In the wake of today’s Athlon 64 launch, you probably know where I’m going with this.
To celebrate AMD’s Athlon 64 launch, Shuttle is serving up a new cube to help ease small form factor enthusiasts into the 64-bit world. The SN85G4 is the world’s first 64-bit small form factor system, but there’s more to it than that; the SN85G4 is also the first cube to use Shuttle’s new “G4” faceplate, and the first in Shuttle’s XPC line to integrate a memory card reader.
Is Shuttle’s SN85G4 the perfect pint-sized platform for AMD’s new Athlon 64? Read on to find out.
Before I overwhelm you with pictures of the SN85G4 from every conceivable angle, let’s have a quick peek at this new cube’s spec sheet.
|CPU support||Socket 754-based Athlon 64 processors|
|Form factor||Flex ATX (Shuttle form factor)|
|Chipset||NVIDIA nForce3 150|
|PCI slots||1 32-bit/33MHz|
|AGP slots||1, 4X/8X AGP 8X (1.5V only)|
2 184-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 2GB of DDR400/333/266 SDRAM
|Storage I/O||Floppy disk
2 channels ATA/133
|Serial ATA||2 channels Serial ATA 150 via Sil 3512A Serial ATA controller|
|RAID||Serial ATA RAID 0, 1 support via Sil 3512A Serial ATA controller|
|Legacy ports||1 PS/2 keyboard, 1 PS/2 mouse, Serial and Parallel ports|
|USB||4 USB 2.0/1.1 ports
2 additional USB 2.0/1.1 used by integrated card reader
|Firewire||2 IEEE 1394 Firewire ports via VT6307 Firewire controller|
|Audio||6-channel audio via nForce3 integrated audio and ALC650 DAC
rear-mounted analog front, rear, surround, and center outputs
shared rear-mounted rear analog line in and microphone inputs
front-mounted analog line in and mic inputs, front output
digital S/PDIF input and output ports (Tos-Link)
|Ethernet||10/100 Fast Ethernet via nForce3 150|
|Bus speeds||FSB: 200-250MHz in 1MHz increments
AGP/PCI: 66-100 in 1MHz increments
Memory: 100, 133, 166, 200MHz
CPU: default, 0.8-1.7V in 0.05V increments
DRAM: default, 2.7-2.9V in 0.1V increments
AGP: default, 1.6-1.8V in 0.1V increments
Chipset: default, 1.7-1.8V in 0.1V increments
LDT: default, 1.3-1.5V in 0.1V increments
|Monitoring||Voltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring|
I’ll be going over each of the SN85G4’s features and specifications in detail over the course of this review, so you don’t need to remember the spec sheet’s details.
To get the next few pages of pictures rolling, here’s a glamour shot of the SN85G4.
To accommodate the Athlon 64, the SN85G4’s motherboard is all new. Shuttle also came up with new look for its first Athlon 64 cube, which comes dressed in a glossy black finish.
The aesthetic value of the SN85G4’s black and silver color scheme really comes down to personal taste; goth kids and Robert Smith fans will no doubt love it. Unfortunately, the glossy black face plate doesn’t perfectly match the aluminum skin’s more drab finish, and both surfaces easily pick up fingerprint smudges. Smudges are nothing a little Windex and light buffing can’t fix, but it feels a little weird to be polishing a PC case.
Overall, the glossy black finish gives the SN85G4 a classy look, but it’s one that can be far too easily scarred by an ugly beige 5.25″ optical drive. Black optical drives should look OK, but I’ve yet to see one offered with a glossy finish that would match the SN85G4’s face plate. If Shuttle wants to maintain a consistent look with its new cubes, they really need to come up with a 5.25″ bay door cover that can hide off-color optical drives. If Shuttle’s crack team of engineers can have Athlon 64 cubes ready for the processor’s launch, surely they can manipulate hinges and springs deftly enough to come up with some sort of drive bay cover.
The SN85G4’s new “G4″ faceplate does away with the external 3.5″ floppy drive bay to make room for an integrated memory card reader that handles Smart Media, Compact Flash cards, SD media, and Sony’s Memory Sticks. The card reader’s integration is particularly slick, but it can’t be removed without replacing the SN85G4’s face plate.
Speccing the SN85G4 with a memory card reader in lieu of an external 3.5” drive bay is a bit daring for Shuttle, but I can’t see too many people complaining. In a world filled with cheap CD burners and tiny USB memory sticks, there are few reasons for the vast majority of PC users to resort to antiquated floppy disk.
Few reasons, but sadly, not zero reasons.
As dated as they are, floppy drives are still a necessary evil for some Windows installations. Windows 2000/XP’s installation routine will only accept third party storage controller drivers from a floppy disk. As our luck would have it, installing Windows to hard drives connected to the SN85G4’s Serial ATA ports requires third party storage controller drivers. Thankfully, the SN85G4’s motherboard has a floppy port, so it’s easy to rig up a floppy drive to get through a Windows installation.
An array of USB, Firewire, and audio ports is set into the bottom of the SN85G4’s face plate. The port cluster is recessed, but there’s plenty of room around each port for bulky plugs.
One Firewire and two USB 2.0/1.1 ports find their way onto the SN85G4’s array of front-mounted ports. The front cluster doesn’t include any digital audio ports, but analog headphone, mic, and line-in ports are available.
From the rear, the SN85G4 closely resembles the rest of Shuttle’s XPC line. Props to Shuttle for using thumb screws to secure not only the case’s aluminum skin, but also the system’s cooling fan.
Shuttle provides everything short of game and modem ports in the SN85G4’s rear port cluster. The system’s digital audio input and output ports make an appearance at the rear along with analog front, rear, and center output ports. Firewire, Ethernet, and USB 2.0/1.1 ports are also available in addition to a full suite of legacy ports.
Alright, enough with externals. Let’s rip the SN85G4 open and see what’s inside.
Ok, so things are a little too cluttered to see much from this far away. Let’s zoom in for a closer look.
At the heart of the SN85G4 is its 754 pin socket for Athlon 64 processors. The SN85G4 doesn’t support 940-pin Athlon 64 FX or Opteron processors, but Shuttle may yet serve up cubes compatible with those processors.
The SN85G4 connects the Athlon 64’s single memory channel to a couple of DIMM slots that each supports up to a cool gigabyte of DDR400 memory. Like other Socket 754-pin Athlon 64 platforms, the SN85G4 doesn’t require fancy registered DIMMs; plain old DDR will work just fine.
Like much of Shuttle’s current XPC line, the SN85G4 has both AGP and PCI slots. The system’s AGP slot is mounted along the outside edge of the motherboard, which unfortunately (well, unfortunately for NVIDIA, anyway) makes the SN85G4 incompatible with double-wide graphics card coolers. Diehard NVIDIA fanboys can always cut holes in the SN85G4’s side panels to accommodate bulky GeForce FX coolers, but given the current performance of NVIDIA’s GeForce FX line, it’s probably not worth the trouble.
Crammed up at the front of the SN85G4’s case are the system’s two IDE and single floppy port. The floppy port is particularly hard to access, but given the system’s lack of an external 3.5″ drive bay, floppy port placement probably wasn’t a huge priority for Shuttle.
The SN85G4’s sheathed power supply cord really shows an attention to detail that borders on silly. I’m not really sure how much difference sheathing less than two inches of cable can make, but Shuttle’s heart is in the right place so I’m not going to complain.
The system’s power supply doesn’t advertise a wattage, but it does offer a native Serial ATA power plug in addition to three four-pin MOLEX power connectors and two floppy power connectors. With more and more graphics cards requiring auxiliary power, I suspect those extra power plugs will come in handy.
A minimalist card reader occupies one of the SN85G4’s internal 3.5″ drive bays, but the reader can easily be removed to accommodate a second internal hard drive. As easy as it is to remove the card reader’s internal hardware, the SN85G4 would still be left with gaping holes in its face plate.
Unlike previous XPC systems, whose entire drive cages could be removed with ease, only the SN85G4’s lower 3.5″ drive tray slides out of the system. The SN85G4’s removable drive tray does makes single hard drive installations a snap, but removing the tray doesn’t really open up the rest of the system for anything else.
As cramped as the SN85G4’s internals are, Shuttle manages to keep the system cool and quiet with its trademark I.C.E cooler. Check it out:
With four heat pipes and far too many radiator fins to count, the SN85G4’s heat sink is a finely-sculpted work of art.
The SN85G4’s I.C.E. cooler includes what has to be the best heat sink retention clip I’ve used to date. Given the SN85G4’s cramped interior, one might expect processor installations to be a pain, but the retention clip makes removing the heat sink assembly easy.
The I.C.E. system uses a single 80mm cooling fan to expel hot air from the SN85G4. The fan sucks air through a rear exhaust port, lifting heat from the heat sink’s radiator fins in the process. Fan speeds are controlled through the SN85G4’s BIOS, which offers five different speed settings that balance maximum system and CPU temperatures with lower noise levels.
The SN85G4 actually has a second fan in addition to the I.C.E. cooler’s 80mm Sunon. A small 60mm unit is mounted internally on the power supply, an odd placement until we consider Shuttle’s larger cooling scheme for the cube. The power supply fan sucks hot air out from inside the PSU and blows it directly into the path of the I.C.E. system’s exhaust fan. Since the power supply fan channels more hot air into the system, it may not be the most efficient way to keep things cool. However, the internal power supply fan does let Shuttle get away with a single exhaust port for the SN85G4. The new power supply fan doesn’t have a high-pitched whine like the 40mm PSU fans used in other XPC systems, either.
With its larger diameter power supply fan and variable-speed I.C.E. cooler, the SN85G4 may well be the quietest small form factor system I’ve tested. Shuttle even goes so far as to dampen vibrations with a set of rubber bumpers at each of the I.C.E. fan’s mounting points. I doubt that the rubber bumpers have a significant impact on overall noise levels, but they certainly don’t make the system any louder.
Shuttle uses NVIDIA’s nForce3 150 chipset to power the SN85G4. This single-chip solution does away with traditional north and south bridge chips by consolidating AGP 8X, ATA/133, USB 2.0, and 10/100 Fast Ethernet functionality into a single chip. Today, NVIDIA also released a “ForceWare” software package that adds RAID 0, 1, 0+1, and JBOD support to the nForce3 150. NVIDIA plans to add Gigabit Ethernet support to the nForce3 line soon, but that won’t come as a software update that would be compatible with the SN85G4. The nForce3 150 communicates with the Athlon 64 via HyperTransport links 8 and 16 bits wide for upstream and downstream, respectively. Both links run at 600MHz, which is well within the HyperTransport spec, but slower than the 16-bit, 800MHz HyperTransport links found in VIA’s K8T800 chipset. According to NVIDIA, the nForce3 150’s slower, narrower HyperTransport has more than enough bandwidth to feed the chip’s integrated peripherals, and they might have a point. However, the latency penalty associated with a slower HyperTransport link could still have an impact on performance.
Since the nForce3 150 lacks IEEE 1394 support, Shuttle uses VIA’s VT6307 Firewire controller to power the SN85G4’s Firewire ports. The VT6307 actually supports up to three Firewire ports, but the SN85G4 only uses two.
Realtek’s oft-used ALC650 codec also makes an appearance on the SN85G4’s motherboard. As far as audio goes, the nForce3 150 offers nothing above basic AC’97 compatibility, which rules out any and all hardware 3D audio acceleration. By only offering limited audio capabilities in the nForce3 150, NVIDIA can produce and sell the chips more cheaply, but it’s a definite step backwards technology-wise. Because the nForce2’s robust 3D audio capabilities are so well documented and the chipset’s ability to do hardware Dolby Digital encoding in real time is still unequaled, it’s disappointing that the nForce3 150’s audio support so weak.
For a system with integrated audio, the SN85G4 actually sounds alright, but it’s not exceptional. To my ears, integrated audio solutions based on VIA’s Envy24PT audio chip sound better, but I doubt the SN85G4’s tiny motherboard has enough motherboard real estate for an Envy audio implementation. The board does have an available PCI slot, and I’d encourage audio enthusiasts and gamers alike to opt for a discrete sound card. For audio enthusiasts, the quality offered by true 24-bit sound cards like M-Audio’s Revolution 7.1 blows away any integrated audio solution. For gamers, hardware acceleration for 3D audio can be found on even low-end sound cards.
Rounding out the SN85G4’s list of integrated peripherals is a little Serial ATA action. Serial ATA is all the rage on motherboards these days, but the standard’s thin, flexible cables are particularly useful in small form factor systems where wide ribbon IDE cables can easily interfere with what little air flow exists.
Although NVIDIA’s nForce3 150 lacks native support for Serial ATA devices, the SN85G4 uses Silicon Image’s Sil 3152 controller to give the system a couple of Serial ATA ports. The Sil 3512 also supports RAID 0 and 1 across two Serial ATA drives, but I wouldn’t suggest packing the SN85G4 with more than one hard drive in addition to a 5.25″ optical drive.
Shuttle could probably get away with speccing the SN85G4 with a single Serial ATA port, possibly with a bridge chip hanging off one of the nForce3’s existing ATA/133 IDE ports. However, the inclusion of two Serial ATA ports nicely prepares the SN85G4 for future optical drives that will support the Serial ATA standard.
So far, the SN85G4’s hardware looks pretty sweet, but how’s the software?
At first glance, Shuttle’s SN85G4 BIOS looks pretty complete. Front-side bus speeds are available up to 250MHz in 1MHz increments, and the AGP bus can be tweaked up to 100MHz. However, the BIOS doesn’t have any PCI dividers or any option to arbitrarily define a PCI bus speed.
The SN85G4’s memory bus speed can be set at 100, 133, 166, or 200MHz, but that’s about as far as memory tweaking goes. The BIOS doesn’t provide control over memory latencies, nor does it offer any overall “system performance” variables to manipulate.
I can live without ambiguous system performance settings, but I really miss the ability to tweak memory latencies and command rates. Those with high-end memory meant to run at low latencies and aggressive command rates will no doubt feel a little cheated by the SN85G4’s BIOS.
On the voltage front, the SN85G4 is loaded with options. Processor voltages can be set between 0.8 and 1.7V in 0.05V increments. DRAM voltages range between 2.7 and 2.9V, AGP voltages between 1.6 and 1.8V, and chipset voltages between 1.7 and 1.8V, all in 0.1V increments.
A processor voltage ceiling of 1.7V probably won’t be enough for extreme overclocking endeavors, but small form factor systems and extreme overclocking rarely go hand-in-hand. As good as the SN85G4’s I.C.E. system is, I doubt it’s robust enough to cool a massively overclocked and overvolted processor in the cramped confines of the SN85G4.
As I mentioned before, the SN85G4 has five different fan speed settings to balance effective cooling with low noise levels. Surprisingly, the BIOS doesn’t have temperature or fan failure-bound alarm or system shutdown conditions. Given the SN85G4’s reliance on a single fan to keep not only the processor, but also the entire system cool, I’d really like to see Shuttle implement alarm or shutdown conditions to guard against damage in the event of a catastrophic cooling failure.
All tests were run three times, and their results were averaged, using the following test systems.
|LAN Party NFII Ultra||KT6 Delta||AN50R||SN85G4|
|Processor||Athlon XP 3200+||Athlon 64 3200+|
|Front-side bus||400MHz (2 x 200MHz)||HT 16-bit/600MHz downstream
HT 8-bit/600MHz upstream
|Motherboard||DFI LAN Party NFII Ultra||MSI KT6 Delta||Shuttle AN50R||Shuttle FN85|
|North bridge||nForce2 Ultra 400 SPP||VIA KT600||nForce3 150|
|South bridge||nForce2 MCP-T||VT8237|
|Chipset driver||nForce unified 2.45||Hyperion 4.49||nForce K8 3.43|
|Memory size||512MB (2 DIMMs)||512MB (1 DIMM)|
|Memory type||Corsair XMS3200 PC2700 DDR SDRAM|
|Graphics||ATI Radeon 9700 Pro|
|Graphics driver||CATALYST 3.6|
Maxtor 740X-6L 40GB 7200RPM ATA/133 hard drive
|Operating System||Windows XP Professional
Service Pack 1 and DirectX 9.0b
Today we’ll be looking at the SN85G4’s performance against Shuttle’s AN50R, a full ATX-sized Athlon 64 board that also uses NVIDIA’s nForce3 150 chipset. I’ve also thrown in a couple of Athlon XP platforms with a speedy 3200+ to illustrate how the SN85G4 stacks up against older systems based on NVIDIA’s nForce2 and VIA’s KT600 platforms.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- SiSoft Sandra Standard 2003
- ZD Media Business Winstone 2002 1.0.1
- ZD Media Content Creation Winstone 2002 1.0.1
- TCD Labs HD Tach v2.61
- Futuremark 3DMark03 Patch 330
- Quake III Arena v1.31
- Unreal Tournament 2003 demo
- RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.1
- RightMark 3D Sound 1.0
- Cinebench 2003
- Sphinx 3.3
The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1024×768 in 32-bit color at a 75Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests. Most of the 3D gaming tests used the high detail image quality settings, with the exception that the resolution was set to 640×480 in 32-bit color.
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.
In Sandra’s memory bandwidth tests, the SN85G4 just trails the AN50R. Both Athlon 64 systems offer slightly more memory bandwidth than today’s fastest Athlon XP platforms, but I can’t help but wonder how well the SN85G4 would have scored if I were able to manually set aggressive memory latencies and command rates.
Cachemem’s take on memory bandwidth shows the two Athlon 64 systems locked in a dead heat again. I have a sneaking suspicion that Shuttle developed the AN50R and motherboard for the SN85G4 at the same time.
In Cachemem’s latency test, the SN85G4 barely trails the AN50R again. The Athlon 64’s on-die memory controller offers significantly lower latencies than even the latest Athlon XP chipsets.
Disk controller performance
Curiously, HD Tach shows our “parallel” ATA drive out ahead of the Serial ATA Raptor when it comes to burst read speeds. Given that the trend is consistent across several platforms and chipsets, I’m tempted to think that Serial ATA drivers aren’t yet up to par with their “parallel” ATA counterparts.
The Raptor’s Serial ATA burst read speed might not be all that impressive on the systems we tested, but it’s definitely faster than our plain old IDE drive in HD Tach’s sustained read and write speed tests. In both the average read and write tests, the SN85G4 has a slim lead over the competition.
In the Winstone tests, the SN85G4 just slips by the AN50R for the win. Both Athlon 64 platforms continue to lead the Athlon XPs.
Unfortunately, my AN50R isn’t quite stable in the games we’re using for testing, so I’m unable to report its scores here. You’ll have to be content with the SN85G4 dominating our nForce2 and KT600 platforms.
In Cinebench 2003, the SN85G4 just trails the AN50R.
Sphinx speech recognition
The SN85G4 pulls ahead of the AN50R by the slimmest of margins in our speech recognition test. Everyone stand up and give the Athlon 64’s on-die memory controller a nice round of applause.
Even with simple 2D DirectSound audio, the nForce3 150’s pokey audio implementation consumes precious processor cycles. Things get a lot uglier when we dip into 3D audio.
Without the hardware necessary to accelerate 3D audio, the nForce3-equipped SN85G4 shows incredibly high CPU utilization in RightMark’s 3D sound benchmark. All of our test platforms feast on CPU cycles when doing 3D audio in software, but at least our nForce2- and KT600-based systems can fall back on hardware acceleration to all but eliminate their CPU utilization. Our nForce3-based platforms aren’t so lucky.
For RightMark’s audio quality tests, I used an M-Audio Revolution 7.1 for recording. Analog output ports were used on all systems.
To keep things simple, I translated RightMark’s word-based quality scale to numbers. Higher scores reflect better audio quality, and the scale tops out at 6, which corresponds to an “Excellent” rating in RightMark.
The SN85G4 and AN50R share similar audio quality characteristics, which should be expected since both pair NVIDIA’s nForce3 150 with Realtek’s ALC650 codec. The SN85G4 is a little weaker than our nForce2 SoundStorm board when it comes to dynamic range, but its frequency response rates as “very good.”
Our USB 2.0 and Firewire transfer speed tests involve transferring a mix of files totaling 1.89GB from a USB 2.0/Firewire external hard drive enclosure to the test system. The hard drive enclosure was connected to a 7200RPM Maxtor 740X-6L hard drive.
The SN85G4’s USB 2.0 transfer speed is the slowest of the lot, and things get worse when we switch over to Firewire. Since the AN50R and nForce2-powered LAN Party NFII Ultra both suffer from poor USB speed scores, I have to question the quality of NVIDIA’s USB 2.0 implementation. The SN85G4’s problems with Firewire are unique, though. Since the AN50R achieves a much faster transfer time with the same VIA VT6307 Firewire chip as the SN85G4, I can’t blame VIA for the SN85G4’s poor performance.
Our Ethernet speed tests involve downloading the same 1.89GB batch of files used in our USB and Firewire tests from a file server based on Intel’s Springdale platform. The Springdale board’s CSA-attached Gigabit Ethernet port was used and both the server and test systems were connected to a 100Mbit Ethernet switch.
The SN85G4’s Ethernet performance isn’t particularly hot, which is disappointing. Because the AN50R’s performance is also unimpressive, I’m inclined to blame the nForce3 150’s Ethernet implementation. Not once during the SN85G4 or AN50R’s test runs did either board manage a transfer rate higher than 9500kb/sec.
With no control over the Athlon 64’s multiplier, I overclocked the SN85G4 as best I could with my Athlon 64 3200+. Because of its stability issues in 3D games, the AN50R doesn’t have a score in Unreal Tournament 2003.
I was able to get the SN85G4 and Athlon 64 3200+ stable with a front-side bus speed of 215MHz, but pushing higher crashed the system. Overall, a 150MHz overclock isn’t too bad, but I can’t help but wonder if I could have pushed the SN85G4’s front-side bus farther with an unlocked processor.
As always, remember that overclocking success is never guaranteed. Just because I was able to run my Athlon 64 3200+ at 2.15GHz on the SN85G4 doesn’t mean that every SN85G4 will be stable with an overclocked front-side bus, or that every Athlon 64 3200+ will overclock beyond 2GHz. Overclocking success can rely as much on the characteristics of individual components as it can on other system variables and, perhaps more importantly, blind luck.
The SN85G4 extends Shuttle’s technology leadership in the small form factor world. The SN85G4 is the first and so far only small form factor system to support AMD’s brand new Athlon 64 processor, and while other manufacturers will no doubt jump on the Athlon 64 bandwagon, there’s no telling how long it could take the competition to catch up.
Since it’s the only Athlon 64-compatible cube on the market, it’s hard to criticize the SN85G4 too harshly. Still, there are still a few things I’d like to see tweaked. For starters, Shuttle needs to bring back the removable drive bay cage found on previous XPC systems. Doing so will make drive installations easier while also letting users open up their systems to gain better access to motherboard-mounted components and ports.
From a purely cosmetic standpoint, the SN85G4 is begging for a 5.25″ drive bay cover to match the system’s glossy black exterior. I’m fairly certain that installing a beige optical drive in the SN85G4 could get someone written up by the fashion police. With drive bay doors available on everything from full tower ATX cases to competing small form factor systems, it’s high time Shuttle’s cubes caught up.
My list of big SN85G4 gripes ends with NVIDIA’s nForce3 150 chipset. The nForce3 150’s single-chip design seems ideal for cramped small form factor motherboards, but its USB 2.0, Ethernet, and 3D audio implementations have performance issues. VIA’s K8T800 looks like the better chipset for overall system performance, but so far there are no small form factor systems available based on VIA’s Athlon 64 chipset.
Despite a few flaws, the SN85G4 is still a stable, fast, and ultimately attractive small form factor system for AMD’s Athlon 64. Without integrated graphics or Gigabit Ethernet, the SN85G4 probably isn’t appropriate for business environments, but it certainly has plenty to offer gamers and PC enthusiasts looking for a pint-sized Athlon 64 platform. Adding discrete graphics and sound cards to the system’s AGP and PCI slots can make the SN85G4 a versatile platform that can handle everything from hardcore gaming to AMD64 software developmentnot too shabby for a PC the size of a breadbox.
At the end of the day, the SN85G4 proves that Shuttle isn’t shy about pushing its XPC line of small form factor systems along the bleeding edge of processor and chipset technology. The XPC line isn’t quite as feature-packed as MSI’s MEGA or Abit’s DigiDice, but it might be a while before those systems embrace the Athlon 64. By then, who knows what Shuttle’s latest XPC systems will be sporting.