by Grigoriy Gubankov
10/17/2003 | 10:55 PM
There is the whole bunch of companies today that design and manufacture SFF PCs. There is an enormous number of new names in this market, that have appeared recently. And in the first row these are the mainboard manufacturers, who decide to join a new business. In fact, this their desire is quite understandable: the mainboard business is not as profitable as it used to be, because the competition in this market has become very intense.
SFF PC market hasn’t yet developed to the full extent. The prices of such systems are still quite high that is why SFF business appears to be a kind of a gold-mine. Besides, each barebone like that needs at least a mainboard, so that the mainboard manufacturers have a great way of selling their major products as “an addition” to the barebone system, thus increasing the sales volumes and winning more revenues.
But this is what the situation looks like today. And if we look back we will recall that the first company which started working seriously in the absolutely new and unknown barebone market was the Taiwanese Shuttle Company (also a mainboard manufacturer from the very beginning, by the way). Since this company was the first one to come up with an idea of the barebone, they managed to set a standard for this type of system, so that all the other manufacturers, which joined Shuttle in this new field tended to make their products up to the Shuttle’s mark.
Moreover, as I know, Shuttle was also the first one to start offering SFF systems, which allowed installing fast CPUs and full-size AGP graphics cards. So there is no wonder that Shuttle appeared among the first ones to announce a barebone system for the new AMD Athlon 64. This SFF is called SN85G4 and today we are going to introduce it to you.
Like all barebone systems from Shuttle, SN85G4 is shipped in a nice-looking box with a strong carry-handle. According to my personal experience, carrying this system around in a box like that is an easy and comfortable process.
Inside the box everything is very laconically packed into plastic bags and protective foam plastic. besides the system you will also get a small carton box with accessories such as a CD-disk with the drivers and other necessary software, fastening screws and clips, cables, a small pack of thermal paste and a user’s manual. That’s all. Well, this is, actually, exactly what you need to have this system work fine, if you install the “missing” components of course, such as the CPU or HDD.
The system looks a little bit different from those Shuttle barebone systems that we are already familiar with (see our review called Shuttle XPC: Small Form-Factor PCs with Big Capabilities), even though this new system is also design as a “cubic”. The dimensions of this system are also very similar to what we have already seen. However, the changes have first of all touched upon the front panel design. Here are a few pictures for you, compare them:
Of course, Shuttle decided that the today’s user doesn’t need the floppy-drive any more and even preserved no spot for it on the front panel. To “make up” for the absent floppy the system is now equipped with a 6-in-1 card reader, which supports CompactFlash Type I and Type II, Secure Digital (SD), Memory Stick (MS), MultiMedia Card (MMC) and SmartMedia (SM). Well, this is a really worthy compensation, I should say, especially since all operations including BIOS reflashing can now be done with a CD-disk or any sort of Flash-cards or USB-Flash drives, and the floppy-drives become less and less demanded. On the contrary, digital cameras and other devices supporting various Flash-cards become more and more popular, which totally justifies for the implementation of a card-reader in a contemporary system like Shuttle SN85G4.
I would also like to stress that the front panel of the new Shuttle barebone is no longer removable, so you will not be able to change the exterior looks of your new SN85G4 system that much. However, the system already looks very stylish, and I personally didn’t feel inclined to change the color of the panel at all.
In fact the black surface has one pretty bad drawback. The thing is that every time you touch it your noticeable and not very nicely-looking fingerprints remain there. So, if you are going to get a system like that you should keep this fact in mind.
Now let’s take a look at the key technical characteristics of the product:
The package also contained a cooling solution based on the Heat Pipe technology and called I.C.E (Integrated Cooling Engine). Moreover, I have to point out (even though it has already been mentioned in the specs list above) that the mainboard of SN85G4 has no integrated graphics core, that is why you will also need an AGP or PCI graphics card to have the system running.
The front panel of Shuttle SN85G4 carries two USB 2.0 ports, one IEEE1394 port, a headphones jack, a microphone- and Line-Ins. Of course there you will also fins Power and Reset buttons, a power indicator (blue) and a HDD workmode indicator (orange).
There is also a black plastic panel covering the 5-inch bay if the is no optical drive installed there. So, if you are not going to use any optical drives at all your system front panel will look just ideal from the design and color point of view. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do without a CD-ROM drive. Moreover, I didn’t have a drive with a black plastic front panel, so I had to enjoy a slightly spoiled harmony of the SN85G4 system. However, you shouldn’t get frustrated at all, because you will easily find a black CD- or DVD-drive.
Now let’s take a look at the back panel:
Besides the PSU connector, of course, we can also see two High Speed USB ports, an IEEE1394a (FireWire port), an Ethernet connector, three minijack connectors for a six-channel sound system, and PS/2 connectors for the keyboard and mouse. Also there are S/PDIF In- and Out ports, a Serial and a Parallel port.
If you compare the type and location of the connectors on Shuttle SN85G4 with the connectors on any other Shuttle barebones, you will notice a few big differences. Note that all these differences can be found only on the back panel, because Shuttle seems to be rather conservative about changing the features of the front panel: a usual there are only two USB ports, one FireWire port and three minijack ports.
So, the back panel of Shuttle SN85G4 now boasts a Parallel port, which is very good news for those of you who do not have a USB printer (in fact these printers are still quite numerous). Moreover, some software utilities intended to prevent illegal copying of the data use electronic HASP keys, which also require a Parallel port. Although I really don’t know if Shuttle marketing people really took this type of users into account when they were working on SN85G4 design and features.
As is known, nothing appears from or disappears into nowhere. The available room on the back panel of the barebone system also obeys this universal law. Therefore, we assume some ports should have been sacrificed to allow the LPT-port. Of course, these “victims” are additional USB and FireWire ports as well as the second COM port, which are no longer there. The previous cubic barebone models from Shuttle used to have two FireWire ports and two USB ports, or two FireWire ports and four USB ports, and sometimes they also had two COM ports instead of one. SN85G4 features only two USB ports, one FireWire and one COM port on the back panel. However, it boasts a printer LPT port instead.
I don’t want to judge once and for all how justified this modification is. Especially keeping in mind that the number of USB ports has been reduced. The thing is that FireWire peripherals are not so widely spread, so two FireWire ports seem to be quite enough to satisfy most needs. The peripheral devices using COM ports are also leaving the market little by little, so we also can’t call the absence of the second COM port a drawback. However, as for 4 USB ports, our experience shows that this is not always enough taking into account how popular the USB peripherals are nowadays. On the other hand, I have already mentioned the advantages of having an LPT-port onboard. And the number of USB ports can be increased with the help of an additional USB-splitter, although it means additional expenses. All in all, you should find a certain compromise here, which has already become a common thing for the IT and any other industry: the choice depends on you.
The barebone system we are reviewing today, Shuttle SN85G4, is based on FN85 mainboard made by Shuttle, of course. This board is built on NVIDIA nForce3 150 chipset, which is a single-chip product. The mainboard is equipped with two DDR DIMM slots. As you remember, NVIDIA nForce3 150 doesn’t have any memory controller, because in AMD Athlon 64 systems the memory controller integrated into the CPU itself is the one responsible for work with the system memory.
FN85 doesn’t boast any rich expansion opportunities, which is actually quite typical of all mainboards used for SFF systems. It is equipped with only one AGP 8x slot and one PCI slot. However, the chipset offers a pretty attractive features set, and so does the mainboard boasting a bunch of integrated onboard controllers, that is why these modest expansion options are not a real drawback any more. You should also note that the idea behind SFF systems doesn’t imply their positioning as a solution for advanced High-End users.
As I have already said the mainboard supports four USB 2.0 ports, two IEEE1394a ports (a 4-pin port laid out to the front panel and a 6-pin port laid out to the back panel), 10/100Mbit Ethernet (Realtek RTL8102BL controller) and six-channel AC’97 sound (ALC650 codec). Besides, you can also connect two parallel and two SerialATA hard disk drives. The latter ones can form a RAID 0 or RAID 1 array due to the onboard Silicon Image 3512 controller.
The mainboard is also equipped with a couple of connectors, which I would particularly like to draw your attention to. First of all, it is the so called IrDA connector intended for the Infra-red port. You can also see it on the regular mainboards, so the fact that it is there is not surprising at all. The unusual thing about it, however, is the fact that it is simply “wasted”, i.e. there is no infra-red port on any of the case panels of Shuttle SN85G4. I assume it could not bad to have it, just in case, you know.
Another connector, I would like to specifically dwell on in called Wireless KB/MS Header. Here I got absolutely confused: KB definitely denotes keyboard and MS – mouse. This way this connector is intended for a wireless keyboard and mouse. However, all wireless keyboards and mice do not require any special connectors but use the regular PS/2 ones. The only explanation that comes into my mind is the fact that Shuttle is probably going to introduce its own standard for wireless input devices. If this is really the case, then I can only congratulate the Taiwanese mainboard and barebone company on such a brave decision.
Since we came to speak about wireless. As is known, Shuttle offers not only barebone systems, but also the entire set of accessories for them. Among them you could see glowing front panels or carry-bags, for instance. The bag remained on the list, but a few more interesting and serious things have been added to the accessories set. In particular, you can get a 802.11b wireless network kit. There is a special spot on the back panel of the barebone system reserved for an antenna, while the device is probably connected to the USB port. At least, I don’t think that Wireless KB/MS is intended for Wireless LAN, as the name is still very different.
Among other accessories available for Shuttle barebone systems today I would like to specifically mention a Bluetooth module connected via the USB port and a remote control unit also connected via the USB. If you are curious to see the entire list of available Shuttle accessories, you can go here. Although the information about the accessories compatibility with some particular barebone models surprised me a lot. For instance, they claim that the Shuttle carry bag doesn’t fit for all Shuttle barebones, eve though their dimensions hardly differ by more than 5mm. Anyway, I suggest that you inquire about the accessories compatibility at Shuttle tech support or at your local reseller just to make sure.
However, let’s return to our mainboard, which is the basis of SN85G4 system. Now I would like to dwell a little bit on the BIOS Setup. Since SFF PCs become more and more functional, BIOS Setup also improves a lot. The first SFF PCs didn’t offer any options for system fine-tuning or overclocking. Now the situation is completely different and the manufacturers provide their barebone products with all possible overclocking-friendly features. Although they still cannot catch up with the “regular” systems in this respect. Well, let’s see what the BIOS of our FN85 mainboard offers us.
At first we will check the Frequency/Voltage Control section. Unfortunately, there are no options for frequency adjustment at all, only voltages are subject to change. We can change the processor Vcore from 0.8V up to 1.7V with 0.025V increment, Vdimm from 2.6V to 2.9V with 0.1V increment, Vagp from 1.6V to 1.8V with 0.1 increment, and the chipset voltage alongside with the voltage of the HyperTransport bus, which is still called LDT (Lighting data Transport). I wouldn’t call these features extremely outstanding, but they are definitely worth your attention.
But what about frequencies? The BIOS does offer the opportunity to adjust the frequency settings, but for some reason these controls are placed into the Advanced Chipset Features section. We can adjust independently the HyperTransport frequency in the interval from 200MHz to 250MHz and AGP frequency from 66MHz to 100MHz (with 1MHz increment in both cases). There is one more really interesting item in this section called “LDT Speed”, which allows you to set it to 1x, 2x, 2.5x, 3x or 4x. By default it is set to 3x, and when I tried to raise it to 4x, the system would freeze during boot-up. This feature seems to be responsible for the connection speed between the CPU and the mainboard chipset. The resulting clock frequency should be equal to: (200 x LDT Speed) MHz. Bearing in mind that the data is transferred along both signal fronts of the HyperTransport bus and that this bus is 16bit wide each way we obtain the maximum data transfer rate between the chipset and the CPU equal up to 2.4GB/s each way (600MHz x 2 x 2). Note that this peculiarity of the HyperTransport bus is not typical of Shuttle FN85 only. We have heard several times that other NVIDIA nForce3 Pro 150 based mainboards did similar things. It looks as if the mainboard makers (with or without AMD’s recommendations) simplify the mainboard layout to reduce the production costs, believing that 3.2GB/sec in each direction is a way too much, especially since the memory controller is now inside the CPU already.
The memory frequency adjustment on Shuttle FN85 is also implemented in a very interesting way. The entire setting is done by selecting the memory frequency from the list including the following options only: 100MHz, 133MHz, 166MHz and 200MHz. For some reason this option is called Max Memclock and contains a warning that the memory will not work if the frequency is set higher than that. In fact, I do not quite understand what this warning is meant for, because when I set Max Memclock to 200MHz and the HyperTransport frequency to 202MHz, for instance, the memory worked stably at 202MHz (see the CPU-Z report). So, I think that that the name of this feature as well as the warning message are only misleading the users.
Unfortunately, the BIOS of Shuttle FN85 mainboard doesn’t have any opportunities for memory subsystem fine-tuning, in other words, you will not be able to tweak the memory timings at all. At the same time, there is an option called DDR Timing Setting, although enabling or disabling it only affects the ability adjust the memory frequency. I hope that the new BIOS updates will finally allow adjusting the memory timings, too, because it is sometimes as important as the overclocking friendly features of the system.
I was also a little bit upset to find no way to adjust the CPU clock frequency multiplier, because AMD Athlon 64 processors were rumored to have an unlocked clock frequency multiplier. However, the mainboard guys might not implement this opportunity in their products BIOS’s, because AMD doesn’t want them to.
The last interesting feature of the FN85 mainboard used for the new Shuttle SN85G4 barebone system is the availability of only one jumper: Clear CMOS. Note that this jumper is pretty hard to reach when the system is already assembled, although it is not too bad. The tailed cap of this jumper is a really smart idea on Shuttle’s part :)
An important component of any SFF PC is a power supply unit (PSU). The thing is that they should not only be small, but should also ensure sufficient power supply. Since the only CPU to fit into Shuttle SN85G4 barebone system is currently selling for $500, we have every right to say that this system is positioned for the Performance segment of the PC market. That is why the PSU should be able to meet the requirements not only of a powerful CPU, but also of a high-end graphics card, and a hard disk drive, which may also turn quite power-hungry.
So, the PSU of Shuttle SN85G4 should be a small and powerful device. Shuttle decided to take a low-profile no-name PSU with 240W capacity and Power Factor Correction (PFC) support (active or passive, they didn’t specify that). I would like to stress that 240W is quite an “adult” power capacity already, because many PSUs in “regular” tower cases offer 250W of power.
The PSU in Shuttle SN85G4 uses not only the primary 20-pin cable and 12V 4-pin cable connected to the mainboard, but also features two 4-pin 12V connectors, two 5V Molex connectors and even a SerialATA power connector. Anyway, you will never be able to use all of them simultaneously. Even if you install all devices that fit inside the SN85G4 case some connectors of the PSU will not be involved. For instance, you will have at least one Molex connector free and a 12V or a SerialATA connector, because two HDDs will never fit into this barebone system.
The PSU is cooled down by a small fan , which also blows warm air outside the system case. The nominal PSU voltage is marked as 100/230V, which means that it automatically adjusts to the input voltage of your place.
Of course, the cooling solution is one of the most important parts of any SFF PC. First of all, because the components inside the SFF case are packed really closely to one another, which hinders proper air circulation and prevents regular coolers from doing their job well. Besides, since a SFF system looks similar to a consumer electronics device it is expected to be pretty quiet (or absolutely quiet). So as you see, designing cooling solutions for small form-factor systems is a pretty sophisticated task. Let’s find out how well Shuttle engineers managed to cope with it.
The cooling system of SN85G4 doesn’t offer anything brand new: a similar cooling solution has been used in other barebone systems by Shuttle. There is an 80mm fan with a heatsink at the rear side of the case. It blows the air inside the system case this way cooling down the heatsink, which receives the heat from the system CPU. The mechanism of heat transfer from the CPU to this heatsink is very simple and efficient: it is based on Heat Pipe technology, which we have already discussed in our Shuttle XPC Review in great detail. I will not repeat everything here, because you can always check the previous review for more details. I would like just to point out once again that Heat Pipes are considered to be one of the most efficient heat conductive solutions nowadays used for contemporary cooling systems.
The CPU cooler of SN85G4 consists of three parts: a heatsink cooled down by the airflow from the fan, a smaller heatsink with nickel-plated footing covering the CPU, and four heat pipes connecting these two heatsinks with each other. This system works in a very simple manner: when the CPU heatsink warms up, the heat pipes transfer the heat to the other heatsink, which is cooled down by the fan, so that the heat dissipates there. And that’s it.
SN85G4 uses an 80mm fan from Sunon with a variable rotation speed. Of course, the fan rotation speed is determined by the temperature inside the system case. However, the mainboard BIOS Setup allows adjusting the temperature limits, beyond which the fan rotation speed should increase. The maximum fan rotation speed is 3,700-3,800rpm and at this speed it produces quite a bit of noise. Here I have to point out it is really hard to make the fan work at the maximum of its rotation speed. But, I’d better not get too far ahead of time, this is a topic for one of our next review chapters today :)
As I have already told you above, to turn your Shuttle SN85G4 into a computer you will have to install the CPU, memory, and graphics card into the mainboard, and connect the HDD and an optical drive if you are going to have one. If you wish you may also install one expansion card as well. Of course, Shuttle developers designed the location of all the system components in a very smart way, so that the assembly could be easy and fast. As a result you will be able to put together your Shuttle SN85G4 without the user’s guide even if you have never dealt with barebone systems before. The last statement has been proven on practice because the Shuttle SN85G4 sample we got fore review didn’t have the user;s guide for some reason.
The installation of the HDD and optical drive is a very easy thing to do: the HDD chassis can be easily remover if you unscrew the two screws first. The CPU cooling can be actually installed without removing the HDD chassis.
The expansion card and the VGA card are installed when the HDD chassis has been screwed back. By the way, SN85G4 allows installing not only “short” graphics cards but also the full-size ones, such as NVIDIA GeForce4 Ti4600. Unfortunately, you will not be able to use a graphics card which usually takes up not only the AGP slot but also the next PCI slot, because it will not fit into Shuttle SN85G4. First of all, I am talking about GeForce FX 5900 Ultra here, however, it is also true for some ABIT VGA cards equipped with their brand OTES cooling system.
I would also like to point out that the only tool you will need to assemble your SN85G4 is a screwdriver, while the case cover and the cooling system can be installed and removed without any tools at all, because they are fastened with the screws that feature easy tails. I wonder if Shuttle is going to continue improving the assembly process so that one day even no screwdriver will be necessary? In fact, this seems very likely to happen.
In order to illustrate the easy assembly process I suggest that you take a look at a number of pictures taken at different assembly stages.
Well, first we remove the case cover and the HDD chassis:
Now we remove the cooling system and install the CPU:
Now we install the memory (you can install and remove the memory modules any time, the other system components do not need to be removed to let you access the DIMM slots):
Now we install the cooling solution:
Now we install the HDD into the chassis and place it back into the case (you can actually swap this and the previous steps):
Now we install the optical drive:
The last comes the graphics card and a PCI card if you have one:
Close the case. And you are done!
As you see, there is nothing difficult about that. However, there are a few things which you should keep in mind anyway. All in all, if you have never dealt with any barebone systems in general and Shuttle systems in particular, the whole assembly process will take about half an hour. It doesn’t seem to be too long, especially since the second time I put this system together the whole thing took about 10 minutes maximum.
Now let’s pass over to some practical tests of our Shuttle SN85G4 system. As I have already mentioned the cooling system is one of the most important elements of any SFF PC, and its efficiency is the key to the product’s success in the market. All components used in Shuttle SN85G4 dissipate quite a bit of heat: the CPU dissipates a lot, no doubt, besides, you will hardly use a RADEON 9000 in a system like that. Therefore, the cooling system will have to work really hard. Luckily the NVIDIA nForce3 150 chipset designed with 0.15micron technology dissipates very little heat.
We will test the efficiency of our cooling system in the following way. At first we will definitely assemble our barebone: install AMD Athlon 64 3200+ (working at the actual frequency of 2GHz, as you remember), RADEON 9700 Pro graphics card, two Corsair XMS3200C2 memory modules and Seagate Barracuda ATA IV HDD. Then we will install Windows XP Professional SP1 and Motherboard Monitor utility, which will help us track the CPU and system temperature and fan rotation speed throughout the test. After that we will do the actual testing.
For our test we will take 3DMark2001 SE and a distributed computing project client called Find-a-Drug, which we will run in the background mode and which will load the CPU up to 100%, without interrupting the 3DMark test. 3DMark will be set to perform 5 tests in a row, which should warm up the system quite nicely. As soon as the tests are over we will check how hot the CPU and the system became, and how high was the maximum fan rotation speed (we have already mentioned that it varies depending on the temperature). For a more illustrative comparison I am going to provide the same measurements for the system in idle mode. So let’s have a look:
Max. CPU temperature
Max. System temperature
Max. fan rotation speed
As you can clearly see, the cooling system is going just great: the fan hasn’t reached its maximum rotation speed a single time during the entire test session (it should switch to the maximum rpm when the temperature exceeds 60oC). It means that you are very unlikely to have the fan rotating at its maximum speed during the regular system operation, which also means that the noise level will be really low (this evaluation as “low” is definitely my subjective opinion). Of course, the above described results do not tend to be considered a universal truth valid for all cases, because the environmental temperature may as well affect the results of this experiment. However, overall this is a very efficient and well-done cooling system.
During the test session I didn’t intend to test the performance of AMD Athlon 64 3200+ processor from all possible standpoints, because this is not a CPU review (the CPU review will follow soon :) but a system review. Besides, the mainboard doesn’t allow changing the memory timings, that is why the system performance will anyway be lower than the maximum possible in this configuration, because the default timings are usually quite conservative, which we see from the CPU-Z results:
So, let’s have a look at what Athlon 64 3200+ is capable of in a selected number of tests in the following testbed:
Athlon 64 3200+
2x256MB Corsair XMS3200C2
Seagate Barracuda ATA IV 40GB
ATI Radeon 9700 Pro
nForce3 drivers 3.43 (beta)
Graphics card drivers
ATI Catalyst 3.6
We used Windows XP Professional with the installed Service Pack 1. The Direct X version was 9.0a. The memory frequency equaled 200MHz.
When we installed the drivers for nForce3 we revealed a very unpleasant peculiarity of the drivers supplied on a CD with the system. After the drivers had been installed, the system “lost” the CD-ROM drive and wouldn’t believe that it was still installed into the system. Having tried various tricks I discovered that the problem lies with the IDE drivers. If you do not install this part of the integrated driver for nForce3, everything will work just fine. It was probably the bug in the driver (the accompanying release notes claimed though that it “passed the minimum testing successfully”).
The results of Shuttle SN85G4 system were compared with those obtained on a system with AMD Athlon 64 3200+ and NVIDIA nForce2 chipset (the systems were absolutely identical except the processor, mainboard and the chipset drivers, of course):
Shuttle SN85G4 (nForce3 150) + Athlon 64 3200+
DFI LAN PARTY NFII ULTRA (nForce2) + Athlon XP 3200+
3DMark2001 SE, Score
3DMark03, CPU Score
PCMark2002, CPU Score
PCMark2002, Memory Score
SiSoft Sandra Int RAM Buffered Bandwidth
UT2003, dm-antalus, 1024x768x32
Serious Sam SE, The Grand Cathedral, 1024x768x32
As you can notice the Shuttle barebone system is an indisputable leader, which once again proves that SFF PCs do not yield to any of their bigger analogues. The only drawback that a SFF PC might have is the absence of memory subsystem fine-tuning options, which slightly reduces the overall system performance, as I have already said. However, even a slightly “slowed down” Athlon 64 is faster than its predecessor with the same performance rating in these benchmarks (mostly gaming ones). It is definitely not for nothing that AMD positions the new CPU as a gaming solution.
We have just introduced to you a new barebone system for AMD Athlon 64 processors produced by Shuttle Company - Shuttle SN85G4. I believe that I have every right to call this product the leader in the today’s SFF market. I should also say that Shuttle again did a great job. SN85G4 is a worthy solution representing the SFF PC concept by Shuttle. Excellent looks, rich functionality, smart design and excellent cooling solution, all this makes Shuttle SN85G4 a great buy today.
Of course, this product is not absolutely ideal and has some drawbacks. To be fair I should say that there is only one serious drawback about this system: the price of the CPU it is intended for. There is only one AMD Athlon 64 in the market right now: this is the model with 3200+ performance rating, which sells at least for $400, according to PriceWatch. Taking into account that the Shuttle SN85G4 system without any additional components will also cost around the same, we get the end-product price at least $1000, which will definitely prevent this system from being used a budget media center at home or as an inexpensive office computer. So, the potential target group for this product is gamers or high-end stuff lovers. And these particular users are usually a little bit concerned about getting a barebone system, because big cases with multiple fans seem more reliable to them. So, Shuttle SN85G4 will have to struggle hard to win the customers’ hearts and purses. Although as our today’s coverage showed, it has all the chances to succeeed.