Shuttle SN41G2 Barebones System

Shuttle, around £200 inc VAT or less

A few years ago, all PCs looked virtually the same, they were large tower or desktop cases that weren't always that pretty to look at. Enter the concept of the mini-PC, and enter Shuttle, whom right from the start had both the design and the knowhow to create some really nice barebones system. In Shuttle's case, the barebones normally consists of a small motherboard pre-installed into a matching case, with all the necessary features most users could want, with a limited amount of expansion possible. They've come a long way, and this model is one of the current models that supports the AMD Athlon XP processor.

As I was having to upgrade one of our PCs in the office, I thought about portability and effectiveness, and so a few days ago my excitement levels went up a notch as I took delivery of the system and the extra components I'd ordered to make the system complete. This included an AMD Athlon XP 2600 processor along with 512MB of Geil DDR400 memory with aluminium heat spreader - the rest of the parts I already had.

The first thing to do is just marvel at the small size - it really is tiny. But within there's plenty for the average user to connect to: four USB 2.0 ports (two front, two back), three FireWire ports (one front, two back), front audio connectors for headphones etc, onboard LAN, digital audio out (as well as line and speaker outs like the front audio has), dual VGA out and TV-out thanks to the onboard nVidia Geforce 4MX integrated graphics and not forgetting PS/2 slots for keyboard and mouse. Inside, an AGP8x slot and a single PCI slot offer expandability - so if you're a gamer, you may wish to put a better AGP card in instead. The motherboard also has an extra internal USB connector for any camera card readers you might wish to install - a nice touch.

No parallel port, I hear you ask? Well, there is an onboard header on the motherboard where you can buy a Shuttle cable - which will use up one of the holes for the expansion slots to insert the parallel connector in. If your printer is USB of course, as a lot are, you won't have to bother. In my view, this is a good idea, it gives the user a choice and if they have a USB printer, even better.

Putting It All Together

After unpacking the box, the Shuttle was there, along with a standard powe cable, and there was another box: this one contained all the cables, and a driver CD along with two manuals: one for the motherboard, and one being an assembly guide. The cables were also labelled clearly at the end - a boost for first time users. What was even nicer was that when I opened up the case (a simple job: unscrew three thumbscrews at the back and lift the top of the case off) the secondary IDE cable was already connected and tucked away neatly in the side of the case, making life much easier.

The assembly guide is an essential read, and it really does its best to take anyone step by step through the process of building a Shuttle. The documentation, if followed properly, really helps enormously, with colour photo shots of someone actually doing the steps so you can see what your end result is like, enabling you to check you've done things correctly. Although in English and Chinese, it's clear to read and the images are crystal clear for you to refer to. I can't praise this documentation highly enough, a lot of PC manufacturers could really learn here how to do it from these manuals. The basic steps you take, once you've removed the cover are:

It took me about half an hour to do those steps, and that was going slow, referring to the manual. The cables are all laid out with the right length, and you can slot any excess cable to the outer parts of the case and also use two cable ties you get provided to further neaten up the cabling. The screws provided were of high quality and certainly provided no problems removing or placing them back, such as the drive tray and the heat pipe. The heat pipe mechanism is most excellent, and is good enough to make you not worry about not being able to place a CPU fan on top like you normally would do. With this Shuttle, the power supply is 250W instead of 200W, and the heat pipe simply sits on top of the processor, and a fan at the back of the Shuttle blows the air the right way, keeping the processor relatively cool. Also, the way the case is buit, a fair bit of the cables are routed round the sides, avoiding clutter. Additionally, the hard drive cable goes underneath the drive tray, held in place by a nice retaining clip, keeping the cable to a minimum length and also being efficient.

When finished, it looked the part in its silver sheen with all the front connectors nice and clean looking, and the back panel is organised efficiently to avoid clutter as well. When you insert an expansion card, you take off both screws that hold the cards or blanking plates in to open a little door, you drop the card in, then close the door and screw it back together. Simple, and it works really well. So, a massive thumbs up so far. Now, wonder what will happen when I switch on?

Turn On, Tune Up, and Chill Out

With everything connected (including a nice flatscreen TFT monitor for testing) I switched the Shuttle on. There was a brief fan noise as the fan for the onboard graphics kicked in, and then - almost silence as it booted up. I had to check to make sure, but the blue power light shone brightly and the orange hard disk LED was weaving its magic. The virtual silence was amazing - those of you used to loud screaming case fans are in for a real treat - let me tell you. I entered the BIOS set up, and set everything up correctly like I needed to, ensuring the processor front side bus was right, turning off the features I didn't need (I had no floppy drive connected, no parallel port either) and booted up from a bootable Windows XP CD to begin installation.

Installing Windows XP on the Shuttle was a relatively simple and pain-free process. The BIOS allowed me to boot off CD, and it worked fine, and within about half an hour I'd installed XP without any problems at all. I then had my CD ready with Service Pack 1 and all the relevant patches I'd snagged for offline use, so that when it went online I was pre-protected against the Sasser and Blaster worms, and installed anti-virus software at the same time. Then, it was a case of installing the mainboard drivers from the CD, in two parts: one was for the nVidia nForce 2 motherboard drivers, including IDE, memory controllers, sound, network etc. Once that was done, it was then installing the graphics driver, which like the usual nVidia graphics drivers was an easy and simple job to do. Once all that was done, I connected the Shuttle up to the network, snagged all the relevant Windows XP patches etc, and also installed the latest nVidia nForce2 motherboard drivers. This got me round a small problem exectuable that was occasionally crashing on startup for some reason (but this might have been as the hard disk had been previously pre-ghosted for another PC motherboard) and also gave me improved and more stable IDE drivers - definitely worth doing if you can.

The PCI slot worked flawlessly for me - mine had an Adaptec 1210SA Serial ATA RAID card with two Serial ATA drives that I installed in the drive bay later on, once I'd installed Windows XP and all the drivers. Although some higher spec Shuttle models come with Serial ATA RAID (worth noting if you're thinking of hooking up Serial ATA hard drives), as I'd already built the RAID array it was the easier (and cheaper, of course) option to use the card and the disks, and it was completely fine without any problems whatsoever. Essential for what I was going to be using it for, as well. Even with three hard disks installed (one for the OS, two for the RAID array) the Shuttle performed superbly, and wasn't even warm, which must say a lot for its cooling. Not to mention it was powering three hard disks without endangering the heat - there is actually a CPU overheat LED on the board you can look at if you do get worried about the heat - I checked and it was always off - so certainly the heatpipe was being most excellent without a doubt.

I also did some basic tests of the onboard Geforce 4MX graphics, it shares 32MB of the system memory, which although to some might be a bind, for users just using one for their office work and non-graphics intensive applications, it's more than enough. The Geforce 4 MX isn't the worst graphics processor ever, and so you should find it's more than adequate for most needs. Certainly testing it with the Direct X Direct Draw and Direct 3D tests made sure of one thing: smoothness and efficiency with a good refresh rate thrown in. Of course, with an AGP 8x slot as well, if it is too slow, you know you can upgrade at a later time.

And if you want to look flashy, here's an idea for you: you could use the TV-out (there's a cable provided with a female yellow phono video at one end so you can connect a video phono cable to the TV) as well as hook up the digital audio out to your home cinema system, then add a wireless keyboard and mouse - and hey presto! Couch potato with PC entertainment system. Shuttle also do a USB cordless remote controller which does basic Windows functions as well as control programs - and that's rather neat.

Overall Thoughts

Three words: I want one. Yes, I was that impressed. The documentation is perfect for first time builders or veterans like me, the parts have been assembled with a distinct look of quality about them, and the fact everything worked first go tells you all that you need to know. If you're sick of a big assed PC taking up space, churning out more noise than you can hear from your PC speakers, then it's really time to look at the Shuttle series. The SN41G2 I've reviewed here is excellent as an AMD Athlon XP based system: you'd only have to get a processor, memory, hard drive, CD or DVD drive, keyboard, mouse and monitor in reality there's your setup complete. In addition of course, if you're upgrading, you'll have some of these parts already, and so life is even easier.

Don't be put off by the price tag, I've seen this for around £175 online, and with some online retailers at the moment you also get a free 128MB Sandisk USB2 pen drive for pure portability of files for you, too, making it even more of a bargain. And believe me, the build quality, the efficiency of the CPU heatpipe and the performance was nothing short of stunning. Give this some very very serious consideration when you're either upgrading or buying a new PC. I promise you - it will be worth it!

Warren's rating: 94%