• Home
  • blog
  • Apex MI-008: A Cheap Quiet mini-ITX Case?

Apex MI-008: A Cheap Quiet mini-ITX Case?

The Apex MI-008 is one of the few widely available mini-ITX cases on the market. It looks great but the low price tag may have you wondering… it couldn’t possibly be quiet, could it? Well if it isn’t, we do have a few tricks up our sleeve…


Jan. 17, 2008 by Lawrence Lee

Product
Apex MI-008
Small Form Factor (Mini ITX) Case
Manufacturer
Market Price
~US$45

The mini-ITX platform was traditionally embraced by a small niche following
who weren’t afraid to dig deep into their pockets to indulge in their love of
petite, efficient systems. Interest in the platform is now exploding, thanks
in most part to Intel. By releasing the D201GLY/2,
Intel gave consumers a better performing, cheaper alternative to VIA’s Epia
line of integrated mini-ITX motherboards — breaking VIA’s virtual monopoly
at the time. Not to rest on their laurels, Intel followed up with the D945GCLF,
which showed off the efficiency of their Atom processor. For those hoping for
a little extra oomph, the D945GCLF2 debuted shortly after featuring a dual core
Atom chip. Today you can also buy motherboards based on the latest desktop chipsets
with excellent onboard graphics and support for the same powerful CPUs you find
in traditional towers.

While it is quite simple to build such a PC, finding a good enclosure for it
and keeping it quiet is a far more difficult task given the form factor and
its traditional obscurity. There are some options — today we’ll be looking
at one of the few widely available mini-ITX cases, the Apex MI-008. Apex also
makes the MI-100
which has a slightly different front bezel design (the interior is identical)
and comes in two versions — silver and black. Though the MI-008 is a low-end
case, it may be good enough to house and cool quietly a simple mini-ITX machine.
The prospect of an affordable, yet quiet SFF PC has wide appeal.


The Intel D945GCLF2 and Apex MI-008 — a good match?

 


The MI-008 is a simple, Shuttle-like case, but shorter, a bit wider,
and deeper.

 


Accessories: drive sleds, case feet, PC speaker, screws and power cord.

 


Apex MI-008 Specifications
Dimension 8.7″x 5.1″x 11.8″
220mm x 129mm x 300mm
(W) x (H) x (D)
*Measurement of depth is without front bezel.
Drive Bay 1 – 5.25″ Exposed
1 – 3.5″ Exposed
1 – 3.5″ Hidden
Form Factor Small form factor
Motherboard Mini ITX
Expansion Bay 1 full size expansion
PSU ATX12V SFX 250W with 20+4 pin MB connector
Additional Fan
Front Access Port USB2.0 Port x 2
Audio Port x 2
(AC97 & HD Plug)

THE EXTERIOR

The MI-008 looks like a slick, quality case from the outside,
but once you pick it up, the facade breaks: Its surprisingly low weight (2.68
kg including the power supply) is the hallmark of a cheap, generic case.


The plastic front panel has a black glossy finish. The optical drive bay is stealthed and a small cover opens up for front USB and audio port access. The power button feels very solid — it won’t accidentally engage if you brush up against it. The case lacks a reset button.

Visible from the back is an SFX power supply without an on/off switch.
There is some ventilation to the left, and on the right is a full-sized
expansion slot. The case cover is held on by four screws.


There are markers on two panels for the case feet. You can use the case in both horizontal and vertical orientations.


The left side (when looking at the case from the front) is completely
solid, while the right side has a large vent measuring 16cm x 7.7cm. The
cover is thin but unlike most cheap cases it fits snug against the rest
of the chassis without any gaps or overlap.

THE INTERIOR

On the inside, the MI-008 looks very much like a Shuttle barebones
system, only shorter, and with the power supply hanging over the motherboard
tray. Most of the edges on the inside are only 1.2-1.3 mm thick.


The drive cages at the front have no support beneath them so they
feel somewhat flimsy — you can bend them easily by hand. The 5.25″
bay has plenty of holes, making it easy to set up a suspension system for
a hard drive.

Surprisingly, most of the edges on the inside are rolled to prevent
injury. This is particularly important inside the smaller space of a mini-ITX
case. There are still a few places where you can cut yourself, so be careful,
especially at the very top and bottom of the drive cages. The motherboard
tray has risers built-in, so there is no need for brass standoffs.

The front bezel can be removed by pushing four plastic tabs on the
interior side. It comes off easily and snaps back on tight.
The power supply is an Allied AL-8250SFX, a 250W SFX power supply rated for 16A on the +12V rail. It has the following connectors: one 20+4pin ATX, one 4-pin ATX12V, one SATA, three 4-pin molex, and one floppy.

SYSTEM ASSEMBLY

System assembly is fairly straightforward. Cable management may
be an issue depending on what components you choose to install.


As the optical drive bay lines up directly with the power supply, their cables come into contact. The drive pictured above is 16.6cm long (not including the front bezel) and one can probably bend the cables to allow for a drive perhaps 1cm longer.


A 3.5″ hard drive may be installed directly beneath the optical
drive, or if desired, off to the side using a pair of plastic sleds.


On its side, the bottom sled slides right into a rail on the case floor.
There are two screw holes on the top to secure the top sled.
Keep in mind installing a drive here will completely cut off the system’s
main source of ventilation.


The chosen motherboard is an Intel D945GCLF2 which utilizes a dual
core Atom CPU and the 945GC chipset. Our biggest problem will likely be
silencing the tiny chipset fan in the middle without compromising cooling.


Motherboard installed.

SYSTEM ASSEMBLY (continued)

There are some enthusiasts who are eyeing the mini-ITX platform
for more intense applications and would like to utilize a more powerful mainboard
and CPU combination. For them, space, or the lack of it, is the MI-008’s main
drawback.


There isn’t much clearance between the power supply and CPU/chipset
heatsinks, so the power supply fan may be affected by the heat from them.

Cables can be tucked over the expansion slot (if not occupied) or below
the drive cage.


Between the case floor and the bottom of the power supply there is
only 5cm of clearance. When you include height of the risers, the width
of a motherboard PCB and CPU (of a “normal” motherboard, in this case
the Zotac GeForce 8200-ITX pictured above), there is room for only a 4cm
high heatsink — most stock cooling solutions exceed that. One could
use a 1U server heatsink, but for a more quiet solution we recommend replacing
the power supply with a picoPSU — that will improve power efficiency,
increase ventilation and give you 10cm of clearance for a CPU cooler.
 


Our build for this review stays closer to stock and includes only a single notebook hard drive suspended in the 5.25″ bay. With thin construction, we expect vibration would be a problem with a hard-mounted a 3.5″ drive.
For those seeking additional cooling, a 120mm fan can be fit snugly on
the right side

next to the side vent. As we plan on undervolting
the board’s chipset fan, a Yate Loon D12SL-12 was placed in this position.
It is a very smooth sleeve bearing fan and can be purchased at a reasonable
price. A Zalman Fanmate was used to bring the speed down to 5V.

Installed and running. The power LED is faint green while the HDD LED glows bright red.

TESTING

System Components:

Measurement and Analysis Tools

Video Playback Test Suite


720p | 25fps | ~6mbps
Dark Knight: Dark Knight Trailer 3 is a 720p clip encoded in H.264 inside an
Apple Quicktime container.

 


1080p | 24fps | ~10mbps
Rush Hour: Rush Hour 3 Trailer 1 is a 1080p clip encoded in H.264 inside
an Apple Quicktime container.

 

TEST RESULTS

Power Consumption

System Power Consumption
Test State
Allied
AL-8250SFX
Seasonic
SS-300SFD
picoPSU
(HFX Micro)
Off
2W
2W
2W
Standby
3W
3W
3W
Idle
35W
29W
25W
Dark Knight
(H.264 720p)
39W
34W
30W
Rush Hour
(H.264 1080p)
42W
37W
33W
CPU Load
42W
37W
33W
CPU + GPU Load
47W
42W
39W
Results obtained on an open test platform.

Compared to the 80Plus Seasonic
SS-300SFD
, the stock power unit consumes about 5W more at most loads. Compared
to the HFX Micro and its picoPSU, the gap widens to 8-10W. Nothing surprising
here: Stock power supplies are rarely that efficient, especially at the low
end of the spectrum. (For more test data regarding the Intel D945GCLF2, please
refer to our mCubed HFX Micro review.)

So is it worth it to change the power supply? Well if you have a more efficient one handy you might as well, but if you don’t, then you have to consider whether it’s worth your time and/or money. From a purely financial point of view, consider this: if this particular system was run with the stock power supply instead of a picoPSU and power brick 24-7, it would put a $5.16 CDN dent into SPCR lab’s electric bill after one year — it would take many years before we would re-coup the cost of a picoPSU. Electricity rates vary from region to region, so check your rate and do some quick math. Of course, if you’re seeking to be as green as possible with your IT gear, then the savings in electricity is probably more important than the money saved. However, the embedded energy in the stock PSU or recycling it complicates the environmental picture.

The Allied power supply was surprisingly quiet, more so than the
Seasonic SS-300SFD, our sample of which has a rickety fan. We anticipated in
advance that the stock unit would be too loud and planned on using the Seasonic
instead. As it turns out, not only is the Allied power supply quieter, the Seasonic
has a protruding fan that interferes with the metal guide that sits between
the power supply and the I/O panel. That made the decision to leave the power
supply be an easy one.

FAN CONTROL & NOISE

The stock chipset fan is a squirrelly one — very loud and
whiney at full speed. It does undervolt well; it becomes bearable at about 7V
though you can hear it tick from up close. The board has a fan control option
in the BIOS with a minimum 50% setting for the SYS_FAN header. When we plugged
the chipset fan into it, the fan only slowed down to the equivalent of 10V,
which was unacceptable. For D945GCLF2 users with Windows, SpeedFan can be used
instead, as the Speed01 option allows for full fan control right out of the
box. For some reason, the controls are backwards — setting it to 100% turns
the fan off, while 0% sets it to full blast. We set it 80% which resulted in
a speed equivalent to about 6V. With the fan undervolted and the board on an
open test platform both the chipset and CPU heatsink became very warm at full
load — between 45°C and 50°C according to our IR thermometer.

System Noise Level
Chipset Fan Speed
SPL @ 1m
SPL @ 0.5m
Off
12 dBA
15 dBA
6V
13 dBA
16 dBA
6V +
Yate Loon @ 5V
13 dBA
16 dBA
12V
21 dBA
25 dBA

The system, with the chipset fan turned off (not recommended — this was
done for reference only), the measured noise level at one meter was only 12
dBA. Our noise floor is only 11 dBA, so this is an excellent result. The stock
power supply unit is very quiet, even by our standards. The power supply fan
did not increase in speed when the system was stressed, so the idle noise level
was the same as during load.

13 dBA@1m was recorded with the chipset fan at 6V. Adding the Yate Loon 120mm
fan at 5V did not affect the measured SPL or our sound recordings. When the
chipset fan was cranked up to 12V, its default setting, the noise level increased
to 21 dBA@1m. This isn’t bad at one meter distance, but at half a meter it was
quite loud. For a small PC like this, we assume it is more likely to be placed
on a desktop rather than underneath it, so the half-meter measurements are done
in addition to the usual one-meter readings to better represent what it sounds
like in the real world.

Impressively, the recorded noise level of 13 dBA@1m and 16 dBA@0.5m is only
1 dBA more than the recently reviewed mCubed
HFX Micro
, which features a completely passive cooling system. The Micro
also happens to retail for 545 Euros (US$720). That’s a lot of green for a barely
noticeable difference in noise.

THERMALS

Thermal testing was done with the chipset fan undervolted to 6V
— the lowest we were willing to go given the how hot the chipset heatsink
got to the touch on an open testing platform. The temperature readings given
by SpeedFan are somewhat difficult to decipher as they do not have proper labels
and Intel does not provide a hardware monitoring utility for their Atom boards.
Core 0-3 we can assume refer to the processor (dual core with hyperthreading
= four logical cores) while “Ambient” most likely correlates to system
temperature. “Remote 1,” the remaining sensor with the largest differential
is probably the chipset temperature.

Temperature Comparison
Test State
Idle
Load
Load with Case Fan @ 5V
Ambient
32
37
30
Remote 1
47
68
59
Remote 2
42
52
45
HDD
30
35
29
Core 0 / 2
2
33
19
Core 1 / 3
8
32
14
Chipset fan set to 6V (80% using SpeedFan), full
CPU and GPU load applied (Prime95 + ATITool).

If our assumptions are correct, system temperature did not vary
greatly, though it was coolest with the Yate Loon fan exhausting air out the
right side panel. Without the added fan, chipset temperature increased 20°C
when the system was stressed. The additional airflow from the 120mm fan effectively
cut this increase in half. CPU temperatures were similarly affected. Given the
dramatic difference, we highly recommend a side fan — you can reduce the
noise level significantly and improve thermal performance at the same time.

AUDIO RECORDINGS

These recordings were made with a high resolution, lab quality, digital recording
system inside SPCR’s own 11 dBA ambient anechoic chamber, then converted to
LAME 128kbps encoded MP3s. We’ve listened long and hard to ensure there is no
audible degradation from the original WAV files to these MP3s. They represent
a quick snapshot of what we heard during the review.

Each recording starts with ambient noise, then 10 second segments
of product at various states. For the most realistic results, set
the volume so that the starting ambient level is just barely audible, then don’t
change the volume setting again while comparing all the sound files.

Comparable System sound files:

FINAL THOUGHTS

While not the fanciest, or sturdiest mini-ITX case, the Apex MI-008 represents
an excellent value. For $45 US you get a nice looking enclosure that can, with
a few modifications, house a very quiet low-end system. It is an attractive,
and cheap alternative to a Shuttle or a luxury product like the mCubed
HFX Micro
. The machine we built runs only 1 dBA higher than the HFX Micro
and can be built for a little over $200 (not including the operating system).
As a bonus, everything inside is built from off-the-shelf parts — if you’ve
ever been in the position of needing to find a replacement for a proprietary
Shuttle motherboard, you’ll know that this is a good thing.

For those hoping to get a bit more computing power by using an AM2 or LGA775
board with a more capable CPU, the MI-008 still has some potential if the power
supply is replaced with something like a picoPSU
with an external power brick. This opens up a lot of space — enough to
house a moderately sized, quiet CPU cooler. You won’t be able to fit a monsterous
tower cooler inside, but a modest heatsink like the Arctic
Cooling Alpine 7 Pro
or something similar should do well, especially if
you add a side fan.

All in all, if you’re willing to experiment just a bit, the Apex MI-008 is a surprisingly effective case for silent mini-ITX system.

PROS

* Very affordable
* Quiet power supply
* Small
* Potential for a quiet system

CONS

* inefficient power supply
* light/flimsy construction
* 4cm CPU cooler clearance


Recommended by SPCR

* * *

Articles of Related Interest
Cases: Basics & Recommendations

Antec Fusion Remote Max HTPC case
Silverstone GD01 and LC17 HTPC Cases
mCubed HFX Micro S13 system: Atom 330, Silenced
Zotac GeForce 8200-ITX WiFi: A Compact AM2 Solution
Intel DG45FC: Loaded LGA775 Mini-ITX Board
Intel D945GCLF m-ITX: Atom For The Desktop

* * *

Discuss
this article in the SPCR Forums.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *