Shuttle Zen XPC ST62K: Finally, a Quiet SFF PC!

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February 8, 2004 by Ralf Hutter and Mike Chin

Product
Shuttle Zen XPC ST62K
Manufacturer
Shuttle Inc.
Selling Price
~US$320

The Small Form Factor (SFF) PC as we know it today was virtually invented by Shuttle when they introduced the SV24 in the year 2000. While cute breadbox size PC boxes from many motherboard companies have proliferated in the mainstream, they are not widely accepted among the noise-conscious. SFF PCs are meant to be placed on the desktop rather than under or beside the desk, and so are much closer to the user's ears. Yet they generally make about as much noise as standard tower-style PCs that sit much farther away.

The only quiet small PC systems thus far have been fanless or near-fanless Mini-ITX based custom systems that don't really fit the bread-box shape and size of the Shuttle SFF. These Mini-ITX systems also don't offer the high computing power of Intel or AMD processors, or the option of AGP video cards.

Up to now, Shuttle has relied exclusively on slim FlexATX form factor PSUs with noisy 40mm fans in its SFF PCs. These 40mm fans have been a major bottleneck for low noise performance; it is very difficult to achieve any significant cooling with a 40mm fan unless it is spinning fast and thus whining loudly. So even though their CPU cooling is achieved fairly quietly using heatpipes and larger 80mm fans dubbed the Integrated Cooling Engine (ICE), Shuttle SFF PCs have not been quiet in the past.

All this looks to be changing as Shuttle moves to dramatically reduce the noise of their latest systems. Two new SFF products designed for low noise were announced by Shuttle recently:

SilentX PC40 (PC40N250EV) Power Supply, rated to deliver 250W, and "32 dB at full load". This PSU is integrated in their new XPC ST61G4, released in late 2003. A sample of the SilentX PC40 has been on my test bench for a couple of weeks. I can say that it is amazingly quiet at idle, especially considering what their other 40mm fan PSUs have sounded like in the past. It uses two 40mm fans, one at either end in push-pull mode. (Shuttle says the following XPC models can be retrofitted with this new PSU for reduced noise operation: SS51G Ver.2.0, SK41G, SN41G2, SN45G, SB51G, SB52G2, SB61G2, SB62G2, SB75G2, ST61G4.)

Shuttle Zen XPC ST62K, the product under review: A new smaller, quieter SFF barebones PC using just one 80mm fan and an external fanless power supply.

The promotional blurbs from Shuttle describe the new Zen XPC thus:

"Built around the revolutionary ATI RADEON 9100 chipset, this highly-advanced SFF computer delivers leading-edge integrated graphics performance and redefines the standard for low-noise, low-temperature operation. This completely new, re-engineered SFF computer delivers slick consumer styling and incredible integrated graphics performance. Further, with support for Intel Pentium® 4 and Celeron® processors, and dual-channel DDR400 memory, XPC Zen delivers incredible power despite its small size and “Super Quiet, Super Cool” operation. Shuttle’s XPC Zen is housed in the all-new “K” enclosure featuring stylish “pearl” colored front panel with attractive rounded corners and edges. XPC Zen marks a new milestone in small form factor environmental and ergonomic design."

Shuttle's enthusiastic promo copywriters are not far off the mark. In many ways, the Zen XPC ST62K is a landmark product that may be the signal for something the silent computing community have been awaiting for quite a while: A serious effort by mainstream PC system and component makers to make low noise a key selling feature of computer performance. If Shuttle's efforts here triggers serious competition in the SFF sector for low noise as the prize, we will all be winners. It's not unrealistic to expect that this trend could easily catch on to the rest of the PC markets.

Let's pass the floor over to Ralf Hutter for a close examination of the design and performance of this new Shuttle.

- Introduction by Mike Chin, Editor of SPCR

* * *

EXTERNAL OVERVIEW

The "K" in "ST62K" refers to the 'all-new “K” enclosure featuring stylish “pearl” colored front panel with attractive rounded corners and edges.' How did Shuttle do it? By removing the internal PSU and replacing it with an external, fanless power supply. They also removed the AGP slot from the motherboard.

Note that the Zen XPC is still marketed as a barebones kit, not as a complete prebuilt system. You add the CPU, hard drive, optical drive and memory to their "barebones" kit, which comes with everything else. (But not monitor, mouse of keyboard, of course.) It's clear that many buyers are choosing to have retailers configure the system of their choice, but probably as many are choosing to assemble their own.

The case is about 20% smaller than previous Shuttle XPC cases. The external power supply measures about 7" x 5" x 2". It can easily be left on the floor where its size won't be an issue. The external PSU doesn't seem to need any special handling as it gets only slightly warm, even under extended load and it's very quiet, emitting nothing more than a slight hum audible only from under 12".

The ST62K features the familiar matte brushed aluminum shroud of the earlier XPCs. It is fastened to the chassis by 3 thumbscrews on the rear. The cover itself has no vent holes or cooling slots. Shuttle has moved all the case air intakes to the bottom of the case. There is a series of 15 small intake slots around the periphery of the case and two sets of small air holes located beneath the DIMM slots and the voltage regulators. This looks advantageous from a quiet PC point of view, because it moves a direct path for noise from the sides of the case to the underside of the case.


Shuttle moved all the air intakes to the underside of the case. This helps keep things quiet.

A curious touch is the inclusion of two small aluminum cones that screw into the front corners of the base, propping the front up by about an inch. This is apparently to improve airflow through the underside intake vents. The aluminum cones look as if they are borrowed from high end consumer audio, where such cones are widely used to stabilize loudspeaker and equipment stands, CD players and turntables. However, the slight slant puts the hard drive at an angle that's not a multiple of 90 degrees from level, which has traditionally been frowned on by hard drive manufacturers as contrary to long bearing life.

The front faceplate is transparent Plexiglas that's painted bright white on the inside layer. The 5.25" and 3.5" drive bays are offset slightly to the right. The ST62K features a different front I/O panel layout than previous Shuttles. It has the usual power switch; all the rest of the switches and ports are lined up at the bottom. These include the Reset switch, power and HDD activity LED's, Mic-In, Line-In, and Headphone-Out audio connectors, and two USB 2.0 ports. Firewire ports, of which there are two on the back, are missing from the front panel.

The inclusion of the external 3.5" bay is a bit puzzling. The ST62K motherboard doesn't even have a floppy connector on it, so why does Shuttle bother with the external 3.5" bay? Shuttle offers an optional 3.5" external card reader that could go into this slot, and the motherboard does have two internal USB 2.0 headers that this can connect to. This would be a nice accessory for Shuttle to include rather than charging $29 for it separately.

The card reader comes in three colors: white, black and silver, to match your choice for the main box. Shuttle informs us that the Zen is available for order on the distributor level in silver and black as well as the white sample in our review. Users need to check with their local reseller for availability of these colors.



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