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Mini-ITX Linux Box

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June 30, 2011 9:11:09 PM

Hi,

I'm almost done assembling this new PC and, like many around here, I spent quite a bit of time reading about the various parts, trying to choose what was right for my needs. I figured I'd thank the people who took the time to write reviews and experience by sharing back.

Use cases:
I use a linux box to
  • Backup three other PCs (two Mac using TimeMachine and another PC using W7's backup tools)
  • It also stores music and pictures that I can't store on the macs (they're laptops with limited storage)
  • The box is hooked to a TV so it also stores movies and videos
  • It runs Apache and runs a server that I use for various reasons (work, accounting, teaching, remote access to stuff, etc.)
  • It's used as a subversion/trac server
  • It's used as extra processing power (distributed builds)
  • It's a ssh tunnel for remote desktop LAN computers, it's also a proxy when when I'm somewhere and I want to access something and the firewall is blocking
  • It forward scans and faxes that I receive to an dropbox account so I can access them anywhere
  • It's also used as a smtp server when I'm outside and need to send an emails

    There are often over 200 processes running on that box.

    Requirements - Top 5:
    1. Reliable - once done, it has to run 24/7 and I want to be able to depend on it.
    2. Storage - One RAID1 array for data at at least another drive for system. Experience has convinced me that it's a good idea to keep them separate.
    3. HD (1080p) video playback
    4. Silent and low consumption since this is running 24/7 in the living room (it's not next to the TV but it's in a closet in the same room).
    5. Small since my apartment is minuscule.

    On the side, I need to mention that I've been assembling and purchasing computers for quite a while and I'm not really worried about the price here. I'm used to assembling high-end servers and workstations; the Shuttle that I had ended up costing roughly 2500$ 6 years ago, and today, I'd have to try hard to reach that cost for a homebuilt system of that type today. Everything I've been buying in the last weeks has been incredibly cheap to my eyes. I can understand that not everyone would have this perspective though. Still, somebody selling me 8GB of RAM for under 100$ makes me very suspicious. So in my decisions, price was rarely the decision factor.

    Previous system
    My previous box was a Shuttle xPC SN25-P1 with a AMD Athlon64 x2 4800+ Dual-Core 2.40GHz 64-bit Processor, purchase almost 6 years ago. I have to say that it's been an amazing system - It's small and quiet and I was able to store 3x3.5" HD which was perfect for my needs. Recently it started behaving weirdly (it wouldn't boot normally, I had to "reset" it otherwise it was stuck on the BIOS's screen). I've also been worried because the design is far from perfect. My hard drives have been running at roughly 58-61 celsius all the time since they sit on top of everything else with nearly no airflow. Nevertheless, I've had no problem with my hard drives. It was also starting to have a hard time keeping up. Performing a TimeMachine backup while watching a movie would make it skip, HD would barely play, and pretty much any Flash based video would be a huge stress for it.

    New system
    Case
    Unfortunately Shuttle does have any case that will support more than 2 HD and there are very few SFF cases that will. Using 2.5" drives is out of the question (I need at least 2TB). I looked at the Sugo series from Silverstone:
  • The small SG05, SG06, SG07 won't take 3x3.5" hard drive (at most, they'll take 1x3.5" and 2x2.5" - or else you have to remove the DVD drive which I'm not willing to give up) since the box doubles as my DVD player.
  • SG03 and SG04 looked pretty good and seemed to be fit for the job, except I though they were big to hold only 3x3.5HD. Keep in mind that all this time, I'm comparing with my Shuttle SN25P which is tiny. Plus, I'm not convinced that the drive will run cool since the airflow doesn't seem optimal at the bottom of the case.
  • The TJ08-E seemed better - better suited than the SG04 - more expandability, not much bigger, the HD are located at the front with good airflow.
  • The Lian Li PC-Q08 however seemed perfect for the job. It was mini-ITX instead of micro-ATX like the SG04, but it had more room for hard drives (up to 6x3.5" drives). I don't plan one using graphics card in SLI mode - this is not a gamer's box, so 1xPCIe 16x is enough for what I need. Also, the inflow fan blows right through the hard drive, so they're kept cool. Size-wise, I think it's the smallest case out there that will support 3+ 3.5" HDD with this design.

    For size comparison: View the size comparison

    So I ended up getting the PC-Q08.

    CPU
    From the current reviews on CPU, this seemed like a no brainer - the 2500k and 2600k have received extremely good reviews. I was wondering if I should take the 2500 / 2600 models (without overclocking), but the price difference wasn't much and I figured I might want to downclock the CPU. In any case - I plan on keeping this box for at least 5-6 other years, so I figured the unlocked "K" version would give me greater tuning flexibility in the future. I compared the 1155 an 1156 socket CPUs and from the various reviews I found, the consensus seemed to be that the 2xxx series performed better with lower power consumption. Finally, the choice between the 2500k i5 and 2600k i7 was arbitrary. They price difference wasn't huge and I went for the faster one. 300$ seemed like a bargain compared to the 999$ I had paid for the AMD 4800+ 2.4GHz 6 years ago.

    So I ended up getting the Intel i7 2600k 3.4 GHz CPU

    CPU Heatsink
    Since I want the box to be silent and reliable, I started looking for silent CPU heatsinks. Given that this is a mini-itx board, the choice is limited. There were a few good reviews for the Thermalright AXP-140 and I went for it.

    Motherboard
    Once the case and CPU have been picked, the choice is pretty limited for the motherboard. Especially with Mini-ITX. From what I understood, there was a design problem in the SATA chipset for the Sandy Bridge motherboards and a lot of motherboards were recalled or the production was halted until recently. There are plenty of boards out there, but they're pretty much all identical:

    Basically, you have to choose between 3 chipsets, then you pick the manufacturer and it's all pretty much the same except for a few details:
    You have the H61 board with SATA 3Gbs (no 6Gbs):
  • Intel DH61DL: Only 3xSATA ports, limited to 8GB of RAM (others could handle 16GB)
  • Asus P8H61-I: 4xSATA

    Then the H67 which adds 2xSATA 6GBs
  • Zotac H67ITX-C-E with WiFi that I don't really want, but 6 sata ports (incl. 2 sata-6)
  • Intel DH67CF
  • Gigabyte GA-H67N-USB3-B3
  • ASRock H67M-ITX/HT (the HT version is the same with WiFi)

    And finally, the Z68 board which I only found with Zotac:
  • Zotac Z68ITX-B-E with WiFi that I don't really want. At least the onboard graphics are decent, but it comes with a heatsink and a fan and I have no idea how noisy it is. I couldn't find a review about this - but I wouldn't expect it to be quiet. Also, it takes the smaller RAM (for laptops) which annoyed me then for some reason.
  • Zotac Z68ITX-A-E with WiFi that I don't really wait, 4 sata ports.

    There are a few others from brand that I don't know / trust well. But basically, it's all very depressing. So many to pick from but they're all almost the same. You want to check the power consumption of each, wether the AXP-140 heatsink will fit or now, etc. At this point I was getting tired and I just picked one almost at random. I ended up choosing the Gigabyte GA-H67N-USB3-B3. I just wanted to move on.

    RAM
    Again, there's too much to choose from. I ended up getting a pair of Patriot G2 series DDR3 sticks (2x4G). It was a bad decision (I'll come back to it)

    Power Supply
    Google'd a bit - I wanted something quiet, efficient, reliable and based on the few reviews I read, I ended up choosing the Corsair AX750 Gold.

    With the power supply, I ordered a set of short cables from Silverstone (PP05). I was hoping to mix, but it wasn't that simple. The power cable for the corsair PSU splits in two parts while the Silverstone's doesn't so I couldn't use that one. Also I found the Silverstone cables to be very fragile. One broke in my hands while I was plugging it to a hard drive, and the shield of another unmeshed. I wouldn't recommend getting those unless it's for one of the Silverstone PSU.

    Hard Drives
    I'm keeping the ones that I had. These
  • 1x Seagate 1TB (old) Baraccuda ES.2 used for the system
  • 2x Seagate 2TB Constellation ES drives

    I've been using Seagate for years (the ES.2 series and now the Constellation series) and found them to be very reliable. Considering that my drives were kept at 60 degrees celsius, running 24x7 for many years and they're still holding... Their customer support is among the worst though I have to say and obtaining an RMA is a real PITA.

    Still, the system runs on 10GB (yay Ubuntu!) and most of the 1TB drive is empty, so I figured I'd replace it with a 120GB agility: half for the system / swap, the other half for scratch (e.g. when doing distributed processing). The drive was ordered but not installed yet.

    Comments
    A few things didn't go too well:

  • The Patriot G2 RAM requires 1.65v while the board only supplies 1.5v. As a result, the system was unstable (random resets without warning) because the RAM was undervolted. I lost an entire day - since every piece was new, everything could be guilty. Ordering new RAM, meanwhile I have increased the voltage to 1.6 in the bios and lowered the speed to 1066MHz and it's been running fine since.
  • The Lian Li PC-Q08 board is bit overrated. It's nice, the size is but the case is made to be open once, installed and then closed. Once it's closed, you really don't want to go play inside anymore: first there's 6 screws to undo, then whatever you want to do, you need to remove the hard drive cage, the motherboard is unaccessible because of the power supply (you need to remove the whole panel (6 more screws), etc. Also, in my case I had to mess a lot with it in order to find what was wrong with my system (random resets) and after a while, the black screws wear and become silver. I also scratched one panel in the process. The finish looks good but you have to be careful. The fan that come with the case are quiet and I wouldn't be able to criticize the airflow design of this case - it's just perfect. My drives are at 32 degrees, CPU is at 30 degrees and the PSU fan is almost never spinning. Really, the only thing I wish this case had was a better opening system (2 thumb screws per side) and a sata backplane would have been awesome.
  • The AXP-140 heat sink is huge. Don't trust the pictures. It's almost as huge as the entire ITX board. The fan that comes with it is very disappointing - it's so noisy!!! I'm replacing it, but I don't understand why Thermalright would ship this great product with such a fan. Otherwise, the AXP-140 has been performing extremely well. I wouldn't be able to run the 2600K at 3.4GHz without the fan (it's alright for idle, but the heat builds up when it's working), but I tried after underclocking and it seemed feasible at ~2.4GHz. I'll see if I can find a quiet 140mm fan to replace the current one, otherwise I might decide to live with an underclocked CPU. Also, the AXP-140 come a few millimeters away from the PCI-e. As a result, I wasn't able to use the Geforce that I have that uses passive cooling with a heatsink since the heatsink is on both sides of the card. I was able to install a regular graphics card however, but you need to put something there to insulate, otherwise the heatpipe will touch the back of the card with the slightest mouvement.
  • The PSU is way too powerful for the current system - I plan on adding a graphics card but haven't decided yet. I'm otherwise very happy with it - it almost never spin (thus it's totally silent). Even with the graphics card, I would probably have been fine with a 500-600W PSU.

    Other observations
    Other than the issue about the PCIe, the AXP-140 fits well into the Lian Li PC-Q08. That was one of my initial worry. The PSU I have is fairly big (150x160x86mm) but there's about 2.5 cm between the top of the AXP-140 fan and the PSU, which is plenty.
    Airflow is extremely good - air comes in through the HDs, CPU fans pushes down on the motherboard, then a fan at the top sucks the warm air out. The PSU is oriented outward, so it's not even in the equation.
    I was tired when I ordered the motherboard, I did not realize that the DVD player would take 1 SATA port. So really, I'm left with 3 ports, which is a bit sad in a case that could take up to 6 HDs. I'm considering replacing the board with the Zotac H67ITX-C-E which has 6 SATA ports.

    That's pretty much it. I'll try to come back with I receive the fan for the AXP-140 and when I have the whole thing finished. Hopefully this post will help others looking to build a similar PC.
  • More about : mini itx linux box

    July 2, 2011 9:58:34 PM

    Two things I wanted to add:

    1. Turns out the intel graphics on the motherboard aren't so bad (the 2600k has intel graphics 3000). There's a few things I haven't been able to sort out in Ubuntu (e.g. Overlays for video playback seems broken), but otherwise the performance is quite acceptable. It will run and display 4-5 1080p video simultaneously with over 50% of idle time left. Plus, it can output audio on the HDMI, which I couldn't do with my previous NVidia. So for now, I'm thinking I might not add a graphics card at all. The onboard graphics has no fan and it difficult to find graphics card without a fan these days.

    2. I replace the AXP-140 140mm stock fan with a 120mm Scythe Slip Stream with speed control. The fan speed is controlled by the motherboard and it stays pretty much at the lowest speed all the time making it whisper quiet. Under load, it will reach 60 celsius but it won't go above and will drop immediately to 40 once the load is gone and then back to 33-34. (ambient is 25-26). I also replace the stock 120mm fan of the Lian Li PC-Q08 (the one pushing air outside at the top-back of the case. I manually set the speed of the fan at the fastest RPM I could get without hearing a noise and it's been providing enough cooling. Right now, the only noise I can hear comes from the hard drive and the front fan (which I couldn't hear before).
    !