Shuttle ST20G5 Socket 939 XPC

By Loyd Case  |  Print this article Print


Desktop-as-a-Service Designed for Any Cloud ? Nutanix Frame

Review: Shuttle adds ATI's Radeon Xpress 200 core logic to its mix of Socket 939 small-form-factor PCs. We put it on the bench and uncover a sweet performer with some extra tricks up its sleeve.

Shuttle, the company that pioneered the small, cube-shaped small-form-factor for the PC, offers two main families of products: The G series and the P series. The P series chasses are the big brothers, relatively speaking, offering slightly more internal room (though no extra expansion slots). P series members, such as Shuttle's SN25P, bring smart styling and completely tool-free assembly to the table. The extra space and updated coolers also allow for more robust thermal management, so systems with high-performance CPUs can run relatively cool and quiet.

Shuttle's more compact G series mini-cube PCs are now in their fifth generation (hence the G5 designation) and bear a strong resemblance to the original Shuttle XPCs. XPCs, such as the SN95G4. The smaller cabinets of the G series (compared with the P series) make them more easily transportable, so you tend to see lots of G series shuttles at LAN parties. The G5 generation offers subtle refinements, such as a 92mm cooling fan, slightly beefier heat-pipe cooler for the CPU, and pre-installed cabling for SATA and IDE.

Two USB ports, audio in/out, and a four-pin FireWire port lie underneath a small flip-down door near the bottom. Unlike the P series and the older SN85G, this XPC lacks memory card readers, but does have an exposed 3.5-inch bay under a second flip-down door. Continued... The new system's connectors on the back are fairly similar to previous models:

The ST20G5 contains a couple of intriguing surprises. Since the system uses an ATI Radeon Xpress 200 with an integrated DirectX 9.0-capable graphics core, a pair of graphics connectors also graces the rear I/O panel, including a DVI output:

The internals of the ST20G5 are pretty typical, with the addition of some extra heat sinks. The G5 cases use an aluminum spring clip to hold down the CPU cooler, rather than the thumbscrews in the P-series cabinets. The two SATA and one parallel ATA port are near the front of the case, which makes for short cable runs to the drives. The floppy connector is outboard of the power supply, but you really don't need a floppy with this system—better to get an all-in-one memory card reader for the exposed 3.5-inch bay.

Despite the fact that the ST20G5 can be used as a high-performance system, the power supply lacks a PCI Express 6-pin graphics power connector. Shuttle makes a big deal in the manual about how you can connect a special four-pin connector to the motherboard to deliver extra power to the PCIe graphics card. Alas, it doesn't seem to have any effect. The GeForce 6800GT graphics card we used didn't "see" extra power. We finally had to resort to an adapter, which Shuttle doesn't include. We've noticed this lack of a 6-pin connector on other XPC systems, which is unfortunate. Still, if you run with a GeForce 6600 series or ATI Radeon X800 XL graphics card, then you don't need the added power.

The nifty thing about all those integrated graphics ports is how they work with an ATI-based graphics card. While we don't have benchmarks with four displays, we were able to verify that the Shuttle ST20G5 will work with four displays attached, assuming you're using fairly recent ATI drivers. We attached two displays to the integrated graphics ports and two to the ports on the ATI Radeon X800 XL we installed near the end of our testing. So if you need four displays, you have them. Bear in mind that the differences in performance between the integrated GPU and the PCIe graphics cards are pretty substantial, though. This is better suited for someone who needs four displays in an office environment. Continued... We configured three systems for our testing, which span a range of core logic:

Shuttle SN25P Asus A8V-E System Shuttle ST20G5 System
Processor Athlon 64 4000+ at 2.4 GHz (1025KB L2 cache) Athlon 64 4000+ at 2.4 GHz (1025KB L2 cache) Athlon 64 4000+ at 2.4 GHz (1025KB L2 cache)
Motherboard and chipset Shuttle FN25, nVidia nForce4 Ultra Core Logic Asus A8V-E, Via K8T890 chipset Shuttle FT20, ATI Radeon Xpress 200 + ULi 1573 chipset
Memory 2 x 512MB Corsair XMS low latency DDR400 at CAS 2-2-2-5 2 x 512MB Corsair XMS low latency DDR400 at CAS 2-2-2-5 2 x 512MB Corsair XMS low latency DDR400 at CAS 2-2-2-5
Graphics Nvidia GeForce 6800GT Nvidia GeForce 6800GT Nvidia GeForce 6800GT
Hard drive Seagate Barracuda 160GB SATA Seagate Barracuda 160GB SATA Seagate Barracuda 160GB SATA
Audio Motherboard-down VIA Envy 24 Sound Blaster Audigy 2 Motherboard-down Via Envy 24
Operating system Windows XP Professional with SP2 Windows XP Professional with SP2 Windows XP Professional with SP2

We performed a clean install of Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2. Then we ran the following benchmarks:

  • BAPCo SYSmark 2004, which replaces our now-obsolete WinStone suite.
  • 3ds max R6 performance, using the SPEC APC test. This benchmark tests both interactive and rendering performance.
  • A pair of 3ds max R6 software rendering tests and a LightWave 7.5 rendering test.
  • PCMark04, to gauge memory and CPU performance.
  • 3DMark05 CPU Test as a memory and CPU check.
  • Windows Media Encoder 9 video encode, to check throughput on encoding.
  • DivX 5.21 encode test using VirtualDub as the shell program
  • Four games: Unreal Tournament 2003, ET multiplayer timedemo, Flight Sim 2004, Doom 3 and Halo.
Note that SYSmark tests were run on a clean install, as were the LightWave and 3ds max tests. All other benchmarks were installed together on each system.

We also experimented with memory timings. Although the Corsair XMS Pro memory supports low-latency settings, none of the systems seemed completely stable with a 1T command rate. The two XPCs did manage CAS 2-3-3-6 comfortably, but the VIA-based ASUS motherboard wouldn't handle anything except the default 2.5-3-3-8 and remain stable.

The SN25P would simply be somewhat unstable at CAS 2-2-2-5, 1T. But the ST20G wouldn't even boot at very aggressive memory timings, generating a BIOS checksum error and needing a CMOS reset to come back to life. Continued... Based on Jason Cross's A8V-E review, we'd generally expect the VIA-based system to run a little slower in most benchmarks. That's true here, though the differences are relatively small. The ATI and Nvidia-based systems are essentially running neck-and-neck. Continued... Again, the results are very close in the CPU score, with the VIA-based system trailing by a small amount, while the two XPC systems run neck-and-neck. The memory scores look much closer, however. Continued... We used three tests. The first is the SPEC APC 3ds max R6 benchmark, which tests both interactive performance and rendering performance. The second is a pair of pure 3ds max rendering tests. Finally, we use LightWave 7.5 to render a scene using radiosity rendering techniques.

The Nforce4 Ultra–based SN25P seems to be slightly more efficient than the other two systems in 3ds max R6. LightWave sees the K8T890 trailing slightly. Continued... The end result is once again nearly a dead heat. Any of these systems would do about the same in video encoding, though the VIA-based motherboard might fare less well in long, intensive sessions. Continued... The 3DMark05 CPU tests end up fairly close when comparing the two XPC systems, while the K8T890 trails a bit here. Game tests at higher resolutions were essentially a wash, with the systems trading scores. The K8T890 does a bit better at lower resolutions, but no one plays games at such low resolution and detail settings.

Note that the SN25P's lack of a PCI slot meant that we were forced to fall back to the onboard Envy24 audio chip, which uses the host processor for most DSP chores. This may have had some impact on three of the four game tests, which had audio enabled. Continued... Let's consider price for a moment. An ST20G5 can be had for roughly $360 from several online sources, while the SN25P costs about $30 more. The ST20G5 can support up to four displays, though most people won't need to do this. Performance of the two systems is pretty much at parity. The lack of a 32-bit PCI slot on the SN25P means you have to rely on host-based audio processing, though the Envy24 does offer hardware audio mixing.

In many ways, it's really a wash. The SN25P does build in some useful amenities, like tool-free entry, an x1 PCI Express slot, flash memory card readers, and enough drive bays to build a two-drive RAID array if you want. The ST20G5 is smaller, perhaps more stylish and supports four displays and tends to be a bit noisier. Both are good choices, and both have minor shortcomings. In the end, if you're looking for a compact, Socket 939 PC, you can't go wrong with either—just be sure you pick the one that fits your needs.

Product: Shuttle ST20G5 Socket 939
Company: www.shuttle.com
Price: $360 check prices
Pros: Good performance; stable; supports four displays; 32-bit PCI slot.
Cons: No memory card reader; lack of 6-pin power connector; a bit noisy.
Summary: The ST20G5 is a slick addition to Shuttles G-series small-form-factor systems, with the ability to support four displays if needed..

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Loyd Case came to computing by way of physical chemistry. He began modestly on a DEC PDP-11 by learning the intricacies of the TROFF text formatter while working on his master's thesis. After a brief, painful stint as an analytical chemist, he took over a laboratory network at Lockheed in the early 80's and never looked back. His first 'real' computer was an HP 1000 RTE-6/VM system.

In 1988, he figured out that building his own PC was vastly more interesting than buying off-the-shelf systems ad he ditched his aging Compaq portable. The Sony 3.5-inch floppy drive from his first homebrew rig is still running today. Since then, he's done some programming, been a systems engineer for Hewlett-Packard, worked in technical marketing in the workstation biz, and even dabbled in 3-D modeling and Web design during the Web's early years.

Loyd was also bitten by the writing bug at a very early age, and even has dim memories of reading his creative efforts to his third grade class. Later, he wrote for various user group magazines, culminating in a near-career ending incident at his employer when a humor-impaired senior manager took exception at one of his more flippant efforts. In 1994, Loyd took on the task of writing the first roundup of PC graphics cards for Computer Gaming World -- the first ever written specifically for computer gamers. A year later, Mike Weksler, then tech editor at Computer Gaming World, twisted his arm and forced him to start writing CGW's tech column. The gaming world -- and Loyd -- has never quite recovered despite repeated efforts to find a normal job. Now he's busy with the whole fatherhood thing, working hard to turn his two daughters into avid gamers. When he doesn't have his head buried inside a PC, he dabbles in downhill skiing, military history and home theater.

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