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Lian Li PC-Q18: The Perfect Mini Server Case?

Lian Li PC-Q18: The Perfect Mini Server Case?

June 21, 2012 by Lawrence Lee

Product
Lian Li PC-Q18

Mini-ITX Case
Manufacturer
Street Price
US$150~160

Based in Taiwan, Lian Li has a sprawling catalogue of cases for seemingly every shape and size possible in the modern PC era. Particularly impressive are their 14 mini-ITX models, an ambitious number for any case manufacturer. Two years ago we reviewed the PC-Q08, a larger than average mini-ITX tower that offered a bit of everything, including support for six 3.5 inch hard drives. Today we're going to look at the PC-Q18, an updated version that hopefully addresses the main issue we had with its predecessor: hard drive vibration.


The box.


The PC-Q18.

From the outside, the PC-Q18 doesn't look much different. Like the PC-Q08 and many other Lian Li cases, the exterior is composed of brush aluminum, giving it a shiny, luxurious look compared to traditional steel/plastic towers. The dimensions have been changed slightly; the PC-Q18 is taller (still under a foot) but also narrower, giving it a smaller footprint. The large vent located on the left side panel for the power supply fan has been eliminated, and the tiny screws running around the edges of the side panels are also gone. The panels aren't secured at the back either, Lian Li has used a tool-less mounting scheme similar to the one employed by SilverStone on the Fortress FT03. The rest of the changes await us inside.


Accessories.

The included case accessories are limited. The obligatory screws, hard drive grommets, and PC speaker are wrapped in tiny plastic bags. The install guide is in black and white but fairly detailed and most importantly, illustrated. The two stock fans inside the case also have 3-pin to 4-pin molex adapters attached by default.

Specifications: Lian Li PC-Q18

(from the
product web page
)
Model PC-Q18
Case Type Mini Tower Chassis
Dimensions (W) 199mm x (H) 290mm x (D) 365mm (21 litres)
Front bezel Material Aluminum
Color Black / Silver
Side Panel Aluminum
Body Material Aluminum
Net Weight 3.35 KG
5.25" drive bay (External) 1
3.5" drive bay (External) none
3.5" drive bay (Internal) 3.5-Inch HDD x4( Hotswap ) + 3.5-Inch HDD x2 or 2.5-Inch HDD x3
Expansion Slot 2
Motherboard Mini-ITX / Mini-DTX
System Fan (Front) 140mm Fan x 1
System Fan (Top) 140mm Fan x 1
System Fan (Rear) none
I/O Ports USB3.0 x 2 / HD Audio
Maximum Video Card Size VGA Card length: 340mm

PSU length: 160mm

CPU cooler height: 60mm
Package Dimensions (W)411 mm x (H)271 mm x (D) 323mm
Gross Weight 3.95 KG
Power Supply Standard ATX PS2 (Optional)

EXTERIOR

The Lian Li PC-Q18 measures 365 x 199 x 290 mm or approximately 14.4 x 7.8 x 11.4 inches (D x W x H) and weighs 3.35 kg or 7.4 lb. While the proportions have been altered compared to the PC-Q08, the total case volume is similar, about 21 L.


The front bezel is similar to the PC-Q08, except the reset button has been shed, a "Lian Li" label is affixed to the bottom, and the front USB 3.0 ports have greater separation between them so a bulky USB dongle won't block off the adjacent connector.


The top is the same, featureless except for a filtered 14 cm exhaust fan secured with regular fan screws.


Due to the limited space inside, the power supply has to be slipped in through the rear via a metal bracket. The numerous ventilation holes of the PC-Q08 are noticeably absent on the PC-Q18.


An optional 14 cm fan placement with an external removable dust filter is located on the case floor.


Unlike the PC-Q08 which used six tiny screws to attach each side panel, the PC-Q18 has a less tedious friction mount system; the panels simply pull out with brute force.


There are also eight rather than six mounting points and they are located closer to the corners. This combination is more secure and should create less vibration. The panels themselves are thicker as well, 2 mm vs. 1.5 mm on the PC-Q08.

INTERIOR

The interior of the PC-Q18 is fairly sturdy, particularly the hard drive cage which has very little give; this is notable as the PC-Q08 has a significant vibration problem. The motherboard tray is a little thin with a bit of flex, but it is removable, a big plus in the eyes of many users.


The first thing we noticed about the interior was the presence of four SATA backplanes, making it very convenient for hot swapping hard drives. Airflow is provided by two plain 14 cm fans, one at the front and one on the case ceiling.


The build quality of the drive cage seems superior and being partially secured to the front of the case, is less prone to side-to-side vibration effects. 2.5 inch drives can be mounted to the bottom of the cage and on the separator in the middle.


Three additional drives can be installed on a mounting bracket secured to the case floor but there's only room for a maximum of two 3.5 inch models. There is an extra fan placement underneath, but the bracket has to be removed to use it.


A sliding metal door next to the expansion slots allows users to route the external USB 3.0 cables outside the case so they can be connected to the rear ports. We're not completely against external cables as many motherboards lack an internal USB 3.0 header, but it could've been handled in a more elegant fashion.


The 14 cm exhaust fan affixed to the ceiling.


The motherboard tray lacks heft due to the big hole at the back for mounting third party heatsinks. It's also secured with only four screws to the top and bottom of the case frame. Oddly, two of the four SATA backplanes use 4-pin molex connectors for power rather than standard 5-pin SATA ports.

ASSEMBLY

For thermal and acoustic testing, we assembled a system in the PC-Q18 consisting of an Intel Core i5-2500K cooled by a Scythe Shuriken 2, a Seagate Barracuda 3TB hard drive and a Cooler Master 700W modular power supply. (See full system details on the next page.)


Hard drive mounting requires rubber grommets to be attached with thumbscrews, either on the sides or underneath depending on the mounting location. When mounted in the drive cage, the recess at the center of each grommet rests on the metal rail, creating a decoupling effect.


3.5 inch drives slide into the main cage into the SATA backplane. This is a big improvement as the PC-Q08's entire cage had to be taken out to add/remove drives.
A simple locking mechanism controlled by a thumbscrew can be slid downward to keep them in place.


Drives can be mounted on the floor using a bayonet system. Unfortunately, they block off the second expansion slot preventing the use of dual slot graphics cards.


The front fan uses a bayonet mount as well, facilitated by rubber grommets similar to those used for 3.5 inch drive mounting. The PC-Q08 used the same system but the fan was attached to a metal frame first, creating potential vibration issues.


Though the specifications provided by Lian Li state that CPU heatsink clearance is 60 mm, the 58 mm tall Big Shuriken 2 fit with an ~18 mm gap above it. It's probably best to leave some space though so the power supply fan doesn't have to fight for air.


Test system fully installed.


Like most mini-ITX towers, most cables end up shoved behind the hard drive cage.

TESTING

System Configuration:

Measurement and Analysis Tools

System temperatures and noise levels were recorded with SpeedFan and GPU-Z
at idle and on load using Prime95 (small FFT setting) and FurMark, an OpenGL
benchmarking and stability testing utility.

Baseline Noise


Stock fan.

The PC-Q08 shipped with transparent LED fans which seemed out of place for a server style case, so it's nice to see the PC-Q18 using the plain black variety. The LanCool PC-K59 uses the same model as intakes, a 14 cm fan with a nominal speed of ~1,000 RPM and generally inoffensive acoustics, at least in open air.

Stock Fan Noise Level
Fan
SPL @1m (dBA)
5V
7V
9V
12V
Front Intake
12
16
20
25
Rear Exhaust
12~13
15~16
21
26~27
Combined
13~14
20
23~24
29
Measuring mic positioned 1m at diagonal angle left/front
of case.

Mounted inside the case, the fans have a muddier character, particularly the top fan which produced a noticeable rattle. The front fan too was a little clicky, but this was only audible at close proximity. While the overall noise character wasn't great, it was actually an improvement over the PC-Q18's predecessor. The PC-Q08's side panels shook audibly from the vibration caused by the fans alone; the PC-Q18 didn't suffer from this.



At 7V, the stock fans generated a noise level of 20 [email protected]

Test Results: One Hard Drive


System Measurements
System State
Idle
CPU + GPU Load
System Fans
Off
5V
7V
9V
CPU Temp
24°C
64°C
57°C
55°C
53°C
SB Temp
31°C
54°C
48°C
44°C
42°C
HD Temp
36°C
38°C
34°C
31°C
29°C
System Power (AC)
37W
135W
133W
132W
18 dBA
19 dBA
22 dBA
24~25 dBA
CPU fan speed: 1100 RPM.
Ambient temperature: 20°C.

Our test system was fairly quiet with the stock fans disabled, producing 18 [email protected] both idle and on load, though it did get somewhat hot when stressed. With the fans running at only 5V, internal temperatures reduced substantially and the noise level increased by just 1 dB. Further increases in fan speed resulted in diminishing returns; the added noise was simply not worth the extra cooling. Considering we tested the case using an Intel Core i5-2500K processor, an overkill CPU for a file server, the system ran fairly cool overall.



Our test system measured 19 [email protected] on load with the stock fans at 9V and CPU fan running at 1100 RPM.

With the other components in our test system running, the stock fans' acoustic deficiencies blended away into the background, leaving a mostly smooth, broadband profile. The rattle emitted by the top exhaust fan was still audible, but only at closer distances.

Test Results: Four Hard Drives

Test Drive Noise Summary
Drive
Vibration

1-10 (10 = no vibration)

Idle Airborne Acoustics @1m
Seagate Barracuda 3TB
8
16 dBA
Samsung F3 EcoGreen 2TB
7
15~16 dBA
WD Caviar SE16 320GB
6
18~19 dBA
WD Caviar Green 2TB
7~8
13 dBA

To test the PC-Q18's suitability as a quiet server, we loaded it up with three
additional hard drives of varying noise and vibration levels to see what effect it would have on the system's thermals and acoustics.

System Measurements
System Fans
Off
5V
Drive Count
One
Four
CPU Temp
24°C
26°C
23°C
SB Temp
31°C
34°C
28°C
HD #1 Temp
36°C
45°C
34°C
HD #2 Temp
N/A
45°C
34°C
HD #3 Temp
42°C
29°C
HD #4 Temp
47°C
35°C
System Power (AC)
37W
54W
18 dBA
21~22 dBA
CPU fan speed: 1100 RPM.

Ambient temperature: 20°C.

The addition of three drives to the system increased temperatures all around. The original hard drive in our test system was hit especially hard, experiencing a 9°C spike due to the extra heat being generated and the higher impedance to airflow. The system was also louder of course, by 3~4 dB, a reasonable amount for a four drive system. With the fans running at 5V, everything ran much cooler and the fans were drowned out by the rest of the components, so the noise level remained unchanged.

Some vibration was definitely passed onto the case as we could hear the drives resonating, but not to the same degree as the PC-Q08. When we tested the PC-Q08 with three drives, the rhythmic humming produced actually decreased when we pressed both sides of the case inward with our hands. No such effect could be reproduced on the PC-Q18 loaded up with four drives and it sounded better as well.

AUDIO 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.

Each recording starts with ambient noise, then 10 second segments of product
at various states. For the most realistic results,
set the volume so that the starting ambient level is just barely audible, then
don't change the volume setting again while comparing all the sound files.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Two years ago, Lian Li released a mini-ITX tower that was both attractive and incredibly versatile. The PC-Q08 was solidly built and had support for an ample number of drives, a long graphics card, and a fairly tall CPU heatsink. It was a flawed product however, with the biggest issue being how prone it was to vibration, a serious problem as its most obvious function was as a file server loaded up with four to six hard drives.

The PC-Q18 addresses this issue in several different ways. Its side panels are thicker and mount easily with added security. The hard drive cage has been reinforced, made thicker and immobilized by being affixed to both the top and front of the case. Hard drive mounting has been upgraded as well, with the drives partially decoupled from the case using thick rubber grommets. Removing the metal frame for the front intake fan and putting the bayonet mount directly on the fan/filter also may have helped. The end result is a dramatic reduction in vibration that can be both felt and heard.

Changes have been enacted to make it more server friendly as well. A four drive SATA backplane has been added, a significant feature available on very few, high-end consumer cases. As drives can now be mounted individually without removing the entire drive cage, and the side panel no longer requires tools for removal, servicing hard drives is a breeze. Rather than a removable drive cage at the bottom to allow for a long graphics card option, the PC-Q18 allows up to three drives to be mounted along the length of the case floor, making them easier to access.

We have mixed feelings about some of the other adjustments. The case is narrower, reducing the CPU heatsink height clearance to about 76 mm by our measurements, though that's still enough for such quality coolers as the Noctua NH-L12 (in single fan configuration) and Scythe Big Shuriken 2. The PSU intake vent on the side panel has been removed, possibly making the case somewhat quieter but robbing the power supply of a fresh air supply and forcing its fan to act against a down-blowing CPU fan. The motherboard was mounted directly on the right side panel of the PC-Q08, making it fairly secure while the PC-Q18 uses a somewhat flimsy removable motherboard tray, attached with only four screws.

We thought of the PC-Q08 somewhat as a jack of all trades mini-ITX case. The PC-Q18 is more specialized, with major refinements focused on achieving its potential as a file server first and foremost. Most of the changes have been made to make hard drive access quick and painless and they've succeeded masterfully. As the case is also substantially more expensive than the PC-Q08, getting your money's worth is more dependent on making full use of its storage capabilities. It can fulfill other functions as well, but it's a waste for housing a pure HTPC or compact gaming case with limited hard drive capacity. A home server or DIY NAS role is the forte of the PC-Q08

Our thanks to Lian Li for the PC-Q18 case sample.

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Lian Li PC-Q18 is Recommended by SPCR

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