MythTV: The Quest For a Quiet PC

MythTV, if you follow the design principle, is best constructed with multiple machines. This separates your BackEnd (BE) server process from your FrontEnd (FE) server process and allows for the entire setup to be completely client/server based over a network.

Not sure of what I mean? Well, the idea is relatively simple:

  1. Set up one big, fat, noisy machine as your BackEnd. Allow for plenty of expandibility because, in the future, who know what you might want to have MythTV do. Also, because it is a BackEnd (BE), you don’t care too much about how it looks or how noisy the drives and fans are because this system will be stuffed in a corner or in a closet for no one to see or hear. (Be sure it is a place with adequate cooling, though!)
  2. Set up any number of sleek, pretty, and quiet machines throughout your house (with network access, of course) as you FrontEnd (FE) systems connected to some displays.

Now, nearly everyone who is playing around with their own Tivo-like homebrew setup is probably very familiar with the first machine (the BE). But, the other machine(s) (the FE) are a whole different ball game. Simple things can get expensive here, and the more silent you wish to have your FE, the more expensive it will get. People can go nuts over this (take a look at SilentPCReview.com), and for good reason: you don’t want a noisy machine ruining your viewing experience.

The real question that you have to ask yourself is: How quiet is quiet enough? And remember, Quiet is not equal to Silent. Silent is equal to very expensive. Quiet is equal to not as expensive. I can only go by my tastes, but I tried out a couple of different cases before I got to one that I felt was acceptable.

overtureii.jpgFirst, I bought the Antec Overture II case. It’s a nice looking case with a sharp Piano Black finish and is very quiet. However, right after I got it, I realized that it is just plain HUGE. It’s like taking a full-sized ATX case and laying it on its side. The airflow in the unit is awesome and it has bays for everything. Unfortunately, that is not what I wanted. I wanted a small system that would be, well, for all intents and purposes, nearly bare-bones. I mean, everything was going to be on the server, so I didn’t need something capable of holding terabytes of data at the frontend.

Ultra MicroFlyAfter selling that on eBay, I bought a smaller case off of TigerDirect.com. I picked up
an Ultra MicroFly case with a supposedly quiet 400Watt power supply. Now, when it comes to bargain stuff, I usually take the words “quiet” and “near silent” to be worthless marketing buzzword bingo. And, yes, this goes for the MicroFly. “Quiet” is a relative term, and, in MicroFly, “Quiet” can be defined as: Being less noisy than a tower system.

shuttle_sk21g.jpgBeing dissatisfied with this purchase, I sold it on ebay and tried out a Shuttle SK21G from Newegg.com. No, I wasn’t all that happy that the case was silver. I’m a “black-entertainment-center-equipment” type of person, but, I was somewhat tied to the AMD64 754 socket since I had two processors of that design laying around. I also wasn’t all that thrilled with getting a custom case with a custom motherboard, but I figured that if I didn’t like it, I could re-sell it on ebay, too.

However, after the quick assembly, the SilenX + ICE setup that the Shuttle has, the system is very quiet and cool.  The assembly process really isn’t much since the motherboard is already in place, but you still have to be careful and take your time.  I realized that the cabling was already run for 1 SATA device (a hard drive) and 1 IDE device (an optical drive).  Since I only had IDE drives, I was forced to use the IDE cable and not install an optical drive.  I figure that I won’t be using the system as a DVD player just yet anyhow.

With this case, there is no processor fan.   This case comes with what they call SilentX and ICE, which is really a water cooled system for the processor.  With that in mind, you have to figure that will impact the price of the system, but, when you compare it with comparable systems, you’re really not paying all that much more.  Because of the water cooled system, there is a large radiator at the back of the case (inside) which has a smart (variable speed) fan strategically placed to cool it off.

My main fear with a Shuttle system was that they would run much hotter than a normal system.  I quickly discovered that this was not the case since the processor ran around 37°C and the case fan speed hung around 950RPM.

The system’s physical size and overall looks made it ideal for my purposes.  It fits right in to most entertainment centers and can be easily hidden away.  It doesn’t pull much power, especially since I am using AMD’s Cool-n-Quiet technology with Fedora Core 64, which happily slows the clock speed down and speeds it back up on demand.  This translates in to the system running cooler, so the case fan runs slower, and, hence, quieter.  That coupled with the liquid cooling really makes this system comfortably quiet.

I’m satisfied with this case as a good choice for me.  It wasn’t until after I set the case up that I discovered that Shuttle has an ebay store where they sell refurbished units.  The cost of a refurbished unit was a lot lower than NewEgg‘s price on a new unit, and, since I don’t mind having a factory refurbished system, I bought my other two cases from them.

Keep in mind that the noise level of any given case is also directly dependent upon the other items in the case: hard drive, optical drive (not so much since it isn’t constantly running), and video card.  Because of the application I am using these systems for, I had to use nVidia cards, and I noticed the sound difference between my PNY 6200 with the bun-fan on it versus the fanless XFX 6200 I have.  I also noticed an immediate difference between an older hard drive that I had versus a new Hitachi DeskStar drive I just picked up (the Hitachi is dead quiet).

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