by Vasily Melnik
08/22/2007 | 07:14 PM
One of the reasons we are regularly reviewing HTPC system cases on our site is because this is one of the few areas remaining in which user-assembled systems still account for a large share of the total. Why? First, the HTPC is in fact a “refined” version of the ordinary PC, differing from it mainly in the external stylization to match the appearance of hi-fi equipment. Second, this is a rather complicated area. Like with a PC, you have to be an advanced user to utilize all the features offered by a HTPC. It is this factor that has hindered the advancement of the HTPC into the market. Most people who buy hi-fi equipment (DVD-players, receivers, CD-players) do not expect it to have sophisticated controls. And they are quite right from their point of view. Why do you have to learn the way the HTPC is controlled if you can just insert the disc and press the Play button? It is simple, but not for computer geeks.
If you are one, you don’t want to multiply entities needlessly. You don’t need a separate DVD or CD player when your PC can be the all-purpose audio/video source. It is this desire to have everything in a single box that stood behind the creation of the HTPC while the arrival of digital audio/video interfaces reduced the difference in signal quality between ordinary electronic devices and the PC to zero (I don’t count in the isolated cases of poor implementation of S/PDIF on some mainboards, for example, because such are discarded at the step of choosing your components). And the problem of aesthetical compatibility between the PC and other home theater elements vanished when there appeared system cases designed like audio/video equipment.
However, these are only half-measures when it comes to entering the wide market. A simple control shell for playing, storing and managing media content is needed, but none exists and none is likely to appear in near future. The PC is a too multifunctional device to be controlled by a shell that would combine an intuitive interface, comprehensible for a non-computer person, with functionality for using all of the system features. Today, using a wireless keyboard and mouse is the best solution, the remote control being just an additional accessory. Advanced multimedia shells like IMEDIAN from Soundgraph are meant for playing content but you have to switch to the ordinary PC mode for playing games, surfing the Web, managing files, etc. As a result, the user doesn’t use special-purpose playback shells because he has his favorite player, his favorite image viewer, and his other favorite software that can be configured to work with the remote control. Thus, the most widespread modern HTPC that is fully utilized by its owner is nothing else but a PC assembled in an appropriate case and installed into a hi-fi equipment rack.
What am I driving at? I just do not agree that the PC should be considered a piece of consumer electronics because it is sold in electronic supermarkets. To buy it and to use at least 50% of its capabilities are two different things. As for HTPCs, you can’t buy a ready-made one in the exact way you need it (of course if you realize clearly what you want exactly). So, there is only one way left. You have to assemble your HTPC with your own hands. And today I’m going to review a system case that can be used to build an all-purpose HTPC system for a wide range of applications.
The system case is shipped in a plain white box with a manufacturer’s logo and the name of the model printed on it. The box lacks colorful pictures and handles but that’s normal considering the retail price of the product, about $100. This is a very affordable price for a full-format HTPC case, so you can’t expect additional bonuses. The manufacturer cut the costs wisely, though. He included foam-plastic inserts to ensure the safety of the case during transportation.
The HTPC 288SA is an example of the classic approach to designing full-format cases of this class:
The black-and-silver color scheme helps this device fit well into a rack with ordinary hi-fi equipment. The main functional elements are grouped in the central part of the front panel: a decorative faceplate of the optical drive, an informational display (optional in this model and its seat is plugged with a glossy faceplate) and a group of front connectors.
The latter group includes a couple of USB ports, a FireWire port, a microphone input, and a headphones output.
This is a classic design I just can’t have any complaints about but I do have gripes about the fastening of the card these connectors are soldered to as I’ll explain shortly. The Power and Reset buttons are placed on the right of the front panel:
The developers of this case must have been very skeptical about the existing OSes and multimedia software. Otherwise they wouldn’t have made the Reset button that large. It looks as if you are supposed to use it frequently. Well, you don’t have to understand the designer’s way of thought but you are going to confuse these two buttons at first, especially in darkness. In the left part of the front panel there is a manufacturer logo and the infrared receiver’s port.
For the case to be ventilated well, there are two blocks of vent holes in the top panel:
The same goes for the side panels…
…except that the side blocks are not symmetrical. The vent holes in the left panel are shifted towards the rear of the case. The manufacturer saw to the proper cooling of the CPU: there is a small vent grid above it.
The rear panel is designed typically for this form-factor.
Except for the small height and the somewhat unusual placement of the PSU, this is the typical layout of a mATX case. An interesting feature, there is an additional expansion card slot above the power supply.
You can’t actually put a normal card in there, but it suits perfectly for various brackets with interface ports, etc. Here, a bracket with a coaxial digital audio output is installed in that slot. You can connect it to an appropriate header on your mainboard. It’s good to have the opportunity to move a bracket with ports away from the other slots because, like any mATX case, the HTPC 288SA allows to install only two or three expansion cards at best.
To assemble a PC in this case, you only have to remove the top panel that is secured with two thumbscrews. On the reverse side of the top panel there is a small diffuser that ensures an inflow of air to the CPU cooler.
Unfortunately, it is not adjustable and suits mainly for boxed coolers.
The accessories provided with the system case are packed into the optical drive bay. They are not too numerous:
A user manual, fasteners, and a small USB adapter.
This adapter is used to connect the standard IR-receiver for working with Windows Media Center Edition. Although the receiver is equipped with an ordinary USB connector, it has to be installed inside the case. The internal design of the case is up to its pricing. Everything is simple, without any extravaganza.
A non-detachable cage for HDDs is placed in the right part. A hanger for the IR-receiver is on the left. The optical drive box is in the center.
The hanger for the IR-receiver is designed in a very simple way. It is a metallic bracket with a piece of dual-sided scotch. The receiver is just glued to the bracket and it is the quality of the scotch that determines the reliability of this fastening.
If you remove the optical drive box, you can access the card with front interface connectors and the seat of the informational display.
I want to note the sloppy fastening of the card I mentioned above. The card is secured on two guides that are not fixed with anything on one side (the two drops of polymer glue do not help at all). As a result, the card just slipped out of the guides during transportation and I had to put it back again myself. The same thing would happen when I was using the case. When I plugged in a USB device with effort, the card would just fall back into the case. This is not a great problem, however, as you can pull the ends of the guides together with a brace and the card will be fixed firmly.
I have complaints about the coaxial S/PDIF output – the cable it too thin.
I’ve got doubts about its quality, too. Even though it is a digital interface, electromagnetic interference is still undesirable for it.
Two small 60mm fans are responsible for exhausting hot air from the system case.
Such fans have proved their worth in Thermaltake’s Bach and Mozart cases. They are rather quiet (you can only hear them at their default speed late at night when the ambient noise is minimized) and feature high enough performance.
The mainboard poles are installed on podiums:
It’s not quite clear why they didn’t use taller poles instead, but there is one advantage in this solution. The welded spacer plates make the bottom of the case and, accordingly, the whole case more rigid.
The case offers a minimum of interface cables:
It’s a standard selection with an addition of power for the highlighting of the Power button and of the fan in the HDD cage.
Installing your hard drives is actually the first step in the assembly procedure. The cage is not detachable and if you install the power supply first, it will block the access to the cage. The drive is secured with only two screws:
The HDD is fixed in the bottom part of the cage with juts and rubberized inserts that also help suppress vibrations from the operating HDD.
As I mentioned above, there is an 80mm fan in front of the cage, but its efficiency is questionable. The vent holes in the front panel are too small.
This is surely not enough for the fan to work normally, so you can reduce its speed to the minimum quite safely. By doing so you reduce its noise yet lose little in cooling efficiency.
Don’t worry about the ventilation of the main part of the case. Besides large vent grids in the top and side panels there is another one in the bottom panel, under the 5.25” bay.
This ventilation grid is going to provide enough air because the case’s feet are as tall as to allow proper circulation of air below it.
The feet are designed in the traditional style of HTPC cases. They look like the feet of some hi-fi device.
After you’ve installed your hard drives, you can now mount the rest of components, particularly the power supply…
…and the mainboard and with expansion cards:
There are no special tricks to this procedure. It takes mere minutes to install everything. The cables can be placed neatly, too. There are few of them and they can be easily tucked into the IR-receiver bay without blocking the installation of the IR-receiver itself. And finally you install your optical drive into the 5.25” box…
…and then insert the cage into the box:
You only have to make sure beforehand which of the mounting holes in the box to use.
The assembled system looks neat:
It’s all right with the airflows, too. The only downside is that the developers tried to make the case as low as possible and the top panel almost lies on the graphics card’s edge as the consequence. As a result, you can’t install anything higher than a standard graphics card into this system case. This is not a great shortcoming, yet you should be aware of it as you are selecting your hardware components. The specs of the system case are summarized below.
NMEDIAPC HTPC 288 SA
The descriptive part being over, we can now proceed to the tests.
The tests were performed on closed and fully assembled system case and at a constant ambient temperature maintained by an air conditioner. The fan speeds were left at their defaults.
The following configuration was assembled in the tested PC case:
This CPU dissipates more heat than any Core 2 Duo processor in default operation mode whereas top CPU models do not match this system case in terms of price and functionality. For expensive HTPC systems more functional and roomy cases are offered.
There were four test modes:
The temperatures of the CPU and chipset were read with Intel Desktop Utilities supplied with the mainboard. The temperatures of the GPU and graphics card were read with RivaTuner. The HDD temperature was reported by HDD Thermometer. The temperatures were read only after they had fully stabilized. The ambient temperature remained constant at 23°C throughout the tests.
The noisiness of the preinstalled system fans is discussed below. The system case coming without a power supply, the latter’s noise is not counted in.
The temperatures of the system in each test mode are shown below.
The numbers are satisfactory. This system case will do for a midrange PC configuration at the very least. You can even assemble a top-end configuration in it if you pick up your components wisely, yet the NMEDIAPC HTPC 288 SA is not functional enough and is not perfect in its design (particularly, in the design of the Power and Reset buttons) to be used for a top-end configuration. This case is going to satisfy people who are building an inexpensive and universal HTPC and want to be free from any compatibility problems. You only have to make sure that the exterior of this system case is going to match the appearance of your hi-fi equipment well.
So, you’ve got enough information to decide if this system case suits you as a HTPC case. If viewed as an inexpensive system case for a desktop PC, the NMEDIAPC HTPC 288 SA seems fit for the purpose in terms of its price and functionality. If you add an inexpensive remote control, compatible with Windows XP MCE, to it, you’ll have a very good system case for a small-size home PC.