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AOpen, ASUS, Shuttle Barebone Systems Review

February 12, 2003



Barebone is quite an interesting solution that balances on the verge of a classical DIY computer and a finished one. They make it very simple to assemble a working machine from components lying on the floor as well as leave some freedom for imagination. Some companies assemble finished systems themselves, but most barebones systems go directly to end-users and test labs. Today we will tale a look at three such systems available on the market, at their features and positioning. Also, we will share our own impressions. 

AOpen MX4GR

Appearance and ease of use







This is a classical version of the slim desktop, though it doesn't look that slim because of the small width and a protruding plate of gray and blue plastic. This plate looks quite coarse, - thus, apart from the tray the CD-ROM drive has a part of its front panel uncovered (especially because its color is standard beige). Just compare with the ASUS Prodigy. It's my own opinion, but this attached plate looks alien here. At least, you can remove it, though the front panel behind it doesn't look attractive at all. Also note that you can install the case vertically using the supports.

The front panel has two USB connectors and two audio ones (mic and headphones), which are positioned rather handily. This is the only barebone that came with a keyboard and a mouse. The PS/2 keyboard looks a little bit ergonomic (roundish shape and a some kind of a palm rest), the mouse is ordinary and comes with scrolling (looks like one of the A4Tech models). 




Well, the system justifies its positioning  - for office use - cute but without frills. 

Insides and functions







The functions are certainly determined by the mainboard. The AOpen MX4GR is based on the i845G chipset and has only a network controller from Realtek (RTL8100BL). However, this chipset integrates a lot of stuff itself: USB 2.0, 10/100 Ethernet, video (not the worst), AGP slot, 3 PCI slots and 1 CNR. There is quite a good AC'97 codec from Analog Devices (AD1981A) which, at least, doesn't worsen audio compositions. 




All other characteristics (supported processors, frequencies of FSB and memory etc.) depend on the chipset. In general, it has enough functions for what it's meant for; I won't complain about a missing FireWire because it's not needed in an office machine, while a USB 2.0 is in the right place. 




What I don't like in the AOpen MX4GR is that the arrangement of the components inside is not that good though it looks nice at first sight. However, as a rule, one has to disassemble barebone systems very rarely or never. 

ASUS Prodigy (P4S)

Appearance and ease of use







This is one more desktop system but it looks more austere. This PC case can be put on its side for what there are special supports. 




However, the CD-ROM drive can't work in a vertical position as it lacks for a disc lock on the tray. I think it's just a mistake and they will correct it. However, the CD-ROM and FDD drives do look like an integral part of the system here. 




The mic and headphone connectors, 2 USB (1.1) and optical S/PDIF output are located on the front panel under a special lid. On the one hand, if the connectors are not used and covered, the case looks tidier. But if they are used all the time, for example, the headphones are always connected, the opened lid just worsens the look. One can mention proper dustproofness but just look at the back :). On the whole, the ASUS's barebone looks simple and elegant. On the other hand, its exterior is restrained, like that of the previous solution. But maybe that was the idea... 

Insides and functions

ASUS offers two Prodigy version based on the SiS650 and i845G chipsets. We tested the first one called Prodigy P4S, and the speeds and chipset's characteristics shown below are not shareable contrary to the same appearance, accessory pack, expandability etc. 







The ASUS P4S333-VF mainboard is built on the SiS650 (SiS650 + SiS961) and doesn't support USB 2.0, which is not an advantage, because USB 2.0 devices are many in number and it's much more pleasant to use them than USB 1.1 counterparts. But the Prodigy optionally supports FireWire (though it's missing in this particular system), which allows positioning this model as a half-home one. There are only two PCI slots and no CNR. Although this is a "slim desktop" solution you can install full-size PCI expansion cards thanks to a riser card for horizontal installation of the cards. 







By the way, one of such cards is supplied - a PCTel's based soft modem. But the AGP connector hasn't a riser card for itself and without it one can't connect an external video card (AGP) by any means. 

The other components are standard for a modern barebone system: integrated graphics (though 3D of the SiS 650 is not that perfect compared to other modern integrated solutions, but 2D is decent), 10/100 Ethernet, AC'97 Audio (Avance Logic ALC201A codec). On the whole, after the AOpen MX4GR the functions look poor. 




The PC case's design is worse - the drives can be only removed as a whole, and the hard drive is hardly reachable both for connection of cables and for cooling. However, this barebone works noiselessly thanks to the cooler below. 







By the way, SuperMicro equips its server boards for Intel Xeon with similar cooling devices. A slow and quiet fan blows air through the heatsink with high aluminum fins on the side carrying warm air away to the back panel where it's blown out by a special little fan. 

The ASUS P4S333-VF board works strangely with the processors clocked at 533 MHz (FSB). They are not officially supported (note that the SiS650 is built on the discrete SiS645, not on SiS645DX), they can be installed and they are even detected by the board, but after that the system works unstably. Taking into account that the most problems were concerned with the hard drive, it seems that the FSB/PCI frequency conversion coefficient is not correct, i.e. FSB is set at 133 MHz, and the PCI divisor remains the same as for 100 MHz. I hope the assumption is right because such problem can be solved by the BIOS modification. However, the ASUS's technical support is not going to see to it. 

Shuttle XPC SB51G

Appearance and ease of use










The XPC SB51G justifies its Spacewalker trade mark by 100% - this is truly something of the outer space. The body doesn't look like a computer at all - it has a square face, the front panel comes with transparent plastic, big heads of the metallic bolts, and even the covers for the FDD and CD-ROM drive bays are much accented and look like a part of the case's decor. 

But the Shuttle XPC SB51G is the only system that doesn't come with the CD-ROM and FDD drives, and you will have to buy them separately. If you install here the standard drives, the integrity of this body's image will be broken if you don't paint them into some matching color. 




The connectors have handy positions, and they outnumber those on the other barebones: headphones out, mic-in, 2 USB, 1 FireWire and 1 S/PDIF optical output. 




The back panel is stuffed with all sorts of connectors: 2 COM ports (the ASUS and AOpen models have one), 2 USB, 2 FireWire (!) etc. Only an LPT port and a joystick connector are lacking. However, today almost all printers (the "closest relatives" of LPT) have the USB interface. 

Insides and functions







The system is built on the Shuttle FB51 mainboard which is based on i845G chipset. Therefore, it supports USB 2.0 due to the south bridge and 3 FireWire ports due to the integrated controller VIA VT6306. Of course, it has 10/100 Ethernet (Realtek RTL8100BL) and AC'97 sound (6-channel on the Realtek ALC650 codec with advanced specs and average sound). So, the Shuttle's barebone sports the biggest number of external buses (note that the ASUS's model has FireWire optionally). 3D graphics and the like is provided by the AOpen MX4GR which is described above. 







The system can be easily assembled/disassembled thanks to the drives unit which you can easily remove and connect cables to. Two slots (PCI and AGP) allow for full-size expansion cards - this is an advantage of the cube in comparison with the slim desktop! 

Specs and tests

Now we are turning directly to the technical description and to the tests. The technical information will sometimes repeat what was said above, but it's still more convenient for general estimation. 

AOpen MX4GR

  • Case format: slim desktop 
  • Dimensions: 324x95x399 mm 
  • Mainboard, chipset: AOpen MX4GR, Intel i845G 
  • Video: integrated i845G 
  • Audio: AC'97 codec Analog Devices AD1981A 
  • Network: 10/100 Ethernet, Realtek RTL8100BL 
  • Connectors behind: PS/2 Mouse & Keyboard, 1xCOM, 1xLPT, 1xVGA, 1xJoystick, 3xAudio (In/Out/Speakers), 1xEthernet, 2xUSB (2.0) 
  • Connectors in front: 2xAudio (Mic/Out), 2xUSB (2.0) 
  • In the box: PC case, power supply unit, board, FDD, CD-ROM, mouse, keyboard
  • Power supply unit: 200 W 
  • Expansion slots: 1xAGP, 1xCNR, 3xPCI 
  • Expansion cards format: only low-profile

Expanded BIOS settings: 
 

BIOS based on Award v6.00  Setup of memory timings   CAS Latency, RAS Active To Precharge, RAS to CAS Delay, RAS Precharge
Setup of memory frequency + CPU:DRAM = 1:1, 4:3, 4:5
Setup of AGP bus + Shared Memory - 1, 8 MB
Setup of PCI bus -  
Changeable scaler of AGP and PCI buses + AGP(PCIx2) = FSB/0,5, FSB/0.75, FSB/1, FSB/1.25, FSB/1.5, FSB/1.75, FSB/2, FSB/2.5, FSB/3, FSB/3.5, FSB/4, FSB/5, FSB/6, FSB/7, FSB/10, FSB/14
Manual assignment of interrupts -  
Changeable FSB frequency + 100-248 MHz in 1MHz steps
Changeable CPU multiplier + x8-x24
Changeable core voltage -  
Changeable memory voltage -  
Changeable chipset voltage -  
Changeable AGP bus voltage -  

ASUS Prodigy (P4S)

  • Case format: slim desktop 
  • Dimensions: 305x88x385 mm 
  • Mainboard, chipset: P4S333-VF, SiS650 
  • Video: integrated SiS650 
  • Audio: AC'97 codec, Realtek ALC201A 
  • Network: 10/100 Ethernet 
  • Connectors behind: PS/2 Mouse & Keyboard, 1xCOM, 1xLPT, 1xVGA, 1xJoystick, 3xAudio (In/Out/Speakers), 1xEthernet, 2xUSB (1.1) 
  • Connectors in front: 2xAudio (Mic/Out), 2xUSB (1.1), 1xS/PDIF Out 
  • In the box: PC case, power supply unit, board, cooler, FDD, CD-ROM, PCI modem
  • Power supply unit: 165 W 
  • Expansion slots: 2xPCI 
  • Expansion cards format: full-size

Expanded BIOS settings: 
 

BIOS based on Award v6.00 Setup of memory timings + CAS Latency, RAS Active Time, RAS to CAS Delay, RAS Precharge
Setup of memory frequency + CPU:DRAM= 1:1, 4:3, 4:5
Setup of AGP bus + Shared Memory - 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 MB
Setup of PCI bus +  
Changeable scaler of AGP and PCI buses -  
Manual assignment of interrupts +  
Changeable FSB frequency + 100-166 MHz in 1MHz steps
Changeable CPU multiplier + x8-x34
Changeable core voltage -  
Changeable memory voltage -  
Changeable chipset voltage -  
Changeable AGP bus voltage -  

Shuttle XPC SB51G

  • Case format: cube
  • Dimensions: 200x185x300 mm 
  • Mainboard, chipset: Shuttle FB51, Intel i845G 
  • Video: integrated i845G 
  • Audio: AC'97 codec, Realtek ALC650 
  • Network: 10/100 Ethernet, Realtek RTL8100BL 
  • Connectors behind: PS/2 Mouse & Keyboard, 2xCOM, 1xVGA, 3xAudio (In/Out/Speakers), 1xEthernet, 2xUSB (2.0), 2xFireWire, 1xS/PDIF In 
  • Connectors in front: 2xAudio (Mic/Out), 2xUSB (2.0), 1xFireWire, 1xS/PDIF Out 
  • In the box: PC case, power supply unit, board, cooler
  • Power supply unit: 200 W 
  • Expansion slots: 1xAGP, 1xPCI 
  • Expansion cards format: full-size

Expanded BIOS settings: 
 

BIOS based on Phoenix Award WorkstationBIOS 6.00PG Setup of memory timings + CAS Latency, Active To Precharge Delay, RAS to CAS Delay, RAS Precharge
Setup of memory frequency + Auto, DDR200, DDR266, DDR333
Setup of AGP bus + Shared Memory - 1, 8 MB
Setup of PCI bus +  
Changeable scaler of AGP and PCI buses -  
Manual assignment of interrupts +  
Changeable FSB frequency + 100-165 MHz in 1MHz steps
Changeable CPU multiplier + x8-x50
Changeable core voltage +  
Changeable memory voltage +  
Changeable chipset voltage +  
Changeable AGP bus voltage +  

Performance

Testbed: 

  • Processor: Intel Pentium 4 2.53 GHz (19x133 MHz), Socket 478 
  • Mainboards: 
    • AOpen MX4GR (BIOS R1.12) (AOpen) on i845G in AOpen MX4GR 
    • ASUS P4S333-VF (BIOS 1006) (ASUS) on SiS650 in ASUS Prodigy (P4S) 
    • Shuttle FB51 (BIOS s028) (Shuttle) on i845G in Shuttle XPC SB51G 

  • Memory: 2x256 MB PC3200(DDR400) DDR SDRAM DIMM Winbond, CL 2 (used as PC2100(DDR266)) 
  • External video card: Palit Daytona GeForce4 Ti 4600 
  • Hard drive: IBM IC35L040AVER07-0, 7200 rpm

Software: 

  • OS and drivers: 
    • Windows XP Professional SP1 
    • DirectX 8.1 
    • Intel Inf 4.10.1012 
    • Intel Application Accelerator 2.3 
    • Intel Extreme Graphics Driver 11.4.1 
    • SiS AGP Driver 1.13 
    • SiS IDE Driver 2.02 
    • SiS Video Driver 2.07 
    • NVIDIA Detonator XP 40.72 (VSync=Off) 

  • Test applications: 
    • BAPCo & MadOnion SYSmark 2002 
    • Gray Matter Studios & Nerve Software Return to Castle Wolfenstein v1.1 
    • Croteam/GodGames Serious Sam: The Second Encounter v1.07 
    • MadOnion 3DMark 2001 SE build 330 
    • RazorLame 1.1.5.1342 + Lame codec 3.92 
    • VirtualDub 1.4.10 + DivX codec 5.02 Pro 

First come the most important diagrams and then brief comments. 

Business and multimedia software, graphics

3D in games

Video and audio encoding

Well, the tendency is clear - all the boards go on a par in the business and multimedia applications, but in 3D the SiS650 based solution (ASUS Prodigy) falls far behind. Besides, the Shuttle's model is slightly ahead in 3D irrespective of a program though it has the same chipset as the AOpen does. 

And looking at fps which in Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Serious Sam: The Second Encounter is not higher than 80 in the lightest modes at 16bit color and doesn't exceed 60 in 800x600@32bit, you can judge yourselves whether it is rational to get such systems for dynamic 3D games. 

Temperature

The temperature aspect is very important here as these babies have no space for additional coolers like BigTower, that is why we have to pin our hopes on what's coming with the system. 

The measurements are carried out in the closed case with the cooler supplied; only for the AOpen we used the Thermaltake P4 Volcano 478 (~4800 rpm) of an ordinary design that brings air onto the aluminum heatsink. 

As expected, the Shuttle's cooler based on the heat pipes technology with the heatsink's copper base performs certainly better than a relatively slow fan of the ASUS Prodigy. At the same time, the ASUSTeK's solution makes least noise. As to the AOpen's barebone, you can choose any cooler to your taste, though in case of standard desktop models you will hardly outsmart the Shuttle's I.C.E. By the way, the company offers for such barebones a cooler similar to the one supplied with the ASUS Prodigy.

The cooling technique used for the barebone systems reveals another problem: drawing hot air directly out of the case is convenient for this hottest component, but on the other hand, it results in weak ventilation inside the PC unit (remember that there is usually only one cooler), which theoretically can make other chips overheat. However, it didn't take place in our case, which means that the engineers of all the companies didn't make any design or estimated errors. Nevertheless, the advantage of a standard cooler which draws air to the heatsink which is then distributed around the whole PC case is evident. 

Conclusion

So, the performance of all the tested solutions suits business applications and Internet surfing but doesn't suit 3D games, especially dynamic 3D shooters, and first of all, it refers to the SiS chipset (ASUS Prodigy P4S). Finally here are the strong and weak sides of each system. 

AOpen MX4GR

Highs:

  • Mouse and keyboard supplied
  • Decent (for integrated graphics) 3D quality
  • USB 2.0 supported 
  • Most of all PCI slots
  • High-quality AC'97 codec

Lows:

  • "Unfinished" design
  • Not easy to assemble/disassemble
  • Only low-profile expansion cards 

ASUS Prodigy (P4S)

Highs:

  • Modem supplied
  • More austere and finished design
  • Low noise level
  • High-profile PCI cards supported

Lows:

  • No USB 2.0 support 
  • No support for external AGP video card
  • Some functions missing in case of vertical installation
  • Not very fast 3D (even in this class)
  • Questionable operability of the processors clocked at 533 MHz (FSB)
  • Difficult to assemble/disassemble
  • High temperature of the processor and inside the case (the reverse of the noiseless cooler)

Shuttle XPC SB51G

Highs:

  • Design
  • Once more design :) 
  • Decent (for integrated graphics) 3D quality
  • USB 2.0 supported
  • FireWire supported
  • S/PDIF 
  • High-profile AGP and PCI cards supported
  • Handy assembling/disassembling
  • Excellent CPU cooling system

Lows:

  • Potential color unmatching with FDD/CD/DVD drives
  • No FDD/CD-ROM drives
  • Least of all PCI slots

The barebones systems from AOpen and ASUS are more oriented toward office use due to their design and missing frills like FireWire and S/PDIF. The best match for such PC cases is certainly an LCD monitor which are not rare today. 

The Shuttle's Barebone is better for a home, especially of the techno design, but not as a main computer (as it comes without a game video accelerator) but as an additional one. 
 
 

Vladimir Rybnikov  (puree@ixbt.com)  
Dmitry Mayorov  (destrax@ixbt.com


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