Home Theatre PC and all that…[2]

In the first post of this series I took a look at some options out there using different form factors and chassis for a home theatre PC. After a month or two of the current form factor I’m sharing some more thoughts about the form factor options.

Generally when you are talking PCs, it is the proprietary manufacturers that have come up with the most innovations in form factors. As an example, HP produces their PCs in four different forms, which are a tower chassis, a “small form factor” (SFF) desktop, a “ultra small desktop” (USDT) and mini. All of these are proprietary designs using non-standard mainboards. Non proprietary equivalents are available; the mid-tower is the only one that can use a full size ATX board. The standard SFF desktop design from Intel was originally based around the NLX standard, which has since become obsolete; most generic low profile desktop chassis out there use microATX boards with low profile slots instead. The nearest equivalents to the USDT and mini forms are Mini-ITX. The Intel NUC is another type of proprietary “mini” form factor and uses its own small mainboard standard of sorts (102×102 mm). The smaller things get the less likely it is that any regular slots can be used. The USDT, Mini, Mini-ITX and NUC form factors are all incapable of supporting any normal expansion slots in the chassis and Mini-ITX boards rarely have any regular slots on the board. The USDT has as expansion options mSata (onboard SSD card connector), PCI Express mini card (small form PCIe slot for small cards) and MXM (Mobile PCIe Expansion Module) which is a NVidia standard for graphics cards in small computers such as laptops.

My experience to date with smaller form factors is either chassis too low powered (power supplies in Mini-ITX chassis are usually proprietary and limited capacity), board too low spec (Gigabyte GA-E350 and also NUC6CAYH) and reliability (NUC6CAYH, which now has a non working VGA port). I had expected the NUC6CAYH to have an ongoing usage as a video/audio media player, but it repeatedly experienced problems keeping up with a recent conference livestream from Australia, so it’s now on the shelf. The Antec Mini-ITX chassis I have only has a 90 watt power supply, which is OK for the E350 board, but could struggle with a higher powered board with a regular CPU. At the moment I am not considering Mini-ITX chassis or boards at all, and instead have the pair of BL641 chassis each with a microATX board (one Gigabyte H110M-S2H and one Intel DB75EN) with currently 8 and 4 GB of RAM respectively (the DB75EN might get an upgrade to 8 GB and/or SSD both around $50 but it’s not important at present).

When deciding on a small form factor chassis (one that can use regular desktop components, such as a standard power supply and microATX board), there is certainly a range of options out there. There do not seem to be a lot of low profile desktop chassis being made, the key ones of my acquaintance being the Foxconn DH153 and Inwin BL6xx series. The latter is available in a range of models with different front panels that all use the same internals. The Foxconn chassis is limited as the only configurable external bay is the optical drive one, the 3.5″ bay being only for a floppy drive. These chassis also have cooling limitations with the only large fan provided for being the power supply one. 40 mm fans can be fitted onto the rear grille but these are very noisy at full speed. There is a removable drive bay unit at the front. The Inwin chassis allows any 3.5″ external drive to be fitted as well as the optical drive and it also has a separate 80mm fan fitted on the side. Both types of chassis can fit regular TFX power supplies. Another alternative specifically geared towards HPTC is the Silverstone Milo ML series. The ML03 and ML04 are similar microATX capable chassis, the difference being the ML04 has a lockable fold down front panel cover similar to what you see on some hifi equipment. The particular quirks of this chassis are that it can fit a full size ATX power supply (albeit with an air intake on the bottom of the chassis) and also if the board allows it there is provision for a full height slot using a riser card (in addition to low profile slots). The only external drive provided for is the optical bay. Silverstone also make a range of Mini-ITX chassis such as the ML05 and the SG series. Ultimately for my application I determined the Inwin BL641 is preferable with a similar overall size to the ML03, greater versatility providing a 3.5″ external drive bay, and more space internally due to using the smaller TFX power supply.

For the time being I am sticking with small form factor desktops for media playing rather than Mini-ITX or NUC using economy microATX boards and CPUs with max 8 GB of RAM but might reconsider if circumstances dictate but prefer not to be locked into proprietary form factors such as NUC. I do have a HP USDT for Windows 10 this being an exception as it comes with the Windows 10 license and was purchased second hand and has built in mounts to fit it on a VESA bracket which can be attached under a desk etc.