the single screw and you can put the drive into it then.
The CPU is also easily put in its place. The CPU cooling system is fastened with two clips and you don’t even have to detach the drive bay to access it.
After you screw the drives bay back, you can think of installing expansion or graphics card. By the way, the AOpen XCcube EZ65 allows installing “short” graphics cards as well as “long” ones like the NVIDIA GeForce4 Ti. Unfortunately, the graphics cards that require one more PCI slot for their cooling needs (in ordinary system cases) don’t fit into the barebone. Here I am talking about various GeForce FX cards in the first hand.
I would like to note that I only used a screwdriver to put the AOpen XCcube EZ65 together. The cover and the cooling system can be installed without any tools at all, since they are fastened by screws with special fingerholds.
Now we have come to the practical tests of the AOpen XCcube EZ65. First thing I’d like to discuss is the operational temperature. Notwithstanding the manufacturer’s claims about the efficiency of the cooling solution, I had some concerns about powerful processors being normally cooled in such a small case. The barebone from AOpen may accommodate one or two very hot components, namely the central processor and the graphics card (which is optional).
As for the graphics card, it is cooled down quite well, according to our tests. The system case of the barebone has vent holes next to the AGP slot for the outside air to come in. The graphics card is thus constantly under a current of the cool outside air, which is enough for it to function stably. We tested an ATI RADEON 9700 PRO and NVIDIA GeForce4 Ti4600 and they were both stable in the AOpen XCcube EZ65 – no problems noticed.
Our CPU frying tests also revealed no problems, although we used one of the fastest CPUs of today, Intel Pentium 4 3.2GHz. We had this processor under a maximum workload for 12 hours, but the system didn’t hang up or restart or show any other sign of instability. The noise from the system was awful during those tests, which is of course a disadvantage of the cooling solution.
The table below shows you the temperatures of the AOpen XCcube EZ65 during our “frying” tests. The system included the CPU, two 256MB Corsair XMS3200LL memory modules and a Western Digital 360GD hard disk drive (Raptor). We took the temperature data from the system thermal diodes with the help of the hardware monitoring program, so they are not free from the above-described peculiarities:
Max. CPU temperature
Max. System temperature
Max. CPU fan rotation speed
When we installed an external ATI RADEON 9700 PRO graphics card, the temperatures grew a little higher.
Max. CPU temperature
Max. system temperature
Max. CPU fan rotation speed
Note that the use of an external graphics card tells perceptibly on the CPU temperature. This is natural as the air coming to the CPU cooler is now coming from the heatsink of the graphics card. Anyway, we have no complaints about the stability of the AOpen XCcube EZ65.
Well… no, not really. When the system with the installed external graphics card was under the maximum workload, some problems still occurred. But they were not related to the hardware part of the XCcube. The threshold critical values for the temperatures in the hardware monitoring program that comes with the AOpen XCcube EZ65 are 69oC of the CPU and 60oC of the system. The program doesn’t allow adjusting these values. That’s why after the exhaust air temperature grew to 61oC (with the add-on graphics card installed) the monitoring system called alarm, turned its siren on and started throwing warning messages at me. The second problem I faced when using the AOpen XCcube EZ65 under high workloads was inoperability of the Corsair XMS3200LL memory with the minimal timings (2-2-2-5), although these very modules worked with such timings in other systems. It turned out the system cannot work with such aggressive timings under high temperatures. After I corrected them to 2-3-3-5, the stability problem vanished.
The relatively high temperature inside the case is alarming, too. Of course, it is long way from those 50-60oC as measured at the output, but it is high enough to become dangerous for the HDD. So, I don’t recommend using temperature-sensitive hard disk drives in the AOpen XCcube EZ65. We measured the temperature of the installed HDD; it was oscillating between 43-47oC. So, keep this in mind, too.
We installed an Intel Pentium 4 3.2GHz processor, two 256MB Corsair XMS3200LL memory modules, a Western Digital WD360GD HDD (Raptor) and a CD-ROM into this barebone to check its performance level. After that, we added an external ATI RADEON 9700 PRO graphics card to see the benefits of doing this. You can view the results below. To put the things in perspective, we added the results of an analogous “grown-up” system with an ASUS P4P800 mainboard (Intel 865PE chipset). The systems run under Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1 and DirectX 9.0b installed.
AOpen XCcube EZ65
AOpen XCcube EZ65
ATI RADEON 9700 PRO
ATI RADEON 9700 PRO
Business Winstone 2002
Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2003
3DMark2001 SE, Score
3DMark03, CPU Score
PCMark2002, CPU Score
PCMark2002, Memory Score
SiSoft Sandra 2004, RAM Buffered Bandwidth
UT2003, dm-antalus, 1024x768x32
Quake3 Arena, four, 1024x768x32
As you see, although the AOpen XCcube EZ65 is slower than the “big” system, the gap is not too wide. Overall, I have to admit that barebone systems can make the big computers step aside, since they have an up-to-the-mark speed and functionality and at the same time boast very attractive small dimensions.
The AOpen XCcube EZ65 is a highly interesting mini-computer. AOpen entered the barebone systems market with a highly competitive product. With its numerous positive trifles, this computer becomes a nice alternative to the Shuttle XPC. The XCcube EZ65 offers you its stylish looks, functionality, high performance, excellent stability and smart design (that makes it easy to assemble the system by yourself).