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Silverstone LC-11 media PC case

It is slick and sleek, pretty and small, with an odd twist borne out of functional (cooling) need: The motherboard goes in upside down. Supplied with a small 240W PSU and two 80mm fans, the LC-11 is pretty quiet, too, especially if you take care, but it takes only Micro-ATX boards. Ralf Hutter tries a Pentium M system in this case — with nice results.

March 24, 2005 by Ralf
Hutter

with Mike Chin and Devon Cooke in the SPCR Audio Lab

Product
LC-11
Micro-ATX PC case
Manufacturer
Silverstone
Price
~ $160USD

Silverstone is associated with stylish, mostly aluminum cases. We’ve reviewed some Silverstone cases in the past, including some that we considered excellent. They released the LC-11 a few months ago: A sleek low profile case for Micro-ATX boards.

The Silverstone LC-11 came to our attention as a possible option for a project to build two of the quietest possible Home Theater or Media PCs. We wanted to compare a Pentium M system against an Athlon 64-939 (Winchester core) system, using as many of the same components as possible, including the case. In the end, the LC-11 was rejected due to the lack of 939 boards in M-ATX form factor, but it is definitely worth a review.


The usual sturdy, high quality Silverstone packaging…


…contains one of these beauties.

The aluminum front bezel looks absolutely sumptuous. It includes
a stealthed DVD-rom drive bay cover on the right, four
USB 2.0 connectors on the left and Power On and Reset switches, a Power
LED and an HDD activity LED in a slightly concave wood-grained center inset. The wood-grained part looks better than it sounds. As with some other recent case designs, only the front bezel is aluminum, the rest of the chassis being made of fairly sturdy steel. We think this is an intelligent combination of good looks, sturdy design and modest construction cost.


Clean minimalist design to go with the rest of your AV gear.


A Firewire port
and a set of audio I/O jacks on the left edge of the front panel.

DESIGN

The LC-11 has an interesting design twist: It places the motherboard upside down on
the “ceiling” of the case. There is a large mesh vent on the bottom panel, directly opposite where the CPU lies. The grill actually covers
the entire area of the CPU and NB on a typical motherboard. This is sort of a creative interpretation of Intel’s “Chassis Air Guide
specification, but applied in a way to keep the profile of the case as
low as possible. Here are a couple of picutres.


This view shows the case on its right side.
The back panel opening for the I/O panel of the motherboard is visible through the large square bottom vent.


Head-on view of the bottom showing large intake vent and A/V-style feet, with the case on its front panel.

If the case had been designed with a conventional bottom-mounting for the motherboard, the vent opposite the CPU would have been on the top of the case. In such a conventional design, a “normal” down-blowing heatsink fan would be fighting rising convection, and the components would be at risk from dust and other foreign matter (a drink?!) falling into the case. The bottom intake vent makes sense, even though the idea of a heatsink “hanging” off the motherboard gives one pause. You probably don’t want to choose a CPU cooler whose mounting system is at all questionable or one that is very heavy. In combination with the extra spacing provided by the sturdy A/V gear style feet, the bottom vent appears well thought out.


Side exhaust fan and grill.

The left side of the case features only the exhaust grill for
the included 80mm fan. The grill is quite unrestricted and should contribute
little noise to the system exhaust. The right side is completely sealed.


Rear of case showing small PSU, AGP/PCI card slots rotated 90°.

The rear of the case is a little unusual because the layout
is “upside-down” and also because the AGP/PCI slots are seemingly parallel
to the motherboard. In actuality, Silverstone includes a neat PCB riser
assembly that allow one to mount a full size AGP card and two full size PCI
cards on their sides. This serves to keep the overall profile of the
case as low as possible. The spacing and alignment between the two joined PCBs could be tricky, but it fit perfectly well in the motherboard used for testing.


Included AGP/PCI riser.


LC-11 accessories include a nice manual, IEC power cord and box with AGP/PCI
riser and screws
.

INSIDE THE LC-11

Air is designed to enter from the lower
front of the bezel, pulled in by an 80mm fan.
It then flows toward the motherboard. There are two exhaust fans:

  • A side mounted, 80mm
    fan that draws some air over the CPU, NB and memory section of the board before blowing it out.
  • The 240W PSU uses an 80mm x 15mm fan to pull
    the case air into it, then blows it out through
    the rear panel PSU grill.

The rather large screen on the bottom of the case is designed
as an air intake for the CPU fan. This allows cool outside air to be used
to directly cool the CPU, as long as the heatsink fan is oriented to blow
air down onto the CPU itself.



Interior view. Note front intake fan, exhaust fan on side and small PSU.


Removable 3.5″ drive cage has room for two standard HDDs….


…but a single suspended 2.5″ Samsung notebook
drive was used instead.

The case includes space for mounting up to three 3.5″ HDDs. Two spaces
are supplied by the easily removable drive cage located at the left front of
the chassis, the other is underneath the 5.25″ optical drive cage at the
right front of the chassis. For this review, I opted to use the space provided
by the 3.5″ cage to mount a super-quiet 2.5″ 40GB Samsung notebook
drive, using a suspension made from 1.8mm Stretch-Magic. This setup allows the
drive to run virtually silent. If more storage space is needed, it can be provided
by external network storage, thus keeping the basic system itself as quiet as possible.


Front intake fan. Fan is tailed with 4-pin Molex connector
.

The stock front intake fan is an 80mm Everflow/Silverstone branded fan.
It pulls outside air in through a small set of nine intake vents on the base
of the front bezel, and then through the steel front chassis grill. The fan
comes tailed with a 4-pin Molex connector and pass-through connector, and has no rpm monitoring ability. Oddly, the side fan, which is labelled identically, has a single 3-pin connector with RPM sensing.

SYSTEM BUILD

The small LC-11 isn’t as easy to work with as a more typical mid
tower case. Ease of assembly
is somewhat sacrificed for low profile and stacking ability.
Its proprietary airflow design means care must be given
to the arrangement of the hardware in the media equipment case. You really don’t want it directly over a big hot AV amplifier.

Starting with a Pentium
M processor that draws only ~21W greatly reduces any potential thermal
problems, but some thought also had to go into
the choice of the rest of the hardware as well. A 2.5″ notebook drive was
chosen for low thermal and sonic output, along with a low-powered passive
videocard. I had initially planned to use the
passively cooled ATi-Sapphire 9600 Ultimate, but the design and positioning
of the AGP riser card was not compatible. The
riser card positions the AGP card only about 1/4″ from the bottom
edge of the case and the passive heatsink of the 9600 Ultimate protrudes
almost 1/2″ above the PCB. A passively cooled
ATi-9250 video card was pressed into service. There are two open PCI slots included on the Silverstone riser
so there shouldn’t be any issues with a TV-tuner and/or PCI sound card. A fairly
quiet (and great performing) Plextor PX-716 DVD-RW drive was also used.

The assembly was reasonably straightforward, but a little extra planning was needed. I used a modified Zalman 7000AlCu
heatsink, which just barely overhangs the top edge of the motherboard. A few fins rubbed up against the side case fan; I ended up removing the board and bending the fins to clear the case fan.

As noted above, the HDD cage was used with a 2.5″ notebook
drive suspended within it. The design of the
cage would require a 3.5″ drive to be hard-mounted to the steel cage
and allow drive vibration to be transferred into the case.
The drive cage snaps and screws into place. It is a pretty tight fit once the
motherboard is installed, especially if any cables are already attached to the
drive.

Installing the optical drive was a bit of fun due to the
location of the screw mounts. No magnetic tip screwdriver in my toolbox, but a set of tweezers
saved the day. The optical drive itself mounted up precisely
in the correct place for the stealth drive cover and button. This drive bay door is constructed of aluminum,
like the rest of the front bezel, and it is equipped with very sexy damped
hinges.

The PSU comes pre-mounted into the case, and has plenty of connectors
to accommodate the limited amount of hardware that will fit into the case. One
warning:
The voltage selector on my US review sample was set to
“230V”. Fortunately I noticed this
and set it to the “110V” setting before I ruined anything.

The AGP/PCI riser card mounts very firmly to the case
and motherboard, thanks to its sturdy design. However,
as already noted above, the riser card positions the AGP card very close
to the bottom cover of the case, which will preclude the use of many oversize cards.


Front view of assembled system.
Remember that you’re actually looking at the underside
of the case in this view

The LC-11 comes with a plethora of wiring for all the front I/O devices. There
are a pair of USB 2.0 connectors for four ports total, a Firewire connector,
audio I/O connectors and a complete set of front panel switch and light connectors.
All worked quite well, with the added bonus that the USB and Firewire connector
blocks happened to be configured perfectly correctly to plug right into the
headers on my motherboard. This is a nice treat, as often these connectors
are wired in a non-standard fashion.


Rear of assembled system. Note AGP card on riser
.


AGP card on riser. Due to its location, there’s
no room on the back of the card for any passive heat sink.

TEST PLATFORM

Intel Pentium M 755 – 2.0GHz Dothan core – run at 1.100V
for this test
Sapphire ATI Radeon 9250 passively cooled video card (AGP)
Mushkin PC3200 Level II – 2 x 512MB DDRAM @ 2-2-2-5, 333MHz
Samsung MP0402H 2.5″ 5400rpm, 8MB cache notebook
hard drive
Plextor PX-716A DVD±R/RW CD-R/RW internal E-IDE (ATAPI) drive
Arctic Silver Ceramique Thermal Compound

TEST TOOLS

CPUBurn processor stress software
Motherboard Monitor 5.3.7.0 software to track CPU temperature
and fan speed
Seasonic Power
Angel
power monitor used to measure system power usage

Ambient temperature was measured at 21°C over the entire series
of tests. No tests were run unless the ambient temperature was at that reference
level.

  • All temperatures in degrees Celsius.
  • Diode: Reading from Pentium M 755 CPU diode via Motherboard Monitor 5.
    Diode was calibrated on each board using the standard SPCR
    CPU Diode Calibration method
    .
  • Temp Rise refers to the difference between ambient temperature and
    the diode reading.
  • °C/W refers to the °C of temperature rise per watt of heat
    dissipated by the CPU.

ON THE TEST BENCH

I was a bit apprehensive
about the LC-11’s cooling abilities. It’s obviously designed to be utilized
as an HTPC, which means that it should run pretty quiet, but, on the other hand,
the cramped layout and alternative airflow design could cause problems
with good ventilation. I tried to ameliorate this as much as possible by running
hardware with a very low thermal output, but the results of my planning wouldn’t
be known until I could fire up the system for testing.


Finished system. Things are pretty cramped in there.

As already described in a previous article,
the Nexus-modified Zalman 7000AlCu running at 5V works stunningly well with
the AOpen 855GMe-LFS motherboard + 2GHz Pentium M CPU.
Prior to building the system, I tested the stock fans at 12V, 7V and 5V,
and found them too loud for my taste at both 12V and 7V, so I started off by
setting the two included 80mm fans down to 5V. I also tested the PSU fan prior
to assembling the system, and it was marginally quiet at its default speed.

After I finished assembling the LC-11, I fired it up, installed
Windows XP SP2 and the basic drivers and OS updates, as well as Motherboard
Monitor
to monitor the system temperatures. Prime95 was run for 48 hours
to check stability and for any potential thermal problems. The system ran great
and temperatures were ridiculously low.

At this point, CPUBurn was run to check
the maximum system temperatures and power draw. The data in the
chart below was recorded after running CPUBurn for 30 minutes, after the
temps were perfectly stable. The Seasonic Power Angel showed a maximum system AC power draw of 50W while
using CPUBurn. Interestingly, the Power Angel reported a system power draw of
55W when burning DVDs using the Plextor burner.


LC-11
System Load Temps, using CPUBurn

Component

Load Temp.

°C
rise

Board Sensor

33°C

12°C

CPU temp

34°C

13°C

HDD temp

32°C

11°C

NOISE ANALYSIS

Since it’s designed
to be used as an HTPC, the LC-11 should certainly be quiet, but perhaps it is not as critical as with a desktop system.
My reasoning is twofold.

  • #1: As a HTPC, the system itself will probably
    be positioned at least 6-10 feet away from the user in a family room or living
    room whereas a typical desktop system might be running only
    a few feet away from the user.
  • #2: Since the HTPC is, by definition,
    designed to be used in a multimedia setting, there will usually
    be some noise generated by the media itself. In short,
    absolute silence isn’t necessarily required from an HTPC. My guess is that 25-30 dBA
    @ 1 meter SPL should be more than sufficient to keep the noise of the computer itself
    quieter than the ambient room noise when a movie or a television show is being watched.

This Pentium M-based system could be run with the included
case fans at 5V for extreme quiet and low system temperatures.
At 5V, the stock case fans were pretty quiet, similar to an 80mm Panaflo L1A running at 7V. If I wanted to mod the case with this system, I
am sure I could swap out the fans for a set of 5V L1A’s, or something equally
quiet, and still have excellent case cooling.

The PSU fan never ramped
up in speed, no matter what load the system was under. The PSU fan has no tachometer
output, so directly monitoring its speed was not possible. The noise of the
PSU fan was slightly intrusive, certainly the noisiest fan in the entire system.
With the case closed, it was fairly easy to hear from 5-6 feet away. The objectionable
part of its noise consisted a a fairly high-pitched whine that seemed to be
undamped by the case. The air exhausting from the rear of the PSU was moderately
warm so I would be hesitant to open up the PSU and lower the fan speed.


Silverstone LC-11 PSU TEST RESULTS

DC Output (W)

65

90

150

240

AC Input (W)

88

118

197

314

Efficiency

74%

77%

76%

76%

Intake Temp (°C)

21

24

26

29

PSU Exhaust (°C)

27

32

35

39

Noise (dBA/1m)


22



23



34



36


Power Factor

0.66

0.66

0.67

0.68

NOTE: The ambient temperature during testing
varies a few degrees from review to review. Please take this into account
when comparing PSU test data.

The above table was compiled by Mike Chin and Devon Cooke in the Vancouver lab, using the well-documented PSU test rig. You can see why the PSU in this case never ramped up in my test system; the AC power could have doubled and the fan still would not have ramped up. The efficiency achieved at the low 65W and 90W DC output levels are pretty good, considering the unassuming look and role of this OEM PSU.

Mike and Devon also outfitted another LC-11 sample with all the same noise makers in it running at the same settings as my test system. This setup was used to measure and record the noise using the Vancouver lab audio equipment. The comparisons below are admittedly an unfair; the other cases don’t have the benefit of a <60W AC power system. But as you can tell from the PSU results table above, this system would probably get comparably loud if the total heat in the system was raised to >100W AC.

MP3: Silverstone LC-11 test system at any load – 23 dBA @ 1 meter SPL

Comparables:

MP3:
Arctic Cooling Silentium T2 with test system (3.5″ HDD suspended) at idle – 23 dBA/1m

MP3:
Arctic Cooling Silentium T2 (3.5″ HDD suspended) at max load – 34 dBA/1m

MP3: Shuttle SN95G5 SFF system (notebook drive suspended) in idle – 27 dBA/1m

MP3: Shuttle SN95G5 SFF system (notyebook drive suspended) at max load – 30 dBA/1m

HOW TO LISTEN & COMPARE

These recordings were made with a high
resolution studio quality digital recording system. The microphone was 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 was 18 dBA or
lower. It is best to download the sound files to your computer before listening.

To set the volume to a realistic level (similar to the original), try playing this Nexus 92mm case fan @ 5V (17 dBA/1m)
recording and set the volume so that it is barely audible. Then don’t reset the volume and play the other sound files. Of course, all tone controls and other effects should be turned off or set to neutral. For full details on how to calibrate your sound system playback level to get the most
valid listening comparison, please see the yellow text box entitled Listen to
the Fans
on page four of the article
SPCR’s Test / Sound Lab: A Short Tour.

CONCLUSIONS

Since the LC-11 is aimed at the HTPC market, certain design concessions have
been made for the low profile and A/V-compatible styling. These concessions impair the airflow and usability of the
case somewhat.

With a low-powered CPU and video card, this case works just great. The ventilation
is fine for a low powered system, and the case fans could actually be replaced
with even slower, quieter versions. The PSU fan, while not super quiet, is probably
adequate for most and never ramped up in speed under load.

Although not tested in this mode, a higher powered CPU, vidcard and hotter-running
optical drive may well be a bit too much for this case. The ventilation, while
perfectly fine for a low-powered system, would probably be borderline adequate for
a system using >3X times the power of this Pentium M setup. The stock case fans,
while potent enough at 5V to cool a low powered system, are actually flowing
little air and would quite likely need to be run at higher voltages to provide
enough airflow to cool a hotter running system. At >7V, these fans aren’t particularly
quiet.

Overall, this is a good case and will work fine with a lower powered
system. Its styling and size should help it blend right in to a typical A/V
rack system and the low noise will also help keep it unobtrusive.

PROS

* Excellent, low key styling
* Good airflow design
* Large selection of front I/O ports
* Well designed riser card and support
* Stealthed optical drive cover and button
* Room for up to three 3.5″ drives

CONS

* PSU fan a bit too loud especially when warm
* No room for passive vidcard heatsinks
* M-ATX form factor restricts choices
* No damping for 3.5″ HDD mounting

Much thanks to Silverstone
for the opportunity
to review the LC-11.

* * *

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