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Shuttle's XPC SB81P mini-barebones system

The XPC gets a total makeover

Manufacturer Shuttle
Model XPC SB81P
Price (street) $399
Availability Mid-August

WE'VE BEEN REVIEWING Shuttle's small form factor systems since the first SV24, when they were the only game in town. Over the course of time, we've watched the XPC line evolve from a quirky but cute little niche product into a diverse army of mini PCs that rival full-sized computers in most respects.

And we've complained every step of the way.

We decried the SV24's limited selection of CPUs. Shuttle then produced a Pentium 4-based XPC. We fussed over the early XPCs' blurry built-in video, lack of an AGP slot, and weak overclocking options. Shuttle responded with better integrated graphics and an AGP slot. We groused about noise and heat. Shuttle introduced a new generation of XPCs that packed an innovative heat-pipe cooler and speed-controlled fans. We gathered our breath and whinged about the lack of AMD-based XPCs. Shuttle answered by unleashing the nForce2-based SN41G2, an instant classic.

Our reply? We reiterated our desire for more overclocking options. The XPC company listened, producing the overclocking-friendly SN45G and a string of new mini-barebones rigs with performance BIOSes. We thanked them by campaigning for beefier power supplies and less noise. The 250W SilentX PSU was born.

"Great," we said, "but can you do something about that ugly CD-ROM drive bay?"

That led us, by my recollection, right up to the introduction of the XPC SB75S, a gorgeous pearlescent white number with a stealthed optical drive bay and whisper-silent operation. Naturally, we complained that the eject button for the optical drive wouldn't initiate a disc insert. We whined about the SB75S's missing reset button. We lamented the fact we couldn't run a two-slot GeForce card in the box. And, for good measure, we reminded everyone that Shuttle's XPCs had audio quality no better than your average motherboard and were not big enough to house a RAID array.

Shuttle's designers, ever vigilant, apparently weren't daunted. They've taken the opportunity, with Intel introducing a range of new standards and technologies alongside the 915/925X Express chipsets, to redesign the XPC from a clean sheet of paper. The result is Shuttle's new P-series chassis, the first incarnation of which is the XPC SB81P. This new XPC sits inside of a handsome, black, BTX-inspired case that's slightly larger in every dimension than prior XPCs. With innovative three-zone cooling, Intel High Definition Audio, room for a RAID array, and a PCI Express X16 slot capable of housing a double-wide graphics card, the SB81P aims to stifle our complaints once and for all. Will it succeed? Keep reading to find out.

The camera loves the XPC SB81P

As you can see from the picture, the SB81P looks great. The optical, floppy, and front I/O ports are all stealthed, and the case comes in any color you want, so long as it's black.

The specs
This first P-series XPC is true to its roots in that it includes built-in graphics, so that this mini-barebones box can become a fully functioning computer with only the addition of a CPU, memory, and drives. Also, although it's based on the newfangled 915G chipset with PCI Express, the SB81P includes a couple of noteworthy nods to practicality. Here are the full specs.

CPU support LGA775 Intel Pentium 4 processors with 533/800MHz front-side bus
Chipset Intel 915G Express
North bridge Intel 915G MCH
South bridge Intel ICH6R
Interconnect DMI (2GB/s)
Expansion slots 1 PCI Express X16
1 32-bit/33MHz PCI
Memory 2 184-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 4GB of DDR400 SDRAM
Storage I/O Floppy disk
1 channel ATA/100
4 ports Serial ATA 150 via ICH6R south bridge with RAID 0,1 support
Audio 8-channel HD audio via ICH6R integrated audio and ALC880 codec
Ports 1 PS/2 keyboard
1 PS/2 mouse
1 serial
USB 2.0 (2 front, 2 rear)
IEEE 1394 ports (1 front, 1 rear) via VT6307 controller
1 RJ45 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet via Broadcom BCM5751

2 line out/front out (1 front, 1 rear)
1 rear out
1 surround out

1 bass/center out
1 line in
1 mic in (front)
1 optical SPDIF in
1 optical SPDIF out
1 coaxial SPDIF out
BIOS Phoenix AwardBIOS
Bus speeds 100-355MHz in 1MHz increments (400-1420MHz quad-pumped)
Bus dividers Floating (with bus speed) or locked PCI speed of 33MHz
Voltages CPU: 0.825-1.5875V in 0.0125V increments
DRAM: Default, 2.7-2.9V in 0.1V increments
North bridge: 1.60-1.8V in 0.1V increments
Monitoring Voltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring
Fan speed control CPU1, CPU2, and system fans
You may have spotted those two nods to practicality. The SB81P accepts DDR400 memory, not DDR2, and it has a standard old PCI slot instead of PCI Express X1. Given the relatively high prices of DDR2 memory and the utter nonexistence of PCI Express X1 expansion cards, those choices make sense.

Beyond that, the SB81P is packed full of nifty new things courtesy of Intel's 915G chipset. The built-in Graphics Media Accelerator has four pipelines and DirectX 9-class pixel shaders, and the PCI-E X16 offers discrete graphics cards more bandwidth than the FCC. The ICH6R south bridge chip endows the SB81P with four ports of Serial ATA storage, complete with RAID levels 0 and 1, plus eight ports of 24-bit, 192KHz audio.

It's not in our table there, but the SB81P ships with a darn-near beefy 350W power supply unit, no doubt necessary to power the fastest Intel processors and PCI Express X16 graphics cards.

The one other highlight I'd like to point out up front is the SB81P's Gigabit Ethernet chip. This Broadcom Ethernet controller is a true PCI Express device, so it should feature higher throughput than most GigE built into motherboards these days.