Unfortunately, perfection is inherently fickle. And so are we. While the SN95G5 comes close to perfectionperhaps closer than any other XPCa couple of unsightly blemishes taint the cube’s otherwise considerable appeal. Join me as I explore what makes the SN95G5 so sweet, but also what ultimately leaves a bitter aftertaste.
As always, let’s kick things off with a look at the SN95G5’s spec sheet. Anyone who can spot the first chink in the cube’s armor gets a gold star.
|CPU support||Socket 939-based Athlon 64 processors|
|Chipset||NVIDIA nForce3 Ultra|
|North bridge||NVIDIA nForce3 Ultra|
|South bridge||NVIDIA nForce3 Ultra|
1 AGP 4X/8X (1.5V only)
2 184-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 2GB of DDR266/333/400 SDRAM
|Storage I/O||Floppy disk
2 channels ATA/133
2 channels Serial ATA 150 via nForce3 Ultra with RAID 0,1 support
|Audio||6-channel audio via nForce3 Ultra integrated audio and ALC655 codec|
1 PS/2 keyboard
1 PS/2 mouse
4 USB 2.0 with headers for 2 more
2 Firewire via VT6307
1 RJ45 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet via Marvel 88E8001
1 analog front out
|Bus speeds||CPU: 200-280MHz in 1MHz increments
AGP: 66-100MHz in 1MHz increments
|Bus dividers||CPU:HT: 1:1, 1:2, 1:3, 1:4, 1:5|
|Voltages||CPU: 0.8-1.7V in 0.025V increments
DDR: auto, 2.7-2.9V in 0.1V increments
AGP: auto, 1.6-1.8V in 0.1V increments
Chipset: auto, 1.7-1.9V in 0.1V increments
|Monitoring||Voltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring|
|Fan speed control||System and PSU|
The SN95G5 packs NVIDIA’s nForce3 Ultra chipset. Apart from a 1GHz HyperTransport link, the nForce3 Ultra offers an identical feature set to the nForce3 250Gb chipset we reviewed back in April. The nForce3 Ultra’s more notable features include an AGP/PCI lock, Serial ATA RAID, an integrated Gigabit MAC, and hardware-optimized firewall software.
If only the SN95G5 actually took advantage of all those features. While it uses the SATA RAID and AGP/PCI lock, the cube bypasses the nForce3 Ultra’s integrated GigE controller in favor of PCI-based Marvell Gigabit chip. The Marvell controller is slower than NVIDIA’s integrated solution, and NVIDIA’s firewall software requires the nForce3’s GigE controller, so you don’t get that either. I don’t know why Shuttle is snubbing the nForce3 Ultra’s GigE, but it’s a bad move. They should know better.
Apart from the inexplicable Ethernet spec, the SN95G5 has everything you’ll need, including plenty of USB ports, Firewire, and six-channel audio. Keep the audio fresh in your mind; I have a bone to pick with Shuttle on that front, too. More on that in a moment.
We’ve seen a lot of Shuttle’s G-series chassis over the years, so I won’t belabor the obvious. As we take a photo tour of the SN95G5, I’ll point out the cube’s most important features, and probably make a few smart-ass remarks.
Despite being based on the older G-series chassis, the SN95G5’s exterior is all new. Everything about the updated skin is subtle, including muted hard drive activity and power LEDs, Shuttle’s name embossed on the side panel, and hinged doors to stealth the cube’s drive bays and front port cluster.
Opening the SN95G5 front doors reveals an array of audio and expansion ports and an external 3.5″ drive bay that’s ripe for a memory card reader. Shuttle has integrated card readers into previous XPCs, most notable the G4 series, but card readers are sold separately for the SN95G5.
In addition to hiding the cube’s 3.5″ drive bay behind a stealthy door, the SN95G5 also masks its 5.25″ drive bay. It’s taken Shuttle what seems like forever to release cubes with stealthed drive bays, so I couldn’t be happier. The spring-loaded drive bay door swings up and down as an optical drive tray opens and closes, and best of all, the external eject button even works when the optical drive tray is out. The drive bay door won’t work properly with slot-loading drives, though.
Around the back the SN95G5 packs the usual port cluster and exhaust grills for the power supply and ICE cooling system. Although it’s unmarked, there’s also a CMOS reset button off to the right of the port cluster. There’s room for a parallel port, too, but Shuttle doesn’t include one. The SN95G5 does serve up both TOS-Link and Coaxial digital S/PDIF outputs, though.
What lurks beneath the SN95G5’s demure exterior?
With its outer skin removed, the SN95G5’s internals look a little crowded. Fortunately, the cube’s drive cage, which houses external 5.25″ and 3.5″ drive bays in addition to an internal 3.5″ bay, pops out easily.
With the drive cage removed, the SN95G5’s internals are easily accessible. Like all G-series cubes, the AGP slot is mounted along the outside edge of the motherboard, precluding the use of double-wide graphics cards. The cube’s bright yellow CMOS reset jumper is also relatively close to the edge of the board, making it easy to access without completely disassembling the system.
From the right side of the cube, you can see the cube’s easily accessible DIMM slots and neatly wound and sheathed power cables. Shuttle specs the SN95G5 with a 240W power supply that should be able to handle just about anything you can cram into the cube.
Time to pop out the motherboard for closer inspection.
Since Shuttle has taken to carefully routing cables, motherboard layout doesn’t matter much for XPC systems. I have to admit that I’m not too crazy about the Serial ATA connectors being so close to the CPU socket, though.
Shuttle goes with an interesting cooling solution for the motherboard’s nForce3 Ultra chipset. The cooler blows from side to side across the board, taking advantage of venting on the SN95G5’s side panels.
The SN95G5 uses the same ICE cooling system as Shuttle’s cubes of old. The design has been tweaked over the years, and this latest iteration includes rubber grommets at each screw mounting point to dampen vibrations. The fan also has a BTX-style four pin power connector.
The SN95G5’s hardware looks pretty good, but can the cube’s BIOS hold up its end of the bargain?
Yes, and then some. While the BIOS’s memory tweaking options aren’t as expansive as some of the Socket 939 ATX boards we’ve reviewed recently, the most common timings are there.
Users can take the cube’s system bus up to 280MHz with a locked AGP/PCI bus. The BIOS also yields HyperTransport and processor multipliers, although the processor multipliers are only available in 1x rather than 0.5x steps.
To keep juice flowing to overclocked components, the BIOS serves up plenty of voltage tweaking options. CPU voltages top out at 1.7V, but for a little cube like the SN95G5, extreme overclocking probably isn’t in the cards.
Perhaps the BIOS’s most useful options are its fan speed controls. Users can dictate the behavior of the cube’s system/processor and power supply fans, making them ramp linearly with temperature increases or oscillate between two fan speed levels.
One may also define the temperature threshold for linear fan speed ramping, which is how I’d recommend the cube be configured. However, the BIOS doesn’t provide fan failure or temperature-based shutdown or alarm conditions. For a cube that depends largely on one cooling fan, a little protection would be good for peace of mind. In addition to providing a host of BIOS tweaking options, the SN95G5 is also compatible with NVIDIA’s Windows-based system utility software.
The system utility lets users monitor system variables, manipulate memory and AGP bus speeds, and tweak select memory timings from within Windows. Control over the HyperTransport and processor multipliers is missing, so most overclocking will still have to be done from within the BIOS.
All tests were run three times, and their results were averaged, using the following test systems.
|Processor||Athlon 64 3500+ 2.2GHz|
|Front-side bus||HT 16-bit/1GHz downstream
HT 16-bit/1GHz upstream
|Motherboard||Abit AV8||Asus A8V Deluxe||Gigabyte GA-K8NSNXP-939||Shuttle FN95|
|BIOS revision||Version 12||1006||F3||s00g|
|North bridge||VIA K8T800 Pro||NVIDIA nForce3 Ultra|
|South bridge||VIA VT8237|
|Chipset drivers||Hyperion 4.53||ForceWare 4.27|
|Memory size||1GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||OCZ PC3200 EL Platinum Rev 2 DDR SDRAM at 400MHz|
|RAS to CAS delay||2|
|Hard drives||Western Digital Raptor WD360GD 37GB SATA
Maxtor DiamondMax Plus D740X 40GB ATA/133
|Audio||VT8237/ALC658||VT8237/ALC850||nForce3 Ultra/ALC850||nForce3 Ultra/ALC658|
|Graphics||ATI Radeon 9600 XT|
|Graphics driver||CATALYST 4.8|
|OS||Microsoft Windows XP Professional|
|OS updates||Service Pack 2, DirectX 9.0c|
Today we’re comparing the SN95G5’s performance against a handful of Socket 939 ATX motherboards to see if the cube can keep up.
Thanks to OCZ for providing us with memory for our testing. If you’re looking to tweak out your system to the max and maybe overclock it a little, OCZ’s RAM is definitely worth considering.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- SiSoft Sandra Standard 2004
- ZD Media Business Winstone 2004 1.0.1
- ZD Media Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 1.0.1
- TCD Labs HD Tach v3.01
- Futuremark 3DMark03 Patch 340
- DOOM 3
- Far Cry v1.2
- Unreal Tournament 2004 v3270
- RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.3
- RightMark 3D Sound 1.02
- Cinebench 2003
- Sphinx 3.3
The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 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 Medium 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.
The SN95G5’s memory bandwidth and latency are very competitive. The common Athlon 64 on-chip memory controller keeps scores pretty close, though.
The SN95G5 ties for the lead in the Business Winstone and ekes out a slim victory in the Multimedia Content Creation test.
With wins in each of our gaming tests, the SN95G5 looks like an exquisite LAN party platform.
The cube continues to perform well in Cinebench…
Sphinx speech recognition
And it leads the field in Sphinx, albeit by a hair.
The SN95G5 has lower CPU utilization than the rest of the field in our DirectSound audio performance tests, but to get the cube to support DirectSound 3D at all, you have to download Realtek’s ALC658 codec drivers yourself. The drivers aren’t packaged with the cube, nor are they offered for download on Shuttle’s web site. In fact, Shuttle doesn’t seem aware that the drivers are even needed for DirectSound 3D support.
If you don’t download Realtek’s drivers on your own, you’ll still get sound through all six output channels thanks to the audio component of NVIDIA’s ForceWare chipset drivers. Game support for DirectSound 3D and EAX will be missing, though.
For RightMark’s audio quality tests, I used a Terratec DMX 6fire 24/96 for recording. Analog output ports were used on all systems. To keep things simple, I’ve 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 SN95G5’s audio output quality is competitive with the rest of the field. It doesn’t sound great, but for integrated audio, it’s not bad, either. With only one PCI slot to spare, you’ll want to think carefully about popping in a discrete sound card. Fortunately, the cube’s on-board DAC can easily be bypassed by using one of the two available S/PDIF digital audio outputs.
ATA performance was tested with a Maxtor 740X-6L ATA/133 hard drive using HD Tach 3.01’s 8MB zone setting.
The SN95G5 is right in the thick of things in our ATA performance tests. Keep in mind that the low burst speed scores are likely a result of our hard drive’s 2MB cache. Also, HD Tach’s CPU utilization tests have a margin of error of +/- 2%.
Moving to Serial ATA, we tested performance with a Western Digital Raptor WD360GD SATA hard drive. Again, we used HD Tach 3.01’s 8MB zone test.
The SN95G5 continues to perform well in our Serial ATA controller tests, taking top honors in the burst speed and CPU utilization.
Our USB transfer speed tests were conducted with a USB 2.0/Firewire external hard drive enclosure connected to a 7200RPM Maxtor 740X-6L hard drive. We tested with HD Tach 3.01’s 8MB zone setting.
While not as speedy as the A8V Deluxe when it comes to read speeds, the SN95G5’s USB performance is pretty good overall.
Our Firewire transfer speed tests were conducted with the same external enclosure and hard drive as our USB transfer speed tests.
The cube’s Firewire performance is even better. The SN95G5 comes out ahead in the read and write speed tests with incredibly low CPU utilization.
We evaluated Ethernet performance using the NTttcp tool from the Microsoft’s Windows DDK. The docs say this program “provides the customer with a multi-threaded, asynchronous performance benchmark for measuring achievable data transfer rate”.
We used the following command line options on the server machine:
ntttcps -m 4,0,192.168.1.25 -a
..and the same basic thing on each of our test systems acting as clients:
ntttcpr -m 4,0,192.168.1.25 -a
Our server was a Windows XP Pro system based on Chaintech’s Zenith 9CJS motherboard with a Pentium 4 2.4GHz (800MHz front-side bus, Hyper-Threading enabled) and CSA-attached Gigabit Ethernet. A crossover CAT6 cable was used to connect the server to each system.
I’ve seen NVIDIA’s nForce3 Gigabit Ethernet controller push over 860MBps in NTttcp, so it’s especially disappointing to see the SN95G5’s performance with the Marvell chip. 742MBps is nothing to sneeze at, but with a better GigE controller sitting in the nForce3 Ultra chipset just waiting to be used, I can’t help but scratch my head in disbelief. Update 6/13/2005 We recently discovered that the ntttcp CPU utilization results included in this review were incorrect. The CPU utilization results have been removed, but they didn’t factor prominently into our overall conclusion, so that remains unchanged. A full explanation can be found here.
For our overclocking tests, I swapped our OCZ PC3200 2-2-2-5 memory out of the SN95G5 in favor of some of the OCZ’s PC4400 sticks, which are rated for 2.5-4-4-8 timings at 550MHz. These DIMMs nicely remove memory speed as a possible overclocking bottleneck. The PC4400 sticks carry higher latencies that could hinder performance at stock speeds, though. I’ve provided scores for the SN95G5 system running at stock speeds with 2-2-2-5 timings, at stock speeds with 2.5-4-4-8 timings, and at overclocked speeds with 2.5-4-4-8 timings.
I was able to push the SN95G5’s system bus up to an impressive 255MHz without sacrificing system stability. I used processor and HyperTransport multipliers of 9x and 4x, respectively, to keep the CPU and HT link from running beyond their limits. As is always the case with overclocking, your mileage may vary.
Although our low-latency memory yields comparable performance at stock system bus speeds, a 25% system bus overclock does wonders for the performance of our 2.5-4-4-8 PC4400 in Sphinx. Doom 3 is a different story, though. Whatever’s holding back in-game performance has little to do with the cube’s memory bus.
Shuttle has been refining its G-series XPC chassis for years, and with the SN95G5, they’ve come close to perfecting it. With a classy new exterior, stealthed drive bays and front panel ports, blistering performance, and a smarter implementation of the classic ICE cooler, the SN95G5 is a fantastic addition to the XPC line.
The cube’s not perfect, though. What’s maddening is that its flaws easily could have been avoided. For starters, Shuttle could have used the nForce3 Ultra’s integrated Gigabit Ethernet controller instead of farming out GigE to a slower Marvell PCI chip. There’s more to the GigE issue than just performance, too. Because the SN95G5 doesn’t tap the nForce3 Ultra’s Gigabit MAC, users won’t be able to take advantage of NVIDIA’s excellent (and free) firewall software.
Short of a new motherboard, there’s not much Shuttle can do to fix the SN95G5’s Gigabit Ethernet shortcomings. They can, however, fix the cube’s lack of DirectSound 3D support out of the box. Updated driver CDs and the addition of Realtek’s ALC658 driver to the SN95G5 driver download page should be enough on that front, but Shuttle should have gotten it right from the start.
These blemishes don’t make for a bad product, but they do prevent the SN95G5 from realizing its full potential. It could have been the perfect Socket 939 cube, but instead, the SN95G5 has to settle for being pretty good.