When deploying GNU/Linux systems, there is always the predicament of what kind of system to use. You could continue buying systems from OEMs such as Dell and Gateway that do not support GNU/Linux and simply replace the systems' included OS with a GNU/Linux disk image. You could also go with HP Compaq's d220/d330 series of computers that offer Mandrake Linux 9.1 preloaded. However, if you are looking for systems that offer something more than a basic tower that includes GNU/Linux, you need to look elsewhere - at Shuttle.
Over the past month at OfB Labs, I have spent a lot of time with Shuttle's new SB62G2 XPC. This model came out a few months ago and arrived to us fresh from Taiwan. Of course, Shuttle systems aren't quite the same as a Hewlett-Packard: there is some assembly required. A processor is needed and so are a number of other components.
One shouldn't take the SB62G2's small size to mean a small feature set — this is a serious machine.
To take a Shuttle XPC from the box to the desk, you need three things: a processor, a hard disk and some RAM. We also added an optical drive so that we could install the included copy of Mandrake Linux directly onto the new little system. If you would like, you could, of course, take care of the GNU/Linux installation using another system or an external CD drive.
As soon as anyone in your office sees an XPC, you can count on those people wanting one. Why? For starters, it features a very compact footprint. In a space no larger than an average-sized shoebox (about 12” × 7 1/2” × 7 1/2”), the XPC packs all of the latest features you'll most likely need (and want) in a system. If your user base is packed in small offices or cubicles, the XPC ought to be right up their alley - it will leave plenty of legroom under the desk if placed there or it can sit unobtrusively on the desk.
Despite the urge to assume otherwise, I repeat: the XPC packs all of the latest features you'll probably want and need. The SB62G2 XPC supports a full range of current Intel Celeron and Pentium 4 processors including the 3.2 GHz and the 3.0 GHz “Extreme Edition” models, both of which take advantage of the system's 800 MHz front side bus (for a more humble budget, the same XPC can go as low as the Celeron 1.8 GHz CPU). The system also includes RAID support, not one, but two, network cards, six USB 2.0 ports (two on the front), AGP 8x, PC3200 memory and Serial ATA. Let there be no doubt: this is a serious system.
For our tests, we selected a middle of the road configuration, including a Pentium 4 2.6 GHz Hyperthreading processor, an 80 gig Seagate SATA hard disk, one 512 meg module of Micron/Crucial PC3200 DDR SDRAM and a 48×24×48×16 Liteon DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive. With the XPC's street price of around $329 and the components adding up to about $370, this well rounded system was complete for just about $700. To put things in perspective, at press time, a slightly less well-equipped Dell Dimension 4600 sold for around $950, although the more compact 4600C came in at roughly $900. Neither system offered Shuttle's second network card or RAID support, nor did they feature the 48x combo optical drive, the 80 gig SATA hard disk or the single 512 meg DRAM module (as opposed to two 256 meg modules).
While building and supporting your own systems may not be for everyone, if your company is well equipped for support, the savings over purchasing from a PC manufacturer like Dell quickly becomes clear. Smaller businesses who want outside support may prefer to buy a prebuilt computer, in which case a system like the Dell mentioned above is a worthy choice and will likely run GNU/Linux well, yet it is clear that going with a Shuttle XPC is still relatively simple (as far as assembly) and saves several hundred dollars.
As I noted above, the Shuttle comes with a very easy to follow step-by-step guide. Each step is clarified with full color photos of what needs to be done. After removing the case's thumbscrews and removing the drive bay structure, it was a simple process to take out the system's special cooling system and install the processor. Note: you will need to purchase “thermal grease” to place between the cooling system's heat sink and the processor. After placing a little dab of the grease on the processor and lowering the lever to lock in the CPU, we simply placed the cooling system back where it belonged, plugged it back in and went about the even simpler process of adding our hard disk and optical drive.
For storage options, the Shuttle offers a number of options. Both IDE and SATA hard disks are supported and all of the cabling you will need is included for extra convenience. A floppy disk control is also included incase you would like to hook up a 3.5” diskette drive, although we opted to skip the drive and leave room for future hard disk expansion.
In all, it would be a very simple matter to have a Shuttle XPC built in less than 30 minutes. It is that simple. If you are comfortable enough with system internals to install a hard disk or RAM, the Shuttle XPC is a piece of cake. With the excellent documentation, even a system administrator with no hardware building experience could get the system together in less than 45 minutes.
It should be noted that the system comes with integrated Intel Extreme Graphics 2 and 6-channel sound, however if you require more powerful multimedia hardware, the 8x AGP slot and empty PCI slot beckon for non-integrated counterparts or some other expansion cards. In other words, in the case of the XPC (no pun intended), compact certainly does not equal lack of expansion options.
Once the system is up and running, you will encounter another great feature about the system sure to impress those fortunate enough to get one: it is extremely quiet. While Apple's PowerMac G5 has been hailed for its extremely quiet fan system, we would argue that the XPC is even quieter. The XPC's intelligent cooling system keeps the fans blowing cold air over small pipes that cool off the heat sink at a very slow speed. The system can throttle up to a faster fan speed if things get toasty, however the system remained very quiet during our entire time testing it.
It is hard not to see the XPC SB62G2 as a piece of art - it works so well in such a small amount of space. For the aesthetically concerned, its black metal and plastic case with a “brushed” effect on the front is sure to please. However, at its reasonable price, there is no reason even those not worried about such matters shouldn't consider the XPC.
In our second piece on the XPC, I will consider one of the most exciting parts of the system: the inclusion of the Shuttle-edition of Mandrake Linux 9.2 (apparently modified from the “Discovery Edition”), including hardware compatibility. We will also report on how well the system works with other GNU/Linux distributions and explain why we are calling this system “Best of the Year.”