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Antec NSK2400 HTPC Case

Date: March 30, 2007
Author(s): Rory Buszka

Antecs NSK2400 is worthy of your attention if you are looking for a solid HTPC case. It has an innovative thermal design and great attention to detail. This is one HTPC case that covers all the bases.



Introduction


As a reviewer of PC hardware products, I find I have the most fun at my job when I get to take a look at a product that does things differently. Who wants to live in a world of cookie-cutter PC components and accessories? It’s much more refreshing to see new approaches to solving engineering problems, and novel solutions that push the envelope of performance. In the world of enthusiast PC cases, though, there seems to be a formula that every manufacturer follows. Front case fan, back case fan, PSU at the top rear corner of the case, and so on. Sometimes an extra case fan will be added on the side, or on the top of the case.

There are few manufacturers that seem to be willing to experiment with new design techniques to improve upon that formula, which is why the chief means of differentiating computer case products from each other seems to be in varying their external appearance.

One PC case manufacturer that has shown considerable initiative as of late in advancing the technical side of case design is Antec. When their P180 burst onto the scene in 2005, its innovative multi-chamber design turned more than a few heads, placing the power supply and hard drives in a separate tunnel beneath the motherboard compartment, among other unique features.

Designing the P180 with separate thermal zones allowed the variable-speed fans in each zone to run only as quickly as needed to deal with the heat load in that particular zone, similar to the thermal design of the Apple Power Mac G5 and Mac Pro, in order to minimize operating noise. The Antec P180 was Antec’s first “Quiet Computing” product, as part of an initiative to bring low-noise technology to the enthusiast market.

When Antec released the NSK2400 case in 2006 to address the growing Home Theater PC (HTPC) market, they followed the same design philosophy, translating the P180’s multi-chambered design to a horizontal form factor. Noise is a significant concern in HTPCs, which must not only operate reliably, but quietly as well. In addition to assessing the NSK2400’s aesthetics and ease of use, this review will delve into the technical side of things, examining the various ways that this case deviates from the old school of case design, and how these new ideas advance the state of the art in thermal design.



Out of the Box; Specifications

The NSK2400 case arrived safely, packed in an outer protective cardboard box. Like the rest of Antec’s current product line, the NSK2400 comes in an attractive, sturdy retail carton, with photos of the case and a listing of its features. The packaging is bright and glossy, and reflects substantial attention to detail.

Inside the carton, the NSK2400 is held securely and gently in place by a pair of multi-layer foam endcaps, and wrapped in a clear bag. The instruction manual is also packed loosely inside the box. This case isn’t heavy, but it’s no featherweight; my initial impression as I lifted the case out of the box was of solid construction and beefy structural design.

The NSK’s side, top, and bottom panels are all painted in a black matte finish, with a slight texture. The finish nicely complements the front panel, which sports a silver plastic bezel. The more recent Antec Fusion shares the NSK2400’s internal design, but replaces this front panel with a real, brushed-finish aluminum plate, and adds a vacuum-fluorescent display and large volume control knob; those preferring a minimalist HTPC may prefer the less-expensive NSK2400 design, however. In my opinion, either case would be at home in almost any home theater system.

Inside the NSK2400, there is a packet of included accessories. These include a power cable for the power supply, a complete set of screws and other hardware, a dummy panel to block one of the side fan locations, and a set of interlocking plastic pieces that we’re not quite sure what to do with at this point.

Specification
Comment
ModelNSK2400NSK stands for New Solutions Series – a series of cases that aim to build on the success of the original Solutions Series cases (SLK designation).
Case TypeMicroATX Media Center/DesktopThis case features a horizontal orientation, designed for placement in the equipment rack of a home theater system.
Exterior Dimensions (H x W x D)5.5" x 17.5" x 16.3"The width of this case matches that of most home entertainment components (receivers, CD changers, etc.)
Cooling Provisions2x120mm Tri-Cool (Side Exhaust)Twin 120mm exhaust fans give this case undeniable cooling potential. There’s plenty of air intake area on this case as well.
Drive Bays4 Total
2x 5.25" External
2x 3.5" Internal
This case can accommodate dual DVD drives, if direct dubbing is desired. Its rich, spoiled cousin, the Fusion, only has one external 5.25" bay, giving the other one up for a 2-line VFD.
MaterialSECC SteelThis case appears to use 0.8mm-thick steel for its side panels, which adds ruggedness and noise reduction properties. The front bezel of the case is plastic, with a silver plastic cosmetic piece.
Expansion Slots4Being a MicroATX system, this case won’t support a huge amount of expansion. This isn’t much of a problem, since most MicroATX boards already integrate decently powerful graphics, sound, and network connectivity.
Power SupplyAntec SU380 – 380W ATX12V v2.0The included power supply looks like an older Seasonic model, re-branded as Antec. It’s nice to know that the PSU is a quality component.
Weight7.78kgThis case has a reassuring heft and a solid feel to it, for which it pays a bit of a weight penalty, but not an inordinate one. I’m not sure if this figure includes the weight of the PSU.
Motherboard SupportMicro ATX
The internal design of this case limits the motherboard to a Micro ATX form factor. Not that this poses a problem in most media center applications – modern MicroATX boards are designed with HTPCs in mind.


Antec NSK2400 Features Overview

As with all of Antec’s more recent enthusiast-market cases, the NSK2400 features a tasteful exterior design, with emphasis on functionality. The real story with the NSK2400 isn’t what’s outside, however, but with what’s inside. The Antec NSK2400 incorporates several of the fundamental design principles of the P180, including multi-chamber design, and multiple large, slow-spinning fans.

The front of the NSK2400 is relatively minimalist in comparison to the Fusion, which shares the same interior design as the NSK2400. While the fusion sports a volume knob and 2-line VFD, as well as a stealth optical drive cover, the NSK2400 is more Spartan, with only a pair of bezel covers over the 5.25″ bays, and a set of front-mounted USB and audio ports. The Fusion also adds a front-mounted Firewire port. Neither case based on this internal design contains provisions for an external 3.5″ drive.

The rear of the NSK2400 offers numerous paths of air ingress for the main chamber, which are designed as “cold air intake” for the CPU cooler and expansion cards; more on that later. The PSU is also mounted at the rear of this case, which limits the case to a MicroATX motherboard form factor. Everything else is pretty much standard fare. This case is constructed of 0.8mm-thick steel, which imparts a very solid structure.

The most distinctive feature of this case is its unorthodox cooling scheme. Instead of trying to cram 60mm fans (which aren’t very good for noise reduction) on the back of the case among the I/O ports and expansion slots, Antec uses the uncluttered side panel as the mounting location for two large 120mm TriCool fans. These fans have a three-speed selector switch that allows them to operate at high speed or low speed based on the preference of the system builder.

Since these fans exhaust from the side, and are the only exhaust from the case’s main chamber, care should be exercised when fitting an NSK2400 case into a cramped equipment rack to ensure that these fans can breathe. The vents on the other side of the case provide ambient air intake for the power supply so that its thermally-controlled fan can operate as slowly as possible, minimizing noise.

The twin 120mm case fans draw the majority of their air from a large vent area on the bottom of the case, though several strategically-placed air intakes on the rear of the case provide cold air intake to specific heat-producing components. It’s a clever way of creating lots of open, un-restrictive ventilation area. The top panel of the case, which fastens with a single thumb-screw, also features a cold-air intake for the video card.

Taking a look inside the NSK2400, the first thing that we notice is that the internal space is divided up into three sections. The power supply and optical drives get their own separate compartment in order to feed the power supply with a steady stream of colder ambient air instead of air that has been warmed by preheating in the case. Air for the main chamber is drawn in through vents at the bottom of the front of the case, and the air first passes over the hard drives before entering the motherboard chamber.

Another feature of this case is a built-in cable management system that makes it easy to keep all the wiring neatly tied out of the way. Two re-closeable cable ties are provided along the wall between the hard drives and the motherboard, and a sliding door is provided between the power supply compartment and the motherboard compartment, which keeps the air spaces isolated.

Installation of the 5.25″ drives is simplified by a removable cage that simply lifts out. A pair of rubber feet keep the drive cage firmly in place when the top of the case is installed. To lift out the cage, simply lift up at an angle.

The included power supply with this case is an Antec SU380 power supply, which is another product of Antec’s working relationship with Seasonic, who is the OEM for Antec’s NeoHE and TruePower Trio power supplies. This particular power supply bears strong external resemblance to the Seasonic Super Silencer series of several years back. While this unit isn’t perfectly silent, it’s certainly very quiet, and only barely noticeable. This PSU provides plenty of connectors, including two SATA connectors and a 6-pin PCI-Express power connector for power-hungry video cards.

Next, let’s take a look at a typical system installation in the NSK2400.



Building a System

With the Antec NSK2400’s unique internal design, building a system isn’t quite as straightforward as would be in a more typical HTPC. But that’s okay – my friend and fellow PC enthusiast Colin Huckstep and I have all evening to figure it out, and we’ve got all the details for you. For this system, we’re using his hardware, since my reference PC is rather tightly integrated with its current case. This is the same hardware that we installed into an NZXT Duet for an earlier review, which affords us the luxury of comparing both cases directly. In the future, we’ll be collaborating on an article about how to build — and get the most from — a home theater PC of your own.

We decided that the first place to start in the NSK2400 is by installing the hard drives. The NSK2400 has space for two 3.5″ hard drives in the right front corner of the case. The drives mount between the bottom panel of the case and a bracket that mounts to the rails of the chassis itself. The first step is removing the bracket, by unscrewing the four screws that hold it in place.

The other end of each drive is supported by a plastic support bracket in the bottom of the case. We found that the best way to install the drives was to attach them both to the removable top bracket, and slide them both into place. The bracket uses silicone rubber grommets to decouple the hard drive’s vibration from the case. This requires special screws with a wide head.

While the screws that Antec includes with other cases have a lag section to prevent them from being screwed in too tightly, the screws included with the NSK2400 do not. This means that the grommets can be over-compressed by the screws, to the point where they begin to flow out of their holes in the metal bracket; we recommend using care when tightening these screws. They don’t need to be cinched down tightly – just enough to compress the grommet slightly.

Once both drives are mounted to the top bracket, they can simply be dropped into place. Next, flip the case onto its back (taking precautions to prevent scratching the finish) and install the screws in the grommets on the bottom of the case. These screws anchor the other side of the hard drives for the most secure installation, though with the included plastic bracket, this may not be necessary. The same admonition about the grommets applies here. Once this step is finished, the installation of the hard drives is complete.

The next step is to install the 5.25″ drives. Simply lift the drive cage out at an angle to remove it. This removable drive cage had no trouble containing a third 3.5″ hard drive, mounted using 3.5″-to-5.25″ converter rails. The removable 5.25″ drive cage is a thoughtful addition.

Motherboard installation is simple. The NSK2400 comes with all but two of the standoffs installed. The location of the last two standoffs may be different with different motherboards, so this arrangement provides the greatest installation flexibility. We don’t mind installing a couple standoffs, do we?

At about this time, Colin had a brainstorm. It turns out that the interlocking plastic pieces included with the case are actually air guides that funnel cold air from the rear panel intake into the CPU cooler. The number of ways that Antec provides to customize the airflow in this case is almost staggering. Use as many of the interlocking pieces as necessary to extend from the rear panel of the case to the edge of the CPU cooler.

The next step is to connect all the cables. Using the provided cable management solutions, it’s possible to achieve a very clean-looking install in this case with a minimum of extra effort. Antec provides tunnels through the internal partition walls for routing the drive cables. Cables for the 5.25″ bay are routed through the first tunnel as shown, and then through a second tunnel. It’s possible to achieve a cleaner wiring job than we did, with the addition of a few cable ties and some clever folding of the ribbon cables.

Once the power connections to the motherboard have all been made, the power wiring can be collected into the provided cable ties and locked out of the way. The result is an installation that’s uncluttered by free wires inside the space. In addition to the provided cable ties, we used some smaller ones to fasten the case fan leads safely out of the way.

With the system completely installed, the next stop is testing.



Thermal Performance and Noise

Because this precise hardware configuration has already been tested in two cases, we have comparison data for both. 3DMark 2006 was used to stress the CPU, northbridge, and GPU, and the same test with default settings was run in all configurations tested. For each temperature measurement, the motherboard’s onboard data acquisition system and internal thermistors were used.

A quick check of the Task Manager confirmed that 3DMark 2006 stressed both cores of the processor in our test. Recorded temperatures represent the maximum observed temperatures of the respective components during the stress testing. Through all testing, Cool n’ Quiet features of the motherboard were enabled, as they will likely be in actual use. The speed of the video card’s fan was automatically increased when it entered 3D mode; this logic could not be disabled, but the video card fan was momentarily stopped by hand to listen to the noise produced by other case components.

The NSK2400’s thermal performance was tested with both Tri-Cool case fans in ‘low’ speed and ‘high’ speed. The ‘low’ speed yielded cooling performance that I’d call adequate for most users, as well as operation that I would classify as ‘silent’ (inaudible above ambient from 1m). If you use all the supplied airflow management solutions to their fullest, I see no reason why most users wouldn’t be able to get away with both Tri-Cool case fans on low speed, even with a fairly hot processor. With both Tri-Cool case fans set to high speed, the NSK2400 flexes some significant thermal muscle, beating out both the other cases tested by a wide margin.

As you can see, none of these are temperatures that I’d consider ‘high’, but the NSK2400 is easily the best performer of the three. The GPU thermal results in the NSK2400 were better than what we observed in either the NZXT Duet or the older Antec SLK3700, perhaps owing to the cold-air intake directly above the video card. With the Tri-Cool case fans set to low speed, the NZXT Duet managed better CPU temperatures by about 2 deg. C, but this was likely due to the fact that the exhaust fan in our testing of the NZXT Duet was thermally-controlled.

In the future, I won’t use thermally-controlled case fans in any of my tests, since they make it tough to compare – I consider that lesson learned. Even that couldn’t save the Duet from poor airflow around its video card, though. At low speed, the lesser difference between idle and load temperatures means that hot air isn’t building up around the CPU fan.

Even though Vista running in 3D mode constantly caused the EVGA’s video card fan to always run at its maximum speed, stopping the fan for a moment revealed a virtually undetectable noise signature. With a more carefully-selected quiet or fanless video card, the NSK2400 can serve as a physical platform for a silent-running media center PC. The PSU’s built-in fan produces more noise than the dual-120mm fans on low speed, but not by much – and it was only detectable with my ear down there, listening closely. If low noise is your goal, this case is a safe bet.



Conclusion

One of my favorite things about Antec’s cases is that I can generally recommend them without reservation to anyone who’s looking for a solid chassis with the features they want, and an elegant exterior design, and I know they won’t be disappointed. With the NSK2400, Fusion, and P180, Antec has led the charge in developing innovative cases that take some liberty with the standard ATX and Micro ATX form factor, and push the envelope of what’s possible.

The Antec NSK2400 is a case unlike any other, thanks to Antec’s initiative in designing an innovative internal airflow scheme that improves upon the performance of the typical ATX design, and providing the user with amenities such as built-in cable management and a high-quality bundled power supply.

Throughout, this case speaks volumes about Antec’s attention to detail. Sharp edges on the case metal are rolled. The removable 5.25″ drive cage, the clever method of mounting the 3.5″ drives for optimum cooling, and the numerous cold-air intakes for heat-producing components are just more evidence of this – working on the NSK2400, I get the impression that there isn’t a single thing Antec has missed in this case’s design. Sure, it’s only a MicroATX case – but the motherboard manufacturers have answered the call with a variety of high-performance Micro ATX motherboards. SLI still remains off-limits, though – you’ll need the P150, SOLO, P180, or one of the larger NSK-series cases for that.

At this price point, I can’t think of any better case to use for a HTPC. If you don’t mind spending a little more, the Antec Fusion features the same internal structure, but adds front Firewire, a 2-line VFD (at the price of one of the optical bays), a brushed aluminum front panel, a big control knob, and a glossy finish like that found on the Antec SOLO. I happily award this case a superb 9/10 score.

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