When we look at the Small Form Factor platform's relative size and shape, it is easy to see why these systems are becoming extremely popular as dedicated living room or home theater PC's. With the gradual adoption of Media Center PC's in the home, Shuttle is now trying harder than ever to ensure that those systems are small yet robust SFF systems. With the release of the new SD36G5M, Shuttle has brought to market a potent system which supports Windows Media Center and conforms to Intel's VIIV platform. Although packaged in the familiar "G" style chassis, the SD36G5M is equipped with a wealth of new features and functionality that differentiate it in the field of existing products in the marketplace.
In order to be recognized as an Intel VIIV capable system, a specific hardware configuration must be present to ensure a certain level of performance and functionality. Here, we find the required support for a myriad of high performance Intel processors including the Pentium D, Core Duo, and Pentium Extreme Edition models. In addition, the approved Intel 945G chipset and complete Windows Media Center Support round off the checklist of required components.
The SD36G5M is shipped in the same package we have seen offered by Shuttle for the last few years. Stuffed with ample foam padding and incorporating an integrated carrying handle, these boxes are a common sight at LAN parties around the world. Upon opening the package, you'll find a solid assortment of hardware and software. Here, we have a SATA cable, floppy cable, both 32 and 64-bit driver CD's, VFD cleaning cloth, thermal paste, screws, and lastly a power cable.
After removing the system from its packaging, we were presented with the familiar G5 chassis we have grown to know and love over the last few years. At first glance, there seems to be nothing out of the ordinary, though closer inspection reveals some key new features which make this one of the most unique SFF systems Shuttle has ever produced.
When viewed from either side, we see the usual assortment of ventilation holes running the length of the system which are accompanied by the embossed Shuttle logo. However, when viewed from the front we glimpse the stylish mirrored finish on the SD36G5M. Although tasteful and aesthetically pleasing, it will take more than a shiny finish to appease the vast majority of consumers looking to build the ultimate HTPC or Media Center. It is not until you plug the system in that you can view a key feature which differentiates this model from all others. Here, Shuttle has seen fit to incorporate a Vacuum Fluorescent Display (VFD) into the front of the system to provide users with various information.
The flat and uncluttered face of the SD36G5M is somewhat deceiving in that it effectively hides a number of different ports, buttons, and inputs. Beyond the clean layout and organization of buttons and status LED's, Shuttle has also used stealth bay covers to conceal the innards of the system. Upon pressing the appropriate button or corner of the bay panel, full access is provided to the optical drive and all front panel inputs.
Despite the presence of a multitude of inputs and outputs residing on the back panel of the system, the overall layout is clean and organized. Fortunately for a home theater PC, the user has audio options that extend beyond the standard 8-channel analog connection. Here, we see a an optical SPDIF input and output along with a digital coaxial output. Regardless of what home theater components the user intends to integrate with the SD36G5M, there are more than enough connectivity options.
Directly above the exhaust port for the system's heatpipe cooling solution, we find a small area which has been pre-stamped for removal. This specific area is the mounting solution for Shuttle's optional PN15G wireless LAN module which is illustrated above. The lack of a need for a hard-wired connection to the LAN gives the SD36G5M the additional flexibility to be located nearly anywhere within the home without sacrificing functionality.
By simply removing three thumb screws, the outer casing of the system can be removed and we can view the internals which comprise the SD36G5M. As usual, the layout of the components is surprisingly clean and orderly despite the obvious lack of PCB real estate. A significant amount of thought went into the layout of this platform and that time is immediately evident after one looks at the amount of hardware hidden within this diminutive package.
One of the most surprising aspects of the Shuttle system is the relative ease with which you can access components. Unlike some other SFF systems, you do not need to bribe any younger siblings or children of your own to help remove a particular part or properly screw down a component because your hands are too big. Rather, everything is easily within reach and can be accessed using standard tools.
Directing our attention towards the left side of the motherboard, we see the standard PCI slot as well as the PCI-E x16 graphics card slot. For whatever reason the PCI-E was placed on the outermost portion of the board which prevents the user from using anything other than a single-slot discrete graphics card. Unfortunately, that prohibits the use of the vast majority of flagship GPU's, though a handful of single slot models do exist. As we move towards the two memory DIMM slots, we see the small active heatsink assembly for the chipset. Although necessary given the confined space and limited airflow, it would have been nice if Shuttle was able to eliminate this fan entirely with a passive cooling solution to keep noise levels low.
The rightmost portion of the system is largely occupied by the 250W switching power supply. However, in the same vicinity we see the passively cooled power logic for the motherboard as well as an easily accessible 12V power connector.
One of the key components to the SD36G5M's cooling system is the proprietary heatsink with heatpipes developed by Shuttle. The "ICE" cooling solution is essentially a copper-based heatsink with four heatpipes being channeled to a small radiator positioned at the back of the system. With a 92mm fan blowing air out of the back of the system and across the radiator, Shuttle is able to claim a thermal resistance of 0.16*C/W at maximum fan speed.
Easily one of the most unique and enthusiast-friendly features of the system is the active CMOS reset button positioned at the rear of the motherboard. Located near the Realtek audio chipset, this CMOS clearing button is easy to access and allows the user to clear CMOS without having to open the case and remove the drive bay. Those who are familiar with overclocking will certainly welcome this feature with open arms as clearing the CMOS is an almost guaranteed step along the way.
Found in nearly every Shuttle SFF system made, we have an aluminum drive bay which houses up to two hard drives and a single optical drive. Installation of the drives could not be simpler with the only unconventional step being the need to position the small tab for activating the tray release button on the optical drive. This button position varies between drive vendors so a few seconds of customizing will lead to issue-free operation of the stealth drive cover.
Although one of the most obvious limitations of the SFF platform, the SD36G5M's power supply is a remarkably strong unit. With dozens of generic PSU's offering power above 500W struggling with system loads, it is almost comical to see this bullish 250W model handle the same load with relative ease. Here, all but the most extreme hardware options can be chosen with no adverse effects on stability.
The Shuttle SD36G5M is equipped with a Phoenix - Award BIOS that is complete with a healthy selection of options. Walking through the first few menus, we see the standard collection of options covering drive details, boot priority, and other basic configuration details.
A few more customized options begin to become available as we progress through the Advanced Chipset and Integrated Peripherals pages. Here, the user can determine how much memory will be allocated to the integrated graphics as well as enable or disable the onboard audio controller.
The OnChip IDE Devices menu grants the user the ability to customize the behavior of the onboard SATA controller as well as tailor the modes for all other IDE devices. In similar fashion, all integrated or onboard features can be tailored in the subsequent screens as well.
Power Management and PCI/PnP configurations are the next orders of business with standard fare options available for each. Moving to the PC Health screen, we see a wide variety of system temperatures and voltages being monitored with appropriate warnings and safety precautions available. Glimpsing the voltages being reported in the screenshot above, we find that there is more than enough power at our disposal using our selected configuration.
When SFF systems first began appearing on the market several years ago, there were no overclocking options and limited voltage settings at best. Fortunately, times have changed and the SD36G5M offers a nice range of voltage options for the CPU, chipset, and memory. In addition, the user is able to control all desired memory timings to further customize operation, increase performance, and provide stability.
|Test Setup & SiSoft Sandra|
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 (CPU Arithmetic, CPU Multimedia, and Memory Bandwidth) that partially comprise the SANDRA 2007 suite of benchmarks.
When compared against the Biostar SFF system and the Intel 945P reference platform within Sandra's database, we see that the Shuttle SD36G5M does a solid job of holding its own. Thanks the the various timing options within the BIOS, the user can experiment with more aggressive timings to maximize performance.
Viewing the Shuttle system's performance versus the baseline for the 3.6GHz processor being used, we see that the system is performing on par with expectations. Here, the Biostar SFF system's performance is called into question as the SD36G5M returns significantly higher scores.
The results from the CPU Multi-Media benchmark seemed to break convention as both the Shuttle and Biostar systems returned results which were higher than the baseline in Sandra's database. Overall, the SD36G5M has a commanding lead in this benchmark and is certainly showing its ability as a home theater PC.
Next up, we ran Kribibench, a 3D rendering benchmark produced by the folks at Adept Development. Kribibench is an SSE aware software renderer. A 3D model is rendered and animated by the host CPU, and the average frame rate is reported. We used two of the included models with this benchmark: a "Sponge Explode" model consisting of over 19.2 million polygons and a gargantuan "Ultra" model that is comprised of over 16 billion polygons.
Given the fact that we are looking at three systems which are all based on the same chipset and platform, it is no surprise to see that the results are very close in this benchmark. Regardless, The SD36G5M turns in the fastest overall framerates of the group.
In similar fashion to the previous benchmark, the Shuttle system is able to claim yet another victory. Here, it is somewhat surprising to see the amount of variance between the scores of identically configured systems.
|Business & Content Creation Winstone|
PC Magazine's Winstone Test Suite is a benchmarking tool for testing the CPU, memory, and overall system performance in business and professional applications. Content Creation Winstone focuses on common media intensive tasks, while Business Winstone assesses general workstation application performance. Below is a breakdown of each package's software complement that is used to issue an overall score when complete.
This exhaustive test of common applications reveals that the Shuttle SD36G5M is up to the challenge in every respect. Although only winning by a fraction of a point, the Shuttle SFF system is able to claim a victory over the other two systems.
Much like the scenario above, the Shuttle SD36G5M walks away with the highest overall score of the group. It seems we are beginning to see the maturity of Shuttle's methods due to their familiarity with designing SFF platforms, as the system is able to turn in exceptional scores time after time.
|PCMark05 & 3DMark05|
For our next round of synthetic benchmarks, we ran the CPU and Memory performance modules built into Futuremark's PCMark05. We incorporated PCMark05 into our benchmark suite soon after its release, and have found it to be even more robust in terms of test features than its predecessor. That said, the CPU and Memory test modules we use for comparison are very similar to the 04 version of the test suite. For those interested in more than just the graphs, we've got a couple of quotes directly 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. The CPU Test Suite also includes multithreading: two of the test scenarios are run multithreaded; the other including two simultaneous tests and the other running four tests simultaneously. The remaining six tests are run single threaded. Operations include, File Compression/Decompression, Encryption/Decryption, Image Decompression, and Audio Compression" - Courtesy FutureMark Corp.
In a field of systems using single-core processors, the Shuttle SD36G5M reigns supreme as it turns in the highest overall score of the group. Without question, the Shuttle system is more than capable of handling nearly any application you could throw at it. Should you opt to take advantage of the system's support for dual-core processors, performance will be even higher.
3DMark05's built-in CPU test is a multi-threaded "gaming related" DirectX metric that's useful for comparing relative performance between similarly equipped systems. Using a variety of gaming scenarios, a raw score is created to give a subjective analysis of how capable the system's hardware truly is.
Armed with a 128MB GeForce 6600, the Shuttle system narrowly missed winning yet another benchmark. Coming within four points of the overall winner, the SD36G5M has certainly proven its merit as a high performance platform. Should you wish to use the system primarily for games, you'll be able to install any high performance graphics card so long as the heatsink assembly is a single slot design due to the placement of the PCI-E x16 slot.
An interesting aspect of all Shuttle SFF systems is the ability to run a piece of proprietary software called XPC Tools. This system management utility is specifically designed for Shuttle XPC systems and allows the user to monitor system performance, adjust fan speeds, overclock on the fly, and even customize their system's VFD display.
The first screen we are presented with is a reporting window which illustrates fan speeds, temperatures, and overall voltages. Warnings and indicators can be configured to alert the user once certain thresholds have been exceeded.
The next screen we see controls all aspects of fan speed and ultimately noise control. Here, the user can set ceilings for both CPU temperature as well as for minimum fan rpm's. Should the user opt to enable the Smart Fan mode, the fan speeds will either increase or decrease to minimize overall noise while keeping temperatures under a particular threshold.
Perhaps the most exciting screen in XPC tools is the page which allows the user to dynamically overclock their system. Here, we find voltage options for the PCI-E bus, processor, and memory modules as well as FSB and multiplier adjustments. So after playing with these options, how far were we able to push the SD36G5M?
As you can see in the image above, we were able to push the system to a stable FSB speed of 223MHz for a resulting 4.0GHz. Given the fact that the system is so limited on air flow and the ICE heatsink assembly was not designed for overclocking, we were more than pleased with these results.
For those systems which are equipped with a Vacuum Fluorescent Display, XPC Tools allows the user to customize what information is displayed on the front of the system. This ability can be especially useful when the system is placed in tight surroundings or in an A/V rack as you can report CPU and system temps to ensure that the system is receiving adequate cooling.
An added bonus to the customization of the VFD display is the ability to output any custom message you'd like at any given refresh interval. Here, you can report the date and time or you can show your ties to your favorite hardware centric website.
Overall, Shuttle has managed to raise the bar once more for the SFF platform with the arrival of the SD36G5M. Despite being the company's first official entry into Intel's VIIV campaign, they have managed to create a rock solid system that excels as a desktop machine with multimedia functionality. If there were ever to be a Swiss Army Knife branded PC, the Shuttle SD36G5M would receive our nomination.
As we have come to expect from Shuttle, the SD36G5M provided an excellent balance of performance, functionality, and stability. Beyond the clean and intuitive layout and design, the Shuttle system also strikes a difficult balance between being flashy yet understated. And considering the support for dual-core processors, two hard drives, and up to 2GB of memory, we can easily see why this system would be a top choice for a powerful multimedia PC.
Equipped with a dual core processor, a discrete graphics card in the place of the onboard Intel IGP, and at least 1GB of memory the Shuttle SD36G5M should be able to tackle nearly any mainstream computing task with ease. We were pleasantly surprised by the audio quality produced by the onboard Realtek ALC882 7.1 audio codec and would not deem a discrete audio card necessary for the vast majority of users. Whether fragging in the latest games or taking advantage of the full Media Center support by watching movies or listening to music, this XPC does not disappoint.
Like nearly any piece of hardware, there are areas where we believe Shuttle could further improve the overall performance and functionality. With regards to the system's acoustic profile, we would have liked to have seen a passive heatsink assembly for the chipset to eliminate the high frequency noise emitted from the small cooling fan. Similarly, we would have been a bit more comfortable with slightly lower CPU temperatures. Granted, we did not experience any stability issues whatsoever throughout testing. However, we would prefer to not have to worry about temperatures at all and would rather have a slightly higher performance cooling solution that would keep temperatures well under 60'C under load. Our final gripe could be seen as the Achilles heel of the SD36G5M, as it is the only characteristic which limits the user's freedom to choose components. Here, the placement of the PCI-E x16 graphics slot on the outer edge of the board prevents the use of any graphics card with a dual-slot heatsink assembly. Were the PCI-E slot to switch positions with the PCI slot, this problem would be eliminated in some cases where a PCI card was not being used.
In the end, we cannot help but be impressed by the Shuttle SD36G5M. The overall flexibility of this system and its prowess in nearly any application make it an ideal choice for anyone looking for a small, yet powerful, system. As Shuttle's first system to be qualified as an Intel VIIV product, we are thoroughly pleased with the performance and functionality of the SD36G5. It is no surprise that Shuttle has hit yet another home-run with their latest product. As the pioneer of the SFF platform, it seems fitting to see that Shuttle is leading the SFF industry into the living room with an exceptional Media Center solution. Overall, we give the Shuttle SD36G5M a Hot Hardware Heat Meter rating of 9 and enthusiastically recommend this product.