by Tim Tscheblockov
03/02/2004 | 06:31 AM
The personal computer has been changing and shifting towards common electrical appliances like a music box or TV-set.
Today’s “mini” computer systems fall short yet of the industry leaders’ vision of the “brave future world”, but as the tendency becomes stronger, mini-systems lose their last traces of resemblance to the last-century PC. The brilliant Small Form-Factor PC is on the surge, with everyone announcing new mini-systems everywhere: each company is willing to run ahead of the times and offer something new and original to the public.
I guess you are well acquainted with a Taiwanese ASUS Company, so without any empty preliminaries we will turn to its new product – the ASUS Terminator 2 barebone system (ASUS T2-P).
The Terminator 2 has respectable and stylish looks with its dark-gray sides and bright details of the “metallized” front panel; the combination of rectangular shapes and rounded corners adds solidity to this case:
The T2-P comes with a user’s manual, a CD with drivers and utilities, a SerialATA cable and two antennas (a frame aerial which can be inserted into the included base or to hung on the wall and a dipole antenna for wireless networking):
Talking about the dimensions of the system case, I can’t refrain from comparisons to what has now become an industry standard – the “cubic” form-factor of barebone systems from Shuttle. The Terminator 2 has nearly the same width and depth, but is much taller. This height allows accommodating two 5.25” bays for optical drives. Besides the doors of the drive bays, the front panel has a LED display telling you about the operational mode of the system, buttons for using the ASUS Instant Music feature, and panels that cover a “7-in-1” card reader and a panel with USB, IEEE1394 and audio connectors:
You turn the T2-P on by pressing the Power On/Off button. Besides, there is a set of Instant Music control buttons including those which: 1) activate Instant Music mode, 2) enable CD playback/FM-tuner, 3) play a track/auto-search for a radio station, 4) stop a track/stop auto-search for a station, 5) wind forward-backward/browse through the radio stations, and 6) control the sound volume in this mode:
The back panel of the Terminator 2 offers you the standard selection of interfaces any ATX system has, but with an important addition: there are also a connector for attaching the antenna of the integrated FM-tuner and the bracket of the expansion card with Gigabit Ethernet and Wi-Fi antenna connectors:
The sides of the system case have vent holes and they are the only way for cool outside air to come inside: other panels don’t have any perforations for this purpose. However, the total area of the side holes is big enough for the system not to suffocate. He noise level is also not too high, because the air doesn’t flow too fast through the holes and doesn’t hiss annoyingly (we will talk about the noise in more detail later).
So the exterior and functionality of the ASUS Terminator 2 are very satisfying. Let’s delve deeper and into this barebone system.
The components inside the T2-P don’t feel like gasping for fresh air as in other mini-systems – the big dimensions of the case provide enough room for a good thermal environment. The PSU is located opposite to the CPU cooler and the mainboard; above it, at the top of the back panel, a 92-mm fan exhausts hot air from the system.
The location of the PSU makes it impossible to access the CPU cooler or mainboard when the system is already assembled, but you can easily take it off by unfastening a single screw. After we removed the PSU, we found an ordinary processor cooler from Thermaltake. Again, the big size of the T2-P allows using standard coolers for Socket 478 processors and you can replace it with another, quieter or more efficient, model:
The PSU is manufactured by Delta Electronics, known for its high-quality products. The maximum wattage of this PSU equals 200W, and the supply currents are fully compliant with the “ATX/ATX12v Power Supply Design Guide” for 200W PSUs. The power cables have only two connectors for IDE devices and one FDD connector, but an extra power splitter comes with the PSU:
Let’s continue our trip around the Terminator 2. The FM-tuner card is fastened at the back panel of the system case, while the front panel has a card reader and a card with connectors you see on the front photo of the system.
Expansion cards – an AGP graphics card and/or PCI card instead of the exclusive one from ASUS – are installed just above the very bottom of the system. You fasten them with a queer-shaped “crutch”, which is held in place by the case cover. It was a really exciting job to install a graphics card with this crutch: you have to watch for the card’s bracket to lie properly at the back panel of the case and make sure that the bracket of the neighboring card didn’t shift away. Then you must place the crutch exactly into all its grooves and rails and cover up the brackets of the expansion cards. That’s not very easy, to put it mildly. Fortunately, you usually do this just once, when assembling the system for the first time.
The removable chassis for the hard disk drive is on the inside of the front panel, so the device is situated just below the vent holes in the side of the case, but in a weird position – “lying on its side”. This is quite reasonable, though. The HDD is sure to receive enough cool air, while modern HDD models can work fine also in a vertical position.
The floppy drive is also placed vertically, next to the 5.25” bays. The drive is a component of the ASUS Terminator 2 barebone:
The heart of this mini-system is an ASUS P4P8T mainboard on Intel 865G chipset, a dual-channel chipset with an integrated Extreme Graphics 2 core, support of the 800MHz FSB, Hyper-Threading, DDR400 SDRAM, AGP 8x and other industry accomplishments packed into the South Bridge chip:
The mainboard uses an 82801EB (ICH5) chip as the South Bridge, so we get the support of eight USB 2.0 ports, two SerialATA and two UltraATA/100 channels, AC’97 audio, Fast Ethernet and a dedicated bus for Gigabit network controllers.
The mainboard uses a 10/100Mb network controller from Realtek, RTL8100C. The audio capabilities of the South Bridge are implemented through an inexpensive six-channel AD1888 codec from Analog Devices:
The CPU voltage regulator is a three-channel one and uses an ADP3180 PWM controller, ADP3418 drivers and powerful STD90NH02L field transistors from STMicroelectronics with an operating current of up to 60A.
The PCB surface is involved into taking heat off from the transistors. The heat dissipation scheme also includes the panel the mainboard is fastened to, which also transfers the heat through a thick heat-conductive pad. The back side of the mainboard has special contact areas for transferring heat to the pad more efficiently:
So, we have only omitted the exclusive expansion card from ASUS with Gigabit Ethernet, Wi-Fi and IEEE1394 interfaces and the FM-tuner card.
The ASUS’ card contains a FireWire controller from VIA (VT6307), a Gigabit Ethernet controller from 3Com/Marvel and a Wi-Fi unit located at the expansion slot. SerialATA and UltraATA RAID controllers are not available in the mainboard because they are just unnecessary in a mini-system.
The FM-tuner module is a height of simplicity, containing an antenna connector, a screened RF unit and a controller chip:
We’ll talk about the FM-tuner later, right now let’s get busy with putting the system together and setting it up.
When I took Terminator 2 apart to make some snapshots, I was shocked at the number of cables, loops and thick and thin wires that tie all the system components into a single entity. Fortunately, the user’s manual describes all important connectors on the mainboard and the cables themselves lie down optimally in the system case and have exactly the length you may require. So it was rather easy to return the system into the shape in which it comes to the market.
Troubles came later. For example, you have to remove the front panel to install a CD-ROM. The floppy drive bars access to the 5.25” bays from one side, but you don’t have to remove it to fasten your CD-ROM – the bays just don’t have fastening holes at this side.
The HDD fit into its place perfectly, with its most sensitive part, the electronics board, facing the current of air from the vent holes. The ATA cable from the CD-drive and the FDD cable go along the walls of the 5.25” bays without preventing proper airflows.
My attempt to install a RADEON 9800 PRO graphics card faced an insurmountable obstacle: the mainboard has just one PCI slot, next to the AGP, and this PCI was already occupied with the exclusive card from ASUS (the one that supports Wi-Fi, Gigabit Ethernet and IEEE1394). As a result, there is practically no space for that big graphics chip cooler every high-end graphics card comes with. You can of course extract the expansion PCI card depriving yourself of those interfaces and install a powerful graphics card, but I preferred to use a less warm device, a card on the NVIDIA GeForce FX 5700.
There is also another unpleasant thing. Notwithstanding its big size, the system is not supposed to take in two hard disk drives at a time (thus, the support of two SerialATA and two UltraATA channels looks like a bad joke). You can try to install a HDD into the 5.25” bay on the rails, but you can fasten the rails at one side only and the thermal conditions there may not be good for a HDD.
Although not without problems, I managed to put the system together and make it ready to work. We need to set up the BIOS before proceeding to our tests, though.
ASUS T2-P uses a modification of AMIBIOS, without any overclocking-related options at all, but with settings for controlling fans and the Instant Music mode.
The BIOS allows enabling or disabling control over the speeds of the cooler fan and the system fan. With this feature (called Smart Q-FAN) enabled, you can set up a threshold CPU temperature when the fans start working and gain speed in proportion to the temperature growth. You can also indicate the voltages of the fan at this threshold. At last, you can set up the ceiling of the CPU temperature when Smart Q-FAN starts sending full voltage to the fans.
By default, the bottom limit of the CPU temperature (when the fans start spinning) is 30°C and the voltage of the fans is 5V. The top limit of the flexible speed control corresponds to a CPU temperature of 70°C.
You can leave the Smart Q-FAN settings at their default values, just like I did in this test session, while Instant Music needs some setup. You need to tell the system which IDE channel the CD-ROM is attached to, and inform the FM-tuner about your location – it uses different frequency ranges for different geographical regions.
The system beeps to life and shows you a cute boot-up screen. It’s time to install software.
The CD you receive with the Terminator 2 contains all necessary drivers for the system components, so you shouldn’t have any problems here. Utilities for monitoring and controlling the system come on this CD, too. You have probably seen some of them before, as they are not exclusively for the Terminator 2. Here is a list of them:
ASUS T2-P offers the user an interesting option – the integrated FM-tuner. When you are working with the computer as usual, you control the TV-tuner from the Radio Player:
The Radio Player allows searching for radio stations manually or automatically and keeping a list of radio stations where each entry consists of the station number, frequency and name.
Unfortunately I have to confess that these are all useful capabilities of the Radio Player. For example, the anticipated option of controlling the tuner with “hot” keys in the background is not available.
The second problem I encountered when using the integrated FM-tuner is the noise from the system components in the ordinary mode. When you move windows around the Desktop or access the HDD, you hear a hum and clicks in the speakers or headphones – the noise is easily heard during pauses in broadcasts.
The alternative operational mode of ASUS Terminator 2 makes this system look a relative of consumer audio devices. Let me explain. T2-P can work either like a regular computer or like a music box (Instant Music mode). In the latter mode, Terminator 2 can play audio CDs (regrettably, it can’t read MP3 files) and reproduce radio broadcasts, without booting up the operation system.
Instant Music is implemented in the following way: when the system switches into this state, the PSU turns on, and all system components receive their power supply. However, the system doesn’t boot up, but remains “frozen” as long as the Instant Music mode is enabled. You control the optical drive and the FM-tuner from the front panel (and from the keyboard, for audio CDs) and they send the audio signal to the inputs of the AC’97 codec, and further, to the audio outputs.
Instant Music is turned on/off by pressing the CD button on the face panel of the system case, while the Mode button toggles between the CD and the FM-tuner. I guess the purpose of other controls is clear when you are listening to audio CDs.
When you are using the FM-tuner, the play and stop buttons start and stop automatic frequency search (search is only conducted towards higher frequencies), while the fast forward/backward buttons choose one of nine frequencies stored in the BIOS or in the control chip of the FM-tuner.
Information about the system status in the Instant Music mode is shown on the LED display. When you are listening to an audio CD, it shows the track number and the track playback time. When the FM-tuner is used, the display tells you the station number and frequency. In the ordinary operational mode, or when the system is shut down, the display only shows the current system time.
So, the FM-tuner in the Instant Music mode and the alternative mode at large gave me enough pleasant impressions, but this same FM-tuner may disappoint you in the ordinary operational mode because of noise pickups and low functionality of the Radio Player.
To transform the barebone system from ASUS into a fully-fledged computer, I added to it a processor, some memory, a graphics card, an optical and hard disk drives. As a result, our system looked as follows:
A home computer is likely to meet with two kinds of workload – 3D games and DivX movie playback. So I powered the system up, waited for a while for the temperatures to become stable, then launched the necessary task and wrote down temperature data every five minutes of the next half an hour.
ASUS PC Probe utility showed temperatures of the processor and mainboard, HDTemp examined the hard disk drive and ASUS SmartDoctor helped to monitor the graphics processor and memory on the graphics card. Room temperature was measured with an infrared “gun” thermometer.
First, let’s watch a DivX movie (DivX 5.05 codec with the highest decompression quality).
According to the Task Manager, the CPU workload varied from 20 to 40% during the tests, but its temperature grew by 3°C only. Other system components didn’t heat up at all.
Let’s try something harder. Unreal Tournament 2003 is running in the Team Deathmatch mode 4x4 with seven Masterful bots. Settings: 1024x768 resolution, maximum available graphics quality, full-screen anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering are disabled in the driver Control Panel:
Unreal Tournament 2003 is a heavy load for both: the CPU and the graphics card – the temperatures of these components grow up. While the processor becomes hot quickly, the graphics card and the mainboard are slower to react.
Again, T2-P shows its advantages: the temperature of the mainboard (i.e. the air temperature inside the system case) only grew by 4-5°C, and the temperature of the HDD remained nearly the same.
Consider the CPU temperature, though. 33°C and 40-42°C in idle and burn modes, respectively, are too low for such a powerful processor, especially with Smart Q-Fan activated and the cooler not working at its full speed. I suspected the utility from ASUS to be wrong and checked the temperature info in the BIOS. The numbers were the same. Then I launched two copies of the BurnP6 utility simultaneously to create an extreme workload onto the processor, but the maximum temperature remained the same 40-42°C.
I have only one explanation of such strange results: the hardware monitoring circuitry and the BIOS of the P4P8T mainboard use a diminishing coefficient when showing the temperature data from the thermal diode. I don’t know if it is a flaw or a deliberate trick.
Anyway, the rest of the thermal diodes agree that Terminator 3 provides a good thermal environment for the system components.
Terminator 2 from ASUS is less noisy than many other SFF PCs, as it is free from the main noise-maker – the loud fan in the PSU. The big fan in the PSU of Terminator 2 works much quieter than small, but high-speed fans in PSUs of other systems.
Another advantage of Terminator 2 is its advanced control over the rotation speeds of the cooler and the exhaust fan.
The only drawback of Smart Q-FAN technology comes from its key principle: the CPU temperature never remains absolutely constant, so Smart Q-FAN is always adjusting fan speeds a little: it’s harder to get used to noise that’s changing its tune all the time.
The main source of this noise is the processor cooler from Thermaltake, but you can replace it with a less noisy model.
Before making my final verdict, I’d like to offer you the list of basic specifications for ASUS T2-P:
Once again I would like to say that the exterior of the system strikes as very attractive: very regular and stylish at the same time.
All components of the system are neatly arranged inside the case to ensure their effective cooling. What’s especially good, the HDD, a traditionally vulnerable part of the SFF PC, receives enough cool air in the Terminator 2 case. The system produces little noise due to a big but low-speed fan in the power supply unit, the management of the system fan and the CPU cooler, and the numerous vent holes at the sides.
Features like the integrated FM-tuner and Instant Music may suit people who use their computer system for listening to music and other entertainment.
A high-performance modern mainboard forms the foundation of T2-P, ready to accommodate fastest Socket478 processors. The chipset has an integrated graphics core – I’d better not mention its performance in 3D, but it allows using external AGP 8x graphics cards. Overall, Terminator 2 is a flexible platform that can be transformed into any computer system: from a humble office PC to a powerful gaming machine.