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Fanless Ultra Powerhouse PC by EndPCNoise

February 23, 2006 by Mike Chin with Devon
Cooke

Product
Powerhouse PC: Fanless Ultra, Totally Noiseless P4 LGA775 PCI Express PC System
System Integrator
End PC Noise
Price
US$2,558.95 as tested

End PC Noise is an online retail specialist of quiet PC components that started in 1999. The company, based in Vancouver, Washington State, is well established in this niche market, and should be familiar to SPCR readers, as it has been a faithful sponsor of SPCR for a couple of years. Component sales are generally seen as bread-and-butter for most specialist stores in the PC business, but after a couple years of tremendous growth, EPCN is selling more quiet systems than ever before. Low noise may still not be on the average buyer's priorities list, but it is not far off from the mainstream these days. With the continuing expansion of HTPC, low noise computers are more apropos than ever.

EPCN offers a number of systems in several series. The unit submitted for review comes from their Powerhouse series, and it is one of the most elaborate offered: A large, completely fanless, high performance system housed in the Zalman TNN-500AF case, PSU and cooling system. It's not a system of high interest for the average PC buyer, but it is certainly of interest to most readers of SPCR ? or anyone needing a truly quiet PC. This is the first system End PC Noise has submitted for us to review.

As the term "Fanless Ultra" in the model description makes clear, there are no fans in this system. The only source of mechanical noise is the hard drive. All other components are passively cooled, including a heatpipe-heatsink equipped ABIT AW8-MAX motherboard and the Smart Drive 2002 hard drive enclosure, a version of which we reviewed a couple years ago. At least half of the cost of the ~$2,000 system is in the Zalman TNN-500AF. Is it worth the cost?

Some background on the TNN: Zalman introduced the first Totally No Noise system, the TNN-500A, in 2003 to a great deal of excitement in the silent computing community. There were other fanless, passively cooled systems such as the Hush, Niveus Media, Mappit, Tranquil PC and others, but these were complete computers with little or no user-adjustable hardware, often difficult to upgrade seriously. The TNN-500 was the first DIY-oriented offering of its kind, meant for use with any standard desktop components. The completely fanless case, power supply and heatpipe-based cooling system was massive, heavy, and very expensive, well over US$1,000. The basic approach was to make an enclosure that is a massive aluminum heatsink for all the heat-producing components inside, and use multiple heatpipes to conduct the heat efficiently to the aluminum panels where it would be dissipated into the outside air.

Zalman's innovative and quirky heatsinks had already made some inroads in the industry; the TNN-500A catapulted the Zalman name to center stage. It's difficult to estimate the volume of sales Zalman has achieved with the TNN series; as a show piece, it seems to have been a success.

In May 2004, SPCR reviewed a TNN-500A case that was used in the Rage F-50 system offered by the Canadian company Voodoo PC. Our assessment of the case, its integrated power supply and its cooling system was that keeps the components cool despite being completely fanless. Our main issue was the noisy hard drives chosen for the system by Voodoo PC, and the absence of any hard drive noise or vibration damping system.

EPCN's system under review here is built around a more recent evolution of the TNN-500. This one is called the TNN-500AF. The differences between this model and the TNN-500A system reviewed earlier seem subtle, but they are both cosmetic and functional. The AF appears to be a better design, all around. EPCN's system is much quieter than was VoodooPC's fanless TNN-500A-based PC. It is more reminiscent, acoustically, of another massive, fanless, watercooled custom Pentium-M rig from Puget Custom Computers that we reviewed last year.

SHIPPING CHALLENGE

The carton that came from End PC Noise several weeks ago weighed 92 pounds or 42 kg. It's about the heaviest PC package we've ever received. The carton was also very big. When opened, it turned out to be like one of those Russian nestled dolls. The actual PC was nestled in a custom-fitted cocoon of Styrofoam, inside a double-layer corrugated box, which was nestled inside another layer of Styrofoam? and all of this was inside the third, external corrugated carton. The sheer weight of the system makes it susceptible to damage during handling and shipping, but the extreme care taken in packaging ensured that it all arrived safely. Getting the unit out of the box took some effort.



Triple-boxed, double layers of Styrofoam.



The PC looks imposing: Industrial, technical, and massive are terms that come to mind.

VISUAL TOUR

Some basics about the TNN-500AF case:-

  • Constructed from 5~7mm thick black anodized aluminum panels.
  • Weighs 26Kg.
  • Dimensions: 400(L) x 286(W) x 597(H) mm
  • CPU Cooler : ZMC 6HB(150W/sec)
  • VGA Cooler : ZMV 3HA(75W/sec)
  • Northbridge Cooler : ZMN-1HB
  • HDD Cooler : ZM-2HC2(11 heatpipes)
  • Power Supply : TNN400APF-V2 (400W)
  • Integrated Multifunction Multimedia iMon remote control system

With a case this interesting, a visual tour is in order.



Sturdy handles flip up from recesses on the top bezel, which is a layer above the perforated top panel.



There is a real front panel behind the door; more assuring than the open access to components in the TNN-500
A.

The blue square in the door is a window to allow infrared signals to reach the remote sensor.



Center of the Internal Front Panel: Remote sensor in top center, along with the standard switches and LED lights.

There's a host of USB, 1394 and audio connectors in a row below.



An
iMon remote control system is
an integral part of the TNN-500AF.




An EPCN system restore CD is part of the accessories package, along with at least a dozen software/driver CDs, various cables, and a component output adapter for the video card. This last item is of interest to anyone wanting to run high resolution video.

VISUAL TOUR, Continued

The rugged, industrial look continues on the back panel. Unusually, the I/O connections for the motherboard-integrated audio are on the bottom PCI slot cover. Note the 120mm diameter pattern of holes: It's for an optional fan. Two more similar grills can be seen beneath the handles on the panel, again without fans mounted. The vent holes allow convection to exhaust heat from the case.



There's a sturdy, lockable latch, but several bolts on the left side must also be undone to gain access to the interior.




The castors seem unchanged from the last time we look at this case. It is an ingenious combination of a swiveling wheel, and height adjustable foot. Lowering the latter plants the case and keeps it from moving.



Undoing the latch and several hefty bolts allows the side panel to swing out to reveal the impeccably tidy interior.

EPCN has done a superb job of cable management!
(Click on the photo for a larger view.)

Before examining the details further, it's time to itemize the components used in this system. As mentioned earlier, aside from the TNN-500AF and the Smart Drive 2002, it's nothing too out of the ordinary.


EndPCNoise Fanless Ultra, Totally Noiseless P4-775 System
CPU
Intel 630 3GHz EMT64 2MB cache LGA775
Motherboard
ABIT AW8-MAX
Case / Cooling / Power
Zalman TNN-500AF System - Includes full ATX case, fanless heatpipe/conduction cooling systems for CPU, motherboard, and GPU, and a fanless 400W ATX12V Power supply.
Graphics
Gigabyte GVNX66T128VP 6600GT 128BM PCIe
Hard Drive
Seagate 7200.9 80GB SATA2
HDD Enclosure
Smart Drive 2002
Optical Drive
Plextor PX-716SA 16X DVD-RW SATA
Memory
2x512 MB DDR2 PC2-4200 w/ Nexus heatspreaders

One question we had was why an Intel Prescott was used for this system. In a fanless system, one would think all the components should be chosen on the basis of low thermals. It's well known that the Intel Prescott core P4s are quite power hungry. The Intel 630 in this system is rated for 89W TDP. A comparable performance AMD Athlon 64-3000+ with the latest E6 stepping core has a TDP of just 51W.

The answer to this question is that EPCN wanted to showcase the powerful cooling capability they've achieved with the TNN case, the Abit AW8-Max board, and their own expertise and know-how in assembly. If it can handle a Prescott, the system should be able to handle just about any Athlon. Another simple fact is that EPCN's system sales are evenly split between Intel and AMD processors. There are many processor options; check the details on their web site.



Very tidy and organized. Note bottom intake vent holes.


The blue rectangular blocks are the clamps for the condenser end of the heatpipes.

The completely passive heatpipe-heatsink cooled ABIT motherboard is definitely worth a closer look, as we're always interested in cooling schemes that involve no noise. You get a pretty good view of it in the photo above. A heatpipe leads from the Northebridge heatsink to the top left corner of the board, where an extensive package of thin copper fins is used to dissipate the heat. These fins cover above half of the I/O panel. The reasons for this is to allow the fins access to the outside air, to allow the heat to be evacuated. The photo below shows this vent from the outside.



A metal mesh over the motherboard heatsink vent, presumably to ensure it does not get blocked.


The audio i/o connectors are displaced by the vent, which is why they are on a PCI cover plate.

VISUAL TOUR: More of the Interior



This photo
shows the back side of the front panel ports and the remote IR sensor.



The optical drive and the hard drive are mounted on metal shelves that protrude from the left panel.


The 400W PSU has modest power capacity by today's standards. 216W combined for +12V along with 180W
for +3.3V and +5V lines suggest closer compliance with ATX12V v1.3 than v2.0 or later. Dual vidcards need not apply. Although it's not specified, the unit is clearly equipped with Active PF correction. Zalman say it has 80% efficiency ?
at an unspecified output load, presumably full load?



A closer look at the Smart Drive 2002 which encloses the Seagate hard drive for reduced noise.

IN-USE TESTING

Test tools and conditions

All the testing was done in a carpeted room, 6 x 3 x 2 meters in size. It is furnished with several large desks and workbenches, and the long walls are lined with shelves. One of the short walls has windows covered with heavy drapes. The temperature was 20~21°C, and the ambient noise was 19 dBA.

  • AC power was measured with an Extech
    Power Analyzer / Data Logger 380803
    power meter.
  • Component temperatures were monitored using SpeedFan
    4.27
    .
  • CPUBurn was used to stress the processor and system.
  • 3DMark05 was used to stress the graphics card.
  • A movie DVD was used for playback for additional load on the system.

Acoustics

When the PC is powered up, the only component that makes any noise is the Seagate hard drive. This drive is not simply mounted in the case. It is enclosed in the Smart Drive 2002, which effectively combines noise damping foam and aluminum walls to reduce noise. Some initial whirring from the HDD can be heard in a very quiet room, but only from pretty close up, Once the Windows desktop is up and the system is stable at idle, the noise of the drive is not really discernible from more than about a meter distance. With the PC pushed under the desk, the only time the noise of the HDD becomes discernible in normal use is when it is seeking. It is a soft thrumming noise that's very low in level, and you have to work to hear it.

The measured SPL went up from the room ambient of 19 [email protected] to 20 [email protected] when the EPCN PC was turned on. The HDD seek noise rarely deflected the meter's indicator by more than another decibel.

At very close range in our very quiet room, with the PC in idle, a mid-to-high pitch tone (1~2kHz) could be heard at certain angles. Close investigation of this noise suggested that its source was the hard drive, which was surprising, as it is further enclosed in the Silent Drive 2002. Note that with the PC under the desk, we were on our hands and knees with our ears half a meter or closer to the PC in order to hear this noise. At times the soft whine disappeared altogether, depending on the angle between listener and PC. Most of the time, it was not audible even when it was there because it was too soft in level and quite directional.

The DVD-RW drive added the usual whooshing noise when it was used. During the initial scan of the disk, the noise was fairly loud, reaching 40 [email protected] In a secondary speed level reached about 40 seconds after disc insertion, the noise level dropped to about 30 [email protected] In normal play mode of a DVD or CD, typical noise was not audible.

It's safe to say that in normal use, this computer will be effectively inaudible in the vast majority of environments for the vast majority of users. It is not likely that anyone actually using the computer in the same room will have a low enough ambient for its noise to become significant or even audible. A bit of mouse clicking or keyboarding is enough to obscure any noise it emits.

Thermal Performance

The total heat in a desktop PC is equal to the power it demands from the AC outlet. This electrical power is converted almost entirely into heat, much of which must be dissipated effectively in order to keep the components from overheating.


Power & Thermals:

End PC Noise / TNN-500AF Fanless Ultra PC



Load



AC Power
Input



CPU



GPU


MB


HDD



Idle



104W


42°C


51°C


33°C


37°C



CPUBurn


(8 hrs)


166W


46°C


52°C

37°C


41°C



CPUBurn
+ DVD
play


174W


45°C


52°C

36°C


37°C



3DMark05


180W (peaks)


45°C


54°C


36°C


37°C

The thermal behavior of this system can be described as very cool and stable. Temperatures for all the component vary little from idle to maximum load. If the MB temperatures represent the ABIT motherboard's northbridge chip temperature, it means the board's heatpipe/heatsink system works very well. Probably, it also means that the heat from voltage regulators on the motherboard are being effectively wicked to the external casing.

The TNN-500AF is supplied with a handful of aluminum heat conduction blocks that go between the back of the motherboard (behind the voltage regulators) and the outer casing (the heatsink). Here is a photo of them from Zalman web page on the TNN-500AF.



The white at the end of the aluminum blocks is thermal tape.

According to Zalman,

"When the Rear-mount Thermal Blocks are installed on the back-side of the motherboard in line with the position of the FETs (Field Effect Transistor) and the Northbridge chipset, each can lower the FET temperature by 10 to 30°C and the Northbridge chipset by 5 to 10°C."

EPCN technicians confided that applying these devices is challenging, as the thermal interface material is not sticky. It is easy to picture how it could make installing the motherboard a truly tedious process. However, with no fan in the case, not using them is unwise. EPCN techs have come up with an assembly solution, however, one that ensures good transfer of heat from the VRM to the outer casing of the TNN-500AF.

Certainly, it's clear that the TNN-500AF's heatpipes conduct the heat from the components to the external heatsinks/casing most effectively. The Prescott never rising past 46°C
or the GPU never rising past 54°C
? this is superlative cooling performance. EPCN's clean and experienced assembly undoubtedly contributes to the cooling efficacy of the system. Interestingly, even after half a day of continuous CPUBurn stress testing, the case only became a bit warm to touch, never hot.

Other Details

The Windows XP installation seemed perfectly normal and was customized with the EndPCNoise logo. All the drivers and utilities for all of the various component worked fine, including the iMon multimedia software interface for the remote. The system restore disk was a nice touch of professionalism.

CONCLUSIONS

This EPCN system goes to extremes for low noise, farther than most quiet PC seekers are likely to go. The sheer size, weight and $2,500 price tag of this system tends to limit it to those who truly need extremely low noise or have deeper than usual pockets. What you get is a very capable, carefully assembled, very well packed and shipped system that's just about bulletproof.

  • The TNN-500AF case used for this system is tougher than any we can think of. If such a tough enclosure is necessary, this is a very good choice.
  • Fanless cooling means that it can survive much better in a dustier environment. A fan-cooled PC gets quickly clogged in dusty environments, and suffer high wear and tear as well has dangerous drops in cooling efficiency as the dust blocks filters, vents and cooling fins.
  • The cooling performance of this system is superlative. It is as good as any fan-cooled system we've encountered, and it manages to do this at an effectively inaudible 20 [email protected]
  • Despite the excellent cooling, the system does not require any maintenance or care (such as in a water cooled PC). In fact, with no fans to wear or filters to clog, it is maintenance-free. Even putting a book atop the PC is no cause for worry; because the whole case radiates heat, there's no single vent that might cause overheating if blocked.

About the only way that EndPCNoise's system could still be improved, acoustically, is to provide an option for a quieter notebook hard drive in place of the standard Seagate HDD offering. Apparently, the quieter Samsung drives have been very difficult to source recently due to contraction obligations by Samsung to a major OEM system vendor. But these days, high capacity (>100GB) notebook drives are available, and one of these inside a Smart Drive 2002 HDD enclosure would bring the noise level down to a level that even the most demanding SPCR aficionado could not find fault.

All in all, the EndPCNoise's Powerhouse PC: Fanless Ultra is an impressive, quiet, capable PC.

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