the hdtv mini htpc that may never be

So, my efforts to get a small Mini-ITX system capable of playing back HD content so far has not been successful.  And, as is usual with stories of my hardware adventures, the problem always lies with something totally unexpected.  Here’s the story so far.

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At the end of September, I finally plunked down some cash and got a Zotac GF9300-D-E Mini ITX motherboard from Amazon.  The board is a bit older, but it’s loaded with features.  It’s got an onboard Nvidia 9300 video card, with HDMI output along with both SPDIF ports.  On top of it, it is a socket 775 Intel chipset, so that means I wouldn’t have to bite the bullet and go with a sluggish Atom again.  Don’t get me wrong, the Atoms are nice for general computing, but I still don’t think they are really up to the job for dedicated video playback.

So, I got one of those, along with the same 35W Intel Celeron CPU that has been working so extremely well on my first Zotac Mini-ITX that is only capable of SD playback.  I don’t want to knock that board either, because it has been doing extremely well.  I’ve been very happy with it since day one.

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The board arrived, and I immediately set it up and got everything plugged in.  I took out my old Zotac and rested the new one into the Silverstone HTPC case.  I’ve got an LC19 which is actually big enough to hold a Micro-ATX board — really, this thing is huge — so a Mini is comfortable and capable enough to slide right in there.  There’s a lot of things I like about this case.  It’s top cover is covered with ventilation holes so you don’t have to worry about the board overheating.  In fact, the original Zotac was running so efficiently, that the CPU fan would rarely turn on.  It was great.  I do have some issues with the case, though.  There’s no reset button, which would have been nice, and the power supply has always seemed a bit flaky to me for some reason.  I can’t really pinpoint what the problem is, but it just seems a little cheap to me.

Anyway, I plugged in thew new HD-capable Zotac, hooked up all the cables, and hit the power button.  The CPU fan started spinning briefly, then stopped completely.  At first I assumed it was like the original board, and it the smart fan meter was kicking in and it was just powering down because it was running cool.  Except that the board wouldn’t POST.  I wasn’t getting any video output at all.  I took everything back out and meticulously checked all the connections, and they certainly looked fine.  I made sure all the connections were secure on the case as well, and they seemed good too.  A bit puzzled, I put it all back together and tried again, with the same result.

At this point I figured that maybe it didn’t like my RAM configuration, so I took the module out of the first row, and set it into the adjacent one.  After doing that, I hit the power button, and then *nothing* happened this time.  The fan wasn’t even spinning up at all.  Crap.

Finally I did what I should have done the first time around, and I grabbed a PC speaker component and plugged it into the motherboard.  I’ve had tricky motherboard issues in the past, but my last line of defense was always the BIOS beep codes.  Once I interpreted those, I could fix the determined issue and be on my way.  I was expectantly hoping that the same would hold true here.  I plugged in the speaker, turned on the computer, but nothing.  No POST, no initial fan speedup, and no speaker codes.  At this point I assumed the board was DOA, so there was nothing I could do for it.  I did have *one* last sneaking suspicion though.

The new Mini-ITX motherboard also had a 4-pin CPU power plug, but I wasn’t plugging anything into it.  The manual casually mentions plugging it in, but I had assumed that it was optional — only because my previous Zotac ran perfectly fine without plugging one in, and because my case, while the power supply has a 4-pin port, didn’t come with a cable.  So I always assumed I didn’t need one.

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I decided to see if that was the issue, instead of sending it back, and trying my luck to see if I could still solve the problem.  So, I went off to Monoprice and ordered three of the cables (for 85 cents each, I love you, Monoprice).  In a rare show of patience, I waited almost a week for them to arrive in the mail before resuming my experimentation.

With my new little cable, and honestly the last piece of the puzzle at this point that I could try with this case, I plugged it in and hoped for the best and … nothing.  Still no initial fan spin, no POST, no love.  I took everything out and replaced the original Zotac (with the same RAM, too), plugged everything in, and of course, it started up just fine.  So, at least I know the case and power supply are still okay.

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It’s about this time that I finally realize that perhaps I should try my second Mini-ITX case instead, a Morex that I got from Logic Supply.  At first I kind of scoffed at the idea, since the Silverstone is by far the better of the two, and if it didn’t work in that one, there was little chance it’d work in the economic model.  I was wrong, though.  It powered up just great, and worked fine.  So, now I’m really lost as to why.  I still suspect that there is something funky about the power supply on the Silverstone case, and I’m currently toying with the idea of replacing it myself.  It’d certainly be cheaper than getting a new case.

So, I decided to move my hardware setup around, and keep the new Zotac in this smaller case.  The only problem was that it didn’t have as good an airflow, with the only real ventilation on the sides.  That would (and does) work fine with my fanless VIA C7s, but not here.

After setting up the system and playing around with the box, I was extremely happy with the performance.  I watched all my HD trailers in 1080p a couple of times each, with VDPAU and the picture was gorgeous.  It was great, and would have worked wonderfully if the motherboard wasn’t running so hot.

The problem was that the heatsink on the northbridge (I think that’s the right term, I’m not a total hardware geek) would get really, really hot.  The CPU itself was running really cool, since it had its own fan, it was just fine.  I didn’t realize there was a problem until I came in to watch TV shortly I think the day after I had set it up, and the box was turned off.  It was just after all the intial setup and testing stages, so I assumed that I had just turned it off and forgotten.  But as I was watching some video, it shut itself off.

I took the top of the case off to see if I could figure out what the problem was, and that’s when I nearly scalded myself touching the heatsink.  It seemed kind of flimsy and cheap to start with, and I was kind of surprised to see how crappy it looked, finally giving it a good look, and comparing it mentally to the other Minis I have.

I rebooted and went into the BIOS menus to see what the temperatures were looking like.  The northbridge was running at 66 C, which is 150 F.  Again, I don’t know too much about hardware, but I was pretty sure they’re not supposed to get that hot.  I left the top of the case off to let it cool down, and kept it running.  Coming back later, I saw that it had dropped to 48 C.  I rebooted, went back into my OS and watched plenty of video, and it was chugging along great since then.  So, it seems like it just needs some good airflow, and will probably be reasonably happy.

That leaves me with the problem of what to do next.  Technically, I could leave it in the Morex case, without a cover and expose it to dust and who knows what else is floating around my house, or I can try fix the Silverstone case just so I can use this board.

At this point, I’m a little tired of throwing so much money towards the problem, especially when it all should have worked in the first place.  Add to that that the new Mini-ITX I got is really the first-generation of this type of arrangement, and the nvidia ION is the one that is replacing this.  Aside from the Intel Atom CPU, I probably wouldn’t have a problem with it, and so I’m also considering replacing it with that one.

I’m still not sure what to do, and part of me is leaning towards a third option — wait for a year or so for the hardware specs to improve.  I’m not dead-set on having HD capable playback just yet, and it’s more in the realm of “would be nice to have” instead of “really useful” right now.  Besides, even before I could start getting some content, I need to expand my server’s capacity issues, as my media storage is almost at 100%.  I think I have something like 40 GB free space left.  Even then, I still need to get a Blu-ray ROM so I can rip my movies, and I only have about 12 Blu-rays right now to start with.

So, everything right now just tells me to wait.  Which is real shame, considering this board is very nice — once it’s given the proper TLC.  I think this is one of those situations where I would really like the whole thing to work out, but I imagine at the same time that the issues that are causing me problems right now, will only give me headaches later on down the road.  It’s probably better to just cut my losses now and save up for something better later.

6 Comments

Filed under Hardware

6 responses to “the hdtv mini htpc that may never be

  1. RyanE

    On NewEgg reviews, someone posted re: this board:

    —————————–
    Cons: ***INTEL STOCK COOLER PROBLEM***

    If you are using an intel stock CPU cooler, be sure to position the heatsink with the fan cable clip AWAY from the GPU heatsink. The “normal” position will press on the GPU heatsink and the GPU will overheat! A quick email to tech support provided me with a PDF with diagrams showing the problem, it is very common (no loss of egg, since I should’ve noticed it myself).

    After i fixed this the GPU temp went from 85C to 30C idle/48C load
    —————————–

    Sounds like this *could* be your problem.

    Good luck with it.

    • Ah, thanks, Ryan. I looked at the other reviews regarding heat issues, but didn’t find anything relevant. I also wasn’t using the stock Intel cooler, I have one from Silverstone that is low-profile and much nicer (quieter).

      I’m pretty sure though that its just a matter of good ventilation.

  2. As for the “won’t boot in case X issue” I’ve seen that caused by a standoff in the case that needed to be removed because it’s shorting on components on the back of the board. It’s hard to notice unless you police every standoff.

  3. Henry B

    If your looking for a powersupply for the silverstone case and want it to be silent look into getting a picoPSU. There are a few different ones so you can probably get one with enough use. You can find them at a few other vendors online if you look.

  4. Charles

    I’ve dabbled in some similar hardware adventures, and here are a few more pieces of hardware you might want to consider:

    A mini-pci-express video decoder card, it does all of it in hardware:

    http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=390078283244

    Adapter bracket for above card (since I noticed you have a pci express slot on that board)
    You could remove the bracket entirely, and it should fit with that board and case

    http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=180408170019

    I’ve used a ton of the picopsu power supplies, and I whole-heartedly endorse them.
    Here’s a site that seems to have the best deals, IMO. Especially if you want the higher wattage units, the 120W unit with 120W brick is the cheapest I’ve found. You probably won’t need that. These guys shipped free, too.

    http://www.short-circuit.com/categories/pscombos.html

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