Shuttle XPC SN27P2 small form-factor PC
Build-your-own AMD Socket AM2 box
Review With the demise of Airfix, we blokes are left with few hobbies to pursue. Happily, we can still build our own PCs. If you want to work on the cheap you can use a beige tower, but should you fancy a modicum of style then there's no better starting point than a Shuttle barebone...
The Shuttle XPC SN27P2 is externally identical to the SD37P2, which we reviewed a little while back and measures the same 32.5 x 22 x 21cm, but internally the cooling system has been revised. Cooling in a small form-factor PC is no minor consideration, and that's especially true with the SN27P2, which uses a Shuttle FN27 motherboard with support for all Socket AM2 processors, including the Athlon 64 FX. In addition, you get four DDR 2 memory slots - for up to 8GB of RAM, ie. no more than 2GB per slot - and a proper PCI Express x16 slot that can accommodate a double-slot graphics card, provided you're prepared to sacrifice the adjacent PCI slot.
Shuttle provides a 400W power supply that includes a six-pin PCIe graphics connector so you've got all of the fundamentals that you need to build a full-on PC that just happens to fit into a small case. Getting inside the Shuttle to start your build is a breeze. Remove four thumb screws and the cover slides back and then lifts off, revealing the two hard-drive bays that live at the top of case. Each drive bay is secured to the top rails of the chassis with four screws and orients the drive across the case with one bay located behind the other.
It takes moments to remove the bay, install a drive and reinstall the drive bay. As the power and SATA cables are clipped into exactly the right position on the chassis rail it's a doddle to connect them up. These new drive bays are a relatively small change but they make a world of difference to the layout of the XPC. With the two hard drive bays removed you can pull out the combined optical and floppy drive bay, a process which effectively guts the case, laying all its secrets bare. We call it a floppy bay, but in the event that you choose not to install a floppy drive you could always fit a third hard drive which will suit fans of RAID 5.
At the back of the case you have the power supply which of course has a fan that draws air through the unit before it's expelled to the rear. Above the power supply there are dual 60mm fans that draw cooling air over the hard drive bays. Finally, we have Shuttle's own ICE cooling module on the processor. On one side of the cooler there's a 70mm fan and on the other you have a hinged 90mm unit that can be swung to one side in the event that you need to gain access to the fan headers on the motherboard. That's a great deal of cooling and while the fans are relatively quiet they nonetheless combine to produce a steady droning noise. Curiously, we found that the two ICE fans run at all times, even when the PC is shut down.
During the construction of our test PC with an Athlon 64 5000+, 2GB of Kingston KHX6400 RAM and a Western Digital 250GB hard drive, the only snag that we hit was when we tried to install an Asus 7600GT Top Silent graphics card. This uses a bulky passive heatsink which fouled against the Shuttle casing. Switching to a regular Asus 7600GT, the PC went together smoothly and we got on with the installation of Windows.
We spent a few seconds in the BIOS but there are very few options to distract you and certainly very little to attract the overclocker. Once Windows was installed I was unimpressed by the rather basic Shuttle driver CD as it doesn't have a 'one click' installer and neither does it include the AMD dual-core CPU driver or a Windows-based BIOS updating utility. Other motherboard companies such as Gigabyte and MSI do a far better job in this respect.
Performance was good without being astounding. We got 5,692 in PCMark05. Swapping the graphics card for a double-slot ATI Radeon X1900 XTX bumped the score to 6,014 marks and then it increased further to 6,153 marks when we installed a single-slot Asus EN 7950GT card. More to the point, the Shuttle handled the swaps without any trouble and was cool and fairly quiet throughout our testing.
There's no doubt that the Shuttle would handle LAN party duties with aplomb as it's a fully featured PC that is easy to transport. However, it's also perfectly suited to replace a regular tower PC. Clearly this is a style statement as you're paying a hefty premium for the smaller, more stylish box, but it has the (small) bonus that you'll be able to reach the ports on the back of the Shuttle almost as easily as you can reach the ones behind the drop-down flap on the front. In total you get eight USB 2.0, two Firewire and an eSATA, which is better than almost any PC on the market. The only downside is that there are no PS/2 ports so you'll need both a USB mouse and a USB keyboard.
While a small, stylish PC may seem like the ideal candidate for a media centre PC that sits in your living room, I feel that such a PC ought to be completely silent and in that respect the Shuttle doesn't quite fit the bill. Ah yes, the bill. We mentioned that the SN27P2 is expensive but in truth it is very, very expensive. A penny under £320 is a great deal of money for a case, power supply and motherboard, so by my reckoning you're paying about £200 for the hardware and £100 for some very tidy styling.
I like the Shuttle SN27P2, really I do, but it has a fundamental flaw which is that the Athlon 64 X2 has for now been surpassed by Intel's Core 2 Duo. In the event that you want to go down the AMD route you have to deal with a fair amount of heat, and while Shuttle deals with the problem admirably the result is a PC that's a little noisier than I'd like. And although it's superbly constructed, the Shuttle is too expensive. ®