Monthly Archives: October 2015

Building a Silent mini PC: What can go wrong

Intro

There are a lot of great resources that have detailed guides on how to choose PC components, a bit less great resources on how to choose quiet PC components, but are there any resources that explain to you and guide you through the “What can go wrong” question every silent/quiet PC builder should ask himself? Now there is.

My previous post “Building a silent PC” from two years ago covers my first experience and go at trying to cut down the decibel levels of a home PC build.  The statements in the previous posts are still valid, but I’ve decided to take another go at building my own quiet PC that can potentially handle games in 2015+.

Over the years I’ve grown rather indifferent to the standard PC cases and super gaming xxx, yyy, zzz cases and builds that are chasing that extra theoretical maximum output performance gain of 5% by sacrificing living space, thermal and heat considerations, noise levels and family budget (like this guy here – [Build Complete] $6,000 budget. New job where I’m not on the road, so it’s time to ditch the laptop for a proper gaming rig).

Nowadays you can get all the information/internets you need with a 5+ year old notebook and a phone (have we stopped calling them smartphones, yet?). One of the big milking cows for PC market is probably your typical enthusiast/gamer – with overclocked components, gaming versions of this, gaming versions of that kind of products. Makes me wonder how long will the home desktop PC industry is going to last.

Build concept

“Build” is a pretty fancy word, in reality it mostly boils down to choosing the components available on the market, it’s not like you will be able to stick things in the incorrect slot, or would you?

Some side info – one of the things that did get me exited recently was this custom made build of a gaming home PC from a while back. Looks extremely nice if you have your underground basement/cave sort of thing in your home, that and and agreement between you and your spouse about non-eviction if this shows up in the living room.

Not something I would want, but it does look geeky and cool. One of the most memorable builds that I’ve seen recently.1000x2000px-LL-32f1c353_02-DSC_4103

 

Getting back to my stuff – the thing that made me want to consider building a silent PC this time was this product by Fractal – Node 304. This is more or less how my mini station will look like.

fractal_node_304_white_3

 

Specifications

  • Mini ITX, Mini DTX motherboard compatibility
  • 2 expansion slots
  • 6 – supports either 3.5″ or 2.5″ HDD / SSD
  • ATX PSUs, up to 160mm in length (To fit in combination with a long graphics card, PSUs with modular connectors on the back typically need to be shorter than 160 mm)
  • Graphics cards, up to 310mm in length, when 2 HDD slots (1 HDD hanging bracket total) are removed (Graphics cards longer than 170 mm will conflict with PSUs longer than 160mm)
  • Tower CPU coolers, up to 165 mm tall
  • Case dimensions (W x H x D): 250 x 210 x 374 mm
  • Case volume: 19.5 Liters
  • Net weight: 4.9 kg
  • Colors available: Black and White

Previously I wasn’t really keeping my eye on the Mini ITX, small factor market at all. Maybe I didn’t even care, maybe the market wasn’t mature enough to have a solution for a quiet, gaming small factor builds, maybe something else.

This time I’ve decided that a big, fan blowing ATX tower was no longer something I want. I didn’t want to vacuum under it and dedicate living space to it.

Turns out you no longer have to have a gigantic thing standing in your room to actually enjoy playing a game or two.

Having something compact and completely silent and running on the newest hardware possible seemed like an appealing though so I gave it a go.

ITX are the future “console” PCs (or anything else, really)

Inspired by the “Quiet Mini-ITX Gaming Build Guide” series I’ve drafted up my components list.

Case: Fractal – Node 304 – is the reason this build exists. There are quite a few worthy alternatives and beautiful cases out there, be sure to check them! But I didn’t want a gaming PC case or an office thin PC, I wanted a microwave I wanted something with a cool design, big enough to work as a NAS device in it’s afterlife and something that would potentially compliment the interior of my living space.

case_02

What can go wrong: Wrong airflow which will lead to higher heat for PC components’, more noise and less durability. Vibration sounds because HDD or other components mount locations are cheap and low quality. Built-in cheap power supply units that sound like a tractor or even worse – a PSU that has specifications of input voltage that are very narrow (235-240 AC!), resulting in loss of power/restarts/burned motherboards and other components. Or your case will look like something from the 1990-ies.

CPU: Intel Core i5 6600K / 3.5 GHz processor – SkyLake it is. As pathetic as this generation of Intel processors is in terms of performance and functionality gains (would you really switch your previous platform for a theoretical maximum of 5-7% under load tests?) – it wins the choice once again because the price is the same (+-) as for Intel Core i5-4670K.

I would really, really, really like to buy an AMD PC (root for the underdog to avoid monopoly). But their Thermal Design Power (TDP) is through the roof, requiring more electricity, better cooling and generating more noise. After so many years they’re still in the budget PC build market, which is regrettable.

My choice here is dictated not by OC needs or any other things like extra 100 Mhz, but just getting top of the line i5. Worthy alternatives are i5-6600/i5-6500 (they do come with a stock cooler unlike the K series), other ones down the line lose too much clock speed.skylake

What can go wrong: You can buy something that heats up like crazy and makes your cooler punish you with uncomfortable levels of noise. You can buy an i7, because it’s an i7 and “faster” (without listing specific applications – it’s hard to tell if they will utilize multiple cores, by default – they don’t or are not worth the performance increase, with some notable exceptions like video editing), you can buy something for the wrong socket. Come to think of it – K series is clearly a marketing trick too, because if you truly want value for money and don’t want to pay for having the option to overclock (yes, that’s exactly what the K series says) – consider something like Intel Pentium G3258 that is a bargain (~74 EUR) and can OC to 3.8 Ghz with a stock cooler and even higher (think 4.2Ghz+).

Cooler (what I got)Scythe Katana 4 – on paper it’s very similar to my first cooler choice with some minor differences – the mounting/installation is considerably easier, it fits into my motherboard and at higher fan RPM it’s slightly more louder than EVO (most people will not notice this), but at the loads I’m running with the correct tuning of CPU fan profile in the BIOS – it’s inaudible.

Cooler (did not fit into this specific motherboard): Hyper 212 EVO – wins again, been using this one for the past 8+ years. Quiet and fits my requirements. What’s surprising it fits inside the case, but be sure to use low-profile memory just in case. I don’t OC my PCs typically, so if someone really want to achieve a balance of maximum OC + silent operations – there might be more expensive candidates that can do that for you.

Hyper 212 EVO

What can go wrong: Getting a non-stock cooler if you’re using a standard size case and don’t plan on overclocking. Most stock coolers are sufficient, unless some specific noise or temperature concerns. Although in the latest I5 Skylake series Intel decided to remove the stock coolers from K “multiplier unlocked” processors (bumping cost even further) and increased their standard cooler heat-sink size quite significantly (probably to compensate for the increased built-in power and performance of the graphics chip (the Skylake one is on the left):

skylake_stock_cooler

Water cooling is a big no-no because of form factor, general loudness of the water pump (unless you specifically want to tune it and tie it down with elastic cords, ropes and scotch magic), maintenance and costs. On exception would be the aesthetics and looks (the wall mounted pic above) or some very, very high cooling requirements (tri/quad SLI (Crossfire) or high end SLI (Crossfire)). Something to watch out for is the cooler dimensions vs what your case is designed to hold. This is critical for small factor systems and not so much of a hassle for a big tower like ATX builds.

This pic is “water cooling inside”:

final04

Memory: HyperX Fury Black Series 16 GB (2 x 8 GB) 2133 MHz DDR4 – I’m not an overclocking fan and memory choice should still be based on the following principle – lifetime warranty + cheapest possible. The only exception in this case is the concern for the cooler fan blocking or somehow not fitting if the memory slots are too close to it. That’s why I’ve decided to go with a low-profile memory type. 16 GB or more can only be explained if you require multiple (really multiple, not just 2-3) Virtual Machines running. Turns out – I do need that for some of the lab and demo environments. Standard gaming builds should never have more than 8 GB. 4 GB are for office worker builds.kingston_memory

What can go wrong: Not much, except maybe buying and overpaying for an overclocked memory chip that will never give any performance increases outside of lab stress tests. Most people don’t realize they don’t need more than 8 Gb of RAM.

Motherboard (what I got): Z170I GAMING PRO AC – some major availability issues caused me too look into this option. It has nothing worthy to justify the price increase as most “gaming” features are essentially useless. One thing to watch out for here is that the supported M.2 slot does not support 2280 size (“The M.2 slot is on the bottom of the motherboard, which supports 4.2cm/6cm length module only”). Otherwise it’s a solid board, like many others on the market.systemboard

Motherboard (what I wanted): Gigabyte GA-Z170N-WIFI (Z170) – could have waited for a more budget oriented release of the LGA 1151 boards on H110 (only has PCI-E 2.0), B150, Q150, H170, Q170 chipsets, as the gains from buying an expensive versions are few in between, but this wasn’t a factor for me. Refer to this table is not sure – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGA_1151. The thing that I liked about the board was two NIC ports (but again – nice to have, never use kind of thing). Oh, it does have the new and hyped M.2 port.

What can go wrong: Overpaying for unused features would be one thing. After many years it’s still hard to state which company makes the most reliable motherboards on the market, so having a solid 3+ year warranty from the vendor is always highly recommended. Understanding your system build requirements and matching the functionality of the case and system board are important as well.

Storage: Crucial CT250MX200SSD6 M.2 Type 2260DS MX200 250 GB Internal Solid State Drive – hardly anyone buys a PC without an SSD disk nowadays. What I found is that 60-90 Gb of SSD storage is what I typically end up using on my system for frequently accessed files and high speed read/write where it matters. After that the SSD is chosen on the best value principal. With modern technologies and vendor specs SSD disks are almost eternal under normal (business, home and games use). Something to watch out for is the form factor, for my board it has been limited by specifications (2240 or 2260). Although the level of performance here is “only” SATA 3.0, considering my case choice I will only be using one HDD drive bay, which will free up space for those annoying wires from the non-modular PSU. The M.2 disk will be mounted on the back of the system board.

storage

What can go wrong: Buying the PCI-Express M.2 for “performance”. Not considering that the PCI-E M.2 heat up like crazy especially if mounted on the back of the m-ITX board. The temperatures may go from 80 C to 100 C (especially if mounted on the back). Performance throttling will come after a certain point too.

Buying too much storage to “future-proof” (there’s no such thing, don’t invest in depreciating assets). Buying wrong storage M2 type. Buying ultra fast PCI-Express because “benchmarks!”. Making a RAID-0 configuration with your SSD drives to make that HD Tune screenshot.HDTUNERAID0AGILITY4

Storage: WD Red 3TB for NAS 3.5-inch Desktop Hard Drive  x 2 (two) – Hype aside. Two disks were chosen because I need a mirror for home data, restoring lost data is expensive and additional stress. My current storage requirements range somewhere from 1.5Tb to 2Tb. Those include photos, videos, virtual machines, ISO files and the like. Logic here is that this case + storage will have an afterlife as home media server/NAS. Disks were chosen not because they’re advertised for home NAS use, but because of the following table from a resource I trust and they have a wonderful review of these drives.desktop_hdd

storage_hdd

What can go wrong: Bad HDD series (over the years almost every vendor had those), short warranty, vibrations and noise, mechanical clicking. At this point my only concern is the annual drive failure rate for these is rather high.

hdd_failure

Video: Asus Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 Strix Graphics Card (4GB, GDDR5, PCI Express 3ASUS Strix GTX 970 4 GB.0) – once again I would gladly go with an AMD product, but those have the same pitfalls as their CPUs – too much heat and too much noise. The ASUS card is widely regarded as one of the better ones on the market, not looking into the performance features I’ve been sold by these two graphs. 29 dbA under full load is very acceptable, with sufficient cooling the noise is 0. For 1080p games the GTX 960 is a very viable option too. Depends on the resolution and amount of cash one is willing to spend.asus_gtx970_001

gpu_asus

What can go wrong: Buying something terribly overpriced on the level when diminishing returns kick in (GTX 970 is on the borderline level, some would argue that’s it’s already too much). Buying something that is does not work at the resolution you play at. Planning to buy a second GPU after a year for your SLI/Crossfire configuration (this never works). Buying based on performance charts only, ignoring noise levels and heat. Not looking at size and dimensions when building for small factor systems.

Power Supply: be quiet! BN232 – BeQuiet Straight Power 10 600W ’80 Plus Gold’ Power Supply – It’s a German manufacturer who are/were re-branding some of Seasonic products. My first choices was a Seasonic G series something, but they weren’t available. A modular PSU needs to be shorted than 160 MM to fit inside my case of choice and there are only a few manufacturers in the world that offer that (technically there is a workaround which involved two-sided adhesive tape and some “tuning” but I decided against it). None were available, so I went ahead with a non-modular one.

600W is an overkill for my system, if I had a choice in the matter I would have gotten a 500W instead. In addition to being gold certified these power supply units are known for quiet operation (surprise!) and even list them properly in the specifications:be_quiet_straight_600w

Maximum theoretical stress test power draw of my system would be something like this:

CPU (non-OC) – 80W, CPU (OC) – 100W, Video – 175W, HDDs – 2 x 5W = 10W, Fans and others – 10W

Total: 275W and it’s about 50% PSU load which is the most efficient and recommended load for most PSUs on the market:be_quiet_straight_600w_001

To add to the above – my previous build featured a PSU from the same manufacturer and I’m extremely happy with it’s performance – it’s silent.

psu

What can go wrong: One story which I really liked was about a PSU with ~500W specification, but only when working temperature is 25C. Have you ever had any component in your system work at 25C? I consider my current PC to efficiently cooled and I don’t have a single component that is at 25C. Read more about vendor tricks here.temperatures

Another subject is fan-less PSUs which cost premium, but are advertised as 0 dBa. The bad side here is coil whine which plagues these units – “This is my fanless Seasonic X-460FL2 Platinum certified power supply. It cost twice as much as a good 80 Plus Bronze PSU, but I happily paid that expecting total silence. Unfortunately, it makes a constant buzzing noise that becomes worse under load. It’s actually louder than my old PSU which had a fan. A passive power supply is louder than a fan-cooled one!

Sound: Microlab H-50BT 2.0 Speakers with NFC & Bluetooth – After having Logitech Z-4 speakers for the past 10 years (it’s been exactly 10 years) I am not qualified to be called a golden ear, so after doing some reading on this subject the universal formula for any sort of PC sound is this – get 2.0 bookshelf speakers and an external cheap amplifier, avoid cheap 2.1 systems. List of recommended speakers for purchase is located here (mostly USA and Canada markets). For Europe it’s a bit more trickier and my choice here was based on recommendations by friends and general goods availability. So options might vary.

speakers

Final list

Fractal – Node 304
Intel Core i5 6600K / 3.5 GHz processor
Scythe Katana 4
HyperX Fury Black Series 16 GB (2 x 8 GB) 2133 MHz DDR4
Z170I GAMING PRO AC
Crucial CT250MX200SSD6 M.2 Type 2260DS MX200 250 GB Internal Solid State Drive

WD Red 3TB for NAS 3.5-inch Desktop Hard Drive x 2 (two). If mirror and data safety is not a big concern, a 1 TB will do – WD Red 1TB for NAS 3.5-inch Desktop Hard Drive, but I highly recommend skipping a HDD altogether and getting a separate NAS if aiming for a completely silent experience + the additional airflow and cable space in the case will help.

Asus Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 Strix Graphics Card (4GB, GDDR5, PCI Express 3ASUS Strix GTX 970 4 GB.0)

be quiet! BN232 – BeQuiet Straight Power 10 600W ’80 Plus Gold’ Power Supply. A good alternative is the 500W one – BeQuiet Straight Power 10 500W. Modular PSU from this company will not fit the case without extra hassle and two-sided adhesive tape. This vendor is a solid choice as well – Seasonic S12G-550 550W 80+ Gold Certified Wired Power Supply, non modular.

Microlab H-50BT 2.0 Speakers with NFC & Bluetooth

Tests and feelings

These will be my general observations, running synthetic tests, squeezing in an extra 2-3 FPS or CPU clock here and there and publishing charts is mostly pointless, there are countless professional websites that do that.

My first cooler choice – “Hyper 212 EVO” did not fit because the motherboard has a chip that’s blocking one of the cooler’s mounting legs placement. More details in these photos. The Z170I GAMING PRO AC motherboard is not made for backplate mounting CPU coolers, only for push pins. The motherboard manufacturer assumed that only small coolers will be used.

A minor thing – “Scythe Katana 4” default cooling profile is not optimally tuned for passing Prime95 load tests, but it is quiet and works great under typically heavy loads.

A minor thing – cabling from non-modular PSU is sitting on top of it, blocking some airflow from both the front case fans and PSU fan. A solution that’s definitely not for transparent cases with lots of overheating components.

Asus Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 Strix Graphics Card (4GB, GDDR5, PCI Express 3ASUS Strix GTX 970 4 GB.0)” – is the component that caused the most issues for me. The  fan noise on “load” is loud without extra configuration. It goes like this:

30% is almost inaudible for me

At 33% – it’s pretty OK, I can live with that

39% – noticeable

40% – noticeable and uncomfortable

49% – my ears start to bleed

65% – can be audible from the next room

75%+ – apartment explodes (no joke, it competes with a vacuum cleaner)

And this is one of the most “silent” models our there for this GPU. It’s hard for me to image what other brands and products do with acoustics.

The good side – fans do not spin at all (0 dBa) until certain load. This is good if you’re not loading the GPU, but becomes a problem if you decide to, because to compensate the default “fan profile” goes full out and you’re stuck in the loop of very noisy/silent/very noisy/silent and so on. So instead you have to manually tune it and make the fan spin up as the temperature goes higher:

sample_fan_config

This can be done both with Asus GPU Tweak and MSI Afterburner software.

Microlab H-50BT 2.0 Speakers with NFC & Bluetooth. Sound is something that is commonly overlooked in PCs, having tested out those speakers I would say that they are good to get basic levels of surround and immersion. An amplifier is probably recommended for this. The difference between these and my previous 10 year old 2.1 Logitech system is very noticeable for me.

Conclusion and final thoughts

The non-GPU intensive performance is silent. No spinning fans on video, case fans on minimum. Pleasant experience. The most quiet PC I’ve had.
HDDs are good. 5400 is sufficient for typical desktop tasks.
M.2 SSD has a bit higher temperatures (but not as high as PCI-E ones go) – ranging from 37 C to 50 C. By vendor specs it works up to 70 C.
The case looks nice and pleases me. 😉
Idle temperatures are good, even under load with the tuned fan profile settings the GPU does not go over 65 C (in heavy graphics and games it averages out at 54 C for me) and processor is typically 45 C max. You can feel the cool air coming from case side panel where the GPU is, this was really surprising for me.

idle_temperatures

The only component that is rather questionable is the GPU. The industry is in a rather sad state when they push chips performance to the maximum to get favorable reviews, but they sacrifice silence, form factor and sometimes require fans of the video card to be extremely loud (vacuum cleaner or washing machine level of noises). This is compounded by releasing driver patches for “optimizing game” performance. What is this? Why isn’t it released to all the games then? Both game developers and chip manufacturers have a lot to consider.

Highly recommended resources

silentpcreview.com – professional, objective and quality++ content, not just copy-paste from your typical hardware review aggregator. The best.

http://www.techpowerup.com/ – these guys have a well defined testing process with metrics on anything you can possibly want to know – noise levels, performance, specs and more.

ChooseMyPC Build Generator – name says it all. cons – mostly only for USA/CA.

https://pcpartpicker.com/ – neat interface, reviews and some extra nice features, cons – mostly only for USA/CA.

Node 304 owners club – title says it all.

https://www.reddit.com/r/buildapc/ – reddit sub for PC builders and the like.