A few months back, my desktop PC died. I had a birthday not too far away and I was struggling with present ideas, so I figured I could make do with a cobbled-together machine until then. Truth be told, I had been thinking about a new machine for a while, mainly because the old one kept hitting a brick wall, I think because of my obsession with keeping a lot of tabs open. So the collapse of the old one presented an opportunity.
My old mini-ITX build was doing the job other than that though. So I was looking at more RAM (my suspicion for the occasional hang-ups) and I also wanted it quieter. The old mini-machine was a little noisy.
I tried to sum up my requirements and I came up with:
- Plenty of RAM
- New SSD
- Able to drive my 2560×1600 screen and a 1900×1080 second screen, with scope for 4K support in the future
- Small form factor
I decided I could lose the optical drive.
My experience with my HTPC has taught me two things when it comes to noise:
- The only silent things have no moving parts
- A large enough (120mm) fan spinning slow enough may not be silent, but is largely inaudible
So I wanted passive if possible, with maybe a couple of case fans if necessary.
Going with 120+mm fans on either the case or CPU cooler, was going to mean a bigger form factor, so I looked for micro-ATX this time instead, to give me more options to play with.
Here’s what I ended up with as a spec:
- CPU: Intel Pentium G3258 (£49)
- Mobo: MSI B85M-E45 (£50)
- RAM: 16GB Corsair Vengeance DDR3 (£90)
- SSD: Samsung 850 EVO 250Gb (£78)
- PSU: PicoPSU 160-XT (previous build)
- CPU Cooler: Zalman FX70 (£30)
- Case: Sharkoon CA-M (£32)
- HDD: 500GB WD Scorpio Blue (previous build)
- Extras: Startech 8-inch 12V 4-Pin extension (£2)
I don’t need a huge amount of processing power, so I opted for a Pentium instead of anything more powerful. The G3258 does give me the option to overclock should I need more power in the future (and was also the reason for the MSI board, which allows it to be overclocked).
I thought about 8GB of RAM, but wanted to run some VMs, so 16 seemed a better option. Similarly for the SSD. My previous one was 120GB, with the heavy stuff on the HDD, but I ended up going for 250GB instead.
I wanted a silent CPU cooler. I thought about the Nofan CR-80EH but in the end opted for the FX70 because it was cheaper and available faster. It took a bit of work to figure out whether I could fit it on the motherboard and in the case. In the end, I had to turn it through 90 degrees to fit it without running into the graphics card.
The case was another big decision. I wanted small, I wanted silent, but I wanted to keep it within a reasonable budget. Silent usually means sound proofing, which makes for bigger, pricier cases. I went for quieter components instead. The only reason I could fit such a large cooler was because I didn’t have a standard ATX PSU and instead opted for a PicoPSU.
It was a tight fit, largely because the motherboard is essentially the same size as the case. The nice part of the CA-M is that you can take practically every panel off, which makes access a bit easier. Having a massive heatsink also sucked up a lot of space (although a normal ATX PSU would have done the same). I was glad I’d had the forethought to buy the 4-pin extension cable, as it was needed to reach the socket.
The SSD and HDD are mounted to the floor of the case, which made fitting them a bit of a challenge. Not only were they hard to screw in, but getting the SATA cables in place was difficult too.
The case comes with a single 120mm fan in the top. I’d been pleased with Sharkoon fans previously, so I assumed I could have this on a low setting for near silence. I was wrong, it was noisy no matter what I did. I originally had it plugged into the board and was using the BIOS to control it, but it wouldn’t go below 50%. I found a video explaining how to get it lower, but this either didn’t have an impact, or it was still noisy. I even tried a manual fan controller I had, but the lowest setting on that was still too noisy. I’ve left it disconnected.
This machine wasn’t built for raw power, I simply don’t need it. Responsiveness was something I was looking for and general snappiness.
It’s early days, I haven’t loaded the machine down with cruft and updates yet, but waking and sleeping are basically instantaneous. Boot times are good, though certainly not instant. Powering off is pretty quick too.
As the fan was so noisy, I tried running a few scenarios to see whether I could leave it off. For this I used good old Prime 95 to max out the CPUs for a while.
- With the fan (100%): 53.5°C
- With the fan (low): 56°C
- Without the fan: 64°C
Measured using Open Hardware Monitor
I figured I could live with that. In subsequent use I haven’t seen it exceed 66°C which is well inside the safe zone for a CPU.
As ever, I was keen to keep my power consumption as reasonable as possible. It maxes out at 59W but tends to hover around 35W in general use. So not ground-breaking, but still pretty good, and despite the extra punch it’s lower than the machine it replaces.
As you’d expect from a machine with almost no moving parts, it’s very quiet. The only component that isn’t silent is the HDD, which is surprisingly noisy for a 2.5″ model (I have several smaller ones in other machines, none are as noisy as this one). Could I get away with just the SSD? Maybe. Could I look for a quieter HDD? It’s tempting.
I largely achieved what I wanted. The only real niggles are the noisy fan and HDD. I can probably swap these out at some point, though the fan isn’t really necessary unless I decide to overclock. Other than that, I have a very snappy machine for a pretty reasonable budget. Most people could get away with half the RAM and a smaller SSD, which would pay for the Pico, so the budget certainly covers a very capable machine.