Description

Purpose: It was brought to my attention that the old Dell tower desktop at my in-laws' home office had been frustratingly, excruciatingly slow even for simple productivity tasks, and even after a reformat. My brother checked its specs and discovered why: it had an ancient Core 2 Duo E4500 and only 2 GB of RAM; it was likely constantly swapping to and from its spinning disk. This build is a new office workstation that will replace the Dell. I made it as compact as I could without sacrificing performance, so that it will not contribute much to clutter and so that it can be easily moved between work places if needed.

Part selection:

  • CPU: Two months ago, I built an upgradeable light gaming machine using AMD's latest flagship Kaveri part, the A10-7850K. It worked out well and was extremely responsive, so I sought a cooler-running APU of the same series but with less raw graphics horsepower, which I deemed less necessary in this intended use case. I decided on the A8-7600, whose turbo CPU frequency of 3.8 GHz almost matches the top-end A10-7850K's turbo frequency of 4.0 GHz, yet outputs only 65 watts (TDP), and at $108 retail, costs ~$60 less.

  • CPU cooler: I made quietness a high priority. That immediately ruled out bundled OEM coolers of any sort. I also needed the cooler's profile to be low enough to fit inside Mini-ITX desktop cases, which, unlike Mini-ITX cube and tower cases, are barely taller than the motherboard IO shield. After unsuccessfully looking through FrostyTech's list of low-profile heatsinks (http://www.frostytech.com/top5_lowprofile_heatsinks.cfm) for one that would be compatible with the Gigabyte GA-F2A88XN-WIFI's unusually short distance between the APU socket and the RAM slots, I browsed similar completed builds on PCPartPicker and found the 37-mm-high Noctua NH-L9a. It utilises heat pipes embedded within its fin block, has received glowing reviews, and most importantly, claims 100% RAM and PCIe slot compatibility (more on this later, however). Its designed heat dissipation capacity of 65 watts exactly matches the A8-7600's TDP.

  • Motherboard: I went with the same board that I used in my previous Kaveri Mini-ITX machine. My explanation from that build: "There were only 3 choices that met my requirements of being Mini-ITX and using the latest A88X chipset, one from ASRock, Gigabyte, and MSI each. It was between the ASRock FM2A88X-ITX+ and the Gigabyte GA-F2A88XN-WIFI for me. I ultimately went with the Gigabyte because the ASRock doesn't have any VRM heatsinks, all 3 of the Gigabyte's video outputs are digital, and ASRock's features and marketing are rather silly."

  • Memory: I had a positive experience with AMD Radeon memory in my previous Kaveri build, so I went with the same part. Even with the slight premium relative to other brands, it was difficult to go wrong with the guaranteed compatibility of AMD-certified memory with AMD's own processors, and the first-hand proven stability.

  • Storage: This Plextor SSD came up on Slickdeals last month for $65 minus a $15 mail-in rebate. As of the time of this writing, $50 is an excellent price for a 128 GB SSD of decent performance from a well-known manufacturer.

  • Case: Since this workstation's intended workloads would never require a dedicated graphics card, I could go with the class of cases that are essentially merely boxes surrounding the motherboard. I initially had my sights set on the diminutive Antec ISK 110 VESA, but then realised that its built-in 90-watt power supply simply wouldn't have been powerful enough during the APU's boost states. The APU's 65-watt TDP specification represents average heat dissipation meant to guide cooler selection, not indicate peak power draw. I didn't wish to be forced to impose an unnecessary limit on the APU's performance by lowering its configurable TDP to 45 watts, so I kept looking. There was the Antec ISK 300-150 with a more powerful 150-watt supply, but it was quite a bit longer at 12.87" compared to the 8.66"-long ISK 110. With my options limited, I expanded my manufacturer filter and came across the 120-watt In Win BQS656.DD120BL. Although In Win isn't as well-known of a brand, this case just about matched the ISK 110's dimensions, had received flawless reviews on Newegg, and appeared to be well-designed, so I decided to give it a shot.

  • Power supply: The 120-watt power supply built into the In Win BQS656.DD120BL is fanless and provides ample headroom for the APU, motherboard components, and SSD. I chose this case over the almost-identical BQ656T.AD120TBL (only difference is a self-contained PSU rather than an external 19 V adapter brick plus a DC-DC step-down converter board) due to multiple complaints that the fan in the BQ656T.AD120TBL's PSU is loud. It includes only the connectors I need and nothing extraneous, other than the one for a slim optical disc drive branching off of the SATA power connector. The capacitors on its DC-DC converter board are electrolytic rather than solid, but they seem decent, are rated at 105°C, and no one has reported any durability issues with them thus far.

Build:

  • I chose the Noctua NH-L9a because it was one of the few CPU coolers that seemed to be compatible with my motherboard's short socket-to-RAM distance; many others on PCPartPicker have used this cooler in their small-form-factor Gigabyte GA-F2A88XN-WIFI builds, and none had noted any clearance issues. However, I later discovered that in spite of being mounted as far away from the RAM as the four backplate through-holes in the motherboard would allow, the cooler pushes against the first RAM module with enough force to noticeably bend the slot (see photos). This discovery was not consistent with Noctua's claim of 100% RAM compatibility. Further research uncovered that Noctua states in their compatibility list: "This mainboard violates the [96 x 114 mm] keep-out zone specified by AMD. The NH-L9a can thus only be used with low-profile memory (<28 mm)." To those who plan to use this motherboard and cooler combination anyway due to the scarcity of alternative motherboard options, install the RAM first, and do what you can to minimise bending. Perhaps use a Dremel on the offending edge of the fan?

  • Contrary to my fears, the In Win turned out to be quite well-designed, of respectable quality, and made in Taiwan. I ordered a $4 USB header extension cable along with the case because it wasn't clear from any photos I could find online whether the case's front-panel USB cable could be re-routed to reach the rear-north side of the motherboard, which is where the Gigabyte GA-F2A88XN-WIFI's USB header resides. I found that the extension cable was entirely unnecessary; after popping the front cover off via the 2 tabs secured by the rear cover, it was a simple matter to clip the zip tie holding the USB and audio cables together and thread it through the north-side opening instead (see photos). In fact, almost all of the cables were of perfect length. That, along with how confined the inside of the case was, meant that I needed only one zip tie for the entire build's cable management.

Observations:

  • I'm currently using the fastest "Manual" CPU fan slope setting offered by the Gigabyte firmware of "2.50 PWM value /°C", which still results in the fan running silently most of the time. The machine is impressively quiet as long as I don't set the fan to full speed, which I would be doing if I didn't mind the slight noise at the maximum 2,500 RPM, because I noticed that when the case is in its vertical orientation, some of the hot exhaust from the south side of the CPU cooler, after exiting the bottom of the side panel mesh, is possibly rising and being drawn right back in. Even so, APU temperatures top out at 40°C under load, which is excellent. The motherboard components around the socket, as well as the power supply's DC-DC converter board, do receive heat from the APU cooler's exhaust, but they should be able to tolerate it. Since the peripheral components themselves don't consume much power, the hottest they will get is the temperature of the cooler exhaust (which itself cannot possibly be hotter than the APU), plus or minus a few degrees. Ideally, since this fan is the entire machine's sole source of forced circulation, I'd use faster fan speeds to force the hot air far enough away from the intake. But since the motherboard's capacitors are solid, and the DC-DC converter's caps are rated at 105°C, I'm not too worried.

  • The only gripe I have about the case is that its stand isn't as sturdy as it could be. I can live with the front-panel USB ports being only USB 2.0.

Findings from use:

  • 2014-09-20: The external 19 V adapter brick emits a soft high-pitched squeal whenever the computer is switched off or sleeping.

  • 2014-09-21: I seem to have found a non-trivial bug with this motherboard. Sometimes when waking from sleep, the CPU fan would start spinning, but then stop after 2-3 seconds. I thought that it might have been the fan controller commanding too low of a PWM duty cycle at the moment due to the processor having cooled down during sleep, but then I ran Prime95 until it blew past 35°C, yet the fan was still motionless. I was able to reliably reproduce this with successive sleep-wake cycles. Restarting would get it spinning again. I tried disabling the processor's C6 power state in case the power supply didn't support it (though it should, since it's of a DC-DC design), and enabling ErP (http://forums.vr-zone.com/hardware-depot/1295397-what-eup-erp.html) to see whether that would put the system into a different power state during sleep, but neither avoided the problem. Since this bug was simply too dangerous, I ended up disabling sleep altogether using Group Policy, enabling hibernation, and setting the 'sleep' button to hibernate instead. Surprisingly, hibernating and resuming is about as quick as sleeping and waking; I had to check Windows event logs and yank the power plug just to be certain that it was actually hibernating and not still sleeping. At the end of the day, this isn't too significant of a loss, since sleep is much less important on desktops than on laptops, and cold boots take less than 10 seconds thanks to UEFI, Windows 8, and solid-state storage.

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Comments

  • 67 months ago
  • 8 points

This has to be the best description I have ever seen on here, excellent build for a workstation, and props for going with the APU, I love AMD.

  • 67 months ago
  • 4 points

Thanks! It's good to see that appreciation for AMD is still alive and well.

  • 67 months ago
  • 4 points

Nice build ;) That give me ideas ;)

  • 67 months ago
  • 4 points

If you take the heat spreaders off of the ram they will fit just fine, and I've had to do that on a couple builds because of cooler size restrictions. Edit: also in case you have any worries the ram will do perfectly fine without the heatsinks, they are mostly for aesthetic reasons.

  • 67 months ago
  • 3 points

Good idea. I'll consider that in the future when I'm certain that I won't be needing the warranty. =)

  • 67 months ago
  • 2 points

This is fantastic for an office workstation. The RAM accompanying it was a great choice - it beefs up the APU a bit. Nice work! +1

  • 67 months ago
  • 2 points

I like the detailed description. That's the real value in a place like this. It's not just seeing what other people bought, it's learning why they bought it.

  • 65 months ago
  • 2 points

that psu scares me

  • 61 months ago
  • 2 points

I just built up the same motherboard/memory/cpu cooler combination after reading your review. Your advice is spot on regarding the clearance issue. I solved the problem as you recommended with a dremel and a file. If you take your time and keep test fitting everything as you go it works great, no contact at all.

  • 67 months ago
  • 1 point

This is amazing. The cable management you did in that case is phenomenal.

  • 67 months ago
  • 1 point

Thanks! Tidy cable management is sort of my signature in PC builds.

  • 67 months ago
  • 1 point

Good build. Good price and great form factor.

+1

  • 67 months ago
  • 1 point

have you underclocked the A8-7600 to 45 watts? nice +1

  • 67 months ago
  • 1 point

Decreasing the configurable TDP to 45 watts was always an option, but one that I chose to avoid from the beginning. I want the cores to remain in their boost states as long as possible, for better responsiveness.

  • 67 months ago
  • 1 point

Now have new trend they often use old computer casing to build something new and more powerful mini-ATX motherboard.Looks great and best perform with limited space.Good idea.

  • 67 months ago
  • 1 point

Nice. +1 Do you have enough storage? I don't know what they will be putting on the pc. Just wondering if 128GB is enough.

  • 67 months ago
  • 1 point

We use OneDrive and Box to store and share large media such as photos, so 128 GB should be more than enough. If not, there are always external hard drives.

  • 66 months ago
  • 1 point

Thanks for your excellent write-up! Are the AMD RAM modules still fully functional with the NH-L9a on this board? I am thinking of doing a similar build but with a different case. The Realan E-i5 mini-ITX HTPC, http://www.ecosmartpc.com/ei5.html.

  • 65 months ago
  • 1 point

Affirmative. No stability issues whatsoever.

  • 60 months ago
  • 1 point

Where can I find power supplies like that in your workstation build?

EDIT I found this: http://www.amazon.com/Mini-PicoPSU-150-XT-DC-DC-power-supply/dp/B0045WFZSQ/ref=pd_cp_pc_2. It is a mini itx form factor self contained power supply like you see in this case, but much smaller. Thanks for helping me discover something awesome, OP :D

  • 57 months ago
  • 1 point

Quick question, would buying a separate adapter brick fix the high-pitched squeal problem?

  • 57 months ago
  • 1 point

Depends on which brick you buy.

  • 53 months ago
  • 1 point

This still working out? I'm looking to build essentially the same thing, but use it as a HTPC. The thing that worries me is the 120-watt PSU.

  • 50 months ago
  • 1 point

I have seen fancy cable management here before. But nothing like this in such a small space. Great planning and build. I'm very impressed. Thanks for taking a minute to write the story, I love reading these.

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