Building a low power, silent computer for everyday use

The D510mo in action - some typical usage, browsing via chromium, and watching some TV using me-tv

For the past few years, i’ve had fairly powerful gaming rig, running windows and crunchbang linux. It is still a very capable machine, and has served me well, however, 2 issues with this rig I have found unacceptable. Firstly the rig sucks up more power than I would like for a bit of light browsing, office activities and the like. And secondly, the extremely loud noise generated by the numerous fans and noisy HDDs

For this reason, I have looked into low power, low noise, low cost x86 systems to act as a daily usage and workhorse computer. One that I can leave on for long periods without worrying about power consumption, one that I can leave on when I sleep without being disturbed (the computer is in my bedroom).

This avenue of investigation lead me towards a handful of Intel Atom based mini-ITX boards from the likes of ASUS, Zotac, Intel and a few others.

Although capable looking, and competitively priced, i dismissed the ASUS and Zotac boards (featuring nVidia ION) as these are not passively cooled, requiring a fan to keep cool. As I had no interest in gaming on this machine, it made sense to save cash, and noise and go for the lower spec’d Intel D510MO

The system
The D510MO is small mini-ITX motherboard featuring an embedded Intel Atom D510 (dual core x86-64) CPU clocking at 1.6GHz. It features 2 RAM sockets capable of accepting up to 4GB (2x 2GB sticks) of DDR2 633/800MHz RAM, PCI slot, mini PCIe slot, VGA, gigabit ethernet, 6x USB2.0, 6 channel audio, as well as various headers for serial, parrallel and USB SSD.

Importantly, the CPU is soldered directly onto the board, and is pasively cooled by a large heatsink, eliminating the need for a fan. The board has very low power consumption for a relitively capable desktop machine.

Other components
As the CPU/GPU is built into the main board, these can be forgotton. The only additional parts needed, were RAM, power supply, HDD and a case. I wanted to house the D510mo in the smallest enclosure possible, This meant the M350 case paired with a picoPSU was an obvious choice combo. I was also able to source a cheap stick of 1GB DDR2 to get me started (with a view to upgrading that sometime in the future). Finally, a nice high quality, quiet 2.5″ HDD, and the whole system is built. Total cost, comfortably under £200

So, a reasonably capable, almost silent very small dektop computer, that can replace a cumbersome desktop rig for all but heavyweight usage. Idle power consumption – 19W, and built for well under £200 – NOT BAD!

The Result
Fast forward about a year – I’ve been using the D510mo for the majority of my daily computing ever since. I’m running Crunchbang 10 staler 2 as my OS, and I am extremely happy with the speed and performance.

The Noise aspect is a HUGE benefit – this setup is whisper quiet. The only noise is coming from the HDD, and I was careful to choose a quiet one, so it is very hard to notice. All I need to do for a completely silent machine is upgrade to an SSD 🙂

The system starts up very quickly (even though I’m using LUKs encryption) and normal usage such as web browsing (with chromium), office activities, running torrent clients, ftp programs, IRC/IM etc, etc… are handled very well my the system. I have occasionally ran into issues when RAM fills up and the system starts using swap space – This can be very annoying and will usually force me to free up some RAM to get thins moving nicely again. A RAM upgrade however would easily rectify this problem as the system is currently running with 1GB when its capable of running 4GB.

Just recently I’ve hooked up a Hauppauge! Win TV Nova T DVB-T receiver USB stick. Used with me-tv DVB application allows The watching and recording of terrestrial DVB (FreeView, not HD) on my D510mo. The system handles this very easily with minimal CPU usage, allowing me to watch and continue to run/use other software while I do so. Occasionally I get some horizontal lines when watching live, but recording is flawless.

Pushing the Limits
Naturally, I have also tried pushing this system out of its comfort zone by attempting to run games, and some beefier software. Predictably, the results are not as impressive largely due to its integrated GMA graphics hardware.

With simple scenes, its very usable, but with higher detail scenes the D510mo starts to run out of steam… a good demonstration of what can be done. Hiding geometry and using wireframe will help.

Runs fine. Takes slightly longer to get going than my other desktop, and filters can take a few seconds to be applied, but all in all pretty usable.

HD video
It can handle 720p videos fine. 1080p videos lack smoothness and can take time to track through. There are mini PCIe HD decoders available that will handle HD playback in hardware which should overcome this issue. HD flash playback is possible, but again, not perfect.

Minecraft does look like a basic game, but its not the most efficiently coded game (Java) and has been known to give GMA based systems good work out. The D510 can run MC at a playable speed, but not without some help. You’ll want the Sun Java instead of OpenJDK, and you’ll need to turn down a few settings, but the game will be more or less playable.

So, there you have it. A cheap, silent computer, great for typical daily use.

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