|Introducing the GT3|
It's probably safe to assert that, by and large, DIY Small Form Factor PCs are still niche products. Although they have been offered by the likes of Shuttle, AOpen, MSI and many others for nearly half a decade now, there's still an audible gasp that's heard from non PC-centric folks when then first encounter one. Questions range from, "What is it?" to "What does it do?" And even when it has been explained that the mini machine is simply a PC, albeit much smaller than usual, heads still shake, believing that a PC must be big and bulky in order to work properly. It's a common belief, if only because whether at work, at the store, or even in their own home, most PC users have a standard mid-sized tower sitting on or near their desks.
In order to shrink their footprint, the average SFF PC usually necessitates some other compromise in architecture or support, and heat is always an issue with core components running so close together. Most of these issues have been ironed out over time, except one: future upgradeability. Almost all current SFF PCs use custom motherboards designed to fit only in their cramped confines and are thereby limited in how long they can retain their top-of-the-line status. If a new chipset or CPU arrives, there's little one can do except perhaps go out and buy a next-gen unit from the same manufacturer.
This dilemma might be changing soon, however. Over the last couple of weeks, we have exclusively had the chance to preview a new small form factor PC called the GT3, from GTR Tech Corporation. Unlike the boxy little designs that we have become accustomed to in the SFF arena, the GT3 is sleeker and more versatile; looking more like a slimmer, shorter version of an upright mid-tower.
The GT3 ships in a non-descript, white cardboard box, devoid of any flashy graphics or advertisements. When asked about this, Sean Hall from GTR Tech was blunt - "Would you rather spend money on a box, or on features that the customer wants?" It appears that they have gone with the latter, and may go back later to create a better looking package should they hit the retail market, where many a buying decision is made based on style rather than substance. Other than the GT3 itself, the box contents include items that are entirely centered on building a new system from the ground up, with a few components that are familiar to owners of any new chassis, but some solely geared for the GT3's cramped quarters.
In order to cover just about every scenario that the GT3 can support, a convertible cage called the Feature Module sits above the expansion slots on a motherboard. There's too much to cover here regarding its setup so we will get back to discussing it later, but there are riser cards for both a PCI-Express video card as well as a single PCI-based card that can be installed into the Feature Module. To keep its profile, slim-CD/DVD drives are expected to be installed, and a conversion kit is provided in the bundle as well. A full assortment of screws (no felt spacers though), a screwdriver and a standard power cable round out the included goodies. One might scoff at the relatively unassuming screwdriver at first, but it definitely will make life easier in the future to keep this perfectly sized-tool close by, especially when reconfiguring the Feature Module.
The GT3's outer enclosure is painted glossy black with a carbon fiber like plastic front fascia, reminiscent of a sports car. Side panels are attached by a single screw, and need a little force to separate them from the body. Care should be taken so as not to mar the paint job in the process though.
The front has intake vents at both the top and bottom corners, and is otherwise unmarred except for a power switch, activity LED, GT3 logo, and a slimline DVD/CD-RW combo drive. A hidden access panel provides additional access to 4 USB ports, as well as microphone and headphone jacks. Calling attention to itself, the GT3 logo is backlit by blue LEDs when the system is powered on. The blue GT3 logo did not match the coloring of the power and activity LEDs in the original model we received, but future models will have a more uniform color scheme.
The unit is supported by four foam feet which keep it stable upright, which can be removed from inside the chassis, if needed. With the necessity of a vertical placement of the optical drive, it might be desirable to allow for side positioning, since the slim profile and top-heavy stature due to the placement of the power supply unit could lend to the GT3 easily tipping over.
There is a recessed handle that pulls out from the top of the unit. Although not overly heavy, even when fully equipped, the handle feels a bit flimsy and more than once we worried that it might snap while transporting it to and fro from the office. Even when recessed, the handle's tips, or "wings" remain exterior, which could possibly get caught and broken off, especially when carried about inside of a knapsack or other bag. Our fears became reality when placing the GT3 back into its original carton when one of the sides apparently broke off and wouldn't reattach, even though it appeared that it should. When questioned about this, GTR again assuaged our fears by stating that these side pieces can be removed if needed, and if broken, users will be able to order replacement parts from their website.
Situated directly behind the handle is an opening to allow the custom power supply unit to draw air in from the top and forcibly remove warmer air out of the back of the chassis. The rear of the unit has additional ventilation for the PSU and an open grating alongside the I/O ports. Very stylish on the outside and obviously built to increase airflow into and out of the chassis.
Remove the side panel, and the inside of the GT3 looks much the same as any other PC chassis, just smaller. The most obvious differences are the two aluminum cages, placed on either side. The smaller of the two, which is placed near the front of the unit, is used to house a hard drive and one optical drive. The other cage is the aforementioned Feature Module, and is where the riser cards and possibly a second hard drive are mounted.
Tucked into each corner are two fans, both of which are configured to intake cooler air from outside the unit. The upper fan brings in air to cool down the CPU/chipset area and possibly the RAM, while the lower is placed directly perpendicular to the video card. As one might expect, the abundance of cables that a modern PC requires hints at some possible issues down the road. For example, the power cables originally bunch up directly behind the upper fan while front panel cables including the ones used to light up the logo must find their way around the cages and other components.
The first GT3 that was shipped to us came completely built up with an Athlon 64 X2 6000+, 2GB of RAM, and a GeForce 8800 GTS. Inside is a tight fit of machinery and metal. In our fully configured unit, the three expansion slots on the riser card were all taken up - 2 by the video card due its large cooler, and one by an audio card. Expansion is obviously limited, although it is rare to have more than two third-party expansion cards installed into an SFF PC these days. Installing a second hard drive limits expansion possibilities further, as the drive would take up one of those three slots.
The PSU was from the FSP Group (i.e. Foxconn), model FSP350-60MB with a maximum output of 350W. Sleeved mesh around the power cables attempts to keep the cabling under control, of which these are tucked in and around the uppermost fan. The cabling is routed well, although not as neat as some more experienced builders in this arena, such as MSI. The optical drive is a Samsung 324F/DBM and it's piggybacked to the same cage as the hard drive. Buyers will need to go out and find their own drive, however, as it is not included as part of the default package. Clearance is tight, as one might expect, especially with the large 8800 GTS installed. It just fits inside the Feature Module, which itself just fits in behind the lower fan.
Booting up the system was the same as any other, except for the LEDs that really light up the front of the unit. The logo didn't quite light up the first time, even though it appeared the power cable had been connected properly. Strangely, it did work later on, even though we hadn't done anything to rectify the situation. We'll chalk that up to a loose connection. Other than the LEDs, the other thing we did notice immediately was the unit's noise level. Those two fans were much louder than we had anticipated. Obviously air intake is a necessity, but we found the noise level to be a major drawback to the design of the GT3. Hopefully future revisions will ship with quieter fans.
We should also note that we ran a couple of benchmarks to see if the pre-built GT3 performed as it should. With the aforementioned hardware installed, the GT3 posted an overall score of 8483 in 3DMark06 and 42.44 fps in Need For Speed: Carbon at 1600x1200 with all in-game graphical options set to their highest levels.
|Installation and Assembly|
To build up a GT3, the first thing users need do is to remove the two cages, and drape all wiring outside the chassis, exposing the back plate of the unit. Installing the motherboard is straight-forward. It requires that the I/O shield be popped in along the back of the GT3, aligning of the mounting holes on the board with the standoffs, and then tightening the screws. There's little room to maneuver about inside the case, and we found that it was easier to tilt the board towards the front first, slipping it under the HDD/slimCD mounting bracket, and then downwards. It's also suggested that much of the cabling be connected now, as it will be much harder to complete later on.
That's probably the easiest part of the process, and from there it gets a bit tricky. If you're the type of builder who likes a challenge, or likes figuring out puzzles, then you'll enjoy the next step. For others, it could be quite frustrating. This next step involves setting up the Feature Module, and as the manual says, it's best to take a moment and familiarize yourself with it because it's quite different from anything else we've dealt with before.
Based on the alignment of the slots on the motherboard and the cards being installed, the Feature Module can be reconfigured by adding or removing spacers and the included risers, but it's not always quite clear what the end result should look like. The manuals we used were a bit raw, lacking any real detail, although GTR Tech has been working on revised versions that will hopefully explain things much clearer. They also plan on providing instructional videos on their website for further assistance.
With some persistence, we were able to get the riser cards installed, and expansion cards into the risers. We were, however, a bit wary of pushing down too hard on the PCI riser's ribbon cable for fear of breaking it. We decided to rock the cable into an open PCI slot, which seemed to work just fine. The PCI-E riser card installs directly into the first PCI-E slot, just as if it were a graphics card. For the sake of clarity, we've removed all of the components from the Feature Module to show how this inserts into a motherboard in the above pictures.
After installation, please note that the video card gets mounted cooler-side down, facing towards the mainboard. This configuration could result in warmer air being trapped between the two layers of PCB, but the lower mounted case-fan should come into play here, by forcing cooler air into this zone. Cards with larger heatsinks will still come quite close to the board itself, however.
The next step requires reintroducing the HDD/SlimCD module and re-attaching the rest of the power cables and other wires. This is where a good deal of time may also be spent, especially when it comes to preventing the various cables from blocking the fans. Again, patience will be well rewarded here. Don't go in expecting that the GT3 is just another run-of-the-mill installation or you will probably wind up frustrated. Set aside some time. Read the manual. Watch the video. It's definitely different from anything you've experienced before.
We also wanted to point out an issue that popped up during installation that may affect some buyers. It's quite possible due to the various possible layouts of components that some motherboards may not work with the GT3. In fact, our very first build consisted of using an MSI P965 Platinum motherboard, but we were quickly thwarted when the placement of the audio header and a handful of capacitors ran up against the inside lip of the chassis. Due to this issue, GTR Tech is working on a list of motherboards and other components that work well with the GT3...
|The Future and our Conclusion|
While the original unit we took a look at came completely assembled with a motherboard, CPU, drives, etc., the GT3-BH itself will begin its life as a barebones unit, with compatibility lists offered on the company website as to which components best fit inside. The power supply unit is seemingly the only item that one won't have to purchase separately, as that comes standard, but we felt that a Slim-line CD drive should also have been included as well, as these are typically harder to find than standard 5.25" drives. GTR Tech has discussed making GT3 "kits" available, however, which would include a set of components known to work with the unit (users would still have to assemble the kit themselves). It also remains to be seen whether or not an entirely pre-configured system will be made available.
In comparison, Dell currently offers their own mini-PC, the Dimension C521, with dimensions that are not too far off of the GT3. A major drawback to the C521, however, is that it has some of the same issues that we had with other SFF PCs: it's not designed for upgrading down the road, and graphic card support is limited to half-height cards, which are typically underpowered and not suited for gaming. There are a couple of other suitors out there with similar products as Dell's, such as HP's Slimline S3000y, but none of these seem to strike the same balance between customization and size as the GT3-BH.
GTR Tech's first attempt at closing the gap between full-blown desktops and small form factor machines seems to be on target. There are many advantages that the GT3-BH brings to the table that other manufacturers may have ignored, such as user modifications and future upgrades. For some, simply getting a small form factor PC or laptop might well be enough to suit their needs. However, the life span of that system can be shortened by a hardware failure (outside of the warranty window) or other need to upgrade. Power-users are typically left out as they don't have the means to substitute their own components in most SFF units, although that has changed a bit in recent years. The GT3 eliminates those issues with complete control over what is and isn't installed. And the case is stylish enough to stand out next to anything out there on the market, yet small enough to fit into the average knapsack.
The limitations to the GT3, however, are its price and complexity. At $279, it might be a bit more than people want to pay for a case and PSU, even a smaller one, when they would still need to go out and purchase a complete array of hardware. Adding in that slim-line CD would help somewhat, but it might be too costly of an option to include at this stage. Finding the right set of components could also be a hassle, as a favorite motherboard just might have a header somewhere that conflicts with the GT3. The Feature Module installation was another issue that novice builders may not have the patience or skill to deal with. Hopefully, revised manuals and other tips on GTR's website will make this an easier process. The Feature Module is a necessity to allow various full-sized cards to be installed with different motherboards, but it also prevents installing more than three cards total (and only 2 with the included riser card). This shouldn't be an issue for the majority of users shopping for an SFF PC, but it still could limit some plans.
Our overall feelings are that the GT3-BH is a fine first step for GTR Tech. They've obviously researched the market and designed a product different from all the rest - at least for now.