Shuttle XPC SN27P2 (AMD) review

£289
Price when reviewed

If you’ve ever tried (or failed) to build a PC, you’ll know it can take a stupendous amount of time and expense to get it exactly right. The SN27P2 and SN37P2 from Shuttle, however, go from barebones systems to fully fledged PCs in under an hour thanks to some ingenious design. The SN27P2 has an Nvidia Nforce 570 Ultra chipset for AMD processors, while the SN37P2 is a socket 775-based system with an Intel 975 chipset.

At their most basic, both chassis need only four cables to be connected – two each for the optical drive and hard disk. Put in some RAM, a graphics card and a CPU, and you’re away. You can fit up to three SATA hard disks, two sitting across the top and another in the 3.5in bay beneath the optical drive. Even installing the CPU is hassle-free: the heatsink unscrews and lifts out, while the sideways-facing fan is on hinges, opening outwards for easier access to the processor socket.

Heat dissipation is always a concern with small-form-factor PCs, although it’s often high-end graphics that are the main problem. Finding the hottest-running components we could, we installed an Athlon 64 FX-62, 1GB of RAM and a double-height ATi X1900 CrossFire card in the SN27P. This configuration ran for all of five minutes before overheating and shutting down. We managed to get it entirely stable by using a more conservative X1800 GT, though, and a high-end Nvidia 7900 GT was also stable under pressure.

Besides the different chipsets, the major difference between the chassis is that the SN27P2 has a PCI Express 16x and PCI slot, while the SN37P2 has a pair of PCI Express 8x slots. You can use one of these as a PCI Express 1x slot, or opt for a pair of ATi graphics cards in a CrossFire configuration. Aside from the confusion of dual-graphics card economics, the chief drawback is the noise they’ll make, but at least you have the choice.

In use, we found both chassis were otherwise reasonably quiet, although noise levels inevitably increase during heavy load. The 92mm fan on the CPU heatsinks are fairly gusty, while a pair of 60mm fans on the rear keep the hard disk rack ventilated.

The diminutive size doesn’t stop the chassis from offering all the usual desktop options – a serial port is the only casualty. Six USB ports are on the rear, with another two on the front and both mini- and full-sized FireWire. There’s also an eSATA port, although no accompanying power output. Eight-channel audio is available via 3.5mm jacks, with coaxial and optical S/PDIF ports, as well as an optical S/PDIF-in port. The only omission is PS/2 connectors, which might mean a new keyboard and mouse for some.

As pieces of design, these machines are what we’ve come to expect from Shuttle – unfussy, well thought-through and with a very high level of attention to detail. With reasonable care, it’s simple to build a great PC using either of these as a basis. With all of the cabling pre-routed, there isn’t even any need to worry about keeping things tidy. Considering the sheer level of convenience they offer, and the high quality of what you’re getting, the price tag isn’t unreasonable.

Both platforms also currently have the significant advantage of flexibility – you could install anything from a low-end Sempron or Celeron CPU to a top-of-the-range Core 2 Duo or Athlon 64 FX-62.

In terms of which platform to go for, the choice is even easier. With Intel snatching back the performance crown with Core 2 Duo, it’s being aggressive on pricing too. Recent rounds of price cutting have left CPU prices fluctuating, but a low-end E6300 currently costs £120, yet offers comparable performance to AMD’s Athlon 64 X2 5000+, which costs around £100 more. Scale that down to the budget end and it’s less of an issue – we managed to configure entire systems for well under £500 online – but everywhere else, Intel wins on both value and performance. Unless you already have a processor or PCI card that you can’t live without, the SN37P2 is the better choice, earning a well-deserved Recommended award.

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