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Coolermaster's Fanless TC-100 mini-ITX case

Coolermaster TC-100

April 20, 2009 by Mike Chin with Lawrence Lee

Product
TC-100 Fanless Chassis

For Mini-ITX
Manufacturer
Suggested Price
US $250 - Case with 60W AC/DC adapter, DC/DC module and one thermal kit

Mini-ITX was a thriving if small sector of the computing industry for many years before Intel came on to the scene with their first embedded Celeron m-ITX board in mid-2007. VIA, which established the m-ITX form factor specification in 2002, and a handful of small manufacturers had been offering a variety of m-ITX products for the embedded computing market, mostly in industrial and commercial applications such as running Linux-based touch-screen kiosks, web access machines, and other such situations where high reliability with low or no maintenance, resistance to dust and heat, and low energy consumption are paramount. The latest and greatest feature set was not necessary, but long production life was. All this meant prices were way higher than what you'd pay for similarly equipped consumer level micro-ATX boards, even if you factored in the value of the embedded CPU.

Most of these boards were installed in custom made cases designed specifically for the the application. They were often invisible, embedded on the back of a monitor flush-mounted into a wall or kiosk.

Retail cases for mini-ITX boards generally reflected the utilitarian purpose the boards were meant to carry out. Not highly imaginative or stylish, but workable. Many featured small fans which can only provide decent cooling by spinning at high speed — and making a noisy racket in the process. Ditto the power supplies these cases were equipped with: Low power devices with small high speed fans. Most PC enthusiasts interested in mini-ITX either accepted the mediocre retail cases or modified them. A few fabricated their own, modelled on the handful of brands who offered often pricey mini-ITX systems in fanless, sleek, cases such as Hush Technologies, and Tranquil PC.

Now that Intel has arrived on the scene with low cost Atom-CPU embedded boards, and with many new full-featured socket 775 and AM2 board from major brands at prices much closer to their micro-ATX counterparts, you'd think the selection of cases for these boards would have grown and improved as well. Think again. The reality is that the mini-ITX case scene does not seem to have changed much. Yes, there are a few new products such as the inexpensive Apex MI-008 case we reviewed recently, and the new breadbox style SG05 recently introduced by Silverstone.

The real promise of mini-ITX is a small, effective and silent computer... like the mCubed HFX Micro Atom 330 system we reviewed in December last year. But the case, power supply and heatpipes package of the HFX Micro are priced at nearly $500 at mCubed's resellers; it is a price that's difficult to swallow. We could hope that the $198 e-Otonashi fanless EPIA-M cooling case introduced by Scythe back in 2004 is revived with fittings for newer motherboards, but Scythe's web site simply marks it discontinued.

When I ran across this Coolermaster TC-100 at a trade show last year, I was delighted to see a big brand name on this class of fanless mini-ITX cases. Perhaps it would be an affordable fanless mini-ITX case for do-it-yourself. At the time, I was distracted by another Coolermaster case which had been made waterproof and shown ruinning in a water-filled aquarium.



First glimpse of the Coolermaster TC-100 at a trade show last year.






A Coolermaster PC submerged in water was running the display to the left.

It turns out that the TC-100 and some other fanless mini-ITX cases are marketed by the industrial/OEM branch of Coolermaster, a very different entity than the retail-oriented company most consumers (and hardware reviewers) are familiar with. The process of getting a sample for SPCR took many months, partly because the appropriate heatpipe cooling kits were not available initially. It all finally came together in the past month or so, and here, finally, is our review of the Coolermaster TC-100.



It came in a decidedly non-retail cardboard carton. Contents included a 60W AC/DC adapter, but no heatpipe kit. That was in a separate package.




This box contained the cooling kit for either of the two embedded Atom Intel boards.




6mm diameter h eatpipes, condensor and evaporater blocks, clamps, wire springs, screws, and thermal interface material.






A 60W 100~240VAC adapter with 12VDC output was included.



Coolermaster TC-100 Specifications
Dimensions

(W x H x L)
261 x 236 x 85 mm with desktop feet

300 x 86 x 240 mm wall mount
Weight 2.74 kg
System TDP (Ref. only) 35W
Motherboard Mini-ITX, ECX 3.5", EPIC 5.25", Nano-ITX,

Pico-ITX
Front Panel Power button, LED power indicator
Rear Panel Standard ATX size reserved
Optical Device Slim Type x 1
Hard Disk Device 2.5” Type x 1
CF card support 10mm bottom side of the board
Available Space 2.5" HDD, Slim type optical drive device, DC/DC converter
Operating Temperature Up to 50 °C ambient
Optional Assessories Universal thermal kit and Heat pipe
Certifications CE / RoHS / EMI

The most interesting of the specifications are the 35W system TDP rating, and the provision of mounting options only for a 2.5" hard drive and a slim optical drive, both of which are traditionally mobile computing parts. The drive options are related to the low 35W Thermal Dissipation Power rating. Keeping the total heat in the case to 35W would be a bigger challenged with a typical 3.5" desktop drive that pulls 7~10W at idle and another 30% or more in seek/write. Ditto the optical drive.

The 35W TDP seems quite low for this box, considering the size of its heatsinks. However, keep in mind that the heatsinks are not directly connected to the heat producing elements, but via heat transfer blocks and heatpipes on both the hot and cool sides of the heatpipes. Perhaps Coolermaster is deliberately being conservative here to avoid unrealistic customer expectations. On the other hand, the operating ambient temperature is given as "Up to 50 °C ambient", which might apply in some industrial applications but not any home of office settings. At that high a temperature, keeping 35W in the box cool would probably be quite a challenge.

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.

BOARD & CASE PREPARATION

Building a system in the TC-100 is really the only way to assess it. We asked for and received the cooling kit for the Intel D945GCLF; it works with either the dual core or single core version, as the layout is the same, and the TDP of the CPUs is very low, 4W vs 8W. A single-core Atom 230 D945GCLF board was the one readily available and on hand, so it was installed in the system.

Some preparation of the board is needed. The heatsinks on the NB chip and CPU must be removed and replaced with the heat transfer blocks (which act much like the bases in a heatsink) provided in the Coolermaster cooling kit. The removal went smoothly. We took the precaution of running the board in the BIOS for a few minutes to let warm and soften the thermal interface material under the CPU and NB chip. Upon power off, the heatsinks twisted off easily when the original wire clips were removed.


Intel D945GCLF single-core Atom board with original heatsinks removed, ready for installation of aluminum alloy heat block .




Heat blocks installed easily enough. A small pair of pliers was useful here.


Risers for the mounting screws were installed to the motherboard tray.


The instructions called for the provided Thermal Interface Material to be applied to the blocks. Ambient room temperature was around 20°C, and the TIM proved to be quite thick. We should have warmed it with a hair dryer to soften it a bit.

HEATPIPE ASSEMBLY

Getting the heatpipes installed is a matter of testing the fit
and placement of all the parts first. Only then do you apply the TIM —
once it is on, it's a mess to diffle further with the heatpipes — and screw
everything down tightly.


Next, the heatpipes were examined and cleaned with alcohol. The appropriate length/shape ones were placed in the grooved blocks, then covered and clamped as shown above. The screws were not fully tightened at this point.


The ends which mate with the heatsink panels (the condensor ends) fit
into grooved aluminum blocks, with TIM on both sides of the blocks.



Metal covers are clamped over the condenser blocks with a single screw;
the bottom edge of the cover fits into a groove along the bottom edge
of the heatsink. Tightening the screw applies even tension on the block.
All the screws for all the evaporator block covers were tightened at this
point.


Initially, the condensor ends of all the heatpipes were positioned so that they were more or less horizontal. After initial tests, the CPU condensor ends were repositioned to point up a bit, as shown above. This little change effected a 15°C drop in CPU temperature under load. The condensor ends for the NB chip could not be moved much beyond horizontal due to clamp positioning issues.

FINISHING ASSEMBLY

This page shows the remainding details of the assembly process.
It's all fairly straightforward, and the single biggest issue was that some
of the cables were just a bit too long.



The main ATX cable only has to travel half an inch, but the one we
received was over 6" long. It had to be squashed down before the
top drive tray could be installed.





One of the pre-punched holes on the back panel was used for the DC
input plug.






The HDD "tray" consists of two sleds which affix tightly to the drive but are mounted in the large drive tray via screws with viscoelastic damping grommets.





The HDD sled assembly was affixed to the large drive tray. When the screws were tightened all the way, there was still some "give" in the viscoelastic grommets, but to be on the safe side, each screw was left a half-turn loose.



Drive tray affixed; we didn't have a slim optical drive handy.





Cover in place, powered up.

TESTING

The Intel D945GCLF has been fully tested by SPCR in the past, so thermal testing under various loads was deemed to be the only real point of interest here. That, and the degree of noise damping provided by the viscoelastic mounting of the 2.5" hard drive. Our usual video playback and CPU stress test procedures were used. For a point of comparison, the board was run without a case with all the components open on the test bench.

System Components:

Comparison reference:

The above components on an open bench without any case, powered by a Seasonic SS-300SFD SFX power supply

Measurement and Analysis Tools

Video Playback Test Suite


720p | 25fps | ~6mbps
Dark Knight:
Dark Knight Trailer 3
is a 720p clip encoded in H.264 inside an
Apple Quicktime container.


1080p | 24fps | ~10mbps
Rush Hour:
Rush Hour 3 Trailer 1
is a 1080p clip encoded in H.264 inside
an Apple Quicktime container.

The TC-100 did a fine job of cooling the components on the Intel motherboard. The exterior heatsinks measured 33°C on the left (chipset)
and 28°C on the right (CPU) sides. Heatpipes inside the case measured between
30°C and 35°C during load. As noted previously, the first tests with the heatpipe condensor ends of the left horizonal, the CPU temperature reached 70°C. Tilting the heatpipe ends up improved cooling quite a bit. It is possible that cooling will improve over time as the system is used, as the TIM turns more fluid under heat then resets as it cools, more effectively filling the uneven contact surfaces. On the microscopic level at which heat transfer occurs, all surfaces are uneven.

The heat blocks and the way they are affixed in the TC-100 are not the best or most robust we've seen. The same type of components (blocks, clamps, attachments, etc) in the Zalman TNN cases, Hush and Niveus computers, and most recently, the mCubed HFX systems, all appear not only better machined, but also fit more tightly, and they are sometimes made of copper, which has superior thermal conductivity. We believe that the cooling performance of the TC-100 could be improved with better joint parts that fit more tightly.

Thermal Performance (Load)
Sensor
Open Bench*
TC-100
Ambient
40°C
47°C
Remote 1
81°C
75°C
Remote 2
55°C
58°C
Hard Drive
30°C
50°C
CPU
65°C
54°C
*with original heatsinks, and chipset fan set to 5V. Ambient room temperature during testing was 21°C.

The HDD predictably ran much hotter in the case, but still below the maximum 60°C recommended by most 2.5" HDD makers. Removing the soft grommets and allowing the HDD to make direct metal-to-metal contact with the chassis could drop the temperature a bit by providing a cooling conduction path for the heat in the HDD to follow. However, this will impact the overall perceived noise, which comes only from the hard drive.

The grommets did have a positive noise reduction effect. Although the measured noise was hardly changed, subjectively, it sounded smoother, less tonal and more muted with the grommets than just sitting atop the test bench. This was a bit of a surprise, because we've tried them before, with 3.5" drives, and they were not very effective. The much lower vibration level of the 2.5" drive probably helps. The overall noise level was more or less equal to the mCubed HFX Micro system, and additional noise
during HDD seek was negligible.

Of course, with a fanless case like the TC-100, one of the new 2.5" solid state drives would be perfect. Price is a factor, of course, but good performance, lower capacity (under 100GB) SSDs that don't suffer from stutter start at around just $200 these days. Combine it with additional storage on a network or an external high capacity 2.5" HDD, and the TC-100 case could be the foundation for a practical, affordable and truly silent computer for many users.

MP3 SOUND RECORDINGS

These recordings were made with a high resolution, lab quality, digital recording system inside SPCR's own 11 dBA ambient anechoic chamber, then converted to LAME 128kbps encoded MP3s. We've listened long and hard to ensure there is no audible degradation from the original WAV files to these MP3s. They represent a quick snapshot of what we heard during the review. All the recordings listed below were made with the mic at 1m distance.

Comparatives:

POWER CONSUMPTION

The efficiency of the provided AC/DC adapter and DC/DC circuit board proved to be a bit higher than the Seasonc SS-300SFD at these low power loads. Our guess is 75~80% AC/DC conversion efficiency. The power supply did not make any squealing noises that we could hear.

Power Consumption
Test State
Open Bench / Seasonic SS-300SFD
TC-100
Idle
25W
23W
Dark Knight
29W
28W
Rush Hour
31W
30W
Coral Reef
31W
29W
Prime95
29W
28W
Prime95 + ATITool
36W
32W
Grey boxes indicate test failure.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Coolermaster TC-100 is an interesting, successful heatsink case for typical mini-ITX motherboards that employ an embedded CPU. The overall system thermal limit of 35W is low, but it is conservatively rated with the maximum ambient temperature given as 50°C, so there's probably some headroom for those who want to push the power envelope. While it is targeted to system integrators rather than to consumers, the custom cooling options could be used by experienced DIY end users to devise effective cooling for motherboards and CPUs not explicitly supported by Coolermaster accessories.

The cooling kit was simple enough to assemble, and it did not take very long. A screw driver or two, a small pair of pliers, some pure alcohol and paper towel for TIM cleanup, and perhaps an ordinary hair dryer are all the tools you really need.

The size, weight, shape, and notebook drive options combine for a consumer-firiendly look, although the absence of front panel ports is a negative. Still, it's small enough that desktop placement is emininently suitable, and the rear ports are easily reached.

The TC-100 components are not the best looking or highest performance that we've come across. Coolermaster has not aimed for high end look or performance here, but cost-effective practicality. This product is a good addition to the world of mini-ITX, one that really deserves more attention than it has received, from both end-users as well as system integrators.

The suggested price of US$250 is steep, and probably set high to protect the system integrators who are using the case in systems today. Hopefully, competition in the retail channel will bring the price down. Even at the suggested price, using the TC-100, it is possible to assemble a reasonably capable m-ITX system with a 60~80GB 2.5" SSD for utterly silent computing for a little over $500.

The online reseller e-itx is offering utilitarian VIA and Intel Atom systems based around the TC-100 starting as low as $349. SuperLogics is also offering similar "Industrial Microbox PCs" start from $315. (The cited prices are for Intel Atom embedded boards with minimum RAM and a compact flash card in place of a hard drive.)

FLASH: While this review was being written, several new products appeared on Coolermaster's Fanless Thermal Chassis page. Two of the newly posted products are for mini-ITX: TC-100A and the Cube. They offer higher cooling capability (55W and 85W, respectively), and Core 2 Duo Intel processor support is mentioned on both product pages. Both look of interest to SPCR audiences.

Our thanks to Coolermaster for the TC-100 sample.

* * *

Articles of Related Interest:

mCubed HFX Micro S13 system: Atom 330, Silenced

Asus Eee Box B202: An Atom-based mini PC

Hiper Media Center Barebones PC

Mappit A4F: A Truly Silent PC

Hush Mini-ITX PC

Zalman TNN-300 Fanless PC Enclosure System


Scythe's e-Otonashi fanless EPIA-M cooling case

* * *

Discuss this article in the SPCR forums.

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