Thinking of buying a Shuttle PC? Think again...

Thinking of buying a Shuttle PC? Think again...

Summary: Whatever happened to my project to compare the leading PC-based digital media platforms? Shuttle happened, that's what. Shuttle Computer is justly famous among Media Center enthusiasts for its sleek small-form-factor designs, but its support is inexcusably bad. Here's why I'll never buy another Shuttle PC.

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TOPICS: Hardware
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Alert readers might be wondering what ever happened to my project to compare the leading PC-based digital media solutions: Sage TV, Beyond TV, Windows Media Center.

Shuttle happened, that's what.

Shuttle Computer is the Taiwanese company that made the Small Form Factor ST61G4 system I was planning to use as a test bed. The company has earned rave reviews for its innovative small machines, available in barebones configurations that are ideal for hobbyists and tinkerers. I had built this system roughly two years ago to run Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, and it had been doing fine in that role.

For the tests I was planning, the guts of the system were more than adequate - 3GHz Pentium 4, 1GB RAM, 400GB hard drive - but the onboard video was a wimpy Radeon 9100, and an old NVidia card I had installed as an upgrade in 2005 was having trouble keeping up with fast frame rates, especially in HD signals.

Unfortunately, when I tried to upgrade the video card in this machine to a Radeon 9600 AGP 8X adapter, the system refused to boot at all. After a bit of Googling, I determined that the problem was a well-known one when trying to use 5V AGP cards in some 3.3V slots a 0.8V 8X AGP card in the system's 1.5V AGP slot. This is a supported configuration (the documentation specifically says it supports 8X AGP devices), and several independent sources confirmed that this combination might work and could safely be tested, but the 8X AGP cards I tried just didn't work. [updated 26-Dec 8:00PM PST to correct technical error]

Now, this machine has been giving me problems for a while. It was running Windows XP Media Center Edition just fine, but I had never been able to install Windows Vista on it, a problem I attributed (mistakenly, it turns out) to a conflict between the Vista beta and a built-in SATA adapter in the Shuttle machine. I also had problems a month or two ago when I tried to install a retail copy of Sage TV on Windows Media Center Edition, but after spending a half-day on troubleshooting I had set it aside.

If I couldn't upgrade a video card, I couldn't run this test, so I decided to fire off an e-mail to Shuttle. Addressing the message to their support link, I asked if they knew of any workarounds for the problem I was experiencing. That was on November 16, and it was the beginning of a long support nightmare that hasn't ended yet.

Within 24 hours, I heard back from a Shuttle support tech, who told me I needed to downgrade (yes, downgrade) my BIOS. He helpfully attached the flash updater program and a binary BIOS file, with a link to instructions.

Now, I've flashed many a BIOS in 20-plus years of messing with PCs, and I know the risks. Mostly, it's a pretty simple process. Not this time. I ran the updater, made a copy of the BIOS image on a USB flash drive (in case I needed to restore the current BIOS) and clicked Update. After finishing the update, the system did an integrity check, failed, and then locked up. I had to pull the power cord to shut down the system.

And that was the last time I saw any output from this box.

I sent a note to the same Shuttle tech who contacted me originally. He apologized, wrote that it sounded like the BIOS chip had been trashed, and said he'd send me a new one.

It arrived a week later, in a plain brown envelope with no instructions. I was able to find some documentation explaining how to remove the existing PLCC chip and insert the new one. That process went well enough, but when I powered back up, I was greeted with ... nothing.

So I wrote to my friendly personal Shuttle support rep again. No reply. I sent another note, chronicling the story and asking for escalated support, to the main Shuttle support alias. No response. I sent three additional messages in the next three weeks, with no reply.

Finally, on December 14, I called Shuttle. I spoke first with a support engineer, who told me that the person I had been corresponding with was a trainee who might have, um, exceeded his authority and scope of knowledge just a bit. Great. He transferred me over to customer service, where I spoke to a polite young woman who listened to my story, put me on hold for a few minutes, and came back with news that the head of support had authorized repairing my machine at no charge. She was going to e-mail me a form I'd need to fill out, after which she would personally walk the RMA request through the process and get back to me within 48 hours. I sent the form back immediately and then ... nothing.

Since then, I've sent e-mails and left messages for this customer service representative, with no response until today, when I got an e-mail message from someone else at Shuttle telling me they were so sorry but my computer was out of warranty, and if I wanted it repaired I'd have to pay them $65 plus shipping and handling. Presumably, next week I'll hear from someone completely different, who will tell me I have to carry the machine back to Taiwan if I want it repaired.

I still haven't decided whether I'll send the machine back to Shuttle for repairs. Given their track record so far, I don't have a lot of confidence that I'll ever see it again. I'm seriously considering cannibalizing it for parts and writing off this misadventure as a learning experience.

Sometime in 2007, I'll be building a new Media Center PC. I've only just begun my research, but I can tell you one company whose products won't be on the short list. Thanks for nothing, Shuttle.

Topic: Hardware

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35 comments
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  • I don't understand...

    you tried getting a 5V card working in a 3V system and thought a downgrade on the BIOS was going to do the trick? That a BIOS flash was going to magically increase the voltage on the bus?

    wow.

    no offense, but you should be more upset at yourself instead of Shuttle...
    Dave P.
    • Give me a little more credit than that...

      Sorry, I mangled the details in the OP when writing the original post from memory more than a month after the fact. I've updated the post.

      The documentation for the motherboard on this system says it fully supports AGP 8X cards. As several independent sources indicated, the 8X cards are actually 0.8V and are designed to work in 1.5V slots, which is what this mobo and most others of its generation use. In fact I was able to get at least one 8X AGP board to work in this slot, but not the ones I wanted to use.

      The important point is that when I asked support about this specific issue, they didn't say, "Sorry, we don't support that scenario." (Which was the answer I was half expecting.) They said, "This is a known issue. If you downgrade your BIOS, it should work." When the official support alias says something about the product they sell and support, you tend to take them at their word. Are you saying you wouldn't?
      Ed Bott
  • Ed, you've been working w/PC's for 20 years and haven't learned...

    That when dealing with technical support from any company, the first thing you do before getting any verbal promises for service...write down their name, badge/employee number, direct e-mail or phone number, and the name of their supervisor.
    That way you have a paper trail of what is going on AND they know that they will be held accountable should their promises not be upheld. Not to mention that should you decide to take them to small claims court to recover your costs, you will be in pretty good standing with the judge by providing that information.
    ExploreMN
    • I have all those names amd details

      Everything's fully documented. I didn't post any of the individual's names here, because those details are not relevant to the story. But yes, I have an excellent written record of every promise made and broken by this company.
      Ed Bott
  • upcoming comparison

    Please include Media Portal in your upcoming comparison as well.
    Thanks,
    Mark
    http://www.team-mediaportal.com/
    mark@...
  • I have no plans for buying a pre-built PC.

    I'm building a game/music-creation/Media Center PC.
    Grayson Peddie
    • Shuttle sells "barebones" PCs

      Case, power supply, and motherboard. It's a genuine build it yourself product, with a fair amount of assembly required, and I don't know of any other small form factor systems where you can purchase the case and mobo separately, because they are by nature nonstandard. The problem is that when the mobo fails, you can't just replace it.
      Ed Bott
      • Oh ok well I'm talking about

        building a computer with a larger computer case (my favorite is [url-http://www.xoxide.com/lian-li-pc-343b-case.html]Lian Li PC-343B Modular Cube Case[/url] where size doesn't matter to me) and I can put lots of things like [url=http://www.xoxide.com/aerocool-powerwatch-black.html]AeroCool PowerWatch Multifunction Panel[/url], [url=http://www.xoxide.com/vl-system-lis-premium2.html]VL System LIS 2 Premium VFD[/url], 2 [url=http://www.xoxide.com/nexus-drive-a-way-black.html]Nexus Drive-A-Way HDD Silencers[/url], SoundBlaster X-Fi Platinum, etc.
        Grayson Peddie
        • Nice looking case!

          Are you going to be documenting this anywhere? I'd love to read about your experiences as you get things put together.
          Ed Bott
          • Well I'd like to, but a couple of things to wait...

            ...such as an DirectX 10 video cards from ATI, AMD quad-core processor, etc. I'm not buying everything for just one day, though, like buying a processor, the motherboard, and the video card one month, buying a computer case and the sound card for next month, and everything I'd like to add for the third month like the CoolIt Freezone for the processor and get ready to build my dream computer.
            Grayson Peddie
  • Also Avoid Soyo and TigerDirect on your Short List!

    Hi Ed,

    Sorry to hear of the Shuttle PC demise. I suppose it's the same problem with tech support for many of these companies, all of whom are overseas-based, right?

    Also, I would suggest you avoid companies like Soyo and vendors like TigerDirect because I have about $300 in 8 rebates that I've been trying to collect for 2 years now. Neither company wants to pay them.

    The only thing worse than an incompetent company is a truly dishonest one!!! And yes, I'm a pro at doing rebate shopping, and these two guys are just PURE EVIL!

    Oh yes, TigerDirect now has a rebate guarantee, but it only applies to up to FIVE rebates per year. And this guarantee didn't exist 2 years ago when I sent mine in. And you have to send them REGISTERED mail. And why should you need a guarantee that they will fulfill an offer that they made in the first place? (People are catching on I suppose?)

    Hey Ed, why don't you do a story on rebate scams? You're in the position to shake things up more than I. In this world, you can use your power for good.
    racingmustang
    • I second that!

      Tiger rebate joke...not funny!
      wmlundine
    • Ah! Tiger Direct

      Do NOT EVER do any mail in rebates from this Tiger Direct company. In my experience, they will not send the rebate, and ignore any messages that you send about it.

      Do I still buy from Tiger Direct? Yes; the prices are often good. I just NEVER EVER buy anything with a mail in rebate: I always assume that they will not pay the rebate, so whatever price I pay Tiger Direct is evaluated as the full price.

      Ergo, I just paid $17.99 for a flash drive, even though they were advertising a $45 one (of the same capacity) that with mail in rebates would have putatively come to $4.50 or so. (The prices are in that ballpark anyway, not precisely exact).

      Guess what? I am happy that I bought the one for which I expect no rebates.

      Take my advice: skip any Tiger Direct rebates. I am not calling it a scam, but I am sorely tempted.
      Yamust B. Kiddingme
  • Write-Off

    Expensive write-off. Dabbling in electrical engineering has not paid off. In fact it
    has cost some money. Writing off a Shuttle is within the budget and that is good
    news. Getting a Mac likely still isn't within the budget however. There are too
    many failed hobby kits to pay for. It leaves nothing left for an actual computer.
    Integrated hardware is clearly not a priority. Integrated hardware/software is well
    down the list. The advantages that these things return are not on the agenda.
    Accountability has been written off as well. Let's not expect this new indignity to
    be framed within a much larger series of endemic problems relating to platform. It
    will be easier to blame the vendor and move on to the next hobby kit. Ahh choice!

    Building boxes has maintained the illusion that these most complex of tools are
    still within our grasp and we are not prepared to let go of it. We plug boards into
    sockets then pat ourselves on the back for it. It takes the place of wire wraps and
    breadboards. We are fearful of relying too much on a machine we don't really
    understand and have no hand in making. A shuttle here or there is simply the cost
    of our ego, and one we seem prepared to pay. Eventually we'll let go of the need
    to control and get to work using and indeed writing software. Once the hardware
    fetish ends the real computer revolution can get started.
    Harry Bardal
    • Harry, you get funnier every month

      I'm beginning to think there are secret coded messages hidden in your Talkback posts. They certainly don't make any sense on their face.

      Do I need to do some special decoding to figure out what you're really saying?
      Ed Bott
      • Made perfect sense...

        You just have to be tired of tinkering with home-brew PCs to realize it.

        He's saying go buy a Mac. Or at least buy something prebuilt in the configuration that you want, and then leave it in that configuration.

        Every time I'm tinkering with my PC (which I've been tired of tinkering with for about 5 years) my wife says "How much do you make an hour?" Then tells me to go buy a new Thinkpad, because the Thinkpad I bought her 5 years ago (and have barely touched) still works great and has had almost no problems.
        Erik Engbrecht
        • No, he's saying go buy a Mac

          You obviously don't know Harry. No matter what I post, he comes along and writes, "Blah blah blah, go buy a Mac."

          Gee, isn't it odd that I can't build or customize my own Mac? Guess they make perfect hardware in Cupertino and if I can't find a configuration I like then I don't need it. Once they actually make a box that includes the components I want, that's when I need it. And they'll let me know when that time comes, so meanwhile I can just quit thinking.
          Ed Bott
          • Blah

            -You obviously don't know Harry. No matter what I post, he comes along and
            writes, "Blah blah blah, go buy a Mac."-

            Ed

            The man's point was valid. Hobby kit computers should be a different subject.
            Their overall lifetime reliability has always been in question, and time is money.
            Without a full accounting of TCO, these are ego trips. I have no problem with the
            Windows platform as a choice?except where it exists in a vacuum without valid
            comparisons. In this regard, I use the Mac as a foil, it is the only current viable
            commercial desktop platform that can be compared with Windows (Linux is not
            formally a proprietary commercial product). It's supposed to be a jumping-off
            point for a real dialogue.

            Don't get too self righteous about choice. Within the confines of any one platform,
            real and substantive choice is restricted, this is a given. The choice IS the
            platform. The solution to platform piety, and the subsequent removal of choice, is
            not to adopt one of the platforms, but to adopt both, or all 3. The obligation of
            tech enthusiasts and bloggers is to be, at the very least, aware. The platform that
            offers concurrent platforms least expensively is... drumroll...Apple. Is this worth
            giving them the time of day?

            I commented on the Shuttle experiment because you had said budget was an issue
            in your decision not to try Mac. You intimated that they were too expensive. Bear
            in mind however, that if money is available to burn through hobby kits, don't
            expect to use this excuse again.

            I'm truly sorry that the inclusion of the word "Mac" or "Ed" in any post, magically
            turns the rest of the words into "blah, blah". One thing you can be sure of though,
            if one follows your trail of Windows complaints, license lobbies, bricked boxes,
            and tepid MS talking points, your column is a neon ad for Mac adoption so please,
            continue to funnel cash into all the carnival prizes that your heart desires.
            Harry Bardal
          • Skeptical, but in agreement.

            [b]> Hobby kit computers should be a different subject.
            > Their overall lifetime reliability has always been
            > in question, and time is money. Without a full
            > accounting of TCO, these are ego trips.

            Relating to Wintel boxes, the only time I ever delivered prebuilt systems to a customer, who happened to be a town office, we thought we'd save time because they came preinstalled with everything and ready to use. Yep, they came with everything alright, including a virus. We ate a whole day repairing preconfigured systems bought to save time, and time is money. 5(R3\/\/ TCO "projections" for preconfigured systems; if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.

            On the MAC note, I'm not sure if you can really beat the PC price with multiple OS's with a MAC; Don't forget, if you're going to boot camp or parallels box a Windows installation, you'll (legally) need a valid Windows license. Last I knew, running Windows programs in MacOSX still requires something like Wine/Crossover. While your argument that a Mac can run several OS's software (Traditional MAC, BSD/Linux, and w/ tweaking, Windows) out of the box certainly holds water, the PC, especially hand assembled, is also very capable at very reasonable costs. The PC has better competition; the hardware isn't license locked. Mac's advantage: it will always work. PC hardware is always changing standards and wide open to compatibility nightmares. If you do your research, the PC setup can shine.

            George Ou managed to deliver a [url=http://blogs.zdnet.com/Ou/?p=396]decent DIY hardware setup[/url] for just over $1K. Add an OEM Windows for a couple hundred and Cygwin (or you can go the other way, Linux + Crossover/Wine; cheaper, but IMO more restrictive), and you have a serious box that'll run just about everything other than legacy Mac software. I haven't looked, but w/ enough searching, you might be able to find a functioning Motorola 680X0 emulator too.

            Macs? Well, a 2 GHz iMac with 1 GB RAM, ATI Graphics (similar to the PC above), and OSX Tiger will cost you $1200 new, no assembly required. Hmmm, looks like a tie to me (if you're not intending to install Windows). I guess it really does depend on who you are and what you want to do. The Macintosh definitely is not out of reach for the person looking to buy a new PC.

            [b]> Is this worth giving them the time of day?[/b]

            Yes. Yes it is.
            D-cat
          • Skeptical, but in agreement.

            [b]> Hobby kit computers should be a different subject.
            > Their overall lifetime reliability has always been
            > in question, and time is money. Without a full
            > accounting of TCO, these are ego trips. [/b]

            Relating to Wintel boxes, the only time I ever delivered prebuilt systems to a customer, who happened to be a town office, we thought we'd save time because they came preinstalled with everything and ready to use. Yep, they came with everything alright, including a virus. We ate a whole day repairing preconfigured systems bought to save time, and time is money. 5(R3\/\/ TCO "projections" for preconfigured systems; if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.

            On the MAC note, I'm not sure if you can really beat the PC price with multiple OS's with a MAC; Don't forget, if you're going to boot camp or parallels box a Windows installation, you'll (legally) need a valid Windows license. Last I knew, running Windows programs in MacOSX still requires something like Wine/Crossover. While your argument that a Mac can run several OS's software (Traditional MAC, BSD/Linux, and w/ tweaking, Windows) out of the box certainly holds water, the PC, especially hand assembled, is also very capable at very reasonable costs. The PC has better competition; the hardware isn't license locked. Mac's advantage: it will always work. PC hardware is always changing standards and wide open to compatibility nightmares. If you do your research, the PC setup can shine.

            George Ou managed to deliver a [url=http://blogs.zdnet.com/Ou/?p=396]decent DIY hardware setup[/url] for just over $1K. Add an OEM Windows for a couple hundred and Cygwin (or you can go the other way, Linux + Crossover/Wine; cheaper, but IMO more restrictive), and you have a serious box that'll run just about everything other than legacy Mac software. I haven't looked, but w/ enough searching, you might be able to find a functioning Motorola 680X0 emulator too.

            Macs? Well, a 2 GHz iMac with 1 GB RAM, ATI Graphics (similar to the PC above), and OSX Tiger will cost you $1200 new, no assembly required. Hmmm, looks like a tie to me (if you're not intending to install Windows). I guess it really does depend on who you are and what you want to do. The Macintosh definitely is not out of reach for the person looking to buy a new PC.

            [b]> Is this worth giving them the time of day?[/b]

            Yes. Yes it is.
            D-cat