Shuttle ST61G4 Review: SFF PC on ATI RADEON 9100 IGP Chipset

Today we will introduce to you a new Shuttle cubic system based on an ATI chipset, which boasts the today’s fastest graphics. Besides, the new barebone system features a SerialATA RAID controller and an integrated card-reader. All in all it is going to be a very interesting solution for hardware enthusiasts.

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
02/24/2004 | 11:27 PM

Mini-system manufacturers, which get more and more numerous, use different chipsets for their products. At the same time, most chipsets you see in Small Form-Factor PCs are very much like each other. Irrespective of the supported processor type, most barebone systems use chipsets with an integrated graphics core.

 

Considering that many SFF PCs are used as home computers, manufacturers prefer to install highest-performing integrated chipsets for the end-user not to feel the need to upgrade the system with an external graphics card. ATI’s RADEON 9100 IGP chipset for Socket478 systems we reviewed recently is exactly that kind of solution. The speed and functionality of the graphics core integrated into this chipset proved to be superior to analogous solutions from other manufacturers. Although the RADEON 9100 IGP has an obvious shortcoming – its memory controller is not as fast as we might want it to be – the ultra-fast graphics anyway makes this chipset a good foundation for a SFF PC. We stressed this fact back in our ATI RADEON 9100 IGP Integrated Chipset Review and it seems like we were right: first SFF PCs on this chipset are ready to take the market by storm.

Shuttle was the first company to roll out a RADEON 9100 IGP-based mini-system. Well, it was not at all surprising that the company was the first one to announce a Socket478 solution based on this core logic. Shuttle deserves being called not only the most successful SFF PC maker, but is also known to be offering the richest choice of products in this class. After the announcement of their SFF PC for Athlon 64 processors it became clear they wouldn’t pass by any innovation available in the market. ATI’s RADEON 9100 IGP chipset is surely a thrilling innovation, so we now welcome the Shuttle ST61G4 barebone system! Let’s check out how well the ATI chipset feels in a barebone system and evaluate the new “cubic” design from Shuttle.

Specification and Accessories

Shuttle ST61G4 system consists of a case with a PSU and preinstalled flash card reader and a mainboard with the CPU cooling system on heat pipes. So this system is a true barebone, which is used as a basis for computer assembly. Thanks to their small dimensions and standard “desktop” components, systems of the “cubic” form-factor are very popular among the users. They come into our homes and offices, and gamers also start paying attention to them since it’s hard to find a better computer for a LAN party. The formal specifications of the Shuttle ST61G4 are listed below:

Shuttle ST61G4 comes with the same accessories as every other mini-system from Shuttle. The colorful stylish box with a carry handle contains the barebone (with the mainboard, cooling system and card reader already installed), cables (FDD, Parallel and Serial ATA, power), a user manual, an assembly manual and CD discs with all necessary drivers and software.

Shuttle has been making barebone systems for a while already and now offers over a dozen different products and a number of optional components. For example, these are the things you can use with Shuttle ST61G4: a remote control with a USB receiver, a wireless IEEE 802.11b unit, a knapsack for carrying the barebone about (if you are into LAN parties) and DVD-ROM drives that match the coloring of the barebone (black or silver front panel).

Closer Look

If this is the first time you see the new cubic design from Shuttle, you must be surprised. We have already had a chance to play with the new cubics from Shuttle when we reviewed a solution for Athlon 64 processors (see our article called First Athlon 64 Barebone System Reviewed: Shuttle SN85G4 for details). So, we didn’t expect to find anything new in our today’s hero. We were wrong: Shuttle astonished us once again. The front panel of the Shuttle ST61G4 is decorated with a mirror surface. So far, only Soltek has been using mirror front surfaces in its SFF PCs, and now Shuttle has decided truly very beautiful until you touch it: dirt, dust and fingerprints are all too visible on it. Shuttle took care of that, though, and included a soft cloth to wipe the spots off your Shuttle ST61G4 front panel.

The front panel of the box carries two USB 2.0 ports, one IEEE1394 port, a headphones output, microphone and line inputs. Of course, there are also Power and Reset buttons, a blue Power indicator and an orange HDD activity LED. Note that you can’t reach the Reset button with your finger, because it is small and sunken. There are also slits for the flash card reader, which replaces the 3.5” FDD in all new SFF PCs from Shuttle.

So, Shuttle thinks the advanced user of today doesn’t need a floppy drive anymore, there is no spot for it in the front panel. The “6-in-1” card reader is a kind of compensation supporting flash cards of the following formats: CompactFlash Type I and II, Secure Digital, MemoryStick, MultiMedia Card and SmartMedia. I think that’s a nice substitution, since all operations (including BIOS update and system boot-up) can be done with a CD, flash card or USB flash-drive. Thus, the good old floppy drive is not so necessary nowadays. Moreover, digital cameras and other devices that rely on flash cards as storage media are becoming ever more popular every day.

You also access the 5.25” bay from the front panel. The bay is for an optical drive, and you may find it difficult to pick up a device of the color to match the color of the case: unlike other manufacturers, Shuttle doesn’t cover the bay with a lid or anything like that.

Let’s now take a look at the back of the ST61G4:

We have the back panel of the PSU here with a connector for the power cable and a small fan. The back panel of the mainboard peeps out with its three audio mini-jacks, PS/2 connectors for the mouse and keyboard, D-Sub and TV-Out outputs, one RJ45 network port, two High-Speed USB connectors, one 6-pin IEEE1394 port and one serial port. Add also an SPDIF input and output.

Well, the selection of I/O connectors is quite satisfactory for a modern computer system, only the parallel port is missing. You may say it’s no great loss, but you won’t be able to attach your old printer to the ST61G4 or install HASP keys that are necessary for some programs (mostly professional) to work with.

Regrettably, the manufacturer didn’t implement a DVI output, although ATI RADEON 9100 IGP chipset allows it: no additional chips would be necessary. LCD monitors are popular nowadays, especially in offices, but for some mysterious reason, there is no mini-system in the market to support the digital video output.

The aluminum lid of the case is not painted: that’s Shuttle’s tradition. The dimensions of ST61G4 are standard for a “cubic” system, you can place it on your desk without any concerns about the room interior design: it is far prettier than the sarcophagus of an ordinary PC.

Mainboard

Shuttle ST61G4 owes much of its individuality to the mainboard it is based on. Shuttle manufactures this mainboard specifically for this particular barebone, it is marked as “FT61”. The mainboard deserves our special attention for several reasons. First, it is based on the RADEON 9100 IGP chipset from ATI Technologies, which is quite a remarkable thing as you don’t see many products on this chipset in the market. Second, FT61 is definitely richer than every other mainboard we have reviewed so far in terms of quantity of integrated controllers per square unit. In spite of its small size (254x185mm – smaller than the MicroATX form-factor!), it can rival expensive full-size products. Besides the usual set of controllers we usually see in a SFF PC, the FT61 boasts a SerialATA-150 RAID controller! I haven’t yet seen this function implemented in a barebone.

So, FT61 mainboard uses as a basis for the Shuttle ST61G4 barebone system is built on the integrated ATI RADEON 9100 IGP chipset. Therefore, it supports modern Socket 478 processors with 400/533/800MHz FSB frequency, with or without Hyper-Threading technology support. The manufacturer took care of the CPU voltage regulator and has every right to claim the compatibility of the FT61 with all upcoming processors on the 90nm Prescott core. This compatibility may be a really useful feature as Intel is planning to roll out not only top-end Prescott models boasting high heat dissipation and power consumption, but also slower models like 2.8GHz, 533MHz FSB and no Hyper-Threading. Such a next-generation processor may serve you well in your SFF mini-system.

Like every RADEON 9100 IGP-based mainboard, FT61 supports dual-channel DDR266/333/400 SDRAM. You can install the modules into two 184-pin DIMM slots (1 slot = 1 memory channel). The number of slots is limited because of the design peculiarities, so you should keep it in mind that you don’t have much elbowroom as far as expanding the memory system is concerned.

We have already discussed the strong and weak points of ATI RADEON 9100 IGP chipset in our previous reviews. As you remember, its trump is the fastest integrated graphics core (the RADEON 9200 architecture). RADEON 9100 IGP is the highest-performing chipset with integrated graphics, all thanks to this core. That’s why Shuttle ST61G4 is good in 3D applications with its own integrated graphics and provides high 2D quality in resolutions up to 1600x1200@85Hz. Theoretically, the chipset supports TV-Out and DVI outputs and Shuttle implemented the former feature in the FT61. As for the digital output, manufacturers continue ignoring it, to my regret.

FT61 has an AGP 8x slot for an external graphics card. However, the location of the slot near the edge of the PCB prevents you from installing graphics cards that require additional space for their large cooling systems. By the way, FT61 carries an AGP Proof LED that would light up if you installed an incompatible graphics card (that requires 3.3V of power).

The main drawback of the RADEON 9100 IGP chipset is in the South Bridges it comes with. Shuttle FT61 uses an ATI IXP150 chip that supports only six USB 2.0 ports and two ATA/100 channels. Two USB 2.0 ports sit on the mainboard I/O panel, and the rest of them are onboard connectors. Two more ports are output to the front panel of Shuttle ST61G4, and one port is used for the flash card reader. The last port remains not connected anyway.

To compensate for the limited capabilities of the ATI IXP 150, Shuttle engineers had to throw some onboard controllers onto the FT61.

The sound is implemented on this mainboard via the time-tested solution from Realtek: the six-channel AC’97 ALC650 codec. It is a good, but somewhat old codec, with support of SPDIF In/Out, but without any new technologies like Jack Sensing, for instance.

IXP150 doesn’t support any network at all, so we have an onboard 10/100Mbit Broadcom 4410 controller. The VIA VT6307 chip is responsible for the implementation of the two IEEE1394 ports.

I would also like to stress that Shuttle decided to make its barebone solution as functional as possible and added two SerialATA-150 ports. Curiously enough, the engineers used a Silicon Image 3512 controller, which is not just a SATA controller, but also supports RAID 0 and 1 arrays.

So, FT61 mainboard, intended for Small Form-Factor PCs, does support RAID arrays. Can we really take advantage of this feature in a barebone system where it is quite difficult just to accommodate two hard disk drives at a time? We will talk about it later when we will discuss the case design.

The functionality of the mainboard may be extended through installation of a PCI controller into the available PCI slot.

The PCB layout has been designed for this particular mainboard and its major application in mind. All components and connectors are placed in such a way that you don’t have to show any sleight of hand to assemble your system. When the system is already assembled, you may encounter some difficulties when accessing the ATA/100 connectors, but you will never have this problem on the assembly stage if you are following the instructions carefully. The Clear CMOS jumper is also within an easy reach.

I would also like to stress that even though ST61G4 barebone system doesn’t imply the implementation of a parallel port and a floppy drive, the mainboard used in this system does have all the corresponding connectors laid out. The mainboard also features an IrDA port, although the barebone itself doesn’t allow you to actually use it.

A few words about the BIOS. The BIOS is based on microcode from Award and doesn’t differ greatly from BIOSes of ordinary mainboards. However, manufacturers seem to think that the BIOS of a mainboard for a SFF mini-system shouldn’t have any CPU overclocking or any other fine-tuning options. We haven’t yet seen any truly overclocking-friendly SFF PCs in our labs, and Shuttle ST61G4 doesn’t make an exception this time.

Yes, FT61 mainboard allows changing the frequency and timings of the memory. The BIOS Setup even allows adjusting the Vcore from 0.8250V to 1.5875V, the Vagp from 1.5V to 1.7V and the Vmem from 2.5V to 2.8V. But this is all in vain if you can’t change the FSB frequency, and you can’t change it easily in the FT61. The BIOS Setup offers you one option called “CPU Overclock By”, which can increase the FSB clock-rate by 1%-15% above the standard value, and that’s all. 15% is certainly not a good overclocking result. In other words, if you’ve got a processor that works with the 800MHz bus, you can increase the FSB frequency no more than by 30MHz.

I understand Shuttle’s reasons for doing this. Extreme overclocking of processors installed into a SFF PC is unlikely to be a success, since it is hard to provide appropriate cooling in such a small system case. At the same time, manufacturers forget that many users buy cheaper processors with a small frequency to overclock them to the level of top-end CPUs. So, we still have some hopes to see a SFF PC with fully-fledged overclocking options some day.

Power Supply Unit

The power supply unit is an important component of each barebone system as it must combine both: small size and high wattage. Since Shuttle positions its mini-systems as high-performance computers, in which you can use topmost Pentium 4 processors, the PSU of the Shuttle ST61G4 should be able to feed the hungriest processor as well as a high-performance graphics card you may want to install into the system and a HDD, which will consume some power, too.

Shuttle used a small-size PSU from a noname manufacturer for its ST61G4 (the PSU is marked as if made by Shuttle itself) with 250W power and Power Factor Correction support. 250W is a “grownup” power quite comparable to PSUs installed into desktop computers. Our practical experiments confirmed that the PSU can uphold a system with a Pentium 4 3.2GHz and an ATI RADEON 9700 PRO graphics card.

The PSU of the Shuttle ST61G4 is provided with a 20-pin (main) and 4-pin (12V) power cables for the mainboard as well as two 4-pin 12V, two 5V (Molex) and even one SerialATA power connector for HDDs. Thus you can use an external graphics card without fearing to run out of power cables.

The PSU is cooled by a single fan, which works to exhaust warm air to the outside. Although the fan changes its speed depending on the temperature, it is rather noisy anyway.

Cooling System

Developers of Small Form-Factor PCs have to take special care of proper cooling. The problem of cooling is more vitally urgent in mini-systems as they use ordinary computer components dissipating quite a lot of heat packed into a smaller case. So, if the air doesn’t warm up that fast in large system cases, then in a small form-factor PC efficient cooling is much more important.

Shuttle ST61G4 uses a traditional cooling system designed on heat pipes: we have seen it in other Shuttle barebones. The 80mm fan installed on the back panel drives air through the case, and also through the thin ribs of the CPU heatsink. The heat pipes serve as a mechanism for fast heat transfer from the CPU and the heatsink, which is located at the back panel of the case, too.

So, Shuttle ST61G4 takes air in through the vent holes at the sides and front panel of the system case and exhausts it out through the back panel. Thus, the cool outside air blows around the HDD and the graphics card (if you installed it into your system). The result is quite satisfying: even the most powerful graphics cards and fast hard disk drives do not threaten to overheat inside Shuttle ST61G4.

Besides the big 80mm fan at the back panel, Shuttle ST61G4 also has two small fans. One is in the PSU, and the other is mounted on the heatsink, which is glued to the RADEON 9100 IGP chipset North Bridge. Theoretically, three fans may generate a lot of noise, which is unacceptable for a SFF PC. That’s why Shuttle equipped its barebone with a special intellectual technology intended to reduce the noise level.

The technology just drops down the rotation speed of the big 80mm fan when the system doesn’t need maximum cooling. You can configure the technology in the BIOS Setup where you choose the method for controlling the fan speed: SmartFan, Ultra-Low, Low, Mid or Full.

The algorithm is simple in Ultra-Low, Low and Mid modes: when the CPU temperature is below 80°C, the fan rotates with a fixed speed (2000, 2500 and 3000rpm). When the temperature exceeds 80°C, the fan will speed up to its full. As for the SmartFan mode, it implies step-by-step control over the fan speed: the rotation speed flexibly varies from 2000rpm to 3500rpm depending on the current CPU temperature.

This technology contributes a lot to making your system less noisy, since the 80mm fan is really loud at its full speed. Regrettably, this technology works only for the main system fan, while the two other fans are rather noisy, in spite of their smaller diameter.

Another cooling-related problem with Shuttle ST61G4 is that you don’t receive any utilities for hardware overclocking – you have to run third-party programs to track the temperatures from Windows.

Internals and Assembly

Shuttle ST61G4 has original looks, but its stuffing remained practically the same, only the card reader replaced the FDD that used to occupy the 3.5” bay. Thus, there are no magic tricks you need to know to assemble a fully-fledged system from a Shuttle ST61G4 barebone.

You have to install a processor and memory and attach a HDD and an optical drive. Optionally, you can add an expansion card and an external graphics card. Of course, developers of “cubic” systems take care for everything, so that it could be installed as easily as possible, and you can really cope with the assembly without even looking up in the accompanying manual.

The engineering team from Shuttle has accumulated a huge wealth of experience in making barebone systems, so it is hard to find any faults in the ST61G4: all cables follow optimal routes inside the case with fixing clips where necessary. Strangely enough, barebone makers, including Shuttle, don’t use round aerodynamic cables, although they would be very appropriate in mini-systems like that.

I won’t go into details regarding the actual assembly process. It’s quite typical and you can refer to our previous reviews (for example, about the AOpen XCcube EZ65) for the basic guidelines on the assembly. The drives chassis in the Shuttle ST61G4 can be removed for more convenient HDD installation, while the processor cooler is fastened with a spring clip at the processor side and with four screws at the back panel of the case. After you return back the drives chassis, you can get to the expansion card and AGP graphics card installation. By the way, this system can take “short” as well as “long” graphics cards like NVIDIA GeForce4 Ti. Unfortunately, graphics cards with massive cooling systems (that take the neighboring PCI slot in an ordinary computer) just can’t fit into the ST61G4. Here I am talking about various GeForce FX cards in the first hand, of course.

You will need only a screw-driver to perform the assembly, while the cover and the cooling system can be installed without any tools at all: they are fastened with thumb-screws. Does have this feature, but has no room inside the case for two hard disk drives. So I am rather doubtful about the possibility of building a RAID array here. Well, you can remove the card reader and put a second HDD there, but the slits in the front panel will remain. I think Shuttle integrated the SerialATA controller just for you to be able to use a single SerialATA HDD, as RADEON 9100 IGP doesn’t support this interface initially.

Heat Factor

The first issue I would like to cover in this review is the thermal work-mode. When transforming the Shuttle ST61G4 into a regular powerful computer, you add one or two hot components: the processor and the graphics card (optionally). You should also remember that the manufacturer mentions the compatibility of this barebone with Prescott-based processors, which are much warmer than their predecessors, as we know.

As for the graphics card, it remains cool inside Shuttle ST61G4 as our practical tests show. The case has vent holes against the AGP slot, through which air is sucked inside. So the graphics card remains under an interruptible flow of cool outside air; that’s quite enough for it to remain stable. We questioned the stability of Shuttle ST61G4 with two high-end graphics cards: ATI RADEON 9700 PRO and ATI RADEON 9800. Both cards were working correctly, at least we experienced no problems throughout the entire test session.

We did find problems when testing the system with processors that dissipate a lot of heat. CPUs on the Northwood core (with frequencies up to 3.4GHz) worked stably in Shuttle ST61G4: the cooling system handled them well enough. But when we tried to install a Prescott-based Pentium 4 with a frequency of 3.2GHz, we saw the system freezing from time to time because of the CPU overheating. So I don’t recommend you to use CPUs on Prescott core in Shuttle ST61G4, because these processors generate on average 20% more heat than their Northwood-based predecessors.

We checked the cooling system in the following manner: we installed an Intel Pentium 4 3.2GHz (Northwood core), a RADEON 9700 PRO graphics card, two Corsair XMS3200C2 memory modules, and a Seagate Barracuda ATA IV HDD. Shuttle doesn’t include any hardware monitoring programs with its barebone, so we used the Motherboard Monitor utility. This setup done, we warmed the system up by running 3DMark2001 SE and Content Creation Winstone 2002 benchmarking suites. We got the following temperatures:

 

CPU temperature

System temperature

Idle

38oC

40oC

Load

64oC

50oC

As you see, the cooling system is efficient enough. Talking about the thermal conditions, we should mention the noise factor, too. Shuttle ST61G4 is not very loud in comparison to other cubic barebones available in the today’s market. The 80mm fan that cools the system down is relatively noiseless even at its maximum rotation speed. The whole picture is spoiled by the small fan in the PSU. When it works at its highest rotation speed, it generates rather annoying noise. Anyway, Shuttle ST61G4 is no louder than an ordinary desktop system.

Performance

Now that we are about to start our discussion of the benchmarking results obtained on Shuttle ST61G4, we would like to remind you once again that it is built on ATI RADEON 9100 IGP chipset. We have already dedicated an entire review to the ATI RADEON 9100 IGP chipset (click here for details). On the one hand, its integrated graphics core has no rival today, but on the other hand, the memory controller is very slow. Keeping these two facts in mind, you can easily explain the results you see below.

To check out the performance level of Shuttle ST61G4 we assembled it with an Intel Pentium 4 3.2GHz processor, two Corsair XMS3200LL memory modules (256MB each), a Western Digital WD360GD HDD (Raptor), and a CD-ROM. After benchmarking this system, we added an external RADEON 9700 PRO graphics card and ran the tests anew to see how the graphics card would influence the system performance.

In the table below we also included the results of an analogous desktop system on ASUS P4P800 mainboard (Intel 865PE chipset) as well as the results of another barebone, AOpen XCcube EZ65, based on Intel 865G integrated chipset. The system ran Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1 and DirectX 9.0b installed.

 

AOpen XC?ube EZ65

Shuttle ST61G4

ASUS P4P800

Internal Graphics

ATI RADEON 9700 PRO

Internal Graphics

ATI RADEON 9700 PRO

ATI RADEON 9700 PRO

i865G

ATI RADEON 9100 IGP

i865PE

Business Winstone 2002

33.8

34.5

34.0

33.9

36.3

Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2003

51.8

53.2

51.5

52.0

54.2

3DMark2001 SE, Score

2992

16827

5664

15623

17661

3DMark03, Score

37

5118

818

4803

5162

3DMark03, CPU Score

-

724

576

678

771

SiSoft Sandra 2004, RAM Buffered Bandwidth

4519

4764

3995

4165

5045

UT2003, dm-antalus, 1024x768x32

9.58

65.28

33.31

59.95

69.06

Quake3 Arena, four, 1024x768x32

57.4

370.8

84.5

312.3

400.1

I guess it is all clear. If you are planning to use the integrated graphics core of the Shuttle ST61G4 system, you wouldn’t find a better alternative. But if you are planning to install an external graphics card, this barebone won’t please you with high performance. At least, Socket 478 systems on other chipsets work faster in this case.

Conclusion

When reviewing ATI RADEON 9100 IGP chipset, I expressed my opinion that it would suit well for a barebone system due to its fast graphics core. Shuttle ST61G4 is a proof that I was right. The “cubic” from Shuttle is just excellent until we start to compare its performance with an installed add-on graphics card with that of other barebone systems on other chipsets. So, this is the main bottleneck of Shuttle ST61G4: it is slow with an external graphics card. Well, it’s really not the fault of the engineering team from Shuttle, it’s just the choice of the chipset that determines this situation.

As for the rest of the features available in this barebone, they are quite satisfactory for today. The system offers you everything necessary like USB 2.0 and IEEE1394, integrated video and audio, Serial and Parallel ATA, a universal card reader and good expansion options.

Highs:

Lows: