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TESTING & SYSTEM INSTALLATION
The obvious way to test a system like this is to install a system and check cooling and noise under idle and load conditions. But which mini-ITX board?
Initially, one of the Atom-embedded boards seemed best: Zotac IONITX embedded dual-core Atom board with nVidia chipset or the Intel D945GCLF single or dual core Atom board. However, on further reflection, neither seemed ideal. The Intel Atom boards come without a fan for the CPU, but the 945G chipset has a small fan on its heatsink, and it probably cannot be dispensed with either. In our testing, the Zotac IONITX board was cooled adequately without any fan on the open bench, so it seemed obvous that it could be cooled with just the single fan in the Antec case. This seemed too easy to accomplish. Our Zotac sample also came with a 12VDC input power connector, onboard DC/DC conversion for the multiple DC lines, and its own external AC power adapter. Using the Zotac board would not allow us to test out the integrated Antec power solution.
The Intel Atom boards' CPU heatsink is tiny but well positioned for cooling by the Antec ISK-300's single 80mm fan. However, the likelihood of effective NB cooling without that little fan seems low.
The Zotac IONITX board can probably be cooled fine with just the single fan in the Antec ISK-300, but that seems too obvious a conclusion to verify or base a review around.
What about a full-fledged socket 775 board with a C2D processor? Our Intel E7200 sample has proven to be quite a power efficient processor in previous motherboard tests, and with the right heatsink, it might be cooled adequately with just the Antec ISK-300 case fan. The Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi we tested is a full-featured mini-ITX board with good layout and large NB heatsink. This seemed the most promising, even though the system would likely push the ISK-300 to its thermal limits and the integral power supply to its limits as well.
The CPU socket on the Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi is positioned nicely, very close to the Antec ISK-300 exhaust fan, though space is tight. The NB heatsink is big with nice spacing between fins for low airflow impedance.
The big challenge here was to find a heatsink that would fit yet have big enough cooling surface area (read: fins) to allow operation without a fan directly on the heatsink. The space between the top of the CPU and the bottom of the drive tray frame is approximately 6.5cm. Getting rid of the drive frame would give us just under 1cm extra height, which is still pretty short at 7.5cm.
A stock Intel heatsink measures about 6.3cm, so it would fit fine. No tower heatsinks need apply here; there are all too tall, even the Scythe Ninja Mini. Our favorite cooler for quick and easy testing around the lab, the Arctic Cooling Alpine
7 Pro, was also too tall at 8.3cm to fit. The Scythe Big Shuriken, a sample of which arrived in the middle of the testing for this review, seemed promising at first, but ended up being unusable because it was impossible to gain access to the mounting pushpins under the top fin stack when we attempted to mount it on the Zotac board.
POSTSCRIPT on Fitting the Big Shuriken, 16 July 2009
After this review was posted, some forum members noted that a promotional photo from Scythe showed the Big Shuriken mounted on a Zotac 9300-ITX board and wondered why SPCR could not replicate this. The following response from a Scythe contact clarifies this matter:
Big Shuriken on the Mini-ITX Zotac is more of a joke from one of our tech/support person in Japan, he told me it worked perfectly fine in his experiment, but in order to mount the Big Shuriken, you need to dismount the chipset heatsink, mount the Big Shuriken and then mount the chipset heatsink again.
So if you're willing to do this, I'd venture to say the BS will work fine on a system similar to our test setup here.
A few other heatsinks that look promising (in terms of fit and performance) but we didn't have on hand:
- Alpha PRE9060T - a bit pricey but just about perfect size, with excellent preloaded spring bolt mounting
- Scythe Samurai-Z Rev.B - it might fit without fan
- Thermaltake TMG i2 - again, it might fit without fan
- ZEROtherm® CF800
In the end, we tried the stock and Apine 7 Pro coolers with the heatsink fan removed, and then the stock Intel cooler with the fan at very low speed.
We also decided to try a solid state drive in place of a 2.5" notebook drive. The reasoning was as follows:
- Small PCs are almost always placed right on the desktop. This is very close to the user.
- Even a notebook drive is clearly audible from that close. Most SPCR readers already know what to expect from a small desktop PC with a notebook drive; we've reviewed quite a few of them.
- A low capacity SSD for the operating system and programs is not expensive, and combined with high capacity external storage (with USB, eSATA or Network Attached Storage), it makes a perfectly viable modern PC. This is the type of configuration used for our own current lab PCs.
The SSD on hand was an OCZ Vertex 30GB, the most affordable model from one of the most highly regarded SSD series on the market today.
Measurement and Analysis Tools
to monitor CPU frequency and voltage.
processor stress software.
stability test to stress the integrated GPU.
to monitor temperature and fan speeds.
Power Angel for measuring AC power at the wall to ensure that the
heat output remains consistent.
- Custom-built, four-channel variable DC power supply, used to regulate
the fan speed during the test.
- Various other tools for testing fans, as documented in our
standard fan testing methodology.
2.01, used to monitor the throttling feature of the CPU to determine
when overheating occurs.
Primary Audio Test Tools
THE BUILD: TIGHT SPACING
Before installation of drive tray.
Assembled system without cover: The PSU output and front panel cables might be a tad too long. Unused power cables are not removable. There also seems little reason to extend the drive tray all the way to the back of the case. It impedes access to motherboard connectors.
Motherboard and drive installation was simple, but cable management was not. As mentioned earlier, the main cables from the back panel DC input to the DC/DC converter board are too short and run straight in front of the fan. The output cables, in contrast, are a bit too long; too bad they were not made modular. It's difficult to find room to keep them tidy in the small case. The extension of the drive tray to the back of the case eats up room over the motherboard, which seems unnecessary. Given the low weight of a slim optical drive and two 2.5" drives, the two screws affixing the drive tray to the front of the chassis might be adequate. Putting the frame over the motherboard to the back of the chassis intrudes not only into the vertical space for the heatsink but also impedes access to connectors on the board. Installing a component into the expansion slot would have been a messy challenge.
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