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EPIA Mini-ITX Motherboard

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VIA EPIA Mini-ITX motherboard...
...or My Quest for a Quiet Computer


Over the last couple of years I have become increasingly dissatisfied with my main computer - not through lack of power (an Athlon 800 with GeForce 3Ti 200 graphics is more than enough for most tasks) - but because, containing fans for PSU, CPU and GPU, the machine is extremely noisy.  It also generates a lot of heat, which is not helpful in summer; in winter, it does at least make my fan heater redundant!

The motherboard in all its diminutive glory... I was resigned to having to put up with this until I read a review in Linux Format of the VIA EPIA motherboard - an amazing little creation, measuring just under 7 inches square.  The main attraction here was that the lower-powered of the two available models uses the VIA Eden ESP 5000 processor, which requires a heatsink, but no fan.

The board has integrated Trident CyberBlade i1 graphics (with TV-Out), integrated VIA AC97 audio (but, disappointingly, no gameport, so a PCI soundcard would have to be added if one wanted MIDI ports...), onboard LAN, one PCI slot, two IDE ports and two DIMM sockets.  There is no floppy connector, which is no great loss until you come to flash the BIOS!

It is possible to use this motherboard in a standard ATX case, but that would be missing the point; having no CPU fan is not a great deal of help if you 're still using a noisy PSU.

Case Cases designed for the Mini-ITX form factor are still not widespread, but I happened upon a company here in the UK (no longer trading, as far as I can see) that specialises in this kind of thing: they sell both the EPIA motherboards, and the Procase Cubid 2677 - a neat little case that, in its black incarnation, looks like a tiny video recorder.

The star attraction of this case is that it uses an outboard (fanless) 12v power supply, and has a DC-DC conversion board inside which generates all the other voltages required by the standard ATX power connector.  Ironically, this DC-DC conversion board is itself quite noisy - nothing compared to the noise of a fan, but you couldn't call it silent!

There is room in the case for a hard-drive, and for a slimline laptop-style CD-ROM drive - though the latter depends on your using low-profile DIMMs, since they have to fit under the drive.  I also suspect that squishing down the ATX power cable would be tricky!

In the box you get a laptop-cdrom-to-standard-IDE adapter, and a PCI riser card.  There is a single backplane cutout for a PCI card, and beneath this I found a pair of tiny fans, mounted side by side.  When I saw these my heart sank - I was hoping to achieve true fanless operation - but after careful consideration, I concluded that these fans will only cool the hard-drive (and the one I used runs nice and cool anyway) - with the PCI riser in the way, there's no way they're going to draw air over the processor, so I left them disconnected.  *NOTE* - this does *NOT* constitute advice - if you do the same, you do so at your own risk!

Also provided with the case are a couple of rather strange "feet" (for want of a better description) - which provide extra stability if you want to stand the case on end, and allow air to pass under the case to the ventilation holes.  Since the processor does get rather hot when doing intensive work like arcade-emulation, I now have the case stood on end, which allows better convection, thus keeping the processor cooler.  It is interesting that there is no temperature sensor on this machine - maybe VIA thought people would panic if they saw how hot the core gets?

So how does the board perform?  Well, obviously it seems a little sluggish after an Athlon - you're not going to be playing RtCW (or even TuxRacer) on one of these any time soon - but when setting up my EPIA, I simply transplanted a nice quiet Maxtor 40GB hard-drive from a P-II 300, and booted straight into SuSE Linux 8.0 with no problems whatever.  In use, the machine feels a little faster than the P-II 300 for some things, a little slower for others, but I have yet to do any definitive benchmarks. The Linux kernel reports 1064.96 bogomips - but that means very little when it comes to real-world performance.