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Puget Delivers a Quiet Core Duo PC

June 30, 2006 by Devon
Cooke

Product
Custom-built Low-Noise Core
Duo PC
Manufacturer
Puget
Custom Computers
Selling Price
~US$2350 (~US$1800 without
Solid State Drive)

With the possible exception of Apple's
iMac
, very few modern performance, off-the-shelf systems are really quiet — at least not by SPCR
standards. And, even if a company sells a model or two that is quiet, it is
nearly impossible to know which systems they are. The big system manufacturers
— Dell, Gateway, HP, etc— sell only a few base models whose noise
characteristics vary considerably depending on what components are chosen. Listening
to the system in a retail store is no help; the ambient noise is simply too
loud to gauge how it will sound at home.

Most people who want a system that they know will be
quiet end up building their own. The extra time and tinkering required is often
well worth the effort. But not everyone has the time, skill or interest to DIY. This is where Puget Custom Computers comes in. Puget offers several systems that are built specifically with low noise
in mind.

They're more than just talk, too. Last year, we
looked at an extensively customized, 100% fanless system from Puget that was
so quiet we could barely measure it
. It's pretty tough to top that, but
with a price tag of US$3700, it was more of a showpiece than a practical system.

This time around, they've put together a
system that promises to be quiet without going to excess
. It's based on
the efficient Core Duo processor, priced in the range that you would expect
for a top-tier system. Puget's standard
lineup of quiet computers
is also in this price range.



The system is double-boxed — standard with all Puget systems.



Custom-fitted foam blocks provide ample padding, and a large accessory box holds
all the extras.



All of the accessories included with the individual components — even
AOpen's noisy stock heatsink.

As is standard for Puget, the system arrived double boxed. The
outer box was sturdy and plain white, without any branding. A brief note reminding
users to keep the boxes intact was affixed to the top flap, but there were no
other identifying marks on it. The box was well-padded with sturdy foam packing
material that allowed about two inches of space on all sides. Inside, the original
manufacturer's box for the case — for our system, a SilverStone TJ-08 —
was used to ensure that the system was just as snug in the inner box.



Good advice, but hard to follow if you don't have a lot of storage space.



This message was pasted to the outside of the accessory box.

SPECIFICATIONS

The following components were installed in the system:

PUGET CUSTOM COMPUTER CONFIGURATION
Motherboard
AOpen i945GTm-VHL
CPU
Intel Core Duo T2400 1.83 GHz
CPU Cooling
Thermalright Ultra 90 Heatsink
RAM
2 x Super Talent SODIMM PC2-5400 1024MB
Case
Silverstone TJ08 (Black)
Power Supply
Seasonic S12 Series 500W Power Supply
Hard Drive
Super Talent 2.5 inch 8GB IDE Flash Drive

Samsung MP0804H 80GB 5400RPM Notebook Hard Drive
Video Card
GigaByte GeForceFX 7600GS 256MB PCI-E
CD/DVD-RW
Plextor PX-716SA/SW 16x Dual Layer DVD±RW SATA
Operating System
Windows XP Pro OEM SP2

Based on these specifications alone, the system already promises to be fairly
quiet, but Puget has done more than simply assemble the parts. Two minor modifications
have been made to ensure that the system will be as quiet as possible without
overheating:

  1. Both stock case fans have been removed, and the rear fan has been replaced
    with a soft-mounted Scythe S-Flex fan (model SFF21E) undervolted to 5V.
  2. The two expansion slot covers below the graphics card have been replaced
    with open grills to ensure that the fanless video card is adequately cooled.

Thanks to these modifications, there are only three sources of noise in the
system: The fan in the power supply, the undervolted case fan, and the notebook
drive. The optical drive is also a source of noise, but only when
it is in use.

EXTERNAL OVERVIEW

The SilverStone TJ-08 in which the system is built is a
MicroATX case with plenty of intake vents. There are no obvious modifications
to the exterior, although the two modifications mentioned above are visible
on closer inspection of the back panel. The case looks quite capable of housing
a quiet system. The only cause for concern that the gauge of the steel panels is slightly thinner than usual. Hopefully, there is not enough vibration
for these panels to become sources of noise.



Sleek and black, with plenty of air vents. We like it already.

The largest intake is on the front bezel: A filtered rectangle of wire mesh
that is a little larger than a 120mm fan. In it stock form, there would be a
cooling fan right behind it, but Puget has removed it to keep the noise down.
With such a low powered system, the extra airflow of the front fan
is probably unnecessary.



A thin foam filter lies behind the front intake.



A small vent above the expansion slots provides fresh air to the graphics
card.

A secondary air vent is located in the side panel above the expansion slots.
The grill is exceptionally unrestrictive. Without the front fan forcing air
into the case, it is quite likely that this smaller vent actually provides more
air than the front vent. This is a good thing; the hottest component in the
case is likely to be the video card, which is right in the path of the airflow.



Extra vents provide fresh air below the video card.

Another source of airflow for the video card are the vents that have been added
to the expansion slots below the video card.



The case fan has been replaced by a soft-mounted Scythe S-Flex.

INTERIOR

The cover comes off to reveal a neatly built system that shows every sign of
being quiet. Both the CPU and the GPU are fanless, relying on the airflow generated
by the power supply and the case fan to provide all the necessary airflow. Two
2.5" drives are hard mounted in regular drive bays using adapter rails.
One of the drives is an 8 GB solid state flash memory drive that holds the operating system. The
other is an 80 GB notebook drive (the work order: "Make sure it is Samsung
brand").



Note the odd location of the CPU heatsink in the middle of the case.

Like some of AOpen's previous boards that use mobile processors, the layout
of the motherboard is a little unconventional. The processor is located at the
front of the board, as though it was designed as a BTX board. The board also
uses SO-DIMMs — aka laptop memory — and only two slots are provided.
Puget has populated the slots with two 1 GB modules, which is plenty.

Fortunately, the board is conventional where it counts: It uses a standard
Socket 478 retention module. This means that Puget could replace the stock heatsink
(which looks noisy and was included in the accessory box) with an aftermarket
model. Their choice: A Thermalright Ultra 90, a smallish tower heatsink that
is a step down from Thermalright's high end offerings. Given the modest heat
output of the Core Duo, it should be good enough even without a fan.

At any rate, we sincerely hope that it is good enough, since the odd location
of the CPU may make it difficult to cool. Remember how the side intake is likely
to provide the bulk of the airflow? Visualize the position of that vent just
below the video card. Now visualize the air flowing from that vent out through
the two exhaust fans. Notice anything about the CPU heatsink? It's not in the
path of the airflow. Whatever airflow runs across the CPU heatsink will have
to come from the front vent which is farther away from the exhaust fans. We were able to feel some air flowing through the front vent when the system
was running, so there was evidently some airflow for the CPU.



The motherboard requires laptop RAM.

The fan header on top provides 5 volts to the system fan.



Extra power supply cables are tucked neatly out of the way,

and special brackets allow two 2.5" drives to be mounted in standard drive
bays.

Cabling was quite neat, with spare power supply cables tucked into an empty
optical bay, and most of the other cables tied together at the bottom of the
case. For the most part, cables were kept clear of the main air pathways.



Neatly tied cables at the bottom of the case.

One nice touch was the way the front panel cables were kept in place: Hot glue.
All of the cables are hot glued in place so they cannot be dislodged during
shipping or when careless users are poking around.



Front panel cables were hot glued in place.

MODIFICATIONS

Compared to the massive watercooling system in the last Puget system we looked
at, Puget's modifications to this system were fairly minor.

The first modification was to use the two expansion slots below the video card
as a source of fresh air. As the photo below shows, this was a simple matter
of screwing vented slot covers in place.



Vented slots help cool the graphics card.

The second modification is also simple. At it's heart, it is a simple fan swap,
although foam grommets are used to reduce vibration. The grommets are placed
on either side of the steel case panel. Strictly speaking, the grommets are
probably unnecessary. At 5V, the S-Flex fan spins so slowly that it is hard
to imagine it producing much vibration.



A grommet for the outside...



...and another for the inside.

The front case fan was simply removed entirely, allowing a thin air filter
to be seen. This filter is apparently a feature of the TJ-08 case, but is is
more or less useless in stock form. Whether or not it is effective at blocking
dust, it is unlikely to keep the case clean when the side panel contains a large,
unfiltered vent through which most of the outside air enters the case.



Front intake vent with thin filter.

TESTING

The following tools were used during testing:

Because the system noise was more or less constant — the fans did not change
speed, and drive seeks were not noticeable above the idle noise — most of our
testing consisted of an examination of power and thermal dissipation. The CPU
thermal diode was not calibrated, so thermal measurements should only be evaluated
relative to each other, not in absolute terms.

Ambient temperature during testing was 23°C. Ambient noise level was 16
dBA/1m.

Puget Custom Computer
Activity State
CPU Temperature
GPU Temperature
AC Power Draw
Idle (EIST)
33°C
52°C
54W
Idle (no EIST)
40°C
53°C
61W
CPU Load (2x CPUBurn)
56°C
53°C
82W
Full Load (ATI Tool + 2x CPUBurn)
54°C
82°C
92W

In spite of our worries about airflow around its heatsink, the CPU was well cooled. The maximum temperature of 56°C was low enough
to be perfectly safe, although we would not recommend pushing the system hard in 35°C ambient.
The CPU temperature fell slightly when the graphics card was engaged.

The graphics card also showed no signs of overheating, although the thermal
diode showed a much higher temperature than the CPU. It is widely accepted
(if somewhat unsubstantiated) that nVidia's graphics cards can withstand reported
temperatures of more than 100°C, so the 82°C peak that we saw seems
fine.

One small gripe was that Puget did not enable EIST (Enhanced Intel SpeedStep) by default. This is
as simple as selecting "Minimal Power Management" in the Control Panel,
so there is no reason why it could not be enabled. The power savings from doing
this were not large — only about 15% — but we had hoped that such
a simple step would be a part of Puget's standard build procedure.

At full load, the system drew less than 100W from the wall. That's less than
one fifth of the power supply's capacity (why so large?), and quite an impressive
number for a system equipped with an separate graphics card.

The graphics card did not help the power consumption at
idle. The 54W that the system drew at idle was modest, but it is higher than the <40W that can be achieved using integrated graphics.

SOUND TESTING

Puget Custom Computer: Noise Level
Activity State
SPL (dBA/1m)
Idle / Load
20
Hard Drive Spun Down
20

The noise measurements bear out our subjective impression of the system: It's
quiet... very quiet. It may have missed the 18 [email protected] level set by the fanless
system that they sent us before, but it didn't miss by much. It required close
listening to pick the system noise out from the background.

As mentioned, the noise did not change under use. This is hardly a surprise
— the system fan is not thermally controlled, and the
Seasonic power supply did not get louder until DC output reached 200W
on our test bench when
we tested a sample for our review. This is more than double the maximum load of the system reviewed here. Even
the noise from the hard drive did not change, since the operating system was
installed on the flash drive and did not produce seek noise.

This provoked a question: Why was the drive allowed to spin at all? It's the
main source of noise, and can easily be disabled using the same window used
to enable SpeedStep. We answered our own question by spinning down the drive
using SeaTools
to see what the system sounded like without it.

To our surprise, the measured noise level did not change, and the noise character
was significantly worse. Without the drive, the bearing noise from the fans
was more plainly audible and could be picked out from the background as a low buzz.
When the drive was turned back on, the noise returned to the hushed whoosh from
before, with no clear tones and no distinct character. Subjectively, it seemed
quieter, even though a new source of noise had been added. Such is the nature of human sonic perception, which is why we always emphasize the importance of listening over measurements alone.

MP3 RECORDINGS

MP3:
Puget Custom Computers Core Duo System: 20 [email protected]

Comparables:

MP3:
Shuttle SD11G5 with Nexus 92 fan, 920 rpm (any load): 20 [email protected]

MP3:
Zalman TNN-300 w/Seagate Momentus 7200.1 on Sorbothane: <20 [email protected]

MP3:
Arctic Cooling Silentium T2 at Idle, 23 [email protected]

MP3: P180
"Hot Potato" Configuration 4: 25 [email protected]

MP3:
SilverStone Temjin TJ-07, Configuration 7 (Quiet Nexus Fans): 24 [email protected]

HOW TO LISTEN & COMPARE

These recordings were made with a high resolution studio
quality digital recording system. The microphone was 3" from the
front bezel of the case at a 45° angle, facing the intake side of the
fan to avoid direct wind noise. It is best to download the sound files
to your computer before listening.

To set the volume to a realistic level (similar to
the original), try playing this Nexus
92mm case fan @ 5V (17 dBA/1m)
recording and set
the volume so that it is barely audible. Then don't reset the volume and
play the other sound files. Of course, all tone controls and other effects
should be turned off or set to neutral. For full details on how to calibrate
your sound system playback level to get the most valid listening comparison,
please see the yellow text box entitled Listen to the Fans
on page four of the article
SPCR's Test / Sound Lab: A Short Tour.

CONCLUSIONS

Once again, Puget Custom Computers has delivered an exceptionally quiet system
— this time at a more reasonable price. As shipped, the system is as quiet
as any system we've built on our own, and probably faster. There's not much
here to complain about, but since it is an independent review, we feel compelled to make an effort. The only major omission
that we found was that SpeedStep was disabled by default. Preinstalling and
configuring Nero DriveSpeed would have been nice too, but that costs extra money,
so it's not really a complaint.

Best of all, unlike the system we reviewed previously, you
can actually buy this one
— or close enough. Puget offers the complete
system — without the solid state drive — for about US$1800. If you
ask nicely, they can add that as well... if you can afford an extra US$550.

Even if you don't want the exact system reviewed here, the system that Puget
built for us makes a statement: Puget is capable and willing to produce systems
that are as quiet as any custom-built system. If you're willing to work with
them (and the company prides itself on the level of interaction between its
customers and the people who actually build the systems), it is possible to
buy a system that is unique and quiet without getting your hands dirty. During
the buying process, Puget will review the options you've chosen, communicate
suggestions, and accept special requests. If you want a system like the one
in this review, Puget will be happy to make it for you. If you want to tweak
it for your own requirements, they will accommodate those just as happily.

Much thanks to Puget
Custom Computers
for building us this custom review sample.

*

SPCR Articles of Related Interest

Puget Custom
Pentium M Rig: A Silent WC System


17" Apple iMac - The
Official SPCR Review


Fanless Ultra Powerhouse
PC by EndPCNoise


Shuttle SD11G5: Pentium
M SFF PC

* * *

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