Section 7.3. Component Considerations


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.

Measure First, Buy Later

If you use components other than those we specify, you may encounter problems with fit or function. To minimize potential problems, buy the case before you buy other components. Measure the available space, and compare your measurements carefully against the component sizes listed on their web sites. Note that the sizes given for components are usually accurate, but may not include protruding connectors and do not include clearances required for cables. With the case in front of you, you can also get a reasonably good idea of layout issues, component clearance issues, and so on. Without the case, you'll find it's impossible to make even reasonable guesses about whether particular components will fit.


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.

Table 7-1. Antec NSK1300 case versus Shuttle SN27P2
 

Antec NSK1300

Shuttle SN27P2

Height

7.9" / 200mm

8.3" / 210mm

Width

10.6" / 269mm

8.7" / 220mm

Depth

13.2" / 335mm

12.8" / 325mm

Case volume (liters/cubic inches)

18.1 / 1,105

15.1 / 924

External drive bays (5.25"/3.5")

1 / 0

1 / 1

Internal drive bays (5.25"/3.5")

0 / 3

0 / 2

Expansion slots

1 PCIe x16 + 3 PCI

1 PCIe x16 + 1 PCI

Motherboard included

None

Proprietary nForce 570 Ultra

Other motherboards accepted

Any microATX

none

Power supply

300W PFC

400W PFC

Street price (with motherboard)

$175 (typical)

$375


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.

ALTERNATIVES: CASE/POWER SUPPLY

When we checked NewEgg, we found 799 cases listed. More than 100 of those were microATX cases of one form or another, so you should be able to find an SFF case that's suitable for your needs. We ruled out the pizza-box and micro-tower form factors for our system, but one of those may be suitable for yours. Of the "cube"-style cases, we liked the Antec NSK1300 best, but there are numerous alternatives, including the Chenming 118, the JPAC 901, the Apevia (Aspire) X-QPACK models, and the Lian Li PC-V300 models. We haven't used any of those alternatives, so we can't comment on their quality or usability, but all are popular with SFF builders.


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.

7.3.2. Processor

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.

ALTERNATIVES: PROCESSOR

We think the Intel Core 2 Duo is the standout choice for the SFF PC. If you prefer AMD, we recommend an Athlon 64 X2 4200+ or faster. AMD offers low-power variants of some X2 models that consume much less power than the standard models. Although they are more costly than the standard models of the same speed, the low-power variants are much better suited for an SFF PC.


7.3.3. Motherboard

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.

7.3.4. Memory

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.

ALTERNATIVES: MOTHERBOARD

For a microATX Core 2 Duo system, there were no other motherboard choices when we built this system. By the time this book reaches print, there will likely be numerous choices. Any microATX motherboard made by Intel or ASUS with a suitable feature set should work fine. For a microATX Socket AM2 Athlon 64 X2 system, choose any compatible ASUS motherboard based on an nVIDIA chipset.


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.

ALTERNATIVES: MEMORY

Any compatible name-brand memory modules. Memory from different companies can vary dramatically in quality and reliability. For 20 years, we've depended on memory from Kingston and Crucial, and have never had cause to regret that decision.


7.3.5. Video Adapter

Integrated video

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.

ALTERNATIVES: VIDEO ADAPTER

The D946GZIS motherboard provides a standard x16 PCI Express slot for a graphics card, so it's possible to add some serious 3D graphics horsepower to the SFF PC, if you are so inclined. If you choose to install a standalone video adapter, keep in mind two limitations of the NSK1300.

  • The small volume of any SFF case, including the NSK1300, makes it difficult to cool a hot-running video adapter, so installing a high-end video card is likely to cause cooling problems.

  • The 300W power supply of the NSK1300 puts an upper limit on the current available to the video adapter. Make sure any video adapter you install in the NSK1300 case is within the ability of the 300W power supply to support. If you intend to install a high-end gaming video adapter, choose a case that provides a power supply capable of delivering the current that video adapter requires.

Note that the D946GZIS provides only analog VGA video output. If you need DVI digital output, install an inexpensive PCIe video adapter that provides DVI output.


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.

ALTERNATIVES: HARD DISK DRIVE

Any Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 or 7200.10 SATA drive, in any capacity. Choose a model with 16 MB of cache rather than 8 MB if the price difference is small.


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.

Table 7-2. Bill of materials for SFF PC

Component

Product

Case

Antec NSK1300 microATX case (300W power supply included)

Motherboard

Intel D946GZIS

Processor

Intel Core 2 Duo E6300

CPU Cooler

(Bundled with retail-boxed CPU)

Memory

Kingston PC2-5300 DDR2-SDRAM (2 GB kit)

Video adapter

(Integrated)

Hard disk drive

Seagate ST3250620AS Barracuda 7200.10 (250GB)

Optical drive

NEC ND-3550A DVD writer





Building the Perfect PC
Building the Perfect PC, Second Edition
ISBN: 0596526865
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2006
Pages: 84

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