Nettop PCs are traditionally designed for lightweight computing tasks like surfing the Web or watching digital movies. The Shuttle x27D, however, offers the potential of a wider range of uses thanks to its new dual-core Atom 330 CPU. It's available to buy as a barebones unit consisting of a chassis, CPU and motherboard for £199, or a complete unit for £322 from Ambros Direct UK.
The x27D is arguably Shuttle's cutest chassis yet. It has a similar footprint to the Mac Mini, although its 185 by 250 by 70 mm chassis is a little deeper and taller than its Apple rival. Despite its slightly larger chassis, the x27D uses an external power supply brick, like you get with a laptop, but that's a good thing seeing as fanless external PSUs tend to be quieter than their internal counterparts.
The front of the unit has two glossy, reflective panels dissected by a thin horizontal silver strip with the Shuttle logo and status LEDs emblazoned across it. Push the topmost panel and it flips down to reveal a slimline, laptop-sized DVD rewriter drive. Push the lowermost panel and that unveils two conveniently positioned USB ports plus headphone and mic ports.
The rear of the x27D is where all the action happens. There are three audio ports you can use to connect a set of surround-sound speakers -- although digital surround isn't an option due to the lack of a SPDIF port. You also get four USBs, Ethernet, D-Sub and DVI video output. Bizarrely, there are also three legacy ports you normally find on old 486 PCs: PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports, and a DE-9 serial port for connecting really old things, such as a 2,400bps modem.
The x27D is the first machine we've seen to sport the new dual-core Atom 330 CPU, previously known by the codename Diamondville. Unlike the Atom N270 you normally find in netbooks and nettops such as the Eee Top, the 330 is designed specifically for desktop use. Both have a clock speed of 1.6GHz, but the 330 has twice as much L2 cache and a thermal design power of 8W, so it emits considerably more heat than the 2.5W N270.
The Atom 330 CPU sits atop a mini ITX motherboard measuring a svelte 170 by 170mm. This is based on the Intel 945GC+ICH7 Express Chipset, as found in a wide variety of entry-level PCs. The chipset incorporates the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 integrated graphics card, which provides enough grunt to run everyday applications and even the odd game -- provided there aren't too many polygons involved. It's worth noting, however, that the chip doesn't include any dedicated memory of its own, so it will need to leech up to 244MB of RAM from the main system memory.
The entry-level version of the x27D comes with 512MB of RAM pre-installed in the single 240-pin DIMM slot and an 80GB hard drive. That's obviously pants, but you can customise the system to boost performance and storage. An extra £11 will buy you 1GB of RAM, while 2GB will set you back an extra £27. Likewise, you can add a 160GB hard drive for an extra £8, a 250GB drive for £20, or a 320GB drive for £27. Needless to say, we recommend you upgrade the x27D with the best components you can afford.
All complete versions of the x27D ship with an 8x DVD rewriter drive. This gives the machine the functionality of a DVD player -- provided you have appropriate software -- and allows users to make backup discs as large as 4.7GB in size. It's worth noting that due to the size of the chassis, it's not possible to add a Blu-ray drive -- not that the integrated graphics card could have have handled 1080p video anyway.
Once you've added a hard drive, you might want to consider adding an operating system. Both Vista Home Premium edition and Windows XP Home will cost £80, but Linux fans might want to consider saving that cash and installing a free copy of Ubuntu or an alternative Linux distribution.
The x27D's networking capabilities are fairly
limited. It has high-speed Gigabit Ethernet access but lacks an
integrated wireless adaptor, so you'll need to feed it a wired Ethernet
or powerline connection if you intend to share files with other PCs or
surf the Internet.
The x27D performs well for a machine of its size. Its dual-core Atom 330 CPU clocked up a quite respectable 2,035 -- the highest score we've seen for any nettop. The Atom N270 CPU in the Eee Top, for reference, scored just 1,525. Unfortunately, despite the extra CPU horsepower, the x27D wasn't capable of running 1080p video with reliable smoothness, although it coped fine with 720p material.
One disappointing aspect of the x27D was the amount of noise it made. Atom CPUs are generally considered cool, quiet and efficient, but for some reason -- perhaps a lack of sound-deadening material in the chassis -- it was pretty loud. It's hardly deafening, but we wouldn't want this whirring away in the corner of a bedroom while we slept.
The x27D is, at the time of writing, the fastest nettop-style machine we've ever tested. Its dual-core Atom 330 CPU makes it a far more robust solution than PCs such as the Eee Box. It's a little too noisy for our liking, but it's affordable, attractive and definitely worthy of consideration.
Edited by Cristina Psomadakis