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Antec P180 Review, Part 1: A Silent System

June 27, 2005 by Ralf
Hutter

Product
Antec P180 Advanced
Super Mid Tower Case
Manufacturer
Antec
Inc.

MSRP

US$160

June 15, 2006: POSTSCRIPT V1.1 added to Part II to reflect changes made in the case since its original release.

A few weeks ago, SPCR's editor and publisher, Mike Chin, announced his involvement
in the development of Antec's P180 case in Antec
P180: A Visual Tour
. This article provoked a large response from our
readers, who have commented on the article and speculated on the case in our
forums, but it had one major failing: It wasn't a review, at least not by SPCR standards. Mike wanted
to announce his involvement at the time Antec released the case, but we did not
have enough lead time to produce a satisfactory review of the case.

This article is Part One of a long delayed review of the P180. It is meant to be read in conjunction with A Visual Tour, which serves as an overview of the features. This article
assumes the reader is already familiar with the basic features of
the case
as discussed in the previous article, and focusses on installation and testing rather than a top-down overview. If the text refers to aspects of the P180 that are not pictured here, please refer back to the Visual Tour article.

One issue that came up in the forum discussion of the preview article
is how — and whether — SPCR can produce an objective review, given Mike's involvement in its creation. To address this concern, the testing was done by myself, Ralf Hutter, and by Devon Cooke. Mike kept his involvement in the testing and writing to a minimum, primarily providing assistance regarding design concepts and testing procedures as necessary.
He remains the editor of all material that is posted at SPCR, however, including this article.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Two complete systems were installed and studied in the P180: One optimized for
low noise and the other for high performance. This approach addresses the ambitious design goal for the P180 stated in the Visual Tour article:

  • To be a great solution for power users who want ultimate cooling with
    the hottest current desktop PC components, as well as for silencers
    who seek minimal noise, in an understated, modern, elegant style.

The review itself has been divided into two parts for reading ease.

In Part One, Ralf Hutter (in hot L.A). installed a low-power, low thermal Pentium-M system in his sample P180 and tweaked it (without any real modding) for minimal noise. Without access to a super sensitive sound level meter, RH's acoustic analysis relies on what he heard, but you'll find his conclusions well-supported, logical and perfectly understandable. The article that follows is RH's review, Part One of the complete P180 review.

In Part Two, Devon Cooke (in cool Vancouver) assembled the hottest, most power-hungy system he could from components in the SPCR lab to test the suitability of the P180 for high power, low noise operation. In addition, Devon also conducted tests on the HDD cages and the fans, and spent much time taking measurements
and trying as many configurations as possible to ensure that as much hard data
is available as possible. This has already taken many weeks of hard work. Devon's comprehensive review will follow soon; final compilation of the data will take a little more time. Understanding his results will give you a better handle on how to make the best of this complex product.

INTRODUCTION

My first impression came as the UPS man handed me the box - this
thing is heavy! That initial assessment didn't change as I was removing the
case from its protective packaging. Not only is it heavy, it's large as well.
I haven't had much experience with a case this large and well built since my
Addtronics 6890 / Supermicro
SC750 days.



The retail box, out of the shipping box: A big box for a big case.

As has previously been noted, most of the external panels of the
P180 are constructed of a dampening sandwich consisting of anodized aluminum
sheeting bonded to a (seemingly glass filled) plastic base. All of that is nice
for dampening but doesn't add much weight to the case itself. The front and
rear walls, and the motherboard tray are the only large steel components of
the P180, yet the thing still is a pretty hefty load.

After all the pre-release coverage here, I felt
right at home as I opened up the case for the first time. As is my normal procedure,
I started removing all the components of the case and noticed how well everything
fit together. The slide-out drive cages are built like tanks and slide firmly
into their plastic holders. The fans are hard-mounted on plastic retention brackets,
but these brackets are better built and fitted than their older SX10x0
ancestors. There is also a felt-like strip of damping that runs across the edge of the panel that separates the top and bottom chambers so that when the side cover is on, there is a good seal between the two sections and to prevent the side panel from possibly vibrating against this edge. It's one of many nice touches.




For the record, here's the P180 photo you've probably all seen already.

SPECIFICATIONS: Antec P180 ( from the Antec
web site
)

Case Dimensions

21.3" (H) x 19.9" (D) x 8.1" (W)

Drive Bays

- Front Accessible

- Internal

11

4 x 5.25", 1 x 3.5"

6 x 3.5"

Expansion Slots

7

Cooling System

- 1 rear (standard) 120mm TriCool Fan
with 3-speed switch control

- 1 top (standard) 120mm TriCool Fan

- 1 lower chamber (standard) 120mm x 38mm (thick) TriCool Fan

- 1 front (optional) 120mm fan

- 1 (optional) 80mm case fan in the Air Duct over the graphics card
Main Board Size
12" (W) x 9.6" (L)

Weight (net/gross)

31/36 lbs

14.1/16.3 Kg
Motherboards
Standard ATX
Special Features
Internal mounts with silicone rubber grommets

Upper and lower chamber structure

Three-layer side panel

Front USB/FireWire Ports
Package Contents
1 Tower Case

1 set of screws and motherboard standoffs

1 Installation manual

GENERAL IMPRESSIONS

The Front Bezel

The front bezel, although made out of plastic like most others,
seems more substantial and less "plasticky" than other bezels. Perhaps
the dampened door helps, but the plastic itself, like the same plastic that
makes up the rest of the case, feels less "brittle" and more "dead"
than your typical ABS plastic.

The one flaw in the bezel is the fit, or lack
thereof, the 5.25" bay covers. They are extremely loose and fall
out even if you look at them sideways. Nothing was broken or bent in my sample,
that's just the way they are designed/built. I've noted several other complaints
about this same issue as well.

Some folks will disagree with me, but I like doors on the front
of cases, not only for their ability to reduce interior noise transmission,
but from an aesthetic position as well. The bezel and door of the P180 are designed
to keep noise from escaping directly out of the front of the case, yet the series
of vents around the sides of the bezel allow for excellent ventilation through
the front of the case.

Side Panel Tabs

I've also seen some complaining about the plastic
tab latches on the side doors, but to me they seem like they'd take a lot of
abuse without breaking, again due to the different type of plastic that Antec
has used. I'm sort of "Old Skool" when it comes to plastic vs. steel,
but I feel real comfortable with the plastic panels on this case and will give
"two thumbs up" to Antec for this design feature. Time will see if
I'm all washed up, but I've personally had no issues with it during the time
I've spent with this case.

Airflow Design

The top section of the case shows great attention
to airflow, from the front and rear 120mm fan openings and the top 120mm blowhole,
to the pseudo "Intel Chassis Air Guide" in the form of a removable
plastic duct, whose intake is at the rear of the case instead of on the side
panel. This should help keep noise down in the event that the use of this duct
is required.

The case seems to have been designed to have excellent
ventilation and thermal control, something which is mandatory when trying to
build the quietest possible system. The PSU and HDDs are mounted
in the lower section of the case, which isolates their heat from the rest
of the case, as well as provide optimum cooling for them by placing them in
an isolated, easy to control environment.

General

My general overall impression was that most everything seemed to fit
together without any rattling or flimsiness. Touches like the dampening strips
glued to the case drive bays and the PSU mounting bracket are something I've
never seen in a factory case, and very rarely see even in cases that have been
specially modded for silence. Antec has provided this right out of the box.
Those sort of touches, plus the composite panels and the heavy, rigid steel
construction all add up to a very strong and well damped case. Actually, I've
never seen a more substantial, better damped case, other than one that's
had the full Acoustipack
treatment
.

Cosmetics

My iteration of the P180 came in the standard silver and black
color scheme. Until I actually saw this case in person, I tended to agree with
the common opinion that the all-black case would look better than the silver
version. Some folks have even compared the silver version to a refrigerator.
After having worked with the silver version for a while, I can definitely say
that I like it's looks very much, and it looks nothing like a refrigerator.
The combination of the black and aluminum seems to accentuate the simple yet
elegant lines of this case. Now that I have a silver version, I suspect that
I'll prefer it over the all black one. I think that an all black P180 will look
too monochromatic and blocky, with nothing to set off it's basic square, featureless
shape. Aesthetics are highly personal though, so someone else's opinion may
well differ from mine, but I just wanted to stick up for the silver and black
version. I think it works very well.

A SILENT P180 SYSTEM

All of the damping/construction touches, plus the good ventilation
and isolated PSU + HDD compartment would seem to indicate that the P180 would
be a great case to use for building a silent PC so time to quit ogling the
thing and build a system in it. I used the P180 to house an extremely quiet system
based around a low power Intel Pentium M processor; a low power,
passively cooled video card and a quiet 2.5" notebook
drive. A system like this should require very little active cooling and
be able to run nearly fanless in a free-breathing case like the P180.

System / Test Platform

Intel Pentium M 755 - 2.0GHz Dothan core - CPU was run at
1.100V for this test

AOpen i855GMEm-LFS motherboard

Zalman 7000AlCu heatsink modded with Nexus
92mm fan @ 5V

Sapphire ATI Radeon 9250 passively cooled video card (AGP)

Mushkin PC3200 Level II - 2 x 512MB DDRAM @ 2-2-2-5, 333MHz

Samsung MP0402H 2.5" 5400rpm, 8MB cache notebook hard
drive

Plextor PX-716A DVD±R/RW CD-R/RW internal E-IDE (ATAPI)
drive

Seasonic SS300 PSU, with fan swap to Panaflo
M1ABX

Arctic Silver Ceramique Thermal Compound

CPUBurn processor stress software

Motherboard Monitor 5.3.7.0 software to track CPU temperature
and fan speed

Seasonic Power Angel power monitor used to measure system
power usage

Ambient temperature was measured at 71°F (21°C) over the entire series
of tests. No tests were run unless the ambient temperature was at that reference
level.

  • All temperatures are in degrees Celsius.
  • Diode: Reading from Pentium M 755 CPU diode via Motherboard Monitor.
    The CPU temperature monitoring was calibrated using the standard SPCR
    CPU Diode Calibration method
    .
  • Temp Rise refers to the difference between ambient temperature and
    the diode reading.

SYSTEM BUILD

My goal was to build the quietest possible system, based around the Pentium
M CPU. The hardware I used for this build is listed above, and is all extremely
quiet. I opted for an actively cooled PSU as there was going to be no other
fan in the PSU/HDD tunnel.

All internal drive cages, fans and ductwork were removed prior to starting
this build. The cooling requirements of this hardware kit are very low so I
opted to remove all three of the supplied Antec Tri-cool fans, and replace them
with one 120mm Nexus Real Quiet fan positioned on the rear wall as an exhaust
fan. I also sealed all the other vent holes on the top and rear of the case
using aluminum HVAC tape. This was both to control airflow and to reduce any
noise escaping the case.



Top fan hole and rear openings for unused VGA duct sealed with HVAC tape
.

PSU Installation

I decided to remove the fan in the PSU tunnel as the
2.5" HDD was going to be mounted up in the top section of the case (mostly
for cable routing reasons) so nothing in the PSU tunnel would need any active
cooling, other than the PSU itself, which would be cooled with it's own built-in
fan. To control the airflow through the PSU tunnel I sealed off the vent holes
on the rear case wall with HVAC tape. This would limit the airflow in the lower
section to what the PSU could pull in through the front of the case.

Some questions have arisen over PSU cable length in a case with this non-standard
ATX design. Because of this, I first mounted the PSU into the case using the
supplied mounting bracket. This bracket is designed to clamp the PSU down onto
the case, and is fully lined with thin silicon rubber dampening strips on every
side that contacts the PSU. The cage+PSU are then screwed down onto the case.
This system gives a very secure, yet fully damped connection of the PSU to the
case. This PSU mounting system is one of those great little touches found only on the P180,
and I think it's an excellent idea.

With the PSU in place I mocked up the 20-pin
ATX and 12V AUX connectors to see how well they'd reach to near the top of the
where the case where the motherboard's headers are on the AOpen board I was
using for this build. Both cables reached with plenty of room to spare. So much
room in fact, that I opted to run the 12V AUX wiring underneath the board and
the 20-pin ATX connector out behind the drive cages. This allowed my case wiring
to be as tidy as possible.

Next I mounted the motherboard and optical drive. Cooling for the 25W Pentium
M CPU was provided by a Zalman 7000AlCu heatsink modded by swapping the stock fan with a virtually silent 92mm Nexus fan running
at 5V. This combination provides massive amounts of cooling for the little CPU
yet it is virtually silent from 2-3' away, and completely
inaudible when it's mounted inside the P180.

Mounting a Notebook Drive

I chose to use a 2.5" notebook drive for this build to keep the system
as quiet as possible and I opted to mount it in the upper section of the case
in order to keep the cabling as neat as possible. The very low heat output of
this notebook drive made me confident that it would not add any appreciable
load to the cooling requirements of the upper half of the case.

I wanted to
utilize the nifty silicon rubber grommets in the drive bays to mount this drive,
but I knew I'd have to use a 2.5" to 3.5" adapter in order to actually
bolt the small drive onto the 3.5" drive hole pattern in the drive tray.
Unfortunately, none of the adapters that I could find had hole patterns that
matched the pattern on the Antec tray. I ended up mounting the drive two different
ways during my testing. First I used my normal method of laying the drive onto
two .5' x .5" x 3" Sorbothane strips, then placing the entire assembly
onto the drive tray itself. This has always given me great results in the past,
and still did with this setup. In this configuration the drive was 100% inaudible
from anywhere outside the case. Even though the Sorbothane is extremely sticky
and holds the drive in place quite well, some people would still like to have
their HDD mounted a bit more securely so I tried real hard to utilize the Antec
trays and grommets, but without doing some light modding I would not have been
able to actually bolt the drive into place. I chose to bolt the drive directly
onto a 3.5" adapter and use GE Silicone to glue the steel adapter tray
right onto the grommets. This seems to be quite secure, and post-install noise
testing showed this method to be just as quiet as my normal Sorbothane method.

Being the Luddite that I am, I mounted a floppy drive in the lower bay, but
bowing to the pressures of the 21st century I chose to use an 7-in-1 drive that
included not only the floppy drive, but 6 various other slots for different
types of removable media storage cards. Connectivity to the floppy is provided
by a standard 34-pin floppy ribbon cable and to the rest of the ports by an
internal USB 2.0 cable.



All drives mounted in upper section of case
.

Note damping strip on the side of the floppy drive cage:

It's meant to help keep bottom and top chambers sealed and to prevent the side panel from possibly vibrating against this edge.

SYSTEM BUILD (continued)

Decoupled Nexus 120 for Case Cooling

Airflow for the upper chamber was supplied by a single 120mm Nexus Real Silent
fan mounted on the rear case wall as an exhaust fan. I declined to use the default
method of screwing the fan directly onto the case wall and instead soft-mounted
the fan using a sliced-up set of EAR HDD grommets and cable ties. This is a
quick and cheap method of successfully decoupling the fan from the case and
works well with non-standard hole patterns and fan configurations. This fan
was run at around 5 to 5.5V for all testing.



Nexus cae fan mounted with EAR grommets and cable ties
.

Front panel I/O on the P180 consists of a set of USB 2.0 ports and a single
Firewire port, as well as a set of audio jacks. The usual Power, Reset and power
and HDD activity connectors are also included, with the LEDs themselves being
the seemingly de rigueur blue color. All front panel connectors plugged right
into the motherboard headers and worked perfectly. Apparently the days of mismatched
motherboard and case connectors are going the way of the VHS movie, at least
for the new cases I've been working with over the past 6 months.

Overall, the build went fine. I had no trouble with any aspect of assembly
and everything worked great the first time I fired up the system. The only thing
that even barely threw me off stride was rethinking the wiring layout of this
unique, non-ATX case.

Flaws

Is there anything that particularly bugged me, or that I'd like to see changed?

1) Well, the loose plastic 5.25" bay covers come to mind.

2) And maybe a blank
filler plate for those who won't be using the top blowhole.

3) The front
door "latching" against the magnets could probably use a bit of fine
tuning too. The door on my sample didn't seem to want to stick to the magnets
as tightly as I would have liked, but it didn't rattle during use so maybe that's
a non-issue.



Finished. PSU only has to cool itself, top case fan easily

handles the low thermal load of the Pentium M and other hardware.

THERMAL & ACOUSTIC TESTING

Thermals and noise are what it all comes down to with a case that's being reviewed
by SPCR, so let's see how things turned out with the much anticipated P180.

Cooler Than on Open Test Bench

After everything was assembled, I ran Prime95 for 24hrs to make sure things
were stable, and then I began my thermal testing. As you can see from the chart,
this system ran extremely cool under full load. Oddly enough, the hardware temps
with the system installed in the P180 were actually a few degrees cooler
than they were with the same system installed on top of my workbench out in
the open air on it's test rack. This with the only case cooling provided
by a 120mm Nexus Real Silent fan running at a whopping 5-5.5V. I'll chalk this
up to the great case airflow, as well as the PSU being mounted in it's own sealed
chamber.

P180
System Load Temps, using CPUBurn

@21°
Ambient

CPUBurn

Load Temp.

°C
rise*
Board Sensor
25°C
4°C
CPU temp @ 1.100V
33°C
12°C
HDD temp
28°C
7°C

* °C rise refers to the rise in temperature over the
21°C ambient .

Temps in Hot Weather

During my time with the P180 I also had the opportunity to do
load testing with the ambient temps up to 35°C. This is nearly as hot as
it ever gets inside Hutter Labs, and I daresay about as hot as it gets just
about anywhere. Even at a toasty 35°C, the system temps stayed very cool,
thanks to the low thermal output of the selected hardware and the great cooling
capacity of the P180.

P180
System Load Temps, using CPUBurn
@35°
Ambient
CPUBurn

Load Temp.
°C
rise*
Board Sensor
42°C
7°C
CPU temp @ 1.100V
47°C
12°C
HDD temp
40°C
5°C

* °C rise refers to the rise in temperature over the
35°C ambient.

Cool PSU Operation

I also noticed something interesting with the power supply during
the series of thermal tests I ran. The PSU being used for these tests is a Seasonic
SS300 that has had it's stock cooling fan replaced with a Panaflo 80M-BX. This
fan is wired directly into the standard thermally controlled fan circuit which
gives around 4.5V at it's default load. 4.5V isn't quite enough voltage to start
up an M1A Panaflo so at low loads, the fan actually does not run. After about
10-15 minutes the fan voltage normally goes up to slightly above 5V and the
M1A starts turning at its minimum speed of around 670-700 rpm, and stays
there for the duration.

During load testing at 21°C ambient with the PSU
mounted in the P180, I noticed that the PSU fan never turned on, no matter how
long I let the system run under load. When I was testing at 35°C ambient,
I noticed that the fan was just barely getting enough voltage to start.
It kept turning on, then slowing down to 300-400 rpm, then shutting off and
restarting again after a few minutes. This cycling continued for as long as
I let it run. I can only attribute this behavior to the PSU running in the isolated
tunnel, and not receiving the additional heat from the other system hardware.
This low ambient temperature, plus the low power draw of the Pentium M system
meant that the PSU was running almost passively cooled. The calibrated finger
temp test showed the PSU to be just barely warm during this load testing. Even
in a worst-case scenario of a fully loaded HDD rack, the PSU will still be subjected
to much less heat than if it were mounted in a typical ATX case. Add a quiet
running 120mm fan back into the mix and everything in the PSU tunnel should
run nice and cool.

How Quiet?

Granted, a minimalist Pentium-M system isn't going to tax the thermal
capabilities of this case, but I was able to run this system, and keep it very
cool even under hot ambient temperatures all with only one case fan,
and that was running at an inaudible 5V. The only way I can tell if this system
is running is to look at the power LED
(a bit too bright for my tastes). This, to me, is a perfect litmus test of a quiet PC.

FINAL THOUGHTS AND CONCLUSIONS

The P180 is certainly the most unique and well-designed full size case I've
ever used. It's obvious that a lot of thought went into thermal and
acoustic design considerations and the final results seem to show that it's
a success in all aspects, although Part Two of this extended P180 review will tell you more about how it fares with a really hot system. It is definitely not a case for beginners, though, as you need to have at least some appreciation for different airflow configurations and how to optimize the setup for best results with your gear. Routing the wiring could be a challenge for some people, especially if the PSU cable lengths and motherboard power connection placements don't cooperate. (I admit it took 4~5 hours for me to take care of the wiring, but this is not atypical for my builds; it is always the most time consuming of all the pre-software tasks.)

I've had to try hard to find things not to like about the P180, with the loose
drive bay covers being the main thing. It's physically pretty big, perhaps
a bit of overkill for the simple system that I'm running in it. It works so well
and looks so darn nice though, that I'll be leaving it together as my everyday
system. For me, this is the first case since the SLK3700 that I've liked well
enough to say that about.

PROS

* Well-damped exterior panels

* All parts of case fit together tightly

* Excellent thermal design

* Highly configurable

* Roomy and easy to work in

* Included Tri-cool fans are quiet at low speed

* Silver & black color scheme looks really nice to me

CONS

* Loose and rattley 5.25" bay covers

* Door latching is a bit funky

* Needs a blank filler plate for top fan hole

* Power LED a bit too bright

Many thanks to Antec
Inc.
for the P180 sample.

Link to previous Antec
P180: A Visual Tour
article.

An SPCR P180

The concept of marketing special products under the SPCR brand has been bounced around since this web site's launch. It always faded in the past due to the problem of finding a product worthy of the SPCR name. In the P180, that problem has finally been solved.

Starting mid-to-late June, a Limited-Edition Black Anodized SPCR/Antec co-branded P180 will be available for purchase from

EndPCNoise

in the US and from FrontierPC in Canada. A small portion of the proceeds from each SPCR P180 will go towards SPCR's coffers. The Black version P180 will be exclusive to the SPCR brand until after the end of 2005. European resellers will be appointed in the near future.

We are confident that the P180 is a superior case for silencers and power enthusiasts alike.

* * *

Discuss this article in the SPCR Forums.

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