Quiet MCE, Part Deux

Earlier this year, after being a TiVo fan for quite a few years (I have the little plush toy they sent me in my window at Microsoft :-), I decided to see what Microsoft's solution was all about and installed a Media Center 2005 machine. Now that we've been using it, the plan is to ditch the DirecTiVos and get Media Center Extenders instead... it is an excellent solution. The only downside for me was that the Dell 400sc I was using was not very living-room-friendly. The ATI 9800 Pro that I need for HD OTA playback sounded like a jet engine, the case was sideways in the bookshelf next to the TV, etc. So I figured I'd use the holiday downtime to put together a new incarnation of the MCE machine... part Deux. 

My first step was to quiet the video card. A few months ago, I had bought a VGA Silencer but had not gotten around to affixing it - the steps seemed somewhat daunting, plus it eats up a PCI slot and I didn't want to give up one of the 5 slots I had in the Dell. I figured I'd try it in the Dell first to get a baseline. I pulled out the $10 internal modem card I was using to get Caller ID info on the screen (built into MCE - how nice is that?) and set to modify my 9800 Pro. It turned out that the instructions were much simpler and the procedure much more straightforward than I had figured. You pull off the existing jet engine fan and heatsink, clean the chip, add included super duper thermal grease, set the heat sink on, connect the wire, and screw it on via a clip on the back of the card. The difference is amazing. There are two modes: Silent and Much Quieter Than The Stock Fan. I thought about stopping right here... but I was determined...

The next step was to turn it into a home theater component. I kept reading good things about the Ahanix cases, including the fact that a number of people at Microsoft had the D.Vine 4 cases. I finally settled on that case and ordered one from Newegg. The box it shipped from had a sticker that said "must be double boxed when shipping by UPS or FedEx", and mine shipped by FedEx was not, but the case seemed to be in fine shape. I read a bit more and settled on a Zalman CNPS7000B-AlCu CPU cooler to make the CPU silent.

Regarding the motherboard, my other goal was to switch to digital connection between the PC and the amplifier. I was actually pretty satisfied with the sound from my Creative Audigy 2 with the analog 5.1 cables going to the amp, but it just seemed "unclean". I knew from some friends and co-workers that the best solution is to use an nVidia nForce 2 Ultra motherboard, which has something called 'SoundStorm', which does real time Dolby Digital encoding of whatever source you are using. I was considering buying one, when I realized that the last machine I put together for KC had some kind of fancy motherboard, and was an AthlonXP, so I busted it open and sure enough it had one of the nicest motherboards that fit my bill, the ASUS A7N8X-E Deluxe. She had an Athlon 2600+ on there, which should work OK (the Dell was a P4 2.8C and CPU was never an issue). Long story short, I swapped her HD and the Creative card (so she can still have Firewire for camcorder capture) into the Dell, that was about the easiest part of the story. Dell has the best hardware engineering I have ever seen from a computer manufacturer, the case design is phenomenal. 

Anyway, I set to putting together the machine with the new case. One of the first things to happen was that I was sliding it across the carpet and one of the rubber legs fell off. Oops, factory glue wasn't too strong there. Re-glued. (it fell off again later but I glued it hopefully the final time right before I later installed it) I installed the motherboard, CPU cooler (used 99% isopropyl alcohol to clean the CPU of its original heat sink grease as some web sites suggested), cards. When I got to installing the video card with its massive cooler, I noticed something annoying - the PCI slots are closer to the AGP slot than they were in the Dell - the video card's cooler now covers two PCI slots. One has the heat sink's heat exhaust, the other was blocked, so I used that slot to shoehorn in the motherboard's external firewire header. I got the other cards in and booted up.

Here's another rant... and it bites me every time... in the course of doing this, I decided to just have one disk in this machine, for noise, so I planned to have that one disk the 200 GB Seagate 7200.7 SATA drive that I had in the Dell as a data storage disk. Well of course Windows XP doesn't have the VIA SATA controller built into it, so you have to hit F6 during setup to add the driver. And of course I didn't put a floppy drive into this machine. So I ended up with this frankenstein thing with a floppy drive hanging out the side until I got it set up. The other twist is that I now know the definition of irony: a few weeks ago, when I was using Ghost on my server machine to move the system partition from an old to a new disk, I needed a floppy disk. The only floppy disk I could find in the whole house was one I stole out of a motherboard box from the garage... you guessed it, the ASUS A7N8X-E Deluxe box, and it was the VIA SATA driver disk. 

Once I got the system installed, I noticed something. It was really loud. It was clear that the problem was not the CPU fan - when I used the "FanMate 2" to turn the speed down, it was pretty quiet. It wasn't the video card. It wasn't the hard drive, that was always quiet. It was the power supply. This thing came with a "pre-installed 'Silent' 350W PSU" from Ahanix. Except it was far from Silent. I figured I had better solve this before installing it. I read some stuff on the web, decided that I wanted some PSU that had a 120 mm fan, and headed to Fry's. The good news is that the PSU ATX standard is really a standard, and I could use any PSU in the case.

At Fry's, I encountered the least helpful employee ever, hanging around the PSU aisle. He asked if he could help me, sure, I'm looking for a quiet power supply. "Uh I don't think there are any quiet ones. I have one that's supposedly silent and it's pretty loud. Of course the CPU is pretty loud too". I suggested he might want to look into the Zalman silent CPU coolers they sell, he apparently had never heard of them, despite working in the computer department. With him properly dispatched to going back to re-stocking ethernet cables in the wrong bins, I started searching through the power supplies. Man, these things are annoying. The boxes have almost no information on them, aside from the purported wattage and what color the LEDs behind the fans are (usually blue). I was standing there looking up "brand names" which did not seem like real brand names into google on my Pocket PC Phone.  I finally found one that seemed to have a 120 mm fan, and had a reputable review on silentpcreview.com: the Seasonic Super Tornado 300W. The trick on these is that a 120 mm fan doesn't fit on the back of the case, which is where most fans are - it has to go on the side of the PSU inside. This case has a "honeycomb" on the back - it just lets air out the entire rear of the PSU. This actually helps because the wind is diffused, and you get no wind rush noise. Of course, KC had a good dose of common sense when her first question was, "if it's supposed to be quiet, why is it called a Tornado?" Looking at the web site, it looks like the Super Tornado is quieter than the Super Silencer. Go figure. One last note about buying it at Fry's... buying computer parts at that place is like playing the lottery. I won, on this one: surprise, $10 mail in rebate. If they actually rigorously advertised their rebates on shelves, I think they would sell a lot more of those items. Anyway, installation of the PSU was a breeze and it really is silent (plus, the case is cooler than it was with the stock PSU).

Now, the CPU fan is the loudest thing. No problem, with it turned down all the way, it's fairly silent. I drilled more holes in the TV cabinet to run the VGA cable and got the thing installed over the TV. Everything was great, and then I noticed that the hard drive seeks were very loud. The drive is mounted in a kind of dumb way: there is a 3.5" cage screwed to the front panel of the case. So every vibration from the drive is amplified across the entire front of the case. I also learned that Seagate locked their SATA drives to "loud mode" aka "performance mode" - where seeks go as fast as they can, no matter the seek loudness, while the PATA drives are locked to "quiet mode". So I will definately be taking that into account when I replace that drive with something bigger. In the mean time, I read a review on silentpcreview of an interesting little drive mount that uses rubber bands to hold the drive to a 5 1/4" tray, which fits in the unused 5 1/4" mount under the DVD. It should be arriving today and we'll have to see how motivated I am to take the thing down and install it. I think probably pretty motivated, based on how annoyed I was at the seek noise when I was recording two things at once last night.