|by Michael "SKYMTL" Hoenig | May 22, 2007|
nMedia HTPC 400BA Media Center Case Review
nMedia HTPC-400BA Media Center Case Review
Price: $105 from Directcanada
Availability: Now (in both black HTPC-400BA and silver HTPC-400SA)
Table of Contents:
2- Exterior Impressions
3- Exterior Sizes
5- Interior Impressions
7- Will an 8800GTS fit?
8- Cooling Performance
9- Noise….or lack thereof
Within the last few years there has been an ongoing push to bring computers into people’s living rooms to act as an all-in-one entertainment system. As such, companies have been releasing cases which look at home in a home theater environment rather than next to a computer desk. Many are made to look as much like standard AV The trick is to keep these cases as quiet as possible (who wants screaming-loud case fans in their living room?) while using the interior space efficiently in order to make the whole package as small as possible. This is not an easy juggling act to perform.
This review will be focusing on one nMedia’s more budget-minded HTPC cases: the HTPC-400BA. Here is what nMedia has to say about their case (sorry, the English is not the best):
We totally re-designed the old HTPC 400. We want to make the full ATX HTPC desktop case more compact but keeping the full ATX supports on motherboard and power supply.
Here is the new generation of HTPC 400. Support full ATX board, ATX power supply & 3 hard drives in a 17"(W) x 5.25" (H) x 16.5"(D) case.
We claim it the most compact ATX desktop HTPC case in the world. No wiser card needed. Support all standard video card and up to 6 PCI devices. We achieve the best balances on size, functions, cost and simple design.
Basically what nMedia is trying to achieve with this case is full ATX motherboard compliance while saving as much space as possible in order for this case to fit in as nicely as possible next to your other AV equipment. Since this is available in both black and silver, nMedia is pretty much covering all of their bases when it comes to color selection since 99% of AV products sold in one of those two colors. All in all this case looks very promising on paper. Let’s see how it does in real life.
After receiving numerous cases with flashy packaging which promote nearly every minute aspect of the product in blazing, neon-like lettering, receiving nMedia’s understated package was like a breath of fresh air. Basically what you see is what you get: a plain cardboard box which explains everything you might like to know about the product without tons of marketing mumbo-jumbo. Compared to other ATX cases, when packaged in the box this case weighs next to nothing.
The packaging used insures that the case will not get damaged buy placing the case safely away from the walls of the box which tend to get compacted in the shipping process. Additionally, the HTPC-400 series is wrapped in a plastic bag.
2- Exterior Impressions:
The exterior of the 400BA is designed to fit perfectly with your other home theater equipment and it succeeds in doing so very well. The entire exterior is made of light-weight metal which is power coated with a black matte finish. All sides of this case have grilles for heat management which is a good addition even though most HTPC setups do not generate too much heat. The front panel is finished with a brushed black metallic power coat which gives the front of the 400BA a beautiful high-end look.
The problem is that the light-weight metal used becomes a double-edged sword; on one hand the case is very light but on the other hand when you begin screwing in drives and whatnot, the exterior metal visibly flexes.
The front panel has a number of connectors which you can see in the picture to the left above. Those connectors are a follows:
3X USB 2.0 ports
1X IEEE 1934 Firewire Port
This should be more than enough for the majority of people who buy this case. The USB ports seem to be wedged a little too tightly into the metal fascia since inserting a USB device into them requires a bit of force. Luckily, after a few dozen repetitions of inserting and retracting devices, the ports seem to become easier to work with.
Other than the device ports there are also a few other bangs and whistles which are very nice additions to a sub-$120 HTPC case. nMedia has included an infrared port (the IR receiver is sold separately) and a swingable metal door for the DVD drive to keep the front panel looking nice and clean. This also serves a dual purpose of disguising your DVD drive just in case it is a color other than black.
The front panel also houses a power button, a reset button and a very small hard drive indicator light. The power button is illuminated by a very bright blue LED which can light up a room all on its own. Upon first glance the glowing blue halo carries a great “wow” effect but it quickly becomes distracting if you are watching a movie in a dark room.
The back of the HTPC-400 series houses a handle for quick and easy removal of the top panel (which is held in place with a pair of thumb screws), 2 60mm fans and a single 80mm fan along with 7 expansion slots. Some may be cringing at the thought of 3 small fans which could cause ridiculous amounts of noise; we will see how these fare later on in this review. Stunningly, not one of the fans draws air into the case; they all pull warm air out of the case.
nMedia also provides an S/PDIF audio output and a pre-installed power plug on the rear of the case. This case mounts the power supply in an area that is not accessible from the outside so a secondary outlet is provided.
There are 4 adjustable feet which have foam coatings so as not to scratch your expensive TV cabinet.
3- Exterior Sizes:
The height and width of this case should fit very easily into any home theater cabinet. Many cabinets these days are getting thinner and thinner with consumers embracing thin LCD and plasma TVs. Thus, the depth of the HTPC-400 may cause a bit of an issue so make sure to measure very carefully before buying this case. Being compatible with ATX motherboards does come with some tradeoffs.
There really isn’t much included with this case in terms of extras. We get a few zip-ties, a single cable tiedown and various screws and standoffs. A special mention has to go to the included manual; where some manuals give you basic instructions this one leaves you mostly in the dark. As you will see later in this review, installation is pretty straightforward but the instructions in the manual are so vague, you are better off grabbing a screwdriver and going at it yourself. Luckily, this review will also go through the basics of installing components in this case.
5- Interior Impressions:
Overall, the interior of the HTPC-400BA is quite spacious for a HTPC case and this is because of the fact that it is ATX motherboard compatible. Clockwise from the right you can see the 5.25” exterior drive cage, the power supply bracket (with filter and power cord) and the hard drive rack. This case will fit an ATX motherboard…but barely.
In addition, you will notice that all the fans are equipped with Molex connectors without the standard 3-pin motherboard fan connectors. While this is a good idea for motherboards which lack fan pin-outs, it plays absolute havoc with wire routing. Hopefully in the future nMedia will include fan connectors AND Molex connectors with the rear fans.
Most of the standoffs come pre-installed but there are a few extras for motherboards with odd tiedown configurations. These standoffs are not riveted to the case “floor” very well and sometimes pivot when you try to unscrew your motherboard.
After going through the installation during this review, there are quite a few pointers that should be mentioned in addition to some shortfalls that were encountered along the way. So, let’s get this show on the road.
Installing the Power Supply
While there were some minor hassles with installing the components, none caused as much as a headache as installing the power supply without any help from the manual. If you are using a power supply with a bottom-mounted fan, it draws air in from the bottom of the case where there is a small filter. In order to begin installing the power supply, the main bracket has to be removed by removing 3 screws and sliding the bracket to the side. It should then come off without too much of a problem.
Now comes the frustrating part: this bracket must then be screwed onto the back of the power supply. You will need a VERY steady hand and bucketloads of patience in order to maneuver four tiny screws into four tiny holes. With the added weight, it is extremely hard to put this bracket back into place once it is attached to a heavy power supply and without with a few well-placed blows, it would never go back.
Since the power supply is placed on the side of the case, nMedia provides an adaptor which connects the power plug to the back of the case. The problem with this is that the adaptor has a very hard time fitting on some power supplies as you can see in the picture above. The power cord can get so bent that it looks ready to crack open. In addition, this adaptor eliminated the on/off switch for the power supply itself.
From the viewpoint of the installer, this whole power supply setup is overly complicated and can go wrong very fast. Forget about replacing the power supply with the motherboard installed and be VERY careful when installing the power cord on certain power supplies.
Installing the DVD drive
Installing the DVD drive is very straightforward but it is a lesson in precision and something the manual nearly completely forgets to mention. The first step is to unscrew the two screws holding the cage in place and then slip the whole cage out. Then, install the drive so it is sticking out from the rear of the cage by about ¾” and slide the whole thing until the eject button on the drive is a hair’s width away form the front button assembly. The best way to know you have it right is to slowly push the drive cage forward while pressing the front eject button on the front of the case. Once you hear the “click” of it engaging the eject button on the drive, stop and screw the cage into place.
Hard drive installation
Installing the hard drives is a very straightforward affair where you will unscrew 4 screws on the outside of the case, slip the cage free and install the hard drive. You may notice that there are green rubber grommets to reduce drive vibration; the problem is that nMedia only installed these grommets on ONE SIDE of the cage. So, one side of the hard drive is free to vibrate against the metal cage to its heart’s content.
Other than those few snags, installation went without too much of a hitch. The installation you see above is with an mATX motherboard so you can see how tight the installation would have been with a standard ATX motherboard. All of the power supply cables are tucked into the space below the DVD drive but the Molex-equipped fans continue to cause headaches with the cable routing. The power supply that is installed is a standard ATX-sized Silverstone Olympia unit, any longer power supplies would not fit very well in the space provided. Be aware that you can place this case on ONE side only (the side closest to the DVD drive) since the other side is used for airflow from the power supply.
7- Will an 8800GTS fit?
The 8800GTS is a graphics card which is made to fit in an ATX-sized case but will it fit in the nMedia HTPC-400BA?
Yes it does as long as you use a high mounting point for the PCI-E slot like this motherboard has and you remove the metal cross-support on the expansion card slots. One or two expansion slots lower and the rear of the card would touch the power supply which would allow the attachment of the PCI-E connector. In short, you have to shoehorn it in and hope you don’t hit anything.
They say “just because a shoe fits, it doesn’t mean you should buy it” and the same goes for the 8800GTS in conjunction with this case. To put it bluntly, the 8800GTS can be likened to a space heater and this case does not provide nearly enough airflow for it.
8- Cooling Performance:
All ambient temperatures were measured at the following points with a pair of CompuNurse digital thermometers which have had their probes placed in the following locations:
All CPU temperatures were taken with Asus PcProbe II and all hard drive temperatures were taken using HDtune’s integrated thermal monitoring tool.
Idle temperatures were taken after running the system at idle for 30 minutes
Load temperatures were taken after running Orthos blend test and recording a TV program for 30 minutes.
AMD X2 3800+ EE (stock heatsink)
Asus M2A-VM HDMI
2GB Corsair Value Select PC-5300 DDR2
Pioneer DVR-112D DVD writer
2x Sapphire Theatrix 550Pro TV Tuner cards
250GB Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 Hard Drive
Silverstone Olympia 650W power supply
The three small fans on this case do not promote very good airflow throughout the case because they are kept to a very slow speed to cut down on noise. The cooling is more than acceptable when the system isn’t overly stressed but under full load conditions, the three small fans struggle to keep up with the rising heat. The processor in particular shows quite a jump in temperatures. The grille on the top of the case also works quite well to release ambient heat. Luckily, there are very few HTPC systems which will ever be put under this much stress.
9- Noise…or lack thereof:
I think the title of this section says it all; in stock form, the fans used on this case produce next to no noise. As has been mentioned before, this acts as a double-edged sword since these slow-running fans are only able to provide a moderate amount of internal airflow.
The nMedia HTPC-400BA is a good all-round, no frills HTPC case which is available at a great budget price. There are however quite a few areas in which nMedia could improve this case so it could stand head and shoulders above the competition. One of these areas for improvement is the general installation of certain components into the case itself; installing the power supply quickly becomes a lesson in futility if you are short on patience. Having passable installation instructions in the manual would have alleviated the installation headaches to a certain extent.
Overall, the build quality on the 400BA is very good but there are certain aspects that will leave the consumer scratching their head in confusion. The exclusion of rubber grommets on both sides of the hard drive cage is odd to say the least and euphoria will quickly turn to shock when some standoffs begin pivoting when you are trying to unscrew the motherboard.
Even with these few minor flaws, the nMedia HTPC-400BA stands as a good budget-oriented HTPC case with all the basics you will need to integrate it into your home theater setup.
- Great brushed finish
- Quiet fans
- ATX motherboard compliant
- Installation requires a lot of guesswork
- Where did the rest of the grommets on the HD cage go?
- Standoffs not riveted tightly
- LED power button is very distracting
- Power supply cord needs to be bent to install some power supplies
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To contact me directly, please do so by writing me an email at SKYMTL@hardwarecanucks.com