AMS Electronics gBOX (P4)|
Introduction and Specifications
One of the first questions everyone who saw the gBOX asked me was "Why would I want one of these? Why not just buy a laptop or a normal PC?" This review will attempt to provide a definitive answer to that question. Granted, the AMS Electronics gBOX is very cool looking and quite small, but a product like this cannot survive on size and looks alone. If all it has to offer is its size and appearance, the power-hungry performance demanding market will eventually dismiss this item as nothing more than an expensive toy.
The chassis measures 9.5(H) x 8.3(W) x 12(D) and has been constructed using a combination of aluminum and plexi-glass. It is sold as a bare-bones system that includes: the case, 150watt power supply, and a CFI-S86 P4 Socket478 Flex ATX MB. The CFI-S86 motherboard has been built around the VIA P4M266 chipset, and includes a very large number of integrated features; including everything from integrated sound and video, USB 2.0, to an ATA 133 controller.
- Chassis Dimensions: 9.5(H) x 8.3(W) x 12(D)
- Drive Bays: 5.25 (open), two 3.5 (open & hidden)
- Power Supply: Aluminum 150W power supply
- Motherboard: Chyang Fun CFI-S86 (VIA P4M266 Socket 478)
- Form Factor: Flex ATX @ 10.3(L) x 7.08(W), 6 Layers
- PCI Slot: PCI x 1 (PCI 2.2 specification)
- AGP Slot: 4XAGP x 1
- CPU: Socket478 Intel Pentium 4
- FSB: 400MHz Quad-pumped
- Memory: 184-pin DIMM x2, support DDR200/266 up to 2GB
- BIOS: Award PnP BIOS
- Audio: AC-Link with AC97 2.2 compliant (S/PDIF output supported)
- Chipset: VIA P4M266
- Video: S3 ProSavage8 (VT1621 TV Encoder RCA and S-Video TV Out)
- USB: NEC uPD720100AGM USB 2.0 controller (4 ports)
- LAN: Realtek RTL8100B Ethernet controller
- I/O Interface: Two enhanced IDE channels supporting up to 4
IDE devices with ATA-133/MB/sec
- User I/O: 2 Serial ports, PS/2 Mouse, Keyboard
- Front Mounted Ports: Game Port, 2 USB Ports, Volume Control, IR,
PS/2, Audio In / Out
From the ground up
The sponsor of this review, MPCParts.com was kind enough to send the gBOX to us, jam packed with all the latest and greatest hardware. We'll cover the full details on the test hardware when we get to the testing phase of this review, but for now it's time to tear this down and put it back together.
Removing the side panels is as easy as removing two thumbscrews - one for each side. The side panels then slide back and away from the box, at which point they can be removed. Should you decide you don't want to use the handle anymore, it can be removed using a torx bit.
Included on the board, are one open PCI slot and one open AGP slot for expansion. Installing and removing add-on cards can be a little tricky due to the space limitations, but we'll cover that in greater deatail when we put it back together. The cards are held in place using traditional screws, but what is unique about the card setup is the little sliding door that moves up and down, opening up the area where the cards need to be inserted / removed. Again, we'll talk more about this little door when we reassemble the case.
The front bezel comes off by removing four very large flat-head screws. Once these screws have been removed, the plexi-glass panel on the front comes completely off. The the aluminum panel is exposed at this point, giving you access to all of the end point connections on the front panel. The leads for the front indicator light aren't very long, so the aluminum panel won't be moving far unless you disconnect the LEDs.
The next thing we'll remove is the drive bay. There are two thumbscrews, one on each side of the case that hold the bay in place. Once these screws have been removed, the bay slides towards the rear of case, and drops down. At this point it can be slid out the side, and removed from the case. This makes installing the drives possible - if it wasn't removable, installing the drives would be nearly impossible.
The next item on our removal list are the leads that tie the motherboard to the front panel I/O ports and LEDs. They connect to the motherboard using a connector much like that used in IDE controllers. The wires themselves are all bound together, which helps keep things inside the case neat and organized. The plug is a little difficult to remove from the socket, so when you're unplugging it, proceed with caution. Getting the plug back in isn't a problem though.
The following images are of the motherboard itself after the proceeding items have been removed from the system. Things were a bit "cramped" inside, which meant that most of these pictures were taken by inserting my camera completely inside the case to get the shot.
Well that was fun. Time to put it all back together now. As I mentioned earlier, MPCParts.com sent this box jam-packed with hardware. The board has one open PCI slot that they kindly filled with a Sound Blaster Audigy card, and the open AGP slot was occupied by an eVGA GeForce 4 Ti4600 card. Getting all these parts back into the case is not easy task. Note: You may be asking yourself why an add-on sound and video card have been installed if the motherboard has both of these already integrated into it - once we get to the testing phase of this review, you'll see why.
Remember the tiny sliding door that moves out of the way so you can get the cards in and out? I had to completely remove the door to get the cards out. Getting the cards back in wasn't a problem though. Maybe it's just some tricky way I slid the cards in, but I couldn't duplicate the same motion when I wanted to remove them - either way it is worth a mention.
The leads that connect the motherboard to the front panel should also be disconnected before removing or installing a card. You might be able to get the card around them without a problem, but why go through all the hassle when all you have to do is unplug the connector from the board.
The eVGA GeForce 4 Ti4600 card also has some problems with the memory banks. MPCParts.com fitted our sample with single 512MB stick of ram, and after seeing how much space the video card took up, we now know why. If you're using a large (physical size) add-on video card like we are, there is a chance it will block access to the second memory slot. By blocking, I don't mean you won't be able to get to it after the video card is installed - I mean you won't even be able to use the slot.
Based on what you've seen so far, some of you may already be forming an opinion about this system, which is good. But try not to make your decision on the looks and design alone. There's much more about this system we need to discuss.
We opened this review with the question "Why would I want one of these, as opposed to a Laptop or a Normal PC?". Well that all depends on what you're planning on doing with it. Some people may buy this system and install it as part of their home stereo system with the intent of playing MP3's from it. Others may want to use it as a small home / office computer. You could also use it as a portable fraggin' LAN party system. Each of these uses will require strengths in a different area, which is why we decided to run three different benchmarks on this system using both the on-board video / sound and the add-on video / sound cards. Price will become a factor when building this system, if you have to install additional components to make it satisfy your needs.
The following benchmarking applications were used: Bapco SYSMark 2002, 3DMark2001 SE, and the Memphis Suburbs demo from Serious Sam. When we ran SYSMark 2002, both the Internet Content Creation and the Office Productivity portions were run. 3DMark2001 SE was run using the default settings - 1024x768 using a 32-bit color depth. The Serious Sam demo was run at two different resolutions and color depths - 640x480 16-bit color and 1280x1024 with 32-bit color.
- Motherboard: Chyang Fun CFI-S86
- Chipset: VIA P4M266 (Socket 478)
- Memory: Apacer 512MB PC2100 CL2
- S3 ProSavage8 (on-board)
- eVGA GeForce4 Ti4600
- Video Drivers:
- 1.0 VIA / S3 (released 4/29/2002)
- 29.42 Detonator (released 6/11/2002)
- AC-Link with AC97 (on-board)
- Creative Labs Audigy
- Hard Drive: 80GB Seagate ST380021A
- CPU: 2Ghz P4 Northwood Core
- OS: Windows XP
- DirectX: 8.1a
Based on the scores below, whether you're using the onboard video or a powerful add-on graphics board, if you've got enough processing power (and memory) in your gBOX it won't have a problem at all running the applications used by SYSMark 2002. The scores using both video cards are very respectable.
The baseline system used to generate these numbers consisted of the following: Intel Motherboard D815EEA2U, Pentium 3 processor 1.0 GHz with 133 MHz bus speed, 256 MB - Non-ECC - PC133 - CL2 SDRAM, Leadtek WinFast GeForce3 TD, 1024x768 resolution with 32 bpp color - 75 Hz monitor refresh rate, 64MB DDR DRAM onboard, Nvidia Detonator 4 reference driver (version 21.81 for Windows XP), FAT32, 30GB IBM DTLA-307030 ATA-100 hard disk, Integrated IDE ATA-100 disk controller, Intel Pro/100+ Management PCI LAN card, running Microsoft Windows XP Professional (Build 2600). Keep in mind, running SYSMark on this baseline system would yield a score of 100.
For additional information about how SYSMark 2002 obtains the scores shown below, along with a full listing of all the applications it uses, check out the SYSMark white papers at the MadOnion website. You can also check out some of the SYSMark scores other systems have achieved by visiting HardOCP, AnandTech or TomsHardware. These sites usually include SYSMark scores in all of their motherboard reviews, which can be used as additional comparison / reference material.
A quick glance at the Serious Sam scores below clearly shows the on-board video has not been designed for 3D gaming. Even at 640x480 using 16-bit color, the on-board video scored a measly 13 frames per second. On the other hand, the Ti4600 racked up an impressive 105 frames per second. It's pretty clear at this point, that no matter what resolution you're running, 3D gaming using the on-board video is not recommended.
Once again, we see the integrated video getting the crap beat out of it. We're also seeing the power of the Ti4600 come to life with a very respectable 3DMark score.
While the numbers from the Serious Sam and the 3DMark 2001 SE benchmarking runs seem to be heavily in favor of the Ti4600, it was our full intention to compare "apples to oranges". We wanted to show you how this system would perform in a certain area using the "stock" setup, and compare that to a configuration that has been designed to excel in the same area.
Testing the quality of sound coming from a device usually ends up being more of an opinion than anything else, and I'm not going to try to fool you into thinking otherwise. Our goal when testing the audio qualities of the gBOX, was to determine if the on-board sound system is capable of reproducing sounds and music with an acceptable level of clarity - when compared to an add-on sound card that has been designed to produce high quality output. To directly compare the on-board AC97 and the Creative Lab Audigy card, we listened to several different types of music, spoken words, and played a few Serious Sam demos. Forming an opinion of which one sounded the best fortunately wasn't too difficult of a task. While the on-board AC97 seemed to produce good quality sound when we started the tests, after we installed the Audigy card we began to hear things the way they were meant to be heard. Keep this in mind if you're planning on serving MP3s or are a serious gamer.
As a whole, I really like what the gBOX has to offer. Granted, it does have a few minor issues that you'll have to deal with, but none of them are insurmountable. These minor issues will vary depending on what you're planning on using the gBOX for, but stick with me through the rest of this article and you'll have a good handle on what to expect.
Overall Design / Appearance
To some degree, I feel like we spent most of this conclusion talking about the things we didn't like. But I hope you don't get the impression we don't like the gBOX - we do. It's just a lot of the features we really like, seem to speak for themselves.
While the gBOX is very small, it may not end up being as lightweight as you would think. Once you add a floppy, CD-Rom / DVD, hard drive, CPU / cooler, and possibly an add-in video / sound card, the weight can really start to add up. The handle is strong enough to bear the weight, and is also removable should you decide to slim down the size even more.
The Plexi-glass coating on the exterior of the gBOX gives it a very nice sophisticated look, and will also help protect the chassis from dents and scratches. AMS Electronics does offer colored replacement plexi-glass front bezels, but they only sell them in large quantities. As a suggestion to them, please reconsider this policy.
The super-bright LEDS on the front panel indicating Power and Drive activity are a nice added bonus. The power is bright blue, and the drive activity is bright orange.
Internal Design / Appearance
We talked earlier in this article about the placement of the memory banks, and how a large (physical size) video card will block access to the second memory bank. We should also mention again the difficulty you'll have installing and removing AGP video cards. The area directly above the card slots has been designed to "move out the way" so you can get cards in and out. This feature works fine when installing cards, but to remove them, we had to completely remove the sliding plate.
The leads that tie everything on the front panel to the motherboard are nicely bundled together and connect to the motherboard using a very cool plug, but the placement of the socket is poor. If you're planning on adding an AGP card to this system, you'll have to disconnect the cable to have a clear shot at installation - I guess that's why they made it "disconnect-able" to begin with.
The sliced IDE & Floppy cables not only help improve ventilation, but also help give you a little more room to move around inside when installing / removing components.
The system does seem to run a bit on the warm side, but it doesn't affect stability at all. Even on really hot days, when the ambient temperature in my lab approached 90 degrees, the system remained fully stable running SETI@Home at 100% utilization. I do have a concern about the plexi-glass that coats the exterior of the case because I feel that it does inhibit some of the natural cooling properties of the aluminum chassis.
The fans, two 40mm exhaust and a single 60mm on the power supply draw air in through the lower front of the case and expel it through the rear. It's not a very loud system, but I would have preferred it to be a little bit quieter.
The on-board S3 ProSavage8 video has plenty of power to run office-based applications such as Word, Excel, E-mail and a Web Browser, but I would never attempt 3D Gaming of any kind while using it. The on-board video also features a VT1621 TV Encoder RCA and S-Video TV outputs should you get an itch to hook it up to "the big screen". If you are planning on using the gBOX for Lan Party gaming, you'll need to drop down some extra cash to get an add-on card and take advantage of the 4X AGP slot.
One other thing to mention about the on-board video is that it will reserve a portion of your RAM for itself. During all of the benchmarking tests we ran, we set the amount of reserved memory available to the S3 ProSavage8 to the maxium setting - 32 megs. This setting is configurable in the bios.
The sound falls into the same category as the on-board video. If you're only going to use this system to run office based applications like Word, Excel, E-mail and a Web Browser, the on-board sound system should be more than adequate for you. If you're planning on doing some serious gaming with this system, or are going to use it as an MP3 jukebox server I would consider buying an add-on sound card. An Audigy card would be a nice choice, since it will add FireWire capabilities to an already extensive list of features. The system does have an open PCI slot that just so happens to make a great home for a new sound card.
USB 2.0 with ports in both the front and rear is a definite plus. The front mounted headphone, microphone, speaker, game port, and IR port will also make your friends jealous even if you don't use them. The volume control on the front is a little hard to reach because of the thick plexi-glass that surrounds it, but chances are you won't be using it much anyway. Having an ATA133 controller at your disposal is also a very nice feature, but as we saw in a previous article here at LWD, having only an ATA100 controller would have been just fine.
Here is where things start to get tough for you if you're thinking about getting one of these. The current going rate for one is $369.00 dollars, and they're hard to come by. The sponsor of this review recently obtained a shipment of 50, and I'm not sure how many they have left so I'd jump on it quick if you're wanting one.
I've had the gBOX for about a month now, and have already started thinking about some modifications that could be made to it. For starters, I'd like to tone down the sound level a bit, and increase the ventilation at the same time - this can be tricky with such a small case, but it's something I'd like to do. If you have any suggests on the cooling / vetilation, I'd like to hear about your ideas in the forums.
The next thing I'd like to do is paint the front aluminum plate that is behind the plexi-glass bezel. It shouldn't be too hard to paint, as it can be completely removed from the case without too much trouble. My final modding idea would be to temporarily remove the plexi-glass from the side panels, and cut some windows in the aluminum - then reinstall the plexi-glass and you'll have yourself an awesome looking window!
As a final note, I would like to thank the sponsor of this review MPCParts for supplying us with the AMS Electronics gBOX, along with all of the components we've used in this review.
Copyright © by LWD All Rights Reserved.
Published on: 2004-02-01 (34869 reads)[ Go Back ]