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Fri 13 Mar 2009

Future of Computing: Silent, Capable, Low Power

In the early days of home PCs, back in the days of the 386 CPU, the machines ran almost completely noiselessly. The processor itself required no fan, and there was no call for case fans. The only fan would be found in the power supply, where it cooled the large step-down transformers.

Not so any more. Start up your home PC and you might as well be transported to the deck of an aircraft carrier. You have a CPU cooling fan, often another fan on your graphics card, and more and more frequently case fans are needed too. A typical PC can easily make enough noise to drown out low volume dialogue in movies and to mask the subtler nuances of the music you listen to.

But there is an alternative - a low spec processor that is able to run without a fan and only a heatsink, something like the VIA C7. It is fully x86 compatible, and can operate at 800 to 1500 MHz. The systems draw very little power in operation - typically around 20W, which is comparable to a modern low-energy lightbulb. This means you can supply system power with a silent external 'brick' transformer. For speeds up to 1GHz, when the CPU has the designation Eden, it requires no fan, giving the promise of a completely noiseless system.


10:15 pm, Saturday, 14 March 09

The first thing I can try out is an operating system suitable for a low powered general purpose PC. I've got an old laptop which I use sometimes when I don't want to use my desk computer. It is a bit crusty, with a Celeron 800 MHz CPU, 384 Mb RAM and steam-powered integrated graphics to match. The disk however was replaced a year or so ago, and is a fairly decent 60 GB.

Currently it runs regular Ubuntu (Feisty Fawn). It's very stable, but there's a lot of latency as the computer struggles to keep up with the user. As Feisty Fawn is no longer supported, it is a good candidate for testing out some lean and mean stripped-down Linux distros.

Damn Small Linux's main objective is to create a distro with a very small footprint, suitable for making bootable live CDs from business card sized CDs. This is not really what I need though - disk space is not a problem, it's hardware that is lacking. There is a related distro called DSL-N that seems better, but it does not appear to be maintained.

Another one often mentioned in the same breath as DSL is Puppy Linux, a "superb, compact, super-fast, FREE operating system". It sounds pretty cool, being lightweight enough to run entirely in RAM, and also has very low minimum system requirements, and boot times well under a minute. I'm going to give it a go. Typically for a modern Linux distro, it is available as a Live CD so I can try it out before touching my current Ubuntu installation or disk.


10:36 am, Sunday, 15 March 09

Next is to get a completely fanless motherboard. ebay seems like it will be able to help here, as new boards are more than I want to spend for this project, at over £100 normally.

VIA Epia
Mini ITX

So I have now bought a VIA EPIA LN 1000EG board from ebay for £55 inc delivery. It's available new online for a couple of quid under a ton (note that site includes postage for orders above £30). For the extra forty quid or so, it was tempting to buy the new product from a proper business trader, but in the end I decided to go for the cheap option, as after all I am still in the position where every penny counts.

It should be delivered to my work in 3 to 4 working days and is supposedly brand new and boxed. In addition to the board, I'll also need a hard disk and a power supply (should already be some memory somewhere), plus a case at some point. To begin with, I'll try to get it running with a standard PSX power supply, and perhaps even booting from SD or CD-ROM.


6:41 pm, Sunday, 29 March 09

The EPIA board is great and it fits perfectly inside an old compaq case I've wanted to bring back to life for months. The case housed a Pentium 3 266 MHz machine that must've been pretty good in its day, as a small all-in-one unit. It has room for a 3.5 inch hard disk, so I was able to put a regular SATA drive in.

It was a tight squeeze getting all the cabling in, but it all managed to fit together in the end.

The drive already had Ubuntu and WinXP installed, and Ubuntu started up without problems. It's always quite fun booting up a hard disk that's been gathering dust for a while - it's sort of like the nostalgic experience you get when clearing out your attic.

It runs fine but a little slow - there's a lot of latency but much better than my old laptop. And it's quiet - the most noise comes from the power supply in the compaq case. This power supply is ancient - it's the original one which powered the Pentium III for all those years, and looks like a miniature ATX power unit. The hard drive is quite a loud one, but overall the noise is minimal in comparison to my desktop, and is unnoticeable when music or a film is playing.


7:07 pm, Sunday, 29 March 09

Even though the power supply is quiet, you can get power supplies which have no fan and are completely silent. In fact you need to get two components - one is known as a picoATX power supply, and it converts a 12V DC input into the various voltages required by ATX boards, and the other is a DC power adapter capable of providing 12 V DC.

There are plenty available online, but they are not cheap - and it looked like I'd have to spend around £50. Happily ebuyer came to the rescue, sort of, as they were selling a mini-ITX case which included the picoATX adapter and the power brick for £65.

The best thing about getting the case was that it was a perfect excuse for me to get another board - identical, the same seller obviously has a few of these to offload - and build a second Eden machine, but one that would be completely silent and considerably smaller.

It turned out to be a great little case too. It's a litte bigger than a car stereo, black, with front USB and audio. It even has a drawer and mountings for a laptop DVD player, as well as mountings for a 2.5" laptop hard drive.

Currently it's running Puppy Linux off a flash drive - it has no hard drive as yet. Everything is recognised by Puppy just fine - sound, LAN, video. Puppy is very fast, but it is noticeably slower running from the flash drive than the first one I made which runs from SATA.

It is however completely utterly silent. So quiet it sounds wrong! I absolutely love it.

Additionally to the sound, it is also extremely frugal in its power consumption: the board consumes about 17W under maximum load (e.g. decoding and playing video and audio), and around 12W when idling.


12:54 pm, Wednesday, 1 April 09

I have now got a new 2.5" hard disk for my mini-IPX machine. These disks are very quiet, and use around 2.5W when working flat out. It'll give me 250Gb of space to play with, and also should speed up my machine, as modern SATA drives can transfer around 120/130 Mb per second, compared to the 4 Mb per second of standard flash drive (faster flash chips are available, currently topping out at around 12 Mb per second).

I have tried Puppy Linux for the last couple of weeks, and while it has some great features, such as its tiny footprint and ability to run entirely in RAM, in many ways it's just a bit too crusty for regular use. It's a bit like stepping back to Windows 3.11 in terms of the user experience - low useability and pixelated icons.

To begin with, I'll install Xubuntu on the new hard disk. I expect it will run quite acceptably on the VIA C7. I'll need to install it to a flash drive as described here.
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/xkcd/ Dying Gift