Zalman TNN500AF Case Review or +1 Kilogram of Silence

Today we are going to tell you about one more exciting noiseless solution from one of the leaders in the cooling market – the Zalman Company. A new enhanced modification from the famous Zalman TNN series has been tested thoroughly in our labs. Read more about this product in our article with tons of pictures and detailed thermal tests!

by Tim Tscheblockov
11/26/2004 | 11:02 AM

If you read our article called 25 Kilograms of Silence: Zalman TNN500A Case Review on our site, you should already know that the abbreviation TNN stands for “Totally No Noise” and that the TNN500A is a unique PC system case that allows building an almost absolutely noiseless computer.

 

The review you’re now reading is dedicated to a new model in the TNN series. The Zalman TNN500AF borrows the basic concepts and design solutions from its predecessor, so I advise you to read the above-mentioned review if you haven’t yet done that. On the other hand, in spite of the difference in one letter only, the TNN500AF has evolved much since the previous model.

How? We’ll find it out right now.

Zalman TNN500AF: Closer Look at the Exterior

We were lucky to get a brand-new sample of the Zalman TNN500AF, contrary to the TNN500A which had arrived into our test lab rather battered. So, we have a huge box enforced with aluminum angles and steel plates. The traditional packaging of PC cases – cardboard boxes and foam plastic – look a child’s toy compared to this bank safe.

Besides the locks that fasten the top and bottom parts together, the box has wheels and flap handles. You’ll realize that these details are all very important for transporting the system home, if you sum up the weight of the TNN500AF (26 kilos) and the weight of the box (about 7-10 kilos).

The box is lined with thick foam rubber that protects the heavy contents against bumps and shocks better than foam plastic would do. Cables, fasteners and other things that accompany the TNN500AF are supplied in a smaller cardboard box.

So, the case is out of its safe – let’s examine it closely. Like its predecessor, the TNN500AF is in fact a big and heavy passive heat-spreader that took the shape of a PC system case. Most of the generated heat is dissipated on the side panels of the case – those thick ribbed plates:

The TNN500AF has about the same dimensions as the TNN500A, but weighs 1 kilo more; its total weight is 26 kilos. There are the same carry handles on top and robust wheels at the bottom:

This time the handles can be folded into the superstructure above the top of the case – so you don’t have to remove the handles. But if you do wish to get rid of them, you can unscrew this whole superconstruction.

The wheels have remained the same. Like before, after you have put the case where it is going to stand permanently, you can unfold the thick rubber pads to prevent any vibration of the case.

The most serious changes are noticeable at the back panel of the TNN500AF: it has no door now and looks like the back panel of an ordinary system case.

The attachment of cables to the connectors at the back panel and the installation of graphics cards and other expansion cards is now an easy task, performed like with ordinary system cases.

The TNN500AF has retained the front door, but with some changes, too. The case now has a normal face panel that almost completely covers the system’s internals.

You see buttons and LED indicators on this panel – everything is much prettier than with the previous model of the case. There’s a window of dark plastic in the door. “Power” and “HDD” indicators and the remote control’s photodiode are peeping out from there.

The photodiode is receiving commands from the iMON infrared remote control unit supported by the Zalman TNN500AF.

The remote control can be set up to emulate keyboard and mouse actions, to manage windows and multimedia applications and even to start the system up or shut it down – the reception part of the iMON is attached to the mainboard’s “Power Switch” pins and is powered by the PSU even when the computer is turned off. You can always start your computer with the remote control, but to use all the capabilities of the remote control system a USB connection is necessary (the mainboard must have at least one onboard USB header).

Of course, a CD with the iMON drivers and the user manual are enclosed with the TNN500AF.

So, the Zalman TNN500AF has evolved greatly since its precursor, the TNN500A model. And fortunately, all the changes are positive as the system has become more functional and easier to use. The redesigned noiseless system case from Zalman looks more like a regular PC case, with normal front and rear panels. It doesn’t scare inexperienced users with the display of its own bowels or plates with bolt heads and buttons instead of a front panel.

After this glance over the system in general we can proceed to a more detailed examination.

Zalman TNN500AF: Closer Look at the Interior

Screws for a hex-nut wrench are left in the past. Today, you need just an ordinary cross-head screwdriver – that’s all! There are also fewer screws that fasten the side panel – most of them are replaced with guide cones.

Like before, the side panel hangs on “hinges”, but these are now located at the front of the case. So, you open the side panel to another side.

Thanks to that, it became possible to place a lock at the back panel. This lock prevents an unauthorized opening of the case.

The side panel carries ledges for hard disk drives, optical and floppy drives. The PSU is found below them.

The TNN500AF uses an absolutely noiseless 400W PSU with PFC. The heat from the PSU’s components is transferred to the side panel via a thick aluminum bar:

The basic characteristics of the PSU are listed on its casing:

This unit supplies good currents on +3.3v, +5v and +12v power rails (20, 20 and 16 amperes, respectively). On the other hand, “ordinary” high-quality 400W PSUs ensure a higher current in the +5v line as well as in the most busy +12v line (up to 18 amperes and higher).

The cooling of the central processor is still implemented in the TNN500AF with the help of heat pipes. The configuration of the pipes and blocks that transfer heat from the pipes to the case’s side panels has been changed to make the system more versatile and efficient – you don’t have to buy longer pipes for mainboards with a low placement of the CPU socket, while the surface area of the blocks has been enlarged.

The CPU block has been tweaked, too. The copper part that contacts the CPU has a more intricate profile now:

Otherwise, there are no changes: the same sandwich of six heat pipes, a copper base and an aluminum cap is held together with four big screws.

The polishing of the surface of the copper sole is the same: the surface is smooth, but not flat.

The TNN500AF comes with all the necessary fasteners to install the cooling system on Socket 754/939/940 processors from AMD and Socket 478/775 processors from Intel.

Zalman recommends using this cooling system for Athlon 64 processors with ratings up to 3800+ (2.4GHz), for Athlon 64 FX and Opteron processors with frequencies up to 2.4GHz, for Northwood-core Pentium 4 CPUs with frequencies up to 3.4GHz, and for Prescott-core Pentium 4 models with frequencies up to 3.0 (Socket 478) and 3.2GHz (Socket 755).

In fact, according to Zalman’s documentation, the CPU cooling system is capable of handling processors whose heat dissipation is as high as 150 watts. This covers all modern processors, but if you use a CPU with a heat dissipation of 100 watts and higher, Zalman recommends to install a low-speed 120mm fan (with a rotational speed of 1000-1500rpm).

Vent holes that allow installing 120mm and 92mm fans are located in the bottom, top and rear panels of the case. Two “seats” are below…

…and two are above:

And one more seat is in the rear panel:

The TNN500AF is a cut above than the previous model as concerns the cooling of the graphics card. Earlier, there were two thin heat pipes, transferring heat to the side panel. Now, the diameter of the pipes is increased and there are three of them. The blocks that absorb heat from the GPU and give it out to the side panel have been completely redesigned.

The graphics card kit includes fasteners, new GPU blocks and heatsinks with sticky thermal pads for the graphics memory chips.

The GPU blocks have been redesigned: they are intended for three heat pipes now and there are no rotational fastening tabs here, but a set of threaded holes. One block, like before, is intended for graphics processors that have a protective frame around the die (like ATI RADEON X800, 9800 or NVIDIA GeForce 6800); another is for less capricious GPUs:

The blocks mount easily on graphics cards made by the reference design. According to Zalman, the efficiency of the GPU cooling system of the TNN500AF is 75 watts, and that’s more than enough even for the most powerful graphics processors of today.

New in the TNN500AF is the chipset cooling system implemented with the help of a heat pipe.

The heat pipe transfers heat from the chipset to the rear panel of the case. The position of the heat pipe can be adjusted to match different mainboards.

The chipset cooling kit looks unassuming compared to the CPU and GPU kits: two bars embrace the heat pipe, and two screws fasten this embrace, and a sticky thermal pad is in between.

The sticky thermal pad isn’t the best thermal interface for modern chipsets made as an open die on a wafer. The pad will hold badly and the heat transfer will be inefficient all due to the small contact area. I guess good fasteners and a thin layer of thermal paste would be better (like in the GPU cooling system, for example).

The chipset cooling kit is intended for chips that dissipate up to 20 watts. This seems to be enough for the hottest chipsets of today.

The last item to be discussed is the HDD cooling unit called ZM-2HC2.

This is a slightly redesigned version of the block I told you about in our Zalman TNN500A Review. Frankly speaking, the efficiency of such units in a TNN system is rather low. The heat generated by the hard disk drive can be transferred to the case’s panels or to the air, but the HDD cooling unit has no contact with the panels and there are usually no airflows in Zalman’s TNN500 series cases. That’s why you may want to use an additional fan with the ZM-2HC2 to create airflow around the heat pipes.

Two rows of blue LEDs were highlighting the hardware installed in the TNN500A. With the TNN500AF we have a special rotating LED-based flashlight located at the internal side of the front panel. The snapshot below shows you the platter that covers the plate with connectors and buttons on the back side of the front panel.

So, the flashlight is aglow, the case is open and all the fasteners are laid out on the desk. It’s time to get the system assembled.

Assembly

Although the Zalman TNN500AF came to us without any guides or manuals, I had no problems putting it together. Everything is very logical and intuitive – you can hardly make anything wrong.

So, you can start by installing your hard disks and optical drives onto the side panel of the case.

To do that, you should loosen the fastenings of the ledges on the side panel and remove these ledges. Purchasing a TNN500AF you receive the necessary fasteners for the drives…

…and a special shielded IDE cable:

Unfortunately, there was only one such cable, while the system can accommodate at least five IDE devices.

The mainboard installation is a most simple process, so we’d better move on right to the CPU cooling system. For this system to work with the maximum efficiency, apply thermal paste not only on the CPU’s cover, but also on those spots where the heat pipes touch the CPU block and the blocks that transfer heat to the sides of the case.

I assembled the CPU block on two screws and, without fastening the screws to the end, installed it onto the CPU. After putting the heat pipes in, I put thermal paste where necessary.

Of course, you receive a syringeful of thermal paste with the TNN500AF:

Having applied some paste, you can fasten the CPU block and put the caps of the blocks on the side panel. The assembled CPU block looks like that:

I had some problems with the chipset: there were tall capacitors nearby which didn’t allow to bring the heat pipe and the block down to the chip. Well, I just bent the pipe a little:

I should also note that this block was held on the chip not only with the sticky heat pad, but also through the stiffness of the pipe – I fastened it at the back panel in such a way as to press it to create a pressure on the chip.

The installation of the cooling system on the graphics card went smoothly. Like in the Zalman TNN500A review I used a RADEON X800 Pro from PowerColor:

It’s easier to install the cooling system before you insert the card into the AGP slot. Even without any guides or manuals you should do the installation without problems. The only thing you should take care about is putting thermal paste in all places where heat contact occurs. You should fasten the GPU block completely only after installing the card into the AGP slot as you’ll probably have to shift and turn the heat pipes to place them into the block on the side panel. Here’s the card with the cooling system mounted:

One of the memory heatsinks at the back of the card’s PCB is installed with a minor shift – I will put a thermal sensor there later.

So, all the system components are in their places – you only have to lay all the power and interface cables.

It’s here that I stumbled upon a problem. The mainboard I used in the testbed had a 20-pin power plug, while Zalman’s PSU has a 24-pin power connector. Yes, these connectors can be used with each other – the four “unnecessary” contacts can just hang freely in the air. But an IDE connector is located too close to the power connector on the ASUS P4P800 mainboard, so these four pins become an obstacle. So, I had to remove carefully the plastic part of the mainboard’s IDE connector:

After that the power cable went in without problems, but at the expense of one IDE channel:

To avoid this problem, Zalman should have equipped its PSU with two different cables for the mainboard.

All problems solved, I’ve got the system ready for my tests:

Testbed and Methods

I built the following computer system in the Zalman TNN500AF system case:

This testing session is going to be quite cruel as we’ve got a very hot processor (at the limit of Zalman’s recommendations) and a powerful graphics card. I used the latest version of the Mainboard Monitor to read the temperatures of the processor (“CPU”) and the mainboard (“MB”) and RivaTuner to read the temperatures of the graphics processor (“VGA-GPU”) and the graphics card’s PCB (“VGA-Ambient”). The temperature of the IBM DTLA 307015 drive (unlike the Quantum, it has a thermode) was read with the DTemp utility (“HDD”). The temperature of the graphics memory chips (“VGA-Memory”) was measured with the help of one of the sensors of a Fluke54-II thermometer.

Another sensor of the Fluke54-II was measuring the temperature of air in the case (“Case Air”).

One more sensor of the Fluke54-II was employed to measure the temperature of one of the power transistors in the CPU voltage regulator (“Power MOSFET”).

The last sensor of the Fluke54-II kept track of the room temperature.

I didn’t install additional fans into the case; the case and the door on the face panel were closed. Each test step lasted for 40-60 minutes, and after that the temperatures were read. The system was then shut down for an hour to cool all the components down before the next test step.

Performance and Thermal Parameters

To have some initial information, I measured the temperatures in the Idle mode – the monitor is displaying Windows’ Desktop with no running applications.

The Zalman TNN500AF easily handles the system components when they’re idle. The highest temperature was read from the sensor on a power transistor of the CPU voltage regulator, and this is no surprise since the TNN500AF doesn’t have a CPU cooler which usually creates airflows around the power transistors.

Next goes the “Burn CPU” mode. To fry the CPU up I launched two copies of the BurnP6 utility and had them running for 1 hour. The results are presented below:

59 degrees centigrade for a 3200MHz Prescott is an excellent result! The TNN500AF can really keep even the hottest modern processor cool. Although the rest of the system’s components bore no load in this test, they have got hotter, too, because the heat from the CPU increases the temperature of the side panel of the case and, accordingly, the temperature of the entire case with all the internals.

The temperature of the power transistors has become alarming – 132.8°C! It’s very short of the maximum temperature (150°C) the transistors in my mainboard are rated for. Moreover, the thermode reads the temperature of the transistor’s surface, not of the die that is probably even hotter.

So, it’s clear that the transistors of the CPU voltage regulator require air cooling and passive heatsinks, at least on the ASUS P4P800 mainboard and with a powerful processor like a Prescott 3.2GHz.

By the way, after running my tests I followed my own recommendation and took an old and dusty 60mm fan from some ancient cooler and powered it by 7 volts and hung it against the power transistors. This gave me 72.1°C temperature, which was much better than those threatening 132.8°C.

The next test mode is “Burn VGA”: the system is running game tests from 3DMark05 for an hour (1024x768 resolution, 4x full-screen antialiasing and 8x anisotropic filtering).

Curiously enough, the CPU temperature is even a little bit higher in this test than in the “CPU Burn” one – 60°C. The processor isn’t idle in 3DMark05, you can be sure. The temperature of the power transistors is another indication of that – it reached as high as 119.5°C.

The temperatures of the graphics processor, the graphics card’s PCB and the graphics memory chips are normal. The cooling system of the Zalman TNN500AF handled the RADEON X800 PRO well enough in the hardest test 3DMark05 is. The temperatures of the other system components are slightly higher than in the “CPU Burn” test – the graphics card and the CPU heated the case up more than the single processor did.

The next test is about the hard disk drive. I performed defragmentation with the standard Windows tools. This process took 40 minutes during which I was enjoying the sound of the DTLA 307015 working inside the TNN500AF.

Well, 46°C isn’t the best result possible, but the hard disk drive won’t have such loads too often. And if you want to install a powerful disc array into your Zalman TNN500AF, you can add one or two low-speed 120mm fans to ensure the maximum comfort for your discs.

The last test mode is a real game. I was playing Unreal Tournament 2004 against bots on the ONS_Torlan level for an hour (1280x1024 with 4x FSAA and 8x AF).

The temperatures of the CPU and the graphics card’s components are normal; the HDD temperature is a bit higher than I might want, but the greatest danger comes from the power transistors of the CPU voltage regulator. The Zalman TNN500AF has no CPU cooler and thus has no airflow around these transistors as in ordinary PC cases.

Conclusion

The new system case from Zalman, the TNN500AF model, beats its precursor, the TNN500A, in every respect. The new system is more efficient, functional and easier to assemble and use. The exterior of the new case hasn’t changed much, but the minor retouching of the front and rear panels have certainly added some more beauty to it.

The redesigned CPU cooling system doesn’t require that you buy longer heat pipes if the CPU socket is located inconveniently, while the graphics card cooling system has just become more efficient. The chipset cooling kit, new in the TNN500AF, is good, but 1) sometimes it’s not easily installed, and 2) the original chipset heatsink cannot be removed on some mainboards.

The vent holes in the case’s panels are grouped in such a way that you can install low-speed 120- or 92mm fans there. You may want to install an additional fan (or fans) into the TNN500AF if you’ve got a powerful disc array or several “hot” PCI cards (like a TV/FM tuner, network card, video capture card and so on).

The remote control system should please those users who use their computers as multimedia centers. If you’re not one, you can just use it to turn the system on and off remotely.

I only found two faults with the Zalman TNN500AF. The first comes from the main advantage of the system – the lack of coolers and noise. The transistors of the CPU power regulator may heat up to critical temperatures when there’re completely no airflows inside the system case. By the way, owners of water-cooling solutions often face this problem, too. You can solve it by installing a heatsink on the power transistors or setting a low-speed fan to blow at them.

The second displeasing factor is going to be the price. Well, it is not officially announced yet, but I don’t think the TNN500AF will cost less than the TNN500A. That’s a real pity – the Zalman TN500AF system case has much more appeal than its predecessor.