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Zen and the HFX Mini HTPC case

I like to mod it, mod it...

After some frustrating reliability issues with my old Phillips DVD Recorder (which involved some shouting, some frantic button pressing and an axe... look, I don't want to talk about it, OK?) I decided that it was time to, well, upgrade. Since most of our home recording is time-shift viewing related (i.e. TV programmes we want to see once and then delete), I thought it would be a good idea to buy a DVD/HDD recorder.

And since we are always running out of space (four hours DVD space gets you only so far) I was looking for something with a substantial hard drive. Unfortunately I soon concluded that off-the-shelf recorders: 1. have an awkward, impractical and just ugly user interface and 2. are quite expensive for what they are (£500,-- for a Sony RDRHXD1070? I think not!). So what does a self-respecting modder do? He builds his own HTPC!

A HTPC has other advantages besides: it can be tied into the existing home network and share music and video libraries; it can function as (yet) another Internet browser and RSS reader, and it can be expanded/upgraded over the years as format wars decide on a winner (two formats enter, one format leaves...).

My criteria for a HTPC are as follows:
  • It needs to be unobtrusive, reliable and as easy to use as an off-the-shelf device, particularly as my other half does not appreciate the esoteric satisfaction us modders get out of successfully coaxing a temperamental piece of hardware into submission;
  • It needs to be quiet (obviously);
  • It needs to be economical in electricity use;
  • It needs to have a massive HDD to accommodate all that crap that I'll probably never get around to watching. But hey: a DVD recorder is for recording stuff so that you could have watched it.

Way of the passive cooling

The Wise Master knows that the most efficient way to defeat an enemy is to use his strength against him. Therefore, the only way you can have a really quiet machine is by cutting out the fans and employing passive cooling. For those not yet in the know (and which planet have you been living on for the last five years?) this is not cooling that looks at a hot CPU and goes: "Meh..." (shrugs), but cooling that relies on heat transfer and radiation not employing active means such as fans and pumps. This tends to involve massive heatsinks, but the problem with that is that the chips which require cooling tend to be in rather inaccessible and cramped spaces inside a PC case, where there is not much room to bolt a large sink. However, this problem was effectively solved with the advent of heatpipe technology.

Heatpipes, as you will surely know, are metal tubes which contain an almost-vacuum, a wick and some liquid. The idea is that the liquid evaporates at the hot end as it absorbs heat, condensates at the cooled end as it releases heat, and through capillary action of the wick is transported back to the hot end, where the cycle repeats. Heatpipes are effectively that: pipes that transport heat from one end to the other. They are the Zen of cooling: using heat's force against itself, they deflect its action and harmlessly dissipate it.

Heatpipes have been around since at least 1979, but did not make their first appearance in CPU heatsinks until 2003 in two Thermal Transtech offerings, the TTIC-NPH-1 and TTIC-NPH-2. Thermalright soon followed suit with its SP-94. A new way of PC cooling was born.

The two main manufacturers that currently specialise in producing passively cooled HTPCs are Hush Technologies and mCubed HFX.

Hush makes machines to order, but even its basic UK market offering, the Hush UK-E1200, costs around £1200 -- for that eye-watering sum you do get a beautifully designed and constructed, fully pre-built and loaded machine that just needs hooking up to the TV and plugging in. If you can still afford the TV or the electricity.

The alternative is a kit made by mCubed and sold by themselves as well as places like KustomPC and QuietPC. This consists of a passively cooled aluminium case much in the same vein as the Hush PC, but the end-user provides all the internal hardware and puts it all together himself. At a price of about £276, this appears a considerably cheaper solution for something of roughly equal build quality, while offering greater flexibility in determining your own specs for the hardware.

The mCubed HFX Mini HTPC case.

The mCubed HFX Mini HTPC case.

In practice however things are not that simple: the case is just the start. To get a working system you need to add to that:
  • The CPU block with heatpipes: £65
  • The NB block with heatpipes: £41
  • The DVD drive in a specific sound-dampening housing: £105
  • The PSU: £95 to £121 (depending on spec)
  • The IR remote: £36
  • Various riser cards to be able to fit PCI cards into the motherboard at a 90 degree angle (more on that later): about £76
  • Optionally, a dual HDD sound-dampening housing: £29
  • Optionally, a GPU block with heat pipes: £54

...and before you know it, you are looking at a significant outlay of £694 to £803, just for the case. Motherboard, CPU, memory, HDD, tuner card, Operating System and optionally, graphics card still need to be added to that.

It is hard to see then, how this is a preferable option to the Hush PC which may come at roughly the same price but without the aggravation of having to put it all together yourself. Isn't it?

Well, yes and no. Although the HFX kit is only sold by a few outlets for roughly the same price (KustomPC tends to have the edge when it comes to who is cheaper), there is a wonderful place where occasionally, items come up at a ridiculously cheap price, where a bit of searching and persistence save you big bucks, where there is treasure: eBay.