Zalman HD160 HTPC System Case Review

Today we would like to introduce to you a new HT PC case from Zalman. The case can be stuffed with quite an advanced configuration which could not only play media files, but also cope with the latest gaming titles which look much prettier on a big screen than on an ordinary PC monitor. Find out more about this new exciting solution from our detailed review.

by Vasily Melnik
03/23/2006 | 06:32 PM

Zalman is an experienced manufacturer of cooling systems as well as absolutely quiet PC cases, so the release of a HTPC case under this brand is not much of a surprise. This market is not too big, but Zalman’s products have always been rather expensive and positioned as solutions for demanding users, so we think the company will get its share on it without much difficulty. We won’t repeat ourselves telling you what a HTPC is (you can refer to our previous review of such system cases, if you are curious), but will just try to clear out what Zalman has come up with.

 

In our earlier review of HTPC cases we repeatedly stressed the idea that the user of a HTPC is not concerned about its hardware functionality as much as about having an optimal mixture of hardware and software components. We didn’t mention one aspect of such solutions, however. The fact is the manufacturer can go two ways – a right and an easier one. The former way implies development of a hardware/software system to manage media content as well as the computer proper (such a solution can be ordered from a third party as Thermaltake did, for example). The second way is trimming the hardware/software system down to the requirements of Windows XP Media Center Edition that Microsoft has been actively promoting. The former way is costlier, increasing the cost of the end-product, while in the other case the manufacturer only has to add a remote control compatible with Windows XP Media Center Edition and, if desired, a display.

After a detailed examination of the multimedia-oriented OS from Microsoft we have to confess its functionality can satisfy only some very undemanding users. The best versions of specialized software to view and manage multimedia content are far more functional. Well, we’ll talk yet about the software aspect of the Zalman HD160 in the appropriate section of the review. Right now let’s take a look at the hardware.

Closer Look

It has always been Zalman’s unique ability to create devices with an impressive appearance without sacrificing functionality, and the new case for HTPC systems doesn’t make an exception. It comes in a stylish black box that gives you a thorough description of what’s contained within:

There is a cute-looking case inside, which you can immediately classify as a HTPC case:

This is one of the largest cases of its type (the size is justifiable as you will learn shortly) and it may not be an easy task to pick up components to match. The HD160 is much taller than a typical receiver and will be the dominating component even in a midrange hi-fi system. Yes, there are hi-fi components of that size, but their pricing is usually not very moderate. Well, it’s up to the user who chooses the components of his/her particular system to decide if it’s good or bad, while we just state the fact that the dimensions of the case are not typical. As for the coloring, the Zalman HD160 exists in two color schemes, black and silvery. The case is made of aluminum and, as the result, is much lighter than it seems – an indisputable advantage. The front view is quite eye-pleasing:

A prominent feature of the front panel is the analog volume control knob which can be rarely seen even on specialized HTPC cases. It may be a superfluous feature, but some people will surely be glad to have it. The only problem is that the knob wobbles noticeably – we didn’t expect Zalman to be so neglectful of minor details. We hope this is just a problem of our test sample, though, and are sure the knob will be as stiff in the final version of the case as the controls in any other hi-fi equipment are.

The case stands on feet typical of hi-fi devices:

There are soft rings on the feet to prevent them from leaving scratches on expensive specialized stands.

The case is visually divided in two parts. Controls and indicators are on the left:

There is a display, Power and Reset buttons, power and HDD activity indicators here – just as in every other system case of that class. The optical drive’s tray is on the right, next to a set of interface connectors under a flap-down panel.

This panel conceals a multi-format card-reader (they just built in a ready-made device of the 3.5” form-factor) and the typical selection of connectors you can find in any modern system, namely USB, FireWire, headphones output and microphone input.

An interesting design detail that immediately draws one’s eyes is the vent opening in the top panel opposite to the CPU socket.

We’ll talk below about the effect this vent opening has on the temperature of the components. A nice thing about the top panel is that there is a strip of soft material glued around the panel’s perimeter on the inside.

Rattling of the panel is prevented, and it is also a pleasure to put it down – there’s no that metal-on-metal sound and it feels like you’re dealing with a well-made top-quality thing.

There is nothing extraordinary inside the case:

Just a typical modern case for a full-fledged PC, except that it is in fact a desktop case. You quickly learn why the exterior dimensions of the HD160 are so big:

Zalman didn’t limit itself to small 60mm fans, but put two normal 80mm ZM-F1 exhaust fans which are quite capable of ventilating a case of this form-factor. Both the fans are mounted via anti-vibration rubber spacers.

The solution is all right, but they might have implemented it better. The screws are so tightly fastened that the spacers are deformed so heavily that they can hardly perform their main job, i.e. suppress vibrations. A special adapter is included with the case that allows connecting the fans directly to a Molex of the power supply. It’s good to have an option to choose between 12V and 5V because having little noise is a priority for users of HTPCs.

An anti-vibration rubber spacer is employed even in the fastenings of the power supply:

There are two cages in the system, one for 5.25” and 3.5” devices…

…and another for hard drives:

The optical drive is fixed firmly (the reason will be explained below) while the other drives are installed via rubber spacers:

The cage stands on rather long poles which is yet another vibration-reducing measure.

The number and thickness of the cables are quite satisfactory:

It’s not a problem to lay them out neatly so that they didn’t hinder ventilation. There’s no shortage of vent openings, either. Besides the one in the top panel, there are two openings in the bottom, one more in the front panel above the HDD cage…

…and yet another one on the right, between the PSU and the optical drive cage:

There are also two grids in the side panels at the back of the case, one of which is meant for power supply cooling…

…and the other, to supply air to the graphics card. The grids are well-made, profiled and securely fastened:

The PSU vent grid works well, but the other grid will only do its job if there is only one add-on card in your system, i.e. the graphics card. If you add a TV-tuner and an audio card, the vent grid will just get blocked.

Ideally, there should have been one more vent opening in the front part of the side panel right above the hard drives cage.

The power supply is fastened through a special plate:

Zalman recommends using its ZM460-APS power supply with the HD160 system case, so we took it for our tests (you can read more about this PSU in our article called ATX Power Supply Units Roundup: 9 Powerful Models Tested ).

Enclosed with the power supply were sticker braces that we used to neatly place the cables inside the case.

A special plate is to be fastened on the PSU before you try to install it into the case.

And then the PSU goes right in:

The user manual tells that the power supply is to be installed in such a way that its fan faced the vent hole in the right side panel. This is a typical solution among those users who try to manually minimize the noise from their PCs, but it seems like the first time we meet it in an off-the-shelf product. The PSU takes air from the outside and exhausts it outside, too, thus taking no part in heat transfer within the case. This solution hasn’t been popular among PC case makers, though. We decided to ignore the recommendation and place the PSU the usual way. This had no effect on the thermal conditions of the PSU itself, but including it into the heat transfer inside the case helped reduce the CPU temperate by about 2-3°C under load. This is not much, but why shouldn’t you neglect an opportunity to win a few degrees in temperature by simply turning the PSU around? The noise level remains the same irrespective of the PSU orientation.

The single problem with the PSU emerged after its installation:

There are just too many cables for a HTPC case here! Zalman hasn’t yet followed the recent trend of equipping PSUs with detachable cables, so you have to deal with the excess cables somehow.

You should install the optical drive before the mainboard – doing it in the reverse order would be inconvenient. First, put the included faceplate on the drive:

It is fastened with two-sided scotch. First you remove the default faceplate:

Then you stick the new faceplate onto the drive tray:

Then you just put to drive down into the appropriate bay:

The faceplate is a little wider than the device itself, so it is firmly fixed after you insert it – there’s no need for further fastening.

You don’t have to dismantle the cage to install the drive – just unfasten the two top screws and you can easily insert it there.

You have to remove the top part of the cage to install your hard drives, though:

Then you put the drive into an empty bay and fix it with the top cover:

Unfortunately, Zalman couldn’t invent anything better than Thermaltake used in its own HTPC case series:

It’s strange that engineers of leading companies can’t yet find a more compact solution to send power to the VFD in standby mode. But as we noted in our earlier review, you can correct the issue with a soldering iron in less than 5 minutes.

We took a CNPS 9500 LED cooler, also recommended by Zalman, for our tests of the HD160 system case (you can read more about this cooler in a dedicated article called First Look at Zalman CNPS9500 LED: the Power of Air, the Efficiency of Water):

This cooler fitted perfectly into our test system:

The case seems to have been designed exactly for this cooler as there is less than a millimeter of space left between the cooler and the top cover when you put the latter down. The assembled system looks quite neatly:

There’s enough of room to tuck the excess cables into. We put unused power cables behind the optical drive cage. Now that the system is assembled, we can play with its software part.

Software

The HD160 HTPC system case comes with a brief user manual, a remote control and a disc with software.

It was when we first saw the remote control that we got some suspicions.

The characteristic logotype of Microsoft’s software products and the limited number of buttons and the fact that the software pack occupied only 10MB on the enclosed CD all indicate that the Zalman HD160 is a “Windows XP Media Center ready” system. We hadn’t really expected this because this OS is far inferior to the latest versions of specialized software from third-party developers in terms of functionality and media content management. It doesn’t even allow to control the PC with the remote control other than in the media center mode. You can’t even adjust the sound volume when you are working in the OS environment! The future of the HD160 seems obscure considering the imminent release of Windows Vista because it’s not clear if there will be backward compatibility or the owner of a HD160 will have to use the older OS only.

We won’t describe the capabilities of Windows XP Media Center Edition as there are enough such reviews around the Web. Suffice it to say that its functionality is too limited for its proud name. We, on our part, will limit ourselves to the display functionality then. The display can show you the current date and time when the OS is booted up or in the standby mode:

Its brightness is automatically reduced in the standby mode. A welcome message is shown in the main Media Center menu:

When playing a file, the display shows its name and duration and the playback mode information.

Not much, especially if you set this against the capabilities of the display from Thermaltake’s HTPC cases, for example. We even caught ourselves thinking of a simple idea: you can purchase a Media Lab kit separately and install it on your Zalman HD160 (you only have to make a simple adapter to fasten the display panel). And you will get a normal, updatable multimedia shell that doesn’t depend on the OS manufacturer and allows normally controlling the main functions of your PC.

Well, this is just a side note for inventive users. As for the HD160, we wish Zalman revised the positioning of cases of this series. We would very much like to see an exclusive multimedia shell from Zalman rather than the functionally limited OS from Microsoft. This is not too hard to do – Zalman can just order the software that Media Lab supplies to Thermaltake or something like that with a slightly revised interface. PC parts from Zalman are not ordinary PC components after all – they emphasize the status of their owner and they must be up to this purpose.

Testbed and Methods

We assembled the system trying to keep an optimal balance between cooling quality and noise level. The fans at the back panel were connected to 5V (1600rpm) via the included adapter; we also set the CPU fan speed at 2000rpm. We performed our tests in a closed and fully assembled case and at a constant ambient temperature, maintained by an air conditioner. We also took care to lay out the cables and wires in such a way that they didn’t hinder free circulation of air inside the case.

The following system was assembled in the Zalman HD160 case:

There were four test modes:

The temperatures of the CPU and mainboard were read with Intel Desktop Utilities version 2.1 which are supplied with the mainboard. The GPU and graphics card temperatures 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 20°C throughout our tests.

Thermal Performance

So, here come the test results.

We chose a Pentium 4 560 processor deliberately as it is still a leader in heat dissipation level, being no cooler than Intel’s early dual-core CPUs. The graphics card also heats up the air inside the case despite its rather massive cooler. So, the main question we were asking ourselves was if such an advanced configuration could work normally in a system case of that small size. The picture is quite predictable in the Idle mode:

These are typical enough numbers. The CPU temperature may seem a bit high for Idle mode, but this is in fact quite a normal value for this CPU and this cooler (and the cooler is not at all guilty here). Our sample of the Intel Pentium 4 560 is never cooler than 45°C even when idle and on an open testbed, so the temperature shown in the diagram is quite a normal result.

Then we tested the system in the CPU Burn mode two times: with the vent in the top panel closed and open.

You see the numbers don’t differ much, while the noise from the CPU cooler is more audible when the vent is open. So, we think it’s better to keep it closed, if you use a Zalman CNPS9500LED at the maximum speed. We have no complaints otherwise; the temperatures of the other components are beyond danger.

And here are the VGA Burn results:

That’s just excellent.

As for the HDD Burn mode, the vent openings near the drives cage do their job well, so the temperature of the HDD was never higher than 37°C. Some full-size system cases provide worse cooling for the drive.

We’d want to add one note about the orientation of the power supply in the HD160. Although Zalman recommends to install it with the fan facing the air inlet in the right panel of the case, our tests show that you don’t have to follow this recommendation. As we have mentioned above, the power supply helps to drop the CPU temperature by about 2-3°C in the Burn mode when installed in the traditional way. This doesn’t have any effect on the temperature of the PSU itself and the speed of its fan, so why shouldn’t you take this opportunity? You may want to try both variants to see what suits better for your particular configuration.

Conclusion

The results of our tests prove Zalman’s reputation as of a leading manufacturer of excellent cooling systems and original PC cases. The HD160 HTPC case is a nice addition to the company’s product range and we have absolutely no complaints about it (we are sure they’ll solve the problem with the wobbling volume knob before they start to ship the final product to market). The case can be stuffed with quite an advanced configuration which could not only play media files, but also cope with the latest gaming titles which look much prettier on a big screen than on an ordinary PC monitor.

As for the multimedia functionality, you can hardly hope for any immediate improvements. If there appears exclusive software from Zalman, we guess it would be with another case model. We have one recommendation about the HD160 – if the functionality provided by Windows XP Media Center Edition is not enough for you, replace the display and remote control with alternative ones. This is not too difficult an operation and it won’t take you much time, if you’ve got some basic PC-handling skills.