Four Quiet and Powerful Mini PCs for Intel CPUs

Products Used In This Review

To complete our assembly of systems for the various barebones units we tested, we had to outfit them with RAM, hard disks, and graphics cards. To measure noise levels, we used a passively cooled PCIe graphics card from Gigabyte, so that the noise from a GPU cooler couldn't impact the sound levels we observed. We ran the DualCore CPUs at 2.8 GHz without any overclocking, and used only stock coolers included with each unit. We used a 2.26 Pentium M 780 that ran at 2.26 GHz in the AOpen unit.

External Expansion Boxes

External hard disk enclosures are always good options when it comes to backing up or transporting lots of files. If there isn't enough room inside a barebones PC for an additional drive, you must either replace the existing drive with a bigger one or attach another drive externally. For the latter approach, you can choose between USB or Firewire, but you can also find relatively new devices that use Serial ATA or eSATA ports as well. Though USB or Firewire can restrict data transfer rates, Serial ATA won't slow things down at all.

Unfortunately, things don't always function entirely properly with the so-called "Hot Plug", which only works properly with SATA II capable devices. You'll find several examples to illustrate your external case options here, or you can read another good article on this topic.

Stardom SR3610: Professional ESATA Solution

It's no longer mandatory to use only USB or Firewire to hook a PC up to external hard disks. There are now enough Serial ATA ports inside most PCs to make some available for external drives as well. One disadvantage of this technology is that each drive requires its own separate SATA port. This also means you can't cascade multiple SATA drives through a single connector the way you can with USB or Firewire.

The Stardom expansion box makes room for two SATA hard disks, both of which must be identical. These drives work either in a RAID 0 or RAID 1 array. In RAID 0 the total capacity is the sum of the two drives, but RAID 1 uses mirroring, so the total capacity is that of only a single drive. But in RAID 1 mode, if either drive fails, it can be replaced in a hot swap maneuver without taking the array down. In RAID 0 mode, the loss of a single drive means the loss of all data from both drives. An external LED display reports constantly on storage status. This device may also be attached to a PC through USB instead, but data transfer rates decline by almost 25 MB/s.

Thermaltake ESATA Enclosures

The Muse enclosures from Thermaltake are laid out to accommodate Serial ATA hard disks. The data transfer cable is eSATA compatible, and a compatible PCI bracket adapter is included with the $50 unit.

USB Adapters For ESATA

This no-name adapter turns any USB port into an eSATA connector, so you could use it to run either the Thermaltake Muse or the Stardom Raidbox, though this of course means using USB 2.0 for data transport rather than SATA. Nevertheless, our burst speed measurement showed that the USB channel was almost 100% utilized. The average price range for this adapter, frequently available on eBay (search on eSATA) or from other outlets, typically costs between $20 and $40.

USB Hard Drive Enclosures With LAN Connectors

When it comes to external storage, another alternative is to seek out enclosures that can be attached to a network, which means we're talking about network attached storage (NAS) in the broadest possible sense of that term. Network-capable hard disk enclosures, which typically feature both USB 2.0 and RJ-45 ports for direct or network-based connections, are readily available from vendors such as Argosy or Bytecc for prices in the $60 to $80 range. What makes this interesting as a storage option is that those who have access to a network can use it to access disk drives. One disadvantage is a relatively slow 100 Mbps connection; data transfer rates on a LAN are noticeably lower than USB 2.0, though only a single PC can access the drives when USB is used. While other devices that support Gigabit Ethernet are available, only a small number of users will have a Gigabit network and a compatible switch in their homes.

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Siggy Moersch