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Epox eX5-320S SFF PC
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Date: Oct 25, 2004
Section:Systems
Author: Robert Maloney
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Introduction and Specs

When it comes to manufacturing motherboards, Taiwan-based Epox is well respected amongst enthusiasts.  While we've only had the opportunity to review a few of their motherboards over the years, the small sample we have tested were fairly impressive.  In fact, late last year we reviewed the Epox 4PDA2+ v.2, one of the many Springdale boards to be released in 2003, and we gave it a hard-earned "Editor's Choice" award.  What could we expect then with the eX5-320S, one of EPoX's all new line of Small Form Factor barebones PCs?

Epox enters the SFF PC market somewhat late in the game.  Companies such as Shuttle and Biostar have been perfecting the art of the mini-PC for years now, constantly refining them to overcome mostly minor design and cooling flaws.  If first impressions count for anything, then it appears that at the very least, Epox has done its homework.  The box features users playing games and listening to music, so right away the stigma of the "boring" beige tower is thrown out the window.  This system is marketed more as an entertainment piece - small enough to be placed wherever space is available, but flashy enough to display it prominently.  How it fares against the competition will decide whether or not EPoX had made the right choices though.  In this review, we'll compare the Epox eX5-320S to the similarly configured Springdale-based Shuttle SB61G2, and then check their performance against a full-sized board, the Asus P4P800 Deluxe.

     

Specifications of the Epox eX5-320S
"Mini-Me" arrives on the scene
Motherboard
· EP-4PGF (proprietary)


Intel 865G + ICH5 chipset
·
_800/533 MHz FSB

Processor
·
_Intel Socket 478 Pentium 4 with 533/800 MHz FSB
·_Intel Socket 478 Celeron with 400 MHz FSB
·_Supports Hyper-Threading Technology

Memory
·
_Dual-channel DDR 400/333
·
_DIMM slots (2GB max) x 2

Graphics
·
One AGP slot supporting 1.5v 4X/8X AGP card
· AGP 3.0 compliant
·
_Built-in Intel Extreme Graphics 2 controller

Audio
·
_6-channel audio with analog and digital output
·
_Realtek ALC655 CODEC
·
_Supports CD-In and S/PDIF-out interface

Network
·
_Realtek RTL8101L Chipset
·_10/100 Mbps Fast Ethernet controller

Storage
·
_Two IDE ports with PIO/Ultra DMA-33/66/100
·_Supports up to 4 ATA devices
·_Two S-ATA connectors

Firewire
·_Onboard 1394 controller from VIA 6307 chip
·_IEEE-1394a compliant with up to 400 Mbps bandwidth
Front-panel I/O
·
_6-in-1 card reader
·
_USB 2.0 ports x 2
·
_FireWire 400 port
·
_Microphone port
·
_Headphone port
·
_PS/2 mouse port
·_PS/2 keyboard port

Rear-panel I/O
·
_4x USB 2.0 ports
·
_1x 1394 connector
·
_1x LAN connector (RJ-45)
·
_3x Audio jacks (configurable)
·
_1x SPDIF I/O port for optical S/PDIF out
·
_1x Coaxial Audio port for digital S/PDIF out
·
_1x Parallel port
·_1x 15-pin VGA port

3G-Tek cooling kit
·
_eX5 "Mini-Me" patented cooling system
·
_Copper heatsink, silent fan and intelligent docking

Music On Now
·
_Uses Micro OZ263T audio decoder
·_Allows instant music playback without booting into OS
·_Supports CD audio and MP3 format

Legacy I/O Controller
·
_Winbond W83627HF LPC I/O controller

Dimensions (L x W x H, mm)
·
_310 x 200 x 182

Power Supply
·
_Enhance 250W PSU




The Bundle:  The bundle consisted of the usual necessities, but rounded out by a few add-ons that help distinguish Epox from their competition.  Included with the unit itself, we found two user's manuals, one that covers the basics of the EP-4PGF motherboard and BIOS, and the other a complete rundown of how to install and configure the system.  There was a driver CD that provided the basic driver set for built-in components such as video and audio, but also a full suite of software that should be installed to properly use the Music On Now configuration.

The rest of the bundle consisted mainly of the assorted cables that one will need for installing the hard drive, including S-ATA power and data cables, and one short "rounded" IDE cable
.  Another such IDE cable, albeit slightly longer, came pre-installed in the chassis, and was routed in such a way as to not hamper airflow. 

What sets the bundle apart from the rest were additions like a remote controller for music playback and an Epox branded tool set, which originally looked more like a teal highlighter.  The remote really helps sell the unit as an entertainment piece - who doesn't already have 3 or 4 remote controllers laying about the house already for their DVD, CD, receiver, etc.?  One last addition was an insulation pad that Epox recommends be placed on the back side of the video card, in order to prevent shorting it out should it come into contact with other devices.

 

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Getting to know Mini-Me

 

The eX5-320S bares all
Getting to know the real Mini-Me

      

      

     

 

The Epox eX5-320S has the same brushed aluminum look that we've seen with other Small Form Factors PCs.  What makes this case so different is the glossy black front with the single LCD screen, and the row of silver buttons along the top edge.  It gives the unit a sleek look, obviously portraying its capabilities as a multimedia device rather than just another computer in the house.  There's only the two PS/2 ports at the bottom to help recognize it as a PC. There are other PC-centric controls hidden behind a drop-down panel, including audio in and out jacks, 2 USB 2.0 ports, and one FireWire connector.  In our opinion, it might have been better to put the PS/2 connections behind here as well, as the green and purple ports take away from the overall appearance of the unit.  They could have also been placed on the rear of the system, which is more commonplace.  Instead, the back I/O plate had configurable audio jacks including digital and analog S/PDIF connectors, four more USB ports, another FireWire port, a RJ45 LAN jack, and a 15-pin VGA port for the on-board graphics.

Opening the chassis is easily done by unscrewing three thumbscrews and sliding off the outer cover.  Most of the cables on the inside were already routed in such a way as to make them unobtrusive.  Along the upper most rail where a CD-ROM drive would be installed was one power cable and the end of a rounded IDE cable.  There's almost no slack, as the IDE cable seems to be sized just to meet the back of a properly mounted drive.  Looking past the cables, we've got a tray that currently holds a card reader with a removable hard drive cage placed underneath.  To install/remove the hard drive, there's one screw to remove and then the entire bay can be slid out.  Removing the card reader tray proved to be much more of a challenge.  Although there were only three screws holding it down, the tray would not slide out easy and we had to rock it back and forth to get it out.  Putting in back in was even more troublesome, as it just didn't seem to fit correctly, and with such little room to move around in, it was easy to get frustrated.  Luckily, there's little reason to remove this tray unless, let's say, you wanted to install a floppy drive instead of the card reader.

 

      

     

Once the tray was removed, we got a better look at the EP-4PFG motherboard.  Looking directly down at the board, we got a clear view at the mPGA478B CPU Socket and the Intel 82865G Northbridge.  There's a large black duct placed directly behind the CPU, which is part of the 3G-Tek cooling technology.  To keep the CPU cool, an oversized aluminum block heatsink with a copper footing is used.  The copper plate absorbs the heat quickly from the CPU, and then transfers it to the aluminum heatsink.  Fans placed on either side of the unit force air over the fins in the center of the cooling unit, and disperse the heat through the ductwork and out the back of the chassis.  What we especially liked about the design was that not only was the CPU being cooled, but the Northbridge as well.  An extra metal slab made contact with the NB chip, keeping it cooler, and thus more stable during overclocking.  The entire heatsink/fan combo is held down by two clips, one on either end of the unit, and even in these constrained corners it was very easy to clamp down or release.

Off of the right side of the CPU were two memory slots supporting a total of 2GB of DDR400 RAM and to the left a single PCI and AGP 3.0 slot, with the AGP on the far side as opposed to being the innermost slot on a typical motherboard.  This allows for better air-cooling of the video card, as there are slots along the sides of the chassis to allow air in and out.  We had two concerns with this setup, however, one of which can be seen in the last photo above.  The first problem we encountered when setting up our system using a GeForce 5900XT video card from BFG was that we simply had no way to power the card.  There were only two MOLEX connections coming off of the power supply unit, so we were left with either connecting a CD-ROM drive or the video card.  We wound up connecting the CD-ROM during installation with the on-board graphics providing the visuals, and then switched the cable over to the video card for testing.  We opted not to use a power splitter, since one was not provided in the package.  This is an oversight that should be corrected in future versions, as many newer video cards will require a separate power line.  Our second gripe was with the placement of the cable that connects to the card reader.  The top of the connector came just short of touching the capacitors on the video card.  It could have been a recipe for disaster if we had snapped the card down, only to find two capacitors ripped off in the process.

 

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Some other aspects of the eX5-320S

DJ Mode and the eX5-320S
Getting into the music

      

     

The LCD screen is chock full of information in either Music On Now mode or when in Windows.  In either case, the screen reports the CPU speed, amount of memory, hard drive size, and current resolution, all with easily recognizable icons.  In Windows, the time of day is displayed prominently in the middle of the screen, and is the only readout other than a symbol indicating that the system is on.  In "DJ" mode, there are many more status symbols, which are needed to give the user feedback on the music playback.  In addition to the track and time elapsed, there are readouts on whether the playback is paused or playing normally, what the volume level is set at, and what source the music is playing from.

As we mentioned on the previous page, the top of the system has 9 buttons across the front, most of which serve obvious functions such as play, pause, or stop.  Nested within the other audio controls is a power button used to power up the unit in "DJ" mode using the Music On Now function.  Instead of booting into Windows, the system boots into a "mini-OS" if you will, that displays a playlist of available tracks.  These tracks can be on the hard drive, CD-ROM, or even on a USB flash disk.  The downside to this is that there is no way to change the folder on the hard drive while in this mode.  A specific folder on the hard drive is chosen while in Windows, and all MP3s files that you want to play are be placed in that folder.  This could result in a long list to scroll through to get through in order to play a specific track.  The audio buttons along the top can be used to access all functions, or one can use the remote controller instead.

   

There's one last aspect of the eX5-320S that we haven't touched on yet, and that's the accessibility of the drive bays.  The last button along the top controls the raising and lowering of the front door.  The lower part containing the LCD screen shifts inward slightly, while the door slides down and takes its place.  This reveals the 5 1/4" bay and 3 1/2" bay, which in this case is populated by the 6-in-1 card reader.  The card reader has a silver faceplate which looks really sharp, and can read all major formats including Memory Sticks, Compact Flash Cards, and Secure Digital cards.  One of the benefits of the sliding door is it effectively "stealths" the drives.  One no longer has to worry about matching the CD drive bezel or re-painting it in order to match the rest of the unit.

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BIOS settings and overclocking

 

The BIOS: Epox eX5-320S
Small in stature, long on options

      

     

The BIOS for the eX5-320S looks pretty standard, containing the same menus with options and features that are normally found on full-sized systems.  Anyone familiar with a Phoenix - Award BIOS will notice typical menus such as the Advanced BIOS Features, Advanced Chipset Features, and Power Management Setup, which are used for assigning the boot order of the devices, optimizing the RAM timings and settings caches, as well as determining how the system should react in certain situations, such as a power outage. 

The Advanced Chipset Features provide options which we have seen on other Springdale motherboards, including the full-sized Epox 4PDA2+ v.2, where the memory timings are optimized in order to improve memory performance.  Epox uses what they call Aggressive Memory Mode, or AAM, and there are four settings to chose from: Max, Turbo, Expert, or Standard.  It's really up to the user and the hardware as to which to choose from.  The higher the setting, the greater the chance of instability.  We found that in our testing using Kingston HyperX DDR, we were only able to get the system running while set at Turbo.  Using the 'Max' setting would always cause the system to spontaneously reboot. 

Overclocking Tools
Not much to work with

       

In the POWER BIOS section of the BIOS we found very little to work with for overclocking the eX5-320S.  We could manually raise the CPU speed from the default 200MHz up to 350MHz by simply typing in the desired new speed.  Memory ratios of 1:1, 3:2, and 4:5 are included to make corrections to the DRAM speed so that they aren't run too far out of spec.  However, there is no way to raise either the CPU or DRAM voltages, so we immediately knew that we would hit a ceiling sooner rather than later.  There is also something called the Watch-Dog function that when enabled will automatically reset to a default configuration should the system fail to boot while overclocking, which in this case, we were very thankful for.




SANDRA CPU Benchmark
Pentium 4 @ 2.82GHz
12x235MHz
Due to the lack of voltage options, overclocking the Epox eX5-320S didn't require much thought.  We first locked in the AGP/PCI clock to 66/33MHz to ensure that any problems would not arrive from devices on these buses.  To overclock the system, we raised the CPU speed in roughly 5MHz increments while leaving the memory speed at AUTO.  In doing so, the DRAM speed automatically changed from a 1:1 ratio to a more conservative 4:5, so that the RAM never went over the 400MHz it was rated for.

In this manner, we were able to only get as high as 235MHz for the front side bus.  At this speed, we were still able to complete benchmarking routines, and did not notice any instability whatsoever.  When we tried to get higher than this speed, the Watch Dog Function apparently cut in, because the system would reboot and reset us back to 200MHz.
 At 235MHz, the CPU was effectively running at 2.82GHz, an increase of 420MHz over stock, or 17.5% faster.  We've seen much better overclocking with other Springdales, but due to the limitations of heat dispersal with a SFF system such as this, it's probably best not to push too hard.

 

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Testing Comparisons and Sandra 2004

 

How we configured our test systems: When configuring the test systems for this review, we first entered the system BIOS and set each board to their "Optimized" or "High-Performance Defaults".  The hard drive was then formatted, and Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2 was installed. When the installation was complete, we hit the Windows Update site and downloaded all of the available updates, with the exception of the ones related to Windows Messenger. Then we installed all of the necessary drivers, and removed Windows Messenger from the system altogether. Auto-Updating and System Restore were also disabled, and we setup a 768MB permanent page file on the same partition as the Windows installation. Lastly, we set Windows XP's Visual Effects to "best performance", installed all of our benchmarking software, defragged the hard drives and ran all of the tests.

For our comparison testing, we chose two other Springdale motherboards: the first one being the Shuttle FB61, which is housed in another Small Form Factor system, found in our review of the SB61G2 from last year, and the other being the Asus P4P800 Deluxe, set up in an ordinary tower.  In this manner, we hope to explore how the Epox eX5-320S fares against a comparable SFF as well as one of the better full-sized i865 boards that we have encountered.

Test System Specifications
Can you say "Intel Inside!"
SYSTEM 1:

Epox eX5-320S "Mini-Me"


Intel i865G
Intel Pentium 4 2.4GHz
2x256MB Kingston HyperX DDR

NVIDIA GeForce FX 5900XT

On-Board 10/100 Ethernet
On-Board Audio

WD "Special Edition" 40GB HD
7,200 RPM IDE

Windows XP Pro SP2
NVIDIA Forceware v61.77
DirectX 9.0c
SYSTEM 2:

Shuttle SB61G2 (FB61)

Intel i865G
Intel Pentium 4 2.4GHz
2x256MB Kingston HyperX DDR

NVIDIA GeForce FX 5900XT

On-Board 10/100 Ethernet
On-Board Audio

WD "Special Edition" 40GB HD
7,200 RPM IDE

Windows XP Pro SP2
NVIDIA Forceware v61.77
DirectX 9.0c
SYSTEM 3:

Asus P4P800 Deluxe

Intel i865PE
Intel Pentium 4 2.4GHz
2x256MB Kingston HyperX DDR

NVIDIA GeForce FX 5900XT

On-Board 10/100/1000 Ethernet
On-Board Audio

WD "Special Edition" 40GB HD
7,200 RPM IDE

Windows XP Pro SP2
NVIDIA Forceware v61.77
DirectX 9.0c
Preliminary Benchmarks With SiSoft SANDRA 2004
Synthetic Testing of the eX5-320S

We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. SANDRA consists of a set of information and diagnostic utilities that can provide a host of useful information about your hardware and operating system. We ran three of the built-in sub-system tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2004 suite (CPU, Multimedia, and Memory). All of these tests were run with the Epox eX5-320S powered by a Pentium 4 2.4GHz CPU with 512MB of DDR.



SANDRA CPU Benchmark
Pentium 4 @ 2.4GHz
512MB DDR (CL2)


SANDRA Memory Benchmark
Pentium 4 @
2.4GHz
512MB DDR (CL2)


SANDRA Multimedia Benchmark
Pentium 4 @
2.4GHz
512MB DDR (CL2)

Even with the steady updates from SiSoft, it's sometimes hard to exactly match up the system you're testing with reference systems in Sandra's database.  What we've done instead is to try to find a range of systems that should provide some comparisons to the performance level of the eX5-320S. The CPU benchmark had our P4 2.4C CPU performing at levels slightly behind the P4 2.8B reference numbers, yet well above the 2.66 GHz and 2.4 GHz versions.  As far as the memory scores went, the eX5-320S put up a solid effort, eclipsing the older chipsets, yet falling shy of the reference numbers for an 865PE board with 512MB of DDR.  The multimedia benchmark was the most impressive of all, where the Epox eX5-320S was only a few points slower in the Integer test, but slight better in the Floating Point, when compared to a much faster 3.2Ghz CPU.

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PCMark04 Benchmarks

Futuremark PCMark04
More Synthetic CPU and Memory Benchmarks

For our next round of benchmarks, we ran the CPU and Memory performance modules built-into Futuremark's PCMark04.  For those interested in more than just the graphs, we've got a couple of quotes from Futuremark that explain exactly what these tests do and how they work...

 "The CPU test suite is a collection of tests that are run to isolate the performance of the CPU. There are nine tests in all. Two pairs of tests are run multithreaded - each test in the pair is run in its own thread.  The remaining five tests are run single threaded. These tests include such functions as file encryption, decryption, compression and decompression, grammar check, audio conversion, WMV and DivX video compression."

With this test, we see a direct correlation between the "reported" CPU speed and the CPU performance.  One may notice from time to time that even though they have installed a CPU in their system, the system properties may have a slightly faster speed listed there than the actual rating.  Board engineers often tinker around with timings and use other optimizations to get better results in benchmarks and reviews.  As such, we feel it's only fair to point out that the Asus P4P800 "read" our CPU as 2.42GHz, and the Epox at 2.41GHz.  Only the Shuttle board came in at the expected 2.4GHz.  These slight bumps in speed more than likely account for the (admittedly minor) differences in the PCMark04 CPU testing.


"The Memory test suite is a collection of tests that isolate the performance of the memory subsystem. The memory subsystem consists of various devices on the PC. This includes the main memory, the CPU internal cache (known as the L1 cache) and the external cache (known as the L2 cache). As it is difficult to find applications that only stress the memory, we explicitly developed a set of tests geared for this purpose. The tests are written in C++ and assembly. They include: Reading data blocks from memory, Writing data blocks to memory performing copy operations on data blocks, random access to data items and latency testing."

The Asus board led here as well, with the Epox board in the middle and the Shuttle placing third.  Again, we would like to point out an optimization, if you will, that accounts for the discrepancy. Perhaps old news to most of us, many i865 boards came with some form of "memory acceleration" which more or less leveled the playing field between Springdale and Canterwood boards.  As we've shown in the past, Asus' engineers seemed to have the upper hand in this area, which is why we voted favorably on the P4P800 Deluxe in the past.  Epox has also incorporated an enhancement into their boards called AMM (which we covered in the BIOS section), which also does a good job, as shown.  The Shuttle board has no enhancements whatsoever, which is the sole reason why it came in last.  PCMark04 testing has proved an old adage, "you get out what you put in".

 

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Windows Media Encoder and 3DMark03

Windows Media Encoder 9
Digital Video Encoding

We continued our testing with another application from Futuremark, 3DMark03, and with a video encoding benchmark, Windows Media Encoder 9.  In the WME9 test, we took a 416MB Digital Video file and encoded to a WMV9 format used for streaming video.  Times were recorded in Minutes : Seconds, with lower times indicating better performance.

The times were darn close, with only 8 seconds being the difference between the Asus and Shuttle boards.  Somewhat surprisingly, the Epox Mini-Me came closer to the Shuttle's time than it did to the Asus P4P800 Deluxe.  We had thought that the optimized RAM timings on the Epox system would give the P4P800 a run for the money, but were apparently mistaken.  Still 8 seconds equates to less than a four percent difference between the "haves" and the "have-nots".

3DMark03
DirectX Gaming Performance - Sort Of

It's not an actual game, but 3DMark03's built-in CPU test is a "gaming related" DirectX metric that's useful for comparing relative performance among similarly equipped systems.  This test consists of two different 3D scenes that are generated with a software renderer, which is dependant on the host CPU's performance.  This means that the calculations normally reserved for your 3D accelerator, are instead sent to the central processor.  The number of frames generated per second in each test are used to determine the final score.

Using only the CPU benchmark, we've got the Epox eX5-320S smack dab in the middle once again between the front-runner Asus P4P800 Deluxe and the third place Shuttle SB61G2.  Once again though, the difference in score that separated the systems was very small, with only a 4.5% total performance delta.  This breakdown of the scores should be expected by now, for reasons we've already explained.

 

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Throwing in some Winstones

Business & Content Creation Winstones
Real-World Application Performance

Synthetic benchmarks only tell part of the performance story, so we took the Epox eX5-320S to task in some "real world" scenarios as well.  For our first set of real world tests, we did some benchmarking with Ziff Davis' Business Winstone 2004 suite, followed by the more demanding Content Creation Winstone 2004 suite

The PC Magazine Business Winstone 2004 test utilizes the following applications in its benchmark:

  • Microsoft Access 2002
  • Microsoft Excel 2002
  • Microsoft FrontPage 2002
  • Microsoft Outlook 2002
  • Microsoft PowerPoint 2002
  • Microsoft Project 2002
  • Microsoft Word 2002
  • Norton Antivirus Professional Edition 2003
  • WinZip 8.1



The PC Magazine Content Creation Winstone 2004 test utilizes the following applications in its benchmark:

  • Adobe Photoshop 7.0.1
  • Adobe Premiere 6.50
  • Macromedia Director MX 9.0
  • Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 6.1
  • Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 9 Version 9.00.00.2980
  • NewTek's LightWave 3D 7.5b
  • Steinberg WaveLab 4.0f

If the results appear to be somewhat underwhelming, well then, we apologize.  The truth is, the overall performance of the three systems are somewhat on par, RAM optimizations non-withstanding.  Yes, there is a difference in the scores: the Shuttle doggedly remained in last with the Epox SFF system beating the Shuttle by a fraction in the Content Creation Winstone only, and the Asus P4P800 Deluxe trumped the other two in both tests.  Claiming a clear cut victor, however, is meaningless when the performance delta separating the systems is 3 percent at best.

 

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And finally some gaming scores

Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory
OpenGL Quake Engine Gaming

To start our in-game testing, we ran through a batch of time demos with the OpenGL game Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory.  Wolfenstein: ET is a free, standalone multiplayer game that is based on the original Return to Castle Wolfenstein, that was released a few years back. It uses a heavily modified version of the Quake 3 engine which makes it a very easy to use benchmarking tool.  We ran the test using the "Fastest" setting at a low resolution of 640X480, using 16-bit color and textures.  Running this test with a high-end graphics card, at these minimal settings, isolates processor and memory performance, without being limited by the graphics subsystem.

There was a clear progression from the Shuttle to the Epox ex5-320S and then finally the Asus P4P800 Deluxe.  The slightly higher CPU speeds combined with the additional boosting of the memory, enabled the Epox board to gain three frames over the Shuttle box, but remained two frames off of the P4P800.  Again, these scores only come out to about a 2-3% difference between the systems.

Unreal Tournament 2004
DirectX Gaming Performance

Lastly, we did some benchmarking with Epic's Unreal Tournament 2004.  When we tested these systems with UT 2004, we ensured that all of them were being benchmarked with the exact same in-game settings and graphical options, and we dropped the resolution and detail levels to isolate CPU and memory performance.



Out of all of the benchmarks we ran in this review, Unreal Tournament probably showed the greatest difference between the Shuttle SFF and the other two systems.  The Asus P4P800 Deluxe was in the top spot again with a framerate just over 95 frames per second, but followed very close by the Epox eX5-320S at just over 94 fps.  The Shuttle SB61G2 was almost a full six frames behind the Epox system, however, almost 7% slower than the competition.

 

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Summary and Conclusion

Benchmark Summary: The Epox eX5-320S did very well in our benchmarks, consistently placing second in each and every test we threw at it.  The memory performance enhancement on the motherboard gave it a slight advantage over the similarly configured Shuttle SB61G2 XPC, and it has a more stylish look to boot.  It lost out slightly when compared to a full-sized motherboard, such as the Asus P4P800 Deluxe, but the difference in almost every case was miniscule.  All in all, a top-notch showing for a company relatively new to the barebones arena.

 

We were completely pleased by the Epox eX5-320S, and have very little to complain about.  Appearance-wise, the eX5-320S was a real looker.  It's a sleek multimedia machine, with nary the hint that it is a computer at all.  Put this in with the rest of your audio hardware and no one would be the wiser.  Drive bays are effectively stealthed by the sliding door panel, and the only noticeable ports are the PS/2 ports on the front.  The system's internals were well planned as well, with large open spaces around the CPU and RAM, and a cooling device which not only helps in cooling down the CPU and NorthBridge, but apparently does so in near-silent conditions.  Not once did we notice any loud fan noises emanating from the case, even during strenuous benchmarking or overclocking.  Our only concerns here were with the placement of one of the headers on the motherboard as well as an issue with removing the drive tray, but both of these are minor problems that may not even arise in all installation scenarios.

The real advantage of the eX5-320S over the competition may come down to the Music On Now or DJ Mode.  From experience, we can say that having one of these boxes around as a PC jukebox is a pretty cool concept, but it doesn't always translate into being useful in the real world.  What has always held us back somewhat was the clunky controls and need to boot into Windows, find the music we wanted, queue them up, etc.  With the Epox eX5-320S, however, all we needed to do was boot up into our playlist and hit play, either from the unit itself, or while sitting on the couch using the handy remote control.

Compared to some other SFF boxes we've tested, the Epox eX5-320S is competitively priced, retailing for about $310 for the Pentium 4 model, and slightly higher for an Athlon XP compatible model.  It might cost more than the typical CD/Receiver combo, but with all of the extra benefits the eX5-320S provides, it's well worth it.  With the right pieces, you would have the perfect combination of music jukebox, video game console, and still be able to surf the web or pay bills. With all that in mind, we're giving the Epox eX5-320S a 9 on the Hot Hardware Heat Meter...

 

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