ShuttleX: Small, Quiet, Odd Looking Computers

There are two kinds of computers in this world: the kind you buy from a big corporation, and the kind you build yourself. Of course, there are also computers that sound like popcorn makers, and those that sound like Catherine Zeta-Jones when she is slipping on her nylons. This article is about the kind of computer that you make yourself, and the kind that sound like Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Defending the Irrational

Those of us who build our own computers have a hobby that is difficult to defend. From a logical perspective, it doesn’t really make much sense.

If you already have a few older machines you can scavenge for parts, then you might be able to save a few bucks by building your own white box, or then again you might not. There is always the risk that you will damage a piece of hardware and can’t return it, and certainly there is a significant investment in time involved in buying and building the machine. So logically, I have to ask myself whether it is really worth the effort.

Emotionally, however, I definitely enjoy assembling my own a computers. Or rather, I enjoy using computers that I have built myself. Sometimes, I’ll confess, it is fun to tinker with the machines, but frequently the process of assembling a computer is a bit painful. Particularly when things don’t work out they way I want.

Yet there is that certain intangible thrill one gets after screwing in the motherboard, plugging in the power supply, hooking up the processor, attaching the CD and floppy, and then booting up that old DOS 6.2 floppy and finding that it all works! And after I have installed Linux, or even lowly Windows, and actually start using a machine for real work, I get a warm glow of contentment from using a computer I put together myself. I have to live with a computer 8, 12 or more hours a day, so I don’t want one that has some overly advertised corporate label on it. I want one that bears at least a little bit of my own personal touch, something that I put together, rather than something that comes off an assembly line optimized for greed and conformance.

Speed and Noise

The computer I built last year is a real screamer, in fact, it howls louder than a new born baby. If I ever had any energy to work on it, I could replace the fans with something quieter, and it is true that the machine was incredibly hot – back in the day. In fact, the day I built it, before I let Bill have his DLL proliferating, artery clogging way with the poor beast, my computer was the second hottest thing ever to show its face on the PCMark website. That is due primarily to the fact everyone else has the sense to buy a little further behind the curve than I did, but nevertheless it felt great to boot up such a smoking machine. Here is what that overly pumped up box looked like from a statistical perspective:

  • Case: ANTEC|Sever Tower PLUS1080AMG (Roughly the size and shape of an aircraft carrier).

  • Motherboard: NFORCE2 A7N8X DELUXE ASUS RTL
  • CPU: AMD|3000/400 ATHLON XP BARTON
  • RAM: DDRAM 256MB 32MX8 PC-3500C2 COR
  • HardDrive: 160GB|MAXTOR 6Y160M0 SATA

At the time, this ran me around $900 at newegg. Of course, now that $128 motherboard costs $84.50, and my ostentatious $262 processor is down to a more justifiable $142.

So now, after its first birthday, my purchase doesn’t look quite so formidable. But when it was young and still had all its hair, it was too hot too touch. Friends were walking out the door with skin burns just from standing too close to the monitor when it was compiling a big project.

But my buddies, who were, I’m sure, drooling with jealousy, liked to complain about the noise it was making. And if it made them feel better, then I couldn’t begrudge them what little satisfaction they might be able to get by nitpicking about little problems like it being louder than a Formula 1 racing car. But thankfully, there was too much background noise in my computer room to hear exactly what they were saying in any detail. Though I did get the general drift.

Building the Quiet, Weird Machine

When I walked into Frys a month ago, I was not interested in getting a quiet machine, or in getting a small machine, and certainly I wasn’t looking for a weird machine. I just wanted to get a cheap server. I was going to buy a new VA-10 ABIT motherboard, which, at $50, was more in line with my political views. And I wanted a humble, $90 processor like the AMD Athlon XP 2600+ "Barton", 333MHz FSB, 512K Cache Processor, which is as gentle on the pocket book as Pat Nixon’s cloth coat.

But despite all my good intentions, when I got to Fry’s, and started looking around, what caught my eye was the ShuttleX. In particular, it was the SN41G2 that I kept coming back to, over and over. This little box is about as tall and wide as a small mailbox, and about half as long. It supports an AMD processor with a 333 front side bus, which means that it supports a typical AMD processor in the $60 to $150 range. It comes with a built in NVIDIA motherboard, with all the fancy bits like the sound jacks, lights, USB, firewire and TV out ports all set up and ready to go.

But the fact that it was small, and the fact that it looked cool, that it had dual monitor support, a hot video card on the motherboard, and was partially assembled, meant very little to me compared to the fact that it had the ultimate marketing ploy taking up one whole side of the box it came in. This little marketing hook is called an Integrated Cooling Engine. Which stands for what? That’s it: ICE! Marketing bliss! Somebody should be allowed (or is it forced?) to retire on full salary after coming up with that one!

ICE is a super quiet cooling system that has little pencil size pipes running between the fan and the processor. These shiny little pipes look almost exactly like the exhaust pipes you used to see on hot rods in 1950’s movies, or that you sometimes see on motorcycles. In short, they are totally compelling! It broke my heart to put the cover on the box and cover them up!

Of course, this kind of technical Elysium does not come cheap. At $250 for the whole bundle, it is doubtful that Checkers (the cocker spaniel, not the game) would have approved. But when you figure that you have the box, the mother board, the video card, the sound card, all bundled together, then $250 isn’t really that bad. All you have to do is add the processor, the memory, the CD ROM drive, and an optional floppy drive. The total price of some $500 is painful, but not embarrassingly so.

Of course, when it comes time to assemble the thing, it helps if you happen to be a little elf with fingers about the size of the pipes in the ICE cooling system. But even a big six foot two lummox such as myself could cobble the thing together in just under two hours. (This is about twice the time that other people on the web claim to spend assembling their ShuttleX machines, but I guess I have to be truthful or else I should give up my Monday morning slot here on CodeFez.)

After I assembled it, the box booted up first time, and purred like a kitten. I installed Linux Mandrake 10.0 on it, and the installation went off without a hitch, in well under half an hour. Less time than it takes to install Delphi 2005!

Summary

I am loath to remind you that I am now using this box as a server. Taking this beautiful piece of engineering and wasting it as a server is the rough equivalent of using a Jaguar to deliver pizza. But I love the fact that it runs so quietly that I can leave it on all night without bothering the neighbors.

Worst of all, perhaps, is that this beautiful, gleaming machine is now stacked up on my workbench in a rats nest of wires, next to my unsightly, aircraft-carrier-colored tower boxes. This elegant tool would look fine in a living room. Unfortunately, mine is buried under my phone and answering machine, and is barely visible even from three feet away.

I won’t indulge in the kind of unrestrained hyperbole that the users of the product on NewEgg like to lavish on poor unsuspecting readers. Nevertheless, I have to confess that I like this box, despite its very un-Nixonian price tag, and despite the ICE marketing ploy. This whole line of computers represents a very cool, very intriguing alternative to a standard white box.