- Near-silent operation
- impressive visual presence
- Very bulky and heavy
- case isn't lockable
- upgrades will be tricky and could require optional extras for the case
Today's high-end desktop systems make four- or five-year-old PCs look like museum pieces. But one undesirable trait that ancient and modern PCs almost certainly will share is noisiness. An up-to-date system may have quieter fans than an old one, but it's likely to have more of them: the CPU, Northbridge chipset, graphics card, chassis (intake and exhaust) and power supply unit will all normally carry fans that whirr away some or all of the time. This can add up to quite a racket, although there are plenty of tricks you can employ to keep the noise down.One of the most extreme tricks, though, is to build or buy a PC with no fans at all. This revolutionary option has been made possible by the advent of the Zalman TNN 500A case, around which specialist PC maker Poweroid has built its 1200 model. If computer noise bugs you, and you're prepared to pay to banish it, then read on.
The moment you open the box and haul out this 30kg-plus anodised aluminium beast via its pair of top-mounted handles, you know you're dealing with an extraordinary PC. Measuring 28.6cm wide by 40cm deep by 60.7cm high, the TNN (Totally No Noise) 500A looks – and acts – like a very large, black heatsink, thanks to the array of surface-area-enhancing fins on either side of the chassis. There are push-to-open doors at either end (no handles or locks here), and when you look inside, you'll see how the thing works. The key components that need cooling (the 3.2GHz Northwood Pentium 4 CPU and the Nvidia GeForce FX 5700-powered graphics card) have heatsinks with gold-plated, coolant-filled copper heatpipes leading from them – six for the CPU, two for the GPU. These pipes connect to blue heatsink blocks screwed into the inside of the case, whence the heat is dissipated via the radiator-like chassis. The other vital element of the TNN 500A case is its fanless power supply, a custom-designed 300W unit that transfers its heat to the chassis via an aluminium panel. Although conventional high-end PCs generally require more than 300W, there are of course no power-draining fans in this system. One component that ran noticeably hot in our review system was the 250GB Western Digital Serial-ATA hard disk. This was bolted to the underside of the 5.25in. drive bay, electronics side down. Poweroid told us that it had attempted to fit Zalman's ZM2-HC1 hard disk heat-pipe assembly, but that the attachment mechanism to the chassis broke under the combined weight of the hard disk and the ZM2-HC1. Hopefully this issue will be sorted before long. Other notable elements of the TNN 500A case are its clever casters, which are essential for moving this very heavy computer about: these casters incorporate rotary controls that extend solid rubber feet to secure the system when it's in the desired location. There are also holes in the top and bottom of the case to promote airflow, and EMI (electromagnetic interference) blocks to the front and rear that also double as cable management points. The Poweroid 1200's TNN 500A case is thoughtfully designed and visually impressive, but it can't really be described as pretty. It could also do with being lockable: although the heat-piped components would be hard for an intruder to remove in a hurry, the same can't be said for the memory.
The PC that Poweroid has built into the TNN 500A case is powerful, although not cutting-edge. It's based around a 3.2GHz Northwood Pentium 4, an Asus P4C800 Deluxe motherboard with Intel's 875P chipset, and 1GB of dual-channel PC3200 (DDR400) memory (expandable to 4GB). The motherboard has five PCI slots, two of which were occupied -- by a Creative Labs Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS sound card (with a MIDI/game port taking up a second backplane berth), and a 56Kbps modem. The P4C800 Deluxe provides integrated Gigabit Ethernet, a Promise Serial-ATA RAID controller, along with FireWire (IEEE 1394) and USB 2.0 support. As mentioned above, the hard disk is a massive 250GB Western Digital Serial-ATA unit with a rotational speed of 7,200rpm and an 8MB cache. Optical storage comes in the form of an LG GSA-4081B DVD rewriter and a Sony DVD-ROM DDU1612 drive; the removable storage roster is completed by a floppy drive. A further two internal 3.5in. bays are available for adding extra drives if necessary. There's a good mix of up-to-date and legacy I/O ports: parallel, serial, PS/2 (2), USB (4 rear, 2 front), FireWire (1 on motherboard, 1 on sound card). The motherboard's 8X AGP slot is occupied by a Gainward Nvidia GeForce FX 5700 Ultra graphics card, with 128MB of memory. Poweroid notes that the standard pair of heat pipes supplied to cool the GPU will need to be augmented with an optional extra pair of pipes if you want to upgrade to anything above an Nvidia GeForce FX 5700 or an ATI Radeon 9800XT. Be aware, though, that fitting a custom cooling solution to a graphics card is likely to break its warranty.
Before reporting the Poweroid 1200's benchmark scores, a few words about its noise-reduction and cooling performance are in order. In short, the fanless Zalman TNN 500A case works. Once the system's up and running, the only sound you'll hear comes when the hard disk or the removable media drives are being accessed. And since the machine failed to overheat after running a benchmark script continuously over a whole weekend, the cooling technology is clearly up to the task. When running SYSmark 2002's Office Productivity test (Word 2002, Excel 2002, PowerPoint 2002, Outlook 2002, Access 2002, Netscape Communicator 6.0, Dragon NaturallySpeaking Preferred v.5, WinZip 8.0, McAfee VirusScan 5.13), the Poweroid 1200 scored 150. This is a reasonable result, although it's some way behind the 3.2GHz Prescott Pentium 4 desktops recently tested by our US colleagues at CNET.com, which scored around 250 on this test. The Poweroid 1200 should be able to handle the high-end applications in SYSmark 2002's Internet Content Creation test (Photoshop 6.01, Premiere 6.0, Windows Media Encoder 7.1, Dreamweaver 4, Flash 5) too. But unfortunately, a persistent glitch during this benchmark prevented us from recording a score. As far as 3D graphics performance are concerned, FutureMark's latest 3DMark03 test reported a score of 4,103 at 1,024 by 768 resolution in 32-bit colour with image enhancements turned off. This is not up to the level of a cutteing-edge desktop like the 3.2GHz Prescott Pentium 4 with an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card recently tested by ZDNet Germany, which scored 5,852, but it's still impressive.
Service & support
The Poweroid 1200 comes with a one-year parts and labour warranty, with 5-year cover on labour. The company's Web site provides plenty of information and downloads; telephone support is also available at national rates.
We were impressed by the Poweroid 1200, which does its main job – near-silent operation – very well indeed. It doesn't deliver cutting-edge performance, and whether the TNN 500A can cool the very highest-specification components adequately remains to be seen. It's also big and heavy, cannot be locked, and isn't especially pretty. But if you really need a quiet computer, then a PC built around the Zalman TNN 500A case -- such as the Poweroid 1200 -- is currently the state of the art.