Monster Micro - How To Cram Ten Pounds Into a Two Pound Bag

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“I ended up with a water cooled “MONSTER MICRO'” – M. C. Misiolek

I’ve been a computer “Geek” for a while now and have owned several PC’s from different manufactures.

My very first system was a twelve megahertz turn-key machine I bought right out of an old Computer Shopper magazine – you know, the one that was the size of two phone books glued together? By picking and choosing the best combination of component options available, I ended up with a machine that was blindingly fast for its day (most PC’s were running at about eight or nine megahertz at the time).

When it was time to upgrade, I bought a sixty megahertz Gateway, again right out of a magazine. The performance of this new system, in comparison to the old one, was nothing less than breathtaking. It was a screamer! In my next upgrade, I made the leap from sixty megahertz to five-hundred megahertz. However, this time the difference in performance was disappointing. Oh, sure it was faster, but not “blindingly” faster.

It was at this point I decided to start building my own systems from the ground up:

  • I went to Tom’s Hardware
  • I searched the web for user evaluations
  • I went over all the stats and made detailed comparisons of motherboards, video cards, memory, and the price points for the latest processors

One of my towers…

I built some pretty fast machines that were state of the art – for at least six months, anyway. Yet, even after all the time and effort I put into chasing that elusive killer PC that can do “everything”, I was never able to match that breathtaking exhilaration I experienced with my old sixty meg upgrade – until now.

I think part of the problem is that we’re all looking for that magic bullet, the one thing that will turn our machines into a do all powerhouse; the latest greatest P4 processor, the eight-hundred meg front side bus, serial ATA, or the new eight seventy-five series chip set. In reality, it’s not single advancements in individual component technology, but when all the new components catch up with each other in the same box, that makes a new system scream.

There are some very good out-of-the-box systems being sold today which can easily handle every day text and graphics: they also do a pretty good job with gaming and light video editing as well. Even so, when it comes to heavy duty stuff, such as production video editing, advanced 3D graphics, and photo imagery manipulation, I needed three systems linked together to make it all work.

It’s my belief, given the current state of the art in home based PC’s, it’s impossible to build a machine that can do “everything” well. The more powerful you make it, the more “stuff” you cram into it, the more demands you heap upon it, the slower and more unstable it becomes.

Resigned to this harsh reality, I concluded that even though it wouldn’t be possible for me get everything I wanted into one box, I could still make things more organized and manageable.

My goal was to take full advantage of every new component technology available and reduce everything down to its simplest form. Get rid of my towers and the spaghetti of wires and cables strewn across the office floor. Maybe I could even open the window again. What I wanted was a powerful, small form factor machine with a few basic peripherals that I could put on my desk, for e-mail, day to day text based stuff and hopefully use it to control a full house tower over LAN using Remote Desktop.

I ended up with a water cooled “MONSTER MICRO”.

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M. C. Misiolek

The system was built on an ASUS P4800VM motherboard, based on the Intel 865G chipset, with a 2.8 Gig P4 CPU – which had the best price point at the time. This is a great little platform to work from, and I mean “little” (around nine and a half inches square). It has almost everything you could possibly want;

  • 800 MHz FSB
  • Integrated Intel Extreme Graphics 2
  • Dual-channel DDR 400 memory support
  • AGP 8X graphics interface
  • Serial ATA
  • USB 2.0
  • LAN
  • Six channel audio S/PDIF out interface

Using both the serial ATA and the standard IDE ATA 100 interface, you could hang eight drives on this puppy if you wanted to. It will also hold up to four gig of memory. Not bad.

However, there are trade off’s:

For all you “Clockers” out there, I found out the hard way this is not a overclocker-friendly board. The BIOS is locked. There are ways of getting around this, of course – I’m using CPUCOOL, a Windows based overclocking utility – which, among a number of other tweaks, allows you to change the speed of the front side bus. It accomplishes this by altering the PLL crystal frequency, bypassing the BIOS altogether (so far I’ve overclocked the CPU to 3.3 gig).

Also, there are only three slots for additional cards and no provision for digital sound output. The integrated Intel Extreme Graphics 2 video is a resource pig, stealing valuable memory support away from the motherboard – don’t use it! Throw a video card in the AGP slot instead.

Still, for this application, I don’t think anyone could’ve come up with a better board than this one at the time I bought it – even among full sized motherboards.

There was a temptation to go crazy, but I resisted. I installed a single eighty gig Seagate Barracuda serial ATA drive, a single 512 Meg stick of DDR 400 memory, and added an Aopen NVIDIA Geforce 4 MX 440 8X video card with 64MB of 128-bit DDR memory. It came with a built-in overclocking utility which I used to overclock the core and memory frequencies by about thirty percent. I then rounded it all off with a Fire Wire card and a US Robotics internal modem. In the future, I may add a two-hundred gig serial ATA Maxtor drive.

My next decision was the case:

Case

I wanted an aluminum desk top with a small footprint. There are a lot of people pushing cases out there, but nothing that really grabbed me. I settled on an Aopen A340 series Aluminum Micro ATX desk top. This thing is SMALL, measuring about 15.71″(D) x 12.76″(W) x 3.74″(H) and is somewhat “flimsy”. It comes with a two-hundred watt power supply and only has room for one hard drive, floppy, and one CD or DVD drive (a combo CD/DVD drive would be nice). It ain’t cheap, either – about $80. Only low profile cards will fit in it. I bought it mostly because of its sleek look and small footprint.

The first problem I had was the power supply: On this board, ASUS recommends two-hundred and forty watts for a lightly configured system and three-hundred watts for a full house machine. It ran with the two-hundred watt power supply, but just barely. I used it to format the drive and install Windows XP, then ripped it out.

Now, it just so happened that I had a brand new four-hundred watt power supply lying around looking for a home. When I plugged it in, the motherboard came alive. This thing ran so fast that by the time my nineteen inch View Sonic monitor lit up, the operating system had already been loaded and was ready to rock’n roll. That breathtaking exhilaration I had experienced so long ago was back.

Obviously, the boot will slow down after more software is added and heavier demands are made on the system, but it was a good start. Clearly this was the right power supply for this application. The problem now was how do I fit it into the case? A four-hundred watt power supply is almost twice as big as the stock two-hundred watt power supply.

The biggest Micro power supply I could find was only two-hundred and thirty watts, but since then I’ve seen one on the net for an E-Machine which is three-hundred watts. I’m sure the technology is out there to make a four-hundred watt power supply that would fit, but what would be the point in a Micro? I would have to “Mod” the power supply. I will get into more detail on this in part two of this article: “MONSTER MICRO, A BEASTLY WATER COOLED POWER SUPPLY MOD”.

After working on this project for a few days, the awful truth reared its ugly head:

No matter how hard you try, you can’t fit ten pounds into a two pound bag.

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M. C. Misiolek

If this machine was ever going to come together, it would require some serious re-thinking in terms of its internal configuration. Every single inch of space would have to be accounted for and utilized for maximum efficiency. The answer came in the form of a Plexiglas bump out, which I limited to one and a half inches. Again, one needs to excise restraint. It’s very easy to get carried away and turn a sleek desk top Micro into a tower if you’re not careful.

Case

The bump out turned out to be a very elegant solution for a number of problems, one of which was the cooling system. I mean, let’s face it:

Why do people put Plexiglas windows in PC cases anyway?

It’s to keep a close eye on water cooling setups, right? Nobody wants to see their PC turn into an aquarium.

Now, it just so happened that I had part of a water cooling system lying around. Those two 120 mm fans fit just so nice under that bump out, and that sexy black radiator sitting on top. So I figured, why not? While I’m at it, I might as well overclock the whole thing too. I will go into more detail on this in the third part of this article: “MONSTER MICRO, ADVENTURES IN “WATER COOLING”.

Case

Needless to say, everything worked out in the end (I’m writing this on it right now). It’s been humming along for about two months at 3.3 gig, with a thirty percent overclock on the video board, but it’s very sensitive to ambient temperature.

Case

Processor temps fluctuate between 78 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit, the motherboard temps bounce around too – between 95 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit. I don’t know why it does this. None of these specs are Earth shattering, but it’s a nice little system that fits my needs. I still have a few little quirks that need to be worked out though. It’s surprising how quiet it is and how little water it has in it – about the same as a small can of Coke.

Case

Now that all the heavy duty thinking is done, the next upgrade should go smoothly – like, say, Radio CMOS or a new kick-ass video board plugged into a riser card. I’m not saying there weren’t any tense moments – anytime you take on a project like this, there are bound to be. There are a lot decisions to be made, a lot of unknowns, a great deal of “creative re-engineering”, and of course, a lot of trade-off’s too. But hey, that’s what makes life interesting. I can’t wait to see what all of you will come up with.
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M. C. Misiolek

PS

My watercooled Power Supply.

The old cliche about “necessity being the mother of invention” turned out to be more applicable to this project than I ever thought possible. Whenever one strays from the standard bolt on, plug in, switch on nature of mass production – whether it’s building a custom mod for a PC or a wild chopper for cruising the boulevard – you’re pretty much on your own.

At times, it’s something you really never gave much thought to before you even started that sneaks up on you, but more often, it’s something more mundane and innocuous that stops a project cold. Take power supplies, for example. A common component of every PC that you can buy right off the shelf ninety-nine percent of the time. Just pick your platform and plug it in, right? Wrong.

You might have gotten away with that a few years back, but this ain’t your father’s PC no more.

Today, even if you’re building a full tower with lots of acreage and you don’t plan on going radical, you still need to give a little more thought to the power supply:

  • Will it have enough wattage to handle the next generation of processors, hard drives, DVD’s, lights, or other components I don’t have yet?
  • Will it throw off a lot of heat?
  • How clean is the output?
  • Will it be noisy?
  • Will it look cool?

Things people didn’t think about five years ago have become important features of that lonely gray box. With the advent of LAN Parties and new interest in Micro computers, add size to the list. In a project like this one, size matters.

As I mentioned in part one of this article, the two-hundred watt power supply that came with my Aopen A340 case just wasn’t powerful enough for the configuration I had in mind. The biggest power supply I could find for a Micro was two hundred and thirty watts, which was still too small. Recently, I saw one made for E-Machines rated at 300 watts, but the pickings are still slim. I would have to “Mod” an existing power supply to fit.

One note of caution here:

Once you open the power supply case and break the paper seal, forget about any warrantees. There’s a certain amount of personal risk that goes along with it too. There are several very large and very nasty high voltage capacitors inside these things. They look like little metal trash cans:

Caps

If you accidentally discharge one – then you’ll know what life is all about. The bigger the power supply, the bigger the capacitors and greater the risk for fatality. They go off without warning. One minute you’ll be here and the next you’ll be eating Twinkies with Jesus. Be careful – I nor Overclockers.com will be held responsible for any problems that might arise if you open one up.

I started off by digging out a generic 400 watt box I picked up a few months back. It only cost me $15 new, so it made a good candidate. Most of these things have pretty much the same dimensions, allowing them to fit a standard tower or desktop case. Once you take the “innards” out of the metal enclosure, there’s not much to it. The power supply board itself is not that big. It measures about 5 ½ x 4 ½ x 1 ¾. The size of the box is more to accommodate a fan, the heat sinks, and to allow airflow cooling.

I thought I could get away with just making a smaller case out of 1/8″ Plexiglas and swapping out the eighty millimeter fan with two forties blowing over the heat sinks on the back. The problem is, like 2 x 4’s, a 1/8″ piece of Plexiglass is not really 1/8″. You need to go to ¼” to get the same stiffness as the metal box. This makes the box a half inch bigger instead of smaller.

External PS

Plexiglass doesn’t have the same thermal displacement either. The two fans sticking out the back made it a lot harder to mount too. I figured it would be better to nix the two fan set up and install an oversize (92 Millimeter) fan on the top. It would be out of the way and draw cool air from outside. The power supply could then be mounted externally on top of the case. This would require an extended pigtail for the power cord connector and the on / off switch. It worked okay, but it looked terrible having a big box hanging in the top of my machine.

There had to be another way.

My Solution CONTINUED on page 5…

M. C. Misiolek

If I could find a way to cool the power supply without a fan, then its overall size could be reduced quite a bit. Hell, it wouldn’t even need a box, just a mounting plate. With the extended pigtail, it could be mounted anywhere inside the case. Since I had already decided to use a water cooling setup, it seemed natural just to add the power supply to the loop.

Koolance

Koolance’s watercooled PS – no longer available.

There have been a few attempts at watercooling a power supply, but aside from Koolance, these have been custom mods. There are no water jackets or other such attachments being sold anywhere that I know of for doing this (for obvious reasons). I wanted something simple that didn’t involve any heavy duty machine work.

After staring at the two enormous heat sinks on the power supply board for an hour, it occurred to me the only thing giving off excessive heat were the four voltage regulators bolted to it. Since the heat source on the power supply was localized, it could be treated the same way as the processor, or any other device on the motherboard. So I bought two one inch water blocks and glued them right to the heat sink using “non-conductive” thermal adhesive.

Heatsinks

I had to grind down the fins on the heat sink and add a metal strap to keep the water blocks from twisting, but the results speak for themselves. It works like a charm and makes no sound. How long it will last, I don’t know. They say water cooling has six times the thermal displacement of air. I figure the heat sinks have a combined surface area of about six square inches. By adding water blocks I doubled their efficiency.

PS Installed

Installed!

I think if I had to do it over again, I would have taken off the heat sinks, submerged the whole power supply board in a non-conductive fluid and sealed it in a Plexiglas box with a copper tube loop passing through it. Then I could pump water into it like one big water block. I would have used a higher quality power supply to begin with too.

M. C. Misiolek

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