Shuttle’s XPC SK41G mini-barebones system

Manufacturer Shuttle
Model SK41G
Price (street) US$270
Availability Now
WE’VE REVIEWED A NUMBER of Shuttle’s cubes, going all the way back to the SV24, the original Socket 370 Shuttle cube. Since then, Shuttle has introduced Athlon and Pentium 4 cubes, as well. With each iteration the XPC systems have gotten better features and cooler looks. With space for two 3.5″ drives and a 5.25″ drive, as well as USB and Firewire ports, even enthusiasts could make an argument for having a cube as their main system. Except, of course, for the lack of an AGP slot.

Needless to say, that omission is a deal-breaker for many of us, especially those interested in games. Shuttle has addressed this concern with its Pentium 4 line, with both the SS51G and the SB51G. Athlon fans, however, were forced to wait, though Shuttle has showed off the nForce2-based SN41G2 at a trade show here and there.

The SN41G2 isn’t yet available for purchase, but those wanting an Athlon-based AGP Shuttle cube have another option: The SK41G, based on VIA’s KM266 chipset. The KM266 is missing features present in other VIA chipsets, like AGP 8X and support for 333MHz Athlons, but many consumers might eschew those features for a small form factor. Does the SK41G bring AGP magic to Athlon cubes? Read on to find out.

Let’s start off by taking a look at what the SK41G and its KM266 chipset have to offer.

CPU support Socket A-based AMD Athlon processors
Form factor ATX
Chipset VIA KM266
North bridge VIA VT8375
South bridge VIA VT8235
Interconnect V-Link (266MB/s)
PCI slots 1 32-bit/33MHz
AGP slots 2X/4X AGP
Memory 2 184-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 2GB of DDR266/200 SDRAM
Storage I/O Floppy disk
2 channels ATA/100
Audio VIA AC97 6-channel audio
Ports 1 PS/2 keyboard, 1 PS/2 mouse,
2 serial, 4 USB 2.0 (2 front, 2 rear), 3 IEEE 1394 (1 front, 2 rear), 1 RJ45 Ethernet via Realtek RTL8100B, 1 DB15 VGA out,
1 S-Video out via Chrontel 7005C
2 line out/front out (1 front, 1 rear), 1 rear out, 1 bass/center out, 1 mic in (front), 1 optical SPDIF out (front)
BIOS Award
Bus speeds 100-165MHz in 1MHz increments
(200-330MHz double pumped)
Monitoring Voltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring

As mentioned previously, the KM266 chipset does give up some features relative to its newer cousins. Among those left off the list are ATA-133, AGP 8X and support for DDR333 memory. The Athlon XP 2600+ is the fastest processor supported, and those who can read between the lines will realize that the KM266 lacks support for an official (non-overclocked) 333MHz bus.

That sounds like a lot to be missing, but let’s break it down. It’s been repeatedly demonstrated that ATA-133 doesn’t really offer a significant performance advantage over ATA-100, which is underscored by the fact that most hard drive manufacturers haven’t implemented ATA-133. As for AGP 8X, our look at NVIDIA’s new 8X AGP cards revealed that “[t]he faster AGP mode just isn’t stressed by current games.” It’s extremely likely that AGP 8X will prove more useful in the future, but it will probably be quite some time before that is the case.

The lack of 333MHz bus and DDR333 support is more serious, of course, because there are already processors available that take advantage of these features. Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, though, there are currently only two Athlon speed grades that the SK41G won’t support. The Athlon XP 2600+ may not be the fastest chip on the planet, but it could hardly be considered slow.

A look around the cube
We’ve taken a look inside Shuttle cubes before, but it seems that each model differs at least slightly from the others, and the whole line is so well-designed in general that it’s worth revisiting.

The later cubes have an appearance that’s almost Mac-like, and I mean that in a good way. The outside is all brushed aluminum and rounded edges, with a stylish faceplate that varies depending on the model but always looks good. As with the other cubes, there are bays for one 5.25″ and two 3.5″ (one internal) drives, with blanks that match the front face. The front face has all that ports you’d typically like up front, including USB for mice or keyboards, Firewire for easy camcorder hookup, and microphone and headphone jacks. Power and reset buttons round things out.

The back of the cube looks pretty similar to the SS40G, but in case you’re not familiar, here’s a picture:

You can see that three thumbscrews hold the cover in place. There are exhaust holes for the small power supply fan and the internal 80mm fan. On the right are the backplates for the expansion slots, and at the bottom is the port cluster. The SK41G has just about everything you’d expect in terms of ports, though the parallel port has been omitted, probably because it takes up too much real estate. The yellow connector is S-Video, in case you were wondering.

An inside look
Take out the three thumbscrews on the back of the SK41G and the cover slides back and then lifts off, revealing the innards:

A tiered tray of sorts holds up to three drives, and it must be removed to access the other parts of the box. Fortunately, that’s as easy as removing two small screws and sliding the drive tray back and out. Once the tray has been removed (and the cables have been pulled out of the way) you can see more of the FX41 motherboard:

In case you’re confused, the two pictures were taken from opposite sides of the cube; look for the fan shroud in both pictures to see what I mean. Looking down into the box, you can see the heatpipe assembly installed onto the processor as well as the north bridge heatsink. Now let’s take a closer look at the heatpipe, as well as the motherboard itself.

Board and pipe
I went to the trouble of removing the FX41 motherboard from the case, so here’s a proper picture of it:

Isn’t it cute? If the location of some of the connectors appears awkward, don’t worry, it’s not an issue. The SK41G comes with IDE and floppy cables specially designed for the enclosure. The extra-short hard drive cable includes a rubber pull ring to make it easier to remove in the tight confines of the case, while the CD-ROM cable is shaped so it will tuck into clips in the enclosure that keep it out of the way. Finally, take a look at the top of the picture and you’ll see the star of the show, the AGP slot.

I’m not certain if the heatpipe that came with our SS40G review unit was a pre-release sample or if Shuttle has just improved its design, but the SK41G’s heatpipe is considerably more professional-looking, as well as easier to use. The tubing leading from the heatsink to the radiator fins is now a nice silver color, as opposed to the bare copper of the SS40G heatpipe. The top of the heatsink may look a little dirty in this photo, but the business side is extremely clean and well-polished.

One of the things that I found frustrating about the SS40G heatsink was the retention mechanism. It was a spring clip that utilized all three mounting tabs on each side of the socket. Between the tall fins on the top of the heatsink and the tight confines of the case, securing the heatsink was certainly possible, but the experience ranged from annoying to frustrating.

The SK41G’s retention mechanism is considerably better, using four thumbscrews that go through holes in the motherboard and screw into holes in the bottom of the case. As you can see from the photo, small springs on each thumbscrew actually apply the pressure that holds the heatsink to the processor core, so it’s impossible to overtighten the screws. This new mechanism makes heatsink installation and removal a lot easier than on the SS40G.

Finally we have a look at the radiator fins. The heat from the processor is conducted up through the heatpipes, where it is in turn conducted to the fins. A shrouded fan mounted next to the fins takes air from the inside of the enclosure and blows it through the fins and out of the case. The system is so good at keeping things cool that the fan can run at a relatively low speed, keeping noise down.

Our testing methods
When it comes to benchmarks, we’re in an interesting position, in that the most obvious choice for comparison is the SN41G2, which isn’t available quite yet. However, previous cube reviews have shown that the performance of a cube system with a given chipset is comparable to a full-sized motherboard using the same chipset. Thus, we decided to benchmark the SK41G against the Asus A7N-8X, an nForce2 motherboard. Once the SN41G2 arrives, expect a direct SK41G to SN41G2 comparison in our review of the SN41G2. As ever, we did our best to deliver clean benchmark numbers. Tests were run at least twice, and the results were averaged. Our test systems were configured like so:

Shuttle SK41G Asus A7N-8X (pre-release)
Processor Athlon XP 2600+ 2.13GHz Athlon XP 2600+ 2.13GHz
Front-side bus 266MHz (133MHz DDR) 266MHz (133MHz DDR)
Chipset VIA KM266 NVIDIA nForce2
North bridge VIA VT8375 nForce2 SPP
South bridge VIA VT8235 nForce2 MCP-T
Chipset drivers VIA 4 in 1 4.45v 2.77
Memory size 512MB (1 DIMM) 512MB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Corsair XMS3200 PC2700 DDR SDRAM Corsair XMS3200 PC2700 DDR SDRAM
Graphics S3 ProSavageDDR (13.93.65 drivers)
ATI Radeon 9700 Pro 128MB (Catalyst 7.76 drivers)
ATI Radeon 9700 Pro 128MB (Catalyst 7.76 drivers)
Sound VIA VT8235 AC97 audio Creative SoundBlaster Live!
Storage Maxtor DiamondMax Plus D740X 7200RPM ATA/133 hard drive
OS Microsoft Windows XP Professional
OS updates Service Pack 1

We used the following versions of our test applications:

The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1024×768 in 32-bit color at an 85Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.

All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

Memory performance

Our previous tests with Shuttle cubes have revealed that the onboard video comes at a performance penalty, and the SK41G is no exception. Because a chunk of main system RAM is reserved for the onboard video, the video effectively steals memory bandwidth from the rest of the system, as evidenced by the Sandra scores.

While the Radeon 9700-equipped SK41G configuration does considerably better than the onboard video alternative, the nForce2 motherboard does even better, turning in significantly higher scores in both Sandra tests.

While Sandra’s raw bandwidth numbers are impressive, they aren’t terribly representative of real-world memory bandwidth. When it comes to measuring memory bandwidth, we look to Cachemem for a more realistic picture. This benchmark reveals less of a hit for the onboard video solution, but at the same time, the nForce2 extends its lead over the KM266 considerably.

Bandwidth isn’t everything of course, and this graph explores that other important memory statistic, latency. Here the KM266 and nForce2 are quite a bit closer, but the nForce2 still grabs the win. The onboard video configuration trails by a large margin.

Memory tests are all well and good, but by themselves they’re not an accurate indicator of real-world performance. For something a little less abstract, let’s switch gears to Business Winstone. Business Winstone

The onboard video exacts a heavy penalty here, with that configuration scoring over eleven percent slower than the Radeon 9700 config. The nForce2 once again manages to pull ahead.

Content Creation Winstone

Content Creation Winstone’s applications are more resource intensive than Business Winstone, and the results reflect that fact. This time, the onboard video scores over seventeen percent lower than the Radeon 9700 configuration. The nForce2 comes in six percent faster than the KM266.

3DMark2001 SE
To paraphrase the Simpsons, all work and no games make Homer something something, so let’s look at some gaming scores. If you’re uncomfortable with the sight of carnage, I suggest you avert your eyes from the following graphs, because the results aren’t pretty.

Once again the nForce2 comes out ahead of the KM266, video cards being equal, but the real story is the sickly triple digit score from the onboard video. If the rest of the gaming scores look like this, anyone considering the SK41G’s onboard video for gaming would do well to consider something else.

Comanche 4

The nForce2 comes out ahead once again, clocking in around seven percent faster than the KM266. If you thought the onboard video couldn’t do worse than the last test, you were wrong—it gets a DNF here, as the benchmark refused even to run.

Quake III Arena

For those of you who were wondering if the KM266 onboard video was capable of performing better with older games, the answer is perhaps, if you’re willing to crank the resolution and detail way down. At our standard test settings, however, the KM266 turns in a disappointing twenty frames per second, not exactly a playable frame rate. The nForce2 configuration scores another victory here, but it’s largely a symbolic one; if you’re unsatisfied with a 255 fps rate in Q3A, you should probably seek professional help.

Unreal Tournament 2003

The story continues in UT2003, as the onboard video continues to set all the wrong records. The nForce2 chalks up a couple more wins here, turning in significantly higher scores than the KM266.

Serious Sam SE

SSDG: Same story, different graph. Serious Sam benefits even more from the nForce2, as that configuration scores eleven percent higher than the KM266.

Speech recognition
Sphinx is a high-quality speech recognition routine that needs the latest computer hardware to run at speeds close to real-time processing. We use two different versions, built with two different compilers, in an attempt to ensure we’re getting the best possible performance.

There are two goals with Sphinx. The first is to run it faster than real time, so real-time speech recognition is possible. The second, more ambitious goal is to run it at about 0.8 times real time, where additional CPU overhead is available for other sorts of processing, enabling Sphinx-driven real-time applications.

None of the configurations tested here achieves the real-time goal, but the nForce2 configuration comes considerably closer than either of the KM266 configs. The shared memory of the onboard video obviously takes a toll on performance in this benchmark.

Conclusions
The SK41G is an impressive machine in its own right, and has the distinction of being the first Athlon-based Shuttle cube with an AGP slot. If you look at it on its own merits, it achieves very respectable performance that is on par with many full-sized desktop PC’s, at least when it’s paired with a good graphics card. It lacks some of the newer features available on other chipsets, such as support for DDR333 and a 333MHz front-side bus, but for the moment, it’s the only thing going.

However, those who follow this stuff have their eyes on the other shoe, and it’s about to drop. The SN41G2 actually arrived in our offices as this review was going to press, and you can expect a full review of it very soon. Like the Asus board tested in this article, the SN41G2 has support for DDR333 and 333MHz front-side bus Athlons, and dual-channel DDR support for an extra burst of speed. It also has AGP 8X, ATA-133 and dual Ethernet ports. It even has dual VGA outputs, enabling you to run dual monitors with the onboard graphics. And of course, those onboard graphics will likely offer considerably more 3D punch than the ProSavage DDR in the SK41G. With all that, the obvious question is, why would anyone want an SK41G?

Well, let me try to answer that question as best I can at this point. We don’t yet have pricing information on the SN41G2 from Shuttle, and Pricewatch is mum on that point as well. What follows requires a bit of supposition, but let’s look at the SB51G as an example: Retail is $349, and Pricewatch prices are around $330 shipped. The SB51G came out around the beginning of November, so it’s been on the market for about six weeks now. Given that the SB51G and the SN41G2 are both “top of the line” for their respective processor architectures, it’s likely that the SN41G2 will cost around the same as the SB51G, or perhaps a bit more given its better onboard video and dual video outputs.

The SK41G, on the other hand, has only been available for a couple of weeks, yet it’s currently available on Pricewatch for $285 shipped, about $45 cheaper than our made-up (but probably fairly close) SN41G2 price. If you’re building a cube for mom and dad, who don’t care about 3D graphics, let alone DDR333, that’s a significant savings. If the performance hit from the onboard video is too much for you, slap in a cheapo video card for $10. And hey, if you’re interested in a cube for LAN parties or light-duty gaming, but don’t need the absolute latest and greatest, that $45 could go towards a nicer AGP card.

I know what you’re thinking: “But the SN41G2’s onboard graphics are good enough that you don’t need an AGP card!” Well, it’s true that they’re a damn sight better than the SK41G’s onboard offering, but don’t forget that the SN41G2 doesn’t have onboard frame buffer memory, so it’s using main memory just like the SK41G. It’s possible that the use of dual channels of DDR333 will mean less of a benchmark-neutral performance hit than we saw with the SK41G, but it’s also possible that the SK41G with an AGP card will equal or better the SN41G2 with onboard video, even on benchmarks with no 3D graphics. These questions will be answered in our SN41G2 review shortly. Regardless, the SK41G packs a lot of value for the money. If you’re looking to build a DirectX 8 (or even DirectX 9) capable LAN party box for as little as possible, the SK41G and a nice AGP card is a tough combo to beat.

Comments closed
    • Anonymous
    • 17 years ago

    Shuttle SN41G has be updated by the Shuttle SN41G2 (AMD w/ Nvidia nForce2 Chipset) /w DDR333 & 400. If you need the carry your game computer around as I do, this doesn’t look too bad. eBay has for $385.

    • MaceMan
    • 17 years ago

    a couple days late, but the Age of Mythology answer is that the Mrs. can only play at 16 bit (but not 32bit) at all resolutions with the integrated graphics. All the other twiddling options are available and the game looks great – shocking, and surprising.

    • Anonymous
    • 17 years ago

    still waiting to hear if one 15k scsi is faster than 4 ide drives striped…

    anyone?

    wd = western digital

    also, another question, would 4 wd ide
    s w/ the 8mb of cache be faster than 4 wd ide drives with 2mb cache on a promise card? does the promise card use the hd’s onboard cache?

    thanks!

    • Anonymous
    • 17 years ago

    I’ve heard the people that have review samples of the SN41G are under NDA, are you allowed to tell us when it’ll be lifted?

    • Anonymous
    • 17 years ago

    I’m curious on how these boxes have worked out for people making portable Dedicated Linux Lan Servers. I’m looked at several options but I’m really into the size issue and this seems to be the way to go.
    The need for a serious graphics card isn’t a biggy since I will probably be running it in Console mode 98% of the time. The other thing is Im looking for an excuse to make a MP3 server for myself as well as every once in a while have a dedicated server hosting games at my friends house for LAN Parties.
    Any Coments?

    • Anonymous
    • 17 years ago

    ag19…good questions…I would like to know as well…anyone?

    oh, and dog poop, what were the problems? to big as in space? or what? the card, the drive, we need details!! ๐Ÿ™‚

    thanks,
    bob

    • Anonymous
    • 17 years ago

    Is it possible to fit in a Radeon 9500/9700 with a Zalman passive cooler in that tiny box? Then it would be r{

    • Anonymous
    • 17 years ago

    I use Shuttle MK35N based on KM266 as my linux server (2.4.20). The board is pretty good bang for the buck. It works with cheap XP1800 TB-A (passive cooling) and 256MB Samsung’s CB0 DDR @C2T1 266. On one day I’ve installed win98se to check it’s integrated video performance. I was pleasently suprissed, not because the board boasted an (un)impressive 1000-1050 3dMarks with XP1800+, but because there was ZERO artefacts. All tests run without any visibble errors, and at speed comparabble to RivaTNT2 M64. Also the important thing to notice is that this chipset/board boosted about 30% better results in graphic performance in less demanding environment the win9x creates than within the winNT derivates. The only hickup with MK35N was slightly blurred image that started with 1024×768@85Hz and up.

    (I’m sory 4 my bad spelling but I’m used only to read in english, not to write, nobody ever teached me english anyway :] )

    • d0g_p00p
    • 17 years ago

    I tried to cram SCSI stuff in my SV25 and that was a no go.

    • Anonymous
    • 17 years ago

    3 questions about the SB51G

    1 will a ati 9700 AND a 160 adaptec controller card fi in it?
    2 will a 15k scsi cheetah drive be faster than my promise raid 4 20 gb drives striped for perfomance?
    3 will a cheetah 15k be to hot for this system to handle?

    • Anonymous
    • 17 years ago

    The SB51G (845GE chipset) has one PCI and an AGP 4X slots in it.
    I just built one for my parents Xmas, and just used the on-board graphics – pretty nice.

    BUT, if you want more, just stuff in an ATI 9700 Pro!

    • Anonymous
    • 17 years ago

    Has TR reviewed any boards yet with the “Intel Extreme” (845GE) on-board graphics? I noticed a post from someone earlier about the SFF Dell unit, which uses that chip. I think the Intel cube from Shuttle uses that too? I’d like to see how that compares with the built-in from this test.

    Still, if there’s such a performance hit to memory when it’s shared to graphics, it may not be such a good idea… I suppose all built-in graphics solutions are going to fall in the same pile for now…

    Plus with the GF4MX440 64MB under $50 now… ๐Ÿ˜

    • sativa
    • 17 years ago

    [quote]Her box is upstairs … I’ll see if I can dig in her [/quote]

    • Anonymous
    • 17 years ago

    [q] but when I look at her box, it still looks good [/q]

    ahh… the test of time.

    • sativa
    • 17 years ago

    MaceMan says:[quote]Mrs. is kinda touchy about letting me around her box. [/quote]<snicker snicker>

    • indeego
    • 17 years ago

    Sounds like you are whipped. My “missus” can put her own computer together if she doesn’t want me to tweak itg{<.<}g

    • MaceMan
    • 17 years ago

    re noise: the SB51G is very quiet. Just the fan in the back makes noise, and it has a stop speed spin-up when you first power cycle it. So you are reminded of the difference of the fan’s speed vs. the “normal” quiet mode. The fan has never left ‘quiet’ mode in the 2 months the Mrs. has had it. Very nice. I’d expect this to be true of all Shuttle systems with the heat pipe system.

    Unanimous (#3):
    The difference in video quality is that I can have AA cranked to the max and the people don’t have jaggies. That’s about it. The Mrs. plays it at 1024×768. I’d have to go look at her settings. I think there is a button called “high quality graphics” that she cannot choose, etc. but when I look at her box, it still looks good. Perhaps akin to 16 bit vs 32 bit graphics? Her box is upstairs and mine is downstairs so I can’t put them side by side without considerable effort. I’ll see if I can dig in her AoM menu tonight and post the setting limitations she has…. (at work now).

    Mrs. is kinda touchy about letting me around her box. She dislikes my compulsion to tweak her stuff without asking. I keep telling her that I’m helping her, but she doesn’t buy it.

    • indeego
    • 17 years ago

    ยง[<http://catalog.us.dell.com/CS1/cs1page2.aspx?cs=04&keycode=6W463&br=2&fm=10266<]ยง How about a comparitive review of one of these USFF Dell's. It's a shame that Dell chooses to use 5400 rpm drives in it, otherwise they are silent and sleek. Shuttle might as well be considered an OEM since you use a proprietary form factor, rightg{

    • Anonymous
    • 17 years ago

    [q]The SN41G2 isn’t yet available for purchase[/q]
    I’ve been waiting patiently for it, which was said to be out last month… Any idea when it will be available Damage?

    • Mr Bill
    • 17 years ago

    The Heat Pipes look interesting. Now we just need some with flexible tubing so that dualies can use the case exhaust fans to cool the hot end.

    • muyuubyou
    • 17 years ago

    ยง[<http://www.sudhian.com/docs.cfm/id/278/pid/1021.sud<]ยง there complains about the noise. I'm not sure the units I saw where the same. All look so similar and those fancy names don't help either.

    • Anonymous
    • 17 years ago

    I have an SB51G with a 9700 Pro and 120GB WD disk, and it is pretty quiet (at least compared to my older big-box systems).
    Most of the noise seems to come from the small power supply fan (also located at the back of the unit). In a few weeks after I’m sure my system is reliable, I’ll void my warranty and crack the PS open to see if I can replace this fan.

    • muyuubyou
    • 17 years ago

    The interesting thing about the SK41G for me is if it’s really that silent.

    I’ve seen older shuttle cubes working and what kept me from buying them was noise: If you’re running these things ON the desk besides your screen, to keep those USB ports handy, you WANT them to be silent.

    Older ones were really noisy. Hope this one and SN41G2 are different.

    • Freon
    • 17 years ago

    A bit of a yawner. Eagerly awaiting the SN41G2 review, even though I’m pretty settled with my SS51G.

    • Anonymous
    • 17 years ago

    It doesn’t sound like a back-handed Mac-bash. It’s more of a, “Here I am saying something apart from the normal way you expect. Take note.”

    • Unanimous Hamster
    • 17 years ago

    [quote]
    The later cubes have an appearance that’s almost Mac-like, and I mean that in a good way.
    [/quote]

    I would have been disappointed if T-R hadn’t included the obligatory back-handed Mac-bash. Nice to know T-R is still on top of things!

    Maceman –

    What resolution does your wife play Age of Mythology at? The game IIRC uses a 3D engine, so I find it hard to believe there’s no noticable difference between integrated video and a GF4, unless you’re playing at 640X480.

    • Anonymous
    • 17 years ago

    Nice metaphors, Maceman.

    So, instead of making me read the whole review, what is the answer to the question about AGP and general performance?

    • MaceMan
    • 17 years ago

    Could someone round up the integrated video performance of the various Shuttle cubes and put them in one graph? Please? I’d be curious to see the evolution of integrated graphics, as well as knowing the cutoff point for popular non-twitch shooter (RTS) games:

    My wife plays Age of Mythology (her only game; she stomps me fairly regularly at it, much to my shame) on her SB51G using the integrated graphics and it performs pretty well. Things look SLIGHTLY better on my box (with the GF4TI4200), but spending $XXX to upgrade her video for one game is rediculous.

    Thanks! ๐Ÿ™‚

    These heatpipe cooling systems sure work well. Wish there were standard heatpipe stuff like this for uATX cases in general. Tired of wrestling with the Empire State Building with the V-22 Osprey on top of my CPUs.

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