Building a Mini 'Quieter-than-a-Whisper' Linux PC

Do-It-Yourself Systems
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Getting It Up and Running with Linux

I ordered the case, m/b and processor for only $150, and planned to use a Seagate hard drive with fluid bearing motor (the quietest 7200 rpm drive I know of- 2.0 bels idle acoustics). Completing the package were a generic cdrw and floppy, along with 256MB of Crucial PC133 memory.

Assembling the components was made easier because the AOpen case had the rotatable and removeable drive frame. And I took the Seagate drive from my AMD box and put it in the new case, so I would be able to start with a running linux system after using a boot floppy to....well...boot everything.

The VIA C3 866mhz processor comes with heatsink and fan. Since it should run ok without the fan, I removed it and just dropped the C3 into the 370 socket and snapped on the heat sink clip and that was it. The Shuttle MV/25 comes with standard length floppy and ide cables, but if you have some shorter length cables, use them to save some space in this small enclosure. All the parts hooked up without a hitch.

From left: half-height NIC, R-angle PCI riser with TV card, CPU heat sink, pink Enermax fan in PSU

This case doesn't come with a PC speaker, so you won't be hearing annoying beeping sounds, which I think is perfectly appropriate for a quiet PC. Well now comes the moment of truth, a slight trepidation as I plug in the monitor and make the final connections just before the first press of the on button...will the BIOS recognize everthing and post, will the boot disk allow me to start linux, will the VIA C3 overheat without a cpu fan and just as importantly, will it run 'quieter-than-a-whisper'?

The BIOS on this board is by Award, the same BIOS thats on the Abit-KT7 m/b but without the overclocking options (the Shuttle manual has a very good section devoted to using the BIOS to setup hardware related functions in your system). The first check in the BIOS is the PC Health Status for the CPU temperatures. Its only 25C as I begin to check the BIOS settings. After idling a while the tempurature rises only a bit. So it looks ok to boot.

The Seagate hard drive swapped from my running linux box has 5 different linux distros on it and uses Grub for the boot loader. After booting with the floppy to bring up the Grub boot menu, I make the adjustments for the swapped hard drive and boot to the built-from-source and optimized for i686 distro named Gentoo linux. No luck. It just hangs. Well lets try again with the Slackware partition. OK it boots this time. Now let me try Debian. That boots also.

Well after some time I realize that Debian and Slackware are built for i386. And the VIA C3 processor won't boot a complete linux distro compiled from source with i686 optimizations. But I really want to use the new Gentoo linux. Well Gentoo also has an iso built with i586 optimizations. I get that and put it on the hard drive and soon its up and running the optimized for i586 Gentoo linux. It feels comfortable, but how high are the CPU temps running?

I download the latest lm_sensors, which is used to monitor cpu temperatures. After a quick #make, install and probe, you only need to #modprobe the i2c-isa and via686a modules and run #sensors to check the temps and voltages. No problem. The cpu hovers around 35C. The cpu core is set at an ultra low 1.35 volts. I am really happy with the quietness of Seagate's fluid bearing hard drive and this m/b supports Ultra DMA-100 mode 5, for fast hard drive performance that enhances system responsiveness. Linux uses the hdparm utility to set DMA mode on and test the drive. Running #hdparm -d 1 -t /dev/hda gives: Timing buffered disk reads: 64 MB in 2.44 seconds = 26.23 MB/sec

Not bad performance at all, and since there are IDE1 and IDE2 connectors I plan on using the floppy drive slot for a second hard drive. In case you need to revert to a floppy its really easy to swap out with this case. As far as I know AOpen is the only mini case with the rotatable and removeable drive frame. Now its time to check the on-board sound and lan. Again just run #modprobe VIA82cxxx_audio for the sound and pop in a cd to listen. The lan driver- 8139too I have compiled into the kernel so the eth0 interface is recognized at boot and the net connection is made by the distro. I run #rdate to the nearest time server to check that the net connection is good and set the time. Now if you connect with a modem you will have to buy an amr modem card which will run about $10-20 extra. Luckily I have a cable connection.

Benchmarks

How about stressing this cpu with a kernel compile? Well the VIA 866mhz takes about 8 minutes to compile the 2.4.17 kernel. Thats about 5 minutes longer than a AMD T-bird 1.2ghz using a similar config file. But this isn't built for speed, its built to be 'quieter-than-a-whisper'. Fortunately the compile time temperatures stay around 40C, so a CPU fan wont be needed.

Now its time for_my_stress test...configuring X for the built-in graphics. I run #xf86config knowing that it needs support for the Trident Cyberblade (generic). In the XFree86-4.2 cardbase its listed as card #501. Another tip for your XF86Config is to Load "extmod", else you lose the X display when you switch to console. A few more choices and I am ready to run #startx ...using the new XF86Config file. Success! The Sawfish window manager starts up with a very sharp-looking 1024x768 display.

Well the noise coming from the single fan in the cpu is certainly quieter than my other PC's, but it can be quieter.So I pop open the case and remove the power supply. The original p/s fan comes out and in goes a new 80mm manually adjustable (1000-3000rpm) fan. Its a tight fit because the original fan is 20mm thick and the new one is 25mm. This is an Enermax fan and it is used in the latest Enermax power supplies to adjust the fan speed. Everything is put back together (did I mention how easy it is with the removeable drive frame) with the fan set to the lowest rpm.

Now its back up running and ....let me tell you folks...this puppy is quiet. It definitely meets the less than 20dBA noise level.

With a single fan running at 1000 rpm there is now a blissfull quietness. It puts me at complete ease while working at the computer. I relax and savor the sound of silence between the clicks of the keyboard.

There is a neat monitor for linux apps which sits in the corner of your screen called gkrellm. So with the Gentoo linux distro you run this single command: #emerge gkrellm ...to download the source, compile and install it. Then configure the sensors settings and voila! The cpu temps and voltages from lm_sensors are displayed on the desktop in the gkrellm monitor panel, along with practically any other monitor readings you want,including the weather.

So Does this Processor Do the Job on the Desktop?

Right now, the desktop has 4 workspaces open: opera web browser in space1, sylpheed mail/news reader in space2, xchat-irc in space3 and various stuff in space4, along with 10 open xterms, the gkrellm monitor and a file manager. And top shows the cpu at 90% idle.

After setting up printing with CUPS and the latest gimp-print-drivers, my Epson inkjet is ready to print. In this environment the VIA C3 is the equal of the newest Celeron. Games and video intensive apps may suffer because of the integrated graphics but at about $400 for the guaranteed 'quieter-than-a-whisper' mini PC I am very happy with the results. Peace at last.

As for upgradeability, VIA has announced in the second quarter of 2002 C3 frequencies will increase up to 1.2GHz. Also, a C3 processor with a 1.2GHz frequency will be released, but it will be based on a new core with a second level cache increased to 256KB and will be made with 0.13-micron technology. A number of other improvements will be made to increase its performance. At the same time, the new processors will stay compatible with Socket 370 (FC-PGA2). I am anxious to see the thermal specs on this new C3.

After using this PC for a few weeks, I decided to install a Pinnacle full- size TV tuner/fm stereo card. So I found a PCI risercard with right-angle adaptor that allows the full height card to fit into the low profile slot, by positioning the card parallel to the mother board. After drilling a few holes in the back panel for the TV/fm cable jacks, I was perfectly content to use this mini PC as my full time desktop computer.

A side view shows pink Enermax fan in PSU more clearly.

Conclusion

As the parts list shows this is a pretty affordable PC that runs linux on the desktop. The slim-line case can sit under your monitor to save space and because its "quieter-than-a-whisper" you wont even notice its there. Its not for the hardcore gamers, but for anyone looking for a little peace and quiet at their desktop this is one cool performer.

Parts List:

  • $55 Shuttle MV/25 mother board
  • $53 VIA C3 866mhz processor
  • $44 AOpen H340D slim-line case
  • $86 Crucial P133 256MB SDRAM
  • $77 Seagate Barracuda IV 40GB
  • $66 CDRW
  • $ 9 Floppy drive
  • $ 8 Enermax adj-speed fan
  • $398 Total*

Resources:

Shuttle:motherboard
VIA Apollo Chipset:VIA chipset
VIA C3-Ezra-T Processor:VIA C3
Aopen Case:slim line case
Review of VIA C3 cpu:C3 review
Review of SV24-PC:SV24 review
The Silent PC:noise factors
ATX form factors:ATX spec
Celeron Thermal Management:: see google cache page for this title

*For easy shopping I bought all the parts from newegg.com except for the AOpen case which I got from myaopen.com

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