Summary: Based on the 845GE chipset, the FIC ICE Cube VG61 was built from the ground up to compete with Shuttle's latest line of barebones PCs. Not only does this case boast a more powerful 220W power supply, its aluminum chassis also sports case windows on both sides! Read all about the VG61's features and see how it stacks up against a conventional desktop PC in this review!
Life in the motherboard industry has always been competitive. With dozens of manufacturers offering products from only a handful of chipset providers, motherboard companies have had a difficult time differentiating their products from the competition -- others quickly replicate what is a unique feature one month; the rapid adoption of external Serial ATA controllers is a recent example of this.
While this is great for consumers, the end result is that motherboards have become one of the most cutthroat markets in the PC sector. Price sensitivity has never been greater, the days of paying nearly $200 for a consumer level board are largely over.
As a result, motherboard manufacturers have been entering new markets for the past several years. Many, including FIC, have moved into video cards and optical storage, while others have moved into networking and other communication devices (or all of the above). In late 2001 Shuttle entered the relatively unknown barebones PC market with its SV24, which was based on the VIA PL133 chipset. While it had its drawbacks (the most notable being the outdated chipset and integrated graphics), the SV24 showed the potential for this burgeoning sector of the PC market. Over time Shuttle refined its products into the highly regarded XPCs of today. What was once a tiny segment has blossomed into one of the fastest growing segments, a significant portion of Shuttle’s revenues now comes from its barebones PC line.
All this has not been lost on Shuttle’s competitors. Today practically every motherboard manufacturer either has their own barebones PC product in production or they’re in the final stages of research and development. FIC is one of the first to get their barebones product out on the market, it is known as the ICE-Cube VG61.
Some of you may be surprised to see FIC producing its own line of barebones PCs, but it actually has a rich history of producing complete micro-ATX systems, notebooks, Pocket PCs, and Tablet PCs. A lot of these products are produced by FIC and then sold by their OEM customers for use in government offices and in hospitals, we’ve shown you a few of these products in Comdex reports dating all the way back to November 2000. This time however, FIC plans to sell its barebones products directly to consumers, just like its motherboards and VGA cards.
Before we get into the details, we did want to discuss the roots of FIC’s ICE Cube VG61. Like the AU11 Chameleon, FIC has a production partner for the ICE Cube VG61. In this case, FIC has partnered with a Taiwanese company known as Chyang Fun. Chyang Fun has been manufacturing custom cases for servers and PCs since 1987, so they’re by no means new to their field.
Just as they did with the AU11 Chameleon we loved so much, FIC has partnered with a manufacturer that is an elite, yet smaller player in their field. FIC hopes to leverage their existing manufacturing and distribution channels to bring a product to market that will compete with Shuttle’s best XPCs in as short an amount of time as possible. But have they accomplished this? Read on to find out!
SIDEBAR: FIC ICE Cube VG61 Product Webpage
At the heart of the ICE-Cube VG61 is Intel’s 845GE chipset. Released late last year, the 845GE is essentially a variant of Intel’s highly regarded 845PE chipset, only the 845GE adds Intel’s “Extreme Graphics” integrated on the North Bridge of the 845GE chipset. This means you get complete support for Intel’s latest 533MHz front-side bus processors, including Intel’s top-of-the-line Pentium 4 3.06GHz with Hyper-Threading technology. In addition, 845GE supports DDR333 SDRAM, AGP 4X external graphics, six-channel audio, up to six USB 2.0 ports, integrated 10/100 Ethernet, and up to four ATA/100 storage devices.
By using Intel’s 845GE chipset, FIC has given the ICE-Cube VG61 the potential to perform just as well as any Pentium 4 PC based on a single-channel memory platform. And as you’ll see in our test results, FIC’s implementation was executed flawlessly from a performance perspective.
Another important factor in choosing the right small form factor (SFF), barebones PC is case design. In this area, FIC excels. Not only does the ICE Cube VG61 sport a lightweight aluminum chassis (just like Shuttle), the case also has an integrated handle at the top of the case. This makes the ICE Cube an excellent solution for the LAN party gamer; you can easily transport the ICE Cube from table to table by simply grabbing the handle. And with the lightweight nature of the aluminum chassis, getting around the largest of event venues is a snap.
FIC goes an additional step further than Shuttle with the VG61 by implementing plastic windows on the left and right sides of the system case. This gives the ICE Cube VG61 an additional level of flair that isn’t available anywhere else. The side panels can easily be removed thanks to the thumbscrews that FIC has implemented, no tools are required to disassemble the chassis (although you will need a screwdriver to install an external graphics card as thumbscrews are not used there). Rounding out the case’s decorative design is a blue power LED. Make no mistake about it, FIC’s designers didn’t miss a thing with the ICE Cube’s case design.
For convenient front panel access, two USB ports are provided, as is a FireWire port. FIC also includes an optical SPDIF output in addition to line and mic inputs as well as your audio outputs. The rear panel has two additional USB ports, as well as all the audio, networking, and FireWire goodies you’ll need, the only port missing is the parallel port but by now you probably own a USB printer anyway.
SIDEBAR: FIC also has a SiS-based Socket A variant of the VG61, named the AI61.
As you can see in the pictures, the ICE Cube VG61 supports one 5.25” drive and with the handy drive cage, two 3.5” drives. The upper drive bay is exposed, so you can install an external storage device such as a 3.5” floppy disk drive or one of those handy media readers. If you’re really big on flexibility you could install a combo DVD/CD-RW in the 5.25” drive bay and a 7-in-1 floppy, Compact Flash, SmartMedia, Memory Stick, Microdrive, etc in the exposed 3.5” bay. Then have your 200GB hard drive for storage duties mounted in the internal 3.5” bay.
The ICE Cube’s motherboard sports an aqua blue PCB. For expansion, one AGP slot is provided, as is a PCI slot. Fortunately, the 845GE chipset offers everything you need built-in, so the omission of additional slots would only be a setback to the real hardcore users. The AGP slot gives you an additional graphics option if you decide that the integrated 845GE graphics are unsuitable for your tastes, not to mention room to grow as your computing needs increase. Two 184-pin DIMM sockets are provided for support of up to 2GB of memory.
The Realtek ALC650 provides onboard audio. This is a very popular 6-channel CODEC that is also used on many nForce2 motherboards. For networking, Realtek’s RTL8100B 10/100Base-T Ethernet controller is used. Finally, since the 845GE chipset doesn’t natively offer IEEE-1394 support, an NEC uPD72873GC 1394a Host controller drives the FireWire ports. This controller supports data transfer rates of 100/200/400MB/second.
Power and cooling
We were initially pretty concerned about the ICE Cube’s power subsystem, as the FIC USA website lists it as a 150W model. Apparently, the spec must have changed as the model we were shipped came with a 220W PSU, matching the spec listed on FIC’s Taiwanese website.
For cooling, FIC has gone with a standard aluminum Orb-style heatsink unit. Personally, we were a bit uncomfortable using the provided cooler, as it didn’t fit quite as tight as the reference cooling units that ship with Intel processors. Therefore, we chose to stick with our reference units for all our tests, which fits just fine in the ICE Cube.
SIDEBAR: The name of Chyang Fun’s equivalent to the ICE Cube VG61 is the CF-S968L
With the small form factor chassis, naturally the components fit a bit tight, but installation is hassle free nonetheless. As we mentioned previously, FIC uses thumbscrews, so getting into the chassis doesn’t require any tools. Once you’ve got the case opened up (a process which involves removing two thumbscrews), you’ll next want to remove the drive cage for the 3.5” disks. This task is also accomplished with thumbscrews.
Next, drop your optical storage device in the 5.25” drive bay and populate the 3.5” bays with any drives that you desire. You can also take this time to install any AGP or PCI cards if you want a little more horsepower than the integrated devices provide.
Since space is at a premium, FIC also bundles two short rounded IDE cables as well as one rounded floppy cable that is also shorter than normal. You also get other goodies such as a bag full of zip ties -- perfect for neatly bundling your cables together for improved airflow within the case.
Once you’ve got everything in place, simply plug the 3.5” drive cage back in the ICE Cube VG61 chassis, attach the windowed side panels, and you’re ready to go! Total installation time shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes thanks to the efficient design that has been implemented, you won’t find your any real tight fits for your fingers nor should you have to worry about getting cut. Even inexperienced users shouldn’t have any problems snapping the components into place, and all the ports on the back of the case are color-coded for the ultra newbies.
Functionally, the ICE Cube’s BIOS is what we’ve come to expect from a motherboard based on the 845PE/845GE chipset. Settings for adjusting memory timings are available in the advanced chipset features menu, even down to CAS latency 1.5. The BIOS also features the standard settings for hardware monitoring (and shutdown) as well as controlling integrated peripherals and external drives.
What will catch the eyes of enthusiasts however, are parameters for overclocking the processor. For this, there isn’t a single setting for adjusting voltages; this includes the CPU, AGP, and memory bus. In terms of bus speed adjustments, there are only eight options: 133MHz, 136MHz, 140MHz, 144MHz, 147MHz, 152MHz, 156MHz, and 160MHz.
Clearly the ICE Cube VG61 was not built for overclocking. Keep in mind that we’re dealing with a pretty cramped case once everything is installed, so it’s arguably a smart safety measure for the components within the system. Overclocking requires adequate ventilation and that’s something you really need a mid-tower case for.
SIDEBAR: Chyang Fun CF-S968L Product Webpage
Unreal Tournament 2003 - Flyby
As you can see, the integrated graphics offered by the 845GE are by no means extreme. The integrated graphics controller is outperformed in all cases by an external GeForce2 MX 400 card running in the same system.
3DMark 03 – Frame rates
Serious Sam SE (Elephant Atrium) – OpenGL
Quake III v.1.17 Demo001 – OpenGL
Comanche 4 – DirectX 8
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby – DirectX 8
Unreal Tournament 2003 Botmatch – DirectX 8
SiSoft Sandra 2003 Memory Bandwidth
Business Winstone 2002
Content Creation Winstone 2002
|© Copyright 2003 FS Media, Inc.|