Review: FrontierPC's Silent XP2500+ system

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LAB MEASUREMENTS

Noise

Using a highly sensitive laboratory-grade sound level meter in the test lab with all other noise sources turned off or eliminated at 2AM (when the neighborhood ambient noise is at its lowest), some sound pressure levels were taken at various points, all from a 1 meter distance. The ambient noise measured 14 dBA, which is very, very quiet indeed. Tomb-like, in fact. The low ambient level assures the accuracy of the noise readings.

Mic Position
Front
Side
Rear
Top
Min*
23 dBA
26 dBA
28 dBA
26 dBA
Max**
26 dBA
29 dBA
32 dBA
28 dBA
* Min: System at idle (not sleep) or light work such as emailing, web surfing, writing text.
** Max: System under maximum stress using
CPUBurn while the hard drive is being defragged. The noise measurements are taken after 30 minutes in each state.

Many readers may not be familiar with the term "dBA": It stands for decibel, A-weighted. Without getting too deeply into technicalities, let's just say that the dBA is the most widely used noise measurement unit. It is a sound pressure level reading that is weighted to closely reflect human hearing characteristics. For measuring sources of noise, SPL measurements are normally taken at a specified point and distance from the source. For more detailed information on noise and computers, please see my article "Noise in Computing: A Primer".

Here are some typical dBA readings for comparison's sake, from the above mentioned article:

SPL (dB)

TYPICAL ENVIRONMENT AVERAGE

DESCRIPTION

140

30 meters from military aircraft at take off

Threshold of pain

120

Boiler shop (maximum levels)
Ship engine room (full speed)

Almost intolerable

100

Automatic lathe shop
Underground train station (maximum levels)
Printing press room

Extremely noisy

80

Curbside of busy street
Office with tabulating machines

Very noisy

60

Restaurant, Department Store; Noisiest Gamer PC or workstation

Noisy

50

Conversational speech at 1 meter

Clearly audible

35 - 45

Quiet office or library; Typical PC

Subdued

25 - 30

Quiet bedroom at night; Quiet PC

Quiet

20 - 25

Quiet whisper; Very quiet PC
Background in TV and recording studios

Very quiet

15 - 20

Super quiet / fanless PC

Barely audible

<15 Sounds of internal organs Normally inaudible

0

'Normal' threshold of hearing

Not audible

As you can see from the above table, at minimum, the Frontier Silent PC falls into the range of the quiet bedroom at night. This is very good. At maximum, the noise rises up a bit higher. It's still pretty good. Overall, at idle, it is slightly noisier than the ARM System XP2000+ PC tested a little over a year ago. At full load, the FrontierPC system falls a bit further behind as its fan speed up to maintain cooling. (The ARM exhibits a more or less constant level of noise.)

The reason noise goes up at maximum (load on system) is that the thermistor-controlled fans speed up in response to higher temperatures to ensure proper cooling. This leads us to the next set of measurements...

Temperatures

These are the temperatures reported by Motherboard Monitor 5. The CPU reading is from the thermal diode embedded in the AMD XP processor core; the case temperature is from a thermal diode embedded on the motherboard itself, near the CPU. The room ambient temperaturing during this test was 20°C.

Load
CPU
Case
Idle
43°C
28°C
Max
53°C
34°C

The AMD XP processor has a maximum safe operating temperature of 90°C, so the measured 53°C max is perfectly safe. The case temperature tells something about the internal overall case environment. It, too, is very low. So the reduced noise and speed of the fans has not exacted any significant price on effective cooling.

NOTE: When the ambient room temperature is higher, the CPU and case temperature will go up accordingly. So if your summer room temperature is 30°C, you may see 63°C for CPU temp and 44°C for case temp. This is still perfectly safe.

Performance

This review is really focused on the noise aspects of the system, but some readers will feel shortchanged if we don't have at least a glance to the performance. In my opinion, with current component performance levels, virtually any computer is "fast enough" for the average user for 95% of all tasks. 3D games and specialized applications such as pro video or audio editing put special stress on various parts of the systems -- mainly the CPU, VGA card, audio card and/or the hard drive, depending on the app.

The basic platform here -- Chenbro case, AOpen motherboard, AMD XP2500+ processor, Arctic Cooling fans, Seasonic power supply, Kingston DDR PC3200 memory, and Samsung 7200 hard drive -- are all good enough to take a much higher power VGA and/or audio card that would push its performance into a more serious 32-bit computing category.

Some benchmarks:

PC Mark 2002

  • CPU: 5502
  • Memory: 3773
  • Hard drive: 967

Sisoft Sandra

  • Combined Index: 1965

There are no surprises in the benchmarks. They are where they should be for a system with these components: Smack dab in the middle.

CONCLUSIONS

Frontier PC has created a modestly priced yet capable quiet system that provides excellent performance for the vast majority of work-related tasks people do with their computers. It is also very good for the vast majority of entertainment-related activities people do on their PCs, including listening to music, MP3 work, playing DVD movies, and playing games.

This last activity is always a tough one to qualify for, however. The very nature of PC game development is an endless dance between hardware and software developers. As soon as new and improved video cards are introduced, game developers release titles that make use of all the features and speed of such cards. Naturally, serious gamers are encouraged to desire both the latest games and the hardware that best plays them. The cycle will not stop, as long as there is profit in it for game developers and hardware makers: How else to keep consumers on the new-thrills-and-necessary-upgrades treadmill? Frontier PC's Silent system sample is not equipped with a VGA gaming card that will do justice to cutting edge games, but it does fine with less demanding 3D games. Anyone who is interested in more can easily opt for a more powerful VGA card.

The primary selling point of FrontierPC's XP2500+ system is its low noise. And indeed, it is a quiet machine that will be hard to hear as a source of noise in most users' environments. I hesitate to validate the claim of silence, but 23 dBA at 1 meter from the front panel is pretty good. If one uses the trick of applying a large pad of sound absorbent material on the back wall behind the PC to reduce the noise from the rear, it would certainly be inaudible in most circumstances.

FrontierPC says their higher priced models offer similar levels of noise -- with more features and greater performance. Their philosophy is that low noise should be available for those who only email and web surf as well as those who battle aliens in virtual landscapes. Their offering is a much needed addition to the Canadian computer marketplace.

NOTE: I have been informed that this very Silent AMD XP2500+ PC sample is the Grand Prize in Frontier PC's Christmas Giveaway. (I guess I better wipe off my greasy fingerprints before passing it back... :-D) Please visit their site for full details.

Much thanks to FrontierPC in Vancouver for their support of SPCR.

* * *

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