Slowly filling up the 1.5TB of hard disk storage on my main desktop computer plus the advent of the first laptop in the family made me think about new strategies of how to keep pace with the ever growing need for data and backup storage and the desire to have instant access from the laptop to all data and a printer/scanner.
Screening the different options I eliminated most solutions:
- Letting my desktop run 24/7 was not an option because it is too loud and too hot for always on
- Same was unfortunately true of my desktop-clone in the living room: too warm and too loud
- USB/Firewire/e-Sata drives were no solution either, as they require a main computer to run 24/7
- A NAS (network attached storage) looked more promising as I could easily bung it to my home network, and some even include a printer server via an additional USB interface. I took a long hard look at these (esp. the Buffalo Linkstation Duo Pro with 2x 1TB) but decided in the end against it. Why? The printer server lacks the ability to scan from the USB port and the cost of the bare NAS (subtracting the cost of the hard disks) was around 180 EUR incl. 19% VAT)
- A notebook/laptop running 24/7 would certainly qualify as cool & quite plus it has keyboard, mouse and screen attached for complete stand-alone operation. But hard-disk space is limited to 500GB (costing 100 EUR) on all reasonably priced laptops and even cheap NetBooks cost you around 300$/EUR.
This was when I finally stumbled across these so-called NetTops, specifically the MSI Wind PC
(which has also a nice NetBook sister). What did this NetTop offer?
- Just enough computing power to surf the net, play music and video
- Powered by an Intel Atom 230 1.6GHz single core hyperthreading processor (with 4W power consumption max)
- Onboard low-power graphics Intel GMA 950 (don’t expect to play Unreal Tournament with this)
- 1GB of RAM
- Bookshelf style case around 30x24x6.5 cm
- 320GB SATAII hard disk
- DVD burner as opposed to many NetBooks
- Gigabit LAN plus 6xUSB interfaces
- Cheapest version with Linux for 230 EUR (incl. 19% VAT)
What I didn’t know when ordering this “mini-computer” was the extendibility with larger and more drives and more RAM. But I assumed that the hard drive was 3”5 sized so at least I could swap it for a 1TB drive.
As soon as the Wind PC arrived I took it to the screwdriver and ripped it apart to get a good look at its innards. The first thing to note is that no guaranty-seal has to be broken to get into this little machine – very convenient. Just take off both screws at the back and off goes the top. Upon first inspection a few things became clear, good and bad:
- The hard drive was of the standard 3”5 variety –> easy to exchange for a 1TB drive
- There was another SATAII interface on the board -> easy to bung in a second 1TB drive
- The CD/DVD-drive had an SATAII interface too -> so I was limited to either
a 2nd hard-drive or
an optical drive
- There was no second RAM-slot like purportedly in some of the Wind NetBooks. But you can swap the 1GB memory for 2GB should you feel the need for more RAM. For standard operations under Linux or Windows XP 1GB is enough.
- The box had a single 6cm fan at the back and ventilation holes on the right side where the board and RAM are located. The processor had cooling fins mounted without the aid of an additional fan. This could be either good or bad, as small ventilators tend to produce more noise. On the other hand the low-power design had my hopes high on very low ventilation needs. We’ll see later how these hopes turned out.
What I immediately did was swapping the built-in 320GB disk with the Linux system for a Samsung SpinPoint F1 1000GB, 32MB Cache, SATA II (HD103UJ) drive with all my backup data on it. Booting from a Windows XP DVD I quickly had the system installed. After downloading the specific drivers for the LAN, sound, video-controller, and chipset from MSIs website I was ready to go in just under two hours plus some time for the full caboodle of Windows updates which ran fine apart from IE7 refusing to install. Printer/scanner drivers and Opera installed without a hitch. But:
During installation the little fan turned up to a deafening 4000 rpm and could hardly contain its excitement about the new cooling job. I was not amused
Even switching to standby the little fan didn’t stop rotating albeit at very low speed and barely audible. But I put aside any further investigation as I knew from my former DIY projects that better/larger fans could do a lot to silence a computer.
Next up was the test whether the power-brick style external power-supply could bear a second hard disk. Out came the optical drive and in went a test-installation of another hard-drive. I postponed the task of drilling the correct mounting holes for later. Yep, everything went ok. Out of curiosity I also measured the power consumption of the Wind PC. Here is what I found with one hard-disk:
- switched off: 8W. I was quite surprised to see the high power draw of the power supply alone
- Stand-by: 22W. The additional 14W explain why the cooler had to expel some air from the PC even at stand-by
- Idle (but hard-disk still spinning): 29W
- Full load/boot: 35W (compare this to a fully rigged desktop at 350W or more)
- The additional hard-drive is expected to add around 5W to the load
Btw.: Playback of MPEG4 videos while Prime95 was loading RAM and processor to the hilt was free of stutter
All in all an idle consumption between 25 and 30 Watt (assuming both hard-disks spinned down) looks not bad to my eye. Btw.: the external power adapter is sid to be good for 65W.
During the various tests I also tried some different fan configurations: Having the small 6cm fan blowing straight onto the cooling fins of the CPU (with the top cover removed) resulted in an immediate reduction of fan-speed and thus noise. Even fully loaded the noise was much
better. An 8cm fan was even quieter. So I know I can solve the noise-problem but will have to decide where to drill additional holes in the cover and how to mount the fan. The 5cm fan might fit on the inside (although barely). If I decide to take the 8cm fan I’ll have to bung it on the outside as a “hump”.
Finally I was convinced that this project would eventually be successful and thus ordered another Hitachi 7K1000.B drive to finally end up with 2x1TB in a small fully operational box serving as backup, central data-hub and printer/scanner server for our little home network.
Costs so far: 400 EUR (230EUR for the MSI Wind PC plus 170EUR for two 1TB hard disks). An old monitor, keyboard+mouse (need USB-versions!), LAN cable, and Windows licence were left-over’s from earlier computers. If you stay with the original 320GB drive and just add one 1TB drive you end up with 315 EUR for a 1.3TB server.