|Price:||£226 inc VAT|
|Review Date:||Feb 2005|
Verdict: An inauspicious debut for BTX
ATX is dead, or so Intel would have us believe. That's because although the ATX form factor can still easily cope with the latest high-end Athlon 64 systems, Intel's rather hotter Pentium 4e needs a bit more assistance to keep cool. However, while BTX will benefit desktop PCs, it's perhaps more useful for SFF PCs, where the cramped dimensions cause problems with air circulation. There's actually a specific version of BTX for SFF systems called Pico BTX, and Shuttle's new SB86i is the first to make use of it. Well, almost.
Although Shuttle has based the SB86i on the Pico BTX design, it hasn't followed the design guide to the letter. Whereas the Pico BTX design specifies just a single expansion slot, Shuttle has added two - a 16x PCI-E slot and a regular PCI slot. This isn't a major deviation, though, and for the most part the SB86i closely follows the BTX specification. The most noticeable consequence of this is the new CPU HSF. It's an Intel reference design, powered by a single 80mm fan arranged vertically at the front of the case. This sucks air in through two side vents and pushes it across the fins of a massive heatsink fitted with heatpipes to assist cooling. The air then flows straight over the motherboard components, all of which have long-finned aluminium heatsinks, and is sucked out of the rear of the chassis by a second 80mm fan on the PSU.
The two 80mm fans do their job well and are also fairly quiet. We certainly wouldn't class the SB86i as silent, but it's a lot better than Shuttle's other recent efforts, such as the XPC SB81P. However, even with two 80mm fans, the SB86i still gets very hot inside. This is mainly because the cool air drawn in from outside the chassis is immediately used to cool the CPU, which means warm air is then passed into the main cavity. Admittedly, we didn't experience any stability issues during testing, but the single hard disk drive in our test PC did get very warm, which could affect its lifespan in the long term.
These concerns aside, building a PC inside the SB86i is actually quite simple. There's room for two 3.5in hard disk drives in two individual cradles, which sit at the top of the chassis. Each removable caddy has rubber grommets and strips to dampen vibrations generated by the drive's motors, helping to reduce noise. Shuttle has also prerouted the S-ATA data and power connections to the correct places, which makes installing drives simple.
This is assuming you have S-ATA hard disks, of course, as the SB86i only has one EIDE port. The bundled EIDE cable can be used to connect a single hard disk and optical drive, but it's a struggle to connect it all. It's still a lot easier than Shuttle's previous method, which involved removing the optical drive to get at the 3.5in bays, but the design still needs some adjustment.
Installing an optical drive is fairly simple, although we did encounter some difficulties lining up the eject mechanism on the fascia with our Samsung drive's eject button. And once we did get this sorted, it still refused to trigger the drive's eject button, meaning we had to pry the drive flap open, reach inside and press eject directly. We may be prepared to make such a sacrifice if the Shuttle's stealthed front fascia looked really good, but unfortunately it doesn't. If you imagine the earlier Shuttles, such as the superb SB75G2, as a young John Travolta strutting his stuff in 'Saturday Night Fever', then the SB86i is Travolta in 'Pulp Fiction' - fatter, quieter and less agile.
This latest Shuttle certainly looks like it has a hamburger addiction, as it's a lot wider than the old models, and the white finish doesn't help either. In fact, the front of the SB86i is best described as bland. Sure, when you switch it on the slot at the top lights up, showing power status and disk drive activity, but this is ruined by the ridiculous flap that arcs out above it. Perhaps this is Shuttle's attempt at artistic flair, but we think it would be much better advised to stick with simple, clean lines in the future.
The dull fascia's only saving grace is that it's packed full of connections. On the left-hand side you get two USB 2 ports, a FireWire port, and headphone and microphone jacks. The right-hand side has a multiformat card reader, which supports all the major standards, and also houses the power button. However, for reasons we can't quite fathom, Shuttle hasn't fitted a reset button.
There's a CMOS clear button at the back of the case, however, which is useful if you like to fiddle with (read mess up) the BIOS on a regular basis. The back also sports a further two USB 2 ports, one FireWire port, a serial port (which seems fairly redundant these days), Ethernet, a full complement of audio ports for the integrated HD Audio codec, and the D-SUB connector for the on-board Intel graphics.
The less said about Intel's GMA 900 GPU the better. It managed a pretty pathetic 12fps in Doom 3 at 1,280 x 1,024 and that's with a 3.2GHz Pentium 4e at the helm. Installing a GeForce 6800 GT certainly improved matters, though, upping the score to a very healthy 63.6fps at the same resolution with 2x AA and 2x AF enabled too.
The SB86i's performance in our Media Benchmarks was par for the course for a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 on a 915G chipset, matching the similarly specified AOpen XC Cube EX915G. Unfortunately, we were unable to significantly improve its scores by overclocking, as we only managed to get an extra 10MHz out of the FSB. However, we've yet to see a highly overclockable LGA775 SFF.The overclock pushed the CPU frequency up to 3.36GHz and boosted its overall score from 1.33 to 1.37.
The XPC SB86i provides an interesting first look at the BTX form factor, but it's an otherwise fairly ordinary SFF bare bones system. It performs exactly as we'd expect, although it's disappointing that the FSB won't overclock beyond 210MHz. It's also stretching the definition of 'small form factor' somewhat, being considerably wider and more bloated than Shuttle's sleeker earlier designs (although at least we finally know who's been eating all the pies). However, they have also progressed in some areas, particularly ease of building and noise levels, thanks mainly to the BTX design.
The XPC SB86i is certainly a good choice for a high-performance, low-noise Media Center 2005 PC, so long as you don't mind the unusual styling.