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AVADirect Nano Cube review: AVADirect Nano Cube

AVADirect Nano Cube

Rich Brown Former Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
Expertise Smart home, Windows PCs, cooking (sometimes), woodworking tools (getting there...)
Rich Brown
8 min read

AVADirect's $2,266 Nano Cube tries to take on Shuttle's XPC H7 5800 at its own small form factor game. Both systems come with smaller-than-normal SFF cases, and each requires sacrifices, even more than with a standard SFF PC, in exchange for its tiny dimensions. Therein lies our problem with this subcategory in general. We can imagine a few scenarios where you might value small size in a gaming PC, but we're not sure we can envision many that justify such limited expandability and features, especially when the price premium is so high. Unless you truly need a gaming system to cram into the smallest possible space, you're much better off making room for a traditional, slightly larger small form factor gaming PC.


AVADirect Nano Cube

The Good

Small case with high-end gaming capability; three-year parts and labor warranty.

The Bad

Too many expandability sacrifices, even for small form factor PCs; unwise internal fan wiring; slower application performance than PCs that cost $1,000 less; missed digital media opportunities; daunting online configurator.

The Bottom Line

AVADirect's tries to distill as much gaming power as possible into its Nano Cube, but the extra small case requires too many sacrifices next to even standard small form factor PCs. Gaming purists with a need for an extra tiny PC might appreciate the Nanon Cube, but even they should be wary of everything you need to give up for this tiny desktop.

Among SFF PCs, the Nano Cube is one of the smallest we've seen in a standard toaster-style layout. At 7.25 inches high, 8.75 inches wide, and 11.25 inches deep, it's about an inch and a half shorter than the 12.8-inch-long Shuttle XPC H7 5800. You get most of the features we expect in a modern PC in the Nano Cube, including a DVD burner, wireless networking, and a decent selection of ports and inputs, including eSATA. The case doesn't allow room for a media card reader, however. AVADirect has also jammed in a double-wide GeForce GTX 295 graphics card, taking up all of the internal card expansion space.

Looking at the specs you can see that AVADirect and Shuttle took different strategies. Shuttle opted for a Core i7-capable motherboard and an up-to-date Core i7 940 chip. AVADirect went with the same Zotac mini-ITX motherboard we saw in the Maingear Pulse, which only supports Intel's Core 2 Quad line-up. AVADirect makes up for it in the graphics card. Shuttle sent in a fast single-chip GeForce GTX 285 (a card Shuttle no longer offers in that system, incidentally), but AVADirect went with a dual-chip GeForce GTX 295. We'd make the same choice if we were building a gaming configuration, as the extra graphics horsepower will allow for smoother high-resolution gaming. The more recent CPU in the Shuttle lends itself better to productivity.

A few other factors come into play for the AVADirect. First, it has a 120GB solid-state hard drive. That means better performance in programs that ping the drive heavily, as in iTunes during a batch audio file conversion and game loading times. Shuttle has a standard 500GB platter hard drive, which trades a bit of performance for larger storage. AVADirect's SSD might speed loading times in games, but with newer titles like Dragon Age: Origins requiring around 20GB just to install, and no spare drive bay in the Nano Cube, unless you're a highly disciplined storage space manager you'll need to switch to slower networked or external storage before long. AVADirect offers a variety of standard hard drives as alternatives to an SSD, which we think makes more sense for a system with only one hard-drive bay, despite the performance hit.

Finally, the AVADirect system also has the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium, while our Shuttle review unit only came with the 32-bit version of Vista Home Premium. The 32-bit OS will affect the Shuttle's Photoshop score in particular, but otherwise, as you'll see in our charts the Shuttle is clearly the application performance winner.

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Multimedia multitasking (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering multiple CPUs  
Rendering single CPU  
Velocity Micro Edge Z30
Shuttle XPC H7 5800
Maingear Pulse
AVADirect Nano Cube

Based on their similar size and expansion restrictions, the AVADirect and Shuttle make good performance competition for one another. We can also compare a handful of other systems with the AVADirect. The Velocity Micro Edge Z30 is one of the best midtower gaming PC's we've seen this year, and only costs around $1,300. The Asus Essentio CG5290-BP007 is an even more affordable desktop, coming in at $1,200. We didn't find it surprising that the AVADirect and the Maingear were so close in performance, either. Each system has the same Core 2 Quad Q9550S processor. For most nongaming tasks, we expect you'll find the Nano Cube fast enough. Just be sure to note that for roughly $1,000 less, you will find much better application performance in a standard midtower system.

Crysis (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,600 x 1,200 (high, 4x aa)  
1,280 x 1,024 (medium, 4x aa)  
AVADirect Nano Cube
Maingear Pulse

Far Cry 2 (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,920x1,200 (DirectX 10, 4x aa, very high)  
1,440 x 900 (DirectX 10, 4x aa, very high)  
AVADirect Nano Cube
Maingear Pulse

The Nano Cube achieves better performance overall on our gaming tests. It's the fastest system of the five in our comparison on three of four gaming benchmarks. It only falters on Crysis at 1,280x1,024, which suggests that its older quad-core CPU could be creating a processing bottleneck, or that the game itself isn't scaling well across both graphics chips. Regardless, Crysis works as a kind of worst-case-scenario gaming test, so we can't be too disappointed in the AVADirect hitting a relative speed bump at a lower resolution. We expect that the Nano Cube will handle aggressive resolution and image quality settings on most, if not all, PC games.

The Nano Cube's upgradeability is a different story: it offers none. Both RAM slots were occupied in our review unit, and the double-wide graphics card takes up both expansion card slots. Even getting inside the case to poke around is a chore. A fan attached to the case cover is of course also wired to the system's power supply. Taking off the cover is already difficult because of the compact case and tight fit, but having to undo the fan cable in the process complicates opening the case to the point where you could damage the system if you're not careful.

Also, we see the appeal of super small gaming PCs, but AVADirect could have done more with the Nano Cube to see the concept through. The appeal of small cases for LAN gamers is clear. They make sense for space-constrained setups like dorm rooms, bedrooms, and small apartments. They are also easy to install in the living room for TV-based PC gaming, as well as serving up PC-based digital media. We'd give AVADirect more credit in the living room if it had included more digital media-oriented features.

There's no Blu-ray drive (nor does AVADirect provide an option for an internal Blu-ray drive on its Web site), and the graphics card AVADirect chose has no HDMI output, instead requiring a DVI-to-HDMI adapter, which wasn't included in the box.

We're also struck by what you have to give up for the Nano Cube and its small chassis. You could stay in the same price ballpark and configure a Maingear X-Cube that has not only the same graphics card and solid-state drive, but that also comes with a faster Core i7 CPU. The X-Cube (8.3 inches high, 10.6 inches wide, 15.5 inches deep) isn't quite as small as the Nano Cube, but it's not that much larger, and the added space gives you much needed room for a second hard-drive bay.

Annual power consumption cost
AVADirect Nano Cube
Juice box
AVADirect Nano Cube  
Off (watts) 5.56
Sleep (watts) 6.95
Idle (watts) 126.56
Load (watts) 278.15
Raw (annual kWh) 606.09126
Energy Star compliant No
Annual operating cost (@$0.1135/kWh) $68.79

Given the fast, dual-chip GeForce GTX 295, we're not surprised to see the Nano Cube on higher end of the power consumption scale for this price range. We thought at first that the power-efficient Intel Core 2 Quad 9550S chip in this system suggested that AVADirect was making a power efficiency move, especially because that's the same CPU in the Maingear Pulse. But with only a 400-watt power supply and a tight, air-flow-restricted case interior, AVADirect likely had to make a sacrifice in the power load because of the high-end 3D card. Even though it's not particularly power efficient in the grand scheme of upper midrange PCs, the Nano Cube won't put too much of a tax on your power bill.

Finally, one of our consistent criticisms of AVADirect over the year or two that we've reviewed its systems has been that it offers too many configuration options for us to feel confident that it knows the ins-and-outs of every component it sells. The options are reduced for this system because of the motherboard and size restrictions, but it still has an unnecessarily wide selection of component options, and no configuration error correction built into its online configurator. Thus, we cannot recommend this vendor for nonexpert shoppers. Its standard warranty is above average, covering you for three years, but its Web site support is limited to fielding e-mail queries, and its phone support operates on an extremely limited schedule, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. PT on weekdays.

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System configurations:

AVADirect Nano Cube
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit; 2.83GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550s; 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 1792MB Nvidia GeForce GTX 295; 120GB OCZ Vertex solid state hard drive

Asus Essentio CG5290-BP007
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 64-bit; 2.8GHz Intel Core i7 920 (over clocked); 9GB 1,066 DDR3 SDRAM; 896MB GeForce GTX 260 (216 core); 1TB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive.

Maingear Pulse
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 64-bit; 2.83GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550s; 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 1GB Nvidia GeForce 9800 GT Eco graphics card; 320GB 7,200rpm Western Digital Scorpio hard drive.

Shuttle XPC H7 5800
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 32-bit; 2.93GHz Intel Core i7 940; 6GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 285; 500GB, 7,200rpm Seagate hard drive

Velocity Micro Edge Z30
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 3.22GHz Intel Core i7-860 (overclocked); 8GB 1,330MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 896MB Nvidia GeForce GTX 260 (216 core); 1TB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive


AVADirect Nano Cube

Score Breakdown

Design 5Features 6Performance 8Support 5