Date: January 31, 2007
Author(s): Rory Buszka
Home Theater PCs are the fastest-growing trend in home computing. Hereâ€™s an in-depth look at enthusiast case maker NZXTâ€™s first HTPC case, the Duet. With its tasteful looks, clever design, and ample cooling, this case has serious potential.
NZXT calls itself “a company built on gamers’ dreams.” The relatively new Taiwan-based company produces a variety of enthusiast PC cases as well as a line of accessories, which include power supplies with illuminated fans, and an attractive 5.25″-bay-mounted fan and thermal monitoring station, the Sentry 1. By far, though, it’s NZXT’s case design prowess that has earned them the bulk of their recognition among PC enthusiasts and the press. Techgage has taken a look at a number of NZXT’s cases in earlier reviews, all of which have proven their technical and aesthetic merit. There’s no doubt that NZXT produces a solid, well-engineered product.
A quick perusal of NZXT’s web site makes it obvious where the company’s primary design focus lies: high-performance enclosures for high-performance enthusiast PCs, with a luxurious flair. Attractive industrial design and sturdy internal structures are the hallmarks of NZXT’s Classic Series, which is a line of cases targeted at the demanding high-end enthusiast market. NZXT’s Crafted Series of cases combines the more flashy, tricked-out styling that’s characteristic of many gaming PCs with more affordable pricing. The newest product in NZXT’s Classic Series is the Duet, an elegant home theater PC case, which is the subject of this review.
A home theater PC (HTPC) is, simply put, a computer system that’s designed to integrate into your home theater. Using DVI or HDMI, you can connect a home theater PC to a high definition monitor, and do everything from gaming to enjoying DVD movies from a disc or archived collection on your hard drive â€“ right on your enormous, vivid high-definition screen and high-quality multichannel audio system.
You can also use a HTPC to do more mundane things like browsing the internet. In fact, depending on what services are available in your area, you could even order pizza right from your sofa or theater seating. Unfortunately, you’ll still need to get up and answer the door once it arrives. Oh well â€“ try though we might, we can’t spend our entire lives in a chair. However, if you love home theater (as I do) and also love PCs (as I also do), the home theater PC offers a great way to enjoy both technology fields simultaneously.
In a future article, I intend to describe the design considerations involved in assembling an effective home theater PC in further detail. For this review, I’ll be examining the NZXT Duet on the basis of those HTPC design considerations that apply specifically to the case and included accessories. Let’s see how well the Duet case meets the specialized challenges of home theater use.
The case was shipped in its retail box, and arrived unharmed via FedEx. The box design is attractive, with glossy panels, full-color images, and a short features list. Inside, the case is protected by the typical Styrofoam blocks and a plastic bag. The included accessories were enclosed inside the case itself. The Duet is available in two colors, black and silver. For this review, NZXT sent the silver version.
Inside the case, I found the instruction manual, and a reclosable bag containing drive-mounting rails, screws and other mounting hardware, a tiny piezoelectric speaker for attachment to the motherboard, and four adhesive-backed rubber feet. The Duet case allows the builder to use the case in either the vertical or horizontal orientation. However, I suggest that you wait to attach the feet until you know which orientation the case will be used in.
Overall, the case was clean and unmarred, though a tiny chipped spot was visible along the rear edge of the case. I didn’t do this â€“ it came this way. It’s not something major, like a gash across the side panel, or a chip taken out of the case door, but I feel it needs to be reported anyhow.
The overall design of the Duet is elegant, somewhat evocative of their Lexa case while preserving straight edges and lines which will help this case fit in among high-end audio equipment. To conceal this case in an equipment rack, however, would be to do it a disservice in my opinion, since NZXT has served up a real looker, blending brushed and clear-anodized aluminum with a bold strip of glossy black plastic. Whether you desire a stylish case for your home theater PC or an eye-catching slim tower for a desktop application, the Duet’s convertible design and attractive styling can satisfy the need. I personally find the Duet’s aesthetics quite fetching.
The NZXT Duet conceals its drive bays behind a door made of extruded aluminum. Pull the door to unlatch it, and it glides gracefully down rather than falling open with an unceremonious â€˜thunk’, which is a nice touch. Some PC enthusiasts don’t appreciate doors on cases, but the concealment of the optical drive and bay covers is essential to the overall styling of this case. This isn’t really what I think of as a typical enthusiast case anyway.
A second small door in the front of the case conceals audio, USB, and Firewire ports. The inclusion of a front Firewire port is good to see; connection of a video camera to a system built in the Duet should be hassle-free. The front USB ports provide easy insertion points for USB flash drives, and the front audio ports provide convenient connections to those using the Duet as a desktop PC case. It’s hard to find a case in this price range these days that doesn’t have these amenities.
The NZXT Duet is a little case with a big heart. It has room for a full ATX motherboard, a feat accomplished by moving the unit’s power supply into the front half of the case, in the space below/to the left of the drive bays. Seven full-height expansion slot covers are provided. A short run of heavy power cable connects the IEC connector on the rear of the case to the power supply itself. This configuration does achieve some space savings, but it introduces a new concern.
In most PC cases, the power supply exhausts its heat directly to the outside of the case, while the Duet’s power supply exhausts through a fan duct on one side of the case. The air must make a 180-degree turn through a narrow passageway in order to exit the case. In this situation, having a power supply with a 120mm fan isn’t necessary. I think the best kind of power supply to use here is one with Enermax-style dual fans. Particularly long power supplies will only make it more difficult to work inside this case.
Cooling for the case is provided by two 80mm fans in the rear, right where you’d expect them to be. The supplied fans themselves are nothing special, branded Globe Fan. I’m not a fan of case bling, so I’m a bit relieved that these fans don’t sport LEDs, cold cathodes, strobe lights, UV sensitivity, or spinners on the fan grilles. This is, after all, a HTPC case. The fans mount to a plastic bracket, which slides into place and locks with a pair of screws. I’d rather screw my fans directly to the case metal, though â€“ plastic brackets tend to allow vibration and noise.
The fans are a low-speed model, and use sleeve bearings. Sleeve bearings in general are quieter than ball bearings, but typically last about 6 years in continuous service while a ball bearing fan can last 10. Longevity of these fans relative to the upgrade cycle of a PC isn’t a major concern, however, and sleeve-bearing fans tend to provide audible warning (in the form of some nasty bearing noises) before they fail.
An additional 80mm fan slot is provided at the front of the case, in a fan duct which works to exhaust the hot air from the power supply. If you use a fan in this space, make sure it is exhausting air â€“ otherwise you’ll be working against (!) the power supply’s own fan. An extra fan really isn’t necessary in this spot, I think.
Next, we’ll take a look at the process of assembling a system in the Duet.
For this part, I contacted my local friend and fellow PC enthusiast Colin, who had some extra hardware and a free afternoon to spend helping me out. The goal: have a working HTPC by the end of the day. To accomplish this, we’ll be moving his current system from its old home, an Antec SLK3700, into the Duet. This will be no easy task â€“ his system uses no fewer than three hard drives. Before attempting to move the hardware, we recorded idle and load temperatures inside the SLK3700 for use in later comparison.
Placing the Duet case beside the SLK3700 case reveals that both have about the same length, though the Duet is shorter and narrower. Smaller cases tend to run hotter, since the components are confined in a smaller surrounding thermal mass. The process of building a system in this case will be quite different from what most enthusiasts are used to, so I’ve gone to great lengths to document it thoroughly.
The first task in building a system in the Duet is installation of the power supply. The power supply mounts in the front of this case, exhausting toward the bezel. A duct covers the exhaust fan of the power supply and causes it to turn 90 degrees. The air makes a second turn inside the plastic fan duct; removing this duct causes the warm air from the power supply to be dumped inside the case instead of channeled outward through the side vent. Later, I’ll show you a scenario where removing the fan duct may make sense. To begin mounting the power supply requires the removal of the front bezel; thankfully, this task is easy. Simply grab the handle at the left end of the front bezel (nearest the PSU) and pull firmly outward.
Once the front panel has been removed, place the power supply into the tray, aligning the IEC male connector and power switch in the window as shown. Connect the short AC cable to the PSU. Then, screw the power supply to the case chassis. Personally, I think that a right-angle plug would have been appropriate here instead of the straight plug used by NZXT, to make connection of the power cable as easy as possible.
In addition, screwing the power supply to the chassis requires putting screws through some very small holes. I recommend the use of a magnetic screwdriver for this operation, to prevent losing the screws down inside the bowels of the case. Also, for the sake of your sanity, make sure the power switch on the power supply is turned on before replacing the front bezel. Don’t replace the bezel just yet â€“ the 5.25″ drives must be loaded from the front of the case on the provided plastic rails.
The next task is to mount the three 3.5″ hard drives. There is one physical internal 3.5″ bay, though NZXT provides mounting holes on the end vents for mounting hard drives directly over them. Colin and I agreed that this was silly â€“ mounting a hard drive over the vent covers it almost completely. Instead, we mounted one hard drive in the internal 3.5″ bay, another in the external 3.5″ bay (where the floppy drive would typically be placed), and the third drive in one of the 5.25″ bays using converter rails. In this way, we were able to mount all three hard drives without sacrificing airflow through the system. It would have been nice if NZXT had added some perforations for drawing air across the hard drives, especially the one mounted in the single internal bay.
The SATA power and data connectors to the hard drive mounted in the external 3.5″ bay interfered physically with the motherboard, so we reversed its mounting as well as the mounting of the drive in the 5.25″ bay, since the two drives shared a two-headed SATA power connector. There was just enough clearance inside the front bezel to allow this method of cable routing.
Once the hard drives were in place, we swapped out the I/O panels and inserted the motherboard, with CPU and memory already installed. Then it was time to install the expansion cards. The first expansion slot uses a removable slot cover held in place with a screw. However, the rest of the expansion slot covers were of the tear-off type. These covers were slammed by Rob Williams in the review of the NZXT Adamas as well; in a case that generally retails for nearly $80, we should not have to deal with these tear-off slot covers that can’t be replaced. Unfortunately, this will have to be a strike against NZXT.
I can only recommend that builders exercise care when determining which of these covers they will tear off, since once they’re gone, there’s no replacing them except with covers and screws cannibalized from other cases. The Duet will accommodate full-height expansion cards, though cards that are taller than full-height (like XFX GeForce7-based video cards with the passive heatpiped heatsink and other cards with certain aftermarket coolers) won’t fit.
Once the motherboard and expansion cards were mounted, we connected the power connectors and reinstalled the factory-supplied case fans. The NZXT case provides several options for connecting the front panel audio, USB, and Firewire ports. The connectors for the front panel audio connectors provide clustered connectors for Intel HD Audio and AC ’97 audio output, as well as individual pins for motherboard audio connectors with non-standard pinouts.
The front panel Firewire and USB connectors received the same treatment. One gripe: the cable for the front-panel power LED had only a two-pin connector, which wouldn’t work with our ASUS motherboard’s 3-pin power LED output. We tried different ways of installing the connector, but none of them worked. You’d think that after all this time, case manufacturers would include an adapter of some sort, or that motherboard manufacturers would adopt a standard, but this isn’t the first case I’ve encountered that has had this problem.
Finally, we were able to close up the case and apply the feet. The case will be used horizontally, so the feet were applied to the bottom of the case. Note that the duct where the power supply exhausts its air will be on the bottom of the case. If you use this case horizontally, you’ll need to be sure that there is some clearance beneath the case to allow the unrestricted exhausting of air. The supplied feet provide sufficient clearance, but don’t place this case horizontally on carpeting.
As I previously mentioned, before moving the hardware, idle and load temperatures of three heat-producing components were measured and recorded in the system’s original case, an Antec SLK3700, which is representative of most enthusiast-oriented ATX cases currently available. 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.
In the NZXT duet, we found that the included twin 80mm case fans were adequate, providing just enough airflow to keep all three key components at temperatures that I consider acceptable. The operation of the two 80mm fans was not what I’d call “silent”, as they were still barely audible from a meter away from the front of the case at a 45 degree angle of elevation. As long as you aren’t overclocking any of your components, the stock cooling should be good enough for preserving livable noise levels. (In 3D mode, which is used by Windows Media Center, the video card’s fan spun up to a louder noise level which drowned out the case fans â€“ you’ll want a quiet or passively-cooled video card for HTPC use.)
However, if you are interested in improving the Duet’s cooling or silence, it may make sense to use the 120mm fan locations instead. We, of course, were interested to see what was possible from this cooling configuration (listed as “Improved Cooling” in the charts and tables). In the SLK3700 case, Colin had used an Antec TriCool 120mm fan in the rear of the case, and a thermistor-controlled Power Logic fan in the front of the case, controlled by the temperature of the hard drives. In the Duet, the TriCool fan was used on low speed as an intake on the left end of the case (when used horizontally; the bottom when used vertically), and the thermistor-controlled Power Logic fan was used in the opposite end as an exhaust.
The thermistor control will allow this fan to speed up as the cooling demand increases, based on the temperature of the exhaust air. Even at room temperature, however, this fan ran more quickly and a bit more loudly than the low-speed TriCool fan. In developing our improved cooling scheme, we assumed that the case would be used in its horizontal orientation, as would be done in a home theater situation. The result was massively cooler internal temperatures, competitive with the Antec SLK3700 which previously housed the system’s components.
We decided that the dual-120mm crossflow cooling scheme was so effective, we were able to remove the plastic fan duct in the front of the case and allow the PSU to dump its heat back into the case, and we removed the dual-80mm rear fans that were supplied with the case in order to allow cold-air intake over the CPU and chipset. Those who are using a particularly hot, inefficient PSU may choose to leave the plastic fan duct in place, though use of the included rubber feet is essential to maintaining enough clearance underneath the case (when used in horizontal orientation) for the PSU to effectively exhaust its air. Removing the front fan duct allowed us to stash the excess PSU wiring in that space.
The Power Logic thermistor-control fan was a bit more noisy than we had hoped, so our particular embodiment of the dual-120mm cooling scheme was quiet, and quite livable, but not anywhere near what we’d call silent. In later testing of the system in a home theater setting, however, the fans were not audible from the listening position, and only somewhat audible in a completely silent room when standing in front of the case. We feel most enthusiasts will want to explore the use of dual 120mm fans instead of the provided 80mm fans.
With its combination of thoughtful design and pleasing aesthetics, NZXT’s Duet sits comfortably in a category already populated by more established manufacturers like Antec and SilverStone. The Duet uses a unique internal layout to allow support of full-size ATX motherboards while remaining narrow enough to match the form factor of most stereo components. At just under $80 without a power supply, it costs about as much as the Antec Solo mid-tower. It’s not an inexpensive case, but it’s well within reach of more budget-conscious enthusiasts. In my opinion, this is a good thing. If you’ve already dropped all kinds of cash on your home theater equipment, why shove a cheap-looking case into your rack? When it comes to looks, the Duet really shines.
That aside, despite the healthy asking price for this case, some of its features simply felt cheap, such as the tear-off expansion slot covers and the included dual-80mm fans. Instead of including the 80mm fans with the case, I would much rather have seen dual 120mm fans pre-installed in the large vents at either end of the case. In addition, the idea of mounting hard drives over the case vents is just silly. I much prefer the solution we employed here, using converter rails to mount a drive in one of the 5.25â€ bays. The Duet is a nice case, though the devil seems to be in the details for NZXT. None of these things are real deal-breakers by themselves, but once they combine they are just enough to deprive this case of true high-end status.
Bad points aside, it took relatively little work to take advantage of the Duet’s cooling potential, and the case performed quite respectably with our dual-120mm crossflow configuration. The included fans are adequate enough for the sort of hardware likely to be used in an HTPC, however. Despite the unorthodox internal layout, the case was unexpectedly easy to work on. I was impressed by the Duet’s ability to contain a system that didn’t even fit particularly comfortably in the larger SLK3700, thanks to a bit of creative cable management made possible by the roomy space behind the front bezel.
All in all, NZXT does not disappoint with the Duet, providing a fashionable case with a solid structure, good cooling, unique solutions to engineering challenges, and a classy external design. If the high prices of the Antec and Silverstone offerings scare you away, the NZXT Duet may be just the ticket for your home theater PC.
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