Kitchen PC hushed


— 6:27 PM on February 20, 2008

When I set out to build a new family PC, it needed to be small, attractive and quiet.  No need for anything crazy like Mini-ITX, but I did want a nice appearance and very low noise at idle so as to be acceptable in our kitchen/dining area.  Limited by about a $350 budget for new components, I was largely at the mercy of what I had lying around or could bum off of Scott or Geoff.

The Shuttle SN25P met my aesthetic requirements with flying colors.  Slightly smaller would've been preferable, but the gorgeous exterior of that enclosure earned it a spot on our kitchen desk, and the Shuttle's stock cooling system for the SN25P should have kept the three separate zones cool at barely a whisper, especially with Cool'n'Quiet enabled.  

Radeon X800 with stock cooler in the confines of the SN25P

Unfortunately, I never personally experienced that low purr recorded by Geoff in his testing.  The problem was the Radeon X800 I swiped from the Damage Labs.  That freaky little cooler started out well enough, but just couldn't keep its opinions to itself.  In a previous blog post I described how the only fly in the ointment for this system was connectivity with my wireless network.  Although that was true at the time, the ever-growing buzz of the dinky fan on the X800 quickly flew straight into the ointment as soon as I'd disposed with the connectivity bug.  I guess it was never really quiet, but it didn't bother me a lot when I was more annoyed by the flaky wireless adapter.  Regardless, it became increasingly clear that if the "Breadbox" was to remain within about an arms length of where I sat to eat, it would need to be learn to be seen and not heard.


Gigabyte Cyclops cooler After chatting with one of the marketing reps from Gigabyte*, I decided to get one of their GPU cooling solutions and try my hand at my first real modification of a piece of hardware.  The largest concern — other than whether the cooler would be better than stock — was whether it would actually fit in the SN25P without hitting the drive cage, the PSU, or all the cables that emerge from the PSU in that space.

The Cyclops, with dimensions of 160x91x34 mm, seemed like it might fit, depending on precisely how much and where the thickness of 34mm tapers off toward the end of the fins.  I estimated that the corner of the drive cage might contact the fins, and that the PSU cables could require some creative tethering to stay out the spinning fan blades.

The removal of the stock cooler and installation of the Cyclops on the X800 was straightforward and simple.  The only thing that gave me pause was how the bracket used to attach the cooler to the card came into contact with the metal trim surrounding the GPU when the screws were tightened, leading me to stop tightening them before I was fully convinced that the copper base of the heatsink was sufficiently in contact with the GPU. To be safe, I removed it to see if the thermal paste would indicate whether the two surfaces had fully contacted each other.  I observed that the paste had an extremely thin, uniform appearance across the GPU and the copper heatsink base, and an equal amount had oozed over all four sides of the GPU.  So I wiped it all off and repeated steps 3 through 8 in my Cyclops installation guide, confident that the GPU heat would make its way through the copper base to the aluminum fins.

I even applied all those little porcupine-looking aluminum heatsinks to what seemed to be the memory chips on the board, despite my lack of confidence that the peel-n-stick self-adhesive bases would hold them tight enough to be effective.  But they did make the card look kinda prickly and mean.

After tucking and tying the cables safely out of the way, I installed the X800 on the motherboard.  Like an idiot, I secured and screwed everything in place as I went along before confirming that the major components would fit.  I was pleased to find that the time I spent on the PSU cables succeeded in routing them well out of the way of the fan and that nothing on the motherboard came near the new cooler.  The PCI Express x1 slot is rendered virtually inaccessible, but that's of little concern to me for at least the foreseeable future.

All was going quite splendidly until the tool-free drive cage was replaced.  The 34 mm thickness of the Cyclops doesn't taper down quickly enough, so the metal corner of the drive cage solidly hits the plastic cover over the fins, which prevents the cage from dropping that last quarter inch and sliding fully into place.  I pondered if I would have sufficient clearance for the drives with that plastic cover removed, and whether it served any functional purpose.  Several measurements indicated that the removal of the cover should provide enough room, just barely, for all the components to be re-assembled.  But what if the lack of that flimsy piece of plastic shrouding the aluminum fins would prevent the airflow from reaching the tips and decrease performance?  Some research on Gigabyte's website and Newegg's customer (ah-hem) "reviews" didn't yield any useful data.

 

 X800 with Cyclops cooler obstructs drive cage at top of photo

I decided to risk it and removed the Gigabyte-stickered cover.  The naked Cyclops allowed the drive cage to slip in right next to it without a scrape.  Although there is no contact, I don't think I could fit two sheets of cardstock between them.  Thankfully, everything in this little box is rigid and stable — no concern that the bare Cyclops might eventually touch and vibrate against the, um, caged hard drive.

 

Bare Cyclops barely makes room for drive cage

Fully re-assembled, I powered it up, and XP Pro booted just fine.  Then I heard something odd that I'd never heard from this little system... the Barracuda 7200.10 spinning and seeking out its stored data.  It was honestly a refreshing sound.  The $25 Cyclops doesn't allow the 80 mm fan speed to be monitored or adjusted, but its 2300 RPMs are truly indistinguishable from the faint hum of the other fans.  ATITool indicates that my GPU temperature is 60 degrees C at idle and around 74 under load (unfortunately I did not check the temps with the stock cooler).  That seems a bit warm, but I guess it’s acceptable.  

So this kitchen computer is now practically inaudible unless you're sitting directly next to it — one more bug plucked out of the ointment.  But I suspect my expectations are already rising, and I'll eventually find something else to improve.  For now, though, I'm savoring the peace and quiet.


*Full disclosure:  This is a blog post recounting a personal experience; it is not a product review.  I have never helped test or write for product reviews for The Tech Report.  Gigabyte and Shuttle are sponsors of The Tech Report.

   
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