Given the dominance of Intel desktop processors since the release of the first range of Core 2 Duo chips, it’s become less commonplace to build a system based around an AMD CPU. Yet this overlooks the fact that for the majority of people, an AMD-powered machine is going to be more than ample for their needs. There’s an added bonus, too: AMD’s processors are cheaper than Intel’s as a rule, even if the performance per pound ratio doesn’t quite fall into line with that.
As such, we were intrigued to give the Shuttle SN78SH7 a try. This is cheaper than the majority of Shuttle barebones kits, and is a little outdated in some ways. It has an AM2+ socket, for instance, which does offer the advantage of supporting AM2 and some AM3 CPUs (it’s worth checking the list at AMD’s website for more on that), but is hardly cutting edge. Furthermore, the SN78SH7 supports DDR2 memory rather than the faster, and only slightly more expensive, DDR3.
What this means in practice is that you won’t be building a performance beast of a machine with the Shuttle SN78SH7, although you can still put together a computer capable of playing some quite testing games. After all, if you choose to overlook the on-board GeForce 8200 graphics chip and plug in a PCI-E card instead, you could end up with quite a tidy gaming system, albeit a comparably modest one.
The key advantage of going down the Shuttle route remains constant, meanwhile. While there are all sorts of alternatives in the small form factor market, Shuttle consistently delivers here, and has done so again. This experience makes for a small footprint machine, finished in a stylish black, and with hidden front-mounted USB ports too.
Furthermore, the design inside the box – while pretty much unchanged since earlier models – works. It makes for an easy PC build that it’s best to think of as being in layers. Thus, while the motherboard is mounted in place and lots of key cables are already plugged in, the job of fitting a CPU, memory, storage and optical drives is all yours.
To get to the CPU socket, you need to take out the drive mounting rack and then dismantle the cooling unit. This involves thumbscrews at the back, and spring-loaded screws – that do require a screwdriver – around the socket itself. Once removed (and it’s a bit of a cumbersome cooling mechanism), the processor fits into the socket in the usual way. It’s best, before the cooling system is put back in, to insert the memory at this stage too, courtesy of the two slots that ultimately support up to 4GB of RAM.
Putting the cooler back in place is easy enough, and then it’s a case of adding the hard drive and optical drive to the rack tray, and sliding that back in place. The end result is a packed case, but one with enough airflow in it. Furthermore, it’s a quiet set-up in operation (assuming you’ve not put a hefty graphics card in there, although the 300W PSU included does put a ceiling on how far you can go), and the large fan at the back keeps the decibels down very well.
In spite of being a little fiddly and not suited to those with very large hands, it’s an easy way to build a PC. It’s not necessarily a cost-effective one, since you’d save money by going bigger, and buying component parts individually. But you’re paying for the convenience of having a small machine, and it certainly does have its advantages.
Shuttle is good at this, too. It manages to mount in a HDMI port at the back as well as an assortment of USB 2.0, FireWire, eSATA connectors and more, and there’s an optional wireless antenna you can utilise too, which may well come in useful. It’s also simple enough to configure, thanks to the disc of drivers that Shuttle provides in the box.
The downsides? It’s not the most feature-rich Shuttle system design, and that’s why it’s benefiting from a lower than usual price. But you do inevitably pay a performance cost for that. It’s got little in the way of upgrade headroom too.
But for a small, capable system that can sit and run office applications and Internet work, without getting in the way, there’s a lot to be said for the Shuttle SN78SH7, warts and all.