An Interview with Shuttle

The Silent Front

October 25, 2004 by Mike Chin

Ken Huang, Shuttle's VP of System Development, with SS51G, the SFF to really take off back in 2002.

Shuttle is a name almost totally associated with Small Form Factor computers these days. This was not always the case. Shuttle was just one of many motherboard makers only a few short years ago. Today, Shuttle produces umpteen variants of SFF barebones and full PCs, some of which are pretty quiet machines positively reviewed here at SPCR: Shuttle XPC ST61G4 and Shuttle Zen. How did Shuttle come to own the SFF sector and where are they going? SPCR interviews Ken Huang, VP of System Development at Shuttle Inc.

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SPCR: A friend in the PC industry recently suggested that advertising for SFF PCs by any brand probably helps Shuttle as much as it helps the other brand because the association between Shuttle and the SFF PC is so strong. He thinks that when people who know a little about computers see a small toaster-size PC, they automatically think Shuttle, much the way Americans refer to Band-Aids or Brits refer to Hoovers.

This is an obvious plug for Shuttle's marketing - and my friend asked that I provide you his name and shipping info - but all kidding aside, can you comment on what he says? Just how strong is Shuttle's position in the market?

Ken Huang: It's a nice thought for us but who can really say? The overall market for consumer SFF barebones (XPC format or clone) was around 1 million units last year, of which Shuttle was around 600K. Market Intelligence Center (MIC) in Taiwan said that the share of mini-barebone computers among all desktops shipped in 2003 was 1.5% - more than 1.60 million of units, but they are likely including slim-line corporate focused SFF's in their numbers. We're seeing the market this year increase in line with MIC's numbers, around 25%.

SPCR: So you're saying that in consumer SFF, Shuttle has 60% of the market: That's impressive, but maybe that's not surprising, considering you guys created the whole sector. When Shuttle produced the first SFF barebones machine back in… the year 2000 (?), did anyone in the company have any idea that these little PCs would become the core of its business?

Ken Huang: Shuttle has been working in the small form factor motherboard area for some time, hailing back to the original FE22 motherboard developed in 1999 for HP. This board was the pre-cursor to the SFF market as we know it, with features that would be familiar to many SFF enthusiasts 5 years later. At 17cm X 17 cm, it was almost identical to today's MiniITX, and led to the development of the FV24 motherboard that would eventually find its home in the SV24. (see attached FE22 photo)

When the original SV24 was released in Q3 2001, it was very much an unproven concept in the market. I don't think anyone realized that the SV24 would be the start of an entire market segment. It was only with the release of the SS51G in 2002 that the SFF scene really started to pick up, as Shuttle gradually worked to reduce the gap between SFF and tower features and performance.

Original FE22 motherboard developed by Shuttle in 1999 for HP: Precursor to both mini-ITX and SFF.

SPCR: Some time last spring, Shuttle launched direct sales of complete SFF systems in the US, not just barebones. At http://sys.us.shuttle.com/, six models are listed for Home/Home Office, Business, Media Center and Gaming applications, in over 20 customizable variants along with a range of accessories. As far as we know, no other SFF barebones maker has moved to system integration. How are complete SFF systems in the US selling? Will you be taking the US system sales model to the EU and Asia? Are you stepping into Dell/HP territory or looking at partnerships with them?

Ken Huang: The market for barebones systems is reaching maturity, given the fact that almost all barebones are purchased by DIY enthusiasts. Only 1-2% of the PC market can assemble their own PC, so our entry into the complete system market was inevitable.The goal behind selling complete XPC systems is to educate mainstream PC buyers about SFF and to spur demand for smaller, quieter computers in the 98% of the market that can't build their own PC.

The adoption of complete XPC systems is progressing quicker than expected. Shuttle XPC systems are now available in Best Buy, making Shuttle the first new OEM at Best Buy in 5 years (since E-Machines). We are also working with other major retailers, as well as selling systems directly off the website. Consumer SFF is only 2% of overall PC volume right now, but keep in mind this is already half of Apple's market share.

Shuttle XPC System Solutions were announced in EU in September, and were just announced last week in Asia. We plan to have worldwide distribution for systems by Q1 of next year.

SPCR: Does Shuttle intend to keep making non-SFF motherboards? In the PC hardware review web sites, the only Shuttle reviews in the last couple of years have been of the XPC series; hardly a single standalone motherboard.

Ken Huang: Shuttle still makes ATX and MicroATX motherboards, but the focus has definitely shifted to our XPC barebones, systems, and accessory lines. Our AN51R is our latest ATX motherboard, based on the nForce3 250 chipset.

SPCR: How will the Microsoft release of MCE2005 affect the industry? How about Shuttle directly? Is/will noise be a problem with entertainment PCs in general?

Ken Huang: Shuttle is one of the major providers of MCE2004 systems, and that will continue with MCE2005. Microsoft is certainly pushing the concept of the HTPC with the release of MCE2005, and we see this as a major driver of PC sales into next year. MCE places form factor and acoustic performance at the top of the customer's wish lists, which is great for the SFF market in general.

SPCR: In the HPTC / ePC market, many brands are housing their systems in cases styled to mate well with A/V gear -- wide and low. Shuttle has yet to make any models like this. Can you comment? In other words, what is your perception of the importance of style compatibility with A/V gear and are there any A/V component style Shuttle products planned?

Ken Huang: Since Media Center PC's may end up in a variety of locations, including the den, living room, or bedroom, the form factor must be equally versatile. Tower PC's do not work well in the living room, and component-style PC's do not work well in the den or bedroom. The XPC is a good blend that can work in almost any environment. That said, Shuttle is exploring some interesting things in the EPC market that will be very attractive to silent PC aficionados.

SPCR: AT SPCR, we set the upper limit for quiet computers at different levels for different PC types:

  • 30 dBA/1m for home/office towers;
  • up to 35 dBA/1m for ePCs (because they are usually positioned farther away from the users, 2m or more);
  • 25 dBA/1m for standard SFF (because they are placed on the desk closer to the user, usually only 2-3 feet away).

What are the acoustic targets for various Shuttle SFF models? Which of the Shuttle XPCs meet these various criteria? Can high thermal Prescott-core P4s in any of your XPCs reach the 25 dBA/1m mark?

A modified 17-dBA/1m version of the quiet Shuttle XPC Zen with external brick PSU has found a home in SPCR's audio testing lab.

Ken Huang: Our target for quiet XPCs is 30dBA at 0.5m, which roughly corresponds with your 25dBA at 1m standard. We're at a bit of a disadvantage compared to most tower PCs with regards to acoustics, since XPCs are made of aluminum, and have higher end processors and video cards installed compared to most OEM PC's.

Our model SB83G5 outputs 32dBA at 0.5m with a high thermal LGA775 Prescott processor. 30dBA is achievable, but remember that we also have to provide thermal budget for high end video cards. We are beginning to make full acoustic reports of our products available, and you can find a list of currently available acoustic reports here: http://www.shuttle.com/hq/support/faq/sff/sff.asp

SPCR: You are obviously aware of aluminum's acoustic shortcomings... What is the reason for all the chassis/casing of the XPCs being made of aluminum? Are there steel cases for the future?

Ken Huang: Aluminum is simply the best material to achieve the style and light weight that most XPC users demand. Steel, of course, is a better acoustic dampener, and we will soon release the SB86I, compatible with BTX and utilizing a steel case.

SPCR: The recently released SB81P has a PSU with an 80mm fan. Is this quieter than the dual-40mm fan SilentX 250W model? Will you be using this PSU or similar 80mm fan PSUs in future models? For quiet ones or power models?

Ken Huang: While the SilentX 350W in the SB81P has a similar noise level as the SilentX 250W in G chassis models, it provides an additional 100W of power. The P chassis will continue to be our power line, while the G chassis and future chassis will occupy the lower acoustic level offerings.

SPCR: How do you see the future of Shuttle over the next year or two?

Ken Huang: Shuttle sees the desktop PC evolving rapidly over the next two years, with an increasing emphasis on aesthetics, size, and acoustics. We also see a large take-up of ePC's as Media Center Edition grows in popularity. Our goal is to make Shuttle and SFF a household name by 2006, and we're on track to achieve that goal.

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Much thanks to Ken Huang and Shuttle's media relations team for this informative interview.

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