by Vasily Melnik
10/18/2005 | 08:03 AM
We are regularly reviewing barebone platforms on our site – the PC user has got very fastidious and does not want to have the standard putty-colored coffin of a system case. The range of available home-oriented barebones is wide and is only limited by the financial capabilities of the customer. A compact computer is not a prerogative of home users, though. Take the Compaq office PC series as an example – they are small and elegantly designed. However, brand-name ready-made computers are generally costly.
Until recently there were few high-quality small system cases – I can only think of slim cases from AOpen as of successful models. Other companies’ products could be seen on the websites but rarely on the shop shelves. And even AOpen’s were system cases with a preinstalled power supply rather than a barebone kit. It is right on one hand as the home user can select a mainboard to his/her own taste. On the other hand, system integrators and office users might regard it as a drawback. The former would like to have a system with the mainboard already installed, while the latter do not want to bother about the choice of the mainboard at all. Office workers are not interested in what’s inside their computers – they just work on them.
Thus, the office barebone concept is clearly outlined: it should be an unobtrusively designed system case with a mainboard and power supply preinstalled. It should also be easy to assemble with the user’s own hands. The mainboard requirements are simple: normal support of entry-level and mainstream processors, a bare minimum of interface connectors necessary for office work, and high reliability.
These features should all be known to users of MSI’s Hetis 865GV platform – first-rate barebone systems with good functionality for their time. They belong to the past, however, and are now replaced with the new Hetis 915 series, in new design and based on a new platform. The series as yet includes only two models, Hetis 915 Lite and Hetis 915, which differ in the type of the installed mainboard. The more advanced model features a DVI connector, two FireWire ports, an S-Video output and a coaxial digital audio output for speaker systems with an external decoder. People with digital cameras and other mobile peripherals are not forgotten – the Hetis 915 is equipped with a multi-format card-reader. This modification will be an ideal choice for the category of home users who need a compact home machine and do not play new computer games. It can also be transformed into a multimedia center – there are enough of interfaces supported and you can put two full-size add-on cards into the available PCI slots.
But I have digressed a little. This review is devoted to the MSI Hetis 915 Lite model, less functional but quite sufficient for normal office work.
The box with the barebone gives you a notion of its exterior immediately:
Moreover, there’s a detailed description of all the interface connectors on the reverse side of the box:
You should be aware, however, that the pictures show the connectors of the senior model of the series, and there is no indication that the contained model lacks DVI and FireWire connectors as well as S-Video and digital audio outputs. So if you are buying a senior model, you may want to check your purchase right away to make sure they haven’t given you a Lite one by mistake: the package is the same for the whole series.
Some smaller things come out of the box first:
The manual, power cord and CD with driver are things comprehensible enough, while the support and the small plastic gadget are only familiar to users of MSI products. The support was included with barebones of the older Hetis 865GV series and, a little redesigned, now appears in the new series, too. The other thing is nothing else but an exclusive gadget for putting the processor into the socket. I interviewed all my friends who had ever had an MSI mainboard and none of them answered me clearly if this gadget was practical at all. I should confess it transforms the routine operation of CPU installation into a shamanic rite that resembles syringing the socket with a fresh CPU. It’s up to you if you’re going to join the ranks of the initiates, but the gadget is ready for you in the box.
The support is not just a fashionable thing. Owners of AOpen’s 865 series barebones know that it helps to improve the case ventilation. If you put your barebone on this support, the exhaust fan begins to breathe much easier and there’s also less risk that you clutter up the space around the barebone which it needs for proper ventilation.
The barebone comes out of the box after the accessories:
Its classic, reserved exterior style is complemented with some new traits like the decorative covers over the connectors and the optical drive. The only thing exposed to the world is the Power-On button, which is most frequently used in office. A little above it, a HDD activity LED indicator is located. The button matches the official style of the front panel and is combined with a Power-On LED which shines in MSI products’ traditional mild blue and is not disturbing even in darkness.
The cover below the Power button conceals some front-panel interfaces:
Two USB ports, a headphones output and a microphone input. There’s a blank gag instead of a FireWire port (it is only available in the senior barebone model).
You shouldn’t look the Hetis 915 Lite over for a floppy-drive cover. There’s none of it here. You can’t install a floppy drive into this barebone and I applaud MSI’s engineers for finally getting rid of this rudiment. I won’t put forth any arguments against the floppy drive since they are obvious, from the poor data safety on the diskette to the disuse of this medium in all large offices. But if you still remember what a 3.5” diskette looks like, the Hetis 915 will be a fitting occasion to forget everything about it at last.
Concerning a card-reader, I do share MSI’s opinion that it is not generally necessary in an office-oriented computer. But if you do need one, consider the senior Hetis 915 model which comes with such a reader.
The system case can be positioned horizontally if necessary:
The surface of your desk won’t suffer from that:
The design of the system case implies that it can be put on a side – the six rubber feet make sure the lacquer on your desk or other furniture remains intact. One thing to consider with this position of the case is that the main air inlet will be in the top cover and the exhaust fan on the left panel, and you are strongly advised not block these openings.
The rear panel features pretty traditional view:
You can see a power supply, a group of interface connectors and two brackets against the expansion slots. It’s rather strange to see two COM ports here (well, why not if there’s enough space for them?) and analog 5.1 audio output which is not very useful in an office computer. On the other hand, the 5.1 sound is currently supported by all new audio controllers and someone might really need it. Considering the fact that the manufacturer rather too liberally disposed of the free space on the rear panel, I might grudge the lack of an LPT port. Unlike, for example, a floppy-drive, this legacy port may still be necessary today – you won’t want to replace your old and working printer just because you’ve bought a new computer.
The barebone can be dismantled without a screwdriver. The top panel is held at the corners by two thumbscrews which can be unfastened with bare hands:
After the two screws are undone, you shift the top and face panels forward:
And access the barebone’s insights. There’s nothing on the plastic front panel – the connectors and buttons with LEDs are fastened on the chassis:
We’ve got one 5.25” bay, one 3.5” bay for a hard drive, some interface connectors and vent holes here. The HDD rack can be pulled in and out. A rather sonorous system speaker is located on the front panel of the chassis, too:
This speaker proved to be capable of reproducing the Windows system sounds normally, so you can save on external speakers for an office computer.
A fine exhaust fan from Sunon is located on the left panel (which becomes a bottom panel if you put the system case upright).
The growth of raw materials prices in the world markets must have affected the fastening of this fan: it is secured by two screws instead of four. This is MSI’s contribution to the world’s resources preservation cause. I think tons of metal could be saved this way if other manufacturers follow the suit. So, if you don’t like to have a fan in your system case fastened by two screws only, you can purchase the missing two separately, but do not criticize MSI’s attempts to save our planet!
But let’s return from the economy problems to the reviewed barebone. To simplify the subsequent assembly you must dismantle the stiffness rib at the center of the case (it is fixed with a spring-loaded latch):
Just pull at the latch a little and the end of the rib is released:
Next you should take out the PCI slots block:
Unfasten one screw (it is the same as the panels of the system case are fastened with) and extract the block by a special handle:
If putting cables and wires in a system case properly is your favorite hobby, you may be disappointed here. Everything is already done for you with braces and stickers (like the one you can see on the snapshot above, behind the hand). The cables are neatly laid out, so you only have to attach them to their respective connectors.
The PCI slots block is quite an ordinary thing:
These are standard PCI slots. The block’s own connector is intended for a slot of the PCI Express x16 form-factor, but you shouldn’t try to plug in a PCI Express graphics card instead of the PCI block – it won’t work!
When the PCI slots block is removed, you get a better view of the mainboard:
The MS-7131 mainboard is cleverly designed, despite its small size. Since this mainboard model was specifically developed for a particular case, every connector and component was placed properly. The engineers took care about good cooling of the MOSFETs of the CPU power circuit – this is not an extra measure since the case is cramped. The mainboard is powered by a power supply from Delta Electronics with a wattage rating of 250W. This PSU can yield 16 amperes on its 12V power rail which should be enough for any CPU you may install into this system.
To extract the HDD rack, you must first remove the optical drive bay.
It is fixed with a screw that you find next to the system speaker. Just cast this bay aside and extract the HDD rack:
It is an ordinary metal box that helps you to install your hard drive:
A pack of screws stuck inside the rack contains exactly one half of the screws you are going to deal with as you’re assembling the Hetis 915 Lite.
The drive is installed into the rack in an upside down manner (its sticker facing downwards).
After you’ve put your HDD into the rack, you can move the rack back in its place:
Unlike the hard drive, the optical drive is installed without a screwdriver. It is fixed on two sides with special locks:
You just pull the locks out a little:
Then you insert the drive and return the locks into their original position, setting the drive’s mounting holes against the locks’ juts.
The operation is simple and should provoke no difficulties. The barebone is supposed to accommodate a full-size optical drive, so you don’t have to search for a “shortened” design specifically. The drive sits normally in its bay without additional adjustment – the locks are made in such a way that the drive protrudes from the bay right as it should do.
The mainboard allows you to attach either two SATA or two PATA drives and this is quite sufficient for an office computer. The interface and power cables are all tucked away into the gap between the power supply and the drives.
The power supply receives enough air for normal operation. Even more, it takes warm air from the hard drive, working as a HDD cooler.
We have to install the processor and memory next to have a working computer. The memory installation is a simple, half-a-minute-long procedure, while the CPU installation demands that you take a screwdriver in your hands:
The compact boxed cooler is fastened in the same way as in server systems: it is attached to the case rather than to the mainboard and has springs on its screws so that you didn’t fasten it stronger than is necessary.
There’s a layer of thermal paste on the heatsink’s base:
The copper spot in the center is polished quite well:
It’s not a perfect mirror, but we could give it 4 points out of 5.
You have to press down on the cooler rather hard during the installation: you can’t turn two screws around at the same time if you don’t have a third hand, while the springs in the screws are very tight. So, you should tighten two diagonal screws, release the cooler from your hand and fasten the rest of the screws normally. The last touch to the assembly process is putting the PCI slots block in:
As you can see, there’s enough space for PCI cards. You are not practically limited in your choice of expansion cards. After the stiffness rib is put back in place, you can put the panel back and announce the system assembled. It hasn’t changed much externally – the optical drive is the only new outward feature:
I launched the system and found that MSI’s “specific smart fan control” technology worked right. There is no noise, at least no audible noise, if you run typical office applications. Yes, I could hear some slight noise at night, when everything became silent outside, but such noise was not disturbing or irritating at all.
My assumptions about this barebone’s capabilities proved to be true. Its cooling system cannot cope with top-end central processors. I tried to start it up with a well-known “heater” Pentium 4 560 (3.6GHz), but the computer hung up even before booting up the OS. Well, this CPU is a challenge even for serious coolers on heat pipes, so what else could we expect from a small copper-aluminum cooler? The system should do well with colder processors like Celeron and junior Pentium 4 models, at least I had no problems with a Pentium 4 2.8GHz. The temperature of this processor was 64°C under load, so the Hetis 915 is likely to handle even a Pentium 4 3.0GHz (if it’s not too hot in your room; the room temperature during my tests was 20°C).
Of course, I won’t call it a defect that a system costing about $200 in total cannot provide proper thermal conditions for a processor more than three times its cost. I guess no reasonable person will ever try to put such a processor into a Hetis 915.
Considering its price, the MSI Hetis 915 barebone system seems to be a very appealing offer in the market of SOHO and corporate computers. I want to congratulate MSI on the successful continuation of the Hetis series and I hope the new series won’t be limited to two models only.