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Antec Aria SFF Case (w/PSU)

March 14, 2004 by Mike Chin

Product
Antec ARIA SFF Case
Manufacturer
Antec Inc
MSP
US$129

Toaster-sized small form factor (SFF) PCs have invariably been "barebones" products that include the case, power supply and motherboard -- often cleverly integrated with unique design and features. They are the domain of motherboard makers who have driven the SFF market from its inception a few years ago. Antec's new Aria is probably not the first SFF case and power supply designed for use with any micro-ATX, flex-ATX or mini-ITX motherboard, but knowing the company's marketing track record in recent years, it will probably become the first widely successful one. There have been many small PC cases on the market in recent years, but mostly in slim form factor rather than the boxier toaster shape that Shuttle has promoted so successfully.

The Aria is bigger than most SFF PCs, mostly in width. Although the same height as the medium size SFF AOpen XC Cube and only a bit deeper, the Aria at 10.5" is 2.5" wider. The extra width is needed to accomodate the AGP plus three PCI expansion slots of a standard micro-ATX board; most barebones SFF systems come with proprietary boards that have just a AGP and a single PCI slot, designed specifically to fit into those little cases. Its internal volume, at over 17 liters, is much higher than the recently reviewed Shuttle Zen XPC and the AOpen XC Cube, which are 9 liters and 11 liters, respectively.

Antec informed me in an email...

The main target market of the case is for general computing, for second computers, and for LifeStyle type applications ° Quiet Computing, the bedroom, the living room, etc. So users who want the most powerful systems may have to trade off and give up some quiet. For that sort of power user. It is recommended that the included low-speed/low-noise Cyclone Blower be replaced with a full speed one for maximum cooling.

There are many features that can be highlighted, but the one that makes the Aria stand out from the crowd is the composition of its top and side panels. Unlike the sheet metal aluminum of its barebones cousins, the Aria sports a hybrid, sandwich material, a lamination of plastic and aluminum skins. We'll examine what practical impact this unusual construction has on thermal and acoustic properties.

SPECIAL FEATURES (from Antec's preliminary product sheet)

° Alluring silver and black finish with soft blue illumination
° Removable multi-layer side panels provide easy access and increased noise absorption
° Accepts motherboards up to MicroATX (9.6" x 9.6") and 4 full-height PCI expansion cards
° 300 Watt power supply with universal input delivers quiet, stable power - 120mm fan ensures nearly silent operation

- Active PFC provides environmentally-friendlier power

- Universal input allows Aria to automatically accept line voltages from 100V to 240V AC
° Four drive bays provide convenient expandability - 1 external 5.25"

- 3 internal 3.5"

- Flip-up drive cage allows easy installation

- 3.5" mounts include thermal tape for improved heat dispersion
° Front-mounted ports and 8-in-1 card reader deliver maximum flexibility - Card reader accepts all popular formats:

CF I/II, MS, MS Pro, SM, SD°, MMC, MicroDrive°

- Ports: 2x USB 2.0, 2x audio, 1x IEEE 1394 (FireWire°, i.Link°)
° Remarkably quiet cooling with low speed 120mm fan and Cyclone Blower°
° Low profile, small form factor allows Aria to fit almost anywhere. 7.9"(H) x 10.6"(W) x 13.2"(D) or

20 (H) x 26,9 (W) x 33,5 (D) cm

Weighs: 10 lbs (4.6 kg)
° AQ3 ° Antec's 3-year parts and labor warranty

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The review unit is an pre-production sample shipped in the usual brown carton. The inner box is a plain white box with carrying handle; final production units will be an attractive full color box like other Antec products in recent years.



Ms. Kitty yawns, "Boooooring..." to the pre-production
white box of the review sample.

The black central panel offset by the matt silver wraparound curve of the side panels helps to make the Aria look narrower than it really is. The design is tastefully done, with silver colored buttons on the shiny black plastic of the center panel. The optical drive bay has a built-in automatic flip open cover like the one in the AOpen XC Cube, which eliminates color matching headaches. There are two multipurpose slots for the memory reader above the two USB 2.0 ports, firewire port and audio in/out jacks. The surface of the top panel differs from the satin aluminum of the sides: It is a ribbed plastic surface that looks vaguely like extruded aluminum.

DETAILS

The 120mm fan of the PSU dominates the back panel. Unusually, the AC input power connector is not on the PSU itself but on the top right on the back panel. The holes on the slot covers on the right presumably aid ventilation. The four card slot covers are held in place by an L-shaped cover that also has a screw to lock each card down.

A generic back I/O panel cover is supplied. This would normally be replaced with the one that comes with your chosen motherboard. There are four small rubber feet and no ventilation holes on the bottom aluminum panel.

Here's what you see when the top cover is removed. The procedure, by the way, is as simple as can be: A firm press on the top towards the back is enough to unlatch the top, after which it can be lifted off. A set screw on a rear tab would normally keep the top secure.

The next step in access is to flip up the drive tray and remove it. It simply pivots up and lifts off easily.

The drive bay is shown above, upside down. It accomodates an optical drive on top, a 3.5" drive below it, and two extra 3.5" drives vertically on the side U-shaped slots. There is no provision for a floppy drive.

The photo below shows what's in the case beneath the drive cage: A bag of screws and other hardware, AC cord, Cyclone Blower° slot fan, and a cardboard box containing hardware to mount a CPU fan off the PSU.

The entire inside of the front panel is well ventilated, as shown in the photo below. The central PCB is for the ports and 8-in-1 card reader.

With all the slots in the sheet metal, where does the air come in from on the front bezel? The photo below gives a hint. Light can be seen filtering in from a vertical slot where the side panel meets the central black bezel area. This is repeated on the other side as well. If you examine the above photos of the front panel, you'll see these two slot openings running up and down the height of the case.

There are also intake vents on the front bottom, again where the curved portion of the side panels meet the front center bezel. The photo below shows this a bit.

The green highlighted area has been heavily manipulated in Photoshop to show the gap in the photo below.

There is a similar gap along the center of the bottom front edge, but the PCB and front ports tend to block airflow into the case. Finally, each side panel has a row of small slot openings near the front bottom.

When you consider the entire range of intake vents, the total area is still not very generous, but neither is it highly restricted.

MULTI-LAMINATED PANELS

This unique feature is difficult to show. The photo below shows the inside of one side panel and the outside of the other. Both sides have fairly thin aluminum skins. Sandwiched between them is a layer of plastic that's not very hard, but not so soft as to visibly compress when pushed hard with a screwdriver point; it scratches instead. It is soft enough that when the panel is tapped with a knuckle, the sound that results is a dull thud. No ringing, no resonance, no high frequency aspect at all. It sounds almost exactly like knocking on the white acrylic cutting boards used in kitchens all around the world. There's probably one in your kitchen, too.

The acoustically inert, damped quality of these panels is in marked contrast to the sheet aluminum of other SFF cases. SPCR reviewer Ralf Hutter and I both have commented on the extra-resonant quality of ordinary aluminum panel and the bothersome (to us) extra hummy noise it adds to the overall acoustic signature in previous SFF case reviews. The curved portion of the side panels has another function other than style or forming the air intake vent: It gives additional structural stiffness.

The side panels come off in the same easy way as the top. A little tab on the back is pressed, the panel slides forward a little to unlock the plastic hooks, and then it simply pulls away. It's done in less time than is needed to read this explanation.

The top panel differs from the sides in that it is a 2-ply laminate, not 3-ply. As mentioned earlier, the outside plastic layer is ribbed. The inside has the same type of aluminum layer as the sides. A knuckle-rap test gives the same thud sound response.

ASSEMBLY AND TESTING

System Options

Setting up a system in the Aria is considerably more work than with most barebones SFF systems. The main difference is that in the barebones systems, the motherboard and its cabling to switches and ports are preinstalled. Here, this is all part of the setup. This is part of the price for the freedom to choose to choose the motherboard of your choice in a SFF case.

Antec's brief about this case suggests that its ideal system is one of low to medium thermal characteristics in order to take full advantage of its built in low noise features. Every PC case seems to have a certain maximum thermal limit beyond which quiet cooling becomes increasingly difficult. This thermal limit is related to ventilation, acoustic properties, and size ° total internal volume. Being a small case, the Aria's thermal limit is naturally lower than the mid-tower cases PC Silencers generally employ.

Let's look at mainstream processors from Intel and AMD: The coolest P4 Intel currently makes is a 2.8, rated at 69 watts. The coolest AMD XPin current production is a 2500+ (Barton core), rated at around 68W. They are hardly cool processors, but they are what's available for a mid-power system now. There are lower power CPUs, including Intel P3, VIA C3, and older slower P4s and XPs still in the retail channels.

So given the processors in my lab, and the intended application range of this case, I opted to build three different systems:

  • Low power: P4-1.8A with built-in VGA,
  • Higher power: P4-2.8 (533) with the built-in VGA
  • Gaming: P4-2.8 (533) with nVidia 4800-128MB VGA.

Assembly

You begin by removing the outer panels, an operation that takes seconds. It would have been nice to install the motherboard without removing the PSU, but that proved very difficult, despite Antec's assurances. I tried, but found the space too tight and difficult to work in, especially with all the cables going every which way. It was better to play it safe than to have an accident and end up with a dead motherboard. I am glad I did: Installation of just a tight input/output panel for the motherboard proved to be a sweaty affair, even with the PSU removed.

Four screws around the 120mm fan on the back panel, and two screws on the top cross-brace were undone. The PSU then was pushed down off the cross-brace and out. But it cannot be removed altogether without unplugging the three leads that connect to the AC input plug on the back panel. I chose not to unplug the leads and left the PSU perched on top as shown below.

The PSU itself has intake ventilation holes on four sides; the other two sides look much like the two visible above. The top vent holes are actually jammed right up against the cover and thus draw very little air in. You can see the total intake vent area is not that big, especially considering the area of the 120mm fan (~110 cm. square). The stepped profile is probably deliberate, it provides clearance for the CPU heatsink.

The PSU label indicates a hefty max current of 18A for the 12V line, and maximum combined power of 280W for the three lines. It's pretty good for a small PSU. The unit has Active PFC and auto-adjust input voltage for 100~240VAC, which makes it quite modern and up to date. (For more info on PFC, please read the green box on p.3 of the Recommended PSUs article.)

The bottom of the case looks like it's actually two layers of aluminum bonded together. The motherboard can be secured with just a single screw in one corner; a kind of hook clips on the other mounting holes. See the pic below. Those hooking clips can be replaced with the normal screw mounts, which are supplied. I chose not to, as the motherboard felt quite secure with those hooks and the one screw.

Clearance for large aftermarket heatsinks will be a bit of an issue. The first heatsink tried was an Arctic Cooling Super Silent 4 Pro TC. It was too tall to fit under the PSU.

A Zalman 6500AlCu-B was tried, and as you can see below, its 65mm height just clears the overhang of the PSU.

This means reliance on the airflow of the 120mm PSU fan, which has an intake directly above the heatsink, or adding a fan on the optional bracket for the PSU. The bracket is supplied with the Aria. The bracket and fan were mounted, as seen in the photo below. It's similar to the bracket Zalman uses for the 6500 and other similarly shaped heatsinks.

The tedious task of identifying and inserting all the various connectors for front panel functions and ports came next. Even with the panels completely off, the small space and the masses of cables from the PSU and from the front panel makes this a rather fussy task. The custom wiring management (and much prewiring) of the recently reviewed barebones systems was sorely missed.

The case came without any drive data cables. Barebones SFF systems come with these in custom lengths, often routed in place, and accordianed to reduce airflow impedance. Normally, I run HDD and optical drives on separate channels to ensure best data transfer for the HDD, but given the lack of short cables in my lab, I opted to use a single standard length cable for both.

The center 3.5" drive bay is meant for the main HDD, and rubber grommeted screws are supplied for that bay to reduce HDD vibrations from causing panel resonance noise. I preferred the airflow potential of the side mounts and used the left one, farthest from the CPU, theorizing that the keeping the airflow less blocked on the CPU side was important for cooling. When the Samsung HDD was installed, I found that its top firmly pressed on the outside rim of the drive cage; hopefully this would not be a source of vibration noise.

The Cyclone Blower is a slim blower style fan that replaces a slot cover. Antec says that it is meant to be an integral part of the the Aria's overall case cooling. Note that it is wired so that it will get 7 volts when plugged into a standard 4-pin PSU output connector. Antec says that this Cyclone Blower sample was part of the prototype. The version in the final retail package of the Aria will be standard 12V fans that run at the same low speed as the prototype at 7V.

Here is the Cyclone Blower mounted, in the photo below.

One trick I discovered in working with the system is that the drive cage can be flipped over and placed on the top back of the case without unplugging any cables. This proved to be a very useful technique for getting to components after the system was assembled.

LOW POWER SYSTEM - Round One

The first installation was with the DFI PS35-BL motherboard (supplied for the review by Antec) and the P4-1.8A processor:

  • DFI PS35-BL Intel 865G chipset P4 motherboard w/integrated VGA
  • Intel P4-1.8A
  • Zalman 6500AlCu-B heatsink
  • OCZ Technology

    PC3200 memory (512MB x 2)

  • Samsung SP0802N hard drive
  • Samsung SM-252B CD-RW Drive
  • Antec 80x20mm cooling fan
  • Zalman Fanmate1 fan controller
  • Antec Cyclone Blower
  • Windows XP Pro SP1

I left the 80mm fan over the Zalman 6500 cooler turned off for a while, just to see how well the PSU fan alone would cool the CPU. With the ~50W P4-1.8A, it seemed to be fine. The exhaust air from the 120mm fan felt only slightly warm, and there was never any sign of instability with any application I tried.

After Windows XP SP1 was fully loaded, I installed the Folding @ Home client and had the system running 24/7 for a few days for team SPCR. The CPU fan was turned on during this time, set to ~5V with the Zalman Fanmate1. This is a fairly rigorous thermal test, probably on par with heavy prolonged gaming, as it puts the CPU in constant 100% utilization. The system was perfectly stable throughout this period, with no errors in Folding.

Somewhere along the way, I discovered that this DFI board does not have any sensor circuits to monitor temperatures, and the MBM5 readings were completely static. So another Micro-ATX motherboard had to be obtained. One of our sponsors

FrontierPC

came through with a loaner Asus P4S533-MX motherboard with integrated VGA for this review.

LOW POWER SYSTEM - Round Two

  • Asus P4S533-MX motherboard with integrated VGA
  • Intel P4-1.8A
  • Zalman 6500AlCu-B heatsink
  • OCZ Technology PC3200 memory (512MB)
  • Samsung SP0802N hard drive
  • Samsung SM-252B CD-RW Drive
  • Antec 80x20mm cooling fan
  • Zalman Fanmate1 fan controller
  • Antec Cyclone Blower

The Asus P4S533-MX motherboard is a bit older and uses the SiS 651 chipset. It does not have any input for the memory reader; I will have to assume that this feature works when connected to an appropriate motherboard. The board does have monitoring sensors, which really is the critical need for the testing. Rather than patch the previous Windows XP install for this board, a completely fresh installation was done.

HIGHER POWER SYSTEM

This system is the same as the above except for the following components. The copper version of the 6500 cooler was used as it is more appropriate for the higher thermal output of the P4-2.8A.

  • Intel P4-2.8A
  • Zalman 6500Cu-B heatsink

GAMING SYSTEM

This system is the same as system two, except for the addition of an nVidia GeForce Ti-4800-128 MB RAM VGA card. It's not the latest and greatest but still a pretty strong gaming card. It draws ~40W, which is still a lot of heat to add to a small box. (An ATI 9800 Pro card was available, but it had already been modded with an Arctic Cooling VGA Silencer; the retention bracket on the back of the card protrudes too far and interferes with the PSU, preventing it from being mounted in the case.)

As you can see from the photo above, it's a pretty tight fit, with the PSU cables running between the VGA card and the heatsink. You can't help wondering if there's a better placement for the cables exiting the PSU. The photos below show the card installed from the left side of the case, and with the Cyclone Blower fan installed two slots over.

ANALYSIS

The results of testing on all three systems is compiled in the single table below.

The noise was measured from 1 meter distance in the test lab, which had an ambient of 16~18 dBA, far enough below the source noise level to keep from tainting the results. Noise (front, sides, top) refers to the noise as measured 1 meter from the front, the top or the sides of the case. They all read within 1 decibel of each other for all the testing; hence these were combined. The ambient temperature in the test lab was 21°C.

AGGREGATE TEST RESULTS
Low Power System
Idle
Folding
CPUBurn
CPU Temp (°C)
31°C
46°C
53°C
HDD Temp (°C)
37°C
37°C
38°C
Noise (front, sides, top) dBA/1m
25
30
32
Noise from back - dBA/1m
28
33
35
AC Power
69W
77W
90W
Higher Power System
Idle
Folding
CPUBurn
CPU Temp (°C)
48°C
55°C
63°C
HDD Temp (°C)
37°C
38°C
39°C
Noise (front, sides, top) dBA/1m
28
34
35
Noise from back - dBA/1m
31
36
37
AC Power
95W
106W
133W
Gaming System
Idle
Folding
CPUBurn
CPU Temp (°C)
53°C
60°C
65°C
HDD Temp (°C)
38°C
39°C
40°C
Noise (front, sides, top) dBA/1m
33
35
37
Noise from back - dBA/1m
35
38
39
AC Power
127W
140W
165W

CAVEAT: Please keep in mind that much of this analysis is based on just these three systems; you can assemble hundreds of other component combinations that could give you different results. The analysis is meant to give a general idea of what you can expect, with an emphasis on low noise.

General comments:

  • HDD seek noise is much more damped than in typical systems, typically adding no more than 2-3 dBA over idle. The Samsung drive has very muted seek noise, but when it is bolted into most cases, the typical increase during seek is about double those numbers. Especially in an aluminum case. Interestingly, placing a sheet of 1" thick closed cell foam between the Aria and the heavy countertop reduced the seek noise significantly.
  • The case panels never exhibited the annoying buzzy or hummy noise of typical aluminum cases ° at any power level.
  • The side HDD bays are suitable for elastic cord suspension for those who want minimal noise.
  • The CPU fan was not loud enough at 7V or less (the setting used throughout the testing) to add significantly to the overall noise signature.
  • The 7V Cyclone fan was not loud enough to add significantly to the overall noise signature.
  • The baseline noise level of the system was set by the idle noise of the hard drive and the minimum speed of the PSU fan.
  • The Samsung HDD in this setup appears to have a minimum temperature of 36~37°C and a maximum of ~40°C, and the temps don't change much with system configuration. This suggests that the location of the drive gives the same level of decent cooling airflow that is the main determining factor in its temperature.
  • At higher power loads in all three system configurations, the PSU fan dominated the overall noise.
  • The PSU fan is equipped with a RPM output but it did not work on this board for unknown reasons.
  • The Power Factor of the PSU measured ~0.87, lower than most other APFC models tested, which usually reach above 0.95.

Low Power System - The temperatures of the CPU and the hard drive were both very modest, indicating very good cooling for both, especially the CPU. It is evident that the maximum power draw of 90W AC, which indicates the total heat in the system, is well within the ideal thermal zone of the Aria.

In normal usage, the PSU fan rarely spun up beyond the min, and when it did, it did so gradually in a non-intrusive way. It can be characterized as a quiet system, although at maximum CPU load, it's at the upper borderline for SPCR.

Higher Power System - Again, the temperatures of the CPU and the hard drive were modest, and within safe limits, despite the big jump in total power draw in the system that resulted with the CPU upgrade. The PSU fan works harder to cool things, however, as indicated by the much higher decibel readings, especially with the system under load.

In normal use, the system would now be considered borderline quiet. Under load, it is better described as a noise-reduced system, as it jumps considerably over the 30 dBA/1m mark

Gaming System - The fan on the GF Ti4800 was enough to drive me slightly batty, as it pushed the already higher noise 2-3 dBA higher than reported in the above table, with a whiny higher frequency tone. After a while, I simply pulled the plug on the annoying fan and relied on the very nearby Cyclone fan to cool the card. It seemed to be enough; no video misbehavior was noted in any of the testing or in general usage.

Antec did say that users who want a more powerful gaming type system would have to give up some noise; they were telling it straight. Note the big jump in the AC power draw, especially at full load. In this gaming configuration, the system is no longer a quiet one. In general usage, it is noise-reduced, but by no means quiet. At full load, the noise is well into standard issue PC territory, far too noisy for SPCR. But it is probably be perfectly acceptable to the average gamer, perhaps even on the quiet side.

Cooling remains OK, though 65°C may make some people a bit nervous. In truth, it is below the 70-72°C thermal throttling point for the P4. A more efficient heatsink or slightly more airflow from the fan would drop the temp down.



Stylish Aria with blue LED bling.

FINAL THOUGHTS AND CONCLUSIONS

The Antec Aria is an interesting entry into the SFF sector dominated by barebones systems. Antec's marketing people say they're interested in addressing the market for people who want a general use PC that's quiet, stylish and small ° but also want broad motherboard options. Somehow, I think there is an internal contradiction in that statement. People who want style and general use and low noise usually don't want to bother with motherboard details. That's far too technical for them. Chances are they don't even build barebones systems, let alone a system from the ground up. So in all honesty I am not sure that their intended market actually exists.

But Antec's marketing has proven to be extremely effective, and they will probably prove me wrong. The Aria gives you a shape and size similar to a SFF PC, plus multiple motherboard options and many more PCI slots in a case that can be run very quietly with the right component choices. If those features meet your needs, the Aria is the only game in town right now.

For those who want to choose their own motherboard, options in performance-oriented Micro-ATX boards are limited. Some new P4 M-ATX models from AOpen and a few Athlon 64 M-ATX boards from others may breathe new life into the M-ATX form factor. I, for one, truly hope so. With the degree of integration in current boards these days, few users need five or six PCI slots. M-ATX boards should be fitted with the same range of BIOS and features options as any full-ATX board, instead of being crippled and limited as they so often are. The industry is moving towards smaller PCs; well, give the enthusiasts M-ATX boards they (we) can be happy with!

From a silent PC perspective, the Aria is a definite success as lower power system. The unique plastic / aluminum sandwich panels definitely do a good job of eliminating case resonance noise, and of containing the noise of components within. Cooling is surprisingly good, despite my reservations about intake venting. It would be pretty easy for a modder to make an extremely quiet low power system ° quiet notebook drive, undervolted CPU, etc. ° probably limited only by the PSU fan noise. Even the PSU fan could be tackled with a voltage reduction mod.

As the lab testing shows, the Aria's ability to cope with higher power components quietly is not that good, at least by SPCR standards. Cooling by itself is not the issue, because the Aria has plenty of headroom for cooling even hotter components. Remember that the CPU fan was always set to a very low speed and the Cyclone fan never moved out of its 7V setting. The source of the noise may not even be the 120mm PSU fan itself, but the turbulence it causes at higher speed as the air squeezes and accelerates through the pinch of its limited intake vents.

And while I did whine about having to deal with all that wiring in tight spaces, in the end, the Aria proved reasonably easy to work with. It just took some time getting used to working without the clever cable management that makes the best barebones SFF such strong contenders these days. I love the easily removable panels, they really do set the Aria apart.

I think the Aria was a tough challenge for Antec to develop: They've never built a toaster style SFF case before, they were not working with a motherboard maker who could make a custom board to go with the case, and there are no clear standards for SFF cases as there are for ATX.

In some ways, the Aria does for the SFF toaster size case format what the Sonata did for the mid-tower ATX case format. If the Sonata's success is any indication of the Aria's future, then Antec's work with this new case will be handsomely rewarded.

PROS

* Nice style and unique look

* Excellent noise damping panels that are easily removed or secured

* Reasonably easy to work with

* Any M-ATX or smaller board can be used

* Good case ventilation

* Quiet with lower power components


* 3- HDD capability in small case

* "Stealth" covers for optical drive

* High current PSU

* Front panel ports & memory slots

CONS

* PSU gets too loud with higher power components

* Ventilation could still be improved

* Small details not as well thought out as in other Antec or SFF barebones cases

* Lack of cable management

Great thanks to Antec Inc for Aria sample and for their continued support of SPCR.

* * *

Discuss this this article in the SPCR Forums.

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