Review: FrontierPC's Silent XP2500+ system

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The Frontier Silent PC system was set up in my test lab (a small converted kitchen about 10' x 10') in a typical location for mid-tower systems: To my right, under the desk on the linoleum floor. The room has very lively acoustics, which makes it ideal for analyzing noises emitted by PCs. In a carpeted or less acoustically lively room, the overall noise level would be lower than heard in this room.

The system was connected up to a Samsung 173T LCD monitor, a keyboard and a mouse. It was also plugged into my home office LAN system. Powering up the system, at least one of the fans emitted a squealing noise that was a bit alarming, even though it was not loud. I opened up the case to observe what was going on.

The Arctic Cooling CPU cooler and case fans, both 80mm in diameter, are thermistor controlled. Their speed is dependent on the temperature of a thermistor, a little pin-head size thing at the end of a short lead that goes back into the fan. The CPU cooling fan has its thermistor embedded in the fins of the heatsink while the case fan's thermistor hangs off an inch into the case, near the CPU.

View of CPU, HSF, VGA card, back case fan and PSU.

It appeared that because of low ambient temperature, the fans were barely getting enough voltage to start, and this start-stop action was causing them to emit the sqealing noise. This was early on a November morning when the furnace in the house had been off all night, so the temperature in the room was a cool 18C. I closed the case back up to see how long it would take for the fans to stabilize. In about 90 seconds from startup, the squealing noise stopped altogether, and I could see both fans spinning steadily - but slowly.

While the case was open, I also noted the very tidy arrangement of the cables, which is ideal for reducing airflow resistance and thus maximizing the cooling effect of whatever airflow is there. This helps slow spinning fans achieve very effective cooling. There are no screws needed or used for either the PCI/AGP cards or the drives, or even the side panel. And the front grill comes on and off with welcome ease when the left side panel is open.

A little cable-gami, √° la Ralf Hutter, keeps airflow impedances to a minimum.

Both the back panel air exhaust and front panel air intake vents feature wide open flow through grills. The back vent can take even 120mm fans, a very good thing, while the front can accommodate up to 92mm. The front panel design is very clever in that much of the external bezel is a wide open steel mesh that does very little to restrict airflow. The free intake airflow aspect of case design has been terribly neglected by most case makers.

Clockwise from left: Back panel with 120mm exhaust grill; front panel vent is also nice and open, takes up to 92mm fan; back side of bottom front bezel shows foam filters behind open grill intake to trap dust.

The overall noise at idle was very low, and the hard drive could not be heard at all even as the operating system was being loaded from it. The low hard drive noise can be attributed to two factors:

  • The wise choice of a Samsung 40G 7200 RPM hard drive, which is naturally very quiet.
  • The NoVibesIII hard drive suspension device, which floats (or decouple mounts) the hard drive to eliminate the noise caused by vibrations going from the drive into the case. This is a very significant cause of noise that afflicts every normally mounted hard drive. Both high frequency noise (whining) and lower frequency noise (120 Hz thrumming) are dramatically reduced by the NoVibesIII suspension device.

Samsung hard drive in NoVibesIII suspension mounting device.

Because optical drives make noise only when accessed, the noise they make, even when loud, is not usually as disturbing as other PC noises. The user is more in control of the noise. The user knows it is temporary (during software installation, data transfer, a burn, gameplay) and will stop as soon as the optical disc is removed. Having said that, the LG combo drive in this system is actually fairly quiet. It has a smooth sound that's not too intrusive, and it can be reduced further by setting a limit on how fast it is allowed to spin in the Nero software. (Sounds strange doesn't it? They make the optical drives faster and faster, then supply speed limiters to slow them back down so you can stand the noise...)

During several days of usage, the Frontier PC XP2500+ performed much as expected. The noise level always stayed at a very quiet level, being virtually unnoticeable whenever there were other sources of noise in the room. The computing performance was very good, with speed and power commensurate to the components used in the system. It was plenty fast for any office, desktop publishing, Photoshop or web design job I threw at it. I am not much of a game player, but a few older ones I had on hand played perfectly fine.

The latest 3D games will surely choke the modest AOpen GeForce 4 MX440-SE 64M VGA card; they all need the latest 3D VGA cards such as the ATI 9800 or the latest nVidia series to play well for a hardcore gamer. There's no reason a faster card could not perform well in this system with such 3D games. FrontierPC says that the highest performance VGA cards normally come with small high speed integrated cooling fans that are very noisy. FrontierPC eliminates this noise in their silent PCs by replacing the stock heatsink fan with aftermarket coolers such as the Arctic Cooling VGA Silencer or the Zalman VGA heatpipe cooler. Note that such mods add to the already high price of the best VGA cards, which can reach over CA$600!

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