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mCubed’s HFX mini: Fanless HTPC “heatsink case”

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mCubed delivered a complete HTPC system in a HFX mini case to Christoph Derndorfer, our eager European correspondent. His review of this classy, sleek low-profile, high end, fanless “heatsink case” finds there’s more to silencing than fanlessness.

October 16, 2006 by Christoph Derndorfer

Product
HFX mini
Manufacturer
mCubed
Selling Price
€899 (HFX mini bundle); €335 (HFX mini heatsink case)

mCubed has been offering fanless, DIY heatpipe/heatsink cooled cases for home theater PC since the spring of 2005. The term they use for these cases is "heatsink case", which seems appropriate. It is the same basic approach to quiet cooling as Hush, Mappit, Niveus Media, and Zalman TNN: Passive cooling with massive external heatsinks coupled to heat sources in the system by means of heatpipes. The original, called HFX Classic, is a fairly large audio/video style aluminum case designed for use with an ATX motherboard with full height PCI slots.

The HFX mini is a new heatsink case for lower power processors combining silent technologies with power saving features and connectivity for audio and video devices. Compared to most HTPC cases, the HFX mini is very slim with a height of only 9cm to blend well with other A/V components. The HFX Classic, in contrast, is both taller (14.5cm) and deeper (45cm vs 38cm) with the same width (43cm). Surprisingly, thje HFX mini can still handle an ATX motherboard.

The elegant design hides a slot-loading DVD drive, VFD and IR behind a highly polished acrylic front. An external power supply is utilized for highest efficiency and minmal heat inside the box. The HFX mini has enough space for ATX or micro-ATX motherboard, 3 HDDs, 1 Slot-In DVD, 1 VFD with IR and 3 expansion slot cards with riser cards.


Sleeker and more stylish than the original.

OUR SAMPLE

mCubed chose to submit a complete system for review. The sample came with the following components:

HFX mini sample configuration
Motherboard
AOpen i945GTm-VHL
CPU
Intel Core Duo T2300 1.66 GHz
CPU Cooling
HFX mini heatpipe
RAM
2 x 1GB DDR2 667MHz SO-DIMM CL5
Case
HFX mini (black)
Power Supply
mCubed EF28 external power brick
Hard Drive
Samsung HD300LJ (300GB, 7200RPM)
SP2504C (250GB, 7200RPM)
[RAID 0]
CD/DVD-RW
PIONEER Slim Slot-In DVD-RW DVR-K06
Video Card
onboard i945GT
Sound Card
Soundblaster X-Fi Elite Pro
TV Card
Hauppauge Win-TV PVR-150 (with Video-In via SCART)
VFD
iMON with integrated remote-control
Operating System
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2006
Media-Software
MediaPortal (includes a free EPG)

Just looking at the specifications shows that mCubed is aiming the HFX mini directly at the HTPC market. By including a top-notch soundcard, the all-famous Hauppauge TV-card, a reasonable amount of mass-storage, a VFD with a remote control and a Media Desktop Interface, the review sample I received was a complete HTPC package.

But rather than just look at the features themselves we’re obviously more interested in how well the HFX mini works in terms of being a fanless and silent system. Obviously with a fanless system you’re basically left with two components responsible for noise: the hard-drives and the optical-drive. mCubed is claiming to take care of both of these factors with custom-made silencing solutions for these devices.

PACKAGING & CONTENTS

mCubed ships all of their system double boxed and so the sample in a huge parcel that contained the smaller box with the system shown on the photo above. Due to the enclosure’s huge heatsinks the system weighs approximately 12kg. The box was well-padded with sturdy foam packing material and huge amounts of bubble-wrap. Inside I was greeted by the original box for the AOpen motherboard, the well-packaged external power-supply and the system.


Very well packed for transit.


mCubed’s 280W external power-brick EF28:
120 or 240VAC input depending on where the order comes from.


The system came with a lot of accessories and goodies.


mCubed includes all of the bundled manuals and software/driver CDs that come with the motherboard, soundcard, etc.


The iMON remote-control and a small wireless keyboard were also included with the review sample.

EXTERIOR

The HFX mini design was obviously inspired by high-end audio equipment. As this is a fanless system the massive heatsinks on the enclosure’s sides are used to dissipate the heat. While the processor and chipset are connected to the right heatsink with a set of heatpipes the remaining enclosure needs to get rid of the heat from all the other components. There’s also a large number of ventilation slots in the HFX mini’s cover in order to keep the temperatures inside at bay. Also note that the VFD display is not visible when the system is turned off, giving an elegant subdued look.


Ain’t she beautiful?


Here you can clearly see the huge heatsinks.

Thanks to the AOpen motherboard, the X-Fi soundcard and the Hauppauge TV-card the HFX mini comes with an impressive array of connectivity options:

  • SCART for the TV-card’s Video-In port
  • DVI-out
  • RGB-out
  • VGA-out
  • S-Video in
  • Video in
  • TV-antenna in…

…and many more ports that you also find on standard PCs. Please also note the small ventilation slots below the expansion cards to help keep them cooled.


The backside showing off the extensive selection of available I/O ports.

INTERIOR

To get inside the system you simply lift the polycarbonate cover at the back and then carefully pull it towards the front. The interior is relatively tidy given how much hardware is stuffed into the enclosure. As you can see on the photo below the motherboard is located in the upper right corner with the PCI expansion cards taking up the rest of the backside. Towards the front there’s the slimline optical-drive inside the custom silencing box. Below and to the left of the optical drive there are two HDD silencing boxes which contain the two hard-drives. The bottom of the enclosure is full of ventilation holes which (combined with the relatively open cover) encourages convection airflow.


An overview of the internal layout.

A set of 4 heatpipes runs between the processor and the right side heatsink. The same arrangement is used for the north birdge chip. As we learned in our interview with mCubed back in August, the large number of heatpipes ensures a safety buffer. That means that even if one of the heatpipes doesn’t work (for whatever reason), the chips are still cooled efficiently.


The heatpipe cooling setup for the processor and the chipset.

As the HFX mini relies on an external AC-DC power-brick, the 12VDC current has to be stepped down to the different voltage rails required by the ATX standard. This is where the internal DC-DC adapter comes in. It’s mounted right behind the storage devices, a position which allows for efficient cable routing without blocking any of the convection airflow in the case.


The internal DC-DC adapter.

For the PCI expansion cards a flexible dual PCI-riser card is used in order to keep the system relatively small.


The soundcard and TV-card are mounted via a dual card PCI-riser.

TESTING

The following tools were used during testing:

Because the noise of a fanless system is more or less constant — unless you start using your optical drive or push your hard-drive into constant seek mode (e.g. defragmentation) — most of my
testing consisted of an examination of power consumption and thermal dissipation. Please note that the thermal diodes were not calibrated, so thermal measurements should only be evaluated
relative to each other, not in absolute terms. All of measurements were taken after 30 minutes in the indicated Activity State.

Ambient temperature during testing varied between 20°C and 21°C.

mCubed HFX mini system temperature / power
Activity State
CPU
System
AC Power
Idle
46°C
45°C
71W
Full CPU Load (2x CPUBurn)
53°C
46°C
78W
Full System Load (ATI Tool + 2x CPUBurn)
57°C
51°C
95W

Thermally, the HFX mini worked very well. The maximum temperature of 57°C can be considered to be perfectly safe. However, I would advise against pushing the system very hard in a hot >35°C environment. The temperatures inside the system are relatively high and I’m not sure how good that is for component life. With fanless systems, you usually face the issue of heat buildup inside the enclosure. With the large ventilation holes in the top directly above the motherboard and expansion cards, mCubed has ensured that convection works as well as possible.

It’s also interesting to note how the temperatures of the CPU and system changed over time. Within a second of launching CPUBurn, the CPU temperatures jumped up 2~3°C. After that it, slowly increased by about 1°C per 3 minutes to reach its maximum after about 15 minutes. Then it remained within a small margin of +/- 1°C. Once I stopped the load test, the temperature fell by about 3°C within the first minute or so. After that it gradually decreased to reach its Idle value after about 20 minutes. The system temperatures on the other hand took much longer to react to the Load scenarios. After reaching 51°C during the Full Load test it took the better part of 60 minutes in order for the temperature to go back down to the mid-40s.

One final about the heatsinks: The right side heatsink becomes rather warm after extended load periods. It was never too hot to touch, however. The left heatsink remained cold to the touch throughout all of my testing.

Even under full load the system never drew more than 95W from the wall outlet. Considering that this sample included two 3.5″ hard-drives, a high-end soundcard and a TV-tuner, this an impressively low value. Of course, actually using the TV-tuner and the hard-drives to record a TV-show might add a couple of watts but then you’ll probably not be pushing both CPU cores to 100%. I was quite surprised to see that simply running ATI Tool on top of the two copies of CPUBurn resulted in a 17W increase of AC consumption. This is more power than I thought the onboard graphics card would draw! While running two instances of CPUBurn I was still able to do light browsing and typing with a relatively responsive system. Once I added ATI Tool to the equation things slowed down significantly and the system came to a virtual standstill.

SOUND TESTING

Unfortunately I don’t have access to the sophisticated sound level meters and high resolution studio quality digital recording system that Mike and Devon use for their articles. I can provide a detailed account of my subjective experience, which Mike says is the most important part of any acoustic assessment.

First of all I think it’s important to mention under which conditions the system was reviewed: A 12sq m home-office with a wooden floor in a very quiet European town. Almost all of the testing was done at night when there’s as little ambient noise as you’ll ever have in normal household — no cars going by, no radio or TV. Our heating system was turned off at the night… and even the cat was asleep.

The first component that I listened closely to was mCubed’s new EF28 power brick which they introduced in our interview with them back in August. It’s basically a fanless external AC-DC convertor that provides up to 210W at 12V for an internal DC-DC adapter. I had to move to within 20cm of the unit in order to be able to pick up a faint electronic buzzing.

Next I moved on to carefully listen to the system itself. Having used quite a number of very low-power Mini-ITX systems in the past, some of them fanless, I was keen on seeing how quiet the HFX mini would be. Obviously with a fanless system the only components that are responsible for creating noise are the hard-drives and the optical drive. I therefore decided to divide my listening experience into 4 categories:

  • Idle
  • productivity applications (Firefox with several tabs, OpenOffice Writer, Notepad, Trillian, Winamp5 and Paint.NET) because it reflects how 90% of computing time is spent
  • file search / defragmentation to get an idea of how much noise the hard-drives create
  • watching a DVD to see how much noise the optical drive adds
mCubed HFX mini
Activity
Describtion
Idle
Sitting within 1 meter of the unit you can hear the idle noise of the two hard-drives. Samsung drives are generally known for their very clean and smooth “whoosh” airflow-sound. Due to both drives being mounted in HD silencing boxes you can’t hear or feel any vibrations produced by the platters. In a living room setup when you’re located more than 3 meters away from the HFX mini you won’t be able to hear it when its idle. All in all a very quiet, but not completely silent, experience.
productivity applications
There’s hardly any increase in noise-levels compared to the idle mode mentioned above. It’s only when the hard-drives go into seek mode – for example upon loading a new playlist in Winamp or opening large OpenOffice douments – that you can clearly hear the system even sitting 3 meters away from the unit.
file search / defragmentation
Often hard-drive seek tends to be the most annoying type of sound. While the seek sounds weren’t as sharp and high as the ones coming from my trusted 3-year old Seagate Barracuda IV in one of my other systems, I’ve become used to the luxury of using 2.5″ laptop drives inside most of my systems. These drives produce a much smoother and lower type of seek-sound than the 3.5″ desktop drives used inside the HFX mini.
watching a DVD
Not surprisingly the slot-in slimline optical-drive made the biggest contribution to the overall noise level upon loading a new DVD or while copying over data to the hard-drive. Apart from the unavoidable noise created by the moving lens/arm, there was a lot of “whoosh”-airflow which was easily heard 3 meters away from the unit. However once I was watching the movie, the optical-drive became significantly quieter. In fact it became so quiet that it wasn’t distinguishable from the rest of the system anymore, no matter how closely I listened to it. The “whoosh” was still there but it didn’t seem to add anything to the subjective noise impression. I’d say that in a living-room environment you normally won’t hear the optical drive unless you like watching your DVDs with the soundtrack on mute.

All in all, the HFX mini is a very quiet system but I wouldn’t call it silent. It may be due to the fact that it’s a fanless system with no broadband noise from the fans to help mask it, but I personally didn’t expect the hard-drives to be so much of an annoyance. This is a very subjective impression and it is important to realize that I’m testing the system in an environment that’s significantly quieter than any normal living room or office. Just to put this into perspective: typing these words on a 2-year old keyboard does make considerably more noise than the HFX mini while it’s idle.

CONCLUSIONS

With their HFX mini, mCubed has delivered a very quiet HTPC system with exceptionally good looks. In a living room environment, you are not going to be able to hear anything under most circumstances. In an office environment, the noise produced by the hard-drives will be more noticable as the user tends to sit much closer to the system than in a living room. Seek noise tends to be the most annoying type of sound coming from otherwise silent PCs and the HFX mini is no exception. With productivity applications like the ones mentioned above, these seeks will be present less than 10% of your computing time. If your applications heavily rely on massive I/O from the hard-drives then the seek noise is certainly something you’ll be hearing quite a lot.

In the HTPC functions, when watching video or music from the hard drives, the sound is very similar to using productivity applications in that it is very quiet apart from the seeks when new data is loaded from the drives.

There’s room for some improvement. I’m sure that using two 3.5″ hard-drives is not the best low noise solution. Still, most people will probably use the HFX mini as an HTPC setup where storage demands are endless, and the higher capacity and low cost-per-gigabyte of 3.5" drives are compelling. I wonder what the system would sound like if mCubed had decided to use a 2.5″ laptop drive, or maybe even a solid state drive, for the operating system and the most frequently used applications. That would allow the 3.5″ drive to spin down when its not being used which would significantly lower the overall noise-level to close to nothing.

In the end, all there’s left to do is ask myself whether I would be willing to spend my own hard-earned cash on the HFX mini if I were looking for a very quiet setup. The answer is yes. As an enclosure for a very quiet system, the HFX simply works. With some custom optimisations and a slightly different storage setup than the one inside my review sample, the HFX mini would be very close to the holy grail of combining top-notch performance and cutting-edge features with nearly silent operation.

Many thanks to mCubed for providing us this sample.

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