Today we look at the Sentry Mesh fan controller from NZXT. I had hoped to look at it a few months ago, but due to an issue with the initial test sample things got delayed. I want to set this out clearly up front as my review may not follow a linear format, some of the info provided will refer to the first unit while other data will apply to its replacement. In an effort to be clear, I will make note of which unit is being referenced as necessary. Now on to our review.
NZXT is a relative newcomer on the scene, having been established in 2004. Dealing initially with cases, they have since branched out into case accessories such as fan controllers. A while ago MattNo5ss reviewed their high-end Sentry LXE fan controller that comes with an interactive LCD touch screen, alarm settings and pretty much everything you can think of other than the kitchen sink. Today’s offering, the Sentry Mesh controller, is the basic model fan controller in NZXT’s lineup and as such the bells and whistles like the LCD screen are absent.
As always I begin my reviews with just a very brief discussion of the shipping of the product. Eleven days transpired between the day I confirmed with mdcomp that I would be reviewing this product and the day of the arrival of the first sample. Eleven days from just outside of Los Angeles, California to just outside of Toronto, Ontario. Not bad UPS, not bad. The package arrived whole and intact. No damage of any kind, not even superficial nicks in the cardboard shipping box. Again, not bad UPS.
The second sample took well over a month to arrive, however. While the company was more than willing to provide a replacement sample, it did take some back and forth with various people at the company to arrange this, and that layer of bureaucracy must be taken into account as part of the shipping time. In the end, I would say the company addressed the issue and set about correcting it promptly. No need for images of the second unit’s packaging, suffice it to say, it was just as flawless and damage-free as the first one.
Upon opening the box I was met with packing peanuts stuffing the box to prevent shifting of the actual product, which was well centered amongst the peanuts. That’s standard operating procedure for small components (excluding hard drives) and nothing to applaud in favor of or rage against. This arrangement applied to both units I received.
The box for the fan controller is barely bigger than the controller itself so no internal padding was required. As you can see below the box contained the controller, wrapped in plastic. Removing the controller, I found the instruction sheet underneath as well as a small bag of screws. The instruction sheet is a single page of letter sized paper, folded over twice to fit into the box. The screws are to secure the controller to the 5.25″ drive bay that it will be installed in. Both units came properly packed and included the instruction sheet and the screws.
The instruction sheet is simple but then so is the product. It uses text and images to show the obvious aspects: parts list, installation diagram for connecting the fans to the controller and the controller to the case, usage how-to and a list of support/service contacts. All of the sections except for the contact list are printed in eight languages: English, French, German, Russian, Japanese, one of the Chinese dialects (I would presume it is either Mandarin or Cantonese, but I’m not sure which), Spanish and Portuguese. The contact list has all of those languages except, for some reason, for Portuguese. There has been some discussion amongst those on the review team and a few others over whether the controller is 30 W total or 30 W per channel, well the instruction sheet provides the first bit of clarification as it clearly states 30 W per channel. Rather than upload quasi-blurred photos of the manual, here are scans of the sheet I received. I’d offer up the link to the download page, but apparently the manual for the Sentry Mesh is not available from the manufacturer’s website.
There’s not much else to say about the instruction sheet, so lets move onto the product itself. The controller is light. The body of it is plastic, approximately 2 mm thick along both the bottom and the two sides, with structural support between the sides and the bottom to give it added strength. I spent a few years working plastic injection molding in my youth and learned a few things about plastics. I can tell by the feel of it that the body doesn’t just seem strong, it is strong. It’s not too yielding in the bend department and not very likely to snap under light pressure in the fracture dept. In other words, it is solidly built. The plastic body of the controller has threaded brass fittings embedded within the plastic at the screw mount points so you don’t have to worry about stripping out the plastic if you move it around several times from case to case or drive bay to drive bay looking for your optimal configuration. Good attention to detail. I noticed that the controller’s body has a full bottom but there is nothing to it other than the structure itself. It has a small hole in the middle and a retention clip to keep the wires off to one side but beyond that, nothing. I know the purpose of this device is to be a fan controller but I wonder how difficult it would have been to incorporate a 2.5″ SSD mount behind the fan controller to add to the functionality/versatility of the device. I don’t see this as a failing, just an opportunity to go the extra mile not taken. No bonus point, but certainly no deduction either.
Before we move on to installing it in a few cases, let’s take a closer look at the circuitry of the Sentry Mesh. The spec page for the Sentry Mesh states that the control is, and I quote, “voltage”. That may not be the clearest explanation, but it does lead one towards concluding that PWM, or Pulse Width Modulation, is being used to cycle power to the fan channels to regulate fan speed. If you want a clear and informative explanation of what PWM is and how it works, give this excellent write up by one of our forum members a read. The other common way to go would be to use some kind of resistor to, “resist” for lack of a better word, the flow of current. We’ve all seen pictures of big rheostats used in home-made fan controllers. Some of us have made one, remember when you made one? If you do you remember how boiling hot the thing got under load. PWM circuits don’t get boiling hot because they don’t constantly resist the flow of current, they open the circuit during the down time between pulses so no current has to be resisted as no current is flowing. Look at the circuits up close, see any big, fat rheostats to resist a constant current? Neither do I. So Pulse Width Modulation it is. That’s called working smart, instead of working hard. It’s also called not dumping watts and watts of heat into the ODD bay area which is eventually going to affect the overall temp inside the case.
While we are looking at the circuit board we can see that each of the channels has a number on them which corresponds the the number tag at the end of the cable. We can also see that the individual channels, as well as the power cable coming from the Molex connector, can be disconnected at the circuit board. For something this simple they could have had it hard wired to the board but they gave the end user the option of disconnecting the cables if desired. Small bonus point for that.
Well that’s what the controller looks like on its own, now let’s see how it looks in a case or two. First up is my most recent case review, the Lian Li PC-A04. From a initial examination I can see that the size and layout of the mesh holes in the controller will not match seamlessly with the mesh holes in the case but I don’t think it will look too bad. I pop the front face off the case and open up the component side so I can remove the bay cover. Then I remove the bay cover and slide the fan controller in and…… Houston we have a problem. The controller won’t fit. I backed it out and jockeyed around with the positioning for several minutes but to no avail. So then I went for (mild) blunt force trauma and tried to shove it in. No go. You can see how far I got. You can also see what stopped it from going further.
The sides of the controller are too tall, they conflict with the height allowance of the drive bay’s mounts. This was both unexpected and disappointing. Standards exist for a reason and from what I saw with the first unit it looked like someone didn’t follow them very well. I could try forcing it, or modding it, to make it fit but the end user shouldn’t have to do that with a new product right out of the box. When I contacted NZXT about this they sent me a second unit for testing . When the second unit arrived I installed it into this case and it did fit. It was a bit snug getting it in, but clearly it was shorter than the first one by a fraction of a millimeter. Sometimes that’s all it takes to throw something out of whack. Before anyone puts out the idea that perhaps the case had out-of-spec bays I would point out that I had installed multiple 5.25″ drives in this case since first receiving it, and they all fit fine. Moreover, we will experience more adventures with the first unit as our journey continues. In the mean time, here’s what the second unit looks like when fully installed into the case. The two mesh grids don’t match perfectly, but overall it doesn’t stand out as bad as I thought it would.
Now back to my initial testing. At this point, I’ve failed to install the first unit into the only case I’ve tested it in and the second unit is not even on my radar yet. So I say to myself “Let’s see how it does in another case.” Next at bat we have a case from the makers of the Sentry Mesh fan controller, NZXT, so this should definitely install without issue, and it did. The case is an older model, one from NZXT’s original line of products: the Nemesis Elite. I’d post the link to their page for the Nemesis Elite on the NZXT site directly, but apparently the page no longer exists, so a snapshot of it from the “wayback machine” at web.archive.org will have to do: link. As it is an older case designed almost 10 years ago, it doesn’t really flow well visually with this new fan controller, it’s like installing a brand new bumper on a car made 10 years ago, even if it fits it’ll look odd, but at least mechanically it installed fine. I’ve had this case for years and it has served me well, but the system in it is currently out of action for software reasons so I decide not to test the functionality of the fan controller in it. Nonetheless, here are a few visuals to show how it looks installed.
Next, I installed it into a case to test one specific aspect of its functionality: cable length. The case below came to me second hand. I can’t tell you how old it is, but when it came to me it was configured with a P4 Northwood 1.6A processor, and that may not have been its first configuration. Yeah, the color scheme doesn’t work with the fan controller, and yeah, it looks out of place in what is basically a “shoebox” case, but this is a BIG case. SIX ODD bays up top, plenty of room to water cool or do whatever else you need to do. So I put the controller into one of the upper most drive bays and took some shots of the open case, showing the cables leading all the way to the case bottom. I attached fans to it, some with long leads and some with short, to show just how much reach you get with this controller.
Well, we’ve seen it in a few cases for visuals, now lets test the fan controller’s ability to actually control fans. I’m going to install it into the InWin Dragon Slayer that I reviewed here. I can tell before installing that the small, black, circular mesh of the controller won’t be a perfect match for the larger, gray, hexagonal mesh of the case, not even close, but at this stage of the review I’m not concerned about the looks, I want to mount it in a case and test its ability to regulate fans. So here we go…. again Houston? What’s going on down there?
Once again, the controller is too tall for the case’s drive bay. It isn’t quite as severe this time, if I wanted to I could have eventually forced it fully into the case, but it was so hard getting it as far in as I did that I really had no expectation that I would be able to remove it without destroying it to do so. Two out of four is not good. Again however, when I attempted to install the second unit into this case it did fit properly. As with the first case the fit was still snug, but not so bad as to be an issue. Here is what it looks like installed in the Dragon Slayer. Again not a seamless match, but it does flow much better than I expected it would.
At this point in testing with the first unit I felt the need to get to the bottom of this. I contacted NZXT and told them that I could not fit the fan controller into my case’s drive bay and they assured me that the “release to market” version would fit, and that my testing sample while fully functional electronically, was physically a penultimate revision, one that the consumers would not have to see or use or struggle with. They agreed to send a second unit for testing and now we come full circle with the story of why I tested two samples and the reason for the delay in this review.
With only the first sample in hand I guess it was back to the NZXT Nemesis Elite for testing. If the Sentry Mesh is a purely hardware controller devoid of software monitoring integration and whatnot, which it is, then it doesn’t need an operating system installed to test anyway. I reinstalled the controller in the Nemesis Elite case and connected the Molex. This connection went flawlessly. There were no issues with regard to the plastic Molex shell being too big or too small in any way. The connection was easy to make but at the same time not loose once connected. With that connection being made I hooked fans up to all five fan controllers in the following order:
- Martech 120*25 mm LED fan 12 v, 0.24 a = 2.88 watts
- Silverstone 120*25 mm fan 12 v, 0.16 a = 1.92 watts
- Everflow 60*25 mm fan 12 v, 0.41 a = 4.92 watts
- JMC/Datech 92*38 mm 12 v, 1.7 a = 20.4 watts
- Two NMB 120*38 mm fans soldered together in parallel, 12 v, 0.44 a each = 5.28 watts each, 10.56 watts total
The fan controller’s connectors for the fan headers have plastic walls on both sides, so you will not be able to connect a four pin fan to the controller without modification to the interface either on the fan end or the controller’s end.
The total power consumption based on the rating for the fans shown above is 40.68 watts. Of the fans tested, the JMC/Datech and two NMBs have a thermal sensor that regulates fan speed. In each case these thermal sensors have been bypassed to force the fans to run at full power regardless of actual temperature. The reason the two NMB fans are connected together is because I was trying to save connector space back when I water cooled and since they both served the same purpose at the time (to cool my heater core) they did not need any form of separate, individual regulation. With all controllers hooked up in this manner the fan controller’s sliders were set to minimum and the computer was started.
At the minimum settings with all fans activated, the minimum was not below the start threshold for any of the fans tested. From the 2 watt fan to the 20 watt fan, they all turned without assistance at the minimum setting, so you should have no problems with whatever fan you throw at it. Increasing the controllers one at a time resulted in the corresponding fans turning more RPM, moving more air, generating more noise, and in the case of the Martech fan, the LEDs grew brighter. Here are a few quick videos showing just the two “most vocal” fans running while each was connected to the Sentry Mesh controller individually: JMC/Datech, Everflow. In both videos, the system had every fan disconnected, including the CPU, but not the PSU fan, to remove any external sound interference in the video. I wasn’t going to risk frying the whole system by removing the PSU fan so I had to settle for using the quietest PSU I had and keeping it (and therefore the rest of the system) at arms length. The system was then powered with the Sentry Mesh sliders set to minimum. After a few seconds, the sliders were moved to the maximum position and then returned back to minimum. To test stability, I let all of the fans run full speed together for 5 minutes, doing temperature tests the whole time. The temperature of the fan hubs, as measured by my laser-sighted thermal gun showed the fan motors having consistent temperatures between 78.5 °F and 80.0 °F depending on which fan was being measured, with no more than a 0.5 °F variance per fan. During this same time, the temperature of the controller was consistently at 79.0 °F, with absolutely no measurable fluctuations at all. This is clearly not the old days of burning hot rheostats being used to resist the current flow.
40.68 watts is not enough to tax this device into an early grave across all five channels and channel #4 having over 20 watts alone and I think we’ve cleared up whatever lingering confusion remained over whether the 30 W rating is per channel or total, it’s per channel. To further test the ability of this controller, I used a home made Y splitter to run the Everflow and JMC/Datech fans together for a total of 25.32 watts off of one channel for 30 minutes on the second sample unit without issue. I can say that the sound level for each fan tested was the same when the Sentry Mesh was set at maximum as when running the fan without the Sentry Mesh controller.
Also, the voltage when measured at the fan controller cable ends was 12.15 v at maximum setting, the exact same reading as when measured at the Molex connector coming out of the PSU, so “100% max” is 100% max. When you set them to run full blast they do run full blast. To test the pulse modulation with the sliders set below the maximum I would need an oscilloscope, which, unfortunately, I lack. Trying to test ongoing fluctuations in voltage with a volt meter is like trying to film a movie using a Polaroid instant camera. At best, I would expect to get readings that would jump all over the place as the meter takes instant measure after instant measure of a constantly switching value, and that’s what I got. Nothing constant, just numbers bouncing all over the place.
One final bit I will add about the controller is while powered there is a tiny pin hole LED behind the mesh on the far right, just below the NZXT logo, that lights up a medium blue. This illumination is neither too bright nor distracting in any way. I don’t think it was needed, once you dial up your fans you should hear the difference and know that it’s getting power, but it was a nice addition.
So what have I learned during my examination of the NZXT Sentry Mesh? Well I’ve learned that I need an oscilloscope before I volunteer to do this ever again. I also learned that the product is solid physically, the style fits fairly well even with cases of differing design, the circuitry holds up well when given a good solid load, and it has more than enough cable length for just about any case out there. If you’re looking for something that can give you real time data about everything under the sun, check out the Sentry LXE I mentioned earlier. But, if you just want something that will give you control of up to five fans and won’t heat up your case inside, then this may just be what you’re looking for.
Going solely on the first sample I would have been kind of conflicted here. It’s a functional, solid piece of equipment, but if it won’t fit without modding that isn’t good enough. Fortunately, while the second one was still just a bit tight for my preference level I was able to install it in every case that I tried. So while initially I was going to grit my teeth and give it a pass with a caution, based on my experiences with the second unit I can pass this controller without hesitation.