SFF Roundup, Part I: Socket 478 and 754 Systemsby Jarred Walton on February 15, 2005 2:00 PM EST
- Posted in
Aopen XC Cube AV (cont'd)
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The construction of the XC Cube is first rate, with no sharp corners and a feel of durability. The cover is made of aluminum with ventilation holes punched in it, and the frame is a combination of steel, aluminum, and plastic. For added convenience, thumb screws are used to secure the cover and the hard drive mounting bracket, but other than that small concession, the case continues to require a screwdriver. The hard drive cage slide out easily once the thumb screw is removed, and it is just as easy to put the cage back in place. The sliding action is a lot smoother than many of the other drive cages, where you feel like you have to force the cage into place.
The front panel is also well designed, and the fold-down flap that covers the front USB and other ports feels a lot more durable than on some other cases. It could still be damaged if you aren't careful, but it is made of a thicker plastic and does not feel like it will simply fall off if you bump it. There is a removable tray that houses the optical drive and flash card reader, and two screws hold it in place. Finally, we have the included CPU heat sink, a moderately-sized, all copper design with four heat pipes to help draw heat away from the CPU and up to the cooling fins. The fan on the HSF is mounted sideways and when installed, it will ventilate the warm air from the CPU through the holes in the side of the case. It's a well thought-out design.
One of the areas where nearly all of the cases have some issues is with the add-in card mount. In typical desktop cases, this area is located within the chassis and you unscrew the slot cover, insert your card, and then secure your card in place with the screw. It's not a perfect system, but it works well enough. The Aopen case has the actual mount on the outside of the case, but their design is easier to work with than most of the other cases. You remove one screw and lift up the retention mechanism, and then you can remove the empty brackets and add in your card. No screws are required to secure the cards in place, as a slight protrusion on the bottom of the retention mechanism helps to hold them in place. We're not entirely convinced of the long-term durability of this design, however, and would prefer a longer metal piece to hold the cards in place. Still, we didn't encounter any major problems during our testing.
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Assembling the unit was relatively straightforward. As with most SFFs, the included HSF is installed in the case and needs to be removed. There is a drive tray that you have to remove in order to secure the optical drive with screws, and it will also give you more room when installing the CPU. Once the CPU is installed, you replace the HSF and secure it in place with four clamps, one on each corner. While the drive tray is removed, we also installed the RAM, and when using an IDE hard drive, you should install the motherboard connection. Once all that is done, you replace the drive tray, install the HDD into its cage and slide that back in, and you're ready to boot up the system. If you're not taking pictures of the whole process, it can be done in under 10 minutes.
Once assembled, it's time to start installing the software. One key point to make here is that the InstantON software must be installed before you install Windows. In fact, it is best to have an empty hard drive (i.e. no partitions) before installing InstantON. Since we had previously used the same hard drive in another system, this caused the InstantON application to hang at the 100% complete mark and there was no information to explain what was wrong.
We would like for Aopen to include a drive partition interface in the InstantON software that would allow you to wipe all partitions, and even better would be if the software could allow you to dynamically resize an existing partition to make room for InstantON. The software appeared to do this initially, but we couldn't get InstantON to work. Whatever the case, the software needs to provide better reports to explain what is going on with the installation and hopefully allow the user to deal with any problems. If you're not going to use InstantON, of course given our earlier comments, then this is a moot point.
Once InstantON is installed, you install Windows. Simply leave the 100 to 300 MB partition in place. Then, move on to the driver installation. As is the case with most motherboards, many of the features will not be detected by the Windows setup and you will need to install the drivers afterwards. Here, Aopen has a very convenient tool called EZInstall on their driver CD. With it, you can select all of the drivers for the XC Cube and have them installed in one fell swoop. A single reboot later, and you're ready to install any other applications, update Windows, etc. For those who may not be sure where to get all the various drivers and what is and isn't required, this is very helpful.
Noise, Heat and PerformanceTo wrap things up, we'll say a little bit about the noise, heat and performance levels of the systems. Full benchmarks of these items will be provided later, but here, we provide our subjective impressions.
Starting with noise, which is likely the most important of these three areas to many, the XC Cube does not disappoint. We ran the system in two configurations: first was with the X800 Pro and second was using the integrated graphics. Our initial impression was that the unit was relatively quiet, but not substantially more so than its competitors. Later, when we moved on to running with only the IGP, we discovered just how silent a computer could be. (We also used a fanless MX440 card for TV-Out and found that the noise generated by the X800 Pro was enough to warrant retesting all of the other units both with and without the X800 Pro.)
Our SPL noise meter is only able to detect decibel values over 30 dBA reliably, and we're not testing in a sound-proof environment. With relative silence in the room, however, the meter was not able to detect the volume of the fans during most use. Periodically, the CPU or case fan would speed up to 35 dBA for a short time, but overall it was near silence. In fact, for the first time in a long time, the HDD seeking could be clearly heard and we found that the SATA Seagate drive is much louder when seeking than the IDE Seagate drive (it registered at about 45 dBA from 12 inches away).
As far as heat and performance go, the XC Cube was near the top in performance of the socket 478 systems. The one area where it fell short was in encoding performance, where it was about 10% slower than the other P4 systems; we're not sure why that one area was slower. Heat output was pretty typical for such a configuration. Pentium 4 systems definitely run warmer than Athlon 64 configurations, and you can clearly feel the heat being expelled from the case. However, we're not talking about a huge amount of heat here, and the thermal management of the motherboard appears to cope adequately with removing any heat. Even with the X800 Pro, we experienced no difficulties, and with the integrated graphics in use, we see very little cause to worry about temperatures.