Just because a computer is about the size of a ream of paper doesn't make it a paper tiger.
Small-form-factor PCs are nothing new. While full-sized tower cases live on in servers and exotically equipped game machines, consumer desktops moved to mini-tower chassis long ago, with both business and retail PC suppliers nowadays offering even slimmer and shorter cases or all-in-one PC/LCD monitor combinations. A number of Media Center PCs are horizontal black boxes designed to blend in with hi-fi or home theater gear.
But if you're looking for a small-form-factor specialist, see Shuttle. Best known for shoebox- or loaf-of-bread-sized, bare-bones systems that avid gamers assemble and carry to LAN parties, Shuttle also sells ready-made PCs, including a low-profile media center.
Even those compact computers, however, look big next to the XPC X100 Shuttle's $999 answer to subcompacts like Apple's Mac Mini and WinBook's Jiv, right down to sharing those systems' practice of shipping without a keyboard or mouse. (A Logitech cordless keyboard/mouse duo is a $65 option.)
Measuring 8.3 by 11.8 by 2.2 inches and weighing something less than seven pounds, the X100 fits comfortably on a crowded desk, especially if placed vertically on a supplied stand (a large "This Side Up" arrow on its underside indicates proper position). Its real-PC credentials include Intel's Core Duo T2050 processor (two 1.6GHz cores, 2MB of Level 2 cache); 1GB of DDR-2/667 memory expandable to 2GB; and a slot-loading DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive. A DVD±RW replacement is $37 extra.
At first glance, the $999 Shuttle looks pricey against a Mac Mini that starts at $599 with a 1.66GHz Core Duo and built-in 802.11g wireless (Wi-Fi is a $42 option for the X100). But the Mac is more of a stripped-down model: Upgraded to 1GB of memory and a 160GB hard disk for $924, it still has less storage capacity than the Shuttle's 250GB Seagate Barracuda 7,200-rpm Serial ATA drive, as well as slower Intel GMA 950 integrated-chipset graphics compared to the XPC's ATI Mobility Radeon X1400 graphics controller.
Get Up and Go
In fact, the little Shuttle performed more handily than we expected though no threat to today's fastest towers, it topped most of the mainstream notebooks and several of the desktops we've sampled lately.
Our test unit came with Windows XP Media Center Edition preinstalled, though without the TV tuner that would make it an extremely space-saving PC/TV/TiVo replacement; Shuttle sells a Hauppauge USB external tuner for $95 and a Philips remote control for $31. The company's house-brand LCD monitors are less competitively priced at $299 for a standard 17-inch flat panel or $399 for a "protective glass" model.
As you'd expect, there's no room to put an internal TV tuner or a splinter or a postage stamp inside the Shuttle. Removing three jewelers' screws and a label that warns of voiding the system warranty reveals components so tightly packed that the only practicable end-user operations would be changing the CMOS battery or replacing the two 512MB memory modules with two 1GB sticks.
You can spot a cooling fan under the lid, but since the XPC's 120-watt power supply is a notebook-style external brick, the system is virtually silent in operation except for an occasional hum from the hard disk we should note that the 7,200-rpm Seagate is noticeably quicker than your average laptop drive or whir from the optical drive. The latter obliges you to push a disc nearly all the way in before the slot-loading mechanism takes over we're used to a Ford dashboard player that practically grabs the CD from your hand but that's about the only complaint we could come up with. The X100 is as much a pleasure to use as a marvel to look at.
Of Ports and Plugs
In addition to the power and CD-eject buttons and one USB 2.0 port, the Shuttle's front panel holds an unmarked, easily overlooked flash-memory slot for Secure Digital, MultiMediaCard, and Memory Stick/Pro cards. Around the back, you'll find four more USB 2.0 ports, as well as one FireWire port; a 10/100Mbps Ethernet connection; S/PDIF out; and mic, line-in, and line-out audio jacks.
Neither an old-fashioned VGA port nor new-wave HDMI component video output is available, but an S-Video port permits TV display while a DVI port and included DVI-to-VGA adapter support digital flat panels and analog CRTs, respectively. If you'd like a dual-monitor application-arranging or desktop-enlarging setup, Matrox's external DualHead2Go adapter is a $158 option.
Besides Windows XP MCE, Shuttle's software bundle includes the Nero CD/DVD authoring suite and CyberLink PowerDVD 6 player. There's no hard-disk-partition- or disc-based system recovery feature to bail you out of a virus attack or software installation that trashed Windows, but there's a CD of drivers for manual rebuilds.
So how does the XPC X100 stack up? Obviously, $999 can buy you a substantially more capable and versatile PC if you've got room for one of the usual form factors. But if you're seriously short on desk space, seeking a Win XP Media Center no bigger than your cable or satellite carrier's set-top box, or just a fan of chic style and neat engineering, the smallest Shuttle is an appealing and more powerful than you'd think solution.
Adapted from hardwarecentral.com.