It's no secret that the main obstacle on the way of barebones to the desks of users is their price. It's quite easy to picture a computer fan who is constantly updating his/her home computer, where one of the modern minicomputers will be a fair startup option. You can imagine an effective looking barebone on a desk of a director general (or his/her secretary). But it's hard to imagine such computers becoming popular on work places in offices, even for managers communicating with clients.
Today we are presenting one of the U-Buddie barebones from ECS. It's not a new model, but it does not claim the place of the most stylish novelty of the season – it's potentially a computer for work. Relatively inexpensive (details in the end of the article) and good. To find out how good is the point of our review.
Remember, we already reviewed one barebone from ECS –
EZ-Buddie. This time the
model is more out of standard and quite tinier.
The system case is of the desktop format, but its dimensions are speaking for themselves: 230x232 mm at the height of just 75 mm. Each of the sizes separately beats no records, while the volume of the system case is actually almost 3 times as small in comparison with the standard Shuttle XPC "brick". Note that you can also put the U-Buddie vertically – the bundle contains a special "foot" for this purpose. The case is made of aluminium, vent holes are made on one of the sides and on the rear panel. The front panel is made of plastic.
The front panel is of austere design, the set of ports is minimal (1 USB 2.0 + 2 Audio), though there is a reset button supplementing the power button. Pay attention to the slot for a CD/DVD drive – U-Buddie obviously supports only notebook models of the slim type. Running a few steps forward, a hard disk for this barebone must also be a 2.5-inch notebook one.
The use of a slim drive ensures that the system can work in vertical position – discs are held in place by the hole in the middle.
As any other miniature model, it cannot accommodate a power supply unit inside because of dimensions and its negative effect on the temperature conditions. In this case an external 78W power supply unit without active cooling from Lite-On is used. A power connector for this power supply unit can be seen on the left in the photo of the rear panel. A set of connectors on the rear panel is absolutely standard: 2 x PS/2, 1 x LPT, 1 x COM, a VGA port, 4 x USB, 100-Mbit LAN port, and 3 x audio-outs. You can see two phone jacks of the additional modem on top and a bracketed slot of a low-profile expansion card on the right.
Interior arrangement and functionality
To remove the lid together with the front panel attached to it, unscrew the two screws on the rear panel. As usual, you have to get prepared for the worst, because the lack of extra space turns the innards of the barebone into a mess of cards and cables. At least, at first sight.
The disk storage devices will be accessible right after the lid is removed: the optical drive is mounted horizontally, as we have already seen, on a special additional system case support. The hard disk is installed vertically, it is mounted by two screws to the support, which you can see on the right photo, close to the case wall. Note that both notebook storage devices use a special connector (adapters are included into the bundle) and the power connector is not standard either (the bundle includes a power adapter for a hard disk and a CD/DVD drive is powered from the FDD cable).
Of course it's silly to speak about the convenience of laying cables in this tiny system case, especially when you install an expansion card into the PCI slot. The situation is even worse with the connectors for the cables to the front panel being located on the mainboard closer to the rear panel. So, you have to accept that when you need to upgrade the system configuration, you'll have to remove the main internal modules and then thoroughly lay the cables once again. On the other hand, in case of office usage of U-Buddie, its upgrade urgency will be minimal.
However, to reach a memory module (the mainboard contains only one DIMM slot), you only have to remove the CD/DVD drive cage. Unfortunately, the CPU cooler partially overhangs the IDE slots, so to access them you'll have to unmount the cooler. An optional card of the MC'97-modem (56K) is mounted on the rear panel of the system case, which contributes to the cable mess.
On the left there is a power converter board mounted vertically, which has all necessary power connectors (including an additional 4-pin power connector for +12 V), but nothing more. However, the only (merely physical) opportunity to expand the system functionality is to use a low-profile PCI-card, and such models do not require additional power supply (at least I don't know about such cases).
You could have already formed a picture of the functionality provided by the mainboard, which is the base of this barebone, by its connectors. Note that there are several models in the U-Buddie series with three main variations – for Celeron/Pentium 4 (Socket 478), for Duron/Athlon XP (Socket A), and for C3/Celeron/Pentium III (Socket 370). In two latter cases the mainboards come shipped with CPUs already soldered in, which reduces the price of the end solution as well as its attraction for some groups of users. Our sample modification is 4m23 with "free" Socket 478, which mainboard (ECS ES4M) is based on the chipset combination SiS650GL+SiS962L. Of course, you cannot install a top Pentium 4 processor on this mainboard, but is it really necessary to all users? The chipset supports the 533 MHz FSB frequency, though unofficially, so U-Buddie 4m23 is claimed to support processors up to Pentium 4 2.66 GHz (except for those based on Prescott core). Frequency constraint is obviously dictated by the capacity of the external power supply unit as well as by the care about the thermal conditions in the system.
These are the mainboard characteristics defined by the chipset: support for Intel Pentium 4/Celeron processors with the FSB of up to 533 MHz (with the clock frequency less than 2.66 GHz), up to 512 MB DDR200/266 (one module), integrated video core of the SiS315 chipset, 2 UATA133 channels for 4 devices, 6 USB 2.0 ports (5 laid out ones), 10/100 Mbit/sec Fast Ethernet (the PCB incorporates the Realtek RTL8201BL PHY-controller) and 4-channel audio (AC'97 C-Media CMI9738 codec). Note that some U-Buddie models may use the SiS962 southbridge with FireWire support – in this case one connector is placed on the slightly modified front panel, and the other one - on the rear panel, where the corresponding hole is bracketed in our model. There are no overclocking options in ES4M – in BIOS Setup you can only select frequencies (100/133 MHz) and memory timings (extremely poor range), as well as the FSB frequency – 100/133 MHz.
We've been steadily getting improbably bad results in our audio quality tests
of the integrated audio solution, so we publish our results as they
are – unfortunately we had no time to correct the mistake (if
it is really our mistake). The integrated audio quality was tested
in 16bit, 44 kHz using the RightMark
Audio Analyzer 5.2 test application and the Terratec
DMX 6fire sound card:
General performance: Average (details).
Cooling system and temperature conditions
Our U-Buddie model comes shipped with an external power supply unit, which capacity is just 78 W. However, taking into account the CPU restraint, usage of notebook storage devices, and the impossibility to use a state-of-the-art video accelerator, this power limit seems quite reasonable. We had no problems with that during our tests. The problem of the cooling system noise goes the next in importance for many users. In this case the cooling system consists of one rather simple cooler with an air pipe.
The base of the cooler is a regular aluminium heatsink with thick straight fins, which is fixed by the screws through the holes in the mainboard to the lugs on the bottom of the PC case. The heatsink is covered with metal housing. After the cooler is installed, the housing beds the side of the case, right opposite to the air grating. Turbine blower with straight blades is located on the opposite side of the construction. It takes the air from both open ends (top and bottom) and forces it through the air pipe on the heatsink. In standby mode the fan speed is 2650 rpm, and though the noise was audible, it was intrusive neither in tone nor in loudness. It can be subjectively evaluated as "rather quiet". But at full system load the fan speed increases to 4000 rpm, and this is "loud" already, it's not very comfortable to work in this noise. It should be mentioned that the automatic fan speed control is carried out by the proprietary Fan SmartGuardian (it can be enabled in BIOS, it reacts to the CPU temperature).
For comparison purposes we took a recently reviewed barebone ASUS
DiGiMatrix and test results of several barebones, which we
over a year ago. All the systems used the same Pentium 4 2.53 GHz
processor, and they all used their integrated video. As a result you
can see how the cooling systems of these models coped with maximum
possible heat load (the CPU frequency is limited, the external video
card cannot be used in the majority of these systems).
U-Buddie cooler cannot boast of remarkable efficiency (it would have been strange, taking into account its performance attributes), but it does its bit keeping the processor far from the thermal deceleration border (71°C for this Pentium 4 model).
System cooling on the whole is still better – in case of full CPU load, U-Buddie is outscored only by the AOpen barebone with a powerful cooler designed for high end desktop systems. Temperature of the CPU voltage converter also remains within normal limits (up to 55°C), and the hard disk with its 38-39°C can be considered cool (this is in fact a merit of the miniature hard disk with low rotational speed). As you can see, the use of Fan SmartGuardian is quite justified.
Bundle and brief specification of the barebone
The bundle of U-Buddie can be called standard, "bare necessities". The only item worthy of attention is a set of replaceable faceplates for the front panel (they are installed under the upper plexiglass cover), but they look so childish that we refuse to consider them a real bonus.
As an option the company and its distributors offer the installation of an
optical drive and a hard disk, as well as a wireless set of input
devices (there is a special connector on the mainboard for the latter).
Our model also came shipped with an optional all-in-one card reader
(CF/SM/SD/MS), but the USB controller of the first version completely
ruins the allure of this model for customers. However, if the operating
speed is not important and the extra charge for this option is not
too high, some customers may be tempted.
In conclusion we provide a brief specification of the barebone, which comes shipped in a nice cardboard box with a handle.
As we used the results of the above-mentioned systems (including ASUS DiGiMatrix)
to compare with U-Buddie, we decided to content ourselves with the
same tests in games. We certainly used the integrated video in all
cases, because an external video card can be installed only to Shuttle
SB51G. Performance of all reviewed systems based on SiS650/651 turned
out the same (accurate within 3%). You can find the comparison of
those SiS chipsets with their competitors in archives of our web site.
We can tell the same about U-Buddie what we already wrote about DiGiMatrix:
with new drivers the performance in games raised considerably (you
can compare with Prodigy), but there appeared problems with maximum
graphics settings. However, the absolute fps values are still far
from optimistic: you can play only in low game modes.
In newer games the situation is even worse, and the 640x480 mode cannot be seriously reviewed in 2004. Nevertheless, note that ECS U-Buddie squeezes everything possible from its integrated video, even outscoring the ASUS model.
The barebone under review allows to assemble a moderately fast (for these days, not among its classmates) computer of decent design and satisfactory noise characteristics. If you don't require too much from the functionality of this system, U-Buddie will not disappoint you. Perhaps the worst disadvantage of this reasonably priced minicomputer is the price for its component parts. Prices for slim optical drives and 2.5-inch hard disks are unfortunately not so low. However, a CD-ROM drive (instead of a combo-drive) and a hard disk with a moderate capacity are quite affordable, and it's quite enough for an office computer.
We wouldn't recommend this system to an average home user, if he/she has no idea of his/her needs for two or three years in advance (replacing this computer earlier is simply a waste of money). In practice, almost all users will require expansion capacities sooner or later, and though 5 PCI slots are not necessary for the majority of users, they will still want a couple of new features. Not all devices can be connected externally to a USB port. Besides, there are not too many available USB ports. On the other hand, one expansion slot for an office computer is quite enough, its functions being known for sure for the entire period of its service. The conclusion about the future of U-Buddie on the market seems to suggest itself.
In conclusion we'll publish a short list of the most typical pros and cons of the barebone under review.
This model on the official site of the manufacturer.
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