blog a compact fast and quiet pc for the kitchen

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.

0 responses to “A compact, fast, and quiet PC for the kitchen

  1. Yeah, making a small PC like this quiet is a real challenge. You really need to go for a DC brick power supply, or a full size ATX. We went the latter direction with our Echo III PC ( §[<<]§ ). We used to use the Silverstone SG05, but found it too loud, and also the failure rates on the power supply were too high for us to stomach.

  2. Like some of the other comments here, i’d have to say an iMac style PC would be a better choice in my gf’s kitchen. For some reason, aesthetics matter more to her then unreadability etc..


  3. I’m down to two Shuttles. Both H7’s the SX58 and the SP45 but this looks interesting.
    Thanks for the heads up and good luck with your new box.

  4. The Mac Mini is basically a Geforce 9300/9400 based mini-ITX system with a slimline optical drive. Hardware spec-wise, it and this system are identical. All you’d need is a Mac Mini-like case (with an external power supply). Unfortunately, I don’t think Apple sells those separately.

  5. lol ++

    unless something states unlimited budget or a specific $ #, a tight budget should always be assumed, as most sane people have a general disdain for wasting money

  6. Honestly, I hate Mac Minis but they are the quintessential kitchen computer. That is, if you’re going for aesthetics.

  7. Do you not care for aesthetics? A mid sized tower is going to look dead ugly in a kitchen. As a single man I wouldn’t even be caught dead with a classic tower in my kitchen. Do you also not care about your personal looks? I mean really, once you’ve cleaned yourself anything beyond that is just a waste of time and pandering to society.

  8. That’s extremely ghetto although I like the proof of concept it has very low WAF.

  9. I hope mini-DTX catches on beyond VIA although a dual-core Nano might have some usefulness. This case is begginf for a board with two expansion slots: graphics+soundcard, graphics+tv tuner, tv tuner+sound card…it could make a wonderful and more flexible HTPC that way.

  10. Yep. It looks damned good.

    I realize it’s more of a form factor restriction than anything else, but too bad there’s only two SATA ports. A single PCI slot is okay as I can get a dual-tuner card in there, but if I could get a third SATA port so I could run RAID1 on a tiny (relatively speaking) home server box or just for cheap 2*1.5TB storage (vs. the higher cost of 2TB drives) that would be awesome.

    Ok the eSATA port could work, but isn’t quite as convenient.

    Really though, I suppose I’m picking nits. =)

  11. it also didn’t mention anything about needing electricity, so I’m going to recommend a blackboard & abacus.

  12. For the naysayers, I just want to point out that you can cram a lot more power for the price in one of these setups Scott’s picked out than any laptop / imac / all-in-one alternative.

    Pretty hard to get a quad-core imac with card that can run farcry 2 nicely, or a laptop with a quad core cpu, decently big screen, and a new GPU for ~$600…

    Sure, there are alternatives that would fit the bill nicely, but this little guy offers way more overall computing value.

  13. I haven’t read the article yet, but wouldn’t a laptop be a better choice if you wanted something compact for the kitchen. Heck, you can even take it with you once you’re done.

  14. Check weather, email, sports, calendar, work, watch a movie, chat on phone, video chat, etc. The kitchen seems like a more natural place for a PC to me than a living roomg{<.<}g

  15. Certainly not. I’d never want to be in the situation where exposing wihte kitchen tiles is the all-time most important and vital thing on the planet. That’s just irrational.

    That’s like requiring that a car not have a steering wheel because it gets it the way. Or that the windshield be a mirror for make-up application. It’s a car. It’s only a car if it’s built to be a car.

    Same goes here. What’s the point in having a computer if it’s crippled? You could have a perfectly great, perfectly powerful, perfectly stable machine. Instead, you have a crippled machine, and kitchen tiles.

  16. The title of the blog post is: “A compact, fast, and quiet PC for the kitchen”

    There isn’t any mention of price being a concern.

  17. As a guy who spends a fair amount of time in the kitchen (hey, I’m single and I like to eat!!), I want a “kitchen PC” that mostly shows me a set of tabbed windows with info I want to be able to get at a glance, or, at most, at a touch and a glance – i.e., the weather, the news, etc. It will alert me if I have an e-mail. It will let me play a CD, or a DVD. Bonus if it will also be an interface to my PVR so I can catch up on “Fringe” while I make dinner. And, sometimes, I want to be able to pull up a recipe that I’m going to make, maybe even be able to search for one on the internet.

    So my ideal kitchen PC is going to be a 19 – 22″ wide LCD mounted on a tilt/swivel wall bracket. It’s a touch-screen. The “pc” is a mobo mounted on the back of the LCD. It has a CD/DVD/Blu-Ray laptop-style drive that slides out from behind the right side of the screen, behind the decent set of built-in speakers. And – here’s where I slip into fantasy-land – it has a drop-down, full-size keyboard that slides out from the back of the LCD at the bottom, kinda like a giant-size version of the Palm Pre. For that matter, I could be happy with a WebOS -type interface, especially if it includes a phone. I don’t really need to be able to run Quickbooks – or Crysis!! – in the kitchen while I chop onions.

    Now that I think about it, that would make it easy for me to make my grocery list in the kitchen, and have it right there on my Pre when I go to the store. WebOS’s Synergy would take me beyond e-mails in the kitchen to include Facebook (if I /[

  18. I don’t get it. Why do you need a computer in the kitchen? So you can cook and eat food while you are on the computer?

  19. What’s the point of putting a PC in the kitchen? I like to keep all my awesome hardware in a room dedicated to its awesomeness…

  20. 1) The sides are very open, with a big, wide mesh. Air pressure’s not an issue.

    2) Right. Err, at least, that’s my impression, unless the fan is silent and well hidden.

    3) Yes, but I took it off. Makes more noise with it installed, and as I said in another comment, this thing is far from the stove and cooking areas.

    4) Answered in another comment here, I believe. Don’t recall exactly, but the number is in Silverstone’s specs.

  21. Nah, our stovetop is nowhere near where this thing sits in our kitchen. It’s a pretty big, open room that incorporates a dining area. Never been an issue for the older kitchen PCs we’ve had.

  22. one thing i’m curious about, won’t you get your box clogged up with grease from all the cooking?

  23. I’ve just built a machine in an SG05 for a client

    4GB DDR2-800
    Zotac 9300M-ITX mainboard
    Geforce GTS250 1GB
    1TB WD Caviar Black
    LG Blu-ray burner
    Noctua 120mm intake fan, Scythe Shuriken HSF on the cpu

    It’s tiny and really rather fast in the grand scheme of things, pulls roughly 13000 3dmark06 points

    And to holophrastic, no, it’s not the same footprint as a normal tower, it’s about 10 inches front to back, it’s TINY

    here it is (before the PC itself got installed in it) with my Dell Mini9 on top

  24. Here’s a “great” kitchen PC: iMac.

    I’m not trolling (please no Apple bashers), but it makes a great system for limited desktop room. If you aren’t going to game and spend more time in a browser, this makes a perfect setup.

  25. Umm, I’m confused. There’s nothing above the box. Why not simply have a taller box — .a.k.a. a normal tower. “footprint” is just that, footprint; the two have virtually identical footprints. Granted, with this smaller box, you get to see more white kitchen tiles. Get a white box.

  26. Also put a power brick external and snake it to the box. Our HP’s have this, and 87% efficiency to bootg{<.<}g They just have craptastic videog{<.<}g

  27. They are. As SilentPC Review put it, the 9300-ITX is pretty much the flagship for Mini-ITX right now.

  28. very lovely build.

    man, Zotac is really pimping on the mITX front. I’m loving it.

  29. I am thinking even more advanced and a smaller footprint. Something along the line of a thin client attached to a borg arm attached to a monitor.

    The keyboard and mouse should be one piece of hardware like the Logitech diNova and either kept on the desk on a tray attached to the swing arm.

    Also, the monitor should be a touch screen to allow for quick touch responses instead of typing or mousing.

  30. What range are you getting on that keyboard? Mine seems to have seriously degraded (good at ~15 feet to good ~3-5 feet) in the past year. I (try to) use mine from the couch on my HTPC.

  31. It’s the little PC that could

    The case is perfectly fine but the front panel is plastic so it’s not that nice to the touch, the PSU is quiet enough but not really silent, Silverstone claims they used a q9550 and a GTS250 for product development though so it should be reliable

    I have built on of these myself, and it’s all I need for my bedroom PC, my part list is:

    – Silverstone SOD01 DVD-RW
    – Zotac 9300-ITX
    – GTS250 1GB
    – Intel [email protected]
    – 2.5″ 250Gb SATA HDD

    I also replaced the front fan (800rpm I think) with a 1400rpm coolermaster fan and used a GeminII as CPU cooler without any fans. It sits there cool and silent unless gaming, and even when gaming it’s not annoying and it certainly runs cooler than my main PC ([email protected], 8800GTX sli)

  32. If you go that route, you miss out on the experience [and fun] of building your own computer that you can be proud of. You also miss out on the savings.

    And as Scott mentioned, this PC has a decent upgrade path, where as with a iMac the only thing you can really upgrade is the RAM.

  33. Anyhow it is a very neato case with a rare for the form factor 120mm fan.

    A few questions:

    1) How is the overall air pressure in the case? I imagine with the 120mm the vents on the top, sides, and rear of the case are expelling air, if not I’d be really concerned about grease and dust buildup in a kitchen.

    2) The PSU itself is fully passive with no fan?

    3) Is there a filter for the front fan? It’s clearly not in front of the fan, but if there’s no filter I’d get one in there asap. Kitchnes are nasty environments for PCs between grease and the usual dust.

    4) How much vertical height is there between the motherboard standoffs and the bottom of the PSU? I’m wondering just how tall of a CPU cooler one can fit.

  34. I would’ve bought a cheap iMac, but that’s just me 🙂 You can run Windows on those as well, and the form factor is ideal for places like that.

  35. Seems like a laptop would have made much more sense.

    What is there to upgrade anyways, you save $100 by being able to keep the case around. Who cares, especially when you are talking 2 years?

  36. That’s a nice looking system. I would probably end up putting in a laptop semi-permanently, but this has a much better upgrade path.

    Unfortunately, I was disappointed to find no pics of the old machine on life support. Where’s the love for ugly hacks that our families only put up with because it keeps the hardware running?