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PROJECT LOG The Silent Shoebox: An inaudible 6.88L VR-ready system

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Gautam

Senior Benchmark Addict
Joined
Feb 4, 2003
Location
SF Bay Area
I travel very frequently, and needed an ultra-portable system. It also needed to be powerful enough to handle development and gaming in VR, and performing demos in VR. Those two requirements alone can be a tough bill to fill, but on top of that, I needed it to be inaudible, even under a 3D load. I need to be able to code and run 3D apps simultaneously while maintaining silence, and to me that means that I shouldn't have any indication of the system being on unless I put my ears within 6 inches of it. My goal was to have it fit comfortably in a backpack. That way, no suitcase or briefcase would be a challenge.

DHr96BE.jpg

tl;dr - The finished result pictured next to its namesake

I started out looking for any store-bought case which I could cut up to meet my requirements, as none stood a chance out-of-the-box, but pretty much none of them were of an appropriate size even with hacking. Some community-built options, such as the DAN case, the Diesel Engine, the NFC S4, are interesting, but are tailored more towards extreme space savings, rather than silent computing. Mainstream mini ITX cases tend to have one or two fans left to fend with the entire system, which usually means they end up running fast under load, which means they get loud. Small and silent don't mix easily.

So I had to start from scratch. The plan has been to begin with a very rough cardboard model, a less rough plastic model, and a final model in aluminum. What you see here is the completion of step 2. I'm a terrible craftsman. I don't have any knowledge of CAD tools, just basic hand tools at home, and I'm no good with them, so, at the end of the day, this is still just a sloppy proof-of-concept, though it works great from a functionality standpoint. I didn't really know what the exact dimensions would need to be until I had all the parts in hand and starting experimenting, so there was a lot of trial-and-error and cutting as I went. I got sheets of ABS plastic from mcmaster.com, as they were inexpensive and purportedly easy to machine. I've had a lot of problems in the past with acrylic melting and cracking, and wanted to avoid it. For the short-term, it does the job. I'm going to look into getting something more professional constructed down the road.

From the getgo, I knew that I had to give ample room for fans. Good ventilation is necessary to achieve high performance in conjunction with low noise, and its an area where the run-of-the-mill micro ATX/HTPC case is sorely lacking. The goal was to have as many extremely slow-running fans as possible, and the largest ones at that. I picked up the following parts, and proceeded to unscientifically cram them together in different orientations in an effort to find out what made the most sense.

The parts:

i7-6700k - Overkill, but I got a deal on one, and why not? Any 6xxx would've done well, but the HT was a nice-to-have, as was the high clock out of the box.
ASUS Z170i Pro Gaming- Reasonably priced board with a good suite of features.
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1070 Mini ITX - By far the best option here, and an excellent one at that. Unfortunately, though, its coil whine sometimes makes it the loudest part of the system.
Samsung 950 Pro 512GB- My excuse to splurge on it was the space savings from forgoing a traditional SSD, and the space savings are significant.
2x8GB Crucical Ballistix Sport 2400- The cheapest 16GB set of DDR4 I could find.
FSP Group 400W Flex ATX PSU FSP400-60FGGBA - One of the beefiest PSU's in this form factor, from my favorite brand. The version on Amazon conveniently comes with 8 pin connectors for the GPU and motherboard. (Other versions may or may not)

It also needed extender cables both for the 8-pin EPS connector on the mobo, and the 8-pin PCI-E connector on the GPU, and of course, a PCI-E riser cable for the video card.

PZ3YmbY.jpg

CPU+heatsink, motherboard, memory, and PSU, with the fan removed, and a 3-pin fan adapter

Because I wanted it to be backpack-sized and with some oomph in regards to cooling, I opted to place the video card on top of the motherboard, rather than directly next to it, as that would make it undesirably long. This allowed for the CPU cooler to be taller than a typical low-profile one such as the Noctua L9i. I ended up shifting the video card back a few inches in such a manner that the CPU cooler lined up (almost) flush with the GPU heatsink, so that each could have a fan blowing ambient air directly onto it. This also provided the interesting benefit of space underneath the video card for a flex ATX power supply.

The only CPU heatsink that I could find which fit the bill is the Coolermaster Vortex Plus. Unremarkable performance, but it has 4 heatpipes, and the size was just right. Better than most if not all low profile heatsinks, though definitely worse than most if not all towers. Unfortunately I don't have better pictures to demonstrate how the GPU and CPU heatsinks are almost flush. The GPU heatsink is a quite a bit shorter, and the CPU heatsink sticks out by enough to line up with it.

xcwCEBT.jpg

Video card added on top of the PSU

I had originally expected to use 4 120mm fans in a square, but as it turned out, two 140mm fans were almost a perfect fit with the orientation that I was playing with. One 140mm fan blowing onto the GPU heatsink, and one blowing onto the CPU with decent airflow onto the memory and power management MOSFETs. That brought the total system height to just below 4" or 100mm, and making it (barely) possible to fit three 92mm fans on the side also nearly matching the length of the rest of the components, including the two 140mm fans. Set one of them as an intake directly behind the PSU, enabling me to dump its obnoxious 40mm stock fan entirely, and the remaining two as exhaust to provide decent ventilation.

R1HyxT5.jpg

CPU and GPU fans added

The fans:

2x Noctua NF-P14s Redux 1200 - One for cooling the GPU, and one for cooling the GPU. The decision I agonized the most over, but I think I made the right one, and am very happy with them. They had to have PWM headers, and standard 140mm mounting, not 150mm with 120mm holes, and have a width of 25mm, not 26mm, not 27mm, which narrowed the choices significantly. My only real points of comparison are D12SL Yate Loons and an NF-F12, both 120mm fans, but the P14 sounds significantly more pleasant at low RPM's. The Yates click (they're old) and the F12 has an annoying whine, which is why I avoided its bigger brother. The P14's have a very pleasant noise profile even when they do make noise, just a woosh without any clicking or buzzing.

2x Arctic F9 PWM PST for exhaust. I'm not entirely thrilled about them, but they are good enough. Indeed, it was originally 3, including one for the PSU. The F9's quiet, but have an annoying buzzing noise if you get close enough to them, or run them at high enough RPM. Running one off the PSU header seemed to make things worse, perhaps because of the way it undervolts, so I replaced it with the Nexus. Still, at below 700 RPM they are effectively inaudible as long as your ear is a couple of inches away.
1x Nexus Real Silent DF1209SL-03 for the power supply, no PWM header, not needed, since I have it wired to the PSU directly. Its name doesn't lie. It truly is a real, silent fan, and is distinctly superior to the F9 IMHO. Silent 92mm fans are indeed a thing.

The final dimensions ended up being 12"x8"x4.375" or 6.88L, slightly larger than an Xbox 360. Also very similar in size to the DAN case. Rather than allowing for a full-size GPU, however, my design devotes over 1.6L to fans alone, which is completely worth it for me personally. Silence and good cooling performance are two sides of the same coin. This level of ventilation allows for quietness under a heavy a load, but it can also allow for much better performance at medium noise levels. Much higher potential for overclocking, if needed.

I have the fan curves set up to run at 300-600 RPM in most cases. I consider anything past 700 or so annoying, and try to avoid anything past 1000 . My noise requirements are unusually stringent. Even at such slow speeds, the CPU and GPU rarely go beyond the mid 60's. The SSD idles at 45-50, and reaches 55-60 under load. I probed one of the power supply's "heatsinks" (really just a slab of metal in the center), and it maxed out at 75C with the stock fan, and reaches a few degrees lower with the Nexus, so it is completely safe to remove the stock fan as long as you manage to get the PSU enough airflow. The heaviest load I managed to place on it was running Furmark and Prime95 small FFT simultaneously (which I'm never doing again), which had it drawing about 305W from the wall. Still comfortably below the PSU's max rating of 400W. The main 12V rail stayed at 12.2v without budging as measured with a multimeter. All completely in line with the quality I expect from FSP products, at least their industrial ones.

Overclocking:

For now, I'm not overclocking at all for my daily usage. Blasphemy, I know. The 6700k and GTX 1070 come clocked high enough out of the box that there isn't much need for it IMHO. Plus, my goal is absolute silence, not the highest performance. This is just to demonstrate what is possible, because, as I wrote earlier, good cooling performance and silence are two sides of the same coin. I can turn my silent system into a high performing one by letting the fans stretch out their legs. I ran two quick OCCT small data tests, once at 4.4GHz with HT enabled, and once at 4.5GHz with HT disabled. Both at 1.25v, both barely touch 90C at certain occasions, which is why I stopped there. I didn't feel comfortable running for much longer than 15 minutes, so its not a comprehensive test, just a demo of what's possible. Even with the fans maxed, they run at "only" 1200 RPM, which is too high for me, but still qualifies in the slow category. A faster fan for the CPU would allow for more headroom, but even as it is, its a solid overclock.

The GPU is power limit bound. The memory seems significantly worse than what I've read full-size GTX 1070's to be capable of, but that's a non-issue to me. I went with +150MHz for the GPU and +200MHz for the memory. Paired with the CPU at 4.5GHz with HT enabled, it scored 16480 in 3DMark Firestrike, 97.8 FPS in Unigine Heaven, and a SteamVR performance score of 11. All numbers are competitive with any high-end desktop, at least one with a single GPU.

Firestrike
Heaven
OCCT 4.4GHz HT on
OCCT 4.5GHz HT off

Conclusion:

So far, this system has shaped up to be even better than I expected. The amount of performance it offers given the space and noise level is almost hard to believe. My requirements are pretty niche, but I'm far from the only one who needs a portable VR system, and I think we'll see more people and manufacturers experimenting with laying the GPU out parallel with the motherboard. If you think about it, the standard ATX layout doesn't make perfect sense for today's systems. It was designed back when video cards were just another small peripheral with similar size and power draw as an Ethernet card or RAID controller. Now all of that is integrated on the motherboard, if not the CPU itself. Video cards, on the other hand, have just gotten bigger and hungrier, to the point where they have similar power draw to CPU's, and have PCB's of a similar size to motherboards. It's only sensible to cool them similarly.

Next step: Get through TSA at Boston Logan...

g8pbIoB.jpg

With an Oculus Rift for scale
 
OP
G

Gautam

Senior Benchmark Addict
Joined
Feb 4, 2003
Location
SF Bay Area
Thanks buddy. Not exactly in its element on OCF, but not as out of place as you'd expect either. :p
 

ATMINSIDE

Sim Racing Aficionado Co-Owner
Joined
Jun 28, 2012
Thanks buddy. Not exactly in its element on OCF, but not as out of place as you'd expect either. :p

You're talking to the guy with an OC'd 6700K and a 980Ti in a 12"x12"x6" case... haha!
Not too much bigger than a shoebox, honestly.
 
OP
G

Gautam

Senior Benchmark Addict
Joined
Feb 4, 2003
Location
SF Bay Area
I had to google your case. Since the last time I was really around, eVGA didn't make cases. :p You know first hand that you're pretty much sacrificing no performance by going mini ITX. Seems like there's potential for watercooling in that case as well.
 

ATMINSIDE

Sim Racing Aficionado Co-Owner
Joined
Jun 28, 2012
I had to google your case. Since the last time I was really around, eVGA didn't make cases. :p You know first hand that you're pretty much sacrificing no performance by going mini ITX. Seems like there's potential for watercooling in that case as well.

Yes, if you get the Hadron Hydro there's actually a CPU loop kit you can purchase directly from EVGA!
It fits 10.5" GPU's, but you do need to be careful about the card width.

Check out the link in my sig to "Little Power", you can see a few iterations of builds in my Hadron.