Hardware upgrades, part 2

Okay, so the memory was sorted which left me with two things I wanted doing. The parts this time were from UK supplier Overclock, not to be confused with Overclockers from the previous posting. Both suppliers delivered very quickly and automatically took off the VAT for me, one of the perks of living in Guernsey but one that is all to often eroded by inflated shipping costs, neither of which these two suppliers can be accused of :)

Front ports & card reader

A quick scan through the few options available led me to the AeroCool CoolPanel. It features an 8-in-1 card reader, two USB 2.0 ports, an IEEE-1394 (FireWire) port, two Serial ATA (SATA) ports, composite video out, audio line in/headphones/mic sockets, two fan speed controllers and a blue LCD display showing two temperatures via it’s thermal diode cables and the fan rotations of the two fans it is controlling.

What arrived was not quite the quality I’d expected. The black plastic that forms the visible portion of the panel feels cheap and brittle. Not dwelling on that I quickly came across the second issue. The unit is dumb, little more than a collection of separate units, highlighted by the USB 2 ports and the media reader each requiring their own USB socket, so there goes 3 of your ports.

Most motherboards have a few “headers” on the board, little plugs to put in additional devices. Mine for example has a header for additional audio, an additional FireWire port and 4 additional USB ports. The cables provided with this unit will not work with these headers, instead need to travel out of the back of your PC (most likely facilitated by the permanent removal of an unused PCI blanking plate) and then plugged into the sockets on the back of your PC.

I’m not entirely sure what they hope to achieve providing such cables. The only two potential markets I see for this unit are small shops building PC’s and the people that build their own. Neither is going to be happy with a load of cables hanging out the back of his PC and then plugging into the sockets there. To make matters slightly worse the color coded audio cables seem to be incorrectly marked and I had to swap green and blue cables to get the headphone socket working. Score another stupidity point for the guys at AeroCool.

The temperature diodes work fine as do the fan controllers, but once again stupidity prevails with my fans hitting a rather high 2,000 RPM on the lowest fan setting. The video output is a bit of strange addition but as it is just a single phono socket with no circuitry you could use this as a coaxial S/PDIF output for digital audio instead.

The media reader was the only thing I was truly happy with. It installed into Windows flawlessly using generic XP drivers which meant no fiddling with out of date CD’s. Putting my 512MB SD card in it instantly opened the folder and I was pleasantly surprised by the transfer speed compared to my digital camera. It was around 4-5 times the speed although I’d obviously need to do proper tests to be sure.

Cool & quiet

The PC itself was getting mighty warm lately, perhaps partly because it lives in a desk cupboard, albeit with the door open when the PC is powered on. It’s also rather noisy despite my previous attempts to shut it up which included a rather smart black Lian Li PC61 aluminum case lined with acoustic dampening Akasa Paxmate. The power supply is a quiet Tagan 480W U01 PSU that although has temperature sensitive fans, it is reluctant to use them, instead preferring to get rather warm. While the power supply may be okay at that temperature the ATX layout means this heat becomes the problem of the nearby CPU which already has it’s own to get rid of. The system is also fitted with those rather smart rounded cables which should also help with airflow.

The CPU is outfitted with the quiet, impressive looking but unimaginatively named Zalman CNPS7000B-AlCu which I was quite happy with, so much so that I decided the loud and poor cooling fan on my Sapphire ATI Radeon 9800 Pro needed replacing with a very similar solution from Zalman, the VF700-AlCu. It fitted quickly and easily however the fan connector was not compatible with the one on the graphics board itself so it was wired up to the PSU by way of the supplied cable instead.

With the chipset already sporting an ASUS heat sink it was time to tackle the Lian Li supplied case fans, three of which were loud, of one which turned out to be dead. In true Murphy’s Law the dead fan had been the one that should have been shifting the hottest air from the CPU and PSU. I opted for the well-recommended if somewhat garish Thermaltake Smart Fan II for it’s low decibel level and built-in temperature sensing modes.

Now came the confusion of how to wire up four case fans, a CPU fan and a GPU fan to my system in as quiet a way as possible. I only had two manual fan controllers so I opted for the top case fan and one of the front two to be manually controlled, with the other front and the back case fans set to automatic temperature sensing mode. The graphics fan was hooked up in low-speed mode to the power supply utilizing it’s own cable and the CPU fan attached to the motherboard. Initially the motherboard fan was too loud but a quick trip into the BIOS enabled the ASUS Q-Fan mode which reduced it to more acceptable levels.

Next steps

In the short term I’ll probably source or butcher replacement cables for the AeroCool and get some resisters to get those fans down to reasonable speed. I may take out the Paxmate (if possible) to let the case conduct some of the heat out itself. I’m also considering whether to cut the metal away from the case where the two out fans are located. It’s easy to imagine the metal is preventing the air getting out efficiently and causing some of the noise from fans as the air pushes past. I’ll most likely cover them up with a small wire fan grill like this one.

Long term I’m already thinking about my next PC, probably some time next year. It will most likely be an Athlon 64 based system with DDR2 memory but I’ll really want to go with a case specially designed for cool and quiet operation, perhaps something similar to the Apple PowerMac G5 enclosure or maybe even see what Thermaltake, Zalman or Shuttle come up with.


0 responses