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AOpen XC Cube EZ65: A Quiet, Powerful SFF

February 16, 2004 by Mike Chin

Product
AOpen XC Cube EZ65
Manufacturer
AOpen
Selling Price
~US$320

The XC Cube EZ65 is AOpen's first Small Form Factor (SFF) barebones PC, released in Q4 2003. It's an attractive package, about average size for a SFF PC, packed with a great array of features. The glossy Pearl White finish on the aluminum case panels gives it a truly friendly look that fits in as nicely in the office as in the living room or the kitchen. Some people say that if Mac made a SFF PC, it might look a lot like this. (Of course, the iMac is something of a SFF already.) The XC Cube is available in many other colors: Volcano Gray, Jazz black, Danube Blue, and Cherry Red. (Danube Blue is striking, at least in pictures.)

And here's a cool thing for those into aesthetics: You don't have to worry about color matching the faceplates of your external drives, because flip-open integrated covers are used. These covers have exactly the same finish as the rest of the front bezel, so what you see below is what you see most all the time except when the external drives or the in/out control panel are being accessed. Very nice, she said.

So a pretty face is the only qualification needed for entry into SPCR's review lab? It helps, but by now everyone knows you also need a great body that's cool and quiet. In the XC Cube, AOpen says they have what we seek: The noise at idle with a "typical configuration" is said to be 28.4 dBA in the Operator Position as defined by ISO 9296 (mic place about 60 cm from the front). Now that's pretty quiet. In fact, it is almost exactly the same claim made for the Shuttle Zen XPC we recently reviewed.

Got your attention now?

Anyone who browses PC stores knows how SFF PCs are proliferating these days. Not only does every retailer offer them, every major brand in the PC industry seems to make them. The impression is not without basis. The number of SFF manufacturers is long and getting longer. The reasons for the increased number of entrants into this market are many, but these are probably among the most important:

  • It's a growing market, still quite new, with room for more growth.
  • The timing is right: People are looking now more than ever for simple, useful computing devices that don't take up lots of room, and they want to put them in places where PC traditionally have not gone. SFF has become PC as appliance, and it has created its own demand.
  • Motherboard makers are the primary drivers here, because of the central role they can play in integrating all the functions under one roof, into one board. The only new partner they might have to deal with is a case manufacturer. It would appear there's no end to the number of willing and able case partners in Taiwan and China.

AOpen has done a lot with XC Cube to differentiate it from the competition, more than just the spiffy cosmetics. Before we get into all that, a quick intro to AOpen, with some information culled from AOpen's websites:

"AOpen manufactures computer components as part of the ACER group. This group has more than 22 years of experience in the PC industry and over 700 patents in PC technology. Acer Group employs 39,000 people supporting dealers and distributors in over 100 countries. Revenues reached US$12.9 billion in 2002. From bare systems, motherboards, CD-ROM/CD-RW/DVD drives, and monitors to multimedia, add-on cards, and communication solutions, every AOpen product is manufactured and tested in strict ISO 9002 certified facilities."

They're big. A lot bigger than you might have thought. It means AOpen has many divisions to draw upon, that it hardly has to go outside itself to find all the expertise and experience needed to put together a product like the XC Cube. Working with case manufacturing is nothing new for them; they've been making and selling cases for years.

Readers of SPCR may know about SilentTek and SilentBIOS, utilities in AOpen motherboards that help manage fan speeds, cooling and noise in far more sophisticated way than any other commercially available software. Our review of SilenTek and SilentBIOS utilities in late 2002 spurred a great deal of interest in fan management among SPCR readers back then. It was also learned that many AOpen motherboards are undervoltable, which makes them very useful for extreme PC silencers.

Here are some basic features and specifications of the AOpen XC Cube EZ65, the P4 version, based on the Intel 865 chipset. They also have an AMD version, of course, based on the nVidia2 chipset, called the XC Cube EZ18.

The features list goes on... and on! Please check AOpen's "Technology Within" page for a complete listing. A quick rundown of the main features:

Being based on the Intel 865G chipset and capable of supporting dual memory bus, high performance can be expected from this little machine. Note too, the Gigabit LAN capability for truly high speed networking. The built-in VGA is provided by the Intel 82865G "Extreme Graphics" chip, which is known to have very modest capabilities. However, with the AGP slot, the user has the option of reaching just about any level of graphics performance desired. Dual-channel SATA drive support with RAID option is also provided.

The XC Cube EZ65 includes the SilentTek thermal / noise / fan management system mentioned earlier. EzWinFlash allows BIOS updates right in Windows for simplicity and convenience. JukeBox turns the XC Cube into a full-function CD player that turns on almost instantly because the software loads before Windows, just past the boot. The BIOS provides 1Mhz-step adjustments of both CPU and AGP clock speeds. With the wide 1.1V to 1.85V CPU core volltage (Vcore) manual adjustment range, the XC Cube is well set up for both overclockers and undervolting silencers alike.

There's more, but we'll save it for later.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The AOpen XC Cube EZ65 sample arrived in the usual heavy cardboard carton. Inside, this nifty retail box with carrying handle was found. To be fair, such boxes have become virtually mandatory or standard for SFF barebone systems. It has something to do with marketing departments' desire to position SFF PCs as simple and user friendly, like any other consumer appliance.

The packing inside was excellent. The PC was well protected from transit damage. Two sturdy cardboard boxes held a slew of short custom-length cables, two AC cords (one for US/Canada and another for... Asia?), accessories, installation CDs, screws, and three manuals (in English, Chinese and Japanese).

EXTERNAL OVERVIEW

As mentioned in the introduction, the Pearl White paint finish on the cover is excellent, with a hard glossy sheen that is quite resistant to showing scratches. The front bezel is clear Plexiglas painted on the underside. When the power is on, a blue light comes on around the large silver power button, which also has a blue LED for HDD activity. Everything else is neatly hidden behind the three doors.

The doors to the 3.5" external drive and the front in/out panel are opened by pushing on the top right of the doors. A little click sounds, then the door hinges out and down.

The bottom door opens to reveal (from left) S/PDIF output, speaker/headphone jack, mic input, two USB 2.0 ports, IEEE 1394 port and 4-pin IEEE 1394 port. The optical drive cover is spring loaded and flips open and shut by the force of the disc drawer. The drawer mechanism is engaged pressing the silver button on the right. The whole front panel is complete, neat and tidy.

The usual U-shaped cover has two distinct grids of ventilation holes on either side. It is held by 3 thumbscrews on the back. As you can see below, the left side vent is much larger than the right. Despite the large patterns of holes, because the square holes themselves are quite small, the total vent area they represent is smaller than you might think.

All the vent holes are ~3mm square. On the left, the grid comprises 19 x 21 holes in an area about 120mm square. The total vent area is about 36 cm. square, slightly more than a typical 80mm fan. On the right, the grid is 20 x 20 in an area about 80 x 90 mm. The total vent area is also 36 cm. square. Why the more concentrated hole pattern on the right and the more spread-out pattern on the left? Hmmm. We'll have to find out once we get inside.

The back panel is clean and tidy, like the front. On the bottom, there are the usual connections for mouse, keyboard, monitor, printer and COM1, a coax RCA port, IEEE 1394 port, S/PDIF output, two USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet LAN (RJ-45), then the three audio jacks: line-in, multimedia speaker and mic in.

The power supply looks almost like a conventional ATX model, shrunk slightly. There's an 80mm exhaust fan, a 115/230VAC switch, on/off power, and the IEC AC jack. The use of the 80mm fan is a good sign, as many SFF have used smaller fans with a high pitch noise signature that's hard to deal with. The grill doesn't look too restrictive either. Covers for PCI and AGP slots are on one side.

Four nicely designed feet with soft rubber centers are located at the corners of the bottom of the case. They seem soft enough to help minimize vibration transfer from the XC Cube into whatever structure it is placed on. There are no vent openings in the bottom of the case.

INTERIOR LAYOUT & COMPONENTS

The interior is neat, tidy and well laid out with plenty of room to work. Extensive cable management with plastic zap straps and cable sleeving routed along the metal channels of the all-aluminum interior skeleton keeps wire clutter to an absolute minimum. The removable drive cage makes it especially handy to get access to everything directly.



Tidy layout and great cable management for ease of installation.

The PCI and AGP slots are contrary to conventional arrangement. Normally, it is the AGP port that is closest to the CPU. In this board, it is the PCI slot that's closest and the AGP port is close to the edge of the board. There is a simple physical reason for this arrangement: It's only on the edge that any of the larger AGP boards can be physically accommodated, due to space restrictions. The drives get in the way otherwise, as the photo below shows.

The first step for assembly is to remove the drive cage assembly by undoing two screws, slipping it back just a bit from the flange in front, then lifting off. The CPU / heatsink and memory slots are then completely accessible.



Removing the drive cage gives easy access for CPU, heatsink and memory installation.

The drive cage is a nicely designed integrated structure that holds all the drives. Ideally the drives should be installed in the cage, and then the populated cage dropped in place in the chassis. The external 5.25" and 3.5" drives should not be screwed down however, so that you can get the alignment just right before doing so. Access to the 5.25" bay screws is a bit blocked by the cables running front to back, but a little pushing and shoving gets your screwdriver in OK.



Cage for all the drives. A single thumbscrew allows the bottom mounted HDD to be removed even after the cage is installed in the case.

The Samsung optical drive I used didn't align quite right. The correct position is in-between the last two screw holes. I had to leave out the screws out in order to allow the eject button to work properly. This is probably because the eject button on different drives are at slightly different height. Mounting screw slots instead of holes would solve this problem. AOpen might say using one of their optical drives would be a better solution. ;)

The heatsink/fan in an integrated affair. It's reasonably chunky, with a copper base, aluminum fins, and a 70 x 15mm fan. The base is flat and smooth, though not in the champion class. The built-in clips are simple to use and quite secure. This cooler is a departure from the norm, as the fan is set up so that it blows across and through the fins horizontally, much like heatsink/fans often used in server rack systems.

It is installed, as shown in the photo above, with the fan on the left side of the case. Several benefits can arise from this side-to-side airflow arrangement:

  • There is very little back pressure to the airflow compared to the conventional blow-from-top setup. This should mean reduced turbulence noise.
  • If there is an exhaust vent nearby, the hot air can be directed out of the case instead of using another fan to do that job.

Lo and behold! Remember those side vent holes mentioned earlier? One of them is right where the exhaust from the fan on the heatsink goes. Yes, it's all part of a grand plan. Here are two thermal airflow simulations from AOpen that show what apparently happens with the system in operation.



The outside air is drawn in through the large pattern openings on the left near the front. It flows across the drives, providing cooling effect, beflor being pulled into the PSU and the CPU cooler.



The CPU fan blows the air through the heatsink fins and directly out the right side vent just on the other side.

The power supply, as you can see from the internal photos and images above, is NOT an ATX design. It's smaller in every way, maybe a little bigger than 1/3 the size of standard ATX PSU. It is a custom size that does not fit any standard form factor, as far as I can tell. It does use an 80mm fan whose speed is thermally controlled. A label on the PSU provides the following specs:

AC Input
115/230 VAC, 50-60 Hz
DC Output
+3.3V
+5V
+12V
-12V
-5V
+5VSB
Max Current (A)
17
21
15
0.3
0.2
2
Max Power
105W
180W
3.6W
1W
10W
Total Power
220W

Note that the current for the individual voltage lines have almost no bearing whatsoever on the total available output power. The 21A max output for the +5V line, for example, is already the max Power available for the combination of the +3.3 and +5V lines. And if the PSU delivered 180W, there'd only be 40W available for the rest of the lines.

SYSTEM SETUP

The following components were tried in the AOpen XC Cube:

Two different 7200 RPM hard drives were tried.

  • Hitachi / IBM Deskstar 7K250 250G Serial-ATA hard drive (HDS722525VLSA80). This is Hitachi's highest performance non-SCSI model, a 8 MB cache, 3-platter design;
  • Samsung SP0802N, very similar to the previously reviewed SP1604N in performance and noise (as per the link), a modern, higher performance successor to the legendary Seagate Barracuda IV, whose level of low noise is no longer matched by current Seagate drives. This drive was used to establish the lowest noise level the AOpen XC Cube is likely to provide for most users.

Microsoft Windows XP Pro SP1 was installed, along with the multi-megs of updates ad nauseum. A drive image was used to have exactly the same setup on the two drives.

The assembly went very smoothly, with the logical open layout, and the multiple photos and step-by-step instructions provided in the manual. The basic approach is:

1) Remove the drive cage. Install the drives in it. The external drives require depth adjustment to line up just so in the case, so leave them unbolted for now.

2) Install the memory sticks and any necessary data cables for drives, all very easy with the drive cage removed.

3) Remove the CPU cooler, install the CPU. There is a waxy layer of thermal interface material on the base of the CPU cooler, similar to what Intel uses on their stock heatsinks. I chose to remove this in favour of Arctic Silver 3, applied as per AS directions. Then the heatsink was installed - a very simple task.

4) Slide the populated drive cage in place, adjust the depth of the optical drive and secure down with side screws, then insert the two top screws to lock the drive cage down.

5) Insert cables for power and data as necessary. This was made super simple because of the excellent cable management -- everything was already right there in there right place. The only cable I had to rout was the SATA drive cable, which was looped around the drive to the front. A little shaping of the somewhat stiff cable friction-fit it nicely into place, then all was set to go.

As you can imagine from the above description, it was a quick and painless procedure. AOpen has to be commended for their excellent layout, cable management and friendly manual. Almost anyone who can handle a screwdriver can probably handle this assembly.

BIOS Flexibility

The XC Cube EZ65 continues a general AOpen appoach to their motherboards: Very broad user options in the the BIOS.

  • Vcore: 1.1~1.85V
  • FSB: 100-400 MHz, in 1MHz increments
  • AGP clock adjustments in 1MHz increments
  • Wide range of AGP and RAM voltage and clock options
  • Flexible memory clock options

This is a full-blown enthusiast style BIOS with a huge range of options for all the parameters you could wish for. The dual channel SATA drive support and RAID option is the icing on the cake for performance enthusiasts.

One Oddity

When the cooler was removed to install the CPU, I discovered an oddity: A film temperature sensor in the CPU socket. Such devices were used in AMD motherboards when the Athlon first appeared. They did not have an embedded thermal diode in the die, so motherboards were equipped with these external thermal sensors. (An unsatisfactory problem because the external casing temperature is not the same as the core temperature, and the relationship between them is not linear.) In any case, a temp-diode was integrated into the AMD XP chips, and current generation AMD-socket motherboards do not feature the external socket temp sensor.

The Intel P4 was equipped from day one with an internal temp diode, so why this AOpen board features an external sensor in the CPU socket is a mystery. I could be mistaken about what the thing is... AOpen did not get back in time with an explanation before this article was posted.

TESTING & MEASUREMENTS

Two configurations were tried:

1) Value/Low Noise: P4-2.53 + Samsung SP0802N. Approx market price: US$710

2) High Performance: P4-2.8C + Hitachi 7K250 HDD + nVidia Ti4800 VGA card. Approx market price: US$1070

Much of the price difference is in the hard drive and AGP VGA card: The Samsung can be had around for $70, while the Hitachi is typically around $270. The Ti4800SE card can be had for $140. There is only a $25 difference between the CPUs, if you can find a P4-2.53. This model was one of those discontinued by Intel in their latest price announcement. (Shocking as it may seem for those who remember Intel's struggle just a couple of years ago to break past 1GHz with their P3s, the 2.8 is now the the slowest P4 they produce.)

The reasons for trying these configurations were simple:

  • SFF packages are perfect high value systems, with their built-in everything and low start up cost. It probably the way a large percentage of these systems are used. It is also the easiest way to set up these systems, definitely a consideration for the less technical market these packages appear to be focused on.
  • On the other hand, the AOpen XC Cube EZ65 appears ideal for a portable LAN-gaming type machine with the Intel 865 chipset and the impressive range of performance features, so this seemed worth exploring. It was also interesting to see how much of a hit noise performance would take in such a configuration.

Undoubtedly, some will complain that the Ti4800 is not tops for performance. No it is not, but the reality is that you would not want to put a current top performance VGA card in most SFF. The space restrictions are such that cooling will be an issue with VGA cards pumping 60W of heat and more. The Ti4800 also runs rings around ANY video card integrated into a motherboard; it serves well enough for our purposes.

VALUE / LOW NOISE CONFIG

These comments refer to the following configuration:

  • Intel P4-2.53 CPU (533 MHz FSB)
  • Samsung SP0802N HDD
  • Integrated VGA on XC Cube
  • OCZ PC-3200 256MB EL DDR Platinum Dual Ch. SDRAM Memory x 2

As with the Shuttle Zen XPC, the hard drive added a significant humming noise to the system. A simple suspension with elastic cord was tried, with results similar to that achieved in the Shuttle: Virtual elimination of the humming noise.

A. Power, Temperature and Fan Speed

The AC power draw was measured using the Kill-a-Watt AC power meter. The other data in this table was obtained with the AOpen SilenTek thermal fan control utility. Motherboard Monitor could not be configured to work properly with this system. The ambient temperature was 20~21°C during testing. SilenTek was engaged in manual fan speed mode with the CPU fan set to 40% speed.

Activity
AC Power
CPU Temp
Sys Temp
CPU Fan RPM
HDD Temp
Idle
51W
29
33
1750
34
83W
48
46
2200
34
CPUBurn
97W
55
56
2250
35

All temperatures in °C

The accuracy of the temperatures reported are in question. The CPU and System temperatures seem too close, and it's odd that SYS temp is sometimes higher. One wonder whether System temp is really the CPU internal diode temp... and the CPU temp is the readout from the in-socket temp sensor? Hopefully, AOpen will tell us.

In any case, none of the numbers are cause for alarm, the power draw is very modest, as are the reported temperatures. The HDD temps are surprisingly low, considering the tight space. Heat conduction to the aluminum chassis must be a factor. The fan speed ramp up is audible, but not much. More on noise later.

B. Performance

Benchmark tests were performed using PCMark 2002, 3DMark2001 and Sisoft SANDRA -- as done by Ralf Hutter in the Shuttle Zen XPC review. The only difference here is that a newer version of Sisoft SANDRA was used. The raw numbers from those benchmarks are thus not directly comparable, but the same comparative references are provided in each test, which should help keep things in perspective.



The CPU score here is directly related to clock speed. The HDD score is substantially higher than in the Shuttle Zen XPC review; this is a direct reflection of the performance difference between the Seagate Barracuda IV and the Samsung SP0802N.



You knew this one would be bad. It's half the score achieved by the Shuttle Zen with its ATI 9100 chipset, thanks to Intel's "Extreme" Graphics. As one reviewer once wrote, I probably misquote, the only thing extreme about it is how extremely slow it is.



No surprises.



It's dual channel memory as with the Shuttle, but the system is at 533MHz FSB instead of 800MHz, hence the lower score.



This config performs very similarly to the Shuttle in the multimedia benchmarks.

C. Noise

The AOpen XC Cube at idle in this configuration is as quiet as claimed. Its level of acoustics in normal usage is close enough to the Shuttle Zen that switching back and forth between them, it's difficult to make any clear choice about which one is quieter or noisier. There may be no real difference. I'd call it a tie. Both are very quiet, not quite at the same level as many silent enthusiasts' home-brew machines, but certainly better than other SFF PCs and most commercial production PCs.

With a simple elastic cord suspension of the hard drive, the overall noise comes down to excellent low levels. The improvement from the HDD suspension is subjectively much more significant than seen in the SPL measurements below, because the more irritating hummmm noise is pretty much gone, and most of the remaining noise is the more benign whoosh of wind turbulence.

Mic 1m from
Standard HDD Mount
Suspended HDD
Idle
Max
HDD Peaks
Idle
Max
HDD Peaks
Front
26
29
30
24
27
28
Left
28
30
31
25
28
29
Right
27
29
31
25
28
28
Top
27
29
30
25
28
29
Rear
29
31
32
26
30
30

* All measurements are in dBA @ 1 meter

* Max is measured after >20 minutes of CPUBurn stress testing, which heats the CPU more than any other program or utility we know of.

*
HDD peaks is the peak noise during hard drive defragmentation.

Where the AOpen gets a bit louder than the Shuttle is during prolonged CPU stress testing. It does not appear to be the CPU fan that's responsible for the bulk of the noise increase, but mostly the fan in the power supply, obviously speed-controlled by temperature. The increase in noise is 2~3 dBA on average, noticeable, and with the HDD mounted normally, brings the overall noise to the upper borderline of quiet. With the drive suspended, however, the acoustics stay pretty low.

In contrast, the Shuttle does not have this problem, not going up in noise level even under prolong stress. (Note that the Shuttle review does not feature a Max column for SPL because its CPU fan speed did not change under load.) This is because the Shuttle's PSU is external and fanless, and its heatpipe cooling system may be a bit more efficient at removing the CPU heat while staying at the default fan speed.

HIGH PERFORMANCE CONFIG

These comments refer to the following configuration:

  • Intel P4-2.8C CPU (800 MHz FSB)
  • OCZ PC-3200 256MB EL DDR Platinum Dual Ch SDRAM Memory (2 sticks)
  • nVidia GeForce4 Ti 4800SE 128MB VGA card
  • Hitachi / IBM Deskstar 7K250 250G Serial-ATA hard drive (HDS722525VLSA80). This is Hitachi's highest performance non-SCSI model, a 8 MB cache, 3-platter design

Obviously this is only one of many powerful component combinations that could be used in the XC Cube. It's merely to see how well it ramps up with higher performance components.

A NOTE on the TIGHT AGP SLOT -- The available room is quite tight, but the largish Ti4800 card installed OK. The clearance between the trace side of the card and the end of the hard drive is small -- probably not much more than half a centimeter. The biggest problems are:

1) The increased turbulence noise from the fan, which will be jammed up very close to the side of the case -- again, not more than maybe 1/2 a cm. The total clearance between the edge of the AGP slot and the side of the cover is about 5/8". It's tight but should be enough for some large passive HS on VGA cards meant for one slot.

2) Card removal. Given the lack of room to maneuver, there is only one way: Tilt it back so the ports on the VGA card are free of the opening in the case, then pull up on the back of the card.

A. Power, Temperature and Fan Speed

The AC power draw was measured using a Kill-a-Watt AC power meter. The other data in this table was obtained with the AOpen SilenTek thermal fan control utility. Motherboard Monitor could not be configured to work properly with this system. The ambient temperature was 20~21°C during testing. SilenTek was engaged in manual fan speed mode with the CPU fan set to 40%.

Activity
AC Power
CPU Temp
Sys Temp
CPU Fan RPM
HDD Temp
Idle
81W
33
35
2100
42
125W
53
53
2380
42
CPUBurn
150W
59
58
2480
43

All temperatures in °C

Again, the accuracy of the temperatures reported are in question. One wonders whether System temp is really the CPU internal diode temp... and the CPU temp is the readout from the in-socket temp sensor?

It's clear that the combination of higher power CPU and VGA card have caused a big jump in AC power draw. Temps under load are up across the board, but still not cause for concern. The Hitachi HDD temps are much higher than the Samsung, which is a known cool operator. Still, low 40s are OK for a HDD.

B. Performance



Neither the CPU nor memory scores are unexpected, but it's difficult to accept the drop in HDD performance shown here. It is obviously not right; even if the Samsung and Hitachi performed the same (which they do not), the 8 MB cache in the Hitachi accounts for 30% real-world improved performance.



Almost 5X the score of the integrated graphics and double that of the ATI9100 VGA in the Shuttle Zen. It's about the score that an ATI 9600 Pro card typically reaches.



CPU performance is right up near the very top of the ladder.



Memory performance is very close to the reference levels for the 865PE board; perhaps a bit more tweaking would get it all the way there.



Ditto the multimedia benchmark.

C. Noise

Not surprisingly, in this high performance configuration, the AOpen XC Cube is not so quiet. This Ti4800 card by itself has a fan that measures 39 dBA/1meter. The PSU and CPU fans both have to ramp up higher to evacuate the 50% increased heat in the system. Plus there is the added 2-3 dBA of noise from the Hitachi HDD.

Mic 1m from
Idle
Max
HDD Peaks
Front
34
39
40
Left
35
40
40
Right
35
39
40
Top
34
39
40
Rear
36
42
42

* All measurements are in dBA @ 1 meter

* Max is measured after >20 minutes of CPUBurn stress testing, which heats the CPU more than any other program or utility we know of.

*
HDD peaks is the peak noise during hard drive defragmentation.

I was able to effect about a 3~4 dBA reduction in noise by breaking into the 12V feed for the VGA card fan and inserting a Zalman Fanmate1 voltage controller to reduce the fan voltage down to 7~8V. This made the overall noise closer to being acceptable for a hardcore PC silencer. It would probably be acoustic nirvana for a hardcore gamer. Note that for the sake of time, the effect of HDD suspension was not recorded. Suffice it to say that the overall impact was not as significant as in the low noise config, simply because of the higher noise level we're dealing with.

Overclocking was tried, just a minor 5% boost of the FSB to 210MHz, with a tiny increase in Vcore voltage. The OC to 2.94 GHz was made painlessly on the first try. Here is a quick SANDRA CPU benchmark at that clock speed. OC-savvy users are surely going to play much more than this with this system's range of BIOS settings.

Finally, the system was settled back to normal speed, but undervolted this time, down to 1.45V from the default 1.525 Vcore, which helped to drop temperatures by a few degrees. It remains perfectly stable [email protected] at that setting, running a bit cooler and quieter than at stock.

CONCLUSIONS

The AOpen XC Cube EZ65 is an impressive first entry into SFF computers. It's clear that the AOpen design team have examined and learned much from the competitors who preceded them. In the XC Cube, AOpen have tried to achieve something of a PC for Everyman (and woman), and they have largely succeeded with surefooted confidence. It is possible to create with this platform...

  • A very quiet yet capable modern PC at a modest price. Yes, that's what the XC Cube is in minimalist configuration. In this regard, its appeal is very similar to the Shuttle Zen.
  • A powerful if not state-of-the-art gaming machine. With the AGP slot, any level of video performance is possible. Combine that with the high performance dual channel memory capability of the 865PE chipset and the native SATA RAID hard drive controller, and you have a machine that can compete almost on even terms with big tower PCs.

These are the extremes of the range of configurations the XC Cube can support; the wide range of points between these extremes means that it can meet a great many PC users' needs. The noise level rises naturally between these extremes, from about as quiet as SFF has been thus far, to as loud as the loudest VGA card and hard drive. But the choices are the users. With something like a fanless ATI 9600 Pro VGA card and a 8mb cache Samsung HDD to go along with a fast CPU and dual channel memory, the XC Cube would make a fine low noise home theater PC or gamer machine.

Like the Shuttle (and 99.9% of cases and systems we know about), the direct coupling of the hard drive to the chassis leads to vibration induced panel noise. In the aluminum box, it is more noticeable than in steel ones. The HDD noise reductioon solution is DIY for now, but I bet it won't be too long before AOpen and other SFF makers hear what we are hearing, and saying, and act to provide ready-made solutions.

Let's not forget how attractive, well-finished and easy to assemble the XC Cube is. The all-matching bezel with external drive covers and "designer colors" will attract a lot of new buyers. In short, the AOpen XC Cube is a well-executed, inexpensive, powerful and versatile SFF computing platform that can run very quietly. Strongly recommended.

Much thanks to AOpen for providing us the XC Cube EZ65 sample.

* * *

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