GeekTech: Building a Big Little PC

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When it comes to PCs, I've always thought bigger is better. I don't need the largest SUV, boat, or house--but when I'm building a computer, I like to supersize it. Big implies power, performance, and flexibility. Plus, I remind myself, the extra room a megatower affords makes the build easy, airflow ample, and upgrades a snap. And you never know when an emergency will require you to add three optical drives at once. (Hey, it could happen.)

There are few dependable truths in life, but I figured my big-computers-kick-ass rule was one of them--sort of like death and taxes.

But then I built my first small-form-factor PC, using a bare-bones package from Shuttle Computer Group. And wouldn't you know it, the little bugger absolutely blew me away with its excellent set of features and an attractive case I'd proudly place on my desk or in my living room.

Now if we could just get those Shuttle folks to do something about death and taxes.

An Engineering Marvel

When you're going to cram the contents of a full-featured PC into a package roughly the size of a toaster, you need to plan ahead. The engineers at Shuttle clearly have: My $250 XPC SN41G2 bare-bones PC is so cleverly conceived and designed it nearly brought tears to my geek eyes.

Most notable are the cables. As an anal-retentive PC builder flummoxed by the average build's inevitable unruly tangle of internal cables, I was amazed by the way each cable sprang from Shuttle's diminutive motherboard and ingeniously intertwined within the chassis, keeping everything neat, clean, and manageable.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Shuttle's bare-bones systems ship with a chassis, motherboard, and seemingly meek 200-watt power supply. The Shuttle motherboard in my system, the FN41, uses NVidia's excellent NForce 2 chip set, which supports Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon XP CPU. The motherboard provides an impressive list of inputs and outputs--some on the front, some on the back--that include Ethernet, USB 2.0, IEEE 1394, and a full range of audio jacks, including optical in and out.

Shuttle throws in a motherboard manual and an installation guide. I found both to be remarkably clear and complete; most vendors' documentation borders on unreadable. I think the guide left out instructions on installing the internal USB connector, which is pretty forgivable in my book. After perusing both documents, I was ready to go.

Getting It Together

I installed my Athlon XP processor and covered it with a thin layer of thermal compound. In lieu of a big, fat, impractical CPU heat sink and fan, Shuttle provides a liquid-filled heat pipe that clamps down on the processor, drawing heat away from the chip and past the single chassis fan for cooling (slick!). Installing my two Kingston DDR memory DIMMs was a bit trickier due to space constraints, but proved doable.

Once the processor and memory were set, I plugged in all the drive cables and went about installing my DVD-R drive and 160GB hard drive in the pull-out cage; I opted to skip the floppy drive. Space being an issue, the cage rests on the top chassis rails, with the drives essentially hanging down directly over the motherboard.

Next up was the graphics card, and again Shuttle's design impressed me. To install the AGP card, I first unscrewed the skinny metal plate that covers the AGP expansion card opening in the back of the case, just as you would with any PC. I shoehorned the card in through the side of the chassis and quickly found I lacked the leverage necessary to seat it in the AGP slot. Then I noticed those clever Shuttle folks had installed a small flip-up door on the back of the case, immediately adjacent to the narrow ends of both the AGP opening and the unit's sole PCI card opening. So I unscrewed the plate covering the PCI slot opening, flipped up the metal door, and had enough space to angle the AGP card into its spot.

After marveling for a few more minutes at the aforementioned cabling precision, I closed up the case and plugged everything in. Total build time: 50 minutes.

Mighty Mini Marvel

I powered up and worked my way through the motherboard's impressively detailed setup screens, then installed Windows XP. That went well, and soon I was installing the included motherboard drivers. Next I created my first drive backup image, sans video card drivers, and then I installed those drivers.

My setup wasn't flawless: The system kept hanging during reboots, and after much speculation and tinkering, I realized the video card that I'd used was the problem. Time constraints forced me to swap out the card for that of another vendor. I'm not going to name names until I can further troubleshoot the issue; I do not, however, blame Shuttle's motherboard. After tackling the video card issue, I was back in business.

One of the biggest knocks against Shuttle systems has always been noise, and I found this to be an issue at first. Maybe it's their small size, but the system's chassis and power supply fans seem to emit a particularly annoying whine. However, the unit's setup menu offers a solution: fan settings. I changed the fan settings to ultra-low and noticed a dramatic drop in the noise. There are five different settings to play with: You can choose the best compromise between noise and performance-enhancing cooling, secure in the knowledge that the BIOS won't let the CPU burn itself up.

With the fans properly set, the system noise melted into the background. I completely forgot about it once I fired up the unit's excellent integrated NVidia audio. The company's Soundstorm audio chip might not match a high-end sound card, but it's pretty darn close. Plugged into a fine set of speakers, it provided truly impressive sound whether pumping out music or movie soundtracks.

In fact, the entire system easily handled everything I threw at it, from basic tasks like Web surfing and document creation to bigger jobs like media encoding and DVD burning. My modest processor and memory selections never caused problems, and the 200-watt power supply never balked.

I'm impressed. Can you tell?

Never Say Never

And so, with great sorrow, I must retire yet another of my steadfast PC rules. "Bigger is better" joins other gems like "A 40GB hard drive is plenty big" and "Home RF is better than Wi-Fi" in the graveyard of misguided mantras.

Sure, upgrades won't be easy with only one PCI slot to work with, and certainly I won't be adding any more internal hard drives or extra cooling fans--but these trade-offs are acceptable.

I will say this, however: If this were my only PC, and I ran into that hypothetical emergency situation that required the installation of three optical drives, I'd be hosed. But I think I can live with that.

Ever built a small-form-factor PC of your own? How did it go? Are you pleased with its performance? Drop me a line and tell me your story.
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