by Vasily Melnik
04/20/2005 | 03:43 PM
The popularity of the so-called barebone computer systems comes from the users’ arriving at a conclusion that it’s at least inconvenient to have a clumsy rectangular-shaped system case at home. Besides occupying much space, a standard case has a nasty habit of humming with its fans and attracting as if with a magnet all the dust in your room. So, users who demand a compact and quiet and nice-looking solution are offered the miniature and cute barebone system.
Today there are two varieties of such systems in the market, intended for two different user groups. The first variety is a well-rigged-out multimedia combo machine whose extensive list of functions includes almost everything, save for making you coffee. The second variety is in fact the classic mini-PC with just the basic functionality.
The combo devices are positioned as entertainment centers with such options as TV/FM tuner, remote control, big and informative display, playback of audio/video files without booting the OS up, and other nice conveniences. Such systems don’t aspire to be fast and universal just because it is virtually impossible to put both a powerful graphics card and a TV/FM tuner in a small system case (yes, there are devices like ATI’s All-in-Wonder or NVIDIA’s Personal Cinema but they are not widely available and their price is usually very high; moreover, none of these companies has yet released a popular multimedia version of one of their latest top-end graphics cards).
Thus, the classic approach to building barebone systems becomes the more appealing. Here, the user gets just a system case with a power supply and mainboard and a minimum of accessories and chooses for himself/herself what computer to build upon this foundation.
One of the most interesting products of this class, the ASUS S-presso S1, is going to be discussed in this review.
The outward appearance matters a lot and this barebone system from ASUS has nothing to be ashamed of. It travels in a neat box with a plastic handle (you should appreciate the last feature if you don’t have a car).
A small box with a handle is easy to carry around
The box contains the barebone proper and a small parcel with fasteners, cooler, CD with drivers and necessary cables. The manufacturer has overdone it a little with the box – it is much bigger than the contents.
Not too many accessories, but everything necessary is there
The accessories to the barebone are just the bare minimum of things, but this complies with the whole concept of the device. Fresh out of its box, the S-presso S1 looks very cute – miniature size, high build quality, materials and all – so it just invites us to a closer acquaintance.
Modest, but stylish
The device has an original appearance with its deep-blue nacreous coloring, smooth outline of the case, and handy handle. You should like it if you value an optimal mixture of functionality and aesthetics more than spectacular looks. There’s only one drawback – the plastic panels of the case are oversensitive to dirt and fingerprints are only too well visible on them. As for the carry handle, you will surely find it useful if you often move your computer about or frequent LAN parties. The decorative covers on the front panel of the case hide an optical drive, a multi-format card-reader (this device has long replaced the obsolete floppy drive in modern computers), and USB, audio and FireWire connectors. It’s of course a nice design feature to have the connectors and the card-reader under special covers, but this solution is questionable from the ergonomics point of view: the covers are mirror-like and open to your touch, so you unavoidably leave your fingerprints on them. Then, it’s also not very convenient to plug in a USB flash drive or some other frequently used peripheral because of the same cover on the front-panel connectors.
The decorative covers look smart, but they shouldn’t be touched too often
So, you should treat the case and the covers on its front panel with care unless you want to be constantly wiping the barebone clean from your own fingerprints. But well, we’re caviling too much – we guess untidy users aren’t likely to go for such a device at all.
The side panels carry the ASUS logo and also have vent holes shaped in such a way as to ensure air flow towards the two hottest devices, i.e. the CPU and the graphics card.
Big vent holes are the best way to ensure effective and quiet cooling
The back panel is quite an ordinary sight: a power supply, a pair of exhaust fans and a connections panel.
The ASUS S-presso S1: rear view
The two exhaust fans aren’t just a decoration – they are efficient enough despite their small size.
Now it’s time to have a look at the barebone’s internals. A step-by-step instruction on how to dismantle the case is attached to the top panel. Without this instruction even an experienced user may not guess right how this operation is to be performed. But it turns out to be quite easy and quick.
Don’t be so hasty to remove this sticker – read it carefully first!
First you cautiously remove the front panel by pulling its bottom toward yourself. Then unfasten the screw at the rear panel and shift the top part of the case forward.
The screw that fastens the top panel
Then you just pull the handle on the top panel. The top panel unfolds along with the front part of the barebone.
It turns out to be rally simple!
The barebone is quite spacious despite its miniature dimensions. There’s room enough for all the necessary components. The employed ASUS P4P8T mainboard is an excellent foundation for a high-performance and yet affordable computer.
ASUS P4P8T mainboard is an example of a competent implementation
of the barebone concept
The Intel 865G chipset in conjunction with the ICH5R South Bridge is highly functional:
This functionality is complemented by the card-reader that supports memory cards of the following formats: Compact Flash Type I/II, Microdrive, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, Secure Digital, MultiMedia Card, Smart Media Card.
The case of the barebone allows installing one hard drive and one optical drive. That’s enough for building a computer that would be no worse than its full-size counterparts in typical applications. Another available 3.25” bay is already occupied by the card-reader, and you can’t replace it with, for example, another hard drive because the drive would block the AGP and PCI slots.
The miniature power supply ASUS SL-22A feeds the mainboard as well as the rest of the installed devices.
This is a small but sturdy power supply
We should acknowledge that the size restrictions didn’t tell negatively on the quality of the power supply. The declared currents are quite high, the fan is quiet and there’s even a PFC throttle inside! This PSU seems to be a well-designed and conscientiously assembled device – reliable, powerful and quiet at work. The SL-22A surpasses many full-size units in such parameters as max currents on the power rails or effective total wattage. The PSU offers four power connectors – for the optical and hard drives and, for example, for a powerful graphics card. The manufacturer took care the wires didn’t hinder the assembly of the system – the plaits of the power lines are fastened to the sides of the case with plastic clips. These clips are attached to the walls with stickers and you shouldn’t tear them off because they won’t stick back after that.
Next, here’s the cooler for the central processor:
This small but efficient cooler is most appropriate
for a miniature system case
This seemingly unpretentious device has a few most appealing features: a massive copper bar in its foundation, aluminum ribs of average thickness, and two heat pipes that facilitate heat transfer from the CPU to the top part of the ribs for the heat to be evenly distributed in the heatsink. This classic and somewhat dull design with a rather small heat dissipation area and a not-quite-well-polished sole doesn’t impress at first, but the cooler did very well in practice (we’ll discuss the thermal characteristics of the barebone shortly). It is rather quiet but can cool almost any CPU this barebone permits to install. The heatsink is being blown at by a fan of ASUS’s own manufacture, known by the Crux P4 MM7/AM7 cooler series. The fan is rather noisy at its maximum speed, but the mainboard’s fan control system works well and the fan rotates at its highest speed only when the CPU is fully loaded with work, which is not a frequent event for an ordinary home PC.
After our all-around examination of the barebone we can now try to transform it into a regular computer. We took some standard midrange components: a Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 hard drive, an ATI RADEON 9600 Pro graphics card, a PCI audio card, two 256MB modules of DDR400 SDRAM, an optical drive and an Intel Pentium 4 3.4GHz CPU (Prescott core).
The components to be installed
Of course, you could have picked up a cheaper processor for such a modest configuration, for example a Pentium 4 2.8GHz, but the difference in price between these two CPU models was rather small, and we also wanted to see how efficient the standard cooling system of this barebone was.
We advise you to remove the power supply for an easier assembly – thus you will be able to mount the CPU cooler correctly, without any risk of misalignment. The power supply is not originally fastened with screws. It is held by a spring-loaded metal plate – you can push it to extract the PSU. After you’ve done the assembly, you can put the PSU back and fasten it with screws or you may leave it as it is – the metal plate holds it firmly enough. As for the assembly process, you may want to start it with the CPU and its cooler. You’ll need your hands and a screwdriver to perform this operation. When the CPU is in the socket, put the cooler on it and tighten the screws watching out for any misalignments. You must press on the heatsink rather hard since the springs there are rather tight. Be careful not to let your screwdriver slip off as this can damage the mainboard. The CPU in its place, you can now get to the optical and hard drives. Don’t hurry to put the memory modules in – you can accidentally brush against them during the installation of the hard drive. The drives are both installed easily and quickly – you put special cylinder-headed screws into the mounting holes in the side panels of these devices and then slide each device into its appropriate bay along the guides. After that you just fix it with a special lock and attach the cables.
Make sure the devices are firmly seated in the guides
Now that you’ve fastened the drives, you can put in the memory modules and the expansion cards. The cards are fastened without screws, but you must be careful with the lock – it snaps shut very easily, so if you find yourself trying to apply force to it, make sure you have inserted the card into the slot to the end. That done, put back the power supply and attach the power cables. When laying the cables, avoid putting them into the guides the cover of the case moves by. Check out you’ve attached everything correctly and close the cover. That’s how the assembled system looks like:
The assembled system
Now you just have to put the front panel back. That’s all. It takes about 25 minutes in total to assemble the system unhurriedly and thoughtfully. This is an indication of the well-thought design of the barebone, and we are sure that even inexperienced users can easily handle the assembly process on their own.
The assembly is done and now we can have a look at what we’ve got as the result. It’s not easy to characterize the working system in one word. The temperature of the components remains in the safe range even at full load, but the noise from the CPU cooler and the two exhaust fans on the rear panel is quite audible. The full-load mode like in dynamic 3D games isn’t the main operational mode of the computer, though. And even in games you don’t hear the noise from the fans because of the sounds of the game itself, even at a small volume level. If the CPU is idle or under a small load (like in office applications, or when you’re watching video or listening to music), the noise isn’t audible at all as the speed of the fans is decreased considerably. The integrated codec can serve to the inputs of any speaker system of 2.0 to 5.1 format and priced at up to $150 – the quality of the sound is quite good. Audiophiles with appropriate speaker sets can use the optical SPDIF connection.
After we had made sure the S-presso S1 can serve well as an ordinary home PC, we thought if it would be possible to transform this barebone into a high-performance gaming station capable of running the latest 3D titles. So we dismantled the system and replaced the feeble RADEON 9600 PRO with a GeForce 6800 Ultra and installed fast memory from GeIL (two sticks, 512MB each). This was going to be a hardest trial for the ASUS SL-22A power supply: a Pentium 4 3.0GHz and a GeForce 6800 Ultra are almost the maximum this PSU can sustain. The power supply didn’t falter: there was not a single failure during our rather long tests. Moreover, all the voltages remained within acceptable ranges even in the hardest operation modes. As for the performance of the computer, here’s a table for you:
3D Graphics Performance
The games were all tested at 1280x1024 resolution with 32-bit color depth and the highest graphics quality settings. The anisotropic filtering and full-screen antialiasing settings were left default in the driver. A faster processor would have helped to get even higher results, without doubt, but the system anyway proved its ability to run all modern games at an acceptable speed. This computer will surely handle upcoming games, too.
Then we compared the performance of the barebone to a similar desktop computer. The latter had a different mainboard (ABIT IC7-MAX3 on the Intel 875P chipset) and an Intel Pentium 4 3.2GHz CPU (Prescott core). We didn’t run too many tests, but limited ourselves with the PCMark2004 suite:
As you see, the advantages of the more expensive and seemingly more powerful computer aren’t so evident. Yes, the desktop configuration is far ahead in the memory test, but the i875P chipset is the best in this respect on the Socket 478 platform. Otherwise, the numbers above suggest that the end-user won’t feel any big difference in typical tasks from using a barebone instead of a desktop computer.
The only disadvantage of such an advanced configuration of the barebone is the impossibility to use the single PCI slot. Well, you have to compromise here as top-end graphics cards are all equipped with dual-slot cooling systems as a rule and you have to choose between two expansion cards and average performance in 3D or a single but powerful graphics card. The ASUS S-presso S1 is a rare example of a barebone system that allows to install full-size graphics cards with “two-storied” coolers. Moreover, this barebone ensures a normal thermal environment for the device: 68°C under load is a good temperature for a GeForce 6800 Ultra.
ASUS has come up with the most appealing product where nearly every aspect is impressive. The S-presso S1 boasts small dimensions, a high-wattage power supply, a well-designed cooling system, excellent functionality and cute looks. Don’t also forget the opportunity of transforming this barebone into a really powerful gaming station by installing almost any available graphics card! The S-presso S1 is going to make a good substitute for a standard system case: the buyer receives an almost finished PC in which the problems with temperatures, noise, and component layout are already solved. You quickly get used to such a cutie and soon forget that you’re dealing with a miniature analog of the desktop computer.
There are few users who really need two hard drives or two optical drives in their computer – a mass user doesn’t need that. What’s more important is that the computer takes little space, looks nice and costs little. So, the ASUS S-presso S1 has enough trumps to successfully challenge traditional full-size solutions.
As for users who value multimedia options, ASUS offers the senior S-presso S1-P111 model to them. This model is based on an analogous platform, but has a big sensor display, an integrated TV-tuner and numerous multimedia functions.