December 13, 2006

Review: Shuttle XPC SN27P2 barebones desktop system

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

A few weeks ago, I decided to start looking for a new system. After a fair amount of searching, I settled on a Shuttle XPC SN27P2 barebones system that includes the case, motherboard, and power supply. Since it's hard to find information about supported hardware under Linux, I thought I'd share my experience with the XPC. It's a tiny system that can pack a hefty punch, and it's a good system for users who want to run Linux.

The SN27P2 motherboard supports AMD Socket AM2 processors and up to 8GB of DDR2 667/800 RAM, and has one PCI Express x16 slot and one regular PCI slot. However, the system holds only four sticks of RAM, so you'll probably end up maxing it out at 4GB unless you're willing to pay a serious premium for 2GB sticks of DDR2 667 or DDR2 800. When I was shopping around, a 2GB stick was north of $300 and somewhat hard to find, whereas two 1GB sticks of Corsair ValueSelect clocked in at $199.

The motherboard supports AMD socket AM2 Sempron, Opteron, Athlon 64, Athlon FX, or Athlon X2 chips. According to Shuttle's site, the board supports up to an Athlon 64 X2 5200+, but I went with an Athlon 64 X2 4200+, as it's at a good point in the price/performance curve for a dual-core chip clocked at 2.0GHz.

The board has a whopping eight USB ports, two IEEE-1394 (FireWire) ports, one Gigabit Ethernet network adapter, and onboard audio in the form of a Realtek ACL882. Note that one of the FireWire ports uses a mini-connector rather than the larger connector, so you may need to invest in a new FireWire cable to connect a device in front. The system doesn't come with onboard video, but I didn't consider that a drawback.

The system also has four SATA 3Gbps connectors inside, and an external SATA 3Gbps port. The BIOS allows you to configure the drives as a RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 5, or RAID 0+1 array, or just a bunch of disks. I didn't try any of the RAID configurations, and I was disappointed to see that all of Shuttle's RAID documentation is limited to Windows.

The case comes with a Silent X 400W power supply, two internal 3.5-inch bays for hard drives, and one external 3.5-inch bay that can be used for an additional hard drive or any external 3.5-inch drive. Shuttle also throws in three SATA cables, an IDE cable, and even a floppy drive cable for those folks still living in the mid-'90s.

The only complaint I have with the system's specs is that it doesn't include PS/2 ports for the mouse and keyboard. Like many geeks, I have a favorite keyboard, and my ergonomic keyboard doesn't have a USB connector. I know there are adapters for PS/2 to USB, but I've had mixed luck with them on other systems. If Shuttle gives users the option of using a legacy item like a diskette drive, you'd think they'd let you keep your trusty old keyboard!

Putting it all together

The system includes a quickstart guide that walks you through taking the system apart and reassembling it with your CPU, RAM, and video card. The guide comes in English, Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Traditional Chinese.

You'll need to remove the drive cages before inserting the processor, and you'll be working in tight quarters when reassembling the system, but the chassis is well designed and I had no problem setting the system up. I've had the misfortune of working on home systems and servers that have incredibly tight tolerances for cables and that are a real pain to put together, but despite its minuscule size, the Shuttle case is a joy to work with. When the drive cages are removed, it's easy to get to the CPU socket and DIMM sockets to insert your parts, even for those of us with larger-than-normal hands.

Two of the internal SATA cables and the power cables are already connected and routed through the chassis to make it easy to hook up two internal drives, and the IDE cable is also plugged into the system and ready to be connected to a CD or DVD drive.

The size of the case does pose one drawback: if you're using a PCI Express card with a relatively large fan -- as with many of the higher-end Nvidia cards -- you'll probably not be able to squeeze a regular PCI card into the slot next to it. If you do fit one in, it'll be a tight squeeze.

The system includes a custom heatsink and fan for the CPU, so if you go with a Shuttle XPC SN27P2, there's no need to get a CPU that includes a fan. What you will need is heatsink compound to attach the heatsink to the CPU to improve thermal abatement. Neither the Shuttle system nor the AMD retail boxed processor I purchased included heatsink compound. Lucky for me, I happened to have some around, but you'll want to make sure to include that on your shopping list if you don't have some already.

All told, if you're familiar with PC hardware, you can probably slap the system together in less than an hour.

Using the system

After putting everything together, it was time for the moment of truth -- would all of the onboard components work with Linux? To test the system, I installed a 32-bit distro, Xandros Business Desktop 4.0, and a 64-bit distro, Ubuntu Edgy.

Both distros installed without a hitch. After installing the operating systems, I set about testing sound, USB and FireWire ports, and other peripherals to make sure the system was as Linux-compatible as possible. I also kept an ear out to see if the system would be noisy.

All of the system's peripherals seem to work just fine under both Ubuntu and Xandros. The FireWire and USB ports are detected just fine under Linux, and I had no problem with the XPC's onboard NIC under Linux. Sound works, but I did notice several things that are less than optimal. First, I noticed that sound is a lot quieter with this system than with my previous system. I popped open the mixer and cranked up the volume all the way, but with my desktop speakers at the same volume they were at before, the sound was still relatively quiet.

Also, the system doesn't mute the external speakers when you plug in headphones to the front headphone jack. I'm pretty sure this is a driver problem, not a fault of the hardware itself.

I also tried recording voice using the front external microphone input. The sound quality was horrible, with an amazing amount of hiss, and it also sounded very muted. I also tried recording using a Plantronics USB audio device and the same microphone. The difference in quality was amazing -- if you plan to do any audio recording, you'll probably want to look for a higher-quality sound card. Again, this is probably a problem with the audio drivers for the system's onboard audio, but it's something to be aware of.

The system is amazingly quiet. I have the XPC on my desktop, right next to my monitor, and I can hear it, but just barely. I also have an external DVD burner attached to the system via FireWire, and its single rear fan is much louder than the entire XPC case.

A great little system

Overall, the XPC is a nice little system. I wish the vendor would include a printed motherboard manual with the system, and the sound card leaves something to be desired, but it's otherwise a great alternative for folks who want a smallish Linux system with some decent horsepower.

Shuttle doesn't seem to publish the retail price of its barebones systems anywhere on its site, but I called the company, and the service representative I spoke to quoted the suggested retail price at $389. When I was hunting for the best price, I found the system on for $350, while other sites pricing the system as high as $465 -- so shop around!

Click Here!