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Suggestions for Low Power Media Center PC/server with no video display required on box

Posted on 2007-10-08
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Hi,

I have been running MS Media Center for many years now, my 'home server' current setup is Vista Ultimate on custom built P4/prescott 3ghz, 2gig ram, gigabyte mobo, 2 HDD, 1 ODD, dual DVB-t tuner and various quiet fans from Zalman etc plus a 600w PSU.   I have been reasonably happy with it apart from power consumption and noise (it is a prescott processor afterall, and Im looking for silence).

With the new media center extenders hitting the market soon (i already use two xbox 360's) i am thinking about rebuilding my 'home server' so that it does not actually act as a media center directly at all, but simply acts as a device which receieves the extenders remote desktop connections, manages the tuners, and is a glorified NAS.

With this build I am looking for MINIMUM power usage and as close to silence as I can get.

Here is where I am looking for advice....

1) CPU/MOBO
I think i have narrowed down my mobo/cpu to either a Intel Core 2 Duo, a Pentium M or a completley different Via chipset.  Best power performance seems to be with the Via, but I have concerns about Vista Ultimate on say a 1 or 1.5ghz mini-itx setup.   Does it matter though, it wont actually be doing any video on the box itself?

2) Storage
 I would like a small box but equally I have 2 3.5" HDD which I would prefer to reuse....even though I am prepared for somebody to advise me to ditch and use 2.5" instead.

3) PSU
Anybody have any experience of using external power bricks with various ATX, BTX, Mini ITX mobos...and some thoughts on rating for my setup would be handy.

All I want this box to do is store, have tuners, and receieve upto 5 Media Center extender remote desktop connections.  Reliablility must come first....but after that suggestions most welcome!

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Question by:davie455
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by:Brad Groux
ID: 20036663
I've dabbled in creating car PCs for some time and a Mini-ITX board running 1GHz+ CPU and Via Chipset should be more than ample to run Vista, especially without a display and the CPU crunching Aero display running. I'd throw 2GB of RAM on there and you'd be set.

I've tested Vista Ultimate on an Intel Mini-ITX board/processor (1.1GHz) that I imported from Japan and it ran like a champ running the Media Center component with 2GB of Ram. I was also using 2.5" HDs ripped from some old notebooks.

The Mini-ITX setups with external power bricks are very quiet and very low on heat, as most don't even require a CPU fan, a heat-sink suffices enough. Remember that some UMPCs running only 800MHz CPUs have no problem running Vista with Aero turned on... so I doubt you'll have any issues.

I wouldn't waste the money on a Core 2 Duo or Pentium M, a Via will do just find for what you need.
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by:garycase
ID: 20037227
The newest G0 stepping Core 2's are an excellent choice for your server.   While the actual capture process isn't very CPU-intensive (assuming you're either capturing direct digital HD streams or hardware-encoded analog streams), any processing you do on these captured streams will definitely benefit from a Core 2.   I'd suggest an E6750 as the best price/performance tradeoff.   Since you're not going to be using the video on this system, you can use a motherboard with onboard video to save both the power consumption and the cost of a dedicated video card.

The extra horsepower of the Core 2 will also benefit in two ways:  (1)  serving several extenders simultaneously (as you've indicated you want to do); and (2) processing the video files for automated commercial skipping (which IS a CPU-intensive operation).

If you're not currently processing the files for commercials, you should take a look at DVRMST Toolbox at www.babgvant.com  ==> once you've set this up you'll wonder why you ever watched any commercials !!   It automatically processes your recordings; and if you set it to AutoSkip it simply skips right past the commercials --> I have ours set to show a "SkipBox", but there are other options you can also use.

As for quiet power supplies ==> in a word:  Seasonic.   I use nothing but, and they are amazingly quiet supplies with exceptional efficiency and rock-solid outputs.   With their 85+ % efficiency there's very little wasted energy;  they run very cool; and are exceptionally quiet.

For your CPU cooler, I'd certainly use a Zalman 9500 or 9700 (I gather from your comments that you're already familiar with these).     This, coupled with a case that uses 120mm fans (which you can run at low speed) and a Seasonic PSU will let you build a system that's virtually inaudible from more than a foot or two away.

Storage:   Rather than use a "small box" I'd do the opposite ==> if this is your server, you should add as much storage as is reasonably practical.   On my MCE server I'm using a 2TB RAID-5 array (with very quiet Samsung 500GB Spinpoint drives).
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by:davie455
ID: 20037832
wow, thanks both BradGroux and garycase.

I know there is no single right answer to this,

BradGroux, thanks for confirming what I hoped on the Mini-Itx.  It would seem this solution could work.

garycase, you raise a good point on the processing.  One of the big let downs for me in Media Center is the fact that I can actually manage to do all the gardening at home while the box sluggishly burns one dvd of recorded tv.   I'll check out the commercial skipping stuff, but I'm not sure about my processing needs as Im so dissappointed with the results anyway...even with what I regard as quite a powerful box already.           Also, I take your last point on storage but I am considering the pros and cons from a power and cooling point of view of splitting storage out into a dedicated nas or even external drives.
I have a feature-full one box solution at the moment but it just doesn't quite cut it for me overall, I'm not saying I want to ditch 'one box'...but Im thinking about it.

I know I said 5 extenders, but I dont mean 5 concurrent extenders (at the moment,and for quite a while anyway)....more than likely 2 concurrent max.

I think what I am feeling at the moment is that both should work so it's personal choice...the Intel solution will be more flexible but the via potentially more elegant.  So again, any final comments on the pros and cons of separating the storage from the horsepower welcome.

Thanks guys
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by:Brad Groux
Brad Groux earned 400 total points
ID: 20040455
I would much rather have a low power/low noise centralized storage device and extenders all around the house than one huge machine sucking giant amounts of power from it's whopping 600+ watt power supply. As you stated though, it is all about personal preference. The extra cost of the Core Duo system doesn't stop at the time of ordering the parts, the electricity bill over the lifetime increases that cost at least ten-fold. The beauty of the Mini-ITX form factor is the low heat and low power consumption. I know if I leave my gaming desktop (700W) on all month that might light bill goes up 40 bucks at least... that is a price I'm not willing to pay considering I'm only at home half the time.

As a side note, if you'd like to see what the VIA Chipsets are capable of I'd point you to the http://www.mp3car.com forums where you can see loads and loads of amazing car PC setups. I know you have no interest in a car PC but the vast majority of users there use the Mini-ITX systems to power their car PCs and I know some of them even use Media Center with them. It is a great place to see how scalable the form factor is.

The Mini-ITX form factor boards and processors are used by thousands of people to run multiple apps at a time in car pcs all around the world. Generally people have video playback running, mp3 playback and GPS all running at the same time, so the boards can handle their own... just spend the extra 50 bucks and max out the RAM and you're good to go. I love the extra power of a Core Duo, who wouldn't... but is it really what you need and that extra power costs you a lot more cash in the long run.

But again, in the long run it all comes down to personal preference.
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garycase earned 600 total points
ID: 20042019
I certainly agree the mini-ITX systems are very nice systems => but for the use described here I think a Core 2 is a much better choice.   And they're nowhere near as expensive to operate as suggested above.    An E6750 has a TDP of 65w ... and doesn't draw near that at lower CPU utilizations.   A typical operating draw of a full-configured system using an E6750 without a high-end graphics card is in the 130-150 watt range.   And if the system is set to go to an S3 standby state when not in use the draw will drop to about 10w.    A 600w power supply does not draw 600w from the utility company unless the system is demanding it ==> if the system is using 150w, then that's all the PSU draws (actually it's a bit more, depending on the efficiency of the power supply -> that's why I suggested a high-efficiency Seasonic).

Even if the system is left on 24/7 and never goes to standby, 150w x 24 hrs x 30 days is only 108kw, which at the current US average of $0.11/kwh would cost $11.88/month for electricity.   And if it was in standby mode for much of the time it would cost much less.

Further, if the hard drives are internal to the system on IDE or SATA controllers, they will "listen" to the Windows spindown commands [i.e. they will spin down when not in use and notably reduce their power consumption].   Almost all external USB drives that use power bricks run 100% of the time unless you turn them off --> they do NOT respond to spindown commands from Windows.   So you may very well use more power for the drives with a mini-ITX solution than with a dedicated box.

As noted above, however, it's really a matter of personal preference.   I simply think that a dedicated box with enough room for the storage you want is preferable to a small box that will require external storage devices.    And you'd certainly have many more options in terms of any processing you may eventually elect to do on the video files (e.g. compress them to Divx for long-term archiving with much lower storage requirements) with the horsepower of a Core 2 :-)
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by:davie455
ID: 20045113
okay, more great advice guys so thanks.

The key thing I picked up on is that external drives usually wont spin down and this will be a power drain.  So, here is where I am at,

Strange as it sounds, I find something about the Via solution just a little romantic.  They are clean and elegant and I will certainly use them in the future (I run a retail/service industry ICT company, and I like the idea of SFF Via's for embedded applications).   That said, garycase you have won me over with the Intel solution, all the follow up research supports your great recommendation of the E6750.

Fact it, I have always been a little underwhelmed with my existing solution (after the initial few weeks anyway) and I think my desire for SFF was misplaced and driven by a desire to do something very different to last time.  The E6750 with either a P35 or G33 mobo will give me great power and flexibility, I need to decide which of the chipsets I want (comments welcome) but overall this is a more flexible solution should I need to repurpose the box (more on that later).  I will use the Hauppage HVR-4000 quad tuner and probably stick with my DDR2 for the time being rather than pricey DDR3..I will research the Seasonic PSU's further and my last decisions are drives and case...which are kind of interdependant decisons really.   End of the day, fewer drives are better for power but 2.5" high capacity doesn't seem quite there yet...so I'll have a punt on the Samsung Spinpoints I think.  I like the Nexus breeze case as well as the Antec p182.  Not that I anticipate a box that is anymore noisy that my current one, I will still hide it away somewhere I think...no reason not to afterall.

At least on this project I have time because TV is currenty being served by a BT Vision box.  Here in the UK, BT launched a hybrid DTT 'Freeview' box with PVR and Ondemand/IPTV services based on Microsoft Media Room.   It works very well although I do find myself frustrated by the fact that BT have seemingly disabled much of the functionality, no doubt because it's not stable enough for mass market yet.  I intend to keep a close eye on developments however, Media Room could clearly be out of the box competition for HTPC enthusiasts.

I should also say that during my research I discovered tranquilpc T7 HSA - a launched MS Home Server product which is very appealing, and the cappucinopc guys which have a wide range of hardware aimed at different purposes....they show you can run an Intel Core 2 Duo for less than 100w.

Anyway, I mention all this for people viewing the thread at a later date.  A few hard decisions aside, Intel it is, and I thank you both for your comments....you have both helped me shape my thoughts on this.   a 60/40 in favour of garycase seems fair but please feel free to comment on my final thoughts.

Thanks again

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by:garycase
ID: 20045435
Good choice.   I definitely like the P-182 case  => I just bought one a couple of weeks ago and am putting my newest system in it.   With the top vent, and 3 120mm fans that can be set to low speed, this case provides excellent ventilation with virtually no noise.

I ordered a P35 motherboard for mine ... but in your case I'd probably suggest G33 so you don't need to buy a video card.   Toss in a nice Seasonic [I bought the 600w, but the 550w S12 would be excellent for what you're building.   I suspect you'll be very pleased with the result :-)
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by:davie455
ID: 20045539
thanks garycase,

i note the G35's shold be available within a couple of weeks so Im thinking of waiting....there seems to b a suggestion that the G35's improve onboard High Def support over the G33's?...not that it will benefit me at the moment, but it seems worth waiting for if the premium isn't too high.

Why do you think 550w psu by the way, is this for expandability and on the basis the system will draw what it needs?

I'm having a tough job not deviating from my original plan at the moment, the onboard graphics capabilites of the G33/G35 mobos makes me wonder if I do away with the living room extender and use the box instead....yet this wasn't my plan!
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by:garycase
ID: 20045657
Yes, the G35's are indeed supposed to be out SOON ("... end of September ..." was the original promise).   That's actually why I have an empty P-182 at the moment ==> I was thinking of using a G35 or X38 board.   But I got tired of waiting, so just ordered my parts this past weekend.    But for your case, a G35 board would be nearly perfect.

Using the new system as one node for a TV display also makes a lot of sense => this system will be VERY quiet (trust me -- I'm a "quiet freak" when it comes to PC's);  so you can eliminate one extender by simply using it as one of the display nodes.   The capabilities advertised for the G35 make it quite clear it will be more than up-to-the-task of driving a high quality HDTV output.

I suggested the 550w for a couple of reasons:  

(1)  I've used that exact unit in a couple of systems and (like all Seasonics) it's VERY quiet;  

(2)  it's an 80+ certified unit (means it's been formally tested to provide > 80% efficiency at all demand levels from 20% through 100% output with better than 0.9 power factor).   In fact, the Seasonic is rated at 88% => which is higher than almost any other unit.   You'll actually draw less current with this supply than you would with virtually any 250-300w non-80+ unit.   In addition, the Seasonics have 120mm fans that run at very low speeds ==> and don't speed up appreciably until the current draw gets above about 70% of rated output.   With the 550w unit, you will NEVER hit that level ... so the PSU will simply be a non-factor in the noise level of your system;

(3)  I always like to have plenty of power "headroom" in case I ever need the extra power.   If you're CERTAIN you'll never want to add a higher-end graphics card; or a large complement of hard drives; then the Seasonic S-12 II 330w supply would do nicely.   It's also 80+ certified; but is rated right at the 80% level.   You'd actually draw slightly more electrical power with this unit than with the 550w unit; and may occasionally cross the threshold where the fan ramps up to an audible (but still just barely so) level.   But it's still a good choice.


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by:davie455
ID: 20045750
garycase,

your explanations make perfect sense, and finally prompted me to check out your profile....im impressed...and it has given me even more confidence in your advice.  my confidence in EE is on the up again, after a run of no or questionable answers.   im no guru, but if you need pointers on database, .net or web development then I'll try and help you out.

This possible change of direction to drop an extender leaves me with potentially the same problem I have now, which is, in my experience, the unreliability of S3/Sleep/Hibernate/Resume/Wake on lan and associated technologies....it has just never worked reliably for me.  Maybe an integrated graphics solution will sort that out.   And if it is an under-the-telly box then I will need to rethink case...I use a Silverstone LC10 (i think) at the moment, and apart from the 2 60mm rear and 1 80mm front fans then it's pretty much the right size.   Do 120mm fans make a big difference then?  

rgds

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by:garycase
ID: 20045802
120mm fans tend to be quieter ==> simply because they can run slower and move the same volume of air.   I've gone through the same agonizing r.e. whether to use a desktop case or a nice tower with much more room ==> in my case I simply decided to do BOTH :-)   My P-182 housed system will sit behind one of my TV's;  for the other one I'm going to build a system using a nice HTPC case ... probably with a G35 motherboard & an E6750.   In the system I'm building now I went with an E6850 => same thermals as an E6750, but a bit faster [realistically a waste of $100 ... but I simply wanted the E6850 :-) ].  

The Antec Fusion is a very nice HTPC case ... but is limited to microATX motherboards.   It's got a pair of 120mm fans venting on the side.     I'm waiting to see what boards are available with the G35 before deciding on my case.   It will probably be either a Fusion or one of Silverstone's cases.   In any event, I'll pop in a Seasonic PSU -- probably the same 550w I noted above; although I MAY save a few $$ and use the 330w version.   The only exception might be if I use the Fusion case ==> since it comes with a PSU, I'll see just how noisy it is before ordering the Seasonic -- but won't hesitate to replace it if I can hear the PSU :-)

But to more directly answer your question, "Do 120mm fans make a big difference then?" ==> All other things being equal; Yes.   But the quality of the fans also matters ==> a well designed 80mm fan can be pretty quiet ... especially if you use a Zalman fanmate or other speed-controlling device.   I do tend to look hard for cases that use 120mm fans;  but that won't be the sole criteria I use in selecting a case ==> for example, Silverstone makes several very nice HTPC cases that use smaller fans.
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by:garycase
ID: 20045847
... one other comment:   I agree that most systems do not recover well from S3 standby.   In fact, I basically don't use standby anymore ==> I just leave my systems on all the time, with the video off and the drives spun down via the Power Management settings.   Yes, this draws a bit more power ... but the systems are ultra-reliable that way.   I'm not aware of any TV tuners that are "S3-friendly";  many network adapters aren't (even the onboard ones -- which is surprising);  sound cards often misbehave; video adapters often don't recover well (although most BIOS's these days have a setting to re-initialize the video adapter on return from S3 ... so video isn't an issue);  etc.   I figure this wastes about 60w relative to standby ==> so figuring my system would be on 12 hours anyway, that's 60 x 12 hrs = 720wh/day = 263kwh per year.    At the average US price of $0.11/kwh that's about $28.93 per year in extra costs.   Well worth it for rock-solid performance IMHO :-)

... standby is one area where notebook chipsets and mini-ITX systems perform much better.   They were clearly designed with standby in mind;  whereas the desktop chipsets ... for whatever reason ... simply haven't got it all together yet [as I noted, this is probably not an issue with the actual chipset; but the ancilliary devices].
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by:davie455
ID: 20045907
the only way I could manage a full or even mid tower in this location is to put it inside the tv cabinet, and since this is beuatiful 1 1/2" thick solid oak i think it would be a crime to drill ventilation holes.  I too had spotted the fusion and like it a lot, it basically looks very similar to my silverstone aparat from it has the 120mm fans BUT does not support 4 3.5" hdd's....what a conundrem.   I suppose the sensible thing to do is to try the new setup in the current case....but then I do prefer the look of the antec fusion.

I have my current rig on the floor next to me at the moment with the lid off, and all fans disconnected apart from the Zalman ZM600-HP psu fan which is noisier than I realised.  I replaced the 60mm and 80mm fans with Silenx near silent fans....I used to have a 300w fanless Silverstone PSU but everything else overheated so I had to ditch it.  Maybe I'll be okay with case I have, afterall it does support 4 HDD and full ATX!
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by:garycase
ID: 20045926
It sounds like your current case, with a Seasonic PSU and a Zalman CPU cooler, may very well do the trick.   I certainly agree you should avoid drilling holes in such a nice cabinet => and you clearly understand that it's equally bad to mount any equipment in it without those holes :-)
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