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December 20, 2006 by Devon
Back in April, we mentioned that the NSK2400 would be joined by a high end
cousin called the Fusion, which has now been released. The Fusion is aimed at
the lucrative HTPC market, so the differences are more stylistic than technical.
The internal layout and cooling characteristics have not changed they'd
be tough to improve and all but one of the changes are visible externally.
What are the changes? Most of them are integrated into the new front bezel,
which sports the following improved characteristics:
- It's made of brushed aluminum instead of painted plastic, with all the visual
class that this implies.
- There is a large, smooth-rolling volume knob.
- The top optical bay is now occupied by a two line VFD.
- The bottom optical bay comes with a stealthed, brushed aluminum cover.
- A Firewire port has been added to the front panel.
In addition, there is one other change: The included power supply is rated
for 430W instead of 380W, though it comes from the same product line. The new
model number is SU-430, and, like the
SU-380, it appears to be manufactured for Antec by Seasonic. Noise and voltage
regulation were more or less identical to the SU-380, so we
refer you to that review for information about how the power supply performs.
One caveat: For some reason, our sample's +12V Aux cable was only 12" long
a far cry from the 25" cable that came with the SU-380. 12"
is too short our test system required a cable extender before we could
hook it up.
All together, the new features bump the price up by about double. Online prices
for the Fusion are centered around US$170, though it can be found for as low
as US$120 and as high as US$300. That's about right when you consider what you
get. Most of the increase comes from the VFD and the heftier power supply. Stand-alone
VFDs start around US$50 and can be difficult to find.
The graphic design of the box looks inspired by Microsoft's Media Center
The Fusion is shipped in a colorful retail box that takes its visual cues from
Microsoft's Windows Media Center Edition. The blue background and colored icons
fit perfectly with the MCE interface.
A sleek brushed aluminum finish.
The change from plastic to aluminum is subtle the painted plastic in
the NSK2400 did look very good but it shows itself as a soft, reflective
sheen that no plastic can match. A word of warning though: Like all brushed
aluminum, the surface was susceptible to fingerprints, which are certain to
accumulate around the optical bay and the power buttons.
The volume knob, the VFD, and the stealthed drive bay help complete the appearance
of class. Somehow, the Fusion looks more "finished" than the NSK2400,
despite the oddity of having a volume knob on the front of a PC.
The glamor shot.
Functionally, the new bezel doesn't change much, but there is one thing that
may require caution. The stealth bay may cause headaches for some people, since
it is not adjustable and not removable. On top of that, the drive bay does not
allow the bottom drive to be adjusted forward and back, so if you have an unusually
shaped drive, a replacement may be in order. The same goes for drives with an
oddly placed eject button; if it's not reasonably close to the lower right corner, the pass-through button on the front may not work properly.
The VFD (Vacuum Fluorescent Display) is what really sets the Fusion apart from
the NSK2400, but it is a surprisingly basic model: Two lines of 16 characters
each, with no remote control or IR sensor. It requires one USB port internal
or external and is powered by the otherwise useless floppy header from
the power supply.
This HTPC sponsored by...
The back side leaves plenty of room for tucking cables out of the way.
The VFD was sourced from a Korean company called Sound
Graph known for iMon and iMedian HTPC software. Similar VFDs can
be found in many HTPC cases from Silverstone, Cooler Master, Thermaltake, and
others. The device driver is Windows only, though some
enthusiasts have created their own driver for Linux.
The interface for the VFD is quite simple, and is designed more for ease of
use than wide customization. The driver applet allows the user to choose what
is displayed on the VFD from a limited range of options Graphic EQ, System
Info, Media Info, Email Check, Headline News, World City Time & Weather,
and a custom "Stand-By" message but there is no real way of
controlling when each category is displayed. The Graphic EQ is visible whenever
media is played, and presumably the e-mail function will interrupt whatever
is showing when e-mail arrives, but it's not at all clear when and how the other
categories get displayed.
For a regular system, the software worked pretty much as expected. Whatever
we selected was displayed, and the software had no problems reporting the track
information and EQ data from Winamp. All was not perfect however, especially
where the volume knob was concerned. The driver applet does not allow the volume
knob's functionality to be tweaked or disabled. Why would you want to do that?
Not everyone would, but if you're familiar with the ins and outs of Kmixer,
WDM, ASIO and S/PDIF, you might want to keep reading...
The volume knob always controls the Main Output in the System mixer. It is
designed to work with any WDM audio driver. However, the volume knob did not
work with the ASIO driver that we tested for the simple reason that ASIO
output bypasses Windows' system mixer. That in itself would not be noteworthy
if it were not for the fact that ASIO output was impossible while the VFD software
was running. That is a problem, since ASIO (or Kernal Streaming) is necessary
to pass Dolby Digital or DTS signals out to an external receiver via S/PDIF.
There were other oddities as well. Even when the WDM driver was used, the S/PDIF
output did not work as expected. Our testing revealed that the VFD software
added a duplicate signal into the S/PDIF output that was controlled by the Fusion's
volume knob and could be heard even when the external receiver was muted (how?!??).
Conversely, when the Fusion knob was cranked to zero, the original signal could
still be controlled externally. When both signals were active, the resulting
output was very VERY LOUD.
The obvious solution to these problems is simply to disable the volume knob,
but as noted the software does not provide a way to do this. As
a result, the only way were were able to restore functionality was to disable
the VFD software altogether and lose the ability to use the VFD.
So, we turned to alternate solutions... We were frustrated to discover that
stand-alone iMon software (from which the Antec driver is derived) did not
work with the Fusion VFD. This is a pity, as the stand-alone version allows
greater control over the display, including the use of plug-ins for additional
programs (mostly other media players). As a last resort, those with programming
experience may be interested in downloading the
iMon VFD API and writing their own driver.
So, is the Fusion worth paying double the price of the NSK2400? If you like
the gimmick effect of the VFD, by all means. It's fun to play with, and the
information that it provides at a glance may be quite useful, especially if
the driver can be improved. If you don't want (or can't use) the VFD, the only
real reason to get it is the visual appeal. The larger power supply is a nice
touch, but it's unnecessary for the MicroATX HTPC systems that will fit in the
So, ask yourself: How important is style in your HTPC? Is a brushed aluminum
finish and a stealthed drive bay worth an extra US$80? For a high end home theater,
the extra premium is peanuts compared to the cost of the rest of the components
(which explains why there is a market for $300 HTPC cases), and style is probably
very important. And that's the key: The Fusion is a high end part, and
it commands a high end price. If you're not in the high end market, you're better
buying the NSK2400 and spending the extra money on something more important.
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