When it comes to building Media Center PCs, Shuttle's small form factor designs have always seemed the ideal enclosure: the company was instrumental in bringing low-size, high-performance PCs to mainstream attention and is currently speeding ahead of the rest to bring desktop technology into the home entertainment arena.
Now it's giving things a further push by supplying this pre-built system, including internal components and a copy of Windows XP Media Center Edition so that all you need to add is the mouse, keyboard, and monitor.
Unfortunately, while the build quality is exemplary, in process the machine is dogged with exactly the same problems that have dogged legions of self-builders: the size may be unobtrusive, but the noise is anything but.
The G5's fan starts with a roar like an airconditioning plant every time you switch it on, before settling down to a constant PS2-like rumble that's definitely more acceptable in the office than the living room. Such relegation is further encouraged by the design; while the alluring glossy finish and stereo-like LCD front panel does a great job of concealing its desktop origins, the sugar-cube shape isn't easily accommodated.
It doesn't have a huge amount to keep cool, either. The specification is as we've come to expect from the latest crop of Media Center PCs: a 3GHz Pentium 4 processor, paired with 512MB of RAM and a separate graphics card - in this case, a rather weedy 128MB ATI X300SE.
Accordingly, it performs swiftly and capably, with only the occasional stutter when it's pushed to the limit - but we've already seen this exact specification contained much more elegantly in Evesham's excellent eBox.
It's a shame to see that the fractionally increased space that's available in the Shuttle hasn't been filled with something a little more powerful; a better graphics card, for instance, would have made for a more convincing gaming performance and justified that dreadful noise output. Storage capacity gives less cause for complaint; a 200GB hard drive and 16-speed dual-layer DVD rewriter make short work of music or recorded TV.
Connectivity is similarly acceptable, rather than substantial. Top marks must go to the elegantly concealed 5-in-1 card reader, dual USB, Firewire and audio ports that lurk behind the drop-down front panels.
The rear view is less exciting, with most of the space filled by the fan, but it still manages to contain VGA, DVI and SVideo outputs, with the AverMedia TV tuner card offering composite audio, S-Video and coaxial antenna inputs.
The onboard six-channel audio comes with optical input and output, and there's a full-size FireWire and two USB ports. Unfortunately, one of these must be filled with the cable for the Microsoft remote receiver - another clumsy desktop hang-over that the likes of Evesham and Elonex managed to do without.
Media in motion
In use, it skips through the Media Center interface happily enough. We're already fans of the slick and easily read interface, and the TV, DVD and audio playback caused no complaints, although we'd have preferred to see a dual tuner for picture-in-picture support.
However, general use is spoiled by yet further aural distress: the access noise of the hard drive is loud even by desktop standards. The front-mounted display is a mixed blessing, too.
It's undoubtedly excellent for CD playback, giving you track and volume details, but is only really of use with the monitor switched off - which is hardly a selling point for an entertainment PC. Significantly, it makes DVD viewing downright annoying.
The regular scrolling view of the disc title soon can't help but draw your eye, and there's no way to adjust the brightness or turn it off. Of course, it's not entirely fair to denigrate the G5 for its lack of domestic nous; the basic Shuttle design has always been about being a PC first and foremost, and viewed as such it's a much more likeable proposition.
While gaming performance is lacking, it performs capably on all the other fronts and the MCE 2005 platform gives it plenty of scope for office and other multimedia applications. However, the same can be said of just about every other Media Center out there, and while the G5 can coast ahead on its looks, the appeal dwindles when you consider the price.
Competitors can muster a Shuttle-based system complete with monitor and peripherals for the same sub-£1,000 ticket value, and if you're determined to use it in the office you may as well save even more money and go for something bigger and more flexible.
Viewed as the home entertainment device it's trying so hard to be, the Shuttle looks even worse. The Evesham offers a genuinely low operating volume, dual TV tuners, and even manages to include a mouse and keyboard for around £50 more - and it's much easier to fit into your existing home entertainment setup. The only trump card the G5 can offer is a slightly easier upgrade path, and even that will require you to junk the cards that are already supplied.
So, the trade off is a fairly simple one. The XPC G5 fits more snuggly into the AV rack than most Media Centers - the vast majority of which still look more like ugly back-office servers than a friendly consumer electronics device - but on the other hand, its size curtails its sheer raw operating power, upgradeability and expandability. It's the same situation with every Shuttle XPC Media Center.
A bit more oomph would have made it a decent desktop system; as it is, it's too compromised and too expensive to merit recommendation for either office or entertainment use.