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mCubed HFX Micro S13 system: Atom 330, Silenced

mCubed hFX Micro: A Fanless Atom System

December 12, 2008 by Lawrence Lee with Mike Chin

Product HFX Micro Business S13

mITX Desktop Computer
Manufacturer mCubed
Street Price 545 EUR

mCubed is an Austrian company that describes itself as "a High-Tech
company focussing on home entertainment and technologies to make your daily
life more convenient, more stylish and more quiet."
Over the years
it has introduced some notable products, such as the T-Balancer,
the world's most versatile PC fan controller, and the stylish HFX line of
systems and cases — fanless cases using integrated heatpipes and heatsinks to dissipate
heat.

The last mCubed product we reviewed was the HFX
Mini
, which was aimed at the HTPC market and powered by an mATX Aopen
945G board and a mobile Intel Core Duo processor. It came complete with TV tuner,
sound card, slot-loading DVD drive, remote control, and interestingly enough,
its own external power supply.



The HFX Micro is built like a small tank.

The HFX Micro line is a whole other animal. As the name suggests, it is smaller
than the Mini, being based around the mini-ITX form factor. There are three
basic models all using the same chassis: the Class.D which is actually an amplifier,
the Business S12 based on the Intel single core Atom board (D945GCLF),
and the Business S13 which uses the Intel dual core Atom board (D945GCLF2).
The S13 is the model we're examining here.

It's difficult to see in the photo above, but the front and top panels are actually made of black plexiglass rather than the aluminum that the rest of the case is made of. None of the three HFX Micro models mentioned above has an optical drive, but some photos in the HFX web site show what could be a front panel opening for a slot optical drive.

Here's the CPUID summary of the Intel Atom 330 processor.



CPU-Z screenshot.

Unusually, mCubed's specifications include not only the hardware basics, but also temperature measurements under system load and power consumption as well.

mCubed HFX Micro Business S13 Details

(product
web page
)
Motherboard & Processor D945GCLF2 with Intel Atom
Dual Core 330

(2 x 1.60GHz, 533MHz FSB, 2x512kB Cache)
Chipset Intel® 945GC Express
Chipset
Memory 1 GB RAM (up to 2GB)
Storage 80 GB HDD 2.5"

(up to 1TB with two 2.5" drives)
Power Supply picoPSU with 90W (12V/7.5A) power
brick
Graphics Intel® GMA950 Graphics
Controller

with VGA & S-Video output
Audio Realtek ALC662 audio codec

(5.1 channel HD audio)
LAN Realtek Gigabit Ethernet
Dimensions 23 x 24 x 7.5 cm
Weight 2.8kg
Warranty 12 months
Full Load Temperatures
CPU Temperature
56°C
VGA Temperature
39°C
Bridge Temperature
42°C
Power Consumption
Off
0.5W
Standby
1.7W
BIOS
25W
Windows Idle
27W
Full Load
33W

PHYSICAL DETAILS

Getting back to the question of an integrated optical drive, it turns out that the HFX
Micro M2
case for 179EUR (see link for currency conversion) has the slot for an optical drive and memory card reader — but not the two business HFX Micro systems. It's not clear exactly why an optical drive is unavailable even as an upgrade option for these systems. Resellers may offer different system configurations than mCubed; some of them may offer an optical drive option.



Is that a slot for an optical drive?



The white and silver version shows the optical drive / memory card slot clearly.

To get into the guts of the HFX Micro, one must first detach the back panel
via four philips head screws. Without the screws, the back panel is only loosely
attached to the rest of the system by the wires leading to the power switch.



Access panel removed.

Once the panel is off, the top cover simply slides out. The top cover is the
internal components' main exhaust ventilation. Of course, the heatsinks on the sides stimulate most of the air convection cooling.



Inside the HFX Micro.

The CPU and chipset are cooled via heatpipes connected to the sides of the
case. The HFX Mini used a similar design, but it was larger and had more heatpipes.
The Atom 330, with its ultra-low 8W TDP requries only two heatpipes as does the
board's northbridge chip.



Untightened screws hold the hard drive tray in place.

The hard drive is attached to the system via a simple metal tray, which is
not actually bolted into place. On each side of the case interior there are a pair of
screws left half-tightened. The rails of the hard drive tray simply wedge in-between
the screwheads and the case. Friction and gravity keep it in place, and with the cover on, the HDD tray cannot be moved. It is quite secure and works well enough.



Hard drive tray upside down, showing notches where it clips to the chassis.

The tray can accomodate two hard-mounted 2.5" hard drives. Our S13 sample
shipped with a Seagate 5400.5 80GB SATA drive. There does not appear to be a place to mount a slot optical
drive here. Perhaps a different tray is used for mounting the optical drive in the models with a front panel slot.



The small (2.5 x 1.5 x 5") 90W (12V/7.5A) power
brick accepts 100~240VAC, 50~60Hz input.

INTERNAL DETAILS

Removing the hard drive tray allowed access to the board's single memory
slot which was populated by a single stick of 1GB Corsair Value Select DDR2-667.
Behind it you can see that mCubed has abandoned their own power supply in
favor of a picoPSU.



Interior with hard drive tray removed.

As the internal components can be purchased off-the-shelf,
DIYers can build the same system, minus the chassis and cooling system. Of course, the mCubed HFX
Micro M2 case could also be purchased.



Layout.

The front quarter of the case is used only to accommodate all
the cabling inside. The picoPSU has only three output connectors: A standard 4-pin
molex, a SATA power connector, and a floppy drive connector. The molex connector
is adapted for the board's required 4-pin 12V AUX connector. To add an extra
SATA drive, one would need a molex splitter, and a molex to SATA adapter.



The underside.

The case has four rubber feet and two rows of vents on the bottom.
Notable in this day and age is the absence of digital outputs on the Intel D945GCLF2 board.

TEST METHODOLOGY

mCubed HFX Micro Configuration:

Measurement and Analysis Tools

Our testing procedures are designed to determine the overall system power
consumption at various states (measured using a Seasonic Power Angel), to test
its proficiency at playing back high definition videos, and to get rough estimate
of its overall performance through various benchmarks. Video memory was set
to 128MB.

Video Playback Test Suite

Our main video test suite features a variety of H.264/VC-1 clips encoded for
playback on the PC. The clips are played with PowerDVD 8 and a CPU usage graph
is created by the Windows Task Manger for analysis to determine the approximate
mean and peak CPU usage. High CPU usage is indicative of poor video decoding
ability on the part of the integrated graphics subsystem. If the video (and/or
audio) skips or freezes, we conclude the board's IGP (in conjunction with the
processor) is adequate to decompress the clip properly.



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.




1080p | 24fps | ~8mbps
Coral Reef:

Coral Reef Adventure trailer

is encoded in WMV-HD, a variant
of the VC-1 codec.

x264/MKV Video Playback Test Suite

MKV (Matroska) is a very popular online multimedia container
used for high definition content, usually using x264 (a free, open source
H.264 encoder) for video. Playback of such files is heavily CPU dependant
and thus extremely stressful on low-end machines. To playback such clips we
use Media Player Classic, and CoreAVC, a dedicated H.264 decoder that is known
to make such videos playable on marginal systems. The clips were taken from
two longer videos — the most demanding one minute portions were used.



720p | 24fps | ~11mbps

Undead Battle: Undead Battle is a 720p x264 clip encoded
from the Blu-ray version of a major motion picture. It features
a battle between undead warriors.




1080p | 24fps | ~14mbps

Spaceship: Spaceship is a 1080p x264 clip encoded from the
Blu-ray version of an animated short film. It features a hapless robot
trying to repair a lamp on a spaceship.

 

Benchmarking Particulars

  • Eset NOD32: in-depth virus scan of a folder containing 32
    files of varying size with a few of them being file archives.
  • WinRAR: archive creation with a folder containing 68 files of varing size
    (less than 50MB).
  • iTunes: conversion of a MP3 file to 256kbps AAC
  • TMPGEnc Xpress: encoding an XVID AVI file to VC-1 (1280x720, 30fps, 20mbps)

TEST RESULTS

The system shipped with German version of XP and a power
brick with a European power plug. We started fresh with an English version of XP and used a North
American AC power adapter.

Test Results: mCubed HFX Micro Business S12
Test State
Mean

CPU Use
Peak

CPU Use
System Power
Off
N/A
2W
Sleep/Standby
N/A
3W
Idle
N/A
25W
Dark Knight

(720p H264)
34%
56%
~30W
Rush Hour

(1080p H264)
65%
90%
~33W
Coral Reef

(1080p VC1)
29%
35%
~31W
Undead Battle

(720p x264)
39%
50%
~28W
Spaceship

(1080p x264)
47%
67%
~30W
Prime95
100%
33W
Prime95 +

ATITool
100%
39W
Grey boxes indicate test failure.

The HFX Micro is a fairly low power system running at only 25W idle, 28-33W
during video playback, and 33W when the CPU is under full load. The GPU inefficiency
is evident as the power draw increased by 6W when the GPU under load
using ATITool. For such a weak IGP, it shouldn't be using more than 2-3W extra. We managed to get a bit higher power draw than the 33W maximum cited in mCubed's specs by loading the CPU and the GPU simultaneously.

Video playback was smooth except for our VC-1 Coral Reef clip. The audio clipped
throughout this clip even though CPU usage was relatively low. The problem stemmed
from the fact that only a single CPU thread was active during playback —
something that has not occured on previous tests using AMD X2 and Intel Core
platforms. We are unable to explain why this occurred.

Both 720p and 1080p x264 clips played without difficulty. Slower single core
machines are notorious for not being able to handle 1080p x264 clips, even using
CoreAVC, so we're happy to report that a dual core Atom system is sufficient
for such files.

VS OTHER ATOM SYSTEMS

Its picoPSU allowed the HFX Micro to post power consumption readings
similar to the single-core D945GCLF, as the Seasonic SS-300SFD power supply used to test the latter is slightly
less efficient. Neither system can compare to the efficiency of the Eee Box
even though it uses the same single core Atom in the D945GCLF. The difference is in the mobile chipset used in the Asus.

Comparisons with Other Atom Systems
Test State
HFX Micro
D945GCLF +

SS-300SFD
Asus Eee Box
Mean

CPU
System Power
Mean

CPU
System Power
Mean

CPU
System Power
Off
N/A
2W
N/A
1W
N/A
1W
Sleep
N/A
3W
N/A
2W
N/A
1W
Idle
N/A
25W
N/A
27W
N/A
16W
Dark Knight

(720p H264)
34%
~30W
62%
~31W
65%
22W
Rush Hour

(1080p H264)
65%
~33W
97%
~33W
98%
22W
Coral Reef

(1080p VC1)
29%
~31W
63%
~33W
65%
22W
Prime95
100%
33W
100%
31W
100%
22W
Prime95 +

ATITool
100%
39W
100%
38W
100%
25W
Grey boxes indicate test failure.

The extra CPU core of the D945GCLF2 gives it an advantage in high
definition video playback. The board played both our 720p and 1080p H264 clips
perfectly (the D945GCLF/Eee Box
could only manage 720p). VC-1 playback was also a bit less problematic, though
it still failed the test.

VS DELL STUDIO HYBRID

The 545 EURO price-tag (~$706 USD at today's exchange rate) puts it in league
with the Dell Studio Hybrid
configuration we reviewed recently. In this comparison, to say the price of silence is high would be an understatement.
With only a dual core Atom processor and 1GB of RAM, the HFX Micro is
twice as slow at some tasks compared to the Dell's 2GHz+ Core 2 Duo with more
memory. AAC encoding using iTunes was dreadful, almost four times
slower than the Dell Studio Hybrid. The only area in which the HFX Micro performed
better was boot-up time, but this was most likely due to the fact it was running
XP instead of Vista with a few pre-installed applications.

Benchmarks Comparison
System
mCubed HFX Micro
Dell Studio Hybrid
CPU / RAM
Atom 330 (dual core)

1.60GHz / 1GB
Core 2 Duo T5850

2.13GHz / 3GB
Boot-up Time
39 sec (XP)
59 sec (Vista)
PCMark05
2024
4176
3DMark05
256
953
3DMark06
N/A (would not run)
444
NOD32
691 sec
~30W
301 sec
~40W
WinRAR
684 sec
~30W
274 sec
~45W
iTunes
1219 sec
~28W
312 sec
~43W
TMPGEnc
906 sec
~30W
468 sec
~52W
*Boot-up Time - start button to when the desktop
appears

COOLING

To test the cooling the HFX Micro, we stressed the CPU and GPU with Prime95
and ATITool until temperatures stabilized. Temperatures were recorded by SpeedFan.

Thermal Performance
Sensor
Idle
Load
Ambient
42°C
50°C
Remote1
50°C
63°C
Remote 2
52°C
63°C
Hard Drive
38°C
47°C
Core 0 / 2
38°C
55°C
Core 1/ 3
41°C
60°C
Ambient room temperature during testing was 21°C.

According to SpeedFan, the system stays cool enough. CPU core
temperatures increased by 17°C and 19°C after almost a full hour of
CPU and GPU load. Ambient rose by only 8°C, and the hard drive heated up
by 9°C. The sides of the cases were only mildly warm to the touch. These temperatures were signficantly higher than those reported by mCubed, which suggests our loads were higher. Still, except in the hottest weather in hot climates, the HFX Micro should have no issues with keeping cool enough. In actual use, no sane user will put the system under the kind of load we do in the lab.

One thing to note is that the design of the HFX Micro precludes standing it up on its side, a common approach with many small computers to further reduce the footprint on the desktop. Cooling would be adversely affected by such a position.

NOISE

With no fans, the only audible sound is from the hard
drive and its interaction with the case. The large vent on the top cover makes
for a poor muffler and from even a meter away the idle whirl of the drive is
definitely audible. Thankfully, like most modern notebook hard drives, the Seagate 5400.5
is very unobtrusive when idle, lacking any whine or noticeable vibration. Seek, however, is another matter. The constant ticking and scratching when searching
the drive for a file or defragmenting is annoying, but probably unavoidable. At 1m in our anechoic chamber, the HFX Micro measures 12 dBA idle/load and 14 dBA when the hard drive
is seeking. At 0.5 meters, a more realistic distance for a PC designed to be placed on the desktop, the noise level increases to 15 dBA and 18 dBA.

Mini PC SPL Comparison: SPL at 1m
Test State
Eee Box
SilenT3
Delll Studio Hybrid
HFX Micro
Idle
18 dBA
15 dBA
21 dBA
12 dBA
Load
20 dBA
15 dBA
31 dBA
12 dBA

Compared to almost every pre-built quiet system we've tested, the HFX
Micro is unmatched. While it is not nearly as capable as the Anitec
SPCR-certified SilenT3
, the acoustic advantage of having no fans and only
one component with moving parts gives it a significantly lower SPL reading. Note, however, that the higher level of broadband random noise (white noise) in the Anitec actually helps its unobtrusiveness by masking its HDD seek noise, in comparison to the sharper more audible seeks of the nearly bare drive in the mCubed. The Asus
Eee Box
with only a single core Atom doesn't come close, at least not out
in the open (rather than mounted behind a LCD monitor). The only other system that might have had a lower noise level is another mini-ITX fanless box with a 4200rpm laptop drive from many years ago, the A4F from Mappit, a brand that's now history.

The contrast of the noise from the mCubed's drive compared to that of the recently reviewed Dell Studio Hybrid is striking. We documented how annoyingly loud the hum of the Dell's drive was when placed on any desktop, and how that hum became, over time, the most annoying aspect of its acoustic signature. The mCubed has a similar drive, yet its vibration and hum is minimal in comparison. The frequency spectrum screenshot below from our SpectraPLUS Audio Spectrum Real Time Analyzer shows this difference very clearly.



Aside from the much higher levels overall due to its cooling fan, the 90Hz peak of the 5400rpm hard drive of the Dell is ~15 dB higher than that of the similar drive in the HFX Micro system.

The difference does not appear to be in the drives themselves, but in the way that they are mounted in their respective cases. The Dell's drive is embedded in a mass of metal, and quite firmly joined to the case. This close mechanical coupling allows the HDD vibrations to be easily transmitted into the desktop through the hard metal base, hence causing a constant droning hum. The drive in the mCubed, in contrast, is much less firmly mounted, not fully enclosed — it's clearly visible through the top cover mesh of the chassis — and the case itself has rubber feet. It resonates less and transmits much less of its vibration into the desk. Less, in the case of notebook drive mounting hardware, appears to be more; more silent, that is.

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.

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.

Comparable System sound files:

  • Asus
    Eee Box B202 at idle, 18 [email protected] and 14 [email protected] (behind LCD monitor)

    -- The recording of the Eee Box was made with the unit at idle, and the microphone
    1m away, first on a table in the hemi-anechoic chamber, and then mounted on
    the back of an LCD monitor, and the microphone 1m away from the front of the
    monitor. It starts with the room ambient, followed by the product's noise.
    The acoustics of the Eee Box barely changes with load, which is why only idle
    noise was recorded; there's virtually no audible difference at full load.

FINAL THOUGHTS

From a technical standpoint, the mCubed HFX Micro S13 is a basic, rather underpowered
desktop machine consisting of a dual core Atom processor, an outdated IGP,
only 1GB of RAM and a 80GB hard drive. Its upgrade options are limited — you
can replace the single existing stick of memory and add a second hard drive.
There is no spot for an optical drive, nor a PCI expansion/riser card. It is
best suited for light use and or as a media extender, as long as you don't mind
analog outputs and not being able to play VC-1 (Blu-ray) material.

While you can certainly build an equivalent system for a fraction of the cost,
getting it down the HFX Micro's quiet level without compromising the cooling
of the system would be a daunting task. The Intel mini-ITX Atom boards are ideal
for quiet computing, yet most off-the-shelf mini-ITX cases just aren't designed
with silence in mind. The smaller enclosures lack ventilation or utilize small
fans and the larger ones typically use noisy Flex ATX and SFX power supplies.
In our opinion, almost all mini-ITX cases should be powered via a picoPSU-type
device with an external power brick — they are silent, take up so little space,
energy efficient, and provide more than enough power for most mini-ITX configurations.

In actual use, we could not help but marvel at the experience
of working with a pre-built system and hearing nothing but the idle whirl of
the hard drive and the occasional chatter when it seeked. We've been waiting
for some time for someone to come up with a fanless cooling solution for the
Intel Atom processors, and mCubed came through. The price of this implementation is as extravagant
as they come, but we cannot deny its effectiveness. While the majority of users
may perceive the HFX Micro as an over-priced luxury item, some believe that
silence is priceless. For those users, 12 dBA is a bargain, even at 545 EURO. It's surprising that a solid state drive is not a standard upgrade option considering the well-heeled, noise-sensitive buyers mCubed is wooing. If total silence is desired, an SSD will grant you that — mCubed will surely set you up, again, at a price.

mCubed HFX Micro Business S13
PROS



* Good looks

*
Extremely quiet

* Low power consumption

* Adequate video playback (all formats except VC-1/Blu-ray)
CONS



* Extravagant price

* Lacks digital outputs

* No optical drive or PCI card option

Our thanks to mCubed
for the HFX Micro Business S13 sample.



EndPCNoise is a HFX reseller in the US.

* * *

Articles of Related Interest

Dell Studio Hybrid: Small, Stylish... but Quiet?


Anitec's SPCR-certified SilenT3 PC


Intel
D945GCLF m-ITX: Atom For The Desktop


Asus
Eee Box B202: An Atom-based mini PC


Tiny,
Silent and Efficient: The picoPSU


mCubed's
HFX mini: Fanless HTPC "heatsink case"


Mappit A4F: A Truly Silent PC

* * *

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