XPC maker Shuttle soldiers on, creates laptop ecosystem


— 4:36 PM on February 26, 2010

Although its toaster-sized XPC barebones systems used to be a regular part of our review coverage, we haven't heard the Shuttle name quite so much lately. Recently, we decided to check in with Shuttle and see what was new with this unlikely survivor of the consolidation trend in the motherboard business. Turns out Shuttle is still very much alive and kicking, and it's working on new ways to promote its barebones systems, along with an unusual modular notebook initiative.

The new e-tail push
Shuttle has long sold its barebones XPC systems via online retailers while offering direct sales of complete, pre-built systems via its own website. Just a couple of weeks ago, though, Shuttle began shipping pre-built systems to major online retailers in the United States and Canada. Shuttle Director of Product Marketing Nicolas Villalobos told us the company's primary focus will remain on barebones XPCs. Those systems, which typically lack processors, graphics, and storage, still make up 80-85% of the company's business. The firm views pre-built retail machines as a way to showcase what users can do with a barebones chassis—and to spur barebones sales in the process.

The pre-built XPC systems offered at e-tailers like Newegg will actually be a little bit different from the complete builds Shuttle offers from its website. Villalobos said the company will be pre-building only some of its most popular XPC models and offering them without an operating system, so users will still need to get their hands dirty setting things up. By contrast, the complete systems Shuttle sells directly are "ready to go."

Shuttle doesn't sound too worried about competition from the increasing number of small-form-factor machines from the likes of Dell and HP, because it continues to target enthusiasts more than primarily cost-focused consumers. Villalobos illustrated his point by noting that a small-form-factor Dell would probably melt if you tried to slap a GeForce GTX 285 in it. Some of Shuttle's barebones PCs will even support Intel's six-core Gulftown processor when it comes out later this year.

A laptop component ecosystem
Another recent development for Shuttle is the company's laptop initiative, the fruits of which we should begin to see next month. The firm has sought to create standard form factors for laptop components, enabling two things: for users to upgrade their own notebooks (by actually ripping out the motherboard out and replacing it with a new one) and for small, local PC builders to offer their own laptop lines without having to place mass orders from original design manufacturers like Quanta or Compal. Shuttle says it's happy to take a couple hundred of orders at a time, as opposed to "thousands" like the big ODMs.

Also, using standard components across multiple product lines could reduce support and repair costs for those small PC builders.

Villalobos did use the qualifier "technically" when talking about the possibility of end users upgrading their own notebooks, but that doesn't seem like such a stretch.

Shuttle has come up with two form factors, μSPA and SPA, which will form the basis for notebooks with display sizes in the 10-13" and 13-17" ranges, respectively. Users should be able to buy individual components from local PC builders, and third-party firms should be free to take Shuttle components, slap their brands on them, and resell them through e-tailers like Newegg or TigerDirect. In fact, Villalobos expressed a desire to see just that happen. Shuttle doesn't plan to commercialize laptops and laptop components directly; it will only work as the original manufacturer, providing different designs and form factors on which other companies can base their products.

Given the state of existing "whitebook" systems, we were curious about the level of thinness Shuttle-based laptops could achieve. Shuttle claims whatever slimness HP, Dell, and other big vendors can achieve, it can reproduce using its standard. Buying one of these potentially upgradable systems may not mean making sacrificing sleekness and good looks, then.

Villalobos told us Shuttle has already shipped about 50,000 of these notebook systems globally, and some are actually available today, although non-disclosure agreements are keeping the names under wraps for now. In early March, Shuttle intends to put up a page where consumers can find out which companies are offering Shuttle-based systems and where they can purchase them. That same time frame will also see the arrival of an online store through which small PC builders can place orders directly with Shuttle. The company expects PC builders to promote the fact that they're using standard Shuttle components, as well, so tracking down these laptops shouldn't be too hard.

And new barebones systems, too
Shuttle also has interesting new things going on with its bread and butter—plain old barebones desktops. The upcoming J series of barebones systems will feature motherboards with standard Mini-ITX mounting holes, meaning users will be able to upgrade to new generations of CPUs without having to throw away their enclosures. When talking about the upgrading potential, Villalobos was careful to point out that standard, retail Mini-ITX mobos won't be able to take advantage of some of the barebones' more advanced cooling features, and they may not have the same overclocking capabilities as stock Shuttle mobos.

In any case, J-series barebones systems should become available by the middle of the year, and they'll be based on Intel G41, Intel H55, and Intel X58 chipsets. Those chipset choices should result in support for the full gamut of Intel's current desktop processors, Atom excepted.

The entry-level, G41-based J-series model. Source: Shuttle.

We were curious about how Shuttle's business was doing from a financial perspective, as well. How hard did the recession hit the company, and is it doing as well now as, say, five years ago? Paraphrased, the official answers seem to be "not very hard" and "yes." Villalobos told us Shuttle now has a higher stock price than Gigabyte on the Taiwanese stock exchange—a statement that doesn't quite check out, although the two companies' stock prices are somewhat close right now. The executive added that Shuttle is seeing growth in both sales and stock price, and its products are "everywhere" today, even in cars and planes. The firm did see a small drop in sales last year, but it doesn't seem to have been hit as hard as other firms in the PC industry—Villalobos hinted that no layoffs had taken place. Shuttle gets a good chunk of its business from non-retail deals, including some with government agencies it can't disclose.

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