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After I have seen reports on a new very cool design featuring the new Mini-ITX main boards from VIA Technologies Inc., I decided to try this one. It has on-board firewire too, besides the usual interfaces, so it should make a decent DV/MPEG/MP3 player/ripper/copier.

I was always a fan of noiseless computers. It started with the Apple ][ and the Macintosh 128, but I could never achieve the same level of quietness with later computers. After I upgraded the Mac to 1.5 MByte, I had to install a small fan which was actually a small vibrating plastic strip, emitting a hum of maybe 50 Hz. It did not do much more than stirring the hot air inside the case (and it did not prevent the Mac's video electronics from burning down, a common failure of the early Macintoshs).

The Macintosh SE I bought later had a real fan. It was so loud that I throttled the fan with a resistor to half the voltage, still it was much too loud for my taste.

My later computers were rather uninteresting in terms of quietness. I experimented a bit with noise isolated casings, fans and rubber mounted disk drives.

Last year I learned that VIA made a new x86 CPU which uses only about 10 watt. So I thought it should be possible to use a passive heatsink without a fan. I bought a SpaceShuttle case, which looks very neat, only to find out that it contains a total of three cheap noisy fans. It was not possible to use passive cooling because the case is so crammed with components that a reasonably sized passive heatsink simply does not fit.

The hush PC
A few weeks ago I saw another approach to a noiseless PC, and this time it even might work. This PC from Hush Technologies GmbH comes in a black aluminum case with the same form factor as standard audio equipment. That's what I need. A box with my own audio and video player software. Add a DVB-S card, and it has all I need for the foreseeable future.

VIA EPIA-M main logic board
The Hush Mini-ITX can be ordered with different CPUs, RAM, Disks and CD/DVD drives. I picked the new 1 GHz Nehemiah CPU (this type was available a few days after I send in my original order; the company called me and asked whether I would prefer the new CPU, thanks a lot), the biggest disk driver (120 GByte, an obvious choice for video use), DVD and 256 MByte RAM.

The system was delivered today. I must say I have not seen such a beautiful piece of hardware for a long time. The case consists of solid aluminum elements. It is heavy. The front plate seems to be milled out of a massive aluminum block. Even the slots in the cover screws were aligned parallel to the case.

Most important: the system has no fans. The CPU is cooled with a heatpipe. As its Nehemiah CPU uses only a fraction of the power a typical AMD or Intel consumes, even the heatpipe is only slightly war to the touch. The only thing that gets a bit hot is the Northbridge chip, it is hopefully designed for this. Power is supplied by an external notebook type 55 W power supply.

The disk drive is manufactured by Seagate. I'm not sure it is the quietest available, but it is ok for now. Maybe I can turn it off later when the system is idle. The DVD drive is isolated with rubber strips from the rest of the case, and is reasonably quiet too.

The system has the ususal serial/parallel/audio/video/usb connectors, plus an onboard firewire interface (very important to me, for obvious reasons) and a TV-Out socket.

Ok, so I hooked it up and booted from a SuSE 8.2 CD. It booted into the installer screen, but it got stuck somewhere after starting the installation. Same effect when I tried to start the rescue system. This can probably be solved with a few kernel parameter settings or with a custom made kernel.

I then tried a Knoppix CD (this is a full Linux distribution runnable from CD-ROM) which worked right away, even X and KDE.

A Debian woody boot CD worked too, so I decided to install Debian on it for now. After loading the via-rhine network drivers I was able to install the rest of the Debian system from one of the Debian mirrors.

I am currently in the process of getting X to work, which seems to be a bit tricky on a standard debian installation. Since the features of the VIA CLE266 chipset are supported only in the latest XFree86 development release, I have to compile my own XFree86 server.

Next thing is of course getting Kino and dvgrab to run. I'll keep you informed.

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