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VoodooPC Rage F-50 PC / Zalman TNN-500A Case

When a gaming computer specialist teams with a quiet component leader, you expect the end result to be… the VoodooPC Rage F-50, which wraps a Zalman Fanless TNN-500A case/psu/cooling system around an Athlon A64, ATI9800XT, RAID drives and gobs of fast RAM. Our review of the F-50 System… and the fanless Zalman TNN-500A: It is impossible to write about the former without also discussing the latter.

May 20, 2004 by Mike Chin

Product
VoodooPC Rage F-50 / Zalman TNN-500A
Manufacturer
VoodooPC / Zalman
Price (as configured)
~US$4100

VoodooPC positions itself as a company whose mission is to…

Design and build computer systems using only the highest-quality brand name parts available on the market.

The phrases “Gaming PC” and “PC Gaming System” are part and parcel of the html for their web site, so we know their primary focus: Power and Speed. This approach usually disregards noise; it is secondary to the cooling requirements of power gaming machines, which usually need multiple high speed fans. The PC under review here is something of an anomaly for VoodooPC, however: The Rage F-50 is completely fanless.

To quote again from their web site, here is VoodooPC’s promotional summary:

Voodoo RAGE F-50 Advanced Personal Computer is a totally silent PC featuring *NO FANS* whatsoever. The RAGE F-50 uses a new technology which allows us to eliminate all the fans in your PC, including the Power Supply Fan. Constructed of heavy gauge aluminium, the Voodoo RAGE F-50 is designed for the most discerning PC Buyer. If you’re looking for a PC with amazing performance, luxury aesthetics, and runs silently, then this is certainly the PC for you

The new technology they refer to is known by regular readers of SPCR: It is a customized version of the Zalman TNN-500A case with integrated heatpipe-implemented fanless cooling and fanless power supply. Although the product is from VoodooPC, because of the central role the case plays, this review covers both the Zalman TNN-500A as well as VoodooPC’s Rage F-50. It is impossible to write about the Rage-50 without also writing about the TNN-500A


A first look at the Voodoo RAGE F-50

The VoodooPC logo on the front differentiates it from the standard Zalman offering. There are a few other functional customizations; these include the case-integrated power supply and the VGA cooling system.

RAGE F-50 SAMPLE CONFIGURATION

Case
Customized Zalman TNN-500A
Power Supply
Customized fanless 300W integrated unit in Zalman case
Motherboard
ASUS K8V-Deluxe
Processor
2-GHz Athlon 64 3200+
Memory
1GB DDR400
HDD Controllers
Onboard 2-Ch SATA w/RAID 0 & 1 (2xHD) + 2Ch
ATA100
Hard Drives
Two 120GB IBM/Hitachi 180GXP striped RAID hard drives
Video Card
256MB ATI 9800XT-based graphics card
DVD Drive
Plextor 8X/4X DVD+R/RW, 4X/2X DVD-R/RW, 40X/24X/40X CD-RW
CDRW
Plextor 52X/32X/52X CD-RW
Other Drive
3.5 Floppy
Audio/Sound
Creative Labs Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS
OS
Windows XP Pro SP1
Physical
11.25″(w) x, 16″(d) x 22.5″ (h); 70 lbs.
Warranty
Repair / replace free of charge for labor & parts & two way shipping in North America for one year
Price
US$4100 (with Windows XP Pro)

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The review sample came packed in a big carton, not surprising given the 70 lb weight of the F-50. The hefty metal handles on the top of the case certainly came in handy during unpacking. A lot of gear was included ? a wireless keyboard/mouse combo from Logitech, a slew of cables, and a very fat padded personalized 3-ring binder with software CDs, manuals and other documentation. It was an impressive package, marred only by the really beaten up Styrofoam top and bottom caps for packing materials. Apparently, this was an early sample that had been through the shipping wringer, and VoodooPC assured me that the packaging and packing materials have been improved since the early production runs.

Enough with pedestrian details; let’s jump straight into the heart of the matter: The PC itself. Here is Zalman’s description of their case:

The TNN- 500A consists of two large aluminum heatsink plates. These heatsink plates transfer all heat from the GPU, CPU, etc., to the exterior through natural convection. Since natural convection requires no moving components, a system equipped with TNN 500A is absolutely silent and has an unlimited life cycle. It is also 100% recyclable, making it environmentally friendly.

In fact, the entire case is one giant heatsink. I neglected to measure the thickness of the extruded aluminum panels. I would not be surprised if it was 1/8″, perhaps even thicker. Most of the case is built of this heavy gauge black anodized aluminum. While it is not impervious to cosmetic wear and tear, it would take serious effort to really damage it in any way. The product shouts: Heavy Duty, Industrial, Macho. Whether the look is attractive is very much a question of taste. It is different and unique enough that people are likely to love it as an example of industrial, function-over-form design… or hate it for being too big, hard to integrate into the decor, and ugly the way a boiler is ugly to most people.

You’ve already seen the front perspective. Here are a few more photos.


This photo of the top and side shows the large banks of vertical fins which comprise the sides. Also visible are the ventilation holes on the top near the back, and the large metal handles. The bottom panel is similarly ventilated; more on this later. Those handles ARE necessary to move the machine around. You can also see two of the feet.


Here’s what greets you when you swing open the hinged front door, which has a magnetic push latch. The components are visible; there is no inner front panel. The optical and floppy drives are at the top, the hard drives below them, and the VGA card is visible behind two removable aluminum pieces whose only function seems to visually block what’s behind it. At the bottom is the front control panel.


The back door is identical to the front except for the absence of the logo. Behind it are the motherboard connection panel, access to the VGA and PCI cards, and the main AC power panel. The two slanted copper colored tubes are part of the CPU cooling system.


Those funny curly holes have a function: The cables route through them. There are four sets of these cable-routing holes: front top and bottom, and back top and bottom.


The heavy-duty swivel wheels have a center pod which goes up or down when the orange dial is turned. Once it goes down far enough, it makes contact with the floor. Turning it a bit more raises the wheel off the floor. Do this to all four wheels and the unit becomes stationary. It’s easy to avoid wobbling even on an uneven floor. Raise the center pods, and the unit can be moved easily on the swiveling wheels.

In case the dimensions of this PC did not sink in, let me repeat them: 11.25″(w) x, 16″(d) x 22.5″(h). It is big. How big? Here’s it is in a lineup with a ARM Systems StealthPC (using an Evercase 4252 case), a Hush ATX PC, a Hush Mini-ITX PC, a Shuttle Zen, and a Mappit A4F.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS – IN USE

The system was preloaded with Windows XP Pro, fully updated. It worked without any problems that I detected, which is nice. MS Windows XP requires a slew of updates via their website and it is not uncommon to spend hours doing this dreary task even with a broadband Internet connection.

Firmware for the motherboard and other hardware were all up to date as well. The preloaded software included many associated with the hardware components. Any application I tried ran smooth and fast, including…

  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Macromedia Dreamweaver
  • MS Office
  • PowerDVD
  • Nero
  • Creative-related sound apps
  • Preloaded games (A Tom Clancy title and a couple others that were part of the ATI video card package)

It is a very fast, quiet machine. There are no fans; hence there is no fan noise. However, there is the noise of the two hard drives. During light use, the occasional drive access noise occurs very noticeably against the otherwise extremely low noise level of the system. The seek noise seems louder in this system than on most, perhaps because of the contrast. And while the drives are actually very quiet in idle, these are IBM/Hitachi drives. Not good. More on noise later, with SPL measurements.

Some Quibbles: There were a few things that struck me as rough and not engineered well enough in a machine that costs this much:

  • The HDD noise mentioned above.
  • The cable-routing holes all have sharp edge that easily and (and did) cut into the insulation of the cables, whether they be Ac power cords, data cables or headphone wires. Over time, it could actually cause serious problems. A bit of rubber insulating material over the sharp edges would easily solve this problem.
  • The door latch mechanism is a bit rough. Sometimes it catches and does not operate smoothly.

INSIDE THE MACHINE

On the inside of the front door is a Safety Notice and a drawing. Here’s a photo of the notice:

Note the warning about keeping the unit away from heat sources and out of direct sunlight. I also imagine very high ambient temperature is not recommended… although if Zalman’s development lab is in Korea, they would have had to take into account the hot occasionally >35°C summer temperatures there.

The drawing shows how to access the interior of the case. The first instruction ensures that the right side castor feet are engaged so that the wheels can’t turn. That done, I looked for the bolts. They turned out to be substantial Allen-head bolts, along the top and bottom of the left side. You can see them highlighted in the photo below. The two center arrows point to highlighted hard drive mounting bracket screws.

With the Allen head bolts off, the left side of the case simply pivots out from the back edge.


Entire left side hinges out.


The hard drives are mounted on the inside of the left side panel, along with the integrated power supply below the drives and AC connection box on the top left.


More details of the AC input box (with on/off switch), hard drives, and the fanless power supply.

Here is the label on the cover of the fanless power supply, which I made no attempt to open up. We can safely presume that heat producing components are directly clamped or heatpipe-connected to the left panel for heat conduction and eventual convection cooling via the external fins. The top and bottom panels of the PSU cover have ventilation slots, which must allow for some direct air convection cooling.

The 160W combined 3.3V + 5V power capacity, and the 12V line’s 12A capacity are quite modest by today’s standards. VoodooPC says that this PSU is considerably “beefed up”, but the standard Zalman label was not changed. VoodooPC found the standard Zalman PSU not quite stable enough for their needs. The nature of the “beef up” was not specified, but we can presume key components such as voltage regulation transistors and capacitors were upgraded with higher capacity units. Zalman’s web site cites 75% efficiency for this PSU at 230V; at 115 or 120VAC, it’s usually a couple points lower. Certifications for safety agency approvals such as UL/CSA were notable by their absence.

The HDD mounting setup is surprisingly crude, acoustically speaking, considering the effort and expense given to run everything fanless. Hard drives always make noise, and in a fanless system, their noise is more noticeable because of the absence of white noise from fans.

The photo above shows how the drives are mounted.

1) Screw the HDD to the aluminum shelf.

2) Slip the groove on the left side of the aluminum shelf over a short “bracket” that’s attached to the side with two screws from the outside.

3) Tighten the screws from the outside, and the aluminum shelf gets clamped to the side.

This system is secure, but any vibration from the hard drives is transmitted directly into the case. The system tends to accentuate noise from drive vibration, especially head access noise. The unfortunate thing is that so little space is provided between each drive “bay” that securing a drive suspension mount that would reduce the noise would be a challenge. I am not certain that any retail drive noise reduction device would fit easily here. More on noise later.

THE RIGHT SIDE

The right side can be considered the main case, as the bottom and top panels are both attached to it, and the motherboard is also attached to it. As mentioned earlier, there are ventilation holes on the bottom. These are essentially air intake holes. When the system is working with the case close, you can feel the warm air rising up from the top panel holes. Without the bottom panel holes, this convection cooling would not be as efficient.


This image shows the bottom ventilation holes, part of the motherboard, the sound card, and the VGA card. You can see the copper-colored heatpipes from the VGA card on the top right. On the left, copper-colored thumbscrews are visible. These secure the PCI and AGP card to a bar or post that runs vertically along the center near the back.


Here’s a close-up of the motherboard with the blue-colored CPU cooler block in the center. Three pairs of heatpipes wick the heat from the CPU to the right side panel where the other ends of the heatpipes are attached with three clamps. The GPU block and heatpipes are visible again at the bottom.


A bigger perspective photo taken from near the bottom of the case. The top left arrow points to an additional heatblock and heatpipes which extend between the right panel and the top panel. See the back view photo below.


The two slanted heatpipes at the top appear to transfer some of the heat from the right side panel, which takes the heat from both the CPU and the CPU, to the top panel, probably for improved cooling.


The optical and floppy drives mount to brackets that hang off the top panel. Note the interesting use of the Zalman 3.5″ heatpipe cooler for the floppy drive. This is certainly not because the FD needs cooling or quieting.


Another view of the front control panel near the bottom. It has two USB ports and a switch for an LED light that bathes the interior in a blue light. Not very bright but cool.

PERFORMANCE

I wrote a review of the VoodooPC for the May 2004 issue of PCWorld; they did their own benchmark testing on this very sample and reported an aggregate PC WorldBench 4 testing score of 138 points. This score is right up there alongside the top performers equipped with the Athlon 64-3200+ processor (tested by PCWorld). It handily beats the 126~127 points scored by the top P4-3.2 systems tested by PCWorld.

This performance fits well with VoodooPC’s gaming roots, but keep in mind that the price of the Rage F-50 is at least double that of similarly performing conventionally cooled PCs.

NOTE: The performance can be improved with the higher speed Athlon 64-3400+, which is available at time of posting for an additional US$150. In PCWorldBench 4 scores, Athlon 64-3400+ machines gained 8 to 10 points over the 3200s.

NOISE

The key noise issue has been been touched upon already: The Rage F-50 is silent except for the noise emitted by its drives.

Optical Drives: Software such as Nero DriveSpeed can limit the top speed (and noise) of the optical drives to the user’s discretion. Most people don’t find optical drive noise to be a serious issue because it is rarely constant. The Plextor drives employed in this PC are reasonably smooth, which is about the best you can hope for. A very positive thing is that the strong mechanical construction of the Zalman case eliminates the case rattling so typical of conventional cases when the optical drive is accessed at high speed. The big heavy aluminum door also helps to damp the optical drive noise a bit.

Still, quite a bit of noise gets out through the wire routing and ventilation holes. There is also a sharp resonant quality to the noise with the optical drives at high speed. This seems related to the air resonances in the case (every cavity or closed space has them) and the reflections off the hard parallel aluminum walls. A bit of judiciously placed damping material would probably help.

Hard Drives: The sample system’s dual IBM/Hitachi 180GXP RAID drives help to achieve the high performance results. Unfortunately, they are also the source of three distinct types of noises in this system: Idle, Seek and Head Reset noise.

1) Idle noise is very modest, and the bit of whine the drives exhibit is effectively blocked by the big case.

2) Access noise is considerably louder, and it seems to be accentuated or amplified in the case, resounding with a thrumming against the otherwise silent background. As with the optical drive noise, this seems at least partly due to the case air resonances and reflections off the hard parallel aluminum walls. But because hard drive access noise has more of a staccato percussive aspect (clickety-click as opposed to an optical drive’s whirr), there is more vibration, and that vibration is easily conducted into the case, which then amplifies it much like a sounding board.

3) Head Reset noise is something many of you already know about. The head reset function in the last couple generations of IBM/Hitachi drives (120, 180, and 250 GXP) is designed to avoid overheating during idle. The head reset causes an odd, brief, very audible noise on a fairly regular basis, perhaps every 10 minutes. This noise has been described in many ways ? a chirp, a cat’s meow, etc. To me it sounds like a two-tone whirrrr-hooot. The two drives’ head reset timing is not perfectly synchronized, so the noise from each drive occurs usually in quick succession within maybe a minute of each other. It is too brief a duration to be measured accurately on my sound level meter. Suffice it to say it is easily as audible as the access noise.

The measured noise from the Rage F-50 are presented below. Note that the CPU load has no effect whatsoever on the noise; it is simply a function of hard drive noise.

Rage F-50 Measured Noise (dBA)
Mic 1m from
HDD in idle
HDD Access
Front
22
35~36
Left
22
35~37
Right
22
35~36
Top
22
35~37
Rear
22
35~36

* * *

Rage F-50 Noise:
Operator Position as per ISO9296*
HDD in idle
HDD Access
23 dBA
36~38 dBA

* Measuring microphone ~0.6m from front top edge of case.

TEST CONDITIONS

Sound pressure levels were measured in a very quiet carpeted room (20’x10’x8′) with a calibrated B&K sound level meter (model 2204) capable of reading down to below 0 dBA. The PC was set on a 20″ tall stool near the middle of the room and the SLM positioned or held at the specified distances from the nearest surface of the PC. The ambient noise during the acoustic measurements was ~18 dBA, well below the level of the PC so that it did not affect the readings.

COOLING & POWER

When the system was stressed for half an hour using CPUBurn software, the CPU thermal diode stabilized at a temperature of 55°C in a room ambient of 22°C. This is a very modest temperature. In normal usage, the typical desktop PC rarely gets such a high level of stress for such a long time; CPUBurn pushes the CPU to a higher temperature than any real application (or game). During web content creation, e-mail and web browsing, the CPU temperature rarely went past 45°C.

Items
startup
idle
max
Power (AC)
152W
138W
163W
CPU temp
44°C
55°C
HDD temp*
36°C
40°C

* With external sensor on casing of top drive.

No misbehavior from the video card was noticed at any time, indicating good cooling of the hot 9800XT GPU core. This was during benchmark testing as well as in gaming and general use after the CPU stress test.

It is clear that the Zalman TNN-500A case is more than adequate to the task of cooling the components VoodooPC has packed in this system. There appears to be enough headroom for higher ambient temperatures as well as hotter components.

CONCLUSIONS

The VoodooPC Rage F-50 is one of the most unusual and powerful PCs we’ve reviewed. That a company specializing in gaming computers would team with the world’s best known quiet component maker on such an ambitious retail product is something of a sign of the times. Silent computing is definitely moving farther into the mainstream.

Rage F-50 is a great gaming machine, with the ATI-9800XT video, the powerful AMD Athlon 64-3200+, and the RAID drives. Its size and weight makes it less than ideal for LAN parties, however.

The Zalman TNN-500A proves to be an effective cooling system. With the entire massive case acting as a heatsink along with all the heatpipes, this is not much of a surprise. It’s a totally different direction than that taken by Hush with their fanless ATX PC. The Zalman tries to be a fanless case/cooling platform to replace a standard case, PSU and heatsink. It allows expansion and customization by the user. The Hush ATX PC, on the other hand, gives you a completely hand-off, finished package akin to a high end audio component; it’s not really meant to be opened up by the user at all — except maybe to add memory.

Zalman’s key oversight is the absence of a built-in hard drive noise damping system. The HDD is the only source of noise in their fanless case. VoodooPC’s error is not having pursued a custom solution to compensate for Zalman’s oversight, and their choice of hard drive, which is obviously predicated on performance, not acoustics.

Finally, the ~US$4100 price tag for the Rage F-50 is impossible to ignore. For someone seeking a silent PC, the hard drive noise flaw of this machine at the asking price is too much to take. There are numerous HDD silencing solutions already available commercially. Surely VoodooPC and Zalman could work together to implement a viable HDD quieting solution for this otherwise impressive product.

Much thanks to VoodooPC for the opportunity to play with this interesting machine and to Zalman for their technical support.

* * * * *

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