Shuttle XS35GT: The ultimate silent media center HTPC

The long-awaited Shuttle XS35 series of small form factor (SFF) PCs has finally arrived, after a long release delay caused by cooling problems.

For home media center (HTPC) enthusiasts, this series of computers is ideal for making a media center because they are completely silent, due to the fact that the case houses no fans. Instead, the model range use a combination of (1) a massive heat sink and (2) holes in the case to dissipate generated heat.

For the media center enthusiast, half of the model range is of particular interest: the models that include second generation NVidia ION GPU hardware. According to NVidia, this ION hardware provides over 10 times the performance of integrated graphics, and significantly reduces CPU load. This enables the XS35’s integrated dual-core Atom D510 processor to run at between 5% to 10% CPU load when watching 1080p HD video content. That is impressive!

Additionally, the computer uses extremely low amounts of power due to use of the Intel Atom processor and associated chipset. The power supply is a small external 40W power brick (FSP040-RAC). It outputs 19V, and uses 0.5W in standby mode. In operation, the XS35GT uses between about 20W and 30W of power.

The size of the device is another marvell: 25.2cm x 16.2cm x 3.84cm. Tiny! The box isn’t a lot bigger than a paperback book, or around A5 paper size. Due to the device’s tiny size, conservative design and the fact that it is completely silent, you can forget that you have a powerful media center in your living room and, instead, just enjoy watching slideshows of your photos, movies, documentaries, TV shows or rock videos. And listening to your music too.

Also, it has built-in wired and wireless networking. The wired network is a 100Mbit/s interface, which has sufficient bandwidth even for streaming 1080p HD Blu-ray streams, so DVD MPEG2, DivX and XVid is no problem at all. You would need a GbE link (1 Gigabit/second) if you intended storing movies on the HTPC’s hard drive, and so for streaming this is irrelevant, thus 100Mbit/s for the wired network is completely adequate.

The ION-based computers have HDMI + VGA video output ports and have several USB ports (see photos below).

Here is an overview of the ION-based models:

Model name Type Operating System Memory Hard disk DVD R/W
XS35GT Barebone - - - -
XS35GT-804 System - 2GB DDR2 500GB Yes
XS3510MA System Win 7 Home Premium 2GB DDR2 500GB Yes

As I wanted to customize my media center, I bought the XS35GT barebone model. This reduces the price considerably, as you are not paying for (1) a slim DVD reader, (2) a hard drive, (3) memory and (4) an operating system like Windows.

To the base XS35GT model, I added a low-cost SSD that has TRIM support, the OCZ Onyx 32GB SSD, and 2GB Kingston PC2-6400 RAM (KVR800D2S6/2G).

For almost the same money, another SSD to consider using is the OCZ Vertex 30GB, which has been around a while and has about double the read and write performance as the Onyx drive. I wish I’d seen its new, greatly reduced price before buying the Onyx. Never mind, the speed of the Onyx SSD is still stunning. When a media center is being used purely to stream media content from a NAS, local storage capacity needs are not great, so a 30GB SSD is adequate. I saw someone buy an OCZ Vertex 2 60GB drive for his media center, and while this is currently about the best consumer MLC-based SSD on the market, with phenomenally fast read and write speeds, it is just a waste of money for a media center that will perform almost as well with an SSD that is half the cost.

Installing the memory and SSD is very simple: unscrew one crosshead screw, slide off the side panel, insert RAM module, insert SSD and screw in the retaining metal plate for the SSD, replace side panel and the screw. Done.

The SSD enables you to keep the media center completely silent, which is important when watching movies, as you don’t want a noisy fan to spoil the experience, especially during quiet parts of movies. The SSD also minimises heat output. They are also very fast, making for fast boot times and responsive user interface. As XBMC in Library mode displays lots of images, these load super-fast with an SSD due to the typically less than 0.1ms seek time, compared to about 10ms for a typical HDD.

This media center configuration with the SSD gives a highly-responsive user interface compared to the old XBOX I was previously running XBMC on, especially when running XBMC in Library mode, where it uses a local database held on HDD/SSD to contain metadata about movies, music, photos etc.

Additionally, I purchased a Hauppauge MCE remote control kit which includes (1) a remote control, (2) an IR receiver, and (3) an IR blaster, as this works out of the box with the excellent XBMC media center software, as it is certified MCE compatible. Simply plug in the IR receiver unit, a tiny black box with a USB connector, into one of the XS35GT’s five USB ports, and you now have remote control functionality. Of course, you could also plug in a USB keyboard instead, or in addition to a remote control.

The version of XBMC I installed is XBMC Dharma beta 2 Live, which is basically a reduced footprint version of Ubuntu Linux customised to run XBMC on startup.

XBMC Live is a free Ubuntu-based Linux distribution with XBMC for Linux already installed and pre-configured, providing a complete packaged media center software suite for all IA-32/x86-based personal computers. XBMC Live uses XBMC Media Center for all media playback and is implemented as a bootable Live CD primarily designed for bare-metal installations to achieve ‘instant on’ type boot, as well as for interactive demonstrations.

The optimal way to use media centers like this, is to stream your media library over the LAN from your NAS, using SMB/CIFS or NFS shares, for example.

After considerable testing of the XS35GT, I can confirm that this machine is superb as a media center, and an excellent buy for anyone looking to upgrade or purchase a small but powerful silent computer for use as a media center / HTPC.

As the XS35GT is passively cooled, for heat dissipation it relies completely on its massive heatsink and holes in its case. Therefore, it is important to mount the box on the stand provided, to enable effective cooling.

Prices for the above hardware are approximately as follows:
* XS35GT (£200)
* 2GB RAM (£30)
* 32GB SSD (£50)
* MCE remote (£20)

So for about £300 (350 euros, 400 US dollars) you can make yourself a powerful, tiny and silent media center.

In this next post, I describe the software configuration and tuning I used to make this thing work optimally.

Here are some images of the XS35GT, plus additional images of XBMC and some add-ons used (listed above):

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34 Responses to “Shuttle XS35GT: The ultimate silent media center HTPC”

  1. Great post. I have been waiting for this machine to arrive to Norway for a long time now. I am really looking forward to you next post about tweaking the ubuntu/xbmx installation!!!

    I do wonder how you managed to install the OS without a dvd drive? I am just asking because I am buying the same model as you have..

    Thank you!! :)

  2. Thanks Thomas. Yes, I was waiting a long time for this machine too. I was tempted to upgrade to the Zotac ZBOXHD-ID11, but I just knew that the fan noise would annoy me, so I waited for this machine instead. And it is a superb piece of engineering that makes a perfect, silent, tiny, energy-efficient media center.

    Later this evening I will start work on the post for installing Linux / XBMC etc…

    Cheers,
    Simon

  3. great post simon, i bought a xs35gt myself. i hope it will arrive within the next 2 dys. i choosed a patriot ssd and also 2gb of ram. im looking forward to you next post on how about to set it up and configure it for xbmc. because i am absolut novice in installing and configuring linux.

    anyways, thanks for the nice post :)

  4. Hi, Simon:

    Thanks a lot for this post. It’s also nice to see people using ZFS in home. Some years ago I deployed a big NAS on my work on Solaris 8 (obviously on UFS) and we’re always looking for time to jump to Solaris 10 and ZFS, some day, some day.

    But going back to home: I bought that Zotac ZBOX ID11 but I had to return it back to the store because of it’s noise and because of I couldn’t make sound work through HDMI. I don’t know much about ALSA (lazy on home) and I just tried the two latest Ubuntu releases (9.10 and 10.4 I think) and the XBMC Live 9.11 … without success. The guide on Zotac’s web site didn’t worked for me ( http://www.zotac.com/index.php?option=com_myblog&show=how-to-enable-hdmi-audio-in-xbmc-livecd-with-zbox.html&Itemid=100013&lang=en ) . Now I see you’re using a fresh new release “XBMC Dharma beta 2 Live”, I hope that this release is better for ALSA-newbies like me.

    I cannot wait to read your incomming post about how did you installed the system ;)

    Thanks a lot and best regards,
    —-
    Angel

  5. Hello Simon, wonderful article. Everytime its very helpful for me to read your posts also about your NAS. I follow your posts at opensolaris/ZFS too.
    I wonder about the price you get. Can you tell me where you buy. Here in Germany the prices are much higher.
    e.g.
    http://www.alternate.de/html/product/Barebone/Shuttle/XS35GT_inkl._Intel%28R%29_Atom_D510/662638/?tn=BUILDERS&l1=PC-Systeme&l2=Barebones&l3=Onboard+CPU
    http://www.alternate.de/html/product/Speicher/Buffalo/SO-DIMM_2_GB_DDR2-800/34496/?tn=HARDWARE&l1=Arbeitsspeicher&l2=DDR2&l3=SO-DIMM
    http://www.alternate.de/html/product/Festplatte/OCZ/Onyx_2,5_SSD_32_GB/151974/?tn=HARDWARE&l1=Festplatten&l2=Solid+State+Drives&l3=SATA&l4=2%2C5+Zoll
    The OCZ Vertex 30GB is not available.

  6. Just got my XS35GT a few days ago, and added 64 GB SSD, and 2 GB of RAM.

    There is a very nice installation “CD” available at http://www.xbmcfreak.com.
    I installed 10.00 beta 2 T3 from an USB stick based on information from that site.

    You will need to compile/install network driver and set up HDMI audio after installation,
    but information is available on that site for those tasks.

    Waiting for my Hauppauge IR-receiver now…

    Tore

  7. Thanks Tore. I have also created an installation guide here for those wishing to install the vanilla XBMC Dharma beta 2 Live:
    http://breden.org.uk/2010/09/30/shuttle-xs35gt-installing-xbmc-dharma-beta-2-live/

  8. Hi Angel,

    Yes, moving to ZFS is a good idea :)

    I can understand that the Zotac’s noise would make you send it back. As you like a quiet HTPC / media center, you won’t be disappointed with the Shuttle XS35GT.

    You can find the installation guide here: http://breden.org.uk/2010/09/30/shuttle-xs35gt-installing-xbmc-dharma-beta-2-live/

    Cheers,
    Simon

  9. Hi Alexander,

    Thanks for the compliments.

    For buying at low prices I just searched a lot and eventually I found the following sites / vendors. Prices correct today only:
    Shuttle XS35GT – £206: http://skinflint.co.uk/?in=&fs=xs35gt
    2GB RAM – £29: http://skinflint.co.uk/?in=&fs=KVR800D2S6%2F2G
    OCZ Onyx 32GB SSD – £48: http://skinflint.co.uk/?in=&fs=ocz+onyx+32GB
    Hauppauge MCE remote control kit – £25: http://skinflint.co.uk/?such=hauppauge+mce+remote+kit

    So, excluding delivery, costs should be around £300 or just a few pounds more.

    Cheers,
    Simon

  10. Thanks for the review.

    I am trying to build a similar system.
    I bought a XS35GT barebone, added a 1gb sodimm (spared after a laptop upgrade), and a SSD OCZ Onyx 64gb.
    I have got this issue though: the SSD is not detected by the shuttle in the bios, and eventually by the ubuntu installation when i tried to install.
    Is there any step I am missing? Isn’t the ssd shipped ready to be fitted? This is the first time I have to deal with ssd.

    Thanks,
    Achille

  11. I’ve just been looking at getting one of these and noticed a potential problem. How do you have yours mounted, is it vertical in the included stand – or have you got it lying down horizontally? I had been planning on putting it on a a/v shelf with the rest of my components, but it won’t fit vertically.

  12. Hi Achilles,

    Yes, the SSD should be recognised by the BIOS, at least my 32GB OCZ Onyx was. I presume you are using BIOS 1.08? Maybe it’s worth trying BIOS 1.09? I will add a link on the installation page so you can download BIOS 1.09…

    Cheers,
    Simon

  13. Hi Paul,

    Due to the lack of a fan, correct positioning for maximum airflow is very important. The only two recommended positions are: (1) vertically mounted on the provided stand, which is how I have it, or (2) vertically mounted using the optional VESA mounting plate to the back of your HD TV.

    Cheers,
    Simon

  14. Hi, just show the test,
    Is it true that the shuttle supports only 2.1 sound and not 5.1 or higher? if true this limits it the purpose as a media center considerably. Also, can it take HD’s bigger the 500 GB?. Also ideally someone could utilize the DVD space for a 2nd HD making the shuttle also serve as a media center/insubha

  15. Hi, no it’s certainly NOT true that it only supports 2.1. Certainly it supports 5.1 and quite possibly 7.1 too, although I’d need to check.

    Cheers,
    Simon

  16. Hi Simon,
    This sounds great, and almost perfect for me

    except

    I’d like to add a TV tuner, to use as a PVR.

    Thinking the Haupage USB (since no room for an internal card) on MythTV

    I’d like to know your thoughts on whether the Atom + ION would be able to handle it?

    Thanks,
    Rem

  17. Hi Remy,

    Unfortunately I have no idea if the Atom/ION combo can handle adding a USB TV tuner + MythTV.
    I suspect Google will be your friend here.
    I’d be interested to hear what you find, as I am certainly interested in this possibility of using MythTV as a PVR, and XBMC supports MythTV.

    Cheers,
    Simon

  18. Hi Simon,

    I’m not interested in HD for this build, so this looks kinda promissing

    http://thegreenbutton.com/forums/p/95711/501714.aspx

  19. Hi Remy,

    Let me know what solution you end up with for your PVR as I am interested in PVR functionality at some point in the future.

    Cheers,
    Simon

  20. Simon,

    Now that you have had this unit for several months, are you still happy with it? I’m seriously thinking about getting one of these. Thanks!

  21. Hi Craig,

    Yes, I’m still delighted with this box. I doubt if you will be disappointed.

    Cheers,
    Simon

  22. Hi Simon,

    Excellent blog! This unit is going on sale right now for $199 here in Canada. I’m very familiar with installing Window 7 but have never had a chance to use/install XBMC. Is it pretty straight-forward?

    I will mostly be loading Xvid movies on to a USB flash drive and playing it on the Shuttle XS35GT. Should I even use XMBC or should I just use Windows 7?

    Thanks in advance!
    Ray

  23. Hi Ray,

    Thanks a lot. Wow, $199 CAD is a real bargain!

    Personally, I would use the ‘Live’ version of XBMC that uses Linux in preference to installing Windows 7 + XBMC.
    Why? Well, the XBMC Live version includes everything you need — i.e. the Linux OS and also the XBMC code — all in one package. And this Live version is specially built to be as small as possible so that it boots quickly and uses little system resources, which means that the XS35GT will be very snappy to use – fast boot times (around 20 seconds after BIOS boot screen), and fast user interface navigation, giving that ‘appliance’ feel.

    From others that have tried XBMC on Windows 7 and Linux, they all say that the Linux ‘Live’ edition boots faster and is much more snappy to use. Hope this helps.

    XBMC gives a nice media center look and feel and you will quickly learn to appreciate the slickness of the user interface. Once you start hooking up a ‘library’ of media via an external hard drive or, even better, a NAS, you will start to really appreciate the ease of use that the XBMC user interface provides in managing access to your media in a seamless way.

    Cheers,
    Simon

  24. Ray, I’m currently shopping for one in Canada.

    Is that special still going on? Where did you find it?

    Cheapest I could find is currently on NEWEGG.CA at 249.99$

    Thanks

    Chris

  25. Chris – check out NCIX.

  26. It looks like a very nice HTPC indeed. Its really sad that they havent provided a standard line out as well since many people have their HTPC’s hooked to an old amplifier for the sound. It would seem you have to upgrade your amp to one with an HDMI passthrough.

    Also having experience building completely passively cooled PCs I have experienced these to have shorter lifetime than the average PC due to the heat. It stands to see how long this shuttle will last before it caves in from heat and whether it is within the guarantee period so its possible to get a replacement.

    Still, £300 very cheap for such a system. And indeed it would also work nicely as an additional standalone PC.

  27. Simon, thanks for your great review. I also found the Installing XBMC Dharma beta 2 Live blog. I’m new to Linux, Ubuntu and XBMC but I’m really getting into it. I bought a XS35GT and I would like to use it mainly as a HTPC, but incidentally also for some web-browsing. I assume that means I have to install the full Ubuntu with XBMC on it in stead of using the XBMC-live version?
    Thanks for the info and keep up the good work.

  28. Hello
    Simon> Great post!
    Martin> Yes, you need Ubuntu for web browsing. I’ve installed the 10.10 version, then ’sudo apt-get install xbmc xbmc-standalone’. You will then find xbmc in the sound applications menu, while with xbmc-standalone you will be able to choose, at the login step, if you want to launch an Ubunto session or an Xbmc one. Finally, you can specifiy (in the Ubuntu session options) if you want to run the xbmc session by default, with an user that logs in automatically. Everything works fine here! Hope that helps.
    BaK

  29. Hey Simon and co. – I’m struggling with really, really terrible HD Netflix playback on my XS35GT and I’m hoping someone’s got an idea or two for me to make things work.

    I’m very certain it is not a network issue – I have it on a Linksys E2000 router configured as a client bridge through DD-WRT. The XS35GT is the only client on the router. It’s client bridge, not client repeater, so hopefully all the wireless bandwidth is dedicated to the clients with none lost on a repeater signal. Nevertheless, I’m a real noob to DD-WRT and only followed the directions to configure it as a client bridge. I am open to the possibility that DD-WRT can take some tweaks in order to boost performance, but I seriously don’t think it’s networking. The video buffers and plays, it is just very jerky.

    The jerkiness is best described thusly. In Netflix, if video has HD available, it will buffer the video and I’ll maybe get 2-3fps (if there’s a way to get actual fps output in Silverlight or Netflix, I’m all ears on using it to post actual fps/playback details). The same jerkiness persists in Youtube streams. I’ve used IE8, IE9, and whatever the most current Chrome release is – nothing works.

    I know the video is capable of playing this; I’ve got h264 MKVs running through CoreAVC that play 100% smooth and in sync. To my knowledge there’s no way to make CoreAVC work for Silverlight or Flash content.

    Updated Flash, Silverlight, etc., even took a clean SSD and installed Win 7 x64 on it (previous drive ran x86).

    During the jerky Netflix HD playback via XBMC or not via XBMC, IE hits between 33-37% CPU use and uses 170-230mb. In Chrome, it uses around 10-30% and 490-550ish megs. For a while it was mostly okay – maybe like 27, 28ish fps (enough to be noticeably not smooth but it at least kept up with the audio) in Chrome but now it’s just crap all around.

    Since Netflix will only work on XBMC for Windows I really can’t go full-on installable XBMC anyway. Plus my media library has crap organization and I’d rather just use my remote to go direct and play files in regular old Win 7 anyway.

  30. Hi
    Thanks for the review. There are reports that Shuttle has problems with the WLAN drivers under Ubuntu — can you confirm that the WLAN works without any additional tweaks & hacks?
    Thanks for the feedback

  31. I’ve followed the instructions for updating the BIOS for my new XS35GT using the 1.09 download link you supplied. Using Freedos I selected the option LiveCd (only) so ignored the Himem and Emem options.
    It is happy with the bootlblock and module checksums but the rom id is incorrect.
    I hope I haven’t fried the new baby.

  32. No I haven’t fried it but it is still stuck on bios 1.0 and I have no wireless network

  33. Hi Robert,

    From memory I think there is a new version available now – something like 10B ?

    Cheers,
    Simon

  34. @IP: Thanks, I don’t use WLAN so can’t comment. I’ve seen many reports of problems with the patchy WLAN so I think it probably was/is a real problem.

    Cheers,
    Simon

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