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Mappit A4F: A Truly Silent PC

February 18, 2004 by Mike Chin

Product
Mappit A4F Fanless PC System
Manufacturer
Mappit Computer & Kassen
Distributor
Ramlow Design
Price
US$1058 (direct from Ramlow Design)

The Mappit A4F is another Mini-ITX based PC. Specifically, the VIA EPIA M10000, a board reviewed last year here at SPCR. Ho hum, some of you might say. It's true that once you've seen and understand the VIA board, there's really not that much more to say about systems based on it. Everything is pretty much integrated in the board, so there's not much variation in performance or features. I was beginning to feel this way after looking at and examining a slew of M-ITX systems. Such were my thoughts about the Mappit A4F.

You know I am going to say I was wrong, right?

Yes, but a bit of background: Mappit is a German system builder whose all-German language web site suggests they do little outside of Germany. Ramlow Design is an Australian company with a German principal. Ramlow is the international distributor for Mappit. They are the ones who do business on behalf of Mappit outside Germany. Mr. Ramlow emailed me late last year with this description of the Mappit A4F :

It is the most quiet computer system available as per test of one of the leading German computer magazines. Would you be interested in a review of the Mappit A4F? This system is available in a small desktop version, which has almost the size of an A4 sheet, and in a 19"-1U rackmount version. Further the computer is available with a DC power supply that operates on an input range from 10 to 42 volts. The standard AC and the optional DC power supply are both internal!

Some weeks later, after an exchange of several emails, a sample of the Mappit A4F arrived at my lab, in a small, plain but suitably sturdy carton. Here's what the Mappit A4F looks like.

It looks a bit like the Hush M-ITX PC, doesn't it? Yes, but it is smaller. A lot smaller. Consider the size of those ports. To give you some perspective, the Hush M-ITX is a 7.4 liter box. The recently reviewed Shuttle Zen XPC and the AOpen XC Cube are 9 liters and 11 liters, respectively. The Mappit A4F is just 3.8 liters.

The above photo may not give you a good sense of its real size. Here's another gander, next to a typical mouse.

The overall look and feel of the machine is solid but slightly rough. Round headed screws instead of flush ones, very slight gaps and rough spots in fit and finish, cheap little rubber feet, and so on. It's hard to compare it to something like the Hush M-ITX PC, which is so much more polished yet priced about the same. But the power button feels and looks solid, and the whole machine can be picked up and shaken without the tiniest little rattle. Beauty is as beauty does?

The specifications for this machine are as follows.

Mappit A4F Specifications
Enclosure
- anodized aluminium, completely
closed (apart from I/O ports)

- no fans, no ventilation openings
Dimensions
- 315 x 200 x 60mm (W x D x H)
Power Supply
- 65 Watt

- Input Range 100-240V 50/60Hz
Weight
- 3kg
Power Consumption
- ca. 35W (256MB RAM, 40GB HDD)

- no stand-by consumption
Processor
- VIA C3/EDEN EBGA processor 600 to
1000MHz
Chipset
- VIA CLE266 North Bridge

- VT8235 South Bridge
Memory
- one DDR266 DIMM socket

- expandable up to 1GB
Video
- integrated VIA CastleRock AGP graphics
card with MPEG-2 decoder
Hard Drive
- 2.5inch space up to 16mm height
Onboard IDE
- 2x UltraDMA 133/100/66 Connector
Onboard LAN
- VIA VT6103 10/100 Base-T Ethernet
PHY
Onboard Audio
- VIA VT1616 AC'97 Codec 6 channel
Onboard TV Out
- VIA VT1622 TV Out
Onboard 1394
- VIA VT6307S IEEE 1394 Firewire
Connectors on front panel
- 2x USB 2.0 ports

- 2x IEEE1394 Firewire ports
Connectors on back panel
- 1x PS/2 mouse port, 1x PS/2 keyboard
port

- 1x parallel port, 1x serial port

- 1x RJ45 LAN port

- 2x USB 2.0 port

- 1x VGA port

- 1x RCA port (SPDIF or TV OUT), 1x S-Video port

- 3x audio ports (line-out, line-in, mic-in) switchable to 5.1 Surround
Sound

Rather than drag you through another explanation of the VIA EPIA M10000, I refer you to the linked review of the integrated board. Just a few key features to point out, starting from the top of the above list and moving down:

  • The case is all aluminum with no vent openings whatsoever
  • It is completely fanless.
  • The power supply is internal and universal voltage. (No brick PSU, no VAC switch.)
  • A notebook drive is used.
  • There is no optical drive, which means an external one must be used to access CDs.
  • The review sample came with 256 MB of DDR SDRAM and a 40G HDD.

NOISE ANALYSIS

The phone rang while I was hooking up the Mappit A4F in my office. An urgent call. I took it with the Mappit in my lap. I had just been about to turn the power on without attaching a keyboard, mouse or monitor, just to get a quick listen to it. Five minutes later, I got off the phone, picked the Mappit A4F up off my lap and saw that the front panel power LED was on. It had been on the whole time in my lap and I had not noticed. I still couldn't hear it. I put the unit up to within 6" of my left ear, and I heard the faint whirring sound of a hard drive. I put it back in my lap and couldn't hear a thing.

This first impression remains unchanged today, many weeks later. The Mappit A4F is rarely audible sitting on my desk just 3 feet away from my head. In the dead of night, when the ambient is down way below 20 dBA and I am not typing, then the whirr of the notebook hard drive is audible, but just. It's hard to call it even a whirr; it is such a soft gentle noise. It can be heard from a foot away, but only with some difficulty from two feet away. Three feet? Yes, but you need a really quiet room.

Even defragmenting the hard drive is barely audible from more than 2~3 feet, and when you do hear it, it is such a gentle soft clicking. I am sure my belly makes more noise most of the time, and my breathing might be louder, too. A bit of buzzing that sometimes comes from my CRT monitor or PC audio speakers is enough to drown out the noise. And it's only because my main ~18 dBA/1m PC is under my desk that it does not swamp the noise from the Mappit.

In normal use, the whole case does get warm to the touch, but never hot, more on the heatsinks than elsewhere. It's comforting to feel, because it tells me that the heatsinks are working to draw the heat in the system away.

The system came loaded with Windows XP Pro SP1. The system worked well from first boot. I've had no problems of any kind with it. If you've read my reviews of M-ITX boards and systems, you already know that the performance of the Mappit A4F is plenty good enough for most any office type application, email, web work, watching DVD on the monitor, even photo-editing (as long as the files are not huge). In other words, it is a good general purpose PC. Now you know the A4F is virtually silent. The noise is certainly is not measurable in any conventional way; there is no point in even trying. I would guess the level to be ~10 dBA/1meter, probably less.

So is this review over? (Finally, a short one! - you sigh with relief.)

It could be, but I have to show you at least a few more photos and a look inside to see how it is done, don't I?

MORE PHOTOS & THE INTERIOR



A view of the back panel.
The little hole beside the auxiliary AC outlet is a power reset switch accessible only with a small rod.



The feet on the bottom are tiny clear rubbery plastic jobbies. They look like they can be had for 69 cents for a bag of 8 from my local electronics shop. Not impressive for PC that costs a grand, but I guess they work well enough.

Opening the A4F was an interesting task. The four corner star-head screws were undone, and this loosened up the front panel, but didn't let it come off. It was not until the phillips-head screw to the left of the firewire ports was removed that the front panel came loose. It fell loose just enough, with the cables from the power button and the ports holding it back, to allow the top panel to be slid out from the groove inste at the top of each of the lateral heatsinks. The photo below shows the front panel with five screws removed and top panel pulled back about a centimeter.

And here is the interior, from front:

Note the copper piece on the left. It mates the heatsink on the little PSU board to the external heatsink. You can see a bit of thermal interface material there. The mating occurs when the case is assembled; there are no screws that hold the large heatsink and the small one on the PSU together. The copper colored pieces on the right are thick L-shaped pieces of copper that bolt the heatsink and the northbridge chip to the right external heatsink. Here bolts and nuts are used to hold things tightly. The cooling is simple and effective.

The 2.5" notebook hard drive is bolted to a subchassis that sits above the VIA motherboard. It does not appear to make contact with the top aluminum cover. It is a Fujitsu MHT2040AT, a 4200 RPM single-platter drive. Its acoustic spec is a surprisingly high 2.3 Bels. I tried turning on the system with the cover open and found the noise level almost as low as with it closed. No special mounting is used. It looks like the drive is screwed tightly to the subchassis from below. No vibration information is given on that Fujitsu page, but I'll bet it is far lower than any desktop drive. The maximum power dissipation of 2.1W, and idle dissipation of 0.65W are absolute shockers; I just wrote about the Hitachi 7K250 HDD hard drive which has a startup power dissipation of over 20W!

Here's another view of the interior, from the rear:

As you can see, the wiring is tidy, the layout logical and the physical execution precise. It is, in short, a well-engineered product that is highly efficient. No excesses anywhere, no waste. One is tempted to toss in a cliché about German engineering, but the truth is that this kind of tidy efficiency is found all over the world these days -- even if only in small pockets.

What's a SPCR review without at least a few measurements!? Just a few, done with Motherboard Monitor 5, the Kill-a-Watt AC Power Meter, DTemp and CPUBurn:

Activity
CPU
System
Hard Drive
AC Power
Idle
33°C
33°C
47°C
23W
CPUBurn
70°C
41°C
53°C
41W
* Ambient temperature during testing was 20°C.

* One other piece of info provided by
Kill-a-Watt: The Power Factor (PF) ranges from 0.58 to 0.65. This is low; the PSU probably does not have any PF correction.

CPUBurn was on for 30 minutes and all temperatures were stable for over 10 minutes when the readings were taken. Allowing more airflow beneath the heatsink by raising the case up about an inch made no difference to the temperatures. 70°C is not low, but VIA processors have a reputation for robustness under high heat.

The bigger issue, to me, is the 53°C of the hard drive, which Fujitsu rates for up to 60°C. To me, that's getting a bit close to the limit for data safety. But it is a notebook drive: They have to be designed to take more shock and higher temps than desktop drives because that's what they are subjected to basically 100% of the time when they are in use. So perhaps 53°C is no different that what it might be in a real notebook PC and not a big deal. It is well under Fujitsu's recommended maximum.

In any case, I suggest you don't do unnecessary long term CPU stress testing, especially in hot weather. You shouln't do that with any PC anyway: What's the point?

CONCLUSION

The Mappit A4F is a product that grows on you. At first, its slightly rough, plain exterior and its lack of an optical drive left me cool. The price was $1600 when the machine was first introduced to me; thank goodness for the recent price drop! At a grand, it is still not a bargain, but the sheer simplicity, practicality and SILENCE of this machine is seductive, and in the end, a winning combination for me. The Mappit A4F is quite simply the quietest computer I have ever used or seen or heard or even heard about. It is quieter than any I have built -- and I have built a lot of very quiet computers. It still does have a noise signature, but one that's so close to silent it really might as well be.

For anyone who doesn't play 3D games or conducts massively CPU intensive tasks on a regular basis, and who seeks the lowest level of noise possible, the Mappit A4F is the best choice I know of at this point in time. Improvements are certainly possible: It could be a more powerful computer, it could have an integrated optical drive, it could let you play shooter games against 3GHz-PC competitors, and it could serve you martinis or beer and peanuts at happy hour. Even if the acoustic performance is bettered, the question will be whether you can hear it or benefit from it.

In many ways, this Mappit A4F is a perfect product: A perfect set of compromises for the lowest possible noise in the smallest possible desktop package. Strongly recommended for those who seek computing silence.

Much thanks to Ramlow Design for the opportunity to examine this Mappit A4F PC System.

* * *

POSTCRIPT: Commentary from Ramlow Design

Thank you for that great review. Just a few comments to add:

1) Opening the Case: The case can be opened much more easily by taking off the 4 torx screws (2 front, 2 back) for the heatsink on the power supply side, the h/s falls into your hands and you can take out the top cover. (I had the same trouble as you when I opened the A4F the first time!)

2) The 19" rackmount version is the ONLY fanless rackmountable computer to my knowledge and it is so small that you can load a rackcabinet from the front and the back with the A4F 19-1HE. That means you can fit 2 of them in a one 1U shelf, given you got a deep enough cabinet (they are usually 800mm deep or more anyway). The A4F 19-1HE is only 330m deep! We are trying to get an even smaller version with more than 2 A4Fs per shelf, this variation is only on the drawing board for now.

3) An (industrial) tablet version with a built in 15" touchscreen is coming this year. Specs are the same as the normal A4F. the prototype already exists; some photos are at www.mappit.de.

4) Ramlow Design is the Mappit contact for non-german speaking countries and we actually ship the A4Fs from either Australia or Germany - depending on destination to reduce cost! We are looking for resellers world wide.

5) The A4Fs can be customized with CompactFlash drives built into the frontpanel, with the customer's logo engraved in the front panel, no firewire and USB ports in the front panel, etc. Other options are diskless mode where you boot via network. if the customer has special requests and they are technologically possible, then we try to meet the demand and built such special custom versions.

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