When they first appeared almost two years ago, cube PCs were sometimes seen as little more than a gimmick. Yes, they had a very small form factor, but performance was best described as adequate. But things have moved on in leaps and bounds and now cube PCs represent a powerful, compact, real alternative to the clumsy desktop.
One of the latest cubes to hit the market is the stylish and well built XC cube from AOpen. With its pearl white finish it has more than a hint of Apple about it, and the design makes it stand out from all the aluminum-finish cubes on the market.
Being a barebones system you get a motherboard and CPU cooler, which is, it must be said, a little noisy. You just add the CPU and all the other bits yourself. Despite the compact form factor – 300 x 200 x 185mm – the XC cube is easy enough to build. It comes in two versions; for the Intel P4 (EZ65) which is a little more expensive (at £235 + VAT) than the reviewed AMD system, the EZ18.
The EZ18 is built around a UK79G-1394 motherboard, one of AOpen’s own designs, which can support 200/266 and 333MHz FSB Duron, Athlon and Athlon XP processors up to a 3000XP. Care should be taken when choosing one of the higher end CPUs, though, as the installed power supply is only 220W, which could lead to power supply problems to these faster chips. The board uses an Nvidia nForce2-GT chipset supporting a maximum of 2GB of PC2100, PC2700 or PC3200 (DDR266, 333 and 400) memory via the two provided DIMM slots.
Somehow AOpen has managed to cram everything onto the small motherboard, leaving enough room around the components so as not to give a cluttered appearance. This also extends to the IDE ports, thoughtfully placed right under the drive cage, making for tidier cable runs. This is something that is difficult with the normal parallel ATA cables, especially in such a cramped space. In this respect the P4 version is better, as it has connectors for serial drives. To its credit, AOpen does supply specially shortened cables.
AOpen has designed the drive cage to make fitting the hard drive easier than in many of these cube PCs. By undoing a thumbscrew the drive cage slides completely out of the case. But not only that, it comes out at an angle, avoiding the side of the case.
A second 3.5-inch drive bay sits behind a drop-down panel in the front bezel, just waiting for a floppy drive or – perhaps more usefully these days – a multi-function flash card reader. The single 5.25-inch drive bay also has a hinged panel in front of it, which makes it necessary to use a tray-loading optical drive.
As with all cube PCs, the rear of the case tells the story. It’s amazing how much is integrated on these small boards. The XC cube comes with two PS/2 ports, two VGA ports, serial, S-video, Firewire, optical audio in, LAN, two USB 2.0 and three audio ports. In addition to these, AOpen has included another expansion plate that adds a parallel and a co-axial RCA port.
But if this isn’t enough for you, at the base of the front bezel, behind a drop-down panel, sit another two USB 2.0 ports, microphone and headphone audio ports, 4-pin and 6-pin Firewire ports and another optical port.
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