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HTPC HFX Mini passive cooled HTPC case Review

Discussion in 'Hardware' started by Nexxo, 8 Jun 2008.

  1. Nexxo

    Nexxo * Prefab Sprout – The King of Rock 'n' Roll

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    I LIKE TO MOD IT, MOD IT...

    After some frustrating reliability issues with my old Phillips DVD Recorder (which involved some shouting, some frantic button pressing and an axe... look, I don't want to talk about it, OK?) I decided that it was time to, well, upgrade. Since most of our home recording is time-shift viewing related (i.e. TV programmes we want to see once and then delete), I thought it would be a good idea to buy a DVD/HDD recorder. And since we are always running out of space (4 hours DVD space gets you only so far) I was looking for something a substantial HDD drive. Unfortunately I soon concluded that off-the-shelf recorders: 1. have an awkward, impractical and just fugly user interface and 2. are quite expensive for what they are (£500,-- for a Sony RDRHXD1070? I think not!). So what does a self-respecting modder do? He builds his own HTPC! :dremel:

    A HTPC has other advantages besides: it can be tied into the existing home network and share music and video libraries; it can function as (yet) another internet browser and RRS reader, and it can be expanded/upgraded over the years as format wars decide on a winner (two formats enter, one format leaves...).

    My criteria for a HTPC are as follows:

    • It needs to be unobtrusive, reliable and as easy to use as an off-the-shelf device, particularly as my other half does not appreciate the esoteric satifaction us modders get out of successfully coaxing a temperamental piece of hardware into submission;
    • It needs to be quiet (obviously);
    • It needs to be economical in electricity use;
    • It needs to have a massive HDD to accomodate all that crap that I'll probably never get around to watching. But hey: a DVD recorder is for recording stuff so that you could have watched it.

    WAY OF THE PASSIVE COOLING.

    The Wise Master knows that the most efficient way to defeat an enemy is to use his strength against him. Therefore, the only way you can have a really quiet machine is by cutting out the fans and employing passive cooling. For those not yet in the know (and which planet have you been living on for the last five years?) this is not cooling that looks at a hot CPU and goes: "Meh..." (shrugs), but cooling that relies on heat transfer and radiation not employing active means such as fans and pumps. This tends to involve massive heatsinks, but the problem with that is that the chips which require cooling tend to be in rather inaccessible and cramped spaces inside a PC case, where there is not much room to bolt a large sink. However, this problem was effectively solved with the advent of heatpipe technology.

    Heatpipes, as you will surely know, are metal tubes which contain an almost-vacuum a wick and some liquid. The idea is that the liquid evaporates at the hot end as it absorbs heat, condensates at the cooled end as it releases heat, and through capillary action of the wick is transported back to the hot end, where the cycle repeats. Heatpipes are effectively that: pipes that transport heat from one end to the other. They are the Zen of cooling: using heat's force against itself, they deflect its action and harmlessly dissipate it.

    Heatpipes have been around since at least 1979, but did not make their first appearance in CPU heatsinks until 2003 in two Thermal Transtech offerings, the TTIC-NPH-1 and TTIC-NPH-2. Thermalright soon followed suit with their SP-94. A new way of PC cooling was born.

    The two main manufacturers that currently specialise in producing passively cooled HTPCs are Hush Technologies and mCubed HFX.

    Hush makes machines to order, but even their basic UK market offering, the Hush UK-E1200, costs around £1200,--... For that eye-watering sum you do get a beautifully designed and constructed, fully pre-built and loaded machine that just needs hooking up to the TV and plugging in. If you can still afford the TV or the electricity.

    The alternative is a kit made by mCubed and sold by themselves as well as places like KustomPC and QuietPC. This consists of a passively cooled aluminium case much in the same vein as the Hush PC, but the end-user provides all the internal hardware and puts it all together himself. At a price of about £276,-- this appears a considerably cheaper solution for something of roughly equal build quality, while offering greater flexibility in determining your own specs for the hardware.

    In practice however things are not that simple: the case is just the start. To get a working system you need to add to that:

    • The CPU block with heatpipes: £65,--
    • The NB block with heatpipes: £41,--
    • The DVD drive in a specific sound-dampening housing: £105,--
    • The PSU: £95,-- to £121,-- (depending on spec)
    • The IR remote: £36,--
    • Various riser cards to be able to fit PCI cards into the motherboard at a 90 degree angle (more on that later): about £76,--
    • Optionally, a dual HDD sound-dampening housing: £29,--
    • Optionally, a GPU block with heat pipes: £54,--

    ...and before you know it, you are looking at a significant outlay of £694,-- to £803,--, just for the case. Motherboard, CPU, memory, HDD, tuner card, Operating System and optionally, graphic card still need to be added to that. :blah:

    It is hard to see then, how this is a preferable option to the Hush PC which may come at roughly the same price but without the aggravation of having to put it all together yourself. Isn't it?

    Well, yes and no. Although the HFX kit is only sold by a few outlets for roughly the same price (KustomPC tends to have the edge when it comes to who is cheaper), there is a wonderful place where occasionally, items come up at a ridiculously cheap price, where a bit of searching and persistence save you big bucks, where there is treasure: eBay. :D

    So this thread is in part:

    • A project log of my HTPC build;
    • A review of the HFX Mini case;
    • A how-to on building on a budget.
     
    Last edited: 8 Jun 2008
  2. Nexxo

    Nexxo * Prefab Sprout – The King of Rock 'n' Roll

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    POINTS MEAN PRICES:

    My first purchase was the case. A dilligent Google dug up an ex-demo HFX Mini case in the clearance section at QuietPC.

    [​IMG]

    B-grade HFX Mini: £200,--. Saving: £76,--

    The HFX Mini will accomodate any ATX motherboard, although it was designed with particularly mini-ATX HTPC motherbards in mind, and in principle will manage to cool any CPU with a TDP of up to around 70 Watts (and a graphic card up to the same). This is not going to suit a games rig: anyone dreaming of quad-core processing or anything more beefy than an nVidea 8600GT walk away now. The case simply won't be able to displace the heat.

    My requirements were for a cool, quiet and economical machine, preferably built around a Pentium Core Duo Mobile CPU, which (being a laptop chip) has the advantage of offering dual core processing power at only 31W TDP while being able to tolerate up to 100C temperatures. There are several mATX motherboards with HTPC features based around an Intel 945GT chipset that will accomodate a Pentium Mobile: the Abit IL-90NV, the MSI 945GT Speedster-A4R and the Aopen i945GTm to name a few; and also items like the MSI RS3M-IL which is based around a rather tasty ATi Radeon 9100 IGP and ATI IXP150 chipset. Most of these are more than a year old now however, and rapidly disappearing from the market. If you want one, snap up a bargain now.

    I aimed for an Aopen i945GTm but found that these are either unobtainable, or come at a price of £150,--. However a quick search on eBay found some refurb Aopen i945GMm mobos for £60,--, which are pretty much identical in spec except for a graphic bus that is clocked somewhat lower, and therefore runs cooler --the Aopen i945GMm has a TDP of 7.0W while the i945GTm has a TDP of 15.0W. However all this makes no appreciable difference at all for an HTPC. It also is not Viiv rated like the i945GTm, but anyone knows that Viiv actually does not mean anything.

    It includes integrated 8-channel audio (Realtek ALC882D). Also integrated into the board is Gigabit Ethernet, DVI, VGA and S-video (which will convert to YPbPr HDMI with an adapter), a x16 PCI-E graphics slot and 8 USB ports. Ideosyncratically, it has two SO-DIMM memory slots which can support up to 2GB of DDR2 667/533 or 400MHz memory which, although slightly more expensive than standard DIMMs, is just as easy to find and buy, especially on eBay. Power consumption and heat-wise, a system based on this motherboard will run at around 36W when idle (Mobo+CPU+HDD), a bit over 60W under load, and under 3W when sleeping. Which is just one watt more than soft-power-off.

    [​IMG]

    Refurb Aopen i945GMm-VHL motherboard (via eBay): £60,--. Saving: £100,--

    This is topped with the fastest dual core Mobile CPU I could reasonably buy. The previous generation of Core Duo's (Yonah2) are dropping in price now the (slightly) new and improved Core 2 Duo (Conroe) series has hit the market. For HTPC purposes, there is no appreciable advantage, but it means that Yonah2 chips come cheaper now. Nevertheless, the price for a T2700 (dual 2.33GHz - 2x2MB) is still around £350,--. Better hit eBay again:

    T2700 Core Duo Pentium Mobile (via eBay): £50,--. Saving: £300,--

    Memory is also easy to get on eBay:

    2 sticks of AData SODIMM 1Gb PC2 PC-5300 667Mhz: £24,-- Saving: £10,--

    HFX components crop up few and far between on eBay. Yet I still managed to get a riser card cheap (saving: £10,--) and on enquiring with the seller, he also had a HFX DVD drive lying around, which he was prepared to sell for £17,-- (saving: £88,--). This is a Plextor slot-loading laptop DVD-writer which comes in the HFX specific sound-dampening mountings:

    [​IMG]

    The HDD needs to be large, but also run cool and quiet. Enter the Western Digital GreenPower 1Tb WD10EACS.

    [​IMG]

    This drive is not the fastest performer in the 1Tb league, but in a HTPC that is not a consideration. What is important is its low power consumption of 3.8 Watts idle/7.6 Watts active (and hence its low temperature), and its quiet operation of 35.9 dB. Again, strategic eBaying got me one for £124,--. Typically, Scan Computers then dropped its price from around £150,-- to the same level, so saving: £0,--. Win some, lose some...

    Next the tuner card: The Hauppage WinTV Nova-T-500.

    [​IMG]

    This is a dual DVB tuner card, which enables me to watch one channel while recording another, or record two simultaneously. This is a consideration for me as my Phillips plasma screen comes with a separate tuner box, which is to be replaced by the HTPC. On its own, it is just a VGA monitor with built-in speakers (albeit a high-res 32" plasma one). In principle, a media player OS like Windows Media Center allows for up to four tuners to be installed. That should solve your viewing conflicts...
    Cheapest market price for this card is £53,-- inc. delivery, but after several attempts I managed to eBay one for £30,--. Saving: £23,--.

    The remaining HFX items were bought at KustomPC for the going price. Still, my total savings are £597,-- on the main components! This is why it always pays to shop around.
     
    Last edited: 9 Jun 2008
  3. Nexxo

    Nexxo * Prefab Sprout – The King of Rock 'n' Roll

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    THE HFX CASE:

    First impressions are of a well-packed, soldidly heavy aluminium case. The biggest contribution to its weight comes in the shape of its two massive heatsinks on the side. The fins of the heatsinks are ridged for extra comfort surface area:

    [​IMG]

    The silver top and front panel are machined and brushed 3mm aluminium, while the main part of the case is 2mm powdercoated steel. It has to be steel --aluminium does not have the structural integrity to keep the case from collapsing under the weight of its heatsinks. It is a heavy case --about 6Kgs. There are no appreciable sharp edges and the lot feels well-finished.

    [​IMG]

    With the case comes a plastic bag with a bunch of acrylic parts that will form the DVD/HDD cradle, and a lot of metal screws and rods (already test-fitted in the picture above) and a heat pipe mounting plate. There is also a manual that does a reasonable job in describing how to put it all together, except that it is not at all clear what screws are used for what --and there are several different types. However a bit of educated guessing generall helps to work it all out.

    The manual actually refers mostly to the later acrylic-topped versions of the HFX Mini, but internally, construction of the case is pretty much identical so that does not matter. What does matter is that in its description of how to install the PSU components, it hopelessly gets the different versions confused (more on that later).

    This is a particular bug-bear about the HFX kit throughout --not all components come with complete (or clear) installation instructions and particularly with the different PSUs and the IR remote things get rather vague. Moreover it is not at all clear which of the many different screws included in the package need to be used where, so you're left guessing and experimenting a bit. At times, quite a bit. This can lead to problems: some people have damaged blocks by using slightly the wrong length of scew, for instance.

    WOW! vs. WTF?

    Another problem is that the quality of the kit is not consistent throughout. Some aspects of the case are "WOW!": solidly built and well-finished, with some elegant implementations like e.g. the sound-dampening DVD mounting. Other bits seem "WTF?": badly thought through (if at all) or poorly finished, resulting in some frustration and modding solutions on occasion. This kit is presented as easy enough to build by anyone who has at least once put a standard PC together, but this is, I think, taking slight liberties with the truth. Moderate modding skill is definitely required and my impression from the mCubed Support Forums is that those who lack such l33t modding skillz appear to get unstuck on some of the more tricky aspects of the case.


    BOB THE BUILDER: CAN HE FIX IT?

    The first problem becomes apparent when trying to mount the HDD in the position illustrated below:

    [​IMG]

    This is one of two options. The other option is to buy the HDD sound-dampening box (£29,--) which mounts in the front-bottom of the case, below the DVD drive. When using something as quiet as a WD10EACS, this is overkill, hence option two, which is to mount it alongside the DVD. When doing that however, the HDD (depending on model) may interfere with the dome-shaped screw head that secures the acrylic HDD/DVD cradle to the front of the case:

    [​IMG]

    The solution is to countersink the hole and fit a countersunk M3 screw. Easy for the modder who has the tools, frustrating for the relative newbie.

    The next problem is potentially more serious, particularly in a passive cooling setup in which optimal efficiency counts. And that problem concerns the blocks.

    In order to cool the CPU and NB in this specific case, two blocks must be acquired: the Borg CPU Mini and the BorgFX bridge for the NB chipset. If you plan to fit a dedicated graphic card, the BorgFX VGA is necessary as well.

    Both kits present as quite tidy, with all the bits and bobs required for mounting, including four heatpipes each, thermal paste, screwdriver and allen key, a little sheet detailing those bits and bobs and a manual. This is the "WOW" part of the kits...

    The Borg CPU Mini:
    [​IMG]

    The BorgFX bridge:
    [​IMG]

    ...and here is the WTF? part:

    The Borg CPU Mini, underside:
    [​IMG]

    The BorgFX bridge, underside (the black one):
    [​IMG]

    That's right: both blocks are in desperate need of lapping! :eeek: Astonishingly, no mention is ever made of this in the manual or on the support forums. Proper lapping can easily shave anything between 2-3 degrees of your temperatures, so especially with passively cooled setups which can run relatively hot, and where heat has to travel through several boundary layers (chip die to block, block to heatpipe clamp, clamp to heatpipe, heatpipe to case wall-mounted clamp, clamp to case wall) a good thermal transfer is vital.
     
    Last edited: 23 Jun 2008
  4. Nexxo

    Nexxo * Prefab Sprout – The King of Rock 'n' Roll

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    Some initial sanding shows just how uneven the blocks are:

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    Note how the area below (in the picture, above) the screw hole protrudes on the NB block.

    ...but with some elbow grease, sandpaper, dremel and polishing paste (I won't bore you with the details, we're all real he-man modders here, we know how to lap) this is the result:

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    Shiney.

    Of course, the other side of the CPU block needs to make good contact with the heat pipe clamp plate. Again, these surfaces are not exactly smooth:

    [​IMG]

    ...which a bit of sanding reveals even more:

    [​IMG]

    So again with the lapping to get the following result:

    [​IMG]

    The CPU block loses its nickel plating in the process, but that does in no way affect its functioning. What it does show is that the block is solid copper. This is a Good Thing, but lapping makes a good block better. :dremel:

    Putting the NB block onto the northbridge of the motherboard reveals another slight flaw: the M3 screws are only just long enough. They could do with being 2mm longer.

    [​IMG]

    The heatpipe wall plate which will connect to the heatpipes coming from the Northbridge is a straightforward fit. Only one of these is included in the case kit. This is again slightly annoying as having another one for the opposing case wall would give a few more useful ways to connect heatpipes to an optional graphic card. As it stands, only the pre-fitted mounting plate (the opposite counterpart of the one for the CPU block) is available.

    When fitting this plate, thermal paste needs to be applied --more generously than you would with a CPU/heatsink.

    [​IMG]

    This is then pressed to the wall with small, circular motions to spread the paste:

    [​IMG]

    And then screwed in place with two countersunk M3 screws.

    [​IMG]

    Once the motherboard is fitted (AFTER fitting the blocks), it is time to fit the heatpipes. These L-shaped pipes are 6mm diameter nickel-platted brass tubes that can be bent to fit with very little force. I was concerned that this might make the nickel plating crack and flake off, which generally you don't want inside a delicate electronic device, but my fears were totally unfounded.

    The bending itself is a delicate process. Too sharp bends will impair functioning of the heatpipe dramatically. If the wall is pierced, they are useless. They can also easily be damaged by repeatedly bending them back and forth, so fitting them is a process of bend-a-little, fit, bend-a-little, fit... Once you have bent them in shape, there is no going back: no changing the motherboard (and hence the block positions) or the pipe routing. Plan carefully... Luckily mCubed sells individual pipes so if you ever upgrade your mobo you can simply bend a new set of pipes to fit.

    The pipes should lay comfortably in the channels of both the block and the wall plate without needing to press them in place. Once they are the right shape, it is again a matter of generously applying thermal paste in the channels (on both the block/wall plate and the clamping plate), putting the pipes in place and screwing things down. Below the NB pipes fitted...

    [​IMG]

    And here, the CPU pipes as well.

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    It is important to keep things tidy and well-planned. Some people have made elaborate arrangements with heatpipe and clamp extentions going all across the case to the opposite walls. Apart from the fact that each extention reduces thermal transfer effectiveness so no actual gains are achieved, it makes for a messy case and should not at all be necessary if they lapped the blocks and planned the build carefully in the first place.
     
    Last edited: 30 Jun 2008
  5. Burnout21

    Burnout21 Is the daddy!

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    Nice log, might end up as a sticky!
     
  6. r4tch3t

    r4tch3t hmmmm....

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    That looks like one very nice case.

    Nice work :thumb:
     
  7. Matticus

    Matticus ...

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    Damn I was waiting for you to finish before I posted.
    I was going to post sooner, but I didn't want to steal your log order, though I imagine you would have gone all admin on my ass and moved it me if was in the way. Plus no one else had posted and I was thinking "maybe they all know something I don't" :hehe:

    And I only find it finished from your dead psu post.

    Anyhow, at the time I wanted to post I was about to build a HTPC, but now I am not. So I can't remember what I was going to say :wallbash:

    But it does look damn nice, and a very interesting design with the case being integrated into the cooling.
     
  8. Nexxo

    Nexxo * Prefab Sprout – The King of Rock 'n' Roll

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    RISE TO THE OCCASION...

    The next build stage concerns the most vexing aspect of the case: the riser cards.

    I assume the idea was to keep the case compatible with full-height PCI cards, but this is totally unnecessary! Practically all PCI cards relevant for HTPCs such as sound cards and TV tuner cards come in half-height format, and since due to its passive cooling arrangement the case is limited to lower-end graphic cards (not exceeding 75 Watts), half-height versions can be selected also. There is no reason to accomodate full-height cards.

    At the very least mCubed could have issued a back panel with vertical half-height card slots, seeing as it has gone through the effort to issue an optional back panel with SCART and HiFi connectors. This would totally obviate the need for any complicated riser card arrangement and guarantee compatibility with any combination of PCI slots on any mATX or ATX board. Instead, the user is limited to three expansion slots (choose your cards carefully) angled at 90 degrees to the motherboard, in which cards have to be mounted in a specific order to maintain compatiblity with the order of PCI slots on the motherboard... If the first slot on the motherboard is not a PCIe x16 slot but, say, a PCIe x1 slot, you're stuffed.

    Moreover, you need to buy the Top PCI riser card to get the arcylic mounting panel and relevant screws that are needed to mount the Middle PCI riser card, even if you don't need the Top PCI riser card. But you cannot use the Middle PCI riser card if you plan to use the PCIe x16 riser card to add a dedicated graphics card (which, incidentally, does not need the mounting panel). You can also install either a Bottom PCI riser card or a PCIe x1 riser card, which again do not need the mounting panel. Confused? I was.

    [​IMG]

    For this case, I ended up selecting a PCIe x1 card for the Abit PCIe x1 WiFi network card (your HTPC needs an internet connection to download TV guide and optional media content, after all), and a Top PCI riser card for the TV Tuner. The case kit includes a set of plastic black brackets which are screwed to the outside of the back panel and allow the PCI cards or blanking plates to be secured in their slots with the usual mounting screws. There are counterparts for the inside of the case which hold the tab of the PCI card or blanking plates, but I found these a bad fit and quite useless. The mounting instructions here are notoriously vague and it appears again a bit of a sloppy afterthought solution.

    As I mentioned before, when mounting the HDD in the acrylic HDD/DVD cradle it becomes quickly obvious that it interferes with the dome-headed M3 screws that fasten it to the front panel of the case. The PSU comes with an internal circuit:

    [​IMG]

    ...that is mounted to this cradle also, with spacers (one of which is illustrated on the circuit board) and --you guessed it-- dome-headed screws that interfere with the HDD (another option is to mount it on top of the sound-insulating dual HDD case, if you bought that one).

    In order to make this arrangement possible, the acrylic cradle panels really should have countersunk holes and screws mounting flush with the surface of the cradle panels, so that a HDD can be mounted in the desired position without interference. Modding requires a drill press and a countersink drill bit:

    [​IMG]

    Resulting in the desired flush mount of the screws:

    [​IMG]

    The spacers, incidentally, are rather tiny (2mm) and result in the circuit board being mounted right against the acrylic panel. I have my doubts about this, as the circuit does get warm in use. As such I used some 10mm spacers instead. There are other problems with the PSU, which I will return to.


    REMOTE, REMOTE...

    The HFX Mini can be controlled with a Windows MCE remote through an (optional) internal receiver circuit. This is attached with velcro (yes, velcro. Don't get me wrong --it is sturdily attached, but still...) to the side of the acrylic cradle that faces the front panel.

    [​IMG]

    Again, several problems become immediately obvious. One is that it is a very tight fit, mainly because of the thickness of the connectors of the circuit (it is not made very clear which is the USB connector and which is the IR blaster connector; the manual confuses the two. Read the circuit board symbols carefully. In any case no damage is done if you get it wrong --it just won't work).

    [​IMG]

    Another is that the included USB cable which connects the circuit to a USB header on the motherboard is really several inches too short:

    [​IMG]

    And another is that the plastic light guide that channels the infra-red beam from the lens in the front bezel of the case to the IR receiver diode on the circuit is two mm too thin. When mounted (with a screw to the front panel bracket that also holds the front audio and USB ports), it does not align correctly with the lens. As such, several posters on the mCubed support forum have noted problems getting the HTPC to see the remote. A simple remedy however is to prop this light guide up with a 2mm nut or washer:

    [​IMG]

    When properly aligned, it should be in-line with the audio ports right next to it:

    [​IMG]

    ...and I can assure you that it works perfectly fine then. The remote that comes with the circuit is a new version (picured right) of the traditional Windows MCE remote (pictured left). It is slightly larger than the original, and slightly lighter:

    [​IMG]

    Although at first glance it looks flash, in use I found the layout of the buttons not as intuitive as on the older version, and not lying as comfortably under the thumb. The press action rather spongier. The IR window is smaller and it appears to shoot a narrower beam.
     
    Last edited: 5 Jul 2008
  9. Nexxo

    Nexxo * Prefab Sprout – The King of Rock 'n' Roll

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    DRIVE.

    The DVD mounting is one of the most elegant aspects of the case. The DVD-RAM is encased in rubber with a copper strip on the side which is in contact with the outer wall, presumably to aid cooling. It is sandwiched between two acrylic plates which are in turn wedged in slots in the cradle. The cable trailing from the drive connects to a header on the front panel which in turn connects to the Eject button.

    [​IMG]

    The DVD-RAM is a good quality Plextor drive and configured for Cable Select. This means that you can connect to both the Master or Slave connector of the IDE cable and it will happily configure and work to suit. Included with the drive is a laptop drive to desktop IDE connector, which allows a standard IDE cable to be used, and a floppy molex for power:

    [​IMG]

    For a cramped setup like this case, I find that conventional flat IDE cables, folded strategically like origami, work best. Because only one connector is needed, the surplus was removed with a very sharp scalpel (it has to be sharp; frayed cables = short circuit = disaster!).

    [​IMG]

    The HDD is best connected with as short a SATA cable as possible, preferably with a 90degree angled connector on the motherboard end (lest it interferes with the internal PSU circuit). AC Ryan does a nice 30cm one, which can be snapped up from eBay for a few quid.

    [​IMG]
     
    Last edited: 5 Jul 2008
  10. Quadbrick

    Quadbrick New Member

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    Thanks for this thread. As you i'm building a HFX mini right now. Your items are very helpfull.
    My config is a bit diffrent as I bought a new model mini a polycarbonate black/black with the hdd enclosure and the big external PSU the IMON VFD and the BorgFX cpu block. The set will be mounted with a ATX board Asus P5GDC-deluxe and a Asus GT 8600 Silent (passive)

    With this set you quickly run into 3 items:
    The PSU circuit board holes to not match the acrilic (so creating additional ones is a must)
    The led wires from the front panel are not labeled. So I still have to figure out which wire ( 2x 2 wires) should co to what pin.
    It al bearly fits. And the sideway 2nd IDE connector on the motherboard had to be removed.

    Anyway thanks for all the pics, and if yoy have a tip about the wire connections for the 2 front leds it's mot appreciated.

    T

    Thanks for the info, that's useful. The EF16 circuit board has different dimensions from the EF28 circuit board but in my case holes were pre-drilled for both. Sideways IDE connectors are indeed a problem but sometimes modifying the connector of the IDE cable helps.

    As for the LED connections, see this image from the mCubed.

    Basically: RED LED: yellow wire to motherboard pin "HDD LED+" and the red wire to motherboard pin "HDD LED-"; GREEN LED: white wire to motehrboard pin "PWR LED+" and black wire to motherboard pin "PWR LED-".

    --Nexxo
     
    Last edited by a moderator: 5 Jul 2008
  11. Nexxo

    Nexxo * Prefab Sprout – The King of Rock 'n' Roll

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    THE POWAH...

    Next, the PSU. There are two versions for this case, both passively cooled. One is the EF16, a 165 Watts max. (120 Watts continuous) brick that looks like an overgrown laptop supply and connects with a 2.5mm DC power connector to the case.

    [​IMG]

    Inside the case is the final converter circuit that connects with a 20-pin to 24-pin converter cable (included) to the motherboard. It also has two floppy connectors to which you can connect cables to feed harddisks and DVD drives.

    [​IMG]

    Several more irritating problems arise. First, all mATX motherboards for HTPCs have their motherboard connector on the front edge (I checked). This means that with the cradle in place, the motherboard power cables sort of have to bend at an acute angle to reach. If the case was just all of 15mm longer, this problem could have been avoided (and would also avoid problems with sideways-mounted SATA and IDE ports on some motherboards). The next problem is that the additional cables that connect to the drive are configured in a way that makes poor sense:

    [​IMG]

    That's right: one holds two SATA HDD connectors, and the other two DVD molex connectors. Now how many HTPCs do you know that have two DVDs? Right. It would have been much better for each cable to have one SATA HDD connector and one DVD moles connector, as this is the most common configuration for most HTPCs: one DVD drive and one HDD. In a cramped setup like this, you really don't want any superfluous cables trailing about.

    The PSU connects to the mains with a cloverleaf-type lead. Unfortunately it is an European lead, so we in the UK have to eBay our own.

    Another problem is that the 2.5mm DC power connector is held to the back plate with... a rubber grommet.

    [​IMG]

    That's right: not the usual nut that you'd reasonably expect to be included with the connector, specifically designed for that purpose, but a rubber ring. I'm not sure whether the nut should have been included in the kit but was accidentally ommitted, or whether this was all intentional. The manual again is very unclear, as it seems rather undecided whether it is talking about the EF16 PSU, or its bigger brother, the EF28 (which I will discuss later). It seems to refer to one, then to the other, and it is never quite clear which. In any case, it does not work. I mean, who thinks of these things?!?

    The most important problem however is, that the PSU does not work. Or rather, it works fine, but not with any motherboard based on the Intel i945 chipset such as the Aopen i945 series or the Abit iL-90MV: they refuse to boot. This fact is sort of occasionally casually acknowledged on the mCubed forums if you search hard enough, but never made explicitly clear in their shop or in their manual. Given that their pre-built HTPCs are specifically based on an i945 chipset motherboard (the Aopen i945GTM-VHL in fact), you can assume mCubed to know about this, as they deliberately supply these cases with the more beefy EF28 PSU.

    Moreover, KustomPC did mention this problem. It suggests that it can be remedied by setting the RAM voltage select in BIOS from "Auto" to "1.8Volts". Unfortunately, the Aopen motherboard does not have a RAM voltage setting in BIOS. Luckily the Abit iL-90VM does.

    The other PSU is the EF28, which turns out 280 Watts max (200 Watts continuous).

    [​IMG]

    This altogether beefier, again passively cooled block is bigger than the EF16:

    [​IMG]

    ...and comes again with an internal PSU circuit. This has fewer components on it and the absence of a heatsink seems to suggest it gets much less warm (which was borne out in tests). Moreover, it has a single cable with one floppy molex for the DVD and one standard molex for the HDD --a much more sensible arrangement --unless you have a SATA HDD. A molex to SATA adapter would have been really useful here, given that they only cost a pound, and although the mCubed website suggests that one is included in the box, I could not find it. What was helpfully included was an European to UK mains plug adapter, although the mains lead included is one of the ubiquitous D-connector type we probably have ten of in a drawer. The manual consists of one tiny sheet illustrating how to mount the internal PSU circuit (only one option illustrated here; typically the one that interferes with the HDD) and hook the cable up to the internal PSU circuit.

    The final arrangement is below:

    [​IMG]

    The lead from the PSU block to the case runs through a hole in the backplate which lined again with a rubber grommet. The first thing that is noticeable is that the connectors that fit to the internal PSU circuit are too big to fit through the rubber grommet or this hole:

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    The trick, not at all made clear in the manual, is that you need to put one connector through first, and then the other.

    [​IMG]

    Even then there is quite a bit of finger wrestling involved, but in the end it fits. I recommend that on the inside of the case a cable tie (not included) is strapped around the cable to prevent a jank on this cable from pulling its connectors off the internal PSU circuit. I also suggest a self-adhesive cable clip (not included) to hold things nicely in place.

    [​IMG]
     
    Last edited: 6 Jul 2008
  12. Nexxo

    Nexxo * Prefab Sprout – The King of Rock 'n' Roll

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    SEE HOW IT RUNS:

    Turning on the machine is a strange experience: no whirring of fans, nothing to reveal that the machine is actually booting up except a little beep from the piezo-electric buzzer on the motherboard. The WD10EACS is inaudible at idle (I had to put my ear to the unit to hear the platters spin) and head activity is an ocasional muted, soft purring that is only audible in a quiet room. The DVD drive gives a soft, muted whoosh when spinning up to full speed, but settles down to being inaudible when playing a DVD. The whole machine is as quiet as passively cooled machines are supposed to be.

    The motherboard NB generates about 7 to 15 Watts, and the CPU 35 Watts. In use the NB block is barely warm to the touch, while the CPU block is perhaps a comfortable 30C. The fins on the side of the case get barely warm at all and it seems like the case could displace a lot more heat if required.

    In BIOS the temperatures are as follows:

    [​IMG]

    And when running Windows Media Center for a few hours or so (in Windows is where all the clever power management software comes into play):

    [​IMG]

    ... which is tidy. Note that the HDD gets no hotter than 43C.

    The well-ventilated PSU gets warm to the touch, but not hot.

    All in all, it makes for a good-looking, well-functioning, quiet HTPC.

    [​IMG]


    SUMMARY:

    The HFX Mini is a sturdy, well-built passively cooled case. Some aspects of it ooze quality, yet an equal number of other aspects are irritatingly flawed and require extensive modding:

    • Why (oh why) does the case have an awkward riser card arrangement, when there are many half-height PCI cards on the market? It would be better to have the back panel of the HFX Mini with vertical half-height blanking plate slots. That way people can simply use the slots on any ATX board, regardless of their order, without resorting to complicated riser card arrangements. Alternatively, such a back panel could be sold as an aftermarket accessory.

    • The plastic bits that secure the PCI card backplates or blanking plates are somewhat inadequate and need to be redesigned.

    • The whole case really is 15mm too short, not allowing for adequate clearance between the (mini-)ATX motherboard and the DVD/HDD cradle in front. This creates problems with motherboards where the ATX power connector is at the front edge (as is the case with most mini-ATX HTPC motherboards). The ATX power cable bundle has to fold sharply back under the cradle (which it only barely managed) and ends up getting in the way of the high CPU block. A small lengthening of the case would resolve this.

    • The acrylic crossbars which form the cradle holding the DVD drive, the power supply circuit, the IR remote receiver and (optionally) a HDD really should be made of aluminium. This way it can dissipate some of the HDD heat (possibly by connecting a heatpipe arrangement going to the left outer wall), and the mounting holes could be more easily countersunk. This is necessary because most HDDs mounted in the optional location illustrated interferes with the heads of the screws connecting the whole cradle to the front panel, and connecting the PSU circuit to the cradle.

    • The IR receiver circuit location seems a bit of an afterthought. It interferes with the center mounting screw on one side of the HDD (again, countersunk screws would be preferable), and its connectors make it slightly too thick to comforably squeeze in location. And why velcro for mounting?

    • The light guide for the IR circuit needs to be 2 mm thicker, or else be propped up with a 2mm washer to properly align with the lens on the HFX Mini Metal case.

    • The USB cable that connects the IR receiver circuit to the motherboard is at least 5cm (2 inches) too short.

    • The PSU circuit for the EF16 PSU has a big heatsink now (which is good) that with slight modification would allow connection of two heatpipes to run between it and the left wall. Another way of getting rid of some internal heat!

    • The rubber washer which fastens the EF16 power line connector to the back of the case is totally inadequate. Apart from the difficulty in wedging the connector into the rubber washer once fitted in the back panel hole, a gentle push with the PSU connector causes it to pop back into the case. I really don't know why the standard nut that is normally provided with such connectors was not used!

    • The layout of the cables from the internal PSU circuit board to the HDD and DVD drive(s) could be better. Currently, one has two SATA connectors, and one two standard molexes and a mini-molex. It would be more logical for one to have one SATA connector and one mini-molex for the DVD, as this is the most commonly used configuration for a HTPC. For those who wish to use additional HDDs, the optional second cable could have a combination of SATA and/or standard molex connectors (mCubed could sell several different combinations, or sell various splitters). In a small, passively cooled case space is at a premium and needs to be used optimally. That means no trailing cables that are not used for anything.

    • All the blocks need to be lapped. The bottoms are rough and uneven, and this may come at a penalty of several degrees in temperature.

    • The NB block screws need to be 2mm longer to be adequately compatible with most boards.

    • The fan mount in the grille of the HFX mini case lid under the right-sided hole can interfere with heatpipes running from the CPU block to the wall on the right. It would have been better to shift this to the middle hole (not the left, as that interferes with any cards!), or make it removable altogether.

    The final question is: would I recommend this case? Is it value for money?

    Well... yes and no.

    YES:

    If you compare it to other passively cooled HTPCs on the market, like the Hush PC UK-E1200 or the Hoojum Cubit PCs then it is undoubtedly cheaper --if only by a few hundred pounds. Moreover by shopping around on eBay for the internal components you can knock off considerably more of that price. What you get in overall quality is not that much different from the competitors' machines. The case is well-built, all sorts of necessary bits and bobs are included, and some aspects of it are very cleverly and well designed indeed.


    NO:

    On the other hand, I get the feeling that mCubed is not entirely honest with its customers. It is definitely not trying to rip people off, the price of most of its components being commensurate with their high quality. But the riser cards seem rather extravagantly priced, you need to buy a lot of "optional" extras to make for a complete kit which tots up the price, and while being squarely pitched at the consumer whose only previous experience has been to put together a generic PC, it becomes quite obvious that at least a medium level of modding skill is required to make a decent system. Looking at the mCubed support forums, most people seem to struggle to make a neat and tidy build. Hell, even mCubed seems to struggle with that, their demo case looking less tidy than even my own build with the same motherboard. It almost seems as if they never actually built the kit themselves --even though they sell pre-built systems as a matter of course.

    This is because the kit has many, many little flaws. None that are difficult to overcome, but still irritatingly many that really should not be present in a kit of this price, even when you compare it, for instance, to the Zalman TNN300 and the TNN500AF, particularly the first of which has a few irritating design flaws of its own. I guess that building a passively cooled kit is simply a complex and expensive proposition, and this is reflected in both the price and the manual, which is often confused in the details, leaving you to figure things out for yourself.

    mCubed is also remarkably obtuse on a few important details such as the incompatibility of their EF16 PSU with Intel i945 chipset-based motherboards and I think it should be more frank about such issues, as well as exactly what range of graphic cards is supported in terms of the thermal capacity of the case, how many Watts each heat pipe can manage, and the importance of smoothly lapped blocks.


    CONCLUSION:

    The mCubed HFX Mini is a quality case that genuinely works as well as it looks and has a few moments of inspired design brilliance. It is therefore all the more annoying that it has many little flaws that are purely matters of sloppiness and oversight. I am glad that I choose this case for my HTPC, but I am also glad that I managed to do it on the cheap, with an ex-demo case and used components from eBay. I think the kit is not worth its full asking price --yet. But it definitely could be, once the flaws have been worked out.

    Their latest offering, the HFX Micro, appears to be a more refined product that may offer a better price-quality balance.
     
    Last edited: 6 Jul 2008
    Singularity likes this.
  13. Guest-23315

    Guest-23315 Guest

    It looks like a very nice case indeed Nexxo, and you've done a very good Job.

    However, I'd rather save money and use a proper heastink with Omaura TF5
     
  14. Pipps

    Pipps New Member

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    This is a magnificent guide worthy of critical acclaim.

    If HFX had any acumen they would request your services as a freelance consultant to provide the significant technical and end user improvements which their product evidently needs.

    Thank you again for such a brilliant tutorial!
     
  15. docodine

    docodine killed a guy once

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    Wowzers, great build paired with an amazing guide.

    Seriously, email HFX and get them to link to your guide. :thumb:
     
  16. Ady6UK

    Ady6UK Feck Off

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    Excellent job Nexxo.:thumb: I will honestly admit that I tend to avoid long posts as I have the attention span of a goldfish. But your post definitely got my attention. It's very detailed and well explained.

    The guys are right. HFX wouldn't go far wrong with your detailed log.:thumb::thumb::thumb:
     
  17. Guest-16

    Guest-16 Guest

  18. Ady6UK

    Ady6UK Feck Off

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  19. mm vr

    mm vr The cheesecake is a lie

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    Look at the original post's date. :)
     
  20. Ady6UK

    Ady6UK Feck Off

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    Damn, I missed that.:duh:
     
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