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ASUS Terminator 2 T2-AE1: Mod-friendly Barebones System

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It’s a socket 754 system that’s a bit long in the tooth, but no one said old technology couldn’t be quiet. The Asus T2-AE1 is a tidy package that looks good and is shockingly inexpensive. Can it be quiet as well?

June 23, 2006 by Devon
Cooke

Product
ASUS Terminator 2 T2-AE1
Barebones system for Socket 754
Manufacturer
ASUSTeK
Market Price
US$100~150

Asus needs no introduction. The company is a heavyweight in the PC enthusiast
world, with a diverse product line that spans enclosures to laptops and everything
in between. Although they primarily target the high end, they are big
enough to have a presence in just about every market sector.

The Terminator 2 T2-AE1 does not target ASUS’ usual market. Priced at just
over US$100, this barebones system is designed for those who want to spend as
little as possible. Throw in a $70 CPU, a $50 hard drive, and $20 of RAM and
you have a complete system for US$250.

Even though it is generally true that you get what you pay for in
terms of performance, the same is not true of noise. Just because the T2 is
based on old technology (Socket 754) does not mean it will be any noisier or
quieter than ASUS’ latest and greatest.


The large box is needed to fit the thick foam packing material that protects
the T2 from shocks in transit.


The bare essentials: A heatsink and a few cables are the only extras.

SPECIFICATIONS & FEATURES

Not surprisingly for a low end offering, the specifications for the T2-AE1
are dated. Socket 754, AGP, and DDR RAM are all at the end of their lifespan
and there is no viable upgrade path to replace them. Whatever parts are purchased
when the system is first built are likely to stay in use until the system is
retired. Of course, for many workloads, there is little incentive to buy above
the bottom end; even the wimpiest system is capable enough for office work, internet
surfing and media playback these days.

When it comes to peripherals, things are a little more up to date. There are
two firewire ports — one 4-pin, one 6-pin — an optical S/PDIF port,
plus the usual array of graphics, sound and legacy connections. There’s even
an old MIDI/game port. The only noticeable omission is a DVI port, although
that is easy to fix by purchasing a cheap AGP video card.

Onboard graphics are provided by SiS Mirage2 Graphics. We were unable to find
any reliable information about how it performs, but given its age and the lack
of excitement around it, it is unlikely to be anything special. The chipset
does feature an MPEG I/II motion compensation decoder, but it is unclear how
well supported it is on the T2-AE1. Hardware decoders often require special
support in the playback software.

Perhaps the most important "spec" of all is the note that is appended
to the bottom of the list. No, not the subject-to-change disclaimer; the note
that a BIOS update "may" be needed to run 64-bit CPUs. Since it is
impossible to update the BIOS without already having a working CPU, it would
be a good idea to ask your vendor to update the BIOS for you as a condition
of purchase. ASUS’
CPU support page
lists all of the compatible processors and the BIOS revisions
that they require. Note that the only processors that are supported out of the
box are Athlon 64 and CG revision Semprons. 64-bit Semprons require a BIOS update,
as we discovered to our dismay when trying to set up our sample.

ASUS T2-AE1 Specifications from the ASUS’
product page
Product Name and Model T2-AE1
CPU AMD Athlon 64 / Sempron
socket 754
800 MHz FSB
Chipset North Bridge: SiS 760GX
South Bridge: 965L
Memory 2 x DIMM
DDR400/333
Support max. 2GB
Expansion Slots 1 x PCI
1 x AGP 8X
Graphics Mirage2 Graphics
IDE 1 x IDE Port
S-ATA 2 x SATA Ports
LAN 10/100 Mbps
Audio Realtek AC’ 97 6channel ALC655
6 Channel Codec
Dimensions (mm) W x H x D 190 x 310 x 300
Drive Bays 2 x 3.5" (1 x Internal; 1
x FDD)
2 x 5.25"
Front Panel 2 x USB 2.0
1 x Microphone
1 x Headphone
2 x IEEE1394 (4-pin & 6-pin)
Rear Panel 4 x USB 2.0
1 x Line-in/Line-out/Mic-in
1 x PS/2 Keyboard
1 x PS/2 Mouse
1 x Parallel Port
1 x D-sub (VGA Out)
1 x Game / MIDI
1 x S/PDIF Out
1 x RJ45 LAN
1 x Serial Port
Power Supply 200W (PFC)
O/S Support Windows 2000/XP
Key Features ASUS TriOptix Form Factor
Recovery Pro
Q-fan Technology
CrashFree BIOS 2
Ez Flash BIOS
My Logo
Note *All specifications are subject to change without
notice. Please check with your supplier for exact offers. Products may not
be available in all markets.
**May need to update the latest BIOS if using 64-bit CPU.

EXTERNAL OVERVIEW

ASUS calls the T2-AE1 a "Mini-Tower" system, which
is a fairly accurate description. The case is roughly twice as tall as it is
wide and, despite being a little to big to be called a small form factor system,
its footprint is small enough that it could easily find a home sitting on a
desk rather than underneath it.

The Terminator 2 is a dark silvery gray, presumably in tribute
to James Cameron’s
infamous android
. There is a certain irony to using a robot from the future
to promote what is now technology from the past.

The fascia is handsome and sedate enough to be used in a public
setting. It has a businesslike look to it, and one can imagine it being used
in an office or a bank.


Dark gray panels make the T2-AE1 look like a pint-sized filing cabinet.

The front panel has room for a pair of optical drives, a floppy drive and the
usual front panel connectors, but you wouldn’t know it from looking; they are
all hidden behind stealthed doors that camouflage the functional parts of the
system.


Optical drives are hidden behind stealthed doors.


Front panel connections are located behind a door at the bottom of the system.

System airflow is generated by two fans: A 92mm system fan and an 80mm fan
in the power supply. Both blow out the back of the system, drawing air from
two vents on the side panels. The majority of the airflow comes from the left
vent, since the right one is almost entirely blocked by the motherboard tray.


Airflow out the back is provided by a 92mm case fan and an 80mm fan in the
power supply.


Only a minimum of airflow comes through the right side vent, blocked as it
is by the motherboard tray.


An extension to the motherboard provides room for extra connectors: MIDI,
Serial and S/PDIF.

The position of the expansion slots at the bottom of the case is cause for
a little concern, since there are no vents of any kind in this section of the
case and the power supply appears to block much of the space along the top edge
of the card.

INTERIOR

Underneath the front bezel, the front panel is surprisingly perforated with holes.
Did we miss an intake vent on the bezel? A closer inspection of the front bezel confirmed
that there were no hidden intake vents.


The front panel is well ventilated. Too bad there’s no vents in the bezel.


The bezel has slots for a memory card reader below the optical drives, but
the actual hardware is not included.

The layout of the airflow does not get any less confusing with the cover removed.
The one useful intake vent is located directly beside the fan in the power supply.
This means that, although the power supply gets fresh air and should not ramp
up much, the rest of the system must fight with the power supply for fresh air.

The system fan at the top of the case does not cool any essential components.
The CPU is the closest heat-critical part, but the included heatsink sprays
exhaust heat in all directions, not just towards the system fan.

As noted, there is very little airflow around the expansion slots. Hot, passive
graphics cards are not recommended, since heat has nowhere to go once it comes
off the surface of the card. Cards with rear-mounted heatsinks are also problematic,
since the power supply does not give much clearance above the expansion slots.

There is room for a single 3.5" hard drive mounted sideways at the front
of the system. Like the expansion slots, there is little potential for airflow
around the drive, although the exhaust heat from the processor heatsink should
provide a small amount of airflow to the inward-facing side of the drive.


The power supply must be removed to access the CPU socket.


The motherboard uses a proprietary form factor.

As expected of a barebones system, the motherboard comes preinstalled with
all of the cables in place. Cables are kept out of the way with plastic straps
but are not especially neat. Cables from the power supply sprout just above
the CPU heatsink, and there were several times when the cables accidentally
got caught in the CPU fan. A large bundle of power and drive cables travels
along the top edge of the motherboard just above the CPU heatsink, which also
needed to be kept out of the way.


The northbridge has a passive aluminum heatsink, and the southbridge survives
without a heatsink at all.

CPU HEATSINK

The included heatsink is quite small and has an industrial look
to it. It is built around a copper core with aluminum fins that direct air outwards and uses clips meant to engage a Socket 478 HS retention bracket.
In case you didn’t notice in the previous photos, although the T2-AE1 is a K8-based system, the heatsink retention bracket
is compatible with both K8 and Socket 478. Airflow is provided by a thin 80mm fan with
custom 70mm mountings. The fan has the ASUS brand on it, so the OEM could not be
identified.

Exhaust air from the heatsink gets sprayed in all directions,
which should generate some much needed airflow along the surface of the motherboard.

From a cooling standpoint, the heatsink looks adequate but unimpressive.
It is almost certainly incapable of cooling a hot Athlon 64 processor quietly,
but it may be good enough to cope with a Sempron 64.


Space is at a premium, so ASUS used a low-profile fan on a low-profile heatsink.

The heatsink is shipped with thermal interface material already in place, which
should make things a bit simpler for first-time users.


Thermal interface material comes pre-applied.

POWER SUPPLY

The power supply comes from Delta, the world’s largest manufacturer
of power supplies. The model number is not listed on Delta’s
web site
, but it appears to be based on an SFX12V power supply. Unfortunately,
it cannot be easily replaced if it fails because the mounting holes do not conform
to any standard.

The power rating is 200W, with 10A on the +12V rail — enough for a midrange
processor and a midrange graphics card. It is probably insufficient for a graphics
card that requires external power. That, combined with the limited cooling around
the graphics slot makes a hot graphics card a bad choice. Given the limited
high-end options for AGP cards, it should be fairly easy to avoid overloading
the power supply, as few AGP cards consume that much power.

SYSTEM INSTALLATION

The following components were installed:

  • AMD Sempron 64 3300+ 62W TDP, 2.0 GHz
  • 1 x 1024 MB Corsair XMS PC4000 DDR SDRAM
  • Western Digital Scorpio WD1200BEVS 120GB SATA notebook HDD
  • LG GSA-H10A DVD±RW drive
  • Microsoft Windows XP Pro SP2 fully updated

No VGA card was tested; instead, the integrated Mirage2 graphics was used.

As is the standard for our system builds, a 2.5" notebook drive was used
in order to minimize the amount of noise added to the system. The noise measurements
made in this review reflect this choice; using a full 3.5" drive can be
expected to add 2~3 dBA/1m in vibration and resonance, especially when hard
mounted.

Installation begins with removing the cover and the power supply so that the
motherboard is exposed. This is a simple matter of removing the appropriate
screws: Three for the cover and one more for the power supply. The power supply
then slides upwards until it disengages from the chassis. The short cables do
not allow the power supply much range and, as we didn’t want to go to the trouble
of undoing the cable routing that had already been done, it was balanced precariously
out of the way between the optical drive cage and the back of the case while
the installation took place. This proved to be dangerous, as the power supply
had a habit of falling onto the motherboard when disturbed. This happened frequently
as the system often needed to be lifted or turned over to access the back side
of the chassis.

With the power supply out of the way, the motherboard is accessible, and the
CPU and RAM can be installed as in any other system. Installing the heatsink
is a matter of placing it on the CPU and securing it in place with two clips.
The process is simple and intuitive, and should be familiar to anyone who has
worked with Socket 478 before. Our only issue was that the limited space around
the CPU socket made it a little difficult to maneuver the top clip into place.

That done, the power supply can be screwed back into place. As noted, care
is needed to keep stray cables out of the heatsink fan.

Next, the drive cage is removed by undoing a single screw and pulling the cage
out on its own. The location of the screw is not obvious; we spent a couple
of confused minutes wondering why we couldn’t just pull the cage out before
we realized that there was a screw holding it in place on the back side of the
case. This meant turning the whole system over to get at the screw, and we almost
dumped the power supply into the system in the process.

Once the drive cage is removed, it is quite easy to screw a drive into it,
or, in our case, use elastic cord to suspend a notebook drive. The cage goes
back in the way it came out; sliding into place on four tabs protruding from
the front panel and locking in place with a single screw.


The removable drive cage makes suspending a notebook drive child’s play.


The drive cage in place.

Getting cables to the drive is not very well thought out. The T2-AE1 has only
a single IDE channel, making the use of a PATA drive less than ideal. Not only
will a PATA drive suffer a performance penalty by being on the same IDE channel
as an optical drive, but both devices will need to be on the same physical cable.
Given that the hard drive bay is located at the bottom front of the case, while
the end of the optical drive is in the top back, this is hardly a workable arrangement.

So, SATA drive is needed. But, strangely enough, the stock power supply does
not ship with any SATA power connectors. ASUS includes an IDE to SATA adapter
cable to correct the problem, but it is hardly an elegant solution. The photo
below illustrates just how inelegant it is: The stock cables leave the drive
in opposite directions.


The SATA data and power cables do not allow the cables to be routed together.

The lack of attention to cable management for SATA drives seems odd compared
to the obvious effort that went into routing the IDE cable. Although the cable
is a conventional ribbon cable, it is folded lengthwise through most of its
length. The photo below shows the impressive bit of folding that makes this
possible. (Editor’s Note: Reminiscent of the work of SPCR’s own cable-gami master, Ralf Hutter.) The resulting half-width cable is much easier to manage than a full
width cable, and fits nicely into the bundle of cables that runs along the top
edge of the motherboard.


A bit of cablegami to make the most fastidious neat-freak jealous.

At the other end of the cable is the optical drive, whose installation is also
quite involved because it requires removing the front bezel. Like most bezels,
it is held in place by a number of plastic tabs that lock into place —
there are six in total. Each tab must be lifted individually and the bezel pulled
out to release it from the metal frame underneath. Four of the tabs are easily
accessible and can be released quite easily. However, the two tabs along the
right edge of the bezel are difficult to get at. One of them is not even visible
until the drive cage is removed.

With the bezel out of the way, installing the optical drive is matter of sliding
it into place and fixing it in place with screws. The screw holes on the left
side of the drive are inaccessible because of the pre-installed floppy drive,
and are not intended to be used. This means that one side of the drive simply
rests loosely in place. Luckily, our drive fit tightly enough in our sample
that vibration noise was no more an issue than usual, but a slight difference
in tolerances could have left us with a drive that rattled against the chassis
whenever it was spinning.


The metal latch is press-fitted: Presto, screwless expansion card installation.

Last of all are the expansion cards, which can be added even when the power
supply is in place. The photo above shows how to access the expansion slots
— no screwdriver required.


Heatsink, RAM, and drive in place.
The power supply would protrude just past the center of the heatsink fan if
it was in place.



BIOS

The BIOS for the T2-AE1 is very basic, with no clock speed or voltage adjustments
available. The most tweakable options are found in the Memory Configuration
menu, and, as the photo below shows, even that isn’t much.


This is the extent of the tweaking options.

Luckily, the Hardware Monitor page is full enough that all of the usual temperatures,
voltages and fan speeds are supported. There is even a rudimentary fan controller,
although only the Auto mode is worth using.


A full selection of digital dials to watch.

Control freaks can set the fans to a constant speed if they wish, but the minimum
support speed is 60% — too high to be usable. In practice, the Auto mode
proved to be much quieter than any of the manual modes.


Fan speed can be set to a constant percentage, or Auto gives control
over to the motherboard.

The only other noteworthy feature is "Instant Music", which gives
the T2-AE1 basic CD player functionality without needing to wait for it to boot
into Windows or manually load any software. This has been a feature of ASUS
boards for a while, but seems unlikely to see much use. After all, why play
just a single CD when waiting for the OS to load lets you play your whole music
library?


If you like, you can use the T2-AE1 as a very overpowered, expensive CD player.



TESTING

The following tools were used during testing:

Testing consisted of an examination of how the system behaved acoustically
in response to changes in thermal load. No performance benchmarks were run;
performance in a barebones system depends mainly on the components it is tested
with, with the motherboard accounting for at most a 3% difference in performance.

Ambient temperature during testing was 22°C. Ambient noise level was 18
dBA/1m.

Fan Behavior

ASUS T2-AE1 Noise Characteristics
Fan Ratio Setting
CPU Fan Speed
System Fan Speed
System Noise
Auto
2200 RPM
1400 RPM
32 dBA@1m
Both Fans 60%
3600 RPM
1400 RPM
37 dBA@1m
Both Fans 90%
4400 RPM
2150 RPM
43 dBA@1m
Auto, PSU Fan Stalled
2200 RPM
1400 RPM
28 dBA@1m

As the results show, listening to the T2-AE1 was bad news: The minimum noise
level of 32 dBA@1m was far from quiet. The noise character was just as bad as
the volume, with many different kinds of noise elements audible. The most prominent
was the midrange drone that is characteristic of systems that are cooled by
high speed fans, but there was also the rumble of low frequency resonance and
a high pitched tone in the background.

With the fan controller set to Auto (the only setting worth using), the primary
source of noise was the fan in the power supply. Stalling the fan by jamming
it with a plastic zap strap dropped the noise level to 28 dBA@1m — just
under the 30 dBA@1m guideline that we consider quiet. The quality of noise also
improved, with the prominent drone and the high overtone disappearing
altogether. The resulting noise was much more broadband, although it still sounded
quite rough and growly — a result of two high speed fans grinding away
at well below their maximum speeds. With the power supply out of the picture,
the bulk of the noise came from the heatsink fan, which still needed to spin
fast enough to maintain enough airflow over the small CPU heatsink.

About the best thing that can be said for the noise is that it never changed.
Changes in system heat did not appear to affect the speed of the fans at all.
Given the cooling overhead in the system (see the section below for details),
there seems to be significant headroom to change or slow down the fans without
affecting thermal performance. However, the question of how the fan controller
will perform under heavy stress is unanswered; that will require more
experimentation.

Power and Thermal Characteristics

Thermal testing was done with both fans set to Auto mode, as this was more
than sufficient to cool our Sempron processor and the system was already too
loud to experiment with the other fan settings.

Activity
AC Power Max
CPU Temperature

Cool’n’Quiet

50W
28°C

Idle

54W
31°C

Full Load: CPUBurn

89W
42°C

The T2-AE1 was very over-cooled for our lowly Sempron 3300+. With a maximum
temperature of 42°C, there is at least 15°C of cooling headroom.
AMD lists the maximum casing temperature for our processor at a toasty 69°C,
so there is potentially much more. This is quite a change from the usual cooling
difficulties associated with smaller systems. As mentioned above, there seems
to be considerable headroom to tweak the fan speeds down to make things quieter.

Power consumption was in the same ballpark as the other AMD-based SFF systems
we’ve tested. A more detailed comparison is not possible because of different
system configurations, but all of the systems idled around 50W and peaked around
100W. Given that our other tests were performed with a hotter Athlon 64 3500+,
the slightly lower than usual power under load can probably be attributed to
the difference in processor, not the mainboard or power supply.

Audio Recordings of the ASUS T2-AE1 as tested:

MP3:
ASUS T2-AE1 w/ Sempron 3300+ & Western Digital notebook drive, Idle and
Load: 32 dBA/1m

Comparatives

Shuttle
SD11G5 Config 1: Onboard VGA, Smart Fan, max load: 23 dBA@1m

MP3:
AOpen EY855-II w/ P-M 1.6 GHz & suspended Samsung notebook drive:
10 seconds normal (25 dBA/1m), 10 seconds w/PSU fan stopped (20 dBA/1m)

MP3:
Shuttle XPC SN95G5 with Samsung Notebook Drive, Load: 30 dBA/1m

MP3:
Soltek QBic EQ3901-300P, Blower Low, HSF Ramping from Low (33 dBA/1m) to High
(39 dBA/1m)

SPCR MP3s: HOW TO LISTEN & COMPARE

The recordings above were made with a high resolution studio quality digital recording system. The microphone is 3" from the edge of the fan frame at a 45° angle, facing the intake side of the fan to avoid direct wind noise. The ambient noise during all recordings is 20 dBA or lower.

A quick and simple way to use these recordings for valid listening comparisons is to play the quietest recording on only one speaker (or a pair of headphones) and set the volume so it is just barely audible a meter away. You must turn off any special sound effects, and set equalizer / tone controls to neutral or flat. Don’t touch the volume setting afterwards, and use the same one speaker when you listen to any of the other files. The end result will be reasonably close to the actual recorded sound levels.

Here is a recording of a very quiet sound that is barely audible from 1 meter away even in a super quiet room.

For full details on how to calibrate the playback level of your sound system to get the most valid listening comparison, please see the yellow text box entitled Listen to the Fans on page 3 of the article SPCR’s Test / Sound Lab: A Short Tour.

CONCLUSIONS

It is tempting to simply dismiss the T2-AE1 as too loud. Certainly,
if you’re looking for a system that is quiet out of the box, this is not it.
However, its extremely low price makes it worth a second look if you’re willing
to do some judicious fan modding. The system can be found
online for just under US$100, and it should not be difficult to keep the total
system cost to under US$300 if inexpensive parts are used.

To use it in a quiet system, a fan swap in the power supply is mandatory. A
new low profile CPU heatsink is highly recommended, perhaps an
LS-Cable SHS-X500
if one can be found. The rear case fan may also need slowing
or swapping depending on what level of quiet is desired.

Despite several oddly placed screws, working with the T2-AE1 was easier than
many SFF systems thanks to the ample room around the motherboard once the power
supply was removed. The space around the front-mounted hard drive and the screwless
access to the expansion slots were appreciated.

Although the T2-AE1 will never challenge for a performance crown, the older
technology on which it is based it its biggest advantage. Getting a case, power
supply, motherboard, heatsink, and a floppy drive for US$100 is a pretty good
deal, and performance is perfectly adequate for office or general use. With a couple of fan swaps, it could end up both quieter and cheaper
than the typical complete system offerings of the big manufacturers who usually cater to the low end.

PROS
Very, very inexpensive
Relatively easy motherboard access
Modding potential
Handsome, sedate finish
Easy 2.5" drive suspension
CONS
Noisy power supply
Small, noisy CPU heatsink
Cluttered cables that catch in the CPU fan
Difficult to remove front bezel
Proprietary power supply mounting
On the edge of obsolescence

Much thanks to ASUSTeK
for providing the Terminator 2 T2-AE1 sample.

*

SPCR Articles of Related Interest

Shuttle SN95G5:
A64-939 SFF

Soltek QBic EQ3901 SFF Barebones
System

Shuttle SD11G5: Pentium
M SFF PC

VIA EPIA EN12000E: Today’s
Most Efficient CPU & Mainboard

* * *

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