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Moneual MonCaso: Touchscreen Gadgetry and Solid Cooling in One?

The Home Theater market is burgeoning with so many high end cases that it takes something special to stand out. Moneual hopes that something is an LCD touchscreen. Their idea gets our gadget juices running, but the devil is in the details, and we expect good software, good thermal design, and excellent acoustics to go along with it. Can they do it?

Nov 1, 2007 by Devon
Cooke

Product
Moneual Moncaso 932
Home Theater Enclosure with 7″ LCD Touchscreen
Manufacturer
Moneual
Market Price
~US$500

The key to a successful home theater PC is interface. Most users won’t put up
with adding a keyboard and mouse to the ever-growing pile of remote controls
in the living room, so the standard interface for HTPC rigs has become a remote
control, usually a Windows MCE-ready model or something similar from iMon.

The trouble is, navigating a large media database through a remote control tedious at best. Moneual’s answer to this is
elegant, if somewhat expensive: A 7″ LCD touchscreen built into the front
of their flagship HTPC case, the Moncaso 932. It’s an intriguing idea —
but it takes more than a shiny front-panel gadget to make a good HTPC case.
Besides, Moneual already has some competition in this high-end arena. Silverstone’s
LC-18
and Thermaltake’s
DH102
are two other products based around the
same iMon touchscreen
.

Moneual is a name we haven’t encountered before, and a quick glance through
their web site reveals that they are going after the high-end market with a
vengeance. Their main products appear to be whole systems built inside their
custom enclosures. They have taken a leaf out of Apple’s book, selling mostly
on sleek style. Their tower enclosure resembles an oversized iPod Mini —
it’s even available in a choice of six brushed-aluminum finishes.

The large accessory box seems more appropriate for a whole system.

Style is in the eye of the beholder, but the appearance was understated and
should fit in well with most other home theater components. Like many other
HTPC cases, we found the Moncaso a bit big for a home theater. Obviously, the
height is limited by the LCD screen, but we’re sure Moneual could have shaved
an inch off if they hadn’t chosen to stack the screen right above the optical
drive. The case is also very deep, which may post a problem underneath a flat
panel screen. That said, the 17″ width is the same as most A/V components,
so stacking the case shouldn’t be too much of an issue.


The LCD is protected by a taped-on plastic sheet during shipping.

The front panel is surprisingly sleek for the amount of stuff packed into it.
Aside from the LCD screen and the other essentials, there is also a barely-visible
IR receiver for the remote control, a volume control knob, and a ten button
control panel. There are also a pair of flip-down doors that hide a wide assortment
of ports: The usual mic, headphone, firewire and USB ports on the left, and
a multi-card reader on the right.


The usual front ports, though only a single USB port is available.

The control panel and flash card reader.

Aside from the usual screws and cables, Moneual includes a screwdriver in the
accessory kit. We were pleased to note that the screwdriver was both magnetic
and long enough to reach the screws on the bottom of the case, which made it
superior to our usual lab driver. Our only criticism: The Phillips head was
too small to fit the screws shipped with the case.

From left to right: ATX power tap for front panel,
installation screws, remote control and batteries, stylus for touchscreen,
long-shank magnetic screwdriver, manual and software CD, DVD tray cover.

 

SPECIFICATIONS: Moncaso 932 (from the
product page
)
Case Type
Home Theater PC
Case Dimensions
17″(W)
x 18.5″(D) x 6.75″(H)
Color
Black (Silver
version also available)
Material
Aluminum
Motherboard Type
Standard ATX
Power Supply Type
Standard ATX
LCD Touchscreen
– 7 inch Screen
Size
– 15:9 Ratio
– 800 x 600 (recommended resolution)
– External D-sub Video Input
– Internal USB touch screen input
Remote Control Unit
MonCaso Remote
Control
Rear Fan
2 x 80mm (pre-installed)
External 5.25″ Bay
1
External 3.5″ Bay
0
Internal 3.5″ Bay
4
Expansion Slots
6
Front Panel I/O
– Mic Jack
– Headphone Jack
– IEEE1394 (Firewire)
– USB 2.0
– Media Card Reader
– Volume Knob,
– 10 Media Control Buttons
Operating System
Windows 98 /
ME / 2000 / XP / XP MCE / VISTA
Accessories
– Screw Driver
– Assemble Screw
– AAA Battery
Weight
16.6 lbs (w/o
package)

DESIGN AND LAYOUT

The large size of the case means there is room for a full ATX motherboard,
a full tower heatsink, and up to four hard drives. There’s also plenty of room
to work. The case is laid out like a conventional ATX case laid on its side,
with appropriate modifications to the drive bays so the optical drive comes
out horizontally. The power supply is also flipped so that a 120mm power supply
will suck fresh air in from the side of the case rather than waste heat from
the CPU.


Lots of space to work with: Motherboard on the left, drives on the right.

The case breathes very well. The air vents are well placed and plentiful. A
pair of 80mm fans on the back panel provide most of the airflow through the
case. Two more fans pump air into the front of the case over the drive bays.

The main source of air in most configurations will be two sizable vents on
the top panel directly over the CPU socket and graphics card. There is some
potential for a short-circuit in the airflow here, but given the vents’ proximity
to the major heat sources, this is probably not a major problem. However, it
does mean that the inner edge of the motherboard will receive less airflow than
usual. Depending on the layout and cooling system of the motherboard, chipset
cooling could be a concern.


The top panel features vents above the CPU socket and expansion cards.

What air does get pulled over the chipset will most likely come from a vent
on the bottom panel under the front left drive bay. There are a large number
of wires running over top of it that could be restrictive, so neat cable management
could be important here. In addition to cooling the chipset, it should also
ensure that the front of the case isn’t just dead air. It would probably be
wise to favor the left side of the case when installing drives, as the right
side lacks a similar vent.


This vent on the bottom panel should help prevent dead air in the front of
the case.

There are also intake vents on all four corners. With the exception of the
vent reserved for the power supply, all are heavily restricted by wire mesh
filters. The cosmetic aluminum bars on the side panel also block a lot of air.
It’s unlikely that much air will flow through them unless the rear fans are
turned up to an unacceptably noisy level. The filters can be removed with a
screwdriver and a bit of effort, but unless air is specifically needed near
one of these vents it’s probably not worth the trouble. The case is not otherwise
starved for airflow, and it’s unlikely that unblocking the vents would have
much effect on the overall case temperatures.

The two exhaust fans are on the left; the power supply
goes in the empty space on the right.

 

Note the heavy wire mesh over this vent beside the
PCI slots. It can easily be removed for better airflow.

Two of the corner vents feed the drive bays in the front of the case. Both
bays feature 80mm fans that pull air through the side vents. The amount of airflow
required to cool hard drives is minimal, so the fans don’t need to spin quickly,
but it is still a good idea to remove the filters as mentioned above; this should
improve turbulence noise as well as reducing impedance.

The bottom vent is visible underneath, but the main
source of cooling is the fan mounted inside the drive bay.

DRIVE BAYS

The drive bay itself is a separate piece screwed to the chassis with three
screws. It is easy to remove, and nearly impossible to work in without taking
it out. The cooling fan is screwed to the bay itself, not the side of the case,
which makes it easy to swap it out if required.


A thermally controlled fan is built into the drive bay.

While the two internal bays are easy to work with, the same cannot be said
for the optical drive bay, which is located at the bottom of the case, underneath
both of the internal bays. Like the internal bays, it needs to be removed before
a drive can be installed. This is a big job: First the two internal bays must
be removed, and then six more screws, four of which are awkwardly located, must
be undone. Ideally, this should be done without the motherboard in place so
there is room to maneuver the bay back into place under the LCD screen..


The optical drive bay.


The case looks a lot emptier without the drive bays installed.

FANS

All four of the included fans are identical. Judging from the
model number, they are low speed and sleeve bearing, but the original manufacturer
could not be determined. The electrical rating of 0.14A is very high for a low
speed fan. If we had to guess, we’d estimate the maximum speed at 2,000~2,500
RPM. All four are thermally controlled, with the thermistor located about half
an inch off the outer frame.

Although they bear the same model number, the two rear fans differ
from the drive bay fans in one important respect: Header type. The exhaust fans
are intended to run off the power supply using Molex connectors, while the two
drive bay fans use the 3-pin header found on most motherboards.


This mysterious label leaves no clue as to the original manufacturer.

INSTALLATION

The photo below does a good job of summing up the installation process. It
involves cables. Lots of them. By and large, the most difficult work has already
been done; the various gadgets on the front panel are all wired to each other
correctly, and have reasonably well labeled cables ready to be hooked up to
the motherboard. With the possible exception of the control buttons, all of
the cables are more than long enough. This is a good thing, as the sheer volume
of cables made routing them a nightmare. Think the cable nest on back side of
your home theater compressed into the case itself. There are cables going to
and from everywhere, and it requires considerable foresight and planning to
prevent them from tangling.

There are a total of separate connections that need to be made for a complete
installation:

  • Front Audio Ports
  • Front USB Port
  • Front Firewire Port
  • Internal USB connection for flash card reader
  • Internal USB connection for IR port
  • Internal USB connection for touchscreen
  • Power switch connection to motherboard
  • Power connection for IR port (tapped from the Main ATX connector for +5VSB)
  • Molex Power connection for LCD monitor
  • Molex Power connection for blue power LED around the power button
  • VGA connection for the touchscreen


Every one of these cables needs to be hooked up.

Although the instruction manual is detailed and well illustrated, it is very
easy to miss one of these connections. Making matters worse is the fact that
it’s quite easy to pull out some of the pre-installed cables by accident while
working with the drive bays. We learned this from experience after we accidentally
disconnected the power switch and spent half an hour panicking about whether
or not our motherboard had died.

You’ll need a motherboard with at least four internal USB ports to get everything
working, so if you intend to install the USB backplate that comes with most
motherboards, you’ll want to spring for a high end model that has a couple extra
ports available.

The empty socket on the far left taps the +5VSB signal
on the power supply and allows the system to be turned on via remote control.
The far right cable is the power switch, and is very easy to pull
off accidentally.

Installing the drives is a matter of sliding the drives into one or both of
the drive bays and screwing them into place. The drives have about an inch of
play, allowing them to be pressed flush against the cooling fan or extended
out into the center of the case. From a cooling perspective, it’s probably best
to leave a gap between the drives and the fan, but pushing the drives too far
out will most likely cause space issues for cables if both drive bays are in
use. The best configuration depends on the number of drives in use, but somewhere
in the middle should work most of the time.

Be sure to leave a gap between the hard drives and
the fan. Note the green thermistor poking up from the corner of the fan.


With four drives installed, there will be very little room in the middle
for cables.

Aside from the cable issues, the Moncaso is a dream to work in. It’s wide open
and very large. We had no problem maneuvering the motherboard into place even
with the CPU heatsink pre-installed, and there are no riser cards to futz around
with, making the graphics card a piece of cake.


Fully installed.

However, as the photo above shows, finding a place to put all the spare cables
is a challenge. Even using cable-ties to form bundles of spare cable didn’t
do much more than contain the worst of the mess. The worst section is shown
in the photo below.


A cable nest may be inevitable…

TOUCHSCREEN AND iMON SOFTWARE

Like most of the other high end HTPC enclosures we’ve seen, the MonCaso comes
with an alternative to Windows MCE called iMon. We
looked at iMon in connection with Zalman’s TNN-300 case
, but the software
has progressed significantly since then. A number of improvements have been
made, notably TV recording, better support for network storage, and the ability
to DirectShow codec filters instead of iMon’s — effectively supporting
almost any file that will play back on Windows. It has also added an extensive
news application that gathers headlines from RSS feeds and displays them —
effectively, it’s a web browser that uses a remote control rather than a mouse
and keyboard for its interface.

Another feature we haven’t seen before is an application called FrontView that
allows the front LCD screen to be used to navigate media. Under ordinary circumstances,
iMon displays a passive stream of system information, weather, and news headlines
on the front panel. Running FrontView makes the screen interactive; it essentially
parallels the functionality of iMon on the front LCD screen with the most complex
sections (settings, database management) disabled. It draws on the same media
database, but navigates it in a way appropriate to a small, front-mounted screen
rather than a full-sized TV.

FrontView is best suited to for playing back audio and other uses where the
screen is needed for occasional navigation rather than viewing full-sized video.
It provides a quick, always-active display of what the system is doing, even
when the main display is being used for something else or it’s just too much
trouble to turn on the TV just to advance to the next album. Navigation can
be done via remote control, the control buttons on the case itself, or the touchscreen,
but the interface heavily favors the remote control, and navigating with the
touchscreen stylus is downright clumsy.

As it happens, the touchscreen component of our sample was dead on arrival,
so we could only guess at what the full functionality was, but it was clear
that the interface was designed to be scrolled through with a remote control,
not jabbed at with a stylus. If you do choose to use the touchscreen for audio
navigation, it may be easiest to bypass the FrontView software entirely and
revert to a convention, mouse-navigated audio program like Winamp or iTunes.

Alternately, a small wireless keyboard with appropriate keymapping software
might work even better, since it could operate from a distance. An earlier revision
of the Moncaso actually included such a keyboard, but it has been dropped as
a cost cutting measure. Presumably, the number of users who wanted to deal with
a wireless keyboard in their living room was too small to justify jacking up
the retail price by $100.

THERMAL & ACOUSTIC TESTING

Thermals and noise comprise the core of most SPCR equipment reviews. A fairly
hot system was put together to stress the thermal performance of the Moncaso
without going overboard. The base components are listed below.

ASUS
M2N32-SLI Deluxe
motherboard
One of the first AM2 motherboards we saw, this is also one of the hottest
and most power hungry boards out there, thanks largely to the 32 full PCI
Express lanes that it supports. The target market is high end gamers, so it’s
a bit of a mismatch for an HTPC case, but it does the job, and it’s passively
cooled to boot.

AMD
Athlon 64 X2 5000+
processor
This was the hottest, fastest non-FX processor that AMD produced when the
AM2 Socket was launched, and it’s still the hottest AMD chips we’ve used to
date. The TDP is rated for 89W, and for once we believe it — practical
measurements have showed that the difference in system power between
idle and load is almost 90W!

Corsair
XMS2
2 x 1024MB DDR2 matched dual channel memory.

Samsung Spinpoint SP2504C
250GB SATA 3.5″ hard drive
One of the quietest 3.5″ desktop drives we know of. At idle, it measures ~21
dBA@1m. The drive remained unused throughout testing; it was installed under
the assumption that an HTPC needs at least one big media drive.

Seagate Momentus 7200.1
ST910021AS
100GB SATA notebook hard drive
The system drive. It’s quieter than most 3.5″ drives but noisier
than most notebook drives thanks to the speedy 7,200 RPM spindle speed.

LG
GSA-H22N DVD±RW drive

Seasonic S12-430
Our favorite quiet power supply.

XFX
GeForce GF6800XT 128 MB
video card with Zalman
VF900 VGA cooler
at 5V. The SPL of this HSF at 5V measures 20 dBA@1m.
It sounds a bit like a whispery rubbing of paper.

nMedia IceTank CPU Heatsink
modified with a Nexus 92mm fan, controlled by the motherboard set to “Silent”
Mode

There are better coolers than the IceTank for sure, but its low profile has
made it our de facto standard for testing HTPC cases, which often don’t have
room for the bigger, better heatsinks out there. The IceTank struggles with
low airflow, so it’s fairly certain that the motherboard will crank it up
to full speed when the system is stressed.

Windows XP Pro SP2 was installed and fully updated, and our usual gamut of
software tools installed:

Other tools:

TEST RESULTS

Ambient conditions were 21°C and 18 dBA.

The system was initially configured by plugging in all the case fans in stock
form, without doing any kind of speed control. As noted, the fans are thermally
controlled, so our hope was that the baseline noise level would be acceptable
without any extra modification. One of the two drive bay fans was damaged in
our sample; its bearings ticked noisily, so we decided to disable the fan during
testing. Unless all four drive bays are full, it’s unlikely that both would
be necessary anyway. For the initial test, the full-size storage drive was left
unplugged to keep the hard drive out of the equation. The system drive, a notebook
drive suspended in one of the drive bays, was too quiet to affect the results.

Thermal Test Results: Moneual Moncaso, Configuration
#1
System State
CPU
GPU
HDD
System Power
Noise (SPL)
Cold
N/A
N/A
N/A
N/A
30 dBA@1m
Idle (Cool’n’Quiet)
30°C
43°C
33°C
105W
33 dBA@1m
2 x CPUBurn
65°C
46°C
33°C
198W
34 dBA@1m
2 x CPUBurn +
RTHDRIBL
62°C
58°C
33°C
213W
34 dBA@1m

Configuration #1

The Moncaso was borderline quiet on boot. The fans spun just around the threshold
where motor whine becomes an issue, so the noise character was mostly the
whoosh of air turbulence, with a low-pitched hum in the background. It wasn’t
an offensive noise, but the amount of airflow noise was pretty substantial.

Within a few minutes of booting, the thermal conditions inside the case had
boosted the system fan speed to the point where the motor hum began to dominate.
The measured noise difference was a small 3 dBA@1m, but the subjective difference
was substantial; the noise was now tonal instead of broadband, making it much
harder to ignore.

That’s the bad. The good is that, once stabilized, the fan speed barely moved,
even under sustained CPU load. The amount of heat in the system nearly doubled,
but the 1 dBA@1m increase in noise was barely measurable. Thermal control?
What thermal control? Needless to say, pushing the heat up a further 15W by
engaging the graphics card had no effect on noise whatsoever.

Thermally, the Moncaso was perfectly adequate. The temperatures we saw were
in line with the results we’ve seen in most other well-cooled systems. The
65°C load temperature was hot, but that’s more of a reflection of our
choice of heatsink and fan than a strike against the case itself. We refer
you to our review of Zalman’s
HD135 case
for an example of what happens when case airflow isn’t
sufficient.

Configuration #2

The thermal performance we saw in the first test convinced us there was some
headroom to turn the fan speed down, so that’s what we did. Certainly, there
was some space for acoustic improvement! The two exhaust fans on the back
panel were undervolted to 7V, while the fan in the drive bay was dropped to
5V.

Thermal Test Results: Moneual Moncaso, Configuration
#2
System State
CPU
GPU
HDD
System Power
Noise (SPL)
Idle (Cool’n’Quiet)
31°C
45°C
33°C
103W
25 dBA@1m
2 x CPUBurn
66°C
47°C
42°C
196W
27 dBA@1m

The results in the second test were nearly identical to the first test, confirming
our suspicion that the system fans were spinning far faster than necessary
in our configuration. The only substantial difference was the temperature
of the hard drive, which jumped nearly 10°C. It should be noted that this
drive — the system drive — was mounted in the bay with the damaged
fan so the rise in temperature probably had more to do with its distance from
the active fan than the speed of the fan itself.

Under load, it took more than an hour before we heard any change in noise.
The noise level eventually settled 2 dBA@1m higher than idle, but it’s unlikely
that typical usage would push the system hard enough to create such a large
change. In reality, the fan speed probably would have remained unchanged.

The acoustic improvement was substantial. The measured noise dropped by 8
dBA@1m, and the noise character smoothed out enough to fade into the background.
Although it is far from the quietest system we’ve seen, 25 dBA@1m is acceptably
quiet. It won’t be inaudible in a quiet living room, but it will easily be
drowned out by any sound effects or music.

Configuration #3

Thermal Test Results: Moneual Moncaso, Configuration
#3
System State
HDD
System Power
Noise (SPL)
Idle (Cool’n’Quiet)
33°C
113W
26 dBA@1m
HDD Seek
33°C
117W
30 dBA@1m

Our last configuration threw the full-sized storage drive into the mix to
see how well the drive bays handled drive noise. Given the relatively high
noise level of the system, we did not expect to hear a major change, so we
were surprised to see measured noise jump up. Close listening confirmed that
there seemed to be slightly more noise, but the overall noise character did
not change.

Seek noise was considerably worse. Hard-mounted in the drive bay, the seeks
produced a rumble that was clearly audible above the background fan noise.
The peaks measured 30 dBA@1m, nudging just above our (admittedly arbitrary)
30 dBA@1m threshold between noisy and quiet. There’s no question that things
could be improved by some method of soft-mounting the drive.

MP3 RECORDINGS

  • Moneual Moncaso 932 — Config 1 (System default) @ idle: 33 dBA@1m:
    One Meter
  • Moneual Moncaso 932 — Config 1 (System default) @ load: 34 dBA@1m:
    One Meter
  • Moneual Moncaso 932 — Config 2 (Reduced Fan Speed) @ idle: 25
    dBA@1m: One Meter
  • Moneual Moncaso 932 — Config 2 (Reduced Fan Speed) @ load: 27
    dBA@1m: One
    Meter
  • Moneual Moncaso 932 — Config 3 (Media Drive Enabled) @ HDD seek:
    30 dBA@1m: One
    Meter

Sound Recordings of Comparative Systems

  • Antec NSK-3480 — 42~85W 24 dBA@1m: One
    Meter
  • Antec NSK-3480 — 135~193W 25 dBA@1m: One
    Meter
HOW TO LISTEN & COMPARE

These recordings were made
with a high resolution, studio quality, digital recording system and are
intended to represent a quick snapshot of what we heard during the review.
Two recordings of each noise level were made, one from a distance of one
meter
, and another from one foot away.

The one meter recording is
intended to give you an idea of how the subject of this review sound 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!

The one foot recording is
designed to bring out the fine details of the noise. Use this recording
with caution! Although more detailed, it may not represent how the subject
sounds in actual use. It is best to listen to this recording after you
have listened to the one meter recording.

More details about how we
make these recordings can be found in our short article: Audio
Recording Methods Revised
.

CONCLUSIONS

The Moncaso 932 certainly has potential. Its large size and colorful touchscreen
make it a showpiece rather than an unobtrusive box, but in a high-end home theater
(the target market), that may be desirable. The thermal design is probably its
best feature. It is well ventilated, and there are vents in all the right places.
There should be no cooling issues with the case if the rest of the system is
properly built. And, if the fans are replaced with quieter models, it shouldn’t
be too tough to silence, though the hard-mounted hard drives could cause problems.
Our recommendation: Network storage, with the system installed on a quiet, suspended
notebook drive.

While the touchscreen was a nice gadget and a useful addition for audio applications,
it was not the solution to navigating-by-remote that we hoped it might be. The
FrontView software provided with the screen was clearly designed for use with
a remote, not a stylus. Even if our sample had been working, it’s difficult
to see how it would have improved usability. What’s really needed is a small,
wireless touchscreen that can take the place of a remote control, but
VGA-over-wireless is still a pipe dream at the moment. (Side note: Apple’s
iPod is currently the best known interface for navigating media in a handheld
device. The iPod Touch had Bluetooth. Sooner or later, someone will figure out
that the iPod touch would make an excellent HTPC remote control and write an
appropriate application.)

Even without the touchscreen functionality, the LCD screen minus the touchscreen
is a nice feature to have. A secondary screen to display metadata while the
main screen shows a video is a feature worth paying for, as is the ability to
navigate without using an external screen. A full size LCD is vastly superior
to a four-line VFD in this regard. Our advice to Moneual: Lose the touchscreen
until software support improves and go with a regular LCD.

All in all, the Moncaso has enough good points that it will probably do well
in its target high end market, but it needs better fans to win us over completely.
A more advanced mounting system for the drives would also help. Moneual has
already tweaked the case before our sample revised, so our hope is that they
are listening and will release a new revision at some point in the future.

Many thanks to Moneual
for supplying the Moncaso
932 sample.

* * *

Articles of Related Interest
Zalman’s HD135 HTPC Case: Gasping
for Air

Zalman TNN-300 Fanless PC Enclosure System
Antec NSK2400 / Fusion Media PC Case
Zalman HD160 Home Theater Enclosure
Cases: Basics and Recommendations

* * *

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