The Hiper Media Center has a full featured MATX motherboard by MSI along with a 200W power supply in a small, very low profile case that has room for one hard drive and a notebook slot optical drive. Notable standard equipment include a complete front panel card reader and I/O board hidden under a pop-up cover, built-in Wi-Fi, and a VFD display with 6 external function buttons. It is just about the slimmest PC you’ll see anywhere.
October 5, 2007 by Mike Chin
| Hiper Media Center |
HMC-2K53A-H2 Barebones PC
This category of PCs has been with us for a number of years now, whether you call it the Home Theater (HTPC), Entertainment PC (ePC), or Media PC. The commonalities among them are, usually:
- Runs Media Center Edition of Windows XP or Vista
- Has more RAM and often a better graphics card than business PCs
- Good I/O connectivity with all kinds of media
- May contain a TV tuner and a more serious sound card
- Often looks the part of a home entertainment center, rather than a computer — i.e., it’s horizontal, not a tower
All the big brands offer products that are promoted as Media PCs, but not all of them look the part. A quick look through Dell, Gateway and HP’s web sites shows that only HP currently offers one that actually looks a bit like a VCR of old, rather than a tower box. A few specialists ply more appealing wares, such as the impressive fanless chassis systems from Niveus Media, the SPCR Media Center Silent PC from EndPC Noise, and the AVA series Media Center from Tranquil PC.
Still, it’s difficult to assess the extent to which consumers have embraced the ePC. Sales statistics are hard to come by. At best, it appears that with the Windows MCE widely accepted as the media OS of choice, more brands have shown interest in going after this market niche. It may still be early in the life cycle of the Media PC, however, and the most assured way of making sales to this sector is probably to the DIY enthusiast.
Let’s face it: Despite the relative ease of MCE’s remote control and simplified onscreen user interface, a Media PC is still a computer. In the end, you still have to mess with it the way you do with most computers. This means the user must have a strong interest in multimedia entertainment as well as a willingness and enough expertise to tinker with a PC from time to time. This excludes many people. Even many who are quite comfortable around computers still aren’t ready for one in their entertainment room. A game console, OK, but leave the PC elsewhere.
This may be why there are so many high end media PC cases now on the market with prices ranging well beyond $500 just for a case (sometimes without even a power supply). The focus is still on the techno-DIY early adopter. Interestingly, except for a few Shuttle-style small form factor designs, barebones systems with a horizontal case have been rare. Which brings us to the Hiper Media Center, the rare slim barebones system that found its way to SPCR’s lab over the summer. First, a bit of background about the company.
Hiper Group is a UK company started in 2002. Their name is short for High Performance Group. Power supplies were their first products, but they have expanded their range to include keyboards, fans, accessories, cases and media PCs. They’ve been focused on the EU market; they’ve just begun selling through online retailer Newegg in the past few months.
Now, the thing that’s unusual about this system is that it’s really slim. A picture tells a thousand words…
The very low profile Hiper Media Center
…so maybe two pictures tells a couple thousand words?
The dimensions listed in the specification table below are 430 x 310 x 53mm. For those more comfortable with English units, that’s barely 2" tall, 17" wide and a foot deep. It’s no bigger than many home CD or DVD players. Now this is a box made to fit in well into the home entertainment console!
What’s in it? The details are listed below from Hiper Group’s web site, but to summarize, the Hiper Media Center
HMC-2K53A-H2 houses a full featured micro-ATX motherboard by MSI based on the nVidia GeForce 6150 chipset along with a 200W power supply in a small, very low profile case that has room for one hard drive and a notebook-style slot optical drive. Notable standard equipment include a complete front panel card reader and I/O board hidden under a pop-up cover, built-in Wi-Fi, and a VFD display with 6 external function buttons. It is just about the slimmest PC you’ll see anywhere.
If the images of this Hiper seem strangely familiar to regular readers, it’s no surprise. It was the object of Brendan Wynn’s desire, who wrote an article on Measuring Heatpipe Efficiency last year while thinking up quiet ways to cool the Hiper.
Hiper Media Center
|External||Dimensions||430mm x 310mm x 53mm (WxDxH)|
|Standard Components||Mainboard||MSI K9NGM2 |
Standard Size Micro ATX format / ITX
|CPU|| Accepts AMD AM2 |
Ventilation Intake on Top Cover
|Hard Drive||Accepts standard 3.5"|
|RAM||Accepts up to 4 x DDRII|
|Optical Drive||Requires slot notebook drive|
|Standard Equipment||PSU||200W (100~240V) CE, UL, TUV, ROHS|
|Front I/O||2 x USB|
|Audio (speaker, MIC, audio in)|
|1 x 1394|
|Card Reader||SD Card, MultiMediaCard, CompactFlash, MicroDrive, Memory Stick, Smart Media|
|VFD Module||VFD (with 6 external function buttons)|
|IR Module||Optional MCE/Vista Approved RF Remote Control|
|HDD Fan||40 mm / 4000 rpm / frameless|
|Southbridge Fan||Optional 4000 rpm Blower / Dual Ball Bearing|
|Rear I/O||I/O Panel|
|Expansion||1 x PCI add on slot bezel|
|IDE Cable||1 pc (450mm)|
|SATA Cable||1 pc (450mm)|
|IDE Converter||Slimline to standard IDE|
In a "barebones" kit, you add the CPU, hard drive, optical drive and memory. All the other internal components are included. (But not monitor, mouse or keyboard.) For a media PC barebones, you’d think that a remote would be considered standard, but that’s not the case with this model. The review sample was not supplied with a riser slot card, either, but a CPU cooler was included. The optional southbridge fan and blower fans were also not included.
Let’s have a quick walkaround the unit to see what we can see.
The highly reflective plastic front bezel is very slightly curved when viewed from the top, which probably gives it a slightly softer or more elegant look. The memory card readers and I/O panel are revealed on the right; the little door opens with a simple press. The vent on the top left is for the power supply, while the larger one on closer to the right side of the cover is for the CPU. Photos on the previous page showed the vents that cover almost half the area of both the sides.
The bottom panel is largely unremarkable. There are the usual A/V style feet, some slot vents, and then that round perforated bump which appears to hold a very small fan. The feet are only about 8mm tall; the bump protrudes far enough that almost touches whatever surface the unit is placed upon. More on this later.
Finally, here’s what the vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) looks like when powered up. It looks quite spiffy, doesn’t it?
Opening the cover required the removable of two screws, and a slight backward slide to unlock it. The cover then lifted off easily.
Just about everything is visible in a single glance. The motherboard, the front panel memory reader and I/O panel, the electronics for the VFD display and buttons, the optical drive bay on the right, the 3.5" HDD bay below it, and finally the small power supply on the bottom right (of the photo).
Here’s another angle for more details.
A shot from the other side shows the 50mm PSU exhaust fan, the drive bays, and a bit of the perforated grill for that fan in the underside "bump".
This was the best angle to see that little fan without removing the PSU. It’s probably about 50mm diameter, frameless. It appears to be there just to help cool the hard drive.
All in all, there are no surprises inside. The three small fans, all 50mm or smaller in diameter, give the silent PC builder pause. Small fans always have to spin faster to move as much air, and they usually end up making the kind of tonal noises that people describe as a whine, which is almost always annoying. We’ll see how these fans fare.
Time now to select and install appropriate components for a Media PC in this Hiper barebones. The following components were already available in the lab:
- CPU: AMD BE-2350 45W TDP 2.1GHz / 1MB L2 cache – This is AMD’s high efficiency desktop dual-core processor.
- Memory: 2x 1024mb Corsair XMS2 DDR2 (CM2X1024-6400)
- HDD: Seagate Momentus 7200.1 100GB 2.5" notebook drive and Seagate Momentus 7200.2 160GB 2.5" notebook drive
- OS: Windows XP Pro and Windows Vista Home Premium
- No optical drive was installed; an external DVD connected via USB was used.
The assembly also involved the installation of the supplied 1U heatsink/fan.
AMD BE-2350 processor installed in socket.
The hefty all-copper 1U height heatsink with 80x15mm fan is fitted with through-motherboard spring-loaded bolts. It was very easy to install.
The standard heatsink retention bracket was removed before the HSF could be installed.
Notebook drives were chosen for this system because there’s no point in loading up the machine with a noisier, higher-vibration 3.5" drive when a little one will do fine. A 100GB capacity 7200RPM Seagate Momentus was used first, simply placed atop the drive cage with a layer of plastic bubble wrap to help insulate its vibration from the case. (The notebook drive pulls about 1W at idle at ~2.5W in seek, compared to the typical 3.5" drive power demand of ~8W idle and 12~14W seek.)
As barebones systems go, this one is very simple to put together. The wide open layout makes things easy even for the fumble-fingered. Besides, there’s so little to be done.
Booting up the system initially took quite some time, due to a long pause while the motherboard loads the USB device. Later, once all the drivers were loaded in Windows, this pause shortened to just a second or two.
Let’s not bore you with numerous photos of the BIOS setup utility. It’s a typical AMI version with a moderate level of control. The most interesting options for SPCR readers are in the Hardware Monitor menu screen.
AMD’s processor speed/power management utility Cool ‘n’ Quiet is enabled here, as is the Smart Fan control utility. (Links: AMD’s official CnQ page; SPCR’s coverage of CnQ; our review of the user-customizable CnQ utility CrystalCPUID) The "speed up" trigger temperatures for the Smart Fan are at 40, 45, 50, and 55 degrees Celcius; naturally the highest temperature target was chosen for the sake of low noise. The screen shot above was taken with the system close to idle, after a couple hours of loading Windows and driver updates.
- The Hiper was tested in various states: Off, Sleep, Idle (with and without Cool ‘n’
Quiet), video playback, and full load using two instances of
- System power
consumption was measured at the AC outlet using a Seasonic
- We also examined CPU usage during video playback to see
how well the integrated graphics handled different clips. Clips were played with Windows
Media Player 11 and CPU usage was measured using the Windows Task Manager for
- SpeedFan utility software was used to monitor all the temperature feeds in the system. There are some 7-8 sensors reporting temperatures, including the one in the hard drive.
- A standard 19" 1280×1024 LCD BenQ monitor as well as a Sony Bravia 40" 720p LCD TV were used for display. The latter’s native
resolution of 1366×768 was not supported by the graphics driver, but 1280×768 was more
- The lab’s ambient noise level was around 18~20 dBA, and the ambient temperature was 20°C.
Hiper Media Center PC w/ Windows XP: CPU load, AC Power & Noise
Idle w/ Cool ‘n’ Quiet
Rush Hour 3
Coral Reef Adventure (1080p-WMV3)
*SPL is the sound pressure level, measured in "A" weighted decibels with a high sensitivity B&K sound level meter at a distance of one meter.
The Rush Hour 3 trailer is a 1080p clip encoded
with H.264. It has a good mixture of light and dark scenes, interspersed
with fast-motion action and cutaways.
(H.264, 1920×816, 24fps, ~10100kbps)
The Coral Reef Adventure trailer is a 1080p
clip encoded in VC-1 using the WMV3 codec (commonly recognized by the
moniker, "HD WMV"). It features multiple outdoor landscape and
dark underwater scenes.
(VC-1 (WMV3), 1440×1080, 24fps, ~7700kbps)
The video performance was perfectly capable at the 1280×1024 native resolution of the 19" LCD monitor as well as at 1280×768 on the 40" Sony Bravia LCD TV for all imaging programs, video editing, etc. Both Rush Hour 3 and Coral Reef Adventure clips also played fine, although with multiple applications operating, the 1080p clip could sometimes stutter a bit. The built-in WiFi card worked as it should, detecting and allowing easy access at 54 mbps to the wireless network in the lab. The WiFi appeared to add about 2W to the overall power demand when enabled; it is possible to manage it so that it turns off automatically when not needed.
A riser card was unfortunately not supplied with the sample system, which meant the system could not be checked for TV functions with a PCI tuner card. The main question here is not TV functionality, which would be determined mostly by the chosen tuner card, but the card’s effect on overall cooling and noise. The card would block the extra hole on the back panel, and occupy enough space in the center of the case that cooling might be affected.
One minor complaint is the exposed location of the reset power button just below the DVD slot: It’s too easily accessed by accident.
The minimum noise of the system after Windows stabilized at idle was 31 dBA@1m, moderately high by SPCR standards. The primary source of noise was the power supply, whose two fans could be easily heard from more than 10 feet away in our quiet test environment. The small size of these fans means that tonal whine was a key aspect of the sonic signature, which made it more annoying than if it had been a broader bandwidth noise, like wind noise. Surprisingly, the tonal peak was centered around 1,000 Hz, not that high a frequency. The CPU cooler fan did speed up a bit under high load, but its overall noise signature was fairly smooth and unobtrusive. The small fan in the "bump" under the drive cage contributed almost no noise at all, as it ran at a constant, very low speed. At extreme CPU load with CPUBurn, increases in fan speeds caused noise to go up to 35 dBA@1m.
This is not particularly quiet performance, considering that for desktop systems, SPCR’s upper limit of "quiet" is defined to be 30 dBA@1m. Any higher than that, and it’s not quiet by our standards.
However, we are not quite as stringent for a media PC, which usually works in a considerably noisier environment: When a media PC being used, we can expect the sound of the movie or TV program, or music to have a significant masking effect on the PC’s noise. About the lowest usable volume for such programming is 30 dBA average as perceived by the listener. At normal viewing/listening levels, peaks easily jump into the 50 and 60 dBA@1m range. Naturally a PC that emits 30 dBA @1m may not be very intrusive or audible under such conditions. The noise of the PC becomes a more serious issue when the programming is paused, however. These considerations are discussed in detail in the section ACOUSTICS AROUND A MEDIA PC on page two of Cases: Basics & Recommendations.
Seven temperature sensors were detected by SpeedFan, excluding the one in the hard drive. It’s difficult to identify which component each sensor is reporting on, but there was no cause for any concern about any of the reported temperatures. At idle, all the temperatures always remained well under 50°C (typically near or under 40°C). At the highest load with two instances of CPUBurn, one sensor reached 54°C after nearly an hour; this was probably the CPU.
One sensor did report 80°C, but this was constant, regardless of load, and this data can safely be discarded as erroneous and insignificant. The system was perfectly well cooled for the installed components. We’d caution against sandwiching the Hiper Media Center system between two other components in a stac k, as the heat could be trapped and cause instability. Take note: We’d make the same caution about any PC.
POWER / ENERGY EFFICIENCY
The system drew more power than expected in every activity, considerably higher than the somewhat similar system we assembled around the Albatron KI690-AM2 board reviewed a couple of weeks ago. That system utilized a standard 65W TDP A64-3800+ X2 processor, but a well known exceptionally high efficiency power supply was employed, and there were no extras such as WiFi or VFL to demand any extra power. Still the Albatron system drew just half the power at idle, and 20W less at full load; lower efficiency in the Hiper’s power supply is probably the main source of the difference.
Engaging Cool ‘n’ Quiet had the expected positive effect of dropping overall power at idle and low power loads by as much as 8~10W, which is welcome for both energy efficiency and reduced heat. Active power factor correction must be employed in the PSU, as the PF measured 0.98~0.99 at most power levels.
The small size of this system and the relatively noisy power supply invited a drop-in substitution with a PicoPSU. The PicoPSU, which we reviewed some time ago, is a tiny ATX-socket sized DC/DC converter which passes 12V current from an external AC/DC power brick, and also delivers the necessary +5V, +3.3, +5Vsb and -12V. It has extremely high efficiency, and has the benefit of allowing the main heat source in the PSU (the AC/DC conversion) to be placed outside the computer.
The stock PSU was left in place, and its power connections were changed with those from the PicoPSU. A couple of adapters had to be used, as the PicoPSU comes with a minimum number of outputs, which caused a bit of a wiring mess… but this was just an experiment anyway. A 120W rated 12VDC AC/DC power brick was used.
PicoPSU plugged into the ATX socket, jammed up against the front panel memory card reader PCB.
The power brick and the PicoPSU are highlighted in this photo.
The results were quite dramatic.
Hiper Media Center PC w/ Windows XP: Stock PSU vs. PicoPSU Activity AC Power SPL*
Stock PSU PicoPSU Off 2W 3W N/A Sleep (S3) 6W 6W N/A Idle 69W 54W 23 dBA Idle w/ Cool ‘n’ Quiet 64W 49W 23 dBA Rush Hour 3 video 80~84W 77~80W 23 dBA Coral Reef Adventure video 81~84W 78~82W 23 dBA CPUBurn 105W 86W 23 dBA *SPL is the sound pressure level, measured in "A" weighted decibels with a high sensitivity B&K sound level meter at a distance of one meter.
There really isn’t much more to say; the table above tells it all. The PicoPSU turns a moderately noisy system into one that’s truly quiet and highly efficient. It had no problem powering the system through each and every activity. There’s no reason for Hiper not to go the route of the external power brick, a route which has been taken successfully by Shuttle with several of their SFF systems. Shuttle’s SD11G5 Pentium-M PC and the earlier 478-socket Zen XPC ST62K had fanless 220W and 180W 12V AC/DC power bricks which completely eliminated PSU noise and heat from these PCs.
NOISE RECORDINGS IN MP3 FORMAT
Each of these recording starts with six seconds of "silence" to let you hear the ambient
sound of the room, followed by 10 seconds of the product’s noise.
- Hiper HMC-2K53A-H2 test system at idle – 31 dBA@1m
- Hiper HMC-2K53A-H2 test system at full load – 35 dBA @1m
- Hiper HMC-2K53A-H2 test system with PicoPSU – 23 dBA @1m
HOW TO LISTEN & COMPARE
These recordings were made
with a high resolution, studio quality, digital recording system, 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. The microphone was one meter
away from the product.
These recordings are intended to let you hear how the reviewed item sounds
in actual use — one meter is a reasonable typical distance between
a computer or computer component and your ear. The recording contains
stretches of ambient noise that you can use to judge the relative loudness
of the subject. For best results, set your volume control so that the
ambient noise is just barely audible. Be aware that very quiet subjects
may not be audible — if we couldn’t hear it from one meter, chances
are we couldn’t record it either!More details about how
we make these recordings can be found in our short article: Audio
Recording Methods Revised.
After the successful results with Windows XP Pro, the Seagate Momentus 7200.1 100GB 2.5" drive was replaced with a Seagate Momentus 7200.2 160GB 2.5" drive. The second drive was used to load Windows Vista Home Premium, which features Media Center Edition. The full range of tests was rerun.
Hiper Media Center PC with VISTA: CPU load, AC Power & Noise Activity CPU Usage AC Power SPL*
Core 0 Core 1 Average Off N/A N/A N/A 2W N/A Sleep (S3) N/A N/A N/A 6W N/A Idle 0~2% 0~2% 1% ~82W 31 dBA Idle w/ Cool ‘n’ Quiet N/A N/A N/A N/A 31 dBA Rush Hour 3
30% 45% 38% 88~90W 31 dBA Coral Reef Adventure (1080p-WMV3) 36% 48% 44% 90~94W 31 dBA CPUBurn 100% 100% 100% 105W 35 dBA *SPL is the sound pressure level, measured in "A" weighted decibels with a high sensitivity B&K sound level meter at a distance of one meter.
The power demand went up significantly across the board compared to Windows XP (5~10W on average). At idle, it was 13W higher. Power draw at full CPU load remained the same.
Most functions worked about the same as in Windows XP, but high definition video clips were more easily interrupted by multitasking. The impression is that the residual demand on the system was higher due to Vista’s many "instant on demand" features.
It took some investigation to discover, but Cool ‘n’ Quiet, which worked perfectly in Windows XP Pro, turned out not to work at all with this system in Vista. This was despite the system recognizing the processor accurately and CnQ enabled in the BIOS menus, just as before. Vista has built-in native support for CnQ as well as Intel’s EIST processor power management. There is a menu that allows processor power management, as described in the vista4beginners website where the following image originated; the processor power management tab never appeared with our sample.
The processor power management tab never appeared.
Discussions with AMD and Hiper led to the conclusion that a BIOS fix is probably needed to make CnQ work in Vista, but this is unlikely to happen, because MSI has recently discontinued production of this motherboard. So the advice is to stay with Window Media Center (XP version) for best results with the Hiper HMC-2K53A-H2.
HMC-2K53A-H2 is the second generation of the Hiper Media Center. The previous generation had distinctly inferior cosmetics and less functionality. Unfortunately, it also turns out that as this review was being written, a third generation is already about to replace the H2. The new model is called HMC-2K53A-A3, and although it looks the same externally, there are substantial differences. The big difference comes from factors beyond Hiper’s control: As mentioned, MSI has discontinued the nVidia NF 6150 chipset K9NGM2 motherboard, so the H2 could not be continued without change anyway. The new board in the A3 is another MSI, model K9AGM2 (MS-7327), which is based around the AMD 690G and ATI SB600 chipsets. There are three variants of the 7327 board. On close examination, the K9AGM2-FIH appears to be closest to the one used in the upcoming A3 version of the Hiper Media Center.
The new A3 board brings two important changes:
- HDMI port: This is arguably the most important addition, as the single unified A/V interface has quickly become the ruling standard for modern TVs and related gear. It certainly makes hookups much simpler and tidier.
- Radeon X1250 integrated graphics, which can share up to 512MB of system memory. We already documented the performance of this new IGC in our recent review of the Albatron KI690-AM2 motherboard, which produced the best graphics performance we’ve seen from any IGC.
Hiper also took the opportunity to add another feature not directly related to motherboard change:
- A built-in infrared transceiver module with the receptor built right into the front panel, and…
- A Vista-only compatible IR remote control as standard equipment.
All of these changes are likely to mean a better product overall than the H2 sample reviewed here:
- The Radeon X1250 embedded in the AMD 690G chipset provides better HD video performance.
- Proper Vista support for CnQ is much more likely.
- An integrated remote sensor port and supplied remote control are very welcome for a media PC.
However, the acoustic characteristics will not be changed, as the same power supply is employed.
The Hiper HMC-2K53A-H2 has the perfect shape and size for a media PC. That alone makes the product interesting; there are no other comparable DIY cases or barebones systems. The I/O panel with extensive A/V phono connectors helps make up for the lack of HDMI. Performance with media-related functions is quite good. Its thermal performance is plenty good enough as long as you stay reasonable with core component choices. An attempt to run a >100W TDP processor or the latest high end gaming card will certainly lead to overheating; the latter wouldn’t fit anyway.
The acoustic performance is not bad once the TV or music is on, but it could be quieter, as our experiments showed. Energy efficiency could also be improved, although this does not have any direct bearing on other aspects of performance. The $300 asking price seems reasonable.
It’s too bad that we did not get the newest 3rd generation version of the Hiper Media Center to examine, but our suspicion is that the differences detailed above tell most of the story.
In summary, the Hiper Media Center HMC-2K53A-H2 is a barebones PC with some excellent strengths and a few weaknesses. Chances are, you won’t be able to buy one any more, as it is being discontinued, but this review should give you a good idea of what the new replacement A3 version will be like.
| PROS |
* Great shape, size & style
| CONS |
* A bit noisy
Much thanks to Hiper Group
for this product sample.
* * *