7.3. Component Considerations
With our design criteria in mind, we set out to choose the best components for the SFF PC. The following sections describe the components we chose and why we chose them. For the SFF PC, we had to reverse our usual practice of choosing the components and then building the system. As strange as it sounds, we had to build the SFF PC and then choose the components.
By that, we mean that component choice is constrained when you build a small system. With a standard system, you needn't worry about components fitting the case. With an SFF PC, component size is a constant concern. For example, the CPU cooler you really want to use may be too tall to fit between the motherboard and drive bay; the optical drive you really want to use may be half an inch too deep to seat fully in the drive bay; or the fan on your video adapter may intrude on the PCI slot, making it unusable.
For example, Figure 7-1 shows two optical drives, an NEC ND-3550A DVD writer on the bottom and a Lite-On DVD-ROM drive on top. In a standard case, the half inch or so difference in depth is immaterial. In an SFF case, that extra half inch may mean the larger drive won't fit the case. (As it happened, we were able to use the NEC ND-3550A DVD writer, but it was a tight fit.)
Figure 7-1. NEC ND-3550A DVD writer (bottom) and Lite-On DVD-ROM drive
Such factors as motherboard layout and cable flexibility may also come into play. For example, the motherboard you want to use may have the front-panel connectors in an inaccessible location, or the S-ATA connectors may have insufficient clearance to allow the S-ATA cable to be seated without breaking off the connector.
Configuring any PC involves trade-offs, but this is doubly true when you configure an SFF PC. The small case volume makes cooling more difficult and component dimensions critical, and the smaller power supply limits your choices for high-current devices like fast video adapters. Any PC requires compromises between performance and noise, but this is even more apparent with an SFF PC. Many "quiet PC" technologiessuch as using large passive heatsinks and multiple large, slow fanssimply cannot be used with an SFF PC because there isn't room for them. If you want a fast SFF PC, it's going to be loud. If you want a quiet SFF PC, you'll have to make compromises.
Warning: Although we tested the configuration we used to build our own SFF PC, we did not test permutations with the listed alternatives. Those alternatives are simply the components we would have considered using if our requirements were different. We would still have had to verify fit and function and perhaps would have been forced to substitute other components. We can't guarantee that these alternative components will fit or function reliably, individually or together.
7.3.1. Case and Power Supply
Antec NSK1300 microATX case (http://www.antec.com)
The SFF PC we built for the first edition of this book used an Antec Aria case. We liked the Aria case enough that we planned to use it again for our new SFF PC configuration. Alas, as we were choosing components for this system, we found that Antec had discontinued the Aria. Fortunately, as we browsed the Antec site, we found the NSK1300 case, shown in Figure 7-2. We think of it as the "Aria II."
Figure 7-2. Antec NSK1300 microATX case
At first glance, it's difficult to tell them apart. The only discernible differences we found were that the NSK1300 has round power and reset buttons instead of square ones, adds a top vent for the power supply, and doesn't include the card reader that was bundled with the Aria. Oh, and the NSK1300 sells for $20 or so less than the Aria did.
We actually had a new Aria in the stock room, and intended to use it for our new SFF PC. Then we realized that all of the motherboards we were considering using required a 24-pin ATX 2.2 main ATX power connector, but the Aria had the older-style 20-pin main ATX power connector. That sent us off to the Antec web site in search of an updated Aria with a 24-pin power supply, where we eventually discovered that the NSK1300 had replaced the older Aria.
Although we considered other microATX cases, we pretty much knew ahead of time that we were likely to go with the NSK1300, based on our experiences with the Aria. The NSK1300 accepts any microATX motherboard and full-height expansion cards. It has a robust 300W ATX 2.2 power supply rather than the marginal 160W to 220W power supplies provided with most bare-bones "shoebox" SFF systems. The Antec Aria is one of the quietest cases we have ever used, and yet it provides cooling sufficient to run midrange components at reasonable temperatures. We expected no less from the NSK1300. Finally, the NSK1300's reasonable price meant we could build an SFF system without breaking the bank on an overpriced proprietary SFF bare-bones system.
The NSK1300 is by no means the only microATX case available, but most microATX cases use the slimline "pizza-box" form factor rather than the "cube" form factor of the NSK1300. Slimline cases are useful for some "appliance" applications, but have too many limitations for a general-purpose system. For example, many of them accept only one optical drive and one hard drive, have proprietary (expensive) low-wattage power supplies, accept only two or three half-height expansion cards, and so on. The NSK1300 addresses all of those issues, with its four drive bays, 300W power supply, and ability to accept four full-height expansion cards.
The NSK1300 is roughly the same height and depth as a typical "shoebox" SFF PCwithin half an inch or so either way. The real difference is width. The NSK1300 is a couple inches wider than most SFF PCs, but don't blame Antec. The additional width is needed to accommodate a microATX motherboard, with its full complement of expansion slots. The relatively small increase in width also pays off in case volume. The volume of the Antec NSK1300 is about 18 liters, 20% or so larger than the largest shoebox models and nearly twice the 11-liter volume of smaller SFF cases. That additional volume makes the NSK1300 easier to work on, and contributes to more efficient cooling and a lower noise level.
Table 7-1 compares the Antec NSK1300 with the Shuttle SN27P2, a typical "large" bare-bones SFF system for Socket AM2 AMD processors.
The Antec NSK1300 wins the comparison easily. The NSK1300 is a bit larger than the SN27P2, but uses industry-standard components and has three PCI expansion slots versus one. The Shuttle has a 400W power supply, but, frankly, we don't think it's a good idea to cram enough components into an SFF PC to require that larger power supply. The real killer is price. The Shuttle SN27P2 SFF case with motherboard sells for about $375. The Antec NSK1300 with a typical motherboard sells for about $175, or less than half the price.
Most SFF bare-bones systems we've seen use thin aluminum panels, which weigh little and help cooling, but do nothing to reduce sound emissions. In fact, most of them seem to resonate with a high-pitched buzz or whine that originates in the power supply fan and CPU fan. The NSK1300 is different. Its side panels use composite construction, with two thin aluminum plates sandwiching a central plastic layer. The top panel is similar, but uses one aluminum plate facing the inside of the system, with an exposed corrugated plastic layer on the outside.
Although Antec gave up the minor cooling advantage of using thin single aluminum panels, their composite panels are acoustically inert. When we tapped on them, all we heard was a dull thud rather than the metallic sound generated by simple aluminum panels. We suspect that these composite panels contribute a great deal to the low noise level of the NSK1300.
Although the Antec NSK1300 isn't perfect, it does a excellent job of balancing size, accessibility, cooling efficiency, noise level, and price. For our purposes, the NSK1300 was the ideal SFF case.
Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 (http://www.intel.com)
Although our SFF PC is physically small, we want it to be fast. The small case and 300W power supply put some real limitations on processor choice. An older-generation, high-current processor would overload the power supply and make it very difficult to cool the system. Short of using a mobile processorwhich introduces problems of its own, not least motherboard availabilitythat effectively limits our choices to a modern low-current desktop processor like the Intel Core 2 Duo or one of the special energy-efficient AMD Athlon 64 X2 models, either of which draws only 65W.
At the time we built this system, the Intel Core 2 Duo was the hands-down winner in both absolute performance and price/performance ratio. The so-called "entry-level" Core 2 Duo E6300 offers extremely high performance at a very reasonable price, so we chose that model for our SFF PC.
Intel D946GZIS (http://www.intel.com)
Our choice of the Antec NSK1300 case dictates a microATX motherboard. Core 2 Duo is a Socket 775 processor, but most Socket 775 motherboards are not compatible with Core 2 Duo. At the time we built this system, the Intel D946GZIS was the only microATX motherboard available that supported Core 2 Duo, so that's what we chose.
Fortunately, the D946GZIS suits our requirements perfectly. It supports up to 4 GB of DDR2 memory in two slots. It includes integrated GMA3000 video, which is fast enough to run the Windows Vista Aero Glass user interface effects, but also provides a standard x16 PCI Express video adapter slot. The integrated 5.1 audio and 10/100 Ethernet are sufficient for our purposes. The board layout is clean, and is as easy to work with as we could hope, given the constrained spaces of an SFF case.
Kingston 2GB PC5300 DDR2 Memory Kit (1 GBx 2) (http://www.kingston.com)
The Intel D946GZIS has two DDR2 memory slots and supports dual-channel memory operation with PC2-4200, PC2-5300, or PC2-6400 modules in capacities up to 2 GB. At the time we built this system, PC2-4200 modules sold for about the same price as PC2-5300 modules, but PC2-6400 modules sold at a 50% premium. We'd have liked to use PC2-6400 memory, but the slight performance bump wasn't worth the additional cost.
We consider 2 GB of memory about right for any but budget or high-end configurations. That's 1 GB per processor, and our dual-core Intel Core 2 Duo is effectively two processors. Accordingly, we checked the price of 1 GB memory modules on the Crucial and Kingston web sites, intending to install a pair of 1 GB modules for better memory performance. Kingston happened to have a better price that day than Crucial, so we ordered two 1 GB PC2-5300 Kingston modules.
7.3.5. Video Adapter
The Intel D946GZIS motherboard includes excellent integrated Graphics Media Accelerator 3000 (GMA 3000) video. Although serious gamers sniff at the 3D graphics performance of GMA 3000 video, it is more than sufficient for undemanding 3D video applications such as the Windows Vista Aero Glass effects and light gaming. Integrated video adds little to the heat burden inside the SFF case, and is perfectly adequate for anything we plan to do with this system.
7.3.6. Hard Disk Drive
Seagate ST3250620AS Barracuda 7200.10 (250GB) (http://www.seagate.com)
An SFF PC needs a quiet, cool-running hard drive with mainstream performance. We've come to depend on Seagate Barracuda SATA drives based on years of good experiences with them. We chose a 250 GB 7200.10 model with 16 MB of cache for this system because it happened to be on sale at the time for $70. The similar ST3250820AS model with half as much cache sold for the same price. We could have saved $18 by using an 80 GB 7200.9 model, but three times the storage space for $18 more was too good a deal to pass up.
7.3.7. Optical Drive
NEC ND-3550A DVD writer (http://www.necam.com)
With DVD writers selling for $35 or so, there's no point to installing a less capable optical drive. We chose the NEC ND-3550A DVD writer for the SFF PC, but any similar model from BenQ, Lite-On, NEC, Pioneer, or Plextor would also be a good choice, as long as it is not too deep for the case. The Antec NSK1300 case has a universal optical drive door that hides the front bezel of the optical drive, so there's no need to match the color of the optical drive to the case.
7.3.8. External Peripherals
We're going to wimp out here. Rather than make specific recommendations for keyboard, mouse, speakers, display, and other external peripherals, we'll refer you to the other project system chapters in this book and to the web site (http://www.hardwareguys.com).
It's not that we don't want to provide a list of recommended external peripherals for the SFF PC. It's that we can't, because an SFF PC can be built as anything from a $500 appliance system to a $1,000 mainstream system to an $1,800 gaming system. Accordingly, all we can recommend is that you choose external peripherals according to your budget and the purpose of the system.
Table 7-2 summarizes our component choices for the core SFF PC system.