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CES 2005: A Silencentric Summation

January 17, 2005 by Russ Kinder, Edward Ng and Charles Gilliatt. Photography by Edward Ng.

Editor's Introduction

Any technophile who didn't attend will have read at least one news report of the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show by now. There are easily a dozen CES coverage articles in just English alone, never mind all the other languages that abound on the web. Many that broke it up into daily reports. Many by teams of professional tech journalists with years of experience.

So what can three enthusiast volunteer reporters for SPCR tell you about CES that has not already been done in a bigger and better way? They can bring you the show from a Silent PC Review perspective, a distinctly different perspective not shared by any other publication or web information site in the world.

SPCR's news team of Russ Kinder, Edward Ng and Charles Gilliatt spent several days in the controlled chaos that is the CES show in Vegas, slogging through miles of convention center aisles and ogling everything in sight to bring you an SPCR-centric report on CES 2005. No serious attempt at order was made, nor was there any point trying to assess noise, as the ambient level in the conventional halls probably exceeded 65 dBA on average. Nor is this anything remotely close to a comprehensive look at all the products. Consider it an idiosyncratic, selective web log — blog — from CES through SPCR eyes.

Mike Chin

INRODUCTION: CES 2005

Russ Kinder: You wouldn't think that a convention hall jammed full of industry wonks -- half of them talking into their cellphones, the other half trying to converse with each other in half a dozen different languages over the amplified marketing pitches coming from a hundred different booths at once -- would be the place to see the in-roads that quiet computing has made. But you'd be wrong. Having attended previous CES's, I was amazed by the percentage of the computer hardware exhibitors who now include the concept of "quietness" into their marketing. Although it'd be nice to think that our little corner of the internet at SPCR had something to do with that, in reality we have just been at the leading edge of a curve thats been slowing growing under the radar, and is only now becoming widely acknowledged. The real driving force behind most of the new attention to noise is the push of the PC out of the office and into the living room. Literally everyone had a multi-media-home-theater-web-appliance-widget to display, and they all wanted people to know how "un-PC-like" they were, which usually translates as "quiet". Yes, CES was a grand party, a convenient excuse to go to Vegas, a chance to see today what everyone else will see in 6 months.... but it was also an affirmation that at least part of the mission that SPCR set itself upon is being achieved.

Charles Gilliatt: For those of you who are unfamiliar with the CES... Picture 1.5 million square feet of electronics, venders that know their product inside and out, venders that allow you to examine any product you want from any angle... and let's not forget the fabulous babes showing off their companies' goodies. To top it all off you are in Las Vegas, sin city, gambling to all hours with free drinks. Wandering the convention floor for 3 days plays havoc with your feet but the pain is worth it, for around every corner there is a gem, a new gadget or company you have never heard of with the best product you have seen yet, like Transmeta's OQO. What can be better? It's a nerd's dream weekend.

Edward Ng: This was my first time going to a convention of such a scale. I learned a ton of stuff and saw a heaping pile of interesting things, but feel that I could have seen more, still, and missed a couple things I was hoping to see. Among the best experiences were Antec's private engagement, the Transmeta OQO, and the rest of the Transmeta presentation in general, and then my own visit to Alexis Park to hear, for myself, how Vandersteen's speakers actually sound as well as the glorious performance of TAD Home's Model One loudspeakers. It's a shame I spent way too much time looking unsuccessfully for Silverstone's booth, and somehow managed to forget about seeing Paul McGowan and PS Audio's new Gain Cell products. I'll be more organized next time around, carry less weight, and bring a second pair of comfortable footwear. One thing's for sure — I'm definitely doing this again!

HIGHLIGHTS

» High-performance bling-oriented MGE barged into the quiet computing and HTPC market with a series of new low-acoustics products.

Russ: MGE was one of the surprises of the show. For a company that is usually known for garishly decked out gamer cases they had some really interesting stuff to show. If I were a gambling man, I'd bet that their HTPC cases are sourced from Arisetec (formerly Kanam, the makers of the early Ahanix Dvine cases). Not a show-stopper, but I would be very interested in us doing a review of one of them.

Ed: The preproduction case above shows the external styling of MGE's upcoming MCC 101 HTPC chassis. A demo video showed the side covers to be damped with acoustic barrier foam. A pair of big, passive radiators with heatpipes float above the components once installed, to deal with heat from installed components. This is their Proline HTPC Chassis design, and will also be available in a tower model called the GC 101.

Charles: Definitly some potential with this case. The video showed alot of new and interesting ideas that I have not seen in an off the shelf HTPC. It will be interesting to see what actually goes into the production model.

Ed: The impressive looking Magnum is MGE's take on the passive PSU, actually more of a hybrid, much like Antec's upcoming Phantom 500. Like Thermaltake's passive PSUs, the Magnum relies on an external array of heatpipe copper fins to bolster the cooling. An 80x15mm fan kicks in for additional cooling under heavier thermal loads. An LCD display on the production model will display power load, actual voltage on the 12, 5 and 3.3V rails and operating temperature. Cables are modular and the enclosure is an aluminum assembly that resembles the construction of Lian-Li's V series cases.

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» FOXCONN joins the Small Form Factor fray with a brick-powered unit.

Ed: This little small form factor barebone kit, brought to you by none other than Foxconn (the people who make most of the expansion slots and CPU sockets utilized by mainboard manufacturers), uses a fanless external power supply. It is based on Socket 478, so the older, cooler Northwood P4 cores can be utilized. Unfortunately, the northbridge comes actively cooled. The demo unit happened to be assembled for full Media Center capability with TV tuner card.

Russ: Is it just me, or does this thing look like it should be able to bake a mean loaf of sourdough?

Charles: Indeed it does Russ. It actually has a really nice fit and finish. It looks like it belongs up on the counter for everyone to see and not be stuffed under a desk.

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» LEADTEK: Fanless 6200 for silent PS3.0 functionality at a low, low price.

Ed: This passively cooled graphics card from Leadtek was on display at CES; it provides noise-free DX9.0 and Pixel Shader 3.0 support for PCI-Express. Note that is a Turbocache card; it uses 128MB of system RAM for frame buffer which explains the price -- more affordable than even the standard 6600

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» LEADMAN unveils wide selection of slick mITX form factor enclosures for HTPC, including a passive model for 1.4GHz VIA processors.

Ed & Charles: Leadman Electronics brought an array of different models to CES for display at the [email protected]'s event. All were designs for integration with VIA CPU-based platforms, such as EDEN and EPIA.

Shown above are the GS-F02 with no front ports and accepting up to a 3.5" HDD, and the front ports-equipped GS-F01, which can only take 2.5" HDDs. Both include a 90W external fanless AC power adapter feeding an internal power supply module that generates 60W of DC power, and utilize a 60x10mm fan for cooling.

The GS-L02 above utilizes a more advanced heatpipe design, to handle up to a 1.4GHz VIA processor fanlessly, and includes a fanless 120W AC power adapter to feed the integrated 90W DC-DC power module. Leadman plans to make some contract deals with flat panel television display manufaturers to have units based on a similar design integrated into them to present consumers with a fully complete high definition display with integrated PVR functionality. In general all the Leadman products were well crafted and with good attention to detail to blend nicely into a home audio rack.

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» HUSH Technologies showcased new Pentium M, Athlon 64 and full ATX/BTX Pentium 4 systems, all fanless.

The Pentium-M based unit below has the same sleek low profile as the EPIA M one that launched the company. The taller black one further below is an A64 machine.

Ed: And then there's the humongous full ATX offering. According to their chief engineer, whom I spoke with, the demo model is ATX layout with full ATX mainboard and Prescott, fanless! They also plan a BTX version, which is ~3cm deeper to accomodate necessary modifications for BTX compliance.

One important tidbit is that the power supplies are a proprietary design. They are shaped long and narrow, as wide as the case and mounted right behind the front panel. They contracted the same engineer who designs power supplies for Mark Levinson high performance audio equipment, and a typical efficiency of 86-92% with active power factor correction is claimed!

Russ: Last year's CES was the first time I got to see Hush's product line firsthand. I was simply blown away. They're beautiful units, well designed, and well crafted. This year, Hush's theme was certainly more evolution than revolution. Their new models keep up with the year's new crop of CPU's and VGA cards, to be sure, but beyond that the units are not significantly different from the ones SPCR has reviewed previously. That is not meant as a criticism: There's no need to fix something that isn't broken, and Hush's refined case styling is certainly not something that needs updating.

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» ZALMAN continued their silence-oriented market leadership role with a slew of new releases.

Ed: Zalman had a few interesting items for display in ABIT's booth over at the central pavilion tents. The Fatal1ty ATX enclosure below, and the Fatal1ty CPU and GPU coolers. The red coating on the coolers is not paint, but a thin layer of red ceramic that, according to Zalman's CTO, actually improves thermal transfer efficiency, particularly at lower air flows. While the Fatal1ty series is more performance than silence-oriented, crafty SPCR members can likely extract excellent low-noise thermal performance from the Fatal1ty coolers with a simple fan swap.

Zalman also displayed their new, improved TNN-500AF fanless ATX enclosure. The primary improvement is a new front fascia behind the front door. Also improved were the hard drive mounting system. New "thermal transfer blocks" that install on the underside of the mainboard transport heat from hotter mainboard components, such as the power MOSFETs, to the metal panel / heatsink that the board is mounted to. Prescott is apparently cooled fine in the new TNN-500AF.

A new, optional stereo amplifier card allows the end user to attach loudspeakers directly to the computer, without a separate integrated amp. There is also a multimedia software suite that transforms the machine into an HTPC, with support for TV tuner, DVD playback, music/photo/video playback and camcorder control; the remote can be used to start or shutdown the system itself, even in the event of a crash or system freeze! Finally, the perforated top panel of the case now has an additional baffle panel to prevent dust from getting in through the vents.

Russ: One other revision present in the AF is the PSU. It is now 400 watt, and features active voltage regulation: The PSU self-adjusts to maintain close tolerances on the various voltage lines, as reported from an on-motherboard sensor. (I thought it looked like that sensor wire bundle from the PSU connected to the SMBus, but did anyone else get a better look at it?)

The really interesting thing from Zalman was the TNN300, of course. Unfortunately, their CTO basically forbid us from making any public statements on that item until its actual release later on.

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» TRANSMETA showcased new high-performance, low-power, low-noise portable and HTPC products.

Ed: Transmeta, the low power chip maker, had a substantial booth. The images below are of a prototype fanless Media Center PC and server that can playback high definition video streams to multiple destinations simultaneously, to attached displays as well as remote multimedia client boxes. Transmeta's low power draw / low heat technology is particularly impressive on the portable technology front, allowing for extremely compact, low heat and long battery life. Another impressive demo was a 2.0GHz processor capable of WMVHD playback built on 90nm process that could drop its power draw to as low as sub-0.1volt levels during idle!

Russ: We were apparently too busy salivating on ourselves to get pics of Transmeta's most impressive product on display: The OQO. Click here for specs.

Charles: Indeed this was one fantastic item. At a retail price of $3K, it is steep but it is the size of a PDA with all the capabilities of a PC. I did in fact think about stealing it, then I realized that I probably wouldn't make it 20' before the goombas came to grab me. If I had stock I would buy into this company as they are staged to hit hard. I believe they had a series of low power chips running from 7-13w at speeds from 1GHz - 1.7GHz. Definitely a company to keep an eye on.

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» FORTRON-SOURCE introduced a new brand, AmacroX, and joined the fanless PSU party.

Ed: Fortron-Source presented several new products over at their little nook in the international market section of CES at the Hilton. Most of the new stuff was under AmacroX, their new retail marque. This particular piece is an interesting one. Rather than try to build an enclosure to satisfy everyone's needs, Fortron plans, instead, to sell individual case components that would be combined together to assemble your own custom case, LEGO-style.

Shown below are the new fanless power supplies from Fortron. The black & orange model is the retail model, sold under the new brand, AmacroX. The blue one is the Fortron brand model. There will be 360 and 480 watt models, with full ATX 2.0 compliance and a claimed efficiency of over 85%. The blue Fortron-Source brand unit is named, "Zens." They are unusual in that rather than turning the enclosure into a massive heatsink like other fanless PSUs, much of the casing is perforated, implying reliance on convection airflow and exhaust.

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» SEAGATE showed their new retail external drives to members of the media.

These new external drive come in three sizes.

Small: The tiny Pocket Drive features USB 2.0 connectivity, a 3600 RPM, 2mb cache 1" HDD, in capacities of either 2.5 or 5.0gb. All in a 63g, 73mm diameter case. It advertises a 2.2 bels max noise level. The downside is its relatively slow 4-7MB/s transfer speed. The Pocket drive was awarded the CES Innovations Award at the show. The 1" drive will also be available in a Compact Flash format.

Medium: The Portable Hard Drive is a 2.5" Momentus 5400.2 HDD wrapped in an aluminum USB 2.0 connected enclosure. The capacity (40 or 100G, 2 / 8 MB cache, respectively) and transfer speed are higher compared to the little pocket drive, but so is the noise. The enclosure partially suspends the Momentus drive, but much of the noise character we reported in our review of the stand-alone drive comes through.

Large: The External Hard Drive is a full-blown 3.5" desktop drive in capacities ranging from 120 to 400gb. Connectivity for the big unit is both USB 2.0 as well as Firewire. Also included is "single-button backup" software, allowing for near-automatic backups.

The only internal drive seagate showed was a variant of the 7200.8 named the DB35 configured specifically for DVR duty. Not intended, or suited for PC duty, its firmware revisions for streaming file playback efficiency would cripple it for the random-access tasks involved in a PC. They are pre-optimized according to the criteria provided by the various PVR manufacturers.

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» ANTEC's massive Vegas presence included fully revised SmartPower 2.0, TruePower 2.0 and Performance TX lines of PSUs and cases, their first BTX case, a new flagship PSU and finally, the P180, which they introduced to us as "Antec's case of the century."

Ed: This year, Antec will be debuting a massive array of new products, included long-needed updates to their aging line of PSUs. First up, we have a new line of SmartPower PSUs, dubbed SmartPower 2.0, including this new sample, one of the new, modular SmartPower 2.0:. Two inline 80mm fans, 500W, ATX 12V 2.0 compatible and the same modular cables as the Neo Power 480.

Alongside it is a new TruePower 2.0. The primary significant changes are a switch to 120mm bottom-feed intake fan and an upgrade to full ATX 12V 2.0 compliance. The chassis also now features the bronze color introduced on the Neo 480.

Antec's upcoming micro-BTX minitower, the Solution Series BK640 is shown below. This steel case is still in preproduction stage, and the LED-lit front intake will be toned down a little. A standard ATX 400W SmartPower 2.0 PSU as well as two rear mounted 92mm TriCool 3-speed fans will be included.

Shown below is the junior model of the new Performance TX line, to replace the Performance series. It is the only beige model with a SmartPower 2.0 350 . It utilizes an Intel-spec Chassis Air Guide, thus making it a certified Thermally Advantaged Chassis. There will be three higher models. The TX640B, appears to be the same minitower structure as TX635, but in black, and includes a 400W PSU. The TX1050B, "SOHO File Server" fits Extended ATX boards, and sports a 500W SmartPower 2.0, and additional 5.25" and internal 3.5" bays. TX1088AMG, another "SOHO File Server," comes in Metallic Grey, with a TruePower 2.0 480 and one more 80mm intake up front.

Antec also showed this E-ATX midtower enclosure that they say is a new standard for server systems. It includes one 120mm TriCool 3-speed fan for exhaust and two 92mm fans ports up front. The power supply is a TruePower 2.0 550 EPS, with full support for dual-Xeon and -Opteron systems. Also implemented is a new double-hinged door that opens a full 270 degrees, shared with most of the new cases with front bezel doors.

Antec revised the case that draws the most mixed responses from SPCR and dubbed it Sonata II, Antec cut some wide swaths of plastic bezel to improve intake air flow, but left the intake fan on the inside of the drive cage as before. It also features a new double-hinged, 270-degree door and, a new variation of Intel's Chassis Air Guide that is adjustable in three directions and pulls cool air from the rear rather than the side, thus eliminating a direct noise path to the user. They also dumped the ANTEC-patterned holes on the side panels, and upgraded the PSU to a single-fan version of the new SmartPower 2.0.

Antec introduced their first ever quiet-oriented rack-mount enclosure. The case includes dual 120mm TriCool exhaust fans on the rear right side and a SmartPower 2.0 550 EPS, pushed to the left side rear and ducted for cool air feed from the front of the case. The hard drive racks feature tool-free sleds with front access for hotswap functionality. Clearly the demand for quiet computing is spreading if Antec sees a market for quieter server boxes. The airflow pattern is strikingly similar to that of the new P180. (see below)

Antec's new flagship PSU, the Phantom 500, combines the very high efficiency design from the Phantom 350 with a supplemental fan that kicks in during extreme thermal loads. The new PSU provides sufficient power silently for virtually any desktop PC load, and the added insurance of bolstered air flow when necessary. The only real issue other than price, is that the new unit is deeper than standard ATX specifications.

Finally, the new flagship ATX tower enclosure,

the Performance One P180, covered recently in the SPCR's front page news

, was introduced to us as "Antec's case of the century." (Caution: There are 95 years to go still! Perhaps "thus far" should be added...) Utilizing nearly every technology in Antec's book and then some to achieve maximum performance while at the same time achieving new levels of acoustic performance, this case features:

  • Separate, exclusive thermal zones for the PSU and the system, both sections fed with their own intakes and exhausts; Antec even sealed the two zones apart at the side panel with some gasket material.
  • Aluminum-plastic-aluminum composite, damped panels for the sides, top and front door.
  • New, thicker, softer grommets for HDD mounting.
  • All-120mm fans for maximum breathing with minimum rotation speeds.
  • New three-way adjustable, rear-feeding chassis air guide.
  • 0.8mm cold rolled steel for primary structure, 1.0mm cold rolled steel for additional mass dampening of the quad-HDD section.
  • Rear and top panel exhaust fans are included, and are 120x25mm thick TriCool 3-speed models. Also included is a 120x38mm TriCool fan midway through the PSU section.
  • Front door opens a full 270-degrees to remain out of the way for extended periods of open usage.

Antec cautions that there will be changes to this prototype before their first real production run. Both 120mm intakes up front are filtered, as is the top panel exhaust, and the entire front bezel has been vented with slits on the sides to improve intake breathing. Even the rings used for pulling out the removable 3.5" drive bays have small plastic retentions to keep them from rattling! Finally, Antec chose to mount the spare drive rails within easy reach on the adjustable chassis air guide, which also see some change before final release. No power supply is included, allowing the end user to make their own choice. Antec left sufficient space even to fit the deeper than standard Phantom 500.

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That's all folks, till the next special event!

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