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

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.

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.