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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Silent, fanless, powerful XBMC build - Streacom FC8 with A6 APU build notes...

(This is an update to my xbmc forum post here)

The Goal

I have a Streacom FC8 and I have just finished a build into it.  The goal was to replace my Shuttle XS35GT fanless system that was showing it's age - bit slow in the UI areas even with more basic skins like Confluence, and the endless jitter issues with ION are tiresome.  I considered various fanless options but all seemed expensive or limited really.  So I decided to build my own but I expect shortly very similar systems will be available off the shelf.

The Streacom FC8 is a very attractive, AV style, moderately expensive (I paid about $165 AU) mini ITX case (with room for one half height PCIE card) - and is completely passively cooled case because I want real silence - not 'very quiet' like all those A6 pack builds with fans etc. - I mean really truly silent - as, with young kids, I often watch with the volume off using subtitles etc, and even so called 'very quiet' fans are audible in my lounge at night...so total silence was rule #1.  Maybe I just have sensitive ears but I am surrounded by powerful fan filled PCS all day, don't need it at night as well....I honestly don't see why cases like the Antec little ones are popular when something like this is available - this is beautiful and silent, vs. ugly and even with expensive aftermarket coolers, definitely audible.

Cost was not really an issue as I had a credit to work with.

I need PVR/Live TV support, and ideally want HD audio support as soon as I can get it too. Zero interest in the gimmick that is 3D video, though.

Parts

From Rylun Home Entertainment (Australia):

1 * Streacom FC8 HTPC Case
1 * Power Supply Wesena 150W Pico PSU + 10A Power Adapter
1 * Philips RC260 Remote + Receiver
1 * Slimline SATA Power Data Adapter Cable (needed for the molex to sata to hook up the bluray drive)

From eBay:

1 * Sony 5600S slot load bluray/dvd combo
(has button on left to match the FC8 case but you could use something else and jsut use software eject)

From AusPC market (http://www.auspcmarket.com.au/) - I had a big credit so went a bit 'gourmet' with some of this Smile

1 * Deepcool Z9 Thermal Paste (should have got two tubes)
1 * 60 GB Intel 520 Series SSD (should have gone with 120GB so as to have lots of room for 3 installs)
1 * ASRock A75M-ITX motherboard (see notes below on this)
2 * Corsair 1333MHz CL9 DDR3 RAM

Total cost - don't know, don't care Smile Honestly, I would guess about $1000 all done @ retail. But for me this was well down on the list as I don't spend much on myself and I use my htpc a lot...you could easily get it down to $600ish with less exotic parts in places I'd say.  A 500GB/s SSD is kinda overkill for an HTPC... :)

The Build:

Basically a very simple build as there aren't that many parts.

I had the following difficulties:
  • No documentation came with case, I downloaded some but it's very basic - Rylun say they will be supplying some in future
  • The cords (for USB ports, power etc) are not labelled with polarity so had to google USB wire colours
  • The Wesena IR Receiver started to literally smoke the first time it was plugged in - I am told it goes into a USB header (and can power on) - but again no documentation...I got a wroking replacement and while it works, it does not immediately do so in RC6 mode, which is annoying.  For the moment I am using my old faithful USB receiver but will re-visit this later.
  • Big Problem - I should have gone with a Streacom recommended motherboard - the ASRock is a fine mobo and I got it free, but the RAM slots are in the wrong spot and get in the way of the heatpipes (also the PSU 24 pin connector is a bit close as well). I see now that other mobos have the ram slots parallel to the rear ports, but these are perpendicular along the side where the heatpipes connect. I got it to work by manually and gently bending the heat pipes a little but this is definitely not ideal and it means the cooling block is sitting just slightly askew. When I later change mobos (to trinity + 1 is the plan) - I may need new heatpipes. Fortunately it appears it's transferring the APU heat very well though - solid use for a few weeks, zero issues, and it wasn't that hard to bend them so I am not bothered by this, but other might be.
  • I'd never actually done my own thermal paste before - should have got some more as you need to put it in a lot of spots when doing this sort of build.

Results (updated mid June 2012)

It's 100% silent and running stable across several weeks of continuous & heavy use.

IF I thrash it - i.e. Prime95 or similar - the case gets quite warm, almost hot (it's supposed to!) and I have seen the APU temps vary from about 40 right up to 75 depending on how hard I have thrashed it. Average is about 60 under full load I'd say. Under Windows it runs surprisingly cool most of the time - unless I deliberately thrash it with a CPU tester like Prime95.  I have not experienced any crashes due to temps or anything.

In normal running under Windows (i.e. just using XBMC/playing video) - it's actually only ever mildly warm to the touch and averages low thirties.  At boot from cold it's about 25 and the peak I have seen with XBMC usage is 43, but usually it's about 32 ish.  No problems at all from temps. therefore.


Software

I am trying both Windows (April nightly window build with AE) and Openelec (1.95.4 aka Beta4) on it. I set it up as a dual boot...

Both generally work ok.   Windows definitely better though.


Windows

Boot time with zero special tuning is about 30 secs from bios to operational XBMC. Very fast for Windows with no tuning...I am sure I will be able to get this down significantly once I start tuning.

Is was more work to set up initially and get working well with remotes - probably because I have always used XBMCLive and OE, so Linux, and am just less familiar with XBMC under Windows.  But it's running sweet once I worked out the basics.

SD video quality is shite (as always with XBMC, the only thing I miss about popcorn style machines is there awesome post processing in comparison to XBMC), but there is a pull request to improve this.   So improved quality will come.

HD quality (which is all I really care about) is silky smooth and just perfect.  Audio sync is good (I found this wavering all over the place with OE, see below). Colour range is correct with my set up, motion is wonderfully smooth @ 24p (well, as smooth as it should be) - no jitter issues like with ION systems.  I have turned off 'match video to display'  (i.e. XBMC's smooth video system) as it doesn't seem to help at all.  Of course I have 'adjust refresh rate' turned on to that 24p/50p and 60p are all used correctly.  Everything seems to play very well.

Also, testing a nightly, I have seen the HD light on my receiver for the first time in 3.5 years of owning it Smile - very cool.

System is extremely responsive in general.

I am now using ForTheRecord on my Windows server as a PVR and to serve TV to my clients.  This is working very well - channel changes are marginally slower than with TVHeadEnd but there are way less skips (I think running TVHeadEnd on the ION was not quite powerful enough maybe?) - indeed I haven't seen a skip of any type yet.  Records work very well, although I can't delete them from XBMC and have to use the WebUI - no biggie.  It's mcuh nicer having the TV running on the 24/7 server than placing a load on one of my clients, and more robust.  Installing FTR is a bit harder than TVHeadEnd, but worth it - the scheduling system is excellent.

 Open issues - all minor and infrequent: 

There are very very occasional minor glitches coming off pause and once I have seen a video start with massive judder.  In all cases a stop and restart fix them, and they are really quite rare.  Much rare than the ION jitters.

A few focus stealing issues etc, but I have got it going quite well and have bound a remote button to flip back to XBMC (or re-start it if it's crashed) - works beautifully.

I am using standby during the day between sessions - one in 5 times it won't seem to re-connect to my NFS shares and I need to reboot.  I shutdown fully at night anway, so no big drama at all.

There is an odd hang when addons are installing for a few seconds - I never experienced this with Linux systems.  Not a big deal.

Remote keys are a it weird under LiveTV video - not sure why the don't inherit the standard fullscreenvideo setup, but they don't, so that's annoying - I don't think that there's much attention on this yet, while youc an bind a few keys (EPG etc), you can't seem to fix the behaviour of some of the normal once easily.


Openelec

Boots from BIOS to XBMC in maybe 5 seconds. Insanely fast.

- Complete fail on all 'fusion' versions - apparently these are for older fusion chips and hang on startup with A6s etc.  This is not obviously documented and caused much time wasting.
- Video fail (extensive skipping) on versions below Beta 4.
- 'Generic' Beta4 (which contains the patches from FernetMenta for xvba that are not yet in mainline xbmc) - works quite well, although it too suffers from poor SD video quality and audio sync is not reliable - very annoying.  Quite a few gltiches overall in general.

System is somewhat less responsive than on Window but this is probably more to do with the remote timings than anything - OE seems to limit the max speed of the harmony as it use MCE remote mode. Bit overall it just seems a little slower.


I have given up on OE with AMD video for now.  Still use it on my ION machines though.


Conclusion



This build really needs Windows to shine.  But shine it does - complete silence, ample power even with Aeon Nox etc., silky smooth both with the UI and playback.  Shame about needing Windows for cost reasons and slow boot reasons, but I have to say it does work well.  And running multiple versions is easy using the -p portable switch, so testing new versions is much nicer than with OE.


In short, after a lot of work (isn't there always with XBMC to get it just right?...but that's kinda the point for me - I can tailor it to perfection) - it's a big, silent step up from the ION systems.  Definitely recommended.



15 comments:

  1. I am wondering if this mobo fits in your case equipped with a passive cooler.

    http://www.zotacusa.com/zotac-d2700-wifi-supreme-d2700itxs-a-e.html

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    1. Yeah I am pretty sure that will fit - the ram slots and power supply bits are in the right spot, certainly would fit better than my current MOBO. And I am guessing the CPU TDP on that is well lower than the 65W max.

      I did look at this at some point but I think I decided the atom wouldn't be fast enough in the xbmc menus - the APU from AMD is a lot more powerful I think? Well, that was my thinking at the time, also I was buying my parts using a credit at a store so I let tham guide me a bit too :)

      Obviously the nvidia side of it would be nice...ideally, though an I3 plus an nvidia all on a mobo that can be passively cooled - that would be the best I reckon...

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    2. I agree, an i3 will be better than an Atom and easily passively cooled. but I disagree on the Atom not enough for a media PC, I am running a MC001 (Atom D525 + ATI HD5430 Mobility) with Openelec and it is no problem at all, not for the menus, not for the 1080p movies.

      My movies are on a small Ubuntu server powered by an i3-2120T (low TDP), on that one (as it is hooked to a TV as well), XBMC runs flawlessly too, even without discrete graphics. though, I did not test 1080p (as the TV is a pretty old one limited to 720p).

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  2. I have two Atom machines (plus this AMD one and several core i7 machines for testing and dev etc.). Believe me, the ATOM is nowhere near grunty enough to run something like Aeon Nox @ 60 fps with all the features turned on.

    Even with Confluence it's not silky smooth like it is with a more powerful machine.

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  3. I am wondering if you have already tried the D2700. I do most of my development on this machine. You can't compare it to the D525.

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  4. No my atoms are older - ASRock ION 330 with a D510 I think and the Shuttle with the D525.

    A decently fast Atom + ION2 might work very well, and I see over at the OE page you've made significant AMD progress as well (5.1 decoding etc).

    At the moment though I am mostly mucking around with a Raspberry Pi - quite the other end of CPU power :)

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  5. I decided to build a box using the Zotac board. A quick research has shown that the Streacom cases are not compatible. Do you think this can be made fit somehow or do you have any idea what other cases can be used?

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  6. NOT compatible or just not listed as compatible? From the pictures I can't really see why it wouldn't fit to be honest.

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  7. I read a post somewhere that the CPU cooler does not fit and it's not listed as a compatible board. Maybe the heat sink can be made fit somehow.

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  8. It's really hard to tell either way till you try I think as it all comes down to the angles and lengths of the pipes. Depends how comfortable you are doing a little pipe bending....it worked ok for me, but not ideal. You could contact Streacom maybe, they're Dutch I believe so that's sort of your direction I think?

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  9. As long as I don't need a sledge hammer I have no problems with bending heat pipes. I read that the Zotac board is also planned as a DC version but not available yet. This would eliminate the need for a ATX power supply. Do you really need the 150W version? The Zotac board draws only 60W at peak loads so I think I will go for the 90W picoPSU.

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  10. Yeah I just did it with some firm squeezing, while chatting with a client and not paying much attention, so it's not too hard. I doubt you need 150W, it was just an easily available one for me, I see a lot of builds with 90w picos so that should be find I'd say...given a peak of 60 (a little headroom is never a bad idea with a PSU though, so I wouldn't go down to 60).

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  11. Does your remote under windows work exactly the same way as OE or XBMCbuntu? Only reason I ask is it seems to be a PITA to get the same functionality.

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    1. Definitely NOT the same but it's not hard under both. More work under Windows, but the result is ultimately better.

      Under OE, even with repeat-speed tuning etc, my harmony remotes (600/650) are always a bit sluggish with long lists etc, it's kind irritating (this change some time during the 0.99 betas, just by the by - it used to be super speedy). Custom button tuning is a bit difficult as well, as one only has MCE remote codes to play with and these are limited in number. It's a long standing real bugger OE won't support MCE keyboard mode with harmony remotes etc.

      Under Windows, I use this - http://xbmccustomregis.sourceforge.net/remote_auto.html - and use MCE keyboard as the device type in the harmony software. Response is perfect and super fast. I have customised my keymap fairly extensively from the included keymap, adding things like skin reloading, switching languages, downloading subs etc. In the end, it's the more flexible and better performing option. There's really nothing I can't program with this set up, although it is slightly more tedious initially.

      In both cases I am using a standard RC6 eHome compatible IR receiver.

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  12. NICE BUILD! :-D

    I built myself a similar rig last weekend with that case (the upgraded "EVO" one) and absolutely love it! Worth every cent, high quality really has a price tag. ;-) Sporting a A6-3650 (I know it has 100w TDP, but it just needs its power over very short times with XBMC and it is undervolted, too), moderate 4GB Ram I had laying around, a 64GB SSD, everything connected to a Gigabyte board (yeah, position of ATX connector could have been better, but it worked).

    Using it as a nice powerful XBMC Client (Using EventGhost for all the remote stuff, XBMC using mySQL database from different "XBMC NAS combo"). Could have gone for an ATOM or something, but the additional speed is sooooo convenient.

    My case came with a nice documentation, same high quality as the case, so they upgraded that part well.

    I always try to build as silent as possible, but this is my first TRULY silent one, I even disconnected the power led, although it is not bright at all (remark to other manufacturers: that is how it should be). So weird at first to have no sound response if you power the thing up (no optical drive yet).

    Yes, still pretty amazed about that little powerhorse HTPC. :-D

    Cheer everyone!

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