The Amazing Small Form Factor Thread

Jonty

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Hi guys

I thought I'd resurrect the once fabled thread on BarrysWorld concerning Shuttles and all manner of other small form factor systems. Feel free to post any news, questions, pictures of your setups etc. and lets see if we can top the two hundred and some previous posts we had :)

Overview

For those not familiar with small form factor (SFF) computers, they basically offer the performance of a desktop PC in a system around the size of the average toaster. Foremost amongst the providers of SFF systems are Shuttle, a market leader whose name is often used synonymously for all SFF systems.

Traditionally SFF systems are supplied 'as is' for the purchaser to customise and assemble. Given the explosion in popularity of these systems, you'll now find pre-assembled SFF systems ranging from Shuttle themselves right the way through to Alienware and the likes.

What You Get

Virtually all SFF systems come with a case, typically around 20cm x 20cm x 30cm / 8" x 8" x 12" (width, height, depth). Whilst some SFF are now larger, all such systems are still around half the height of the average desktop tower PC.

Included with the case is usually a specially designed motherboard, power supply unit and cooling solution. The motherboard usually carries with it integrated audio and network capabilities, and sometimes even integrated graphics (although for gaming these generally need to be replaced with a dedicated graphics card).

Some special edition or more generous SFF systems now come with memory card readers and occasionally an optical drive (CD/DVD etc.). Select manufacturers even provide built-in LCD screens, integrated wireless and other such accessories.

For the novice user, an instruction manual on how to assemble the SFF system is usually included. More modern SFF systems are now screwless, and those which aren't usually rely mainly (if not solely) on thumb screws. Assembly, although sometimes considered daunting, is not always as bad as people imagine.

What You'll Need

If your SFF isn't part of a prebuilt package then there a several components you'll likely need to buy in order for your system to work, namely:

  • Processor (CPU) SFF systems currently support every major CPU on the market, from Socket 478 and 775 Intel Pentiums and Celerons to Socket A and 939 Athlons and Semperons).
  • Memory (RAM) SFF systems support both DDR and DDR2 memory, usually up to around 2GB with two slots available on most SFF motherboards.
  • Hard Drive (HDD) SFF systems can be found which support both the older PATA standard as well as the newer SATA and RAID setups.
  • Optical Drive (CD/DVD) SFF systems require (in all but exceptional circumstances) a CD or DVD drive in order to be able to install the operating system and other software.
  • Operating System (OS) SFF systems need an operating system to be installed in order to work. Original equipment manufacturer (OEM) versions of Windows essentially comprise of just the OS on a CD, without fancy packaging, but offer a substantial saving over high-street prices for what amounts to exactly the same product. Linux is another, usually free, alternative, although tends to be less suited for gamers or those less experienced in computing.
Additionally you may also require the following items:

  • Graphics Card SFF systems may sometimes offer integrated graphics but these are largely unsuitable for gaming and also drain other system resources. Unless you intend not to use 3D games, a graphics card is often a must, with SFF systems supporting both AGP and PCI-Express solutions (although note not all SFF systems allow for adding in graphics cards, so always check before purchasing).
  • Sound Card SFF systems usually provide perfectly adequate 5.1 or even 7.1 high-definition integrated audio. However, for those with more discerning ears, a soundcard may be installed in the usual one PCI or PCI-Express slot available.
  • Floppy Disk Drive (FDD) SFF systems usually come with one externally accessible 3.5" drive bay, which can house a floppy disk drive. Many people choose not to install such devices, instead preferring larger capacity USB flash drives which usually offer far more versatility.
  • Thermal Paste SFF systems often include thermal paste but more experienced PC builders choose to buy other thermal paste which is often easier to apply than the sachets provided with the system. Thermal paste is applied to the CPU core to act as a sandwich between the CPU and the cooling solution, assisting efficient and effective cooling which is a must in all systems.
Benefits

The benefits of SFF systems are manifold, only a handful of which are noted below:

  • Size Perhaps the most obvious benefit of SFF systems is their size. Given their svelt dimensions not only do SFF systems usually look attractive gracing a desktop, but they are also small enough to be conveniently shoved out of the way or placed unobtrusively in the living room to act as a media centre.
  • Performance SFF systems have the ability to provide equivalent performance to their larger desktop counterparts. The ability to use desktop components on proven motherboard chipsets means SFF systems can keep up with the best full-size desktop systems have to offer.
  • Portability Carrying SFF systems around, be it to friends' houses or gaming events and such, is a far more enjoyable experience than carting around a full-size desktop PC, without the compromises often involved with using a laptop for gaming instead.
  • Innovation For the past few years SFF systems have lead the way in innovative design, introducing new technologies and a wider range of designs than many of their desktop counterparts.
Drawbacks

Naturally SFF systems aren't for everyone, with some of the inherent problems listed below:

  • Cooling The size of SFF systems often means various components, which generate a lot of heat, are closely confined. Although bespoke cooling solutions are usually provided, some heavily-loaded SFF systems have been known to run hotter than their desktop counterparts which may cause problems in some situations.
  • Assembling Assembling a SFF system is usually a straightforward process, especially with an instruction manual. First time users, however, may find the process a little daunting. The need to choose suitable, and more importantly compatible, hardware can also prove problematic if unexperienced and unsupervised.
  • Expandability Unlike desktop PCs which generally utilise standardised designs, many SFF systems utilise proprietary hardware for the motherboard, power supply and such. Whilst upgrades are available, choice can be sometimes limited. Additionally, many SFF systems include only one 5.25" drive bay and two 3.25" drive bays; not much room compared to desktop equivalents. Thankfully, however, the adoption of MicroATX and PicoBTX motherboard designs means these problems may be less of a problem in the future, in addition to the inclusion of more drive bays.
SFF Manufacturers

Some of the most prominent SFF manufacturers are mentioned below:

  • Shuttle Largely credited with establishing the mainstream SFF market and remain pioneers in the field.
  • Biostar A well-known Shuttle alternative SFF manufacturer.
  • MSI Media-centre orientated SFF systems from the hardware giant.
  • Soldam Bespoke Shuttle-based designs, imported and expensive but very well-finished.
  • Soltek A respectable alternative to Shuttle and others SFF manufacturers with distinctive designs.
There are of course many other manufacturers, not to mention the wealth of resellers who assemble and rebadge the above systems.

Anyway, this is just an outline, feel free to get posting :)

Kind Regards
 

Yaka

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opppps bloody big pick shall re size and up later
 

Cynical

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Really good thread imo. One problem, the Soldam link doesn't work at the bottom of the thread.
 

Jonty

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Thanks for that Cynical, link fixed :) That many manufacturers are based in Taiwan you can almost guess their address and then add '.com.tw', but Soldam are Japanese.

Their range is actually currently being revised at the mo (sadly some of their nicer old designs seem to have gone), but they have previously made lovely SFF systems with diamond polished cases which used to take hundreds of hours to polish, together with nice functional differences and very high build quality and material usage. Shuttle's new BTX SB86i is roughly designed on one of Soldam's non-aluminium systems. Sadly shipping one over, even with a favourable exchange rate, usually used to cost around £400-500, which however nice is a tad steep considering the motherboard is still essentially that of Shuttle.

Kind Regards

Jonty

P.S. Yaka, if the edit timeout gets you, just PM the image link if you want me to edit your post.
 

phlash

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Are we allowewd to include mini-ITX (and forthcoming nano-ITX) kit in this thread Jonty?

These are even smaller (17x17cm MoBo) than your avg Shuttle, and these days providing decent CPU power as they get more integrated - interested folks could do worse that start here:

http://www.mini-itx.com/

Currently I'm running a VIA Eden as my firewall box at home - very low noise so gets left on and used to host useful files for me when I'm away from home. My own website is also hosted on a mini-ITX board, this time with mucho disks attached and more RAM, on the end of a Pipex business ADSL.

I really like the silly cases people have created for their mini-ITX systems - my current favorite is the iGrill (on mini-itx.com) :)
 

.Wilier.

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Ive recently aquired a Biostar iDEQ210M for my children.

I built it up the other day with a 160gig Seagate Barracuda SATA, dvd rw, P4 2.8 and 512 of PC3200 and its a great little machine.

Looks really nice, although it has a sliding door to reveal the CD drive which is a tad flimsy (especially for 3 and 5yr olds), and the shiney black front seems to mark very easily, but other than that its a great piece of kit.
 

FuzzyLogic

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I'm fairly close to buying a Shuttle SN45G V3 which appears to be ideal for what I have inside me present PC (Athlon XP Barton 2500+, 160GB Seagate Sata, 1GB PC3200 Crucial RAM, Hercules Radeon 9800Pro) and since all i'm planning to do is shift them into the new case, it's not going to require any new kit (hopefully).

Apparently the 9800pro should fit inside quite snugly, although it bothers me a little about size, but my main concern is about the power requirements. I know a good quality lower power psu will be much better than a high power noname psu but the 250W makes me wonder if it'll be happy running all the mojo without any interference. The specs indicate that it can run up to a 3200 and a card into the agp interface for 1,5V (Can someone clarify what that means also, as far as i'm concerned about putting pcs together I have a "If it fits, great, if it works, bonus" policy :)) but I just need to put my conscience to rest before buying it ;)

edit, on second thoughts, is that 1,5V saying that it support one 5V card?
 

.Wilier.

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FuzzyLogic said:
... Apparently the 9800pro should fit inside quite snugly, although it bothers me a little about size, but my main concern is about the power requirements....

Im fairly sure that you will be ok, both for space and power. Jonty has a 6800GT inside his current shuttle, and I know of a few others who have similar size cards fitted and running, so you should be fine.
 

Jonty

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Hi FuzzyLogic

The PSU in the SN45G should be fine :) Shuttle's PSUs are pretty legendary when it comes to what they can handle. My current Shuttle is as full as it can get, Pentium 4 3.2Ghz, GeForce 6 graphics card, Audigy soundcard, RAM/DVD/HDD/8-in-1 card reader, WiFi card and all that runs off a 220W PSU. Admittedly, it's right on the limits of each rail, but I've had no problems at all.

As for size, I'll take a picture of my system later, but a 9800 Pro should fine. The GeForce FX and GeForce 6 range have always been physically larger than ATI's cards, so you should have no problem. The only tricky bit can be connecting the power lead from the PSU to the molex connector on the card, if the graphics card requires it, but even that is not a major issue.

Kind Regards

Jonty

P.S. MiniITX et al are fine, phlash, the more the merrier :)
 

Jonty

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Hi guys

Below are some quick photos take of my current Shuttle, just for reference (sorry about the large file sizes).



The picture above shows the left hand side of the Shuttle, which is dominated by the graphics card. nVidia's GeForce FX and GeForce 6 boards tend to be as large as most graphics cards get, so questions of size shouldn't be too much of an issue for other cards (dual-slot cooling solutions are not, however, feasible in most SFF systems). Note that it can be tricky installing such a big card, and access to the PCI slot behind it traditionally requires you remove the graphics board.

Finally, note the how the power cable from the PSU has to be threaded along the top of the chasis in order to reach the molex connector on the card. Some older card designs have the molex connectors perpendicular to the card, which created real problems as the case could not be closed, but now the vast majority of cards have their power connectors running parallel with the board so no problems should be encountered (N.B. this is an AGP graphics card, the newer PCI-Express boards have very different power requirements).



The second picture shows the right hand side, which is dominated by the PSU. Towards the front of the case, in the middle of all the wires, lies the RAM (the blue and white area). In the middle behind the green 'rings' lies the CPU at the heart of the system, with the flash just catching Shuttle's ICE cooling system which passively draws heat away from the CPU towards an exhaust fan at the rear (in this example it's gold plated (bling-bling ;)) but normally they're metallic or coppery in appearance). Finally, note the little card positioned at the top of the chasis is a wireless LAN card, with the dongle specially mounted at the rear. The size of the card is great given the otherwise limited room to upgrade, as it doesn't take up the PCI slot.

Kind Regards
 

Embattle

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I remember my review of my Shuttle SN41G2 on the BW forums, which I got before Jonty :p It was an amazing little machine and I did fit a 9800Pro into it without any problems, size wise it was snug but still fitted without any trouble and power wise everything was fine. Although I did change from a Shuttle to a Midi case due to expansion issues, plus the unnecessary need to waste more money upgrading again :)

Evesham also have some SFF computers, based round Intel or AMD platforms, and Advent have just released a SFF based computer for sale although I can provide no link as there website isn't working.

Now if only you could get SLI in a Shuttle.....tasty :D
 

Jonty

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I believe Shuttle have an SLI-based system in the works, Emb :) You can already get them with one 16x PCI-Express and one 1x PCI-Express slot, but the SLI variant shouldn't be too far off. I wouldn't be surprised if ATI's SLI-equivalent debuts at some point too in a SFF system, given that they already provide chipset designs for these systems.

As for your system, I thought we had them around the same time, as they were amongst the first in the country weren't they? I remember your shot of the case with a DVD on top for scale, that wowed a lot of people :)

Kind Regards
 

Embattle

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The SN41G2 certainly remains as one of the best looking of the Shuttles.

I do see practical limitations regarding the SLI variants, the bridge will have to be small and both cards will have to be single slot solutions, just to stop the Shuttle becoming too much of a wide boy :) Other considerations will be heat and possible power problems all of which I'm sure they will over come then with SLI and maybe a couple of Raptors in RAID 0 you've got yourself a monster.....naturally the obligatory FX processor must be in the hot seat :D
 

Jonty

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You're certainly right about the heat and power, Embattle :) I'd guess you'd probably need a dual-height case, 350W PSU, BTX-designed SFF system before things would really work well. Still, I'm sure Shuttle have something innovative up their sleeve.

Speaking of innovation, Soldam (Japanese website) have unveiled a 3" wide system which supports Socket 479M Pentium M and Celeron M processors. It could make a very nice media centre PC, depending on its upgradability.

Kind Regards
 

Yaka

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sooner or later a SFF manufacturer shall make gfx coolers which are silent but fit inside the case.

my arctic cooler sticking out looks crap:/
 

Embattle

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Shuttle cold on BTX - http://www.theinquirer.net/?article=22117

That Soldam isn't likely to have much upgradeability, perhaps it'll use a couple of PCMIA slot to enable some sort of upgrade capability.

I did consider modding my SN41G2 using some sort of fan less Zalman solution linked to the case which would help dissipate heat, however it would of caused problems with overall system heat and required some changes to the external looks which I wasn't to happy with doing.
 

Embattle

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SFF Tech has just done a review of the Shuttle SB95Pv2 XPC which is based around the Intel 925XE Chipset. The case itself looks like the Shuttle SN25P XPC which is based around the nForce 4 chipset, which they also reviewed.
 

Ch3tan

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The 95p and 25p XPC's do sound seriously good. Hmm, I think I'll start saving now and see whats around in a few months.
 

DaGaffer

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OK, little help needed; Sony are going to rip me off bigstyle if I have to send my Vaio to them for repair, and I'm only going to flog it anyway if when I get it back, because I'm so pissed off with them/it.

Sooo, I was thinking, if I bought a this barebones shuttle, could I gut my Vaio and put the bits in?

The Vaio has 3.0 Ghz P4 (socket 478)
2 512Mb 2700 DDR RAM 400MHz DIMM
120 Gb HD IDE

and I have an AGP x800 ready to go.

Am I missing something? Obviously I'll have to get a new OS because the Sony one is tied to the Vaio, a new DVD writer, and I'd like to be able to salvage all the data I've got on the hard disk before I reformat it (answers on a postcard please) but on paper this seems like a fairly simple solution. But then I am an idiot :)
 

Jonty

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Hi DaGaffer

I think you should be able to salvage the CPU, RAM and HDD without problem. As you say you'll need a new OS and optical drive. You should try and grab an OEM version of Windows XP for around £65 (Home Edition) to save some cash. You may also want to buy some thermal paste for the CPU, but Shuttle will supply a sachet of this if you don't fancy forking out for fancy variants.

As for for your data, it really depends how its stored. You could backup the bulk of your files onto DVD and then use Windows' Files and Settings Transfer Wizard for your general OS settings (I've never tried the latter, though). This is a fairly unsophisticated way of doing things, but it would probably be amongst the easiest.

Kind Regards
 

Jonty

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Looks like a nice system, Embattle :) Personally I'm still intrigued to see what nVidia's integrated GeForce 6 chip will end up like, for although not very powerful it would still likely offer up a lot more performance than the average integrated solutions presently available.

Kind Regards
 

Embattle

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Personally I would like nvidia/shuttle to get some balls and do a high end integrated version :)
 

DaGaffer

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I've taken the plunge and bought one :):

Shuttle XPC SN85G4V3 System
Shuttle XPC Case Colour Black
Operating System Windows XP Professional Edition
Socket-754 AMD Athlon 64 3200+ 1600MHz Bus
Memory DDR 400MHz 1.0 GB Dual Channel (2 x 512MB)
Gigabyte ATI X800 Pro 256Mb Graphics Card
Drive Bay I 160GB SATA Hard Disk Drive
Drive Bay II Shuttle 8-in-1 card reader
Optical Drive SuperDrive 16x Dual Layer DVDRW/CDRW - Black
On-Board Sound Built-in 5.1 Surround Sound
Speakers Logitech 5w S100 Stereo Speakers - Black
Network Interface Built-in 10/100 Ethernet
Office Suite Open Office v1.14 (Free Office Software)
'Freeview' Digital TV Tuner Nebula DigiTV USB2.0 w/ remote

It's very nice, a bit noisy on startup (mainly due to the graphics card, which was my own) but then its pretty quiet. I bought it from this place: www.theglowlounge.com, little independent place in Clapham, they were reasonably priced and very helpful - I could order over the web, but because they had premises (its actually a trendy web cafe - full of Shuttles :)) I could take some of my own bits, like the graphics card, which they fitted for me gratis and took the standard card off the price, very good service for people like me, who, as I may have mentioned, shouldn't be allowed near the interior of a PC...

Now, I've just got to ebay my Vaio...
 

Jonty

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Nice kit, DaGaffer :) Interesting tip about that place, too. What's the Freeview receiver like?

Kind Regards
 

DaGaffer

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Jonty said:
Nice kit, DaGaffer :) Interesting tip about that place, too. What's the Freeview receiver like?

Kind Regards
Very good. The external IR receiver that plugs into your USB slot is a bit ugly, but the receiver itself is very good, much faster than the Sony freeview box I had for my upstairs telly, and of course it has PVR functionality.
 

Clown

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Is that the one at Clapham South? I've never been inside because I always assumed buying from the internet was cheaper (and I'm not scared to break the insides of my computer) :)
Do you live near me then?

North / South / Whatever
 

DaGaffer

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Clown said:
Is that the one at Clapham South? I've never been inside because I always assumed buying from the internet was cheaper (and I'm not scared to break the insides of my computer) :)
Do you live near me then?

North / South / Whatever
Yeah it is that one. I found it on a link from shuttle.com and price-wise it was pretty similar or better than most sites, with the added bonus of a real person you could talk to. Its not a shop - they do all the kit building down in the basement, but you can chat to the techies on a nice sofa whilst a pretty waitress serves you a latte. Which you've got to admit, is a bit of a step-up from most of the sweaty geek hellholes on Tottenham Court Road :)

Live in Shepherd's Bush so I braved going sarf of the river this time :)
 

Ch3tan

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Ooo didn't know something like that was so close. May have to pop on a bus to Clapham after work one day soon.

Clown you should come get drunk with me a Rob (Mystic G). So we can abuse you.
 

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