Report from San Jose: IDF Fall 2002, part 2

The Silent Front

September 20, 2002 -- by Mike Chin

IDF Fall 2002 - part 2Well, not exactly. A handful of companies Silicon Valley does not make. Still, it is probable that of all the press at IDF, Silent PC Review is the only one reporting about the State of PC Noise. Part Two of SPCR's coverage of the Intel Developers Forum includes meetings and discussions with Seasonic and Molex, and offsite visits to Antec and Silicon Valley Compucycle. (Click here for Part One of SPCR's IDF coverage.)

Conversations with Seasonic, PSU Maker

Seasonic: manufacturer of quiet power suppliesMany of you are aware of Seasonic as a manufacturer of quality power supply units featuring an innovative fan control circuit called S2FC, which I believe is the first intelligent use of thermistor feedback for low-noise fan speed control in a PC PSU. (Their SS300-FS APFC was reviewed by SPCR some months ago.) Vincent Chang, the managing director of Seasonic US operations, was attending the IDF to keep abreast of industry trends. Vincent met with me for wide-ranging conversations about Seasonic, silent computing, and aspects of power supply design.

It was interesting to learn that Seasonic's S2FC fan control circuit was designed originally in response to demand from a system integrator customer in Sweden (Germany??) some time ago. As most readers know, Sweden and Germany have the most advanced noise standards in the world.

Vincent Chang confirmed that new PSU models in development since early summer are expected to be released some time around Christmas. I agreed to non-disclosure of any details about the new models beyond the simple and obvious expectation that they will be better. One reason for the long development time is that Seasonic wishes to ensure that they retain all the certifications their power supplies current boast. A quick look in their specifications shows an impressively long roster of approvals and certifications

  • PFC harmonics compliance: EN61000-3-2 + A1 + A2,
  • EMI/RFI compliance: CE, CISPR22 & FCC part 15 class B
  • Safety compliance: VDE, TUV, D, N, S, Fi, UL, C-UL & CB

I am sure most reader will be eager to see SPCR's review of final pre-production models promised our way in coming weeks.

Vincent agrees that the move of PC into the living room requires a low level of noise that few production PCs can meet currently. While noting that the CPU and PSU fans are probably the hardest to tame because they work against high airflow impedance that causes much turbulence noise, Vincent does not believe a fanless PSU in an ATX-PS2 form factor is viable economically. With high power CPUs, the high power conversion efficiency required, and the heat that must be dissipated, a fanless PSU can only be produced at extremely high cost. The high price will not be accepted by the vast majority of system integrators and PC makers. It's true that the enthusiast market represents a lot of buying power these days, but most will balk at having some US$300 of their PC budget allotted to a fanless PSU, especially given the state of the world economy. (~$300 is the price of the Deltronic 360W fanless ATX/PS2 power supply we reported about in News not long ago.)

Molex Heatsinks Push Thermal Envelope

Radial fin heatsink by MolexThermal solutions represent a small portion of Molex's activities; the company is, according to their web site, "the world's second-largest manufacturer of electronic, electrical and fiber optic interconnection products and systems." Much of their booth at IDF focused on interconnects, particularly SerialATA, a big item in many booths. Still, many quiet PC hardware enthusiasts know Molex as the manufacturer of the Radial Fin heatsink shown here, and the Silent Drive hard drive noise damping enclosure. The Radial Fin design uses multi-folded fins in a cylindrical pattern around a copper core. The basic design first appeared some years ago for socket 370 (P3, Celeron, C3, etc) and has been adapted for socket A as well as the Pentium 4 form factors. It is not only sold at retail outlets; many OEMs are known to have used the Molex product in their PCs.

New Molex Prestonia 603 HSA display of new heatsink solutions was featured -- but not shown here, due to the untimely demise of my camera battery. Interestingly, none of the new heatsinks uses the Radial Fin design. Instead, they all appear to be stamped fin designs, using both cooper and aluminum fins. The majority are intended for P4. They had not been released for production.

Ken Stead, product manager for the Molex thermal-acoustic division, was on hand to discuss these new heatsinks and the challenges in CPU cooling in coming months. The first obvious question is why the move away from the Radial Fin to the stamped fin design?

The answer is that Molex radial design does not maximize the fin cooling surface area for the rectangular space allotted for P4 cooling by Intel. To increase the cooling fin area of the radial design, the diameter of the cylinder has to be increased; current radial fin Molex heatsinks for P4 are already at the maximum size limit. The rectangular box profile of their new stamped fin design makes better use of the available space at a lower cost-per-square-inch than the radial fin design. Hopefully, Ken will send up some samples for review by SPCR when the new HS are ready for release.

Ken admitted that even with these larger heatsinks, cooling the fastest P4s quietly while remaining within Intel's specified zone for the HS is a tough challenge. The issue of keeping within Intel's guidelines is critical for a company like Molex whose best cost efficiency is reached at high production volumes, which virtually dictates reliance on OEM business. Companies like Dell and HP stick closely to Intel guidelines; any deviation from guidelines can be used as a cause for rejection, a fact all OEM suppliers are fully cognizant.

Increasingly, Ken agreed, it takes a careful systems approach that considers all the components, the case airflow, and so on, in order to achieve both cool and quiet. Given the anticipated rate of thermal output in P4s for the foreseeable future, Ken opined that Intel may be persuaded to give up some of the "no-go" (no fly?) zone above the CPU area: it's clear there is little room to move laterally on the motherboard, but Intel may have to give up a centimeter or two of territory above it to the heatsink makers.

Antec's Low Noise Initiatives

Antec did not attend IDF, but Han Liu, their product development manager, extended an invitation to visit them in nearby Fremont when he learned I would be in San Jose. Han graciously picked me up at the convention center and provided a tour of Antec's headquarters. I was surprised to learn that Antec is the #1 seller of PC cases and power supplies in the US, neck and neck in the PSU category only to Compaq, which dominates in the opposite (low) end of the market. Antec does none of their own manufacturing; they design the products, have them built to spec in the Far East, then market and distribute them directly worldwide. Their marketing prowess is evident in the broad distribution and market penetration Antec has achieved.

Antec's most visible product is the Performance series of cases (and their more recent higher-end iterations), which has become one of the most ubiquitous PC cases around (even I, normally unfashionable in matters of PC gear, own one). Of course, one of the reasons it is so easily recognized is that the manufacturing is done by an OEM supplier not much constrained by exclusivity issues; similar-looking cases are sold under a variety of names in many countries by many companies not associated with Antec.

The move by Antec towards lower noise components began with their TruePower series PSU, which utilize 2 fans at low speed to keep both temperature and noise at bay. While not the quietest PSUs around, they represent a good effort to bring lower noise to the general PC market.

A Peek at Antec's new Tranquility Case

A new effort by Antec involves a single-fan variant of the TruePower PSU in a case - code-named Tranquility - designed specifically for reduced noise and efficient cooling. Han Liu consented to my taking some photos of this yet-unreleased exciting new product, which incorporates many features that will endear it to silencers and overclockers alike. A full review will have to await the early production sample promised for SPCR in another week or two. Suffice it to say that the case is optimized for very good cooling airflow with large low-speed fans and very friendly for those who like to tinker under the hood often. In the meanwhile, here are a few photos to whet your appetites. (Note: The sharp-eyed will pick up on many small details that are unique to this new case.)

Silicon Valley Compucycle Notes Quiet Interest

SVC is a web retailer pointed out by a SPCR Forum member. SVC happens to be within a mile or so of the San Jose Convention Center where the IDF was held, so I had a quick visit one afternoon. Owner Shervin Roohparvar took time out from his busy day to chat and show me around the store, much of which is warehousing, as befits a web retailer. SVC is not quite two years old, but Shervin and his partner have a lot of experience in the PC component trade.

Shervin mentioned that while much of his business is driven by gamers and overclockers seeking high performance, there has been a dramatic increase in demand for quiet fans in recent months. It began with the first batch of Panaflo 80mm A12Ls that they obtained from the 40,000 unit dump mentioned in our forums by Jon of Silicon Acoustics. In a matter of weeks, SVC moved over 8000 Panaflo units, many to other resellers. The demand for quiet fans is continuing with a quiet NBM 80mm fan SVC is moving briskly. The low pricing of these fans certainly has to be taken into account, but a year ago, such low air flow fans may not have sold -- at any price.

Anticipating greater demand for quiet computing, SVC has become the distributor for Arctic Cooling of Switzerland, who produce a line of CPU coolers called Super Silent Pro, for both AMD and P4, claimed to be very quiet. A unique-looking fan with a thermistor speed control is used, and the clip mechanism for the AMD cooler looks simple yet very secure. Shervin provided a couple of samples which will be reviewed here soon.

That, my friends, is the wrap of SPCR's first industry event coverage.

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Click here for Part One of SPCR's IDF Fall 2002 coverage.

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