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Miika’s DIY Silent Aluminum-frame HTPC

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Miika’s monolithic HTPC is the result of classic old-time DIY ingenuity and savvy, which seem in decline in silent computing as quiet off-the-shelf solutions proliferate. DIY initiative can still vye with all the gleaming new high efficiency computer technology today.

By Miika Hyvönen, Finland
miika . hyvonen at gmail . com


Miika’s monolithic HTPC is the result of classic old-time DIY ingenuity and savvy, which seem in decline in silent computing as quiet off-the-shelf solutions proliferate. DIY initiative can still vye with all the gleaming new high efficiency computer technology today.

– Mike Chin, Editor


In the spring of 2008 there was a lot of talk about home theater computers and one of my friends bought a Silverstone LC17B case for that purpose. I began to wonder if I could make my own case for a HTPC. That’s how it all got started.

I started with a number of drawings and sketches, and a lot of measurements of different components and parts. After a couple of months of planning, the picture had become quite clear. The objective was to build a case that would look good in the living room and fit under my Harman/Kardon amplifier. So it should have its front panel the same size as the amp. It should be capable of playing/displaying full HD movies on my television and most importantly, it should be quieter than a whisper.


Photo of Miika’s finished DIY HTPC with H/K AV receiver on top.

Next I had to figure out which materials to use and how I could make my HTPC more silent than factory-made one. I decided to use aluminum profile as the framework for the case. I could easily work with aluminum at home and I thought it would give the case a nice slightly industrial look. For the covering panels I decided to use polycarbonate which wasn’t too expensive to get and it had the looks.

Then there was the most important thing. How to minimize the noise? From the beginning it was clear to me that there should be only one or two big fans rotating slowly, and that I would love to have a passive PSU, but didn’t know how to keep it cool. It didn’t take long for me to realize the solution. The passive PSU had to be taken out of the case. At this point it was time to start select the components to be used. They were of course selected with HD video capability, low heat, and low noise in mind

The components chosen were:

  • Asus M3A motherboard with AMD770 chipset
  • AMD Athlon 64 X2 4850E AM2 (45W)
  • Club3D HD3650 PCI-E 512MB Passive VGA
  • Kingston 2x 1GB 800MHZ DDR2
  • Antec Phantom 500W Semi-Passive PSU
  • Samsung 500GB SATA HD502IJ

ASSEMBLY

I went to a glass company and bought aluminum 24 x 24 mm profile tubing used for building shower cabinets. I experimented with making joints as shown below.


Experimenting with the joint.

At the same time, I was placing orders for the components. With all the components at hand, I took the exact measurements for the aluminum body. It took me few evenings to get the body done, but the result made me more than happy. It was a great feeling holding the assembled framework in my hands for the first time.


The framework.

Now I needed to figure out how to attach the components to the body. I went to the local Toyota dealer and got some sheet metal from the workshop. I cut and painted the bottom plate for the case, then attached the motherboard using the same bolts and screws that are used normally.


The bottom plate with the PSU holder.

I cut out the 5.25” bay from an old ATX-case and bolted it to the aluminum body. After adding some strength to the bay with aluminum profiles, I bolted the DVD drive into place with some rubber between the drive and the bay to absorb vibrations. The hard drive rests freely on top of a piece of open-cell foam under the DVD drive. An extra heatsink was also attached to the hard drive. For the power supply I had to make supportive bars in the bottom plate and a brace to attach the PSU to the aluminum frame with screws.


The optical drive bay.


Brace for the power supply.


The Installed Antec Phantom PSU next to case exhaust vent.

Now it was time to measure and order the covering plastic panels. Installing the side pieces to the case was not a big deal. At the same time, I installed a 12 x 12 cm steel mesh to the left side of the case. With a little trimming, it fit nicely in the aluminum profiles’ groove with the left side panel. The power button was also attached to the panel.


The power button seen from the inside.

On the right side, I installed a 120mm fingerguard. The rear plate was troublesome with the I/O panel and support for the graphics card, but finally that went alright. I bolted the GPU into the top-back profile of the case. The I/O panel was glued to the plastic.


The intake fan.


Back panel with slot for grasphics card and I/O plate glued in place.



Back panel and inside of system.

Because of the unusual placement of the PSU, the power cord had to be routed under the case to the back of the computer. In the picture, the frame holding the weight of the Antec Phantom is clearly visible. There’s also an extra cord to assure that the grounds of the GPU and PSU are connected to the bottom of the case where the motherboard is fixed. The six screws holding the motherboard and the two screws securing the optical drive holder can be seen as well. The front feet of the case were selected to match the feet of the amplifier. The bottom plate was fastened to the aluminum frame with cutting tip screws.


The case seen upside down.

The last and most intricate job was the front panel, where I had to make the hole for the optical drive. The piece covering the hole took a few shots to get it right. I chose not to put any USB ports, LEDs or buttons to the front panel to maintain a clean look.

POWERING UP


The finished system.

With the front panel and inner components all in place, all the cables attached and the top panel installed with Blu Tack, it was time to power it up. The Blu Tack, by the way, wasn’t planned to be permanent, but it proved to be an easy way to affix and remove the top without any screws or holes in the soft aluminum, which could easily wear out. Plus the Blu Tack absorbs vibrations and is also air-proof.

I soon found out that the 92mm Noctua fan on the processor heatsink wasn’t enough to cool the whole system down as I had hoped. The graphics card was getting way too hot and the computer crashed a few times, probably because of that. I installed a Noctua S12 fan to take in some cool air from the left side and blow it to the GPU. That worked out well and since then I’ve been satisfied with the noise and the temperatures of the PC. The processor idles at 34°C, and the hard disk drive runs at about the same temperature. At continuous 100% CPU load, the core temperature rises somewhere near 50°C, which I consider really acceptable, especially with the fans constantly rotating at their minimum speed.


The finished system.

The final dimensions of the case are as follows. Width of the front panel is 445 mm, outer width of the case being 360 mm to leave room for the PSU. The height is 156 mm, 168 mm with the feet. The depth is 405 mm.

CONCLUSIONS & ALTERNATIVES

It has been around two years since the project was finished. Today it would be possible to choose different components and still stay within a reasonable budget.

The 3.5″ HDD isn’t a perfect solution, as you can hear the seek noise clearly, especially because the case has no damping material. Some type of damping material could a difference, but it tend to raise the temperature inside the case. The hard drive is mechanically decoupled from the case, but an even quieter solution would be a 2.5″ drive. That’s something I intend to try in the near future as I have a spare one. Even better, of course, would be a solid state drive with zero noise and minimum heat. SSD prices continue their downward march, and a 500GB model may soon be within reach of the average DIY computer builder.

The GPUs are also constantly getting better, so it is now possible to find a cooler one with adequate performance, or even better, get all this from an integrated one. A riser card could have also been used for improved airflow, although there is a bit of a dilemma with the hot parts of the card being easily pocketed.

The processor cooler has proved to be excellent, but it’s a shame the 92mm fan doesn’t move enough air silently to cool the whole system. The optimal solution might be one or two 120mm fans rotating slowly inside the case, neither of them near the openings to avoid direct noise. Some damping of the case could also help, especially for the front panel.

Finally, there is the PSU. The semi-passive Antec Phantom is a great product, but its 500W power capacity is overkill and it actually doesn’t work completely passively after hours of use. Its fan makes 2-second spin-ups every 15 seconds or so. The PSU sometimes gets so hot that you can barely touch it. Cleaning the PSU with pressurized air hasn’t helped. The airflow around the PSU just isn’t enough, even with the convection effect. Modular cables would also be a worthwhile improvement for this type of project. Using a SSD and an integrated graphics card would allow one to use a PicoPSU. [Editor’s Note: A super high efficiency 80 Plus Gold or Platinum PSU would also be a viable alternative today.]


The finished HTPC in the A/V system.

Thanks to Tuukka and Janne who helped me with planning and building and to my brother Ville for helping me with the writing process. Thanks to Mike Chin for his patience and to SPCR and everyone whose projects have inspired me.

About the Author

Miika Hyvönen is a 23-year-old student from Finland. His first contact with computers was in the late eighties or early nineties. He still remembers the amber text on the small black screen of his dad’s computer. Miika used his dad’s and later his brothers’ computers often, and first assembled his own computer in April 2003. Actually he still uses the same processor, memory sticks and graphics card.

Since getting his own computer, Miika has been trying to make it as silent as possible. That’s how he became familiar with the SPCR and with all the tricks and quiet components. It was sometime in the late 2003 that Miika first hung his HDDs with strips of rubber cut from a car tire inner tube, thus mechanically decoupling them from the case. He also undervolted the processor. Ever since, it’s been a long journey trying to get as close to silence as possible with air cooling.

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Other SPCR articles of related interest:
Silent PC with No Moving Parts
Bill’s Recycled, Fanless, Silent Woodbox Computer

Superquiet Superclocked DIY Core 2 Duo System

Doug’s Quiet Wood Case PC

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