Shuttle's X27: Can Atom Handle Vista?

We’re in tough times, and although powerful processors and graphics cards are less expensive than ever, quad-card CrossFireX and 3-way SLI don’t sound as attractive when you’ve taken a five-digit hit on Lehman Brothers, Freddie, or Fannie. Four dollar gas sparked an incredible reorganization of some of America’s largest automakers and got us all re-evaluating our driving habits. And now we’re also thinking that $1,000 Extreme Edition CPUs are a tad extravagant when a Q9650 at 3 GHz costs half as much, yet delivers similar horsepower.

Diminutive, classy, and quiet

If you want to take lightweight computing to its very limit, ignore the mainstream desktop architectures altogether—Phenom X4s and Core 2 Quads choke down at least 65W each, and most consume closer to 95W. Intel’s Atom, on the other hand, is an extremely efficient design, meant to drive nettop mobile Internet devices. Architected with battery life in mind, the Atom is naturally going to be super power-friendly in a desktop environment.

Atom is also a dream come true for Shuttle, a company that has made it its business to craft small form factor platforms using the most popular desktop chipsets. Shuttle has a handful of different product families employing a variety of dimensions. But its new X27 is the smallest Shuttle we’ve ever seen, tackling volume seen only from Apple’s Mac Mini and a number of long-forgotten AOpen concepts that never really took off in North America. Today you also have the Eee Boxes and Dell Studio Hybrids to think about.

X27's insides, exposed

In concept, the marriage of Shuttle’s engineering and Intel’s Atom design is a solid win for business professionals and home users who want to keep technology hidden, out of the way. From an I/O angle, you don’t miss out on much either. The platform’s supporting chipset includes integrated graphics, SATA storage, USB 2.0 connectivity, and regular ol’ Ethernet networking. Plus, low power means ultra-quiet as well.

But there is a rub. We’ve tested Intel’s Atom processor before. And while the chip itself lives up to the power-friendly expectations set by Intel, its complementary chipset, pulled from the company’s lineup of desktop core logic, still sucks down serious juice. It’s like mounting an electric motor on a lead chassis. The efficient nature of the former gets weighed down by the glaring poor choice of the latter.

Nevertheless, we’re curious to see if Shuttle’s translation of the Atom platform yields a system that not only saves power, but also gives you a usable desktop PC and offers real value at a time when century-old financial institutions are tanking two at a time.

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