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TOUGH CHALLENGES FOR A SFF PC
Before we jump into the details of the testing, it's important to understand the very demanding challenges for a quiet small form factor PC.
In the 7+ years of SPCR's existence, desktop PC components have improved acoustically and in energy efficiency to the point where it's relatively easy to assemble a quiet system using mainstream, off-the-shelf products. Placed in the usual position under or beside a desk, usually a meter or so from the user's ears, any system without significant tonality that measures close to ~20 dBA@1m in our anechoic chamber will be very quiet indeed. With typical HTPCs, it's even easier, as the distance between users and PC is often across the room, at least 6~8 feet away from the big screen TV (which excludes some people who apparently watch TV and movies on their PC monitor... but we can't please everyone all the time). Distance makes the sound grow fainter.
Things are much tougher for a small PC because it's almost always placed much closer to the user, usually atop the desk, next to the monitor. For most users, that's the point of a small PC, to be able to plop it down anywhere, preferably close at hand for convenient access and reach. The ISO 7779 PC noise test standard reference measurement distance of SPL for a seated user is ~0.6 meter; this is very relevant here. Add to the close proximity the user demand for more or less uncompromised performance (compared to a desktop), with all the thermal / power implications of such performance, and the SFF PC faces a steep uphill battle to achieve quiet. Not only must it cool effectively in a smaller box the same components as in much bigger cases, it must actually emit less noise to be perceived at the same noise level as the bigger box (due to the reduced distance to the user).
Keep all of the above factors in mind as you read through the analysis.
TESTING & SYSTEM INSTALLATION
The best way to test a case to install a system, and check cooling and noise under idle and load conditions. A mini-DTX board is out simply because we have not seen any, although a few appear to be made for industrial/commercial applications. So, which mini-ITX board?
The choice is easy because in the recent Antec ISK 300 case review, we faced the same question and chose the Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi, a full-featured mini-ITX board with good layout and large NB heatsink, equipped with an Intel E7200 C2D processor. This board also happens to be one of the few with a PCIe x16 slot, which will allow testing with a discrete video card as well. Using the same components, it will be possible to make fair comparisons of the Antec ISK 300 and Silverstone SG05/06 cases.
The Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi was also used in the review of the Antec ISK 300.
One of the challenges with the Antec ISK 300 was to find a quiet yet effective low profile cooler. The same challenge exists with the Silverstone SG05/06, though to a lesser degree: The Antec fits coolers up to ~7cm height, while Silverstone cites 7.8cm as the available height. In truth, the 7.8cm height seems conservative. We were able to fit a Arctic Cooling Alpine
7 Pro, which measured 8.5cm from base to top of fan. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here.
Tony, our PR contact at Silverstone, was generous in providing a number of additional products for the SG05 and SG06 review:
All of these items were very welcome, thank you, Tony. The slim optical drives ensured that the case could be fully kitted out for the review, and the NT06-E heatsink was certainly a useful cooler to try.
As in the Antec ISK 300 review, a solid state drive was used 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.
Test System Components:
Video Cards tried:
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
Assembling a system in this case was relatively straightforward, taking no more than half an hour. A long Philips head screwdriver is recommended. Mounting the heatsink on the board before the board is installed is best. The PSU many need to be removed for better access to the motherboard mounting screws. The drive bay must be removed for proper installation of the drives; this requires removal of the front bezel as well, which is a bit of an annoyance. Shown below is the first minimalist system configuration used for testing.
SilverStone Nitrogon NT06 heatsink mounted atop Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi motherboard. The heatsink mounts securely with through-the-board spring-loaded bolts.
Assembled system without cover. Tidying the PSU output and front panel cables was not too difficult. Before thermal/load testing, the fan-mounting frame on the Nitrogon heatsink was removed to reduce impedance through the fins for airflow originating from the front fan. The cables to the OCZ Vertex 30GB solid state drive are just visible under the optical drive.
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