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Viako Mini Letter ML-80 H61 Sandy Bridge Barebones PC

The Mini Letter ML-80 is a slightly larger mini-ITX case than the previous Viako model we reviewed, and the H61 variant integrates a more powerful Sandy Bridge board, with the same front display, remote, and software.

October 26, 2011 by Lawrence Lee

Product Viako Mini Letter ML-80 H61
Barebones PC
Manufacturer Viako
MSRP $349

Our first sample from the Korean manufacturer Viako was an impressively sleek barebones almost perfect for use as a media PC. The Mini Letter ML-45 E-350 was anemically thin, had plenty of connectivity options, and a nice LCD display and remote. At its heart was an integrated AMD Fusion E-350 APU that powered through all types of video smoothly and delivered enough CPU performance to put previous Atom/ION nettop combinations to shame. It’s only major flaw was the use of a low-end motherboard by Giada with VRM circuitry prone to coil whine.


The Mini Letter ML-80.

The second sample to come from Viako is a ML-80 H61, which has a larger case and rather than a motherboard with an integrated APU, it packs a Sandy Bridge model with a real drop-in socket. The enclosure is a simple looking all-aluminum black box with rounded corners measuring 22.0 cm across, 21.5 cm deep, and 8.0 cm tall (8.7 x 8.5 x 3.1 inches for those adverse to the metric system). It has a blank face-plate save for the LCD display, a 50mm exhaust fan graces the right side, and a large vent in the center of the removable top panel acts as the case’s main intake. The power button is housed at the rear but with wake-on-USB and an included remote this shouldn’t be an issue.


Viewed from the back.

The back panel unfortunately is limiting due to the basic mini-ITX H61 chipset motherboard inside (for those unfamiliar with the H61 chipset, it’s basically a cut-down version of H67 with a few less PCI-E lanes and USB ports and no SATA 6 Gbps or RAID). Once again Viako took a budget approach, choosing the ECS H61H2-I2, a mini-ITX model that not only lacks extra features like WiFi and eSATA, but is also missing the all-important HDMI connector. The latter is a baffling omission given how this device shares the same media center dressing as the ML-45.

Editor’s Note: Viako is transitioning from making mini cases and industrial PC to barebones and complete systems. Its primary markets are in Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Israel and England. It’s likely that the vast majority of Viako customers would not using these mini-ITX systems with TVs, where HDMI is an absolute necessity, but rather, <24″ LCD monitors with VGA/DVI connectors and small external self-powered speakers, in small rooms.


Accessories.

The ML-80 ships in a similar “airmail” themed box as the ML-45. The accessories packed inside include a remote control and batteries, a pair of shorter than average SATA cables, and a large external power brick.


AC power adapter.

Most Atom and Fusion based nettops ship with a 60~65W power adapter but for a dual core Sandy Bridge CPU, a 100W model was required. While it has a significantly higher capacity, it bares the same Energy Star “IV” certification mark as the ML-45’s adapter, indicating an efficiency level of 85% above 50W.

Viako Mini Letter ML-80 H61: Specifications
(from the product
web page
)

 

ECS H61H2-I2: Specifications
(from the product
web page
)

INTERIOR & ASSEMBLY

The case and motherboard supports two DDR3 DIMMs, one 2.5″ SATA drive, two fan headers, one 4-pin PWM header and one 3-pin DC header (used by the 50mm exhaust fan), and has power connectors for one floppy, one molex, and one SATA device. We assembled the system with a Core i3-2100, a Scythe Big Shuriken cooler, 4GB of Kingston HyperX memory, and a Seagate Momentus XT hybrid hard drive.


It’s a tight squeeze with the motherboard pressed up almost directly against the circuit board of the power supply/VFD at the front, though some room has been allocated on each side for small vents on the sides of the case floor.


There’s a single 2.5″ drive mount located above the chipset heatsink and mounting holes for another one on the opposite side, but a second frame is not included.


With little room to work we had to install the Scythe Big Shuriken outside the case before squeezing it. It fit with 6 mm to spare making above it, making the total clearance about 64 mm. However the hard drive frame overlapped the fan prevent the hard drive from being installed as intended.


A simple way around this was to orient the hard drive vertically, securing the side of the drive to the mounting frame instead of the bottom.


The grill at the top wasn’t optimally sized for the Shuriken’s fan but provided adequate ventilation.


Assembled and operational.

TEST METHODOLOGY

Test Configuration Components:


Device listing.

 

Measurement and Analysis Tools

  • CPU-Z
    to monitor CPU frequency and voltage.
  • CPUBurn
    processor stress software.
  • Prime95
    processor stress software.
  • ATITool
    artifact scanner to stress the integrated GPU.
  • FurMark
    stability test to stress the integrated GPU.
  • Cyberlink
    PowerDVD
    to play H264/VC1 video
  • Real Temp
    to monitor CPU temperatures.
  • Core Temp
    to monitor CPU temperatures.
  • SpeedFan
    to monitor system temperatures and fan speeds.
  • Seasonic
    Power Angel
    AC power meter, used to measure the power consumption
    of the system
  • Infrared Thermometer to measure external temperatures.

H.264/MKV Video Test Clip

MKV (Matroska) is a very popular online multimedia container
used for high definition content, usually using x264 (a free, open source
H.264 encoder) for video. The clips were taken from two longer videos —
the most demanding one minute portions were used. To play them we use Media
Player Classic Home Cinema which by default utilizes DXVA (DirectX Video
Acceleration) with supported GPUs. For graphics chips that do not support
hardware acceleration for either codec, the software decoder CoreAVC is
used to render using CPU power alone.


1080p | 24fps | ~14mbps

x264 1080p: Spaceship is a 1080p x264 clip encoded from
the Blu-ray version of an animated short film. It features a hapless
robot trying to repair a lamp on a spaceship.

 

Our test procedure is designed to determine the overall system power
consumption at various states (measured using a Seasonic Power Angel). To stress
CPUs we use either Prime95 (large FFTs setting) or CPUBurn depending on which
produces higher system power consumption. To stress the GPU, we use ATITool
or FurMark, which ever application is more power demanding. Temperatures and acoustics are also recorded.

All nonessential pre-installed software is removed prior to testing, and certain
services and features like Superfetch and System Restore are disabled to prevent
them from affecting our results. Aero glass is left enabled if supported. We
also make note if energy saving features like Cool’n’Quiet and SpeedStep do
not function properly.

BIOS & Fan Control

Being a basic mini-ITX model, it’s not surprising the ECS H61H2-I2 had little in the way of BIOS options. Frequency and voltage settings in particular were mostly absent since multiplier overclocking isn’t supported by the H61 chipset, not that it would matter as the power requirements of “K” series processors exceed the rating of the ML-80’s included power adapter.


Automatic fan control options.

About the only speed tweak the board offered was overclocking the graphics chip embedded in the CPU; Along with standard multiplier adjustments, the GPU voltage could be increased up to an impressive 1.0V. There were no usable CPU options however and all memory settings were locked out except for the command rate.


Automatic fan control options.

The fan control menu was more promising with three different presets and customizable settings. The starting speed and temperature was adjustable as was the slope of the fan speed increase though it did require messing with unintuitive PWM values. We found that “Silent” slowed the CPU fan by as much as the board would allow and with the Big Shuriken installed, the temperature never rose high enough for the fan to spin up any faster.


SpeedFan with correlations entered.

Windows users have the option of using SpeedFan to control the CPU fan. Changing the IT8721F chip’s PWM 1 mode value from “SmartGuardian” to “Software controlled” in the Advanced menu enables PWM control. Unfortunately the board doesn’t allow a drastic reduction in speed; The Big Shuriken’s stock fan which runs at 1500 RPM at full speed, had a lower limit of ~820 RPM whether we used SpeedFan or BIOS control. In addition, the secondary 3-pin header lacks control altogether and its speed is not reported either.


With our system assembled inside, the ML-80’s 50mm exhaust fan on its own measured 27 dBA@0.6m.

The 50mm exhaust fan is much noisier than the one found in the ML-45, measuring a fairly high 27 dBA@0.6m. As it runs at high speed, most of the noise generated is from the air turbulence produced which sounds smooth, but underlying that is an annoying rattle generated by the motor that cannot be ignored. However, with a quality cooler like the Big Shuriken, it may be fine to leave it off.

Remote & VFD

Neither the remote or VFD are particularly notable, but the software that ties them together, M.Play MX is quite functional. We covered it our Mini Letter ML-45 review, so please read it for a more detailed description.

Thermal & Acoustic Performance

System Measurements
System State
Temperatures
Power (AC)
SPL @0.6m
CPU
HDD
Ext*
Off
N/A
1W
N/A
Sleep (S3)
2W
Idle
22°C
32°C
28°C
26W
29 dBA
H.264 Playback
24°C
33°C
28°C
32W
CPU Load
49°C
36°C
34°C
69W
CPU + GPU Load
58°C
41°C
36°C
86W
CPU Load
(sys. fan off)
54°C
43°C
35°C
70W
23~24 dBA
CPU + GPU Load (sys. fan off)
64°C
46°C
39°C
87W
Ambient temperature: 21°C.
Ambient noise level: 10~11 dBA.
*External temperature measured using an IR thermometer pointed at the hottest portion of the chassis (near the 50 mm exhaust fan).
Note: disabling the VFD/remote software results in an average power savings of 2W.

The ML-80 proved to run fairly cool with a Core i3-2100 paired with a Scythe Big Shuriken. On full synthetic load the CPU temperature stabilized under 60°C with the CPU fan spinning at the lowest speed allowed by the board’s fan control system. Hard drive temperatures were reasonable as well and the exterior of the case was warm to the touch but not overly so.

The noise level of the system unfortunately was quite high at 29 dBA@0.6m, 4~5 dB higher than the ML-45 Fusion based barebones we reviewed not too long ago. The 50mm exhaust fan was the main reason for this difference, a much louder model than the one included in our previous Mini Letter. Turning it off resulted in a 5~6 dB improvement though we did record 5~7°C rise in internal temperatures, a worthwhile tradeoff.


Our system featuring a Momentus XT and Big Shuriken at ~820 RPM measured 23~24 dBA@0.6m.

With only the hard drive and Scythe Big Shuriken fan generating noise, the acoustics of our ML-80 system were quite smooth. The hard drive emitted a slight hum as one would expect, but the sound of the fan was incredibly soft.

Mini Letter Comparison
Test State
Viako ML-45
(E-350)
Viako ML-80
(i3-2100 + Big Shuriken)
CPU Temp
System Power (AC)
CPU Temp
System Power (AC)
Idle
50°C
17W
25°C
26W
H.264 Playback
58°C
23W
26°C
32W
CPU Load
66°C
26W
54°C
70W
CPU + GPU Load
76°C
34W
64°C
87W
SPL @0.6m
24~25 dBA
23~24 dBA
Ambient temperature: 21°C.
Ambient noise level: 10~11 dBA.

Compared to the Fusion based Mini Letter, the ML-80 consumes about 9W more when idle and playing video. Our build with the Big Shuriken ran quieter and much cooler both on light load and heavy.

Audio Recordings

These recordings were made with a high resolution, lab quality, digital recording
system inside SPCR’s own 11 dBA ambient anechoic chamber, 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.

Each recording starts with ambient noise, then 10 second segments of product
at various states. For the most realistic results,
set the volume so that the starting ambient level is just barely audible, then
don’t change the volume setting again while comparing all the sound files.

Comparable System sound files:

FINAL THOUGHTS

For those interested in a SFF PC, the Viako Mini Letter ML-80 H61 barebones provides a much more powerful platform than the smaller Fusion based Mini Letter ML-45 E-350. An upgrade to a desktop CPU makes the system more responsive and fast enough to perform more advanced tasks. The case is larger to accommodate a bigger heatsink required for Sandy Bridge, but at 8 cm tall we don’t imagine many would complain about its size. The height is enough to fit a quality slim CPU cooler like the Scythe Big Shuriken, which helped create a well cooled and reasonably quiet build. Stock cooling is not recommended as the motherboard’s has a rather high minimum PWM fan speed. Even if the stock heatsink never speeds up, it would be considerably louder than the system we built.

While the ML-80 H61 provides the basic building blocks for a relatively very fast and small machine, the ECS H61H2-I2 motherboard ruins the entire experience by missing a single critical feature: HDMI. The entire device, with its LCD display, remote control, and software is geared toward use as a media PC. In this day and age it seems odd to have to use a DVI to HDMI adapter and pipe out the sound separately to a modern television. The board also lacks the mini PCI-E slots, S/PDIF port, and WiFi and Bluetooth adapters found in the ML-45.

Still, it is important to note that Viako is transitioning from making mini cases and industrial PC to barebones and complete systems. Its primary markets are in Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Israel and England. It’s quite possible that the vast majority of Viako customers are not using these mini-ITX systems with TVs, where HDMI is an absolute necessity, but rather, with VGA/DVI connectors and small external self-powered speakers.

The greater speed makes the ML-80 H61 a splendid compact desktop replacement, but on the whole it’s not tailored properly for its intended purpose. It’s also not as versatile, lacking the connectivity options of its smaller but less powerful brother. Perhaps most disappointing of all is the fact that swapping in a more capable motherboard would instantly transform it into a winner. This isn’t worthwhile for an end-user to do, but Viako also offers the ML-80 case and PSU by itself (with and without the remote). Viako says there are options for fuller featured boards, and they will be offered as they expand into the international markets, especially the US, Canada and EC.

Our thanks to Viako
for the Mini Letter ML-80 H61 sample.

* * *

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* * *

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