XPC maker Shuttle soldiers on, creates laptop ecosystem

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.

Comments closed
    • crsh1976
    • 9 years ago

    I’m a big fan of Shuttle barebone kits, I’ve owned two so far (currently using a SG45H7) and greatly appreciate the build quality and attention to details – since I don’t overclock or even need any sort of top-of-the-line hardware, their mainstream stuff is perfect to me for a small and efficient home machine.

    I’m really hoping they put out a P55-based (or H55/H57) Core i3/i5 kit soon.

    • Anomymous Gerbil
    • 9 years ago

    Huh?

    “Villalobos told us Shuttle now has a higher stock price than Gigabyte on the Taiwanese stock exchange.”

    That’s a meaningless measure, unless you know how many shares each company has outstanding.

    • duanes1967
    • 9 years ago

    OK, Here’s an idea for a compact system.

    1. SODIMM memory sitting flush against MB.
    2. Put PCI-x connector on the BACK side of the MB on a riser so that the graphics card is flush on the back.
    3. put PS and HD next to graphics card.
    4. Build case so that cooling and heat sink are integral. Basically, CPU is bolted to case upside down from normal.

    Result, very slim case, room for uber graphics card and 3.5inch HD.

    Now, just put a KB and flip up 15-17 inch LCD on. It may just be a luggable, IE, no battery, but it would be small and killer!

      • derFunkenstein
      • 9 years ago

      3.5 HDDs will add a ton of weight to your idea.

    • eitje
    • 9 years ago

    Dear Shuttle,

    I used to buy Shuttles exclusively. I bought them almost entirely for their excellent ICE coolers, since they are pretty amazing for noise and heat control (especially as fan sizes increased). Things got even better when you started shipping the SG11’s external PSU in something that was G2/G5 compatible.

    However, as you bring out new models, please try not to abandon these things as options. The P2 form factor really turned me off with its two tiny fans, as did the original KPCs when they shipped with the case fan/CPU fan requirements.

    It looks like the J1 is not really intended to rectify most of these issues, as it looks like its only using an 80mm fan for exhaust and will still require me to locate and purchase an ICE Genie3 (is that the same model that works with the K45 & K48?) if I want to get back to the “tried and true” Shuttle build I’ve always known.

    My favorite Shuttle ever made was the SD11G5. I had the chance to buy almost a dozen of them from your ebay store once for a comparatively paltry amount, and I passed it up. However, the more I watch the direction you’re taking technologically, the more I think that I should have laid in stock for the future.

    Eitje

      • Anonymous Coward
      • 9 years ago

      Their website claims that the main fan is 9cm. However not including the CPU cooler is a major downside. I would not purchase another one unless I could find the proper cooler.

    • EndlessWaves
    • 9 years ago

    Are these modular laptops US only or worldwide?

    • dragmor
    • 9 years ago

    My main PC is still a shuttle, been going 5 years without a problem. I have “faster” PCs but keep coming back to the shuttle.

    • Freon
    • 9 years ago

    Still have a P4 based XPC which I use as an HTPC once in a while. I was always very happy with it. It was great when I was doing the LAN party thing on a regular basis.

    I’ve been tempted to get another since the P4 2.66 can’t keep up with Hulu, but there isn’t much choice and they’re very pricey. Newegg has only one model, C2D/C2Q for just short of $400 which only includes the case, motherboard, and PSU. I think I could get a comparable micro ATX setup for about half that. Also, I’m not that confident about the noise level for use as an HTPC.

    edit: On snap, they have an AM2+ 760G barebones for $185 on Newegg. Tempting! That with one of those cheaper X4 chips would be killer.

        • Anonymous Coward
        • 9 years ago

        Impressive that the video card fit. I’m not so brave, so just this past week I replaced my fanless GF-7600 GS with a fan-cooled R-5670.

        There were some GF-8600 cards from Gigabyte with perfectly fitting front-mounted passive cooling, which worked great with the side vents pulling in cold air. Shuttle should make one or two video cards optimized for classic Shuttle form factor.

          • eitje
          • 9 years ago

          yep, there sure were – SilentPipe, it was called. I was a little sad when Gigabyte stopped shipping things with that.

        • NeelyCam
        • 9 years ago

        Sounds like a great build. What cooler/fan for the CPU?

        And what 2.5″ drive did you use? An interesting choice to use 2.5″ as the main drive… Wouldn’t the 3.5″ drive be faster..?

        I’m aiming for a zero-fan build myself, but the Hyper Z600 passive CPU cooler is huge; I have to get a large case just to fit that in… maybe I’d be better off with some small heat sink and a superquiet fan.

          • eitje
          • 9 years ago

          Well, the Shuttle AM3 barebones we were talking about uses ICE – one fan for both exhaust & CPU cooling.

          I can’t recall specifically what 2.5″ drive I used; probably a WD 7200 RPM. It works just fine, though, and suspending it on bungies makes it pretty quiet.

          Shuttles are by far the easiest ultra-quiet build, as long as you pick wisely. Keep an eye on the photos on newegg and look for chipset fans; sometimes they still have those.

          The AM3 barebones is the best setup right now for a one-fan build, though. 🙂

            • NeelyCam
            • 9 years ago

            Could be. Noisewise I probably couldn’t hear the difference between a one-fan and a zero-fan setup.

            I’m trying to do away with the fans also for idle power consumption… I’m picking the parts with minimum power consumption in mind: MSI H55M-ED55, i5-661, 80GB X25-M SSD, WD Green 1TB EADS, picoPSU. I was wondering about using a laptop hard drive as the data drive, but capacities aren’t there, and power consumption isn’t much better than with WD Greens’.

            I’ll try to undervolt the memory and CPU (although as far as I know, the current MSI bios doesn’t allow undervolting), and disable everything I can (PCIe, PATA, eSATA…) Might be a bit too ambitious, but I’m hoping for <20W idle. Not having a CPU fan might save me some two watts. But that means a huge heatsink and, consequently, a large case…

    • oldDummy
    • 9 years ago

    l[

    • mesyn191
    • 9 years ago

    If they manage to make a reasonably (ie. sub $500) priced modular notebook platform that allows you to swap in new graphics cards I’ll be thrilled.

    I wouldn’t even mind if it was effectively a luggable PC that you had to plug in to use everywhere like those old desknotes that SiS used to make. Particularly if it let you get away with using a generic x16 PCIe slot for desktop cards*.

    Sure its a pipe dream, and certainly not for everyone, but it would be awesome.

    *yes I know there are luggable manufacturers out there now but they build expensive ruggedized systems that are gigantic and heavy and cost like $2-3K at a minimum.

      • TO11MTM
      • 9 years ago

      Our best bet in that regard would be something that would take an MXM module with adequate cooling. Once a barebones existed, it would likely drive the demand for higher grade MXM modules to be created.

    • Welch
    • 9 years ago

    If only this were to be true for the rest of the mobile market….. Interchangeable parts on a laptop would be a god send, Mr. Ford would be proud ahaha.

    Its the one thing I’ve hated with laptops… You buy it, you use it as is pretty much, with the exception of adding/changing ram and a HDD. There were a few laptops with the ability to change out the video card but when you look at how they have them bolted in for cooling you’d be a bit timid to screw with it. A change in the market like this would be great for consumers, even better for PC shops and possible even good for the manufacturers, it just has many design drawbacks.

      • ludi
      • 9 years ago
        • Welch
        • 9 years ago

        …..?

        They are talking about laptops right, i’m not insane…? If you could pop the screen off of a laptop with a few screws and replace it with any other screen that fits the same “Form Factor” wouldn’t that be useful? If you could just open the back of the laptop and pull out a graphics card and throw in an upgrade as you see fit, wouldn’t you like that feature. Then have a large list of vendors that make components that fit those form factors. So you could buy the bare bones which would be the body of the system, and then choose all of the parts that go into it based around the base, Monitor, RAM, HDD, Video Card, ect. Laptops at present aren’t like a desktop where my buddies system might be having video issues so I take a spare video card out of another laptop and slap it into his like you can with a desktop. Its the largest draw back to a laptop for an enthusiast.

        The design drawbacks being how you cram things into one universal package for something like a laptop (cooling being of the biggest) and then the issues of certain bare bones system not being able to accept devices after they hit a ceiling on their power envelope, and then of course what if you’ve got a large base but someone wants to skimp and get something like a 15.6″ screen for a 17″ sized base. Just quite a few workarounds I think that most companies don’t want to worry about, plus the OEMs like to have control over what parts they push in which packages.

          • ludi
          • 9 years ago

          I was just noting the inherent contradiction in your statement. On one hand you claim that such a market would be “good for consumers”, but on the other hand that the approach has “design drawbacks.” I agree it has design drawbacks, and IMO those are precisely why it doesn’t make for a very good laptop market. In particular, it creates designs that are some combination of (a) significantly overbuilt for low-end configurations, (b) hot, (c) bulky and heavy, and (d) expensive.

          OCZ has already tried to probe that market with their DIY laptop package. How many takers has it had, even within an enthusiast community like TR?

            • bhtooefr
            • 9 years ago

            Of course, OCZ’s DIY laptop was basically just a normal laptop missing the CPU, RAM, and HDD, right?

            And, yes, you do end up with overbuilt low-end configs. However, when said overbuilt low-end configs can share more parts across the industry, things become even more commodity, and cheaper.

            Alternately, you could see what happened with MXM (which I haven’t heard if it’s gonna be in here – I doubt it, because MXM took a ton of PCB area and was a pain to cool, IIRC) – plenty of companies used bits and pieces of the spec, and you could only use real MXM cards on a couple brands of laptop, and everyone else used non-compliant MXM cards.

      • NeelyCam
      • 9 years ago

      I upgraded a CPU on an old Gateway laptop a while back (Pentium II -> Pentium III). It was pretty easy, actually, and yielded a huge performance boost.

      I doubt it would be that easy with modern laptops, though…

    • BiffStroganoffsky
    • 9 years ago

    I still like the form factor but the years old, low-end onboards and proprietary PSU that is hard to find a replacement for makes it real difficult to choose one over a microATX CPU/mobo combo deal at Newegg. Since you already have to get the CPU/memory/hdd/optical, just pick up a combo and case w/ PSU.

      • eitje
      • 9 years ago

      In line with what you’re saying, I’ve just recently replaced yet another Shuttle with yet another mITX system. It’s more fans, thus more noise, but it was also more choice in the selection process.

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