by Vasily Melnik
07/08/2004 | 10:42 AM
Many users must have faced the problem of choosing a home computer. At any industry-wide exhibition we see the leading manufacturers show various concept systems of a “digital home” or a “multimedia center”, and this topic is discussed at length in computer-related media, but these visions of the future still remain in the distance while we mostly go on using the standard office PC at home, shoving it under the desk or in the corner – out of sight.
Still, users and manufacturers now oftener agree that the true home PC should differ from the office machine as concerns design and functionality, like wild animals differ from the domesticated ones. The problem grew more urgent with the advent of the LCD monitor, which is smaller and more elegant that the CRT one and quickly replaces the latter on our desks. For a well-to-do owner of such a monitor, the problem of the grey box of the standard PC case is a constant vexation – if you set aesthetics and design as the goal, you should pursue it everywhere.
The last fashion in the home PC sphere is the so-called barebone system, usually consisting of a small well-designed and decorated case with a preinstalled PSU and mainboard of a special form-factor, sometimes with other components. Shuttle Inc. may be considered a trend-setter in this field – due to the efficient marketing policy and a lucky combination of design, functionality and affordability, the company’s XPC series barebones are known to many users nowadays. The rest of the manufacturers found themselves lagging behind: although many have such products on their hands, none can boast a similarly wide model range. Anyway, each manufacturer is trying to be ahead in another factor: nearly every barebone has a “candy” inside, which distinguishes this barebone from the crowd of others.
MSI, a well-known maker of mainboards, optical drives and other PC components, launched the MEGA barebone series some time ago (MEGA – MSI Entertainment and Gaming Appliance). Devices of this series are all targeted at multimedia applications – you often find a phrase like “Digital Media Platform” in descriptions of the models.
The “candy” point of the MEGA PC is the ability of the system to work in two modes: “Hi-Fi” and “PC”. Thus, the user can listen to music without powering the PC component up and booting the OS. In the first operational mode the integrated AM/FM tuner and the optical drive are the only devices that work, while the CPU and the rest of the system don’t even receive power (more – they can be missing altogether!). In the second mode, the MEGA PC is a simple multimedia computer. Let’s check out how these two functions mix and match together!
The MSI MEGA 865 model that we review today is based on the i865G chipset. Its specifications:
The multicolored box into which this barebone system is packed carries numerous labels to attract the customer. Suddenly you read the following:
Why such limitations? We’ll discuss this matter when we try to assemble the system. Right now, let’s open the box up. So, the Deluxe version of the MEGA 865 barebone comes with the following accessories:
Don’t worry about the single interface cable – all other necessary loops are already preinstalled in the system, so you only have to attach the appropriate devices to them.
Externally, the MEGA 865 doesn’t look like a PC case, rather you can take it for a cute hi-fi system without speakers. Well, this might have been the goal of the designers – the user is likely to place the barebone on the desk, next to the monitor, and it should have a proper, eye-pleasing appearance.
The large colorful LED display and the control buttons are a sight – they practically copy the standard buttons of a music box. Here, the ease of use is sacrificed for the embellishments. The small silver buttons on the black reflective front panel look effective enough, but you have to “aim” them with your eyes, as it’s hard to find them by touch.
The universal shuttle controller, which also serves as a volume control, is placed to the left, along with buttons for enabling Hi-Fi and PC modes and a small Reset button, protected against accidental presses. To reset the MEGA 865 with this button, you have to find a thin and sharp-pointed thing like a pen or pencil.
Overall, you may notice two parts in the design of the front panel: the top refers to the Hi-Fi mode, while the bottom is used in the PC mode.
So, here are the things that belong to the first part: the LCD display and the optical drive covered with a decoration panel. By the way, it means that you don’t have to worry about matching the colors of the drive and the case. There’s also no other common problem: many competitor systems have the Eject button to mechanically transfer the press to the drive’s own eject button. This design depends on the precise positioning of the device in its bay, on the location of its eject button and so on. Here, the tray is ejected by the drive’s electronics after receiving the command via the IDE interface.
The PC part consists of a card reader (supports CompactFlash Type I and II, MS/SD/SM/MMC) and a bottom decoration panel that conceals a variety of connectors: SPDIF-In (optical), Mic-in, Headphones Out, two USB 2.0, two IEEE 1394 (4- and 6-pin connectors). You open the panel by pushing a special button, located to the left. The panel smoothly unfolds, rather than jumps open on a spring.
Of course, the display and the optical drive also work in the PC mode, so my proposed division between Hi-Fi and PC parts is purely imaginative.
Overall, the design is good. Only the color of the side insertions on the front panel is questionable. I think silver metal-like or wood-like decorations would look better. But this is a matter of personal taste, of course.
Instead of the HDD activity LED we have this information right on the display (in case you miss it). When the PC is shut down, the display transforms into a clock:
They require setting up after power disconnects, but you may get along without it: the time data is read from the BIOS on turning the PC part on. The rear panel of the MEGA 865 makes us recall that we deal with a relative of “big” PCs. We see an ordinary PSU fan and brackets for AGP and PCI expansion cards.
There’s also a connector to attach the external AM/FM radio-antenna:
And a handful of ports for any event in your computer life: COM, LPT, VGA D-Sub, two PS/2, Ethernet, two USB, SPDIF (optical), three audio connectors and even a modem port. Yes, the MEGA 865 is equipped with an integrated 56K modem!
The aluminum cover of the system case is black-lacquered and abounds in vent slits and holes. You definitely should leave some free space to the sides of the MEGA 865 – this is written on the sticker on the case and reiterated several times in the user manual.
We will examine the internals of the barebone in the section of the review which deals with its functionality as a PC. Right now, let’s examine the multimedia capabilities of the MEGA 865.
A curious thing about the MSI MEGA PC is that you can use it as a digital AM/FM receiver right after you buy it. An optical drive added, you can listen to Audio CDs and MP3s. By pressing the Hi-Fi button at the top left of the front panel or on the remote control you can switch this mode on even without installing the CPU, memory and hard disk drive.
This is possible thanks to the modified power-supply unit that caters power to the hungry devices: radio-tuner, AC’97 codec, optical drive, LED display/remote control unit, and the special-purpose BlueBird VL+ chip from Silicon Emotions that is responsible for controlling the system and realizing the functionality of this mode.
This controller is specifically designed for decoding audio files of MP3/WMA/ACC formats without a help from the central processor and for accessing the ATAPI/IDE channel bypassing the chipset’s South Bridge. Besides that, it can be used as a controller of a card-reader. The BlueBird VL+ can autonomously decode media-files from the optical or hard drives or memory cards, but the MEGA 865 only employs it for working with MP3 CDs. This may be due to the limitation imposed on the HDD file system (FAT16/32 only), or because the engineers were unwilling to make the system logics even more sophisticated.
Curiously, when you press the PC-mode activation button without having the CPU and memory installed, the system hangs up and you can only revive it by disconnecting power and connecting it again. This trick is described in the documentation, though.
The remote control is untypical for a barebone; it is light and thin, working on a small 3v lithium battery. It seems to be overloaded with buttons at first sight, and many of them work only with the TV-tuner, supplied optionally. The control worked rather badly, but maybe we were just unlucky to get a defective or damaged sample.
The frequencies of AM/FM stations can be recorded into the receiver’s memory (6 slots) like in any mini-system. They can be then called up either from the front panel or from the remote control. There are four presets of the graphics equalizer (Normal, Pop, Classic and Jazz) and SRS stereo enhancement available.
During Audio CD or MP3 playback, you can enable shuffle, track replay or disc replay. All these settings can be selected either from the remote control or from the front panel: the volume control is then used as an input device.
The MEGA 865’s LED display pleases the eye with its bright and rich colors. Unfortunately, it is segmented and thus limited in its capabilities. For example, it doesn’t display the name of the MP3 composition (from the ID3 tag), and doesn’t even show you the name of the reproduced file. Overall, in spite of the big size, the display only provides a bare minimum of information. They didn’t even realize that primitive bar spectrum analyzer, widespread in music boxes. On the other hand, contrary to the first versions of the MEGA PC, this display works in the PC mode, too. It can be made to show the info about the media-file playback as well as about the temperatures and fan speeds, although this ability is not documented (MSI PC Alert must be installed). The display cannot be turned off.
On powering up, the display blinks with all its segments at you:
The display in its various modes:
Of course, the use of a “rasterized” display with an option of programming the output information (ideally, with plug-ins for popular media-players or some simple API) would make the system costlier and more complex, but I think there are enough enthusiasts to go for the expense. So, this opportunity, maybe optional, would be good.
The AC’97 ALC655 codec from Realtek is responsible for sound reproduction. Its characteristics, specified by the manufacturer, correspond to the today’s requirements and the sound will satisfy 95% of all the users. At the same time, the market offers much more advanced solutions from other makers, like the SoundMAX from Analog Devices. Considering the clearly-defined targeting of the MEGA 865 at being a kind of analog of a full-featured audio system, the use of a higher-class codec (although a more expensive one) would look more reasonable.
Of course, the demanding user may install a high-quality external audio card, either PCI or USB, getting some gains in computer games (for example, only audio cards from Creative now support EAX 3.0, while the ALC655 only claims to support EAX 2.0). However, the concept of the two applications – PC and Hi-Fi – becomes senseless then, since the Hi-Fi mode reproduces sound using the integrated audio codec only. Anyway, this is not a serious drawback – the ALC655 is good enough, especially considering the inherent limitations of the MP3 format and AM/FM broadcasting.
The receiver’s sensitivity breaks no records, but it is quite good at receiving the basic stations. Manual input of the broadcasting frequency is not supported, you have to browse them with the auto-scan feature. There’s also no indication of the receiving mode, stereo or mono. Audio CDs are read in the digital mode, via the IDE channel, to please the audiophile.
The dimensions of the case of this barebone put serious limitations on the placement of the internal components. You can’t call this box “spacious” – a few extra centimeters of height and/or width wouldn’t spoil its appearance, but would certainly help the system components to breathe freely. Cabling and attaching was mostly performed at the factory, so the user has only to connect the devices, following the labels.
The drives basket consists of a bay for the optical drive and a 3.5” FDD bay. At the bottom, there’s a third bay, also 3.5”, which is occupied by a card reader in the Deluxe version. To unmount the basket, you undo six screws, but even after that you have to face the daunting task of extracting the basket out of the case.
Regrettably, MSI didn’t include some more trims for the front panel in case the user wanted to use this space for installation of another HDD or a 3.5” floppy drive, although you can remove the card reader’s panel: the whole front panel can be removed and then you can take out the card-reader:
There’s a lot of fascinating stuff under the front panel. For example, take a look at one of the antennas of the inbuilt Wi-Fi unit (the second is identical to the first and is located to the right):
Here’s the Wi-Fi unit itself, installed into a mini-PCI slot. A Silicon Emotions BlueBird VL+ chip is nestled nearby:
The AM/FM tuner is situated near, too:
The memory slots are easily accessible:
The AGP and PCI slots are so placed that the AGP plug is dangerously close to the PSU. Moreover, you will hardly be able to use the PCI slot with a graphics card installed.
The fan of the North Bridge’s cooler found a bad place for itself – I strongly doubt its efficiency. Well, look for yourself: the gap between the cooler’s top and the bottom of the drives basket is only 1cm – too narrow for creating a proper airflow for the heatsink.
On the other hand, it would be even more risky to use just a passive heatsink here. In fact, cooling the MEGA 865 is no trivial task: it’s cramped inside and it is difficult to move or shift the chipset’s North Bridge when wiring a six-layer mainboard, considering the density of the elements.
The CPU cooler looks imposing for its weight alone: half a kilogram of copper! It has two fans attached to the sides:
Notwithstanding the serious weight category, the design of the heatsink is questionable. The ribs are not very neatly soldered to the massive copper base and soldering is overall not the best solution as concerns heat conductivity, although optimal with respect to cost and manufacturing simplicity.
We’ll discuss the cooling matters later on. By the way, the cooler is fastened to the CPU by means of four spring screws, quite reliably. The cooler’s case has holes to tighten the screws – you’ll need a screwdriver with a long sting.
The fans installed on the cooler differ in size and diameter. This is because a larger fan wouldn’t fit into the system, touching against the memory slots.
The power-supply unit of the MEGA 865 is rated for 250W. Considering the small dimensions of the system, this should be enough for a not-very-extreme system. We’ll discuss this problem shortly.
The specs of the PSU:
Some power connectors are non-standard: one powers the LED display, the BlueBird VL+ chip and other devices that work autonomously in the Hi-Fi mode, and another feeds a special power connector for the optical drive. Right behind the PSU, there are: an integrated modem, a FireWire controller from NEC, an AC’97 Realtek ALC655 codec and a power connector for the Hi-Fi mode.
Overall, we couldn’t find any eye-striking defects in the design or assembly of the MEGA 865. However, the moment of truth comes when you power the system up. That’s what we’re going to get busy with now.
Although the engineering team from MSI tried to make the assembly process as easy as possible, this is still a difficult job, considering the components density inside of the MEGA 865. You need to concentrate your attention and call up your screwdriver skills. It would also be wise to refer to the Quick Installation Guide during the process – it contains step-by-step instructions illustrated with pictures. As usual, the full user manual, in the PDF format, is contained on the enclosed CD.
The MEGA PC is positioned as a home entertainment center, so we didn’t risk transforming it into a high-performance platform, but limited ourselves with a Pentium 4 2.4GHz, 512 megabytes of DDR SDRAM (for the chipset to work in the dual-channel mode) and a Seagate Barracuda ST3160023AS (SATA) HDD of 160GB capacity.
As an experiment, we also installed a PX-708A DVD±R/RW drive from Plextor – remember the queer warning about the compatibility with “native” optical drives only? Although many drives from MSI are realized in the “shortened” form-factor, we had no size-matching problems when installing the Plextor into the case, or any of the other components, for that matter. Troubles sprung up later, when we set to making all this stuff work together. The system just behaved strangely with the optical drive from Plextor, in the both operational modes. For example, the Hi-Fi mode was unavailable altogether and the Eject button would become “sticky” – opening the tray and closing it immediately after.
After we replaced the incompatible Plextor with a CR52-M CD-RW drive from MSI, all the problems described simply vanished. We also tested our MEGA 865 with a Samsung SM-352 CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo and found the system glitch-free, too. Thus, I can only advise you to check out the compatibility question – not every optical drive can work in the MEGA 865.
The heap of cables in the neighborhood of the AGP port gives me some apprehensions – they partially block the airflow taken in by the CPU cooler. We’ll see shortly how this affects the thermal environment in the system case if you install an external graphics card.
The card-reader took the letters “C” and “D” by default. “E” went to the optical drive and the hard disk drive (its boot partition) received the letter “F”. This probably happened because we used a SerialATA hard disk drive. Thus we ended up with a not very convenient arrangement: to correct it, you probably must reinstall Windows, first detaching all the devices, save for the HDD.
The system fans are temperature-dependant. They spin up to their maximum speeds on the start of the system, but as soon as Windows XP begins to boot up, the MEGA 865 gets practically silent. After the installation of the drivers and the MSI Media Theater Deluxe III software, we got the opportunity to use the AM/FM tuner, the display and the remote control in the PC mode.
The choice of a menu item is duplicated on the LED display. The program window is scalable up to the entire screen, so it’s an easy matter to select the operational mode from the remote control, relaxing in your favorite easy chair in the opposite corner of the room. By the way, the software uses the AM/FM tuner in a slightly different way and finds more stations than the firmware in the Hi-Fi mode.
The MSI PC Alert 4 utility allows using the LED display to show the information about the CPU and system temperatures as well as about the speeds of the CPU and system (PSU) fans.
The program window also tells you about the voltages and frequencies of the system:
The temperature of the idle system was 42°C (measured under 25-27°C room temperature). Under a synthetic load (CPU Burn), the CPU would heat up to 54°C. The cooler sped up from 2250rpm to 4000rpm at that and the noise level grew somewhat. Still, the noise remained rather low, without annoying peaks or resonances; it will hardly prevent you from watching your favorite movie with comfort.
When the CPU temperature grew to 55°, the cooler spun up to its full speed of 5500rpm and quickly cooled the CPU down to 44°. The “active cooling” session lasted for about three minutes, after which the cooler’s speed returned to the minimum.
The main disadvantage of the cooling system employed in the MEGA 865 is the lack of fine-tuning options like setting the correlation of the fan speeds and the temperatures. You can’t set up activation thresholds, either. There was also a minor inconvenience as the LED display would sometimes produce weird “writings on the wall” like “CPU 0000 RPM” or “SYS 7800 RPM” and others. On other occasions, the display would hang up altogether and its contents would remain the same even after a restart – only power disconnect would cure this malady. I hope these problems will find their resolution in the next version of the BIOS, though. Probably, the developers will also be kind to add the fine-tuning options I’ve just spoken about.
Yet another confusing thing was the relatively high temperature of the memory modules working in their normal mode. They are not cooled in any way and their temperature was very hot to the touch, although we didn’t register any stability issues.
As a last touch to our tests, we decided to add an external AGP graphics card into the MEGA 865 to see if it was at all possible. We had some doubts about that because:
We took a GeForce FX 5900 card from Gainward for our test – its size is standard and its cooling system is rather small, but the card itself is fast enough. To cut the long story short, we managed to plug it in and snap the latch of the AGP slot, but we had had to detach the SATA cable for that and even to remove the optical drive! After that, the graphics card blocked airflow towards the CPU cooler, and the heap of PSU cables was near it, threatening to block it altogether. Can the system work in such conditions?
My launching the CPU Burn utility made the processor as hot as 74°C, and the fan speeds were the maximum. In spite of the increased temperature, the system maintained stability for a long time without any sign of overheat, while 3DMark 2001 showed a tremendous score of 12,238 (1024x768, 32-bit color) instead of 2,688 I got using the integrated Intel Extreme Graphics 2 core.
Anyway, I wouldn’t recommend to you to install the topmost (i.e. hottest) processors with a powerful graphics card into the MEGA 865. The system temperature under a load was so high that even the cover of the system case was perceptibly hot! And even if you manage to solve the problem of overheat, there may arise problems with the limited power of the PSU.
I ended the last section of the review issuing all manner of warnings, so let me now say a few words in defense of the MEGA PC concept. I think that the fundamental problem the users usually encounter with barebones is not due to any fault of the developer’s, but rather due to the misunderstanding of the purpose of a barebone PC.
You cannot assemble an extremely-fast machine basing on the MEGA PC. You are as unlikely to upgrade it up to the level of an advanced gaming system, a kind of “fps generator”. Of course, you shouldn’t try to build this barebone into a workstation for processing sound or video and other similar tasks.
The purpose of this device is being a home multimedia computer for playing music and movies, for Web-surfing, for not-very-hard video games and office tasks. The MEGA 865 is designed to meet the aesthetic needs of its owner: the bright colorful display, the special Hi-Fi mode for listening to music and the solid support of the remote control by the MSI Media Center Deluxe III suite make this barebone a “home pet”, an embellishment of your work desk. Its functionality in the basic configuration is enough for such uses. I also think it would be proper to add a TV-tuner to the default configuration of the MEGA 865, since it must serve as an entertainment center. As for the wireless capabilities, I find them a bit superfluous for a home use. By the way, you don’t have to buy a regular AGP graphics card to connect the MEGA PC to a TV-set: there are special add-on cards available that enhance the functionality of the integrated graphics core – you plug them into the AGP slot and they have a very small size.
Now that we’ve put forth the aesthetic considerations with respect to the MEGA 865, be ready to shell out more money. A 17” LCD monitor just demands to be bought along with this barebone. A combination of the small MEGA PC with a clumsy CRT monitor would look ridiculous. You may also want to pay attention to the color of the monitor: black is what you need. Of course, the mouse and the keyboard just must be black! Don’t also forget about a good multi-channel speaker system to build a home theater to astound your friends.
The developers from MSI took great pains to perfect the MEGA PC concept and, although with many shortcomings, the system is already winsome and attractive to the home user.
And as a kind of P.S., I’d like to say that the latest industry trend to a higher priority of “home” applications of the computer is overall and totally good. Many of us can recall the times when computers were big and slow, while the current epoch is the one of fast, hot and noisy PCs. I hope that the future will bring in other home computers, compact, easy-to-use, functional, noiseless, nice-looking and affordable. It is in this future that the era of the digital home will succeed to the era of the personal PC!