For some time now we’ve been telling people that when it comes to computers – small is the new big. By now, Small Form Factor (SFF) systems were supposed to have replaced the towering behemoths that currently take up space in most people’s offices. Shuttle was the first to introduce these type of systems with its XPS line but they haven’t managed to attain the widespread popularity expected of them.
One of the reasons for this is price. Shuttle’s are notoriously expensive, and while it keeps up with technology and offers the latest chipsets, scant few XPC bargains may be found. When you consider that you can buy a complete PC from Dell for £299, the SN27P2 looks expensive, when the £319.95 asking price only includes the case, motherboard and a 400W PSU.
It’s somewhat unsporting to compare the SN27P2 barebones to the cheapest desktop Dell is selling on the day of this review. The Dell in question, the Dimension 3100C, is not easy on the eye. It’s a half-height, black plastic chunk, with a Celeron D, 256MB of RAM and integrated graphics. What it does offer is a low price tag and a well-trusted brand, like the Ford Fiesta of desktop computing.
While the SN27P2 can’t match the price of the Dell it does triumph over it in terms of style, features and upgradeability. The barebone system is based on nVidia’s nForce 570 Ultra MCP chipset, which supports the new AMD Socket M2 processors and provides four RAM slots for up to 4GB of PC6400 DDR2 memory in dual-channel mode.
This XPC doesn’t come with integrated graphics, as the £299 Dell does, but the system provides both a PCI-E 16x socket and a six-pin PCI-E power connector. The nForce 570 performs well as a gaming board, and there’s just about sufficient space for a double slot graphics card should you wish to shoehorn one in. The main problem with this though, is that it blocks the motherboard’s single 32-bit PCI slot.
This effectively prevents the installation of an internal soundcard, however the SN27P2 has acceptable onboard sound. The inbuilt Realtek ALC882 provides 7.1 channel sound, while a lone USB header will allow you to attach a single internal USB device or backplane.
You can expand the system to store a fair amount of data too. The board’s SATA2 controller is wired to three internal SATA ports and one external port and provides support for RAID 0 / 1 / 0+1, and RAID 5. IDE drives are less well supported though, with only a single port for use with an optical drive.
As you’d expect from Shuttle the outside of the case is bristling with even more connections than the inside. The back of the case has connections for a Marvell Gigabit LAN socket, analogue outputs for the 7.1 surround sound, S/PDIF Optical in and out as well as an S/PDIF Coaxial Output. You’ll also find six USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire port, and the aforementioned external SATA port. Hidden down at the bottom of the case is an external CMOS clear switch, which although not often used, makes it easy to remedy any mistakes you make in the BIOS setup.
Hidden behind a flap, the front of the case provides a further pair of USB 2.0 ports, and a mini FireWire port. Additionally, there’s easily accessible headphone and microphone jacks on the front.
Invariably, the most important factor in any SFF system is how the case enables cooling air to flow over the components. This is a major stumbling point of many compact systems: cramming toasty hot parts into a toaster sized case without adequate ventilation.