We got to spend some down and dirty, hands-on time with Shuttle’s latest eco-friendly offering: The X27.
No, it’s not a new kitchen cleaner, it’s their new full-featured mini-PC, half the size of their already tiny XPCs and drawing a fraction of the power. Based on Intel’s new Atom 230 processor, it’s capable of smooth DVD playback and much more!
Read all about it here .
The X27 arrives in the ubiquitous suitcase-box. There’s a sticker on the side that tells you a little about what to expect:
- Intel Atom 230 Processor
- DDR2 RAM
- Intel’s GMA950 graphics
- Both DVI and standard VGA output
- Gigabit LAN
- 5.1 HD audio
Not a bad-sounding deal, for such a petite package.
Inside we have the PC, safely wrapped in that foamy papery stuff. Tucked into the niches on either end are yet another 3-prong power cord for your collection, and the 60W AC/DC power brick that will power this little marvel. Slid alongside the PC is a baggie of supporting bits: Quickstart guide, driver disc, teeny-tiny screws for mounting the drives. There is a full manual included on the disc.
Jumping ahead a bit to the "power on" state, here’s the outside. The front is sleek and shiny. The power light isn’t overwhelming, which is a welcome change from recent trends! Next to the power light is a drive activity light, which glows orange when something’s happening.
Both black panels above and below the silver strip open up – the top reveals an optical drive, if installed, and the bottom gives you headphones, a microphone input and two high-speed USB 2.0 ports.
The silver sliver on the right is the power button. I found it slightly difficult to push – this can be a blessing and a curse. For those who aren’t likely to turn it on and off a lot, who cares? And for people like me, who have small children with curious fingers, challenging is a bonus. If it’s going to be sitting somewhat out of the way, it might be tricky to reach easily.
You can see the near mirror finish on the top of the case in the rear shot. It’s a very nice-looking box. It’s worth noting that by the end of my testing, I had scuffed the top somewhat by stacking a fairly innocuous USB hard drive on it – if you plan to stack, I’d recommend some felt feet or similar to protect the finish!
Here with two thumbscrews removed and the top off, you can see the more than adequate venting on the sides. The ports on the I/O panel (from left to right) include PS/2 ports, DB-9 serial port, VGA and DVI plugs, four more USB 2.0 ports, gigabit LAN, and three configurable audio jacks. You can kinda see the DC power input way over on the right.
The metal plate is the bracket for holding your optical and hard drives. Note that you must use laptop drives in this machine! And even more, the hard drive must be SATA! Your humble reviewer did not realize this, and ended up having to cobble together quite a melange of hardware to get the poor box running.
Shuttle tells me that they plan to include an IDE adapter for laptop optical drives with the barebones when it hits production, which will help immensely.
Here we’ve got a good view of the internal layout. (Pardon the glare, please.) The second circuit board at the very front of the case is the DC power supply. It "only" comes with three power connectors: One for SATA, one floppy-style, and one traditional molex. There’s room for one stick of DDR2, so make it count! The fan you see on the upper heatsink is the only fan in the entire system, and it was awfully quiet. Shuttle’s online specs for this machine put it at 23db, and as it wouldn’t register on our sound meter (which bottoms out at 30) I guess that’s correct. You can also see on the upper left the SATA ports – which I highly recommend you make use of.
In particular: when I first unpacked this machine, it came with two SATA cables in place – one traditional cable that we’re all used to, and also the one pictured above. This was a new one to me, and I had to look it up – turns out this is a mini-SATA spec, used in this case specifically for an optical drive. It comes with a molex socket for power, and clips nicely in the back of, for example, a slim/notebook DVD burner.
This reviewer clearly needs to get out more. (Or stay in, depending on how you view this hobby…)
I’ll digress for a little bit at this point, to talk about the X27 and storage drives: I highly HIGHLY recommend going SATA. Not only does the machine come with excellent cabling for them, an IDE hard drive simply will not fit. And believe me, I tried – to the extent of sawing bits off of my laptop/IDE hard drive adapter. Shuttle has so tightly engineered the space inside this box that the adapter got in the way of the rear ports.
And as far as the optical drive goes – even though they will ship with a notebook IDE optical drive adapter, cramming a standard 80-pin IDE cable (even a round one) in such a tight spot would severely hamper airflow, and all the venting would be for naught.
So after messing a bit with drive placement, I thought – okay, I’ll just install to a USB hard drive from a USB CD-ROM drive and run from there. Disk performance won’t be hot, but I can get ‘er running. It turned out that WinXP, while it would initialize and start installing to a USB drive – well, you know that bit where it reboots and says "39 minutes remaining…?" I never got that far; it would start to boot, then BSOD on me. (I would like to stress that I hold this to be no fault of this machine. A Linux Mint USB pendrive booted just fine.) So in the end, I got a lovely flat ribbon cable, ran it from the IDE port on the X27′s motherboard out the back of the case, into the back of the USB enclosure, and plugged it directly into the drive, bypassing the USB circuitry.
And so we boot! The spell-checker/editor in me wants to tell them that "Glamor" isn’t a word, but I looked it up and it is. Ah well. I have to admit that the box does have a certain charm to it, so the tag isn’t entirely inappropriate.
The bios is largely standard stuff. This is not an overclocking box, rather meant to be unobtrusive and do its job quietly, and the available options show that. I’m omitting screens that we’ve all seen – hard drive lists and boot priorities, turn on and off the USB and other ports…
The first mystery item we have is on the "CPU Feature," screen. "Select Delay Prior to Thermal" is the first indicator of something that might help keep the box cool and quiet (apologies to AMD. It’s a good phrase). However, the manual only explains this option as "This item is select Delay Prior to Thermal." It’s like looking up "pithy" and reading "having lots of pith." Choices are 4, 8, 16 or 32 minutes, and I’m guessing it’s something to do with the temperature.
"C1E Function" has a little more info: "When disabled, processor can’t transition to a lower core frequency and voltage." You most likely should leave this at "Auto" to keep your power consumption low as needed.
You do have the ability to manually set memory timings. And of course, with onboard graphics, you must choose how much RAM will be dedicated to it. On the right we see the power management setup. It also is standard stuff, although I have not run across "Resume by Alarm" before. This feature allows you to enter a day of the month and time of day at which the machine will automatically start up. Nifty!
I found it amusing that I could initialize the display from a PCI slot that’s not there, but that’s just a nitpick. (Maybe someone with mad soldering skillz could cobble one in there!)
You can specify what level of fan speed control you’d like as well – it defaults to "Ultra-low speed," which is where I measured the sound. The additional fan header is toward the rear of the case, just inside the serial port.
Despite all my bungling around with IDE drives, this was a very simple case to use. Part of that is that, yes, it’s just a motherboard in a box. Part of it is the way that Shuttle has engineered the drive tray, as well. The drives install very easily in their custom-molded slots, and the enclosed eeensy-weeensy (for God’s sake don’t drop them in a deep pile carpet!) screws keep things solid. Finally, using SATA will keep the interior uncluttered – another Shuttle trademark.
Here’s my final product, ready to go, minus all of my workspace clutter. I like to think it looks kinda like the space shuttle sitting on the back of a 747 heading home to Cape Canaveral… but then I admitted above I need to get out more.
As stated above, Windows XP SP2 installed just fine – to an IDE drive. I figure it’s very likely that the 3.5" drive in its enclosure is pulling as much if not more juice than the X27 itself. (I am budgeting for a Kill-o-watt meter for future reviews.) The drivers from the included disc installed smoothly, and it hit 1600×1050 without breaking a sweat. But how does it perform?
What’s this all about, then?
As opposed to other reviews I’ve done, this is going to be a largely subjective review. "Wait," you’re asking, "Aren’t reviews necessarily subjective?" Well, yes and no. Nobody expects the Intel video chipset to be a contender for, say, Half Life: Lost Coast. And its 3DMark05 rating bears that out: a whopping 242. (No, that’s not a typo. Two hundred and forty-two.) So I did not spend a lot of time running Prime95 and CPU benchmarks.
Instead, the questions I asked myself were, "What was this machine meant to do?" and "Does it do it?"
To my mind, you buy a low-power machine like this for one of only a handful of reasons:
1. Video/music playback
2. Web surfing
3. File serving
And so I looked into those areas. Apologies to those of you who love numbers and charts – this review has none.
For video playback, I pulled up a DVD – standard, not HD or Blu-Ray (see above comment about budgeting etc.) – and a high-def AVI file. Both played absolutely smoothly to my subjective eyes, and the 5.1 sound was stellar.
Wellll, okay, you get two pictures, so that’s good for at least 2 kilowords. On the left is a screenshot from the movie "Flightplan." I chose this one because of the flashlight glare. On many video playback machines and chipsets, you would expect to see banding in the transition from the white flashlight to the dark background. I saw none. In fact, all the DVD shots I captured were excellent in this regard, with very crisp detail.
The second shot is from the recent television phenomenon "Battlestar Galactica," and is a high-def video, transcoded into AVI. This in particular is using the Xvid codec. The lack of artifacting and high detail is a testament to both the encoder and the playback.
The sound is handled by the Realtek ALC662 5.1 Channel High Definition chipset, and did a stellar job decoding the DVD. The utility that came with the machine to control your audio output was very easy to use as well, allowing you to reassign the microphone, rear, and center/sub jacks as desired. (Plus it includes the fun "make it sound like a bee flying around my head" 3D demo.)
As far as web surfing… what can be said? It surfed the web. It downloaded large files. It played youtube videos. The gigabit LAN port barely ticked over with my scraggly 3mbps DSL connection. There seemed to be brief hiccups from time to time – I’m guessing this is when the processor was shifting into and out of high gear – but it was consistently responsive and, more importantly, never annoying. Having worked with other itsy-bitsy systems, specifically VIA’s EPIA series, I can say that this one’s better. (And it’s a whole lot more attractive than the hacked-together case I managed for that project. [And it's less power-hungry! Win-win-win.])
IE7 was used for this test.
I did nab some SiSoft Sandra numbers, ethernet throughput among them. It was large, naturally I can’t find those notes. (It’s gigabit ethernet – what do you expect?)
Fileserving was a bit of a mixed bag. I don’t have a gigabit network at home, so I wasn’t really able to pull out all the stops, but copying files to and from it and streaming some video to another machine gave it no problems at all.
An additional point I’d like to mention is that it sleeps GREAT, the best example of power-saving that I’ve seen ever. The whole shebang seemed to shut right down, hard drive, fan and all, and I thought for sure that my next power-up would be a reboot and disk check – but it just popped right back into life as though nothing had happened. Network was back up, drive spun up, fan came back on. It was a thing of beauty to behold.
I like it!
It’s a cute little box – a far cry from the quad-core SX48P2 that I got to play with last time, but aimed at a completely different niche. Some perks that this machine has above its competitors (Atom-based subnotebooks like the MSI Wind and EeePC) include the optical drive bay, dual video outputs (D-sub and DVI) and a plethora of USB ports – 4 in back, 2 in front, and 2 more available via motherboard header.
In fact, the USB headers on the motherboard make it rather expandable: Install a USB wifi adapter or USB bootable flash drive inside the box, leaving the rest of your ports free!
So let’s break it down:
Ease of Build: 9/10
To reuse the phrase, it’s a very straightforward box. Uncomplicated. With the top off, you can get to the memory slot and IDE/SATA sockets with absolute ease. The tray they’ve included to hold the drives is very well designed, and fits perfectly in the space. Only note, and I can’t stress this enough: GO SATA. They’ve included an IDE port for a slim optical drive, but an IDE cable would just eat space and airflow. Once you’ve got the drives in the tray, it just slides into place and the whole thing is done two thumbscrews later. It’ll take you ten minutes, tops (including the part where you drop the microscopic drive screws into your pile carpet). It seems hard to beat.
It’s not a screaming machine. You’re not playing any major modern 3D shooters on it. But if you need a simple, energy-efficient machine to teleconference, keep up on your email or Google docs, or even sit in your home theater and play movies, this is your box. It’s quiet and cool and does exactly what it’s intended to do.
It’s a purdy little box, would look nice on a bookshelf, in your kitchen, on a desk, in a library, etc. The purpose of this machine is to be unobtrusive, and it manages that nicely. The LED indicators on the front are not overwhelming, which can be hard to find these days.
Noise level: 9/10
I did wonder if the single fan in there could be disabled, but since it was just a loaner I didn’t feel like experimenting too much. Purists will demand absolute silence, which is not found here – but I predict it will be no louder than the hard drive you install.
It includes hardware video playback assistance, 5.1-channel sound, plenty of USB ports, space for an optical drive, dual video outputs (capable of driving dual monitors, in fact!), and gigabit ethernet. It was capable of pushing a 1600×1050 screen. For many people, this would be the quintessential media machine.
However, to properly aim itself at the media market, I’d like to see an HDMI or Displayport output, and digital audio output – either coax or optical. Maybe the next revision will have more modern video output. Onboard 802.11g would be a huge selling point as well. And I’m always a little surprised to see PS/2 connectors on the back. This isn’t necessarily a drawback, but I feel that even more USB ports (or even Firewire?)would be a little more useful in todays computing world.
This is a neat machine. I have an old(er) Athlon XP box sitting in my kitchen doing websurfing duty, occasionally playing a video for the kids – given half a chance, I would yank that out of there and replace it with an X27. It’s superbly small, all but silent, and can handle day-to-day tasks without missing a beat.
Thanks to Shuttle for making it available for us to look at!
Yes, it’s another…