The sound of one hand clapping
IGOR! PULL THE SWITCH! ... NOW LIVE! ... LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIVE!
There's a bit of mad scientist in all of us deep down I think. For years I've always wanted a computer that made absolutely no noise at all and looking at all the "noise reducing" products on the market would begin to make my wallet cry at the cost of silencing my current system.
Recently, however, there has been a bit of a war, although only a few who have been paying attention have realised it. The war is on wattage...more specifically the amount your processor produces while it's chugging away.
Slowly and surely low-power systems have been leaking into the market and competing for your hard earned cash. Intel touting Atoms, VIA sporting Nanos and AMD at home with the Windsors; each brings certain benefits and pitfalls with them.
The time is right, I have convinced myself. The time is now to build a system that can handle the entertainment and the everyday without so much as a whisper emanating from the case.
But before we jump right in, we have to identify the right components for the job; it's important to layout the more demanding things we want the system to achieve so that the machine can meet all expectations.
Looking at the entertainment side, there's High Definition video playback; that means 1080p video, and yes, a Blu-ray drive will be required.
Fall Down, Get Up
We've fallen down on the no-moving-parts aspect already. Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about the optical disc drives; until they invent ones that do not spin the disc up to read it, that is. So for now let's just pretend it doesn't matter. Mum's the word!
Picking a processor is not as easy as it seems; there are a lot of them out there and most will do the job. But we don't just want it to do it; we want it to do it quietly, so a balance of wattage to processing power must be achieved.
AMD offer a tempting 2.5GHz dual core number cruncher with a low 45watts of dissipation; providing us with enough grunt to handle more demanding video playback like h.264 encoded 1080p files.
But this system isn't just about playing Blu-ray discs and episodes of FutuRAMa, what if we want to play some games on the side? That processor is going to have to be coupled with a decent graphics chipset to handle some good multiplayer titles like Team Fortress or Call of Duty.
Step up the J&W 780 MINIX!
There here's a cheeky ITX form-factor, AM2+ socketed, 780 AMD chipset with a smattering of dedicated video RAM.
This is one of the best packages I've seen things come in so far; a hinged lid with pocket for manuals, stickers and cables; very classy.
The usual accoutrements are provided including manual, backplane, data cables and a 40mm fan for cooling the northbridge/GPU.
On Fire Baby!
As can be seen from the sticker courteously left on the heatsink, it is recommended you have a cloud with a face blow on your computer to keep it cool. Failing that, you should make sure that some kind of airflow wafts its way across the metal to remove excess heat build up.
RAM sockets on this board are the dinky variety, so you will have to either spring for some SO-DIMM laptop style DDR2 or put your current DDR2 on a hot wash cycle to shrink it down.
The view from behind shows that this board is quite serious about muscling its way into your living room; with a HDMI, optical and coax output alongside the usual array to give more options than you can shake a lead at.
This board feels heavy for its size and for good reason too; it's backed by a metal mounting bracket to ensure that any heatsink is firmly attached to the board and keeps the pressure distributed around the mounting holes and socket area. This is important for reasons that will become apparent later.
Now, considering that we are going to run this setup fan-less, we are going to need to make sure that maximum thermal transfer is occurring to the heat sinks of the NB/GPU and any other components. Sorry J&W! - I'm not saying you are not good enough, but we need some proper thermal gunk for this job.
The power transistors here are attached to their heatsink by a combination of thermal pad and ceRAMic paste.
Giving the heatsinks a good old clean up with some trusty TIM Clean, making everything smell citrus fresh.
Scrubs Up Nice
Don't forget to clean the heatsinks and the chip dies on the motherboard!
Time for a liberal application of some Arctic Cooling MX-2, the TT choice thermal gunk!
Giving the power transistors a little dab each will ensure good thermal conductivity through to the heatsink to get rid of that pesky thermal build-up.
Bite Sized RAM
For RAM we have some choice SO-DIMM modules supplied by Kingston.
Each module is DDR2-800 in 2GB flavour.
And of course we have a paired kit to give us a nice 4GB.
One thing that bugged me about the RAM placement on the motherboard was the proximity to the CPU socket; there is potential for a heatsink to foul them if it was a wide one.
You spin me right round baby
Now for the next and most crucial part of the system in ensuring there is no noise generated from moving parts; the hard drive.... or more specifically in this case, the Solid State Drive!
No annoying disk spin and vibration noise here; pure silence and blisteringly fast speeds!
G.Skill were kind enough to send us their 64 GB model in a nice package, encased in high density foam.
Most SSDs now are in the laptop format 2.5" size; this creates something of an issue if you want to mount it in a regular sized ATX case and you will most likely have to buy an adapter bracket to fit it in.
As can be seen from the back of the drive, there are standard SATA ports for data and power as well as a dinky USB2 socket that lets you use this disk drive as a portable storage device. How handy!
IGOR! More Brains!
Next up we have the brains of the operation (literally); the AMD CPU.
This is a 2.5GHz X2 dual core flavour, with a 45 Watt rating. This should provide enough grunt to handle even the most demanding tasks without cooking the case.
While 45 Watts isn't a lot of power, it's still enough to generate some significant temperatures and the biggest problem becomes moving the heat out of the case to make sure that thermal run away does not occur.
For this we will need a heatsink with a large surface area, possibly even a massive one...
The Scythe Orochi! A beast of a heatsink! Absolutely massive!
A variety of attachments help you fit it to any socket type and there's a free sampling of thermal gunk, too.
Look at that fan! That's 140mm! At 500RPM you won't even hear that thing running. But you know what? - I'm not even going to mount it, because we don't want a single moving part in this build.
The CPU retention clips are solid; they attach onto the bottom of the heatsink itself and will hold the thing firm against your board. This is great because despite all the aluminium fins on this thing, it is HEAVY.
Freshly Chopped Case
The next ingredient in our twisted cooking class today is the case itself. Now, the case selection process has been defined more by the heatsink than anything else. I need a case that's wide enough to fit the height of the Orochi as well as a mesh side panel to allow airflow through the case by using convection.
The Silverstone SG03 fills this niche precisely; a regal looking black anodised aluminium mATX form factor case.
The front panels swing open to reveal the plethora of ports and an additional 3.5" drive bay slot, while the opposing side holds the LEDs and the reset switch.
A winning factor in this case is the nice mesh side screen that will help draw in cool air to the heatsink through natural convection, removing the need for a fan.
On top we have the power button in the same awesome brushed black aluminium with machined silver edge. Classy!
Looking at the back we see another reason for choosing this case; there is a gaping maw where the PSU mounts over the CPU and we will use this hole to our advantage later with the heatsink.
A quick look inside shows a support strut which doubles as a mount for the 3.5" drive bay slot.
Internal case circuitry is kept minimal with header connections for FireWire, USB and audio.
A 100mm fan occupies the front grill to draw cold air into the case... that will have to go!
The bottom of the chassis hides a clever feature indeed. Four screws hold the meaty looking aluminium HDD trays into the bottom of the case.
They drop down easily and allow access to fit two 3.5" HDDs using plastic slide clips supplied in the case accessories box.
A closer look at the 3.5"front port tray support thingy.
And the accessories you get with this case are minimal, but more than adequate.
The ITX board almost looks dwarfed by the size of a mATX case; but don't worry, that empty space will soon be filled with our massive Orochi heatsink!
First let's remove the fan at the front to give us a little more room and tidy up the insides of the case while we're at it.
Popping out the front grill is no problem really, but removing the fan is another matter.
After much confusion and fruitless attempts, I finally figured out how to remove the front mesh from the fan mount. This has to be removed in order to gain access to the fan mounting screws.
These small clips on the side are the reason for much frustration in attempting to remove the grill. But once you do it you discover the 'knack' for getting it off easily.
A noteworthy feature is the inclusion of a soft fine mesh screen on the mounting bracket, acting as a large particle dust filter. For this I am thankful my systems always end up caked in dust no matter how hard I try to prevent it.
The fan is really quiet for a 100mm variety; good work there Silverstone!
The Blu-ray drive also plays HD-DVDs... that is, if you want to.
Now, you are probably confused about what I'm going to do to power this thing. Well, there are not a lot of options with a heatsink the size of ours and really you have to invest in either a picoPSU or another Small Form Factor PSU that can be mounted inside the case.
Here I have chosen to re-use a power supply that was provided in another small form factor case and it bolts nicely to a spare motherboard mounting hole next to the ITX board.
With the heatsink mounted you can barely even see the motherboard - I told you it was huge!
Putting the side on it lines up nicely with the mesh panel to provide good heat exchange.
And that is how we make a totally silent PC!
But we're not done yet. You wouldn't just take my word that it works, right? -
Well, how about some temperature and load graphs?
Here we have the system playing back a 1080p h.264 encoded avi from the SDD. This requires a lot more processing power than playing back from a Blu-ray drive. After an hour of playback the temperatures level out at about 45/46 deg C for the CPU cores and 52 deg C for the motherboard temperature sensor (wherever it is).
Next, an experiment was tried to lower the stock speed and voltages down to an acceptable level to show that you don't need the full 2.5GHz to playback a movie. The voltages were dropped to 0.925 for the vcore and the CPU speed taken down to 2GHz.
Playing back a Blu-ray disc shows that the CPU cores drop to about 40/41 deg C and the motherboard drops to 50 deg C after an hour of disc playback; nice and cool.
But if running things below stock speed doesn't tickle your fancy, then we reset the voltages and core speed to defaults and play the movie again. This time CPU temperatures jumped by 10 deg C up to 50/51 and the motherboard sensor (still no idea where it is) up around 58 deg C.
What can we take home from this? Well, under-clocking and under-volting can result in significant temperature drops, so long as you have the performance excess to handle the core requirements of the system. In our case playing back HD videos was easily achievable with a 2GHz core speed.
The downside to a system like this really comes around to the size of the case required and the size of the heatsink inside of it. There are a number of other options available out there with specialist case manufacturers attaching heat pipes directly to the side of their thick walled and finned aluminium cases.
The bottom line is really down to how much you want to spend and how quiet you are willing to tolerate. Today has proven that it doesn't cost the world to make a system that is totally silent, so long as you don't mind a slightly larger case.
Don't be afraid to experiment with under-volting, too. There is rarely any damage to be done to a processor by reducing its voltage. You might be surprised what you can get those left over bits of technology to do when you play around with them.
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