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The XC Cube EZ65 is AOpen's first Small Form Factor (SFF) barebones PC, released in Q4 2003. It's an attractive package, about average size for a SFF PC, packed with a great array of features. The glossy Pearl White finish on the aluminum case panels gives it a truly friendly look that fits in as nicely in the office as in the living room or the kitchen. Some people say that if Mac made a SFF PC, it might look a lot like this. (Of course, the iMac is something of a SFF already.) The XC Cube is available in many other colors: Volcano Gray, Jazz black, Danube Blue, and Cherry Red. (Danube Blue is striking, at least in pictures.)
And here's a cool thing for those into aesthetics: You don't have to worry about color matching the faceplates of your external drives, because flip-open integrated covers are used. These covers have exactly the same finish as the rest of the front bezel, so what you see below is what you see most all the time except when the external drives or the in/out control panel are being accessed. Very nice, she said.
So a pretty face is the only qualification needed for entry into SPCR's review lab? It helps, but by now everyone knows you also need a great body that's cool and quiet. In the XC Cube, AOpen says they have what we seek: The noise at idle with a "typical configuration" is said to be 28.4 dBA in the Operator Position as defined by ISO 9296 (mic place about 60 cm from the front). Now that's pretty quiet. In fact, it is almost exactly the same claim made for the Shuttle Zen XPC we recently reviewed.
Got your attention now?
Anyone who browses PC stores knows how SFF PCs are proliferating these days. Not only does every retailer offer them, every major brand in the PC industry seems to make them. The impression is not without basis. The number of SFF manufacturers is long and getting longer. The reasons for the increased number of entrants into this market are many, but these are probably among the most important:
- It's a growing market, still quite new, with room for more growth.
- The timing is right: People are looking now more than ever for simple, useful computing devices that don't take up lots of room, and they want to put them in places where PC traditionally have not gone. SFF has become PC as appliance, and it has created its own demand.
- Motherboard makers are the primary drivers here, because of the central role they can play in integrating all the functions under one roof, into one board. The only new partner they might have to deal with is a case manufacturer. It would appear there's no end to the number of willing and able case partners in Taiwan and China.
AOpen has done a lot with XC Cube to differentiate it from the competition, more than just the spiffy cosmetics. Before we get into all that, a quick intro to AOpen, with some information culled from AOpen's websites:
"AOpen manufactures computer components as part of the ACER group. This group has more than 22 years of experience in the PC industry and over 700 patents in PC technology. Acer Group employs 39,000 people supporting dealers and distributors in over 100 countries. Revenues reached US$12.9 billion in 2002. From bare systems, motherboards, CD-ROM/CD-RW/DVD drives, and monitors to multimedia, add-on cards, and communication solutions, every AOpen product is manufactured and tested in strict ISO 9002 certified facilities."
They're big. A lot bigger than you might have thought. It means AOpen has many divisions to draw upon, that it hardly has to go outside itself to find all the expertise and experience needed to put together a product like the XC Cube. Working with case manufacturing is nothing new for them; they've been making and selling cases for years.
Readers of SPCR may know about SilentTek and SilentBIOS, utilities in AOpen motherboards that help manage fan speeds, cooling and noise in far more sophisticated way than any other commercially available software. Our review of SilenTek and SilentBIOS utilities in late 2002 spurred a great deal of interest in fan management among SPCR readers back then. It was also learned that many AOpen motherboards are undervoltable, which makes them very useful for extreme PC silencers.
Here are some basic features and specifications of the AOpen XC Cube EZ65, the P4 version, based on the Intel 865 chipset. They also have an AMD version, of course, based on the nVidia2 chipset, called the XC Cube EZ18.
The features list goes on... and on! Please check AOpen's "Technology Within" page for a complete listing. A quick rundown of the main features:
Being based on the Intel 865G chipset and capable of supporting dual memory bus, high performance can be expected from this little machine. Note too, the Gigabit LAN capability for truly high speed networking. The built-in VGA is provided by the Intel 82865G "Extreme Graphics" chip, which is known to have very modest capabilities. However, with the AGP slot, the user has the option of reaching just about any level of graphics performance desired. Dual-channel SATA drive support with RAID option is also provided.
The XC Cube EZ65 includes the SilentTek thermal / noise / fan management system mentioned earlier. EzWinFlash allows BIOS updates right in Windows for simplicity and convenience. JukeBox turns the XC Cube into a full-function CD player that turns on almost instantly because the software loads before Windows, just past the boot. The BIOS provides 1Mhz-step adjustments of both CPU and AGP clock speeds. With the wide 1.1V to 1.85V CPU core volltage (Vcore) manual adjustment range, the XC Cube is well set up for both overclockers and undervolting silencers alike.
There's more, but we'll save it for later.