Review Shuttle's latest small form-factor barebones is certainly a stylish box. The light blue metallic and black front shows Shuttle's usual attention to design. The blue bits hide the drives and the front ports, which might or might not be to your liking, writes Lars-Goran Nilsson.
Internally, the SN25P is very similar to the SB81P, although the motherboard is completely different. The shared parts are the cooling system and the internal case mounts. This means that the SN25P can be fitted with two hard drives across the top, while a further drive can be seated in the front-accessible 3.5in drive bay instead of a floppy drive. There's no need to install a card reader as this is already fitted as standard. The card reader accepts all the standard memory card formats except XD cards. according to Shuttle's specs.
P-series chassis are larger than Shuttle's traditional XPC cases, which makes it easier to assemble the system. It also results in more space inside the case, which allows for improved air circulation and better cooling. The cooling setup isn't quite up to that of Biostar's iDEQ 330P, as there are no less than seven fans blowing air in different directions inside the case. As far as the CPU cooling is concerned this isn't a problem, as the air is taken in on the right-hand side of the chassis and blown out on the left-hand side.
The 350W PSU and the two rear-mounted 60mm case fans are sucking the hot air out of the rest of the system. The 60mm fans are mounted at the top of the chassis to improve the hard drive cooling. The Nvidia nForce4 Ultra chipset has a rather unusual cooling setup, as Shuttle has fitted it with a heatsink that has a side-mounted fan. Abit has done this in the past on a few mobos, but it's not a solution that seems to have gained much support. I'm not quite sure why the chipset fan is blowing air toward the front of the system when the other cooling fans are pulling the hot air out of the back - unless the chipset cooler was mounted the wrong way around on our review sample. The way it is mounted now would cause turbulence inside the case which could increase the noise.
Speaking of noise, the SN25P has a wide range of BIOS options for the fan speeds from ultra-low noise to running the fans at full speed. There's an automatic mode too which worked quite well. The SN25P isn't as quiet as the iDEQ 330P on its lowest settings, but both systems are about as noisy as each other when running flat out. Unfortunately Shuttle doesn't supply a Windows utility to change the fan settings on the fly, whereas Biostar does.
Thanks to the nForce 4 Ultra chipset, the SN25P is ready to accept the AMD's new dual-core X2 processors, although you'll need to upgrade the BIOS first. Other benefits of the Nvidia chipset include integrated Gigabit LAN with a hardware accelerated firewall along with Serial ATA and IDE RAID. There are some limitations to the drive capacity so if you want to use four hard disks in a RAID you'd have to sacrifice the optical drive. Alternatively, you can have a spare drive fitted to take over the functionality of one of the two RAID drives in case of a failure - although then you can only mirror, rather than stripe and mirroring.
As with previous XPCs the SN25P features a wide range of connectivity options. Around the back of the case are four USB 2.0 ports, two PS/2 ports, a serial port, a six-pin FireWire port, the Ethernet connector, 7.1-channel audio outputs, optical and coaxial S/PDIF out as well as optical S/PDIF input. The audio comes courtesy of a VIA Envy 24PT hardware audio controller which offers far superior sound to AC'97 solutions normally used. Around the front are a further two USB 2.0 ports, another six-pin FireWire port, and headphone and microphone sockets.
A clever feature that Shuttle has implemented on its recent XPCs is the external 'clear CMOS' button which makes it much easier to reset the BIOS if you've tried to overclock your system too far. The SN25P is also one of only a few SFF PCs in which you can install a graphics card with a two-slot cooler. However, there's one slight problem the SN25P shares with the iDEQ 330P and that's the lack of a six-pin PCI Express power connector. This means that you have to use the supplied extension cable to make one of the Molex connectors reach to the adaptor that comes with the graphics card. It's also worth noting that the adjoining slot is not a PCI slot but rather a x1 PCI Express slot, so if you were planning on using a PCI card with the SN25P, you'll have to think again.
This makes for a fairly messy installation in an otherwise very tidy case as Shuttle is now pre-routing most of the cables. The only cables that aren't pre-fitted are the floppy drive ribbon and the third SATA data cable. The reason for this is that you can only use one or the other and Shuttle has left this choice up to the user.
The CPU cooler is not as easy to install as the solution Biostar has come up with - it's quite an intricate system where you need to remove a plastic airduct and a fan before you can even get to the heatsink. This is fastened to the case with four screws, so being careful when replacing the cooler is a must. Act a little too roughly and you could damage the motherboard.
Apart from the CPU cooler, assembling the SN25P is quite straightforward and the hard drives are easy to install thanks to the screw-less drive rails. The same goes for the optical drive. I do, however, have one small complaint here: the drive door's spring can quite easily get unhooked and it's also not that easy to put it back again. Shuttle also offers an 802.11g wireless network option which is connected internally via a special USB header and fitted just above the PSU.
I was slightly disappointed with the SN25P's benchmarks. It's not that it's slow, but having the premium Ultra version of the nForce4 chipset I would've expected it to be faster than the iDEQ 330P which uses the standard nForce4 chipset. Although it is only beaten by seven points in SYSMark 2004 and with very similar PCMark 2004 results I really thought the SN25P would come out on top.
The Shuttle XPC SN25P is a very impressive SFF barebones, and I'd have a tough time choosing between it and the Biostar iDEQ 330P. Both offer a wide range of features - the Biostar is easier to build overall while the Shuttle has better audio, the ability to use graphics cards with two-slot coolers, space for an additional drive and - let's not forget - a much better looking case. The downside is that the SN25P is more expensive - £284 to £248. though you get more for it.
The XPC SN25P is yet more proof why Shuttle is the clear leader in the SFF market, not only does it offer the best looking systems out there, but the hardware is also top notch.
|Shuttle XPC SN25P|
|Price||£284 inc. VAT|
|More info||The Shuttle site|