A compact, fast, and quiet PC for the kitchen

If you've read our summer system guide, you might enjoy hearing the story of how our very cool Pocket Swiss Army Knife config came to be.  Those of you who have been around here for a while will know that my affinity for small form-factor systems like Shuttle's XPC series goes way, way back.  Simple computers that are small and quiet can go a lot of places a bigger box cannot.  My favorite SFF build is an excellent example.  We've had a system in service continually on our kitchen counter, in one form or another, since the debut of the original Kitchen PC a shocking five years ago.  Since then, my enthusiasm for Shuttle XPCs has waned for a smattering of reasons, including their limited upgradeability, the fact that Shuttle no longer innovates or targets enthusiasts with bare-bones boxes in quite the same way, and some disturbing long-term quality and reliability problems with XPCs—which I got to witness first-hand through different incarnations of the Kitchen PC.

Recently, the last incarnation of the Kitchen PC was suffering from a painful collection of age-related problems.  The box whined and growled in a creative array of scary sounds indicating friction, it would occasionally reboot itself out of spite, and it gave off the faint odor of Ben Gay at all times.  The thing was not a good citizen on our kitchen counter any longer, and it threatened to croak at any time.  So I sat down and ordered a bunch of new parts to replace it, and darned if the thing didn't up and die before the packages could arrive from Newegg, as if it knew what was coming.  After a quick dissection, I determined that the power supply had given up the ghost, most likely because it was worn out from having to supply too much juice to the hard drive, which was making a horrid hissing noise (I thought it was just a bad fan!) and probably would only spin its platters with some effort.  Since the thing's XPC enclosure used a proprietary power supply, it had to operate in Borg mode, with a different PSU hanging out of the side, until the new bits came to us.

This is an attractive ornament for the ol' kitchen countertop, let me testify.  Great for entertaining.

Anyhow, when I ordered the parts, I was determined to make sure our next Kitchen PC would be darn near silent and at least as small as the last one, but what to do?  I considered a range of options, and was sorely tempted to fork over a few hundred bucks for an Eee Box and be done with it.  But my wife wanted something with a DVD drive it it—the Kitchen PC is her main computer—and I wanted something standards-based that I could build from existing parts and upgrade over time.  I'd been watching the development of Mini-ITX hardware for a while, but I was worried by the choice of enclosures.  Many of them seemed to be cheap, build wise, and yet some were pretty expensive at the same time.  The user reviews on Newegg were disconcertingly mixed for almost all of them, and I couldn't be sure that even the most attractive choices would be truly quiet.

Then I happened upon the Silverstone SG05.

The SG05 is about the size of an XPC enclosure, is sized to accept Mini-ITX motherboards, and comes from Silverstone, whom I've learned to trust for quiet PC enclosures and PSUs.  This case has a single, large (120mm) fan in the front that cools both the enclosed PC and the built-in 300W power supply unit.  The thing is affordable, too (only $99 right now).  Best of all, at the time, Newegg had a combo deal featuring the Zotac GeForce 9300 Mini-ITX mobo.  Using that board would deliver me from my extended flirtation with a dual-core Atom processor and allow me to use a faster off-the-shelf Core 2 processor with upgrade potential down the road, to boot.

Of course, the Zotac board wasn't my only option, because Mini-ITX mobos come in many flavors.  It was just the best option.  But the SG05 closed the deal.  At long last, it enables an SFF ecosystem that is standards-based, upgradeable, and has the footprint and quiet cooling potential of a Shuttle XPC.  I could build in this case and rebuild a few years down the road with a new mobo, no problem.

Thus was born the Kitchen PC Mk III:

The SG05 and Zotac 9300 board supply most of what you need to build a complete PC, including GeForce graphics and Wi-Fi.  I threw in a Core 2 Duo E7200 processor, a hard drive, and a couple of gigs of RAM.  My choice for the hard drive was a 320GB Caviar SE16, since it was the quietest drive I had on hand, according to Geoff's tests.  I was ready to order up an SSD if it was too loud, but that proved to be unnecessary.

The hardest part of the build, on which I spent the most time, was making sure the system was quiet.  The only real bone of contention in this case was the CPU cooler; a stock Intel model made more noise than I liked, and the Zotac board's fan speed control pretty much had a mind of its own, ignoring the choices I set in the BIOS.  I believe those problems have since been fixed with a BIOS update, but I found my own fix ahead of time, using a Zalman fan speed controller cranked to its lowest setting to limit the fan speed on an old LGA775 cooler that's pretty large.  I can't find that same cooler on sale at Newegg now, but I'm hopeful the Masscool unit we picked for the guide performs similarly.  Because, wow, that thing is blessedly quiet and yet cools the E7200 just fine with both cores cranking away on Prime95.  Sweet success—and near silence.

Here's how the new Kitchen PC looks in its native environment.

As I've done before, I was able to hide most of the wires behind the counter and refrigerator to keep the whole setup looking clean.  I'm very pleased to report that this system is literally inaudible over the gentle hum of the refrigerator next to it.  This box is much faster than an Atom-based system would be, and the prospect of upgrading it down the road at will, like any normal-sized PC, makes me feel like a longer term problem has been solved.

One more thing.  Do pay attention to the guide's inclusion of the special SATA power adapter for the slim-line optical drive if you decide to build a system in the SG05.  You will need it, and most of us don't have one of those handy.

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