Review: ECS EZ-Buddie SFF PC

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NOISE / COOLING ANALYSIS

A system was assembled in the EZ-Buddie with the following components:

  • Intel P4-2.53 processor (533 MHz bus)
  • 256 MB PC2100 RAM
  • Seagate Barracuda IV - 20G 1-platter hard drive (our quiet reference)
  • Samsung SM-352BRNS DVD-ROM / CD-RW drive

The following diagnostic tools were used for measurements and analysis

At startup, all the fans appear to come up at full speed for a few seconds, then slow down so that the overall noise level is quite low, somewhere in the mid-20s dBA. It does not stay at this level however; the noise climbs steadily even when the system is in idle.

EZ-Buddie NOISE*
Main Case
External PS
Combined
Idle
34 dBA
34 dBA
36.5 dBA
Max CPU, >20 mins
36 dBA
35.5 dBA
38 dBA

*All noise measured at 1 meter distance in dB(A) with ambient background noise of ~23 dBA, 24° C room temperature.

Other Benchmarks

EZ-Buddie
Idle
Max
CPU Fan (RPM)
2300
2700
Case Fan (RPM)
1750
1900
CPU Temp
30° C
53° C
System Temp*
40° C
47° C
Hard Drive Temp
37° C
43° C
AC Power Draw
45W
103W / 124W**

*This is from an embedded temp sensor on the motherboard, probably close to the CPU and the Northbridge chip, as it starts at a high 40° C.

**The 124W figure was the highest peak seen running CPUBurn for 100% CPU load while also playing a DVD movie.

Cooling Note: Raising the EZ-Buddie so that its bottom was 1" above the table surface had a significant impact on its internal temperature, dropping CPU, case and HDD temperatures by a minimum of 2° C when the system was at full load. This confirms the earlier comment that the vent holes on the bottom of the case need a little more space to allow efficient air intake.

Noisy External Power Supply Box

The external power supply box is the most prominent source of noise in the EZ-Buddie. Note that the phrase most prominent was used, not loudest.

The two 80mm fans in the main box may be louder when the system is running full tilt. But the noise made by the PS fan is a higher pitched whirr, close to a whine. Plus there is the chuffing turbulence of the air pumping through the restrictive tunnel that is the external PS box. Finally, there is a prominent electronic whine, probably from resonating coils in the PS. This noise is subdued at first, but becomes louder with prolonged load on the system. After 20 minutes of CPUBurn stressing the system, the noise of the external PS box is much like a loud hard drive. Nasty and whiny. It is possible that coil whine may not show up on all samples, as PS coil whine is not consistent; often, it also changes with different components in the system.

The total noise of the sample EZ-Buddie does not qualify as quiet. Our benchmark for quiet in a PC is below about 30 dBA @ 1 meter, with consideration given for a benign acoustic signature. (In other words, if it is louder than 30 dBA but has a sonic signature that is smooth and somehow less obtrusive than the dB figure by itself would suggest.) This system is bit too loud at 36~38 dBA, and its acoustic signature a bit too annoying.

The noise emitted by the main box is mostly lower frequency fan noise that is easy to tame by swapping out the fans for quieter models, and perhaps cutting away the back exhaust grill to minimize air turbulence. The sane choice of 80mm fans makes this simple. If the CPU heatsink was also swapped out with a more powerful cooler from SPCR's Recommended HS list, the main box could be considerably quieter AND cooler than it is in stock form.

The external power supply box is the more guilty culprit, exhibiting a frequency balance and noise mix that most people will find at least mildly annoying. It is not terribly loud, but it is instantly noticeable in a quiet room. Because it is external to the main PC case, at least it can be placed farther away from the operator's ears. And should they choose to do so, it will be easier for ECS to source a different PS box for lower noise than to redesign one that's built into the PC.

Better Mounting of PS Components Needed? -- Interestingly, the coil whine noise drops substantially when the external PS box is simply held in the hand. When the external PS box is placed on the desk or the floor, the whining noise increases very audibly (although the overall dBA hardly changes). This was confirmed with a couple of different listeners. The phenomenon suggests that improved damped mounting of components in the PS box could lead to reduced noise and make it much more tolerable to most people.

The mounting setup for the hard drive is not great for noise. Even with the very quiet single-platter Barracuda IV, the seek noise is easily heard due to the close coupling to the case. There is enough room to rig up a suspension for the HDD in the space at the bottom of the case if a AGP slot VGA card is not used.

Computing Performance

The EZ-Buddie held no surprises in terms of its computing capabilities. Configured with the P4-2.53 as detailed above, the system worked perfectly well in a variety of functions ranging from typical office work, to image editing with Photoshop, sophisticated desktop and web publishing.

EZ-Watcher's CPU speed control device works exactly as described, allowing you to adjust the operating speed by twisting a dial on the front panel. It was surprising to see that the change in CPU speed was not reflected by either the control panels in Windows XP or by SiSoft Sandra information modules. Benchmarks did show obvious changes in performance, however, proof that the real operating speed was being moved up and down.

The range of stable speeds with this P4-2.53 went from a low of about 2.2 GHz to a high of about 2.75 Ghz. One would think that over- or under-clocking via a flexible BIOS would provide a broader range. The BIOS (dated 9 May 2003) in the EZ-Buddie is relatively limited, allowing only a small number of present bus and memory speeds and no Vcore adjustments.

For the record, here are a couple of SiSoft Sandra benchmarks to show that this system is a capable performer.

CONCLUSIONS

The EZ-Buddie is an interesting SFF PC. It has a mix of strengths and weaknesses:

PRO

  • Appealing, stylish appearance
  • Convenient clock speed knob
  • Quiet thermal fan control system
  • 80mm fans
  • Built-in VGA
  • Great built-in connectivity
  • Unique 6-in-1 card reader
  • Flexible location of external PS box
  • Probably quieter than typical SFF PC
  • Main case easily modified for lower noise
  • Good computing performance

CON

  • Noisier than is ideal for a SFF PC
  • Coil whine and 40mm fan whine from external PS box
  • Evidence of inadequate mechanical damping in external PS box
  • Case feet too short / low.
  • Fit could be better on some parts

For those seeking simplicity and style in a casual use SFF PC, the EZ-Buddie is a pretty good choice. It certainly has many interesting features that could be compelling for some users. It is not an ideal choice for quiet lovers, unless the external PS box can be acoustically isolated, perhaps in a desk drawer or cabinet (with a bit of care about cooling ventilation). For those who are willing and able to make modifications, isolating the external PS box and swapping out the fans in the main case can result in a quiet system, one that would produce less than 30 dBA.

Much thanks to ECS Elitegroup for the review sample and their kind support.

* * * * *

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