Antec NSK2400 / Fusion Media PC Case

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POSTSCRIPT

December 20, 2006 by Devon Cooke

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 theme.

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.

VFD

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 Soundgraph's 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.

CONCLUSIONS

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 Fusion.

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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