Shuttle has been put in a difficult position recently, with highly functional small-form-factor systems like the Mac Mini and the WinBook Jiv Mini on the market. Both of those systems are smaller than the smallest Shuttle, yet are able to keep up in terms of performance and features, with the exception of user-upgradable parts. For this reason, Shuttle is becoming known more for its gaming machines, such as the XPC P2 2700, than general-interest or Media Center boxes. If you can live without the video card upgrade options offered by Shuttle, the Jiv Mini offers comparable features in a much smaller package.
The XPC G5 3600mc measures just 7.3 inches high by 7.8 inches wide by 12 inches deep and features a mirrored front panel and an LED. The display is easy to see and provides a wealth of useful context-sensitive information. For example, when using the system's TV tuner, the LED will display channel and volume information. Using the included software tools, you can set it to display your system's fan speed, CPU temp, or any personalized message.
For a Media Center, the A/V connections are decent but not as full-featured as we would like. Audio is nicely taken care of, with standard onboard 7.1 audio jacks, plus optical S/PDIF inputs and outputs (S/PDIF outputs are fairly common these days--inputs, less so). Video is another story; you're limited to a single VGA output--less than ideal for home-theater setups. Of course, you can use an adapter to convert the VGA port to DVI, but we would have liked a native DVI port or at least S-Video as an option. You can get both of those by upgrading the video card via Shuttle's online configurator.
Inside the case, you'll find a single 250GB hard drive along with two RAM slots filled with 512MB RAM modules. The default optical drive is a CD-RW drive, but a DVD burner is available as a $22 upgrade and is a necessity on any media PC. A multiformat card reader sits prominently in the middle of the front panel, while a small panel along the bottom opens to reveal two USB 2.0 and two FireWire ports, plus headphone and mic jacks. A small system like a Shuttle inevitably involves a trade-off of space for flexibility, but the XPC G5 3600mc shouldn't cause too many headaches, unless you run out of hard drive space.
With its dual-core Pentium D 930 CPU, we weren't too impressed with the system's performance. Before last week, a Pentium D 900 series chip was the latest and greatest from Intel, but the desktop CPU scene has drastically changed with the arrival of Intel's next-generation Core 2 Duo processors. In CNET Labs' multitasking test, the XPC G5 3600mc was also slower than other midrange AMD-based systems we've looked at recently, including the iBuyPower Value Ultra. The iBuyPower system used its 2.2GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+ to a 6 percent advantage. The Shuttle was much faster than the eMachines T6536, however, thanks to the eMachine's single-core AMD Athlon 64 3800+ CPU. If you're willing to move up to a full-size desktop, you can get a lot more bang for your buck from the Velocity Micro Vector GX Campus Edition, which was also 6 percent faster than the Shuttle in the multitasking test, and its $999 price includes a 17-inch LCD monitor and one of Intel's new CPUs, the 1.86MHz Core 2 Duo E6300.
The integrated Intel 945G graphics won't push a lot of frames in the latest games. Fortunately, Shuttle offers a few upgrade options in that department. A Radeon X1300 is available for an additional $78, while a GeForce 7600 GS will run you an extra $131, which is an excellent choice for an upgrade if you're interested in gaming or need a DVI video output. On the TV tuner side, the default is a generic card with ATI's excellent Theater 550 Pro chip. A dual-tuner card is an $84 option.
A Philips Media Center remote and receiver are included, as is Logitech's UltraX Desktop Optical keyboard and mouse set. The keyboard is low profile, which fits in with the small-form-factor vibe of the system. Bundled software is limited to PowerDVD for movie playback, but you can add Microsoft Works Suite 2005 for $34 or upgrade to Microsoft Office Basic Edition 2003 for $166.
Shuttle's support is fair at best, with little help provided out of the box. There's no printed manual and not much else on the Web site besides a very general FAQ and a few tired platitudes along the lines of, "Windows sometimes gets into a confused or panic state, and by simply rebooting you can clear the memory and set things straight."