Coolermaster's Fanless TC-100 mini-ITX case

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OVERVIEW

It's obvious that the TC-100 is a "heatsink case." Each side panel is made of a block extruded aluminum with fins, much like a small stereo power amplifier. Its design follows the tradition of fanless cases establisihed first by a now-defunct German company called Signum Data, which produced a close predecessor to the Hush Technologies ATX fanless computers. As with the Hush and the mCubed HFX, heatpipes are used to transfer the heat from the CPU and other hot components to the heatsinks.

One of the most important questions is which motherboards the heatpipe kits are available for. A total of nine motherboards were approved in the company's thermal testing. Cooling kits are available for all seven of the mini-ITX boards tested.

At time of writing, ECX-43001-S1-GP is offered, a combination of the TC-100 with either wall-mount or rubber feet base, 60W AC/DC adapter and DC/DC module, and one complete thermal kit.

If your board of choice is not supported by one of the Coolermaster cooling kits, it's probably worth examining and comparing photos and descriptions of the approved boards against your board. Given the mini-ITX board's small size, the layout options are finite. You may find that one of the approved motherboards has a layout close enough to your board to warrant a try. Be prepared to modify and fudge if necessary, however.

Alternatively, you can try one of the Universal CPU/Chipset Block kits, along with a Pipe Bending Tool and a set of heatpipes to devise your own custom cooling solution. Availability could be an issue, however.



HEATPIPE FUNDAMENTALS

We'll be referring to various aspects of heatpipe cooling in this article. Here's a brief summary of heatpipes and how they work, by Noren Products in California.

A heat pipe is an extremely efficient thermal conductor. Typically, a heat pipe consists of a sealed container (usually aluminum or copper), a wicking structure and a small amount of working fluid under its own pressure. Applying heat anywhere along the surface of the heat pipe causes the liquid at that point to boil and enter a vapor state. When that happens, the liquid picks up the latent heat of vaporization. The gas, which then has a higher pressure, moves inside the heat pipe to the colder location where it condenses. The condensed fluid travels back along the wick and repeats the process [continuously as long as there is heat at the evaporator end]. Far more conductive than copper of the same weight, heat pipes conduct large volumes of thermal energy away from the heat source.

Performance
Heat pipes perform much differently than solid conductors that have a fixed thermal resistance. Good heat pipe design requires understanding three controlling resistances in the heat pipe. These three resistances are: Input resistance (Evaporator), Output resistance (condensor), and resistance along the length of the heat pipe. For most designs, the resistance along the length of the heat pipe is so small it is negligible and not even considered. The input, output and joints thermal resistances usually control the performance of the heat pipe.

Input
The input (or evaporator) should be located in the same plane as, or below, the condensor to take advantage of gravity assistance. A copper spreader plate should be used for inputs with high heat flux.

Output
The output (or condensor) should be located where the waste heat can be removed from the system by means such as liquid cooling, forced air cooling, natural convection, or combinations of these. Design factors to consider include airflow requirements, cooling fins optimization, and waste heat management.

Thermal Joint
The thermal joint is a critical component of the system’s thermal budget. Thermal resistance varies greatly among the different types of joints. The best are brazed or soldered joints; the worst are “clip on” joints.

Orientation
The orientation of the heat pipe is important to the overall design and efficiency of the cooling system. While heat pipes function in any direction, it is important to consider the effects of working “with gravity” or “against gravity.”


The TC-100 is quite attractive, with rounded fin edges following the profile of its thick aluminum front panel.


The slot in the top center is for a slim optical drive.


The amount of room taken up by the hole for the motherboard I/O panel indicates how small the case really is.

The bottom panel is a bit odd, with four industrial-looking screw anchor points extending beyond the perimeter of the case. It is the wall-mount version; there is a version with rubber feel for desktop use.


The top panel slides out backwards with the removal of a single thumbscrew. A small DC/DC power board is mounted on the bottom panel, near the front. Note the rectagular inset in the motherboard tray. Removing the bottom panel gains access to the underside of the motherboard, which is probably useful where a bolt-through heatblock might be used. The specifications suggest a different use: Access to the CF card reader mounted on the trace side of some mini-ITX boards.


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