Shuttle X27D review

Price when reviewed

Intel’s Atom processors are a popular choice for mobile devices, but so far they’ve lacked the performance to make much impression on the more demanding desktop market. That could change though with the new dual-core Atom 330, making its first appearance here in Shuttle’s X27D barebones system.

Shuttle X27D review

The Atom 330 is effectively two Atom 230 cores bolted together. Clock speed remains at 1.6GHz while L2 cache unsurprisingly doubles to 1MB. It’s hardly a sophisticated upgrade, but the result is a chip that can run Vista comfortably. In our benchmarks, an X27D with 1GB of system RAM achieved an overall score of 0.51 – around 16% faster than the fastest mobile Atom N270 system we’ve tested, Samsung’s NC10.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story, as our benchmarks include some applications – such as Office 2003 – which aren’t geared up to take advantage of multiple threads. In the tests that really count, the performance gap was significantly wider. In 2D graphics applications such as Photoshop it proved around 40% faster than the N270, and when multitasking – a truly painful experience with the old Atom – it scored an impressive 0.62, which is getting intriguingly close to the performance of expensive ultraportables from Sony et al.

Of course, raw speed was never the point of the Atom. It’s a chip for low-power jobs, like word processing and web browsing, and Shuttle’s X27D system clearly shares these humble ambitions. It offers but a single DIMM slot, lacks luxuries like card readers, optical audio or eSATA and doesn’t even have a PCI connector – so you’re stuck with the integrated GMA950 graphics. Your expansion options boil down to six USB ports (four at the back, two at the front), two PS/2 ports and, surprisingly, a 9-pin serial port.

This parsimonious feature set permits a pleasingly low-profile design, far smaller even than Shuttle’s usual compact chassis. The X27D stands just 7cm high, and occupies a tiny 250 x 185mm footprint. The absence of high-end parts means it needs very little cooling too: there’s just one tiny CPU fan. Choose a quiet hard disk and you’ll have an almost silent system.

But on the subject of drives, it’s worth noting that the removable caddy within the small case accommodates just one 2.5in hard disk and one slimline optical drive – standard desktop parts won’t fit at all. That’s a shame, as part of the appeal of barebones systems is the ability to repurpose old kit to save money.

Yet the use of laptop parts does help keep power consumption low, and it’s the energy-conscious to whom this system will most appeal. Sitting idle at the Vista desktop it draws just 29W, and even as our benchmarks drove the CPU up to 100% load power consumption didn’t exceed 35W – a very impressive performance. It’s not quite down to the levels of the VeryPC Fulwood, which idles at 17W and peaks at around 27W, but that’s a pricey media centre and in no way a competitor to the basic X27D. For everyday tasks, this Shuttle is the best balance of performance and power-efficiency we’ve seen.

The cherry on top is the price: by ditching the non-essentials, Shuttle has made the X27D not only simple but affordable. The basic unit costs just £169 exc VAT, including the CPU (it’s surface mounted on the mini-ITX motherboard) but minus memory, drives and OS. As usual, you’ll need to acquire and install these yourself, plus keyboard and mouse. Unlike the lesser Atoms, the 330 will take a 64-bit OS, though with one DIMM slot it’s hard to see the point.

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