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Thermaltake Mozart VC4000 HTPC Case

Date: July 9, 2007
Author(s): Rory Buszka

The “Mozart” name implies style and grace, and the Mozart home theater PC case certainly offers elegant styling. But is its beauty only skin deep? Here’s an in-depth look at this popular home theater PC case from Thermaltake.



Introduction

There are still plenty of reasons to consider a home theater PC these days. In addition to simply recording over-the-air television like a DVR, home theater PCs can store your entire music collection, and even your DVDs (with enough storage space), and can even place big-screen, surround-sound gaming within easy reach.

Some industry have audaciously declared the HTPC to be a failed technology, citing the comparatively complex keyboard-and-mouse control scheme of HTPCs when compared to set-top-box media extender units like the Microsoft XBOX 360 and the Apple TV, which stream data directly from your home PC and can be controlled with just an infrared remote or game controller.

However, all is not so rosy for media extenders. A media extender itself is much like a PC in many ways, with a CPU, a GPU, a hard drive, and memory – the difference is that a media extender’s hardware is tightly integrated with its software, so the CPU and GPU can be somewhat less powerful than those in a HTPC.

The current Apple TV uses a 1GHz Pentium M CPU and an NVIDIA GeForce Go 7300GPU, and has 256MB of DDR2 400 SDRAM. Yet, consumers are unwilling to pay high prices for what they view to be a comparatively simpler appliance, so margins on media extenders are far slimmer than on fully-fledged HTPCs running Windows Media Center Edition 2005 or Vista Home Premium, so much so that many media extenders are practically subsidized by the company that produces them, in hopes that digitally-delivered content sales will make the entire venture profitable.

  

There are some things that you can’t do on an Apple TV or an XBOX 360, though, such as recording over-the-air telelvision for later playback (Apple, for instance, would rather have you purchase the shows from their iTunes store), and playing your PC game library (in the case of the XBOX 360, you’ll need to buy the console version – if one is even available).

In addition, you can manage your content directly from a home theater PC; since it’s stored locally, you can easily organize and delete items, instead of trekking to your PC if it’s in another room of your house. You can even manage content that’s stored on other computers, through networked drives.

Sure, not all of the HTPC experience is quite as elegant and simple as a media extender unit, but if you’re a PC enthusiast, this will hardly be an issue when compared with the superior versatility of a HTPC. What’s more, new wireless keyboards like Logitech’s DiNovo Edge with its integrated trackpad are designed specifically for home theater use, virtually resolving the issue of a simple input device.

If you’re a PC enthusiast, you likely won’t want to go to a big box store for your HTPC – you’ll want to build your own. And luckily for you, the enthusiast PC component industry has already been riding the HTPC wave for quite some time, with high-performance Micro ATX motherboards, quiet cooling solutions, and of course, horizontal form-factor cases styled like stereo components, complete with VFDs and big volume knobs.

Thermaltake is one company with a broad array of home theater PC chassis solutions, from the Bach, Tenor, Mozart, and Mozart SX horizontal enclosures to the large tower-style Kandalf cases, which share styling cues with Harman/Kardon stereo and multichannel receivers. Who said that a HTPC case had to be horizontal?

In this review, I’m taking a look at the Thermaltake Mozart VC4000 media center PC case (not the huge dorm-refrigerator-sized TX version). It’s a popular HTPC chassis, used by at least one major system integrator for their HTPC offering, so I’ve decided it’s deserving of our attention.

However, the design considerations for a case that’s well-suited to a home theater PC are generally quite different from what’s required for an enthusiast case. HTPCs are typically built with cooler-running CPUs that don’t see much overclocking action, so instead the focus is on cooling systems which run quietly and efficiently. We’ll see how well Thermaltake addresses the concerns of noise and usability with the Mozart chassis, in addition to the usual thermal tests.



First Impressions; Specifications

The retail packaging of the Mozart case is what I’ve come to expect from Thermaltake – vivid, with plenty of photos, and an almost comical grasp of the English language. I wonder – is there a shortage of good English translators in China? For a while, the tendency of the Chinese to butcher English speech and writing was a bit endearing, but it’s no longer cute. The box for the Mozart case seems reasonably sturdy. I’ve seen my share of floppy Chinese cardboard, but this is better than most. The rear of the carton displays photos of the case’s notable features.

The case itself is wrapped in a plastic bag, and securely held by two Styrofoam blocks. The package contains all the essentials – the case itself, the instruction manual, a bag of screws and accessories, and a microfiber cloth for wiping off any fingerprints or smudges you may leave behind while assembling the machine. This would have been a nice addition to have with the gloss-black Antec Solo, but smudges and fingerprints are far less noticeable on the Mozart’s silver “Pithy Aluminum” finish.

I removed the case from its plastic bag, and the front door promptly fell open. Unlike the previously-reviewed NZXT Duet, this case lacks the mechanism that softens the opening and closing of the door, so it can fall open with a thud. The styling of the case itself is similar to high-end stereo components made by Class&eacute Audio, though the Mozart’s front corners aren’t as dramatically rounded, so the case won’t look consistent in a stack of Class&eacute components.

In the raised, black-anodized panel near the middle of the case, there’s a tinted plastic window behind which a VFD can be installed, though it isn’t included unless you specifically pick up the Media Lab version of this case.

Specification
Comment
ModelVC4000SNSIn addition to the model name, every Thermaltake product has a somewhat less straightforward model number. Here’s a hint, though – the “SNS” suffix means that this case has a silver finish, and no side windows.
Case TypeMedia PC CaseMedia PC cases are typically no more than horizontal cases that feature front panels more aesthetically consistent with stereo components. This is also true of the Mozart.
Exterior Dimensions
(H x W x D)
6.7″ x 16.9″ x 17.8″
(170mm x 430mm x 452mm)
The Thermaltake Mozart is about an inch deeper than the previously-reviewed Antec NSK2400 case, but a bit taller as well.
Cooling Provisions2x 60mm rear, 1x 80mm front, includedIn media-center PCs, noise is a serious concern. 60mm fans aren’t known for delivering significant amounts of airflow with low noise, so we’ll see how that impacts this case’s thermal performance.
Drive Bays 8 Total
3x 5.25″ External
5x 3.5″ Internal
The Thermaltake Mozart offers five internal 3.5″ drive spaces, which makes it easy to build in enough storage for a high-capacity media server machine.
MaterialSECC SteelThis case is made from 0.8mm thick steel, with the exception of the front bezel, which is aluminum but makes little contribution to the case’s structural strength.
Expansion Slots7This case is capable of accommodating a full-size ATX motherboard, with full-height expansion cards. This is done by rotating the ATX power supply 90 degrees.
Power SupplyStandard ATX PS2 supported, not includedGiven the case’s own meager airflow provisions, you might want to use a power supply with a 120mm or larger fan.
Weight8.0kg without power supplyThis isn’t the heaviest case I’ve experienced, but it’s significantly heavier than the NZXT Duet case reviewed some time ago. It’s also more front-heavy, because of the big aluminum bezel.
Motherboard Support
ATX, Micro ATXThe ability to support a full-size ATX motherboard is a rarity in HTPC cases. The similarly-sized Antec NSK2400 only supports a Micro ATX motherboard.
Front I/O PortsDual USB 2.0, single IEEE 1394, microphone, and stereo line outhis complement of front I/O ports is fairly standard, so there’s nothing new to report here.


Features Overview

Like most home theater PC cases, the Thermaltake Mozart attempts to achieve an appropriate balance of styling and performance, instead of focusing only on cooling performance. In reality, besides the front bezel styling, there’s little to separate the Thermaltake Mozart from the host of other HTPC cases that are available. Here’s a thorough look at the features and construction of the Mozart case.

The front of the Mozart case is constructed of aluminum, including the black-anodized center console which contains a window for an optional vacuum-fluorescent display (VFD). The black horizontal stripe is an inset panel of painted steel. The 5.25″ external bays are concealed by an aluminum door which is hinged at the bottom and held at the top by a pair of touch-release latches.

A black bezel piece is meant to be attached to the end of the DVD drive tray with a piece of double-sided foam tape, in order to allow the tray to extend while the front door is closed, while maintaining a consistent appearance when the tray is closed. To be honest, I’m not sold on this approach, since it’s based on little more than sticking things to other things. It just seems cheap to me.

Something else that struck me as “cheap”-feeling was the front door of the case. The bend radius of the door is larger than the radius of the curve on the top of the aluminum bezel piece, so the edge of the door sticks out by about 1/16 inch. The Mozart is by no means an expensive case, but a little attention to detail could have prevented this. In addition, the edges of the front panel aluminum pieces feel slightly rough to the touch. There’s virtually no fine finishing at all – the edges feel very ‘machined’.

While the front bezel of the Mozart case (including the drive bay covers) is made of aluminum, the rest of the case is made of 0.8mm thick SECC steel, like most other cases. The top panel has a silver sprayed finish, which is neither glossy nor perfectly smooth. Instead, it has a slight orange-peel texture. There are ventilation openings on the top of the case, one of which looks like it could accept a fan, but there are no mounting points for a fan. The bottom of the front bezel also contains ventilation holes which supply air to the front case fan.

The rear of the case holds little to get all that excited about. The Thermaltake Mozart is essentially a full-ATX case rotated 90 degrees, so it offers support for full-size ATX motherboards. With the exception of the two grilles for the rear-mounted case fans, and whatever ventilation your power supply provides, there are no other provisions for airflow on the rear of the case. The Mozart makes this up by adding the pair of openings on the top panel, which provide cold air intake for the CPU and video card.

Removing the cover of the Mozart case (which involves three thumb screws), we see that the motherboard tray is covered by two large bracing rails. One rail has a point where a duct to the CPU fan could be installed, though this is not included. The other rail incorporates an additional pair of 2.5″ hard drive mounting locations. Combined with the triple-space rack for 3.5″ drives mounted to the front of the case, this brings the total number of 3.5″ drive bays up to 5. The Mozart case also has a contact switch, for motherboards that support an alarm function if the case is open.

Let’s talk cooling. In a HTPC case, efficient and quiet airflow is the goal. Usually, this means using large, slow-spinning fans, though in a relatively low-profile HTPC case, this isn’t always easy. It’s not uncommon to see a pair of 80mm fans instead. In order to allow the two 80mm fans to operate as quietly as a larger fan, the two smaller fans must spin slower and move even less air.

The Thermaltake Mozart case features two 60mm rear case fans, which spin at 2500RPM according to the specifications. It’s possible to make these small fans run quietly, but they won’t move much air at all. The front case fan is an 80mm fan, but the grille in front of the front case fan is even smaller – about 70mm square. This will put a serious restriction on the airflow for this fan.

By this point, I’m not holding out too much hope for truly silent cooling, though I hope the case can manage a quiet noise level. All three case fans are made by Chinese manufacturer Hong Sheng.

Of course, as I mentioned before, the Mozart doesn’t include a VFD by standard. I’m not sure what they expect us to do about this, since Thermaltake doesn’t sell the Media Lab kit separately, which would include a VFD for the Mozart. Some light modding may be required to make your own two-line VFD fit this case.

However, if you order the case with the Media Lab option, the case includes a pre-installed VFD, saving you a lot of trouble if you want visual feedback from the front panel of your HTPC. It would be nice to have a VFD programmed to display the available disk space on the machine, since HTPCs often do DVR duty, and HD video can eat up a ton of hard drive space.

Now that we’ve looked at the features of the Mozart case (which are about pretty average as HTPC cases go), let’s look at the process of building a system in this case.



Building a System

The Thermaltake Mozart could make up a significant amount of points with me if it offers a simple approach to building a system. Thankfully, the process is fairly painless. For this system build, I’ve chosen some parts that would commonly be selected for an HTPC, including an energy-efficient processor and a motherboard with an IGP. To test the case’s ability to comfortably fit a humongous power supply, I used my new Etasis ET750, which is over 7 inches long. Here’s the list of hardware in detail:

To get started, remove the bracing rails. Simply remove a screw at one end of the rail, and lift it up and out at an angle. You’ll need to pull these braces out whenever you work on the hardware of this case. Removing the rails reveals a very roomy interior, with plenty of room to work around your components. One motherboard standoff is already installed; you’ll have to install the rest.

The next step is to install your motherboard. As roomy as the Mozart case is, it’s still always easier to install your other components onto the motherboard while it’s outside the case. The case can accommodate a full-ATX motherboard, but most HTPC builders will prefer the elegance of an IGP motherboard solution, most of which are Micro ATX. The rear I/O panel is secured with a screw, so be sure to remove that before you attempt to pop out the I/O panel.

Now, a bit of bad news for those of you who had your hearts set on having three optical drives in your HTPC: the motherboard blocks the third 5.25″ drive bay. So, instead of having three external 5.25″ bays, consider the lower one occupied. However, if you’ve got a fan controller that you can insert into the lower bay (like the Zalman ZM-MFC2), then it may not need to be wasted space.

Another place where clearances can become a bit tight is between a long power supply and the optical drives. One gripe I discovered, however, is that the power supply must squeeze under a metal lip at the rear of the case. As I worked my Etasis ET750 power supply into the spot, I saw flakes of dark gray paint coming off under that lip, a sign that I was ruining my power supply’s painted finish. This is quite a shame, since that PSU wasn’t cheap, and I liked its painted gray finish.

The expansion slot covers, thankfully, aren’t the tear-off kind that the NZXT Duet had, though they aren’t retained with screws. So make sure you hang onto the little baggie of screws that the case comes with, since you’ll need them for mounting any expansion slot covers. I’m also happy to see that these aren’t some half-hearted tool-free solution. I’ve struggled with Thermaltake toolless expansion card retention mechanisms in the past, and found them to be more trouble than they’re worth.

The cables for connecting the front panel wires are extremely long, and I found that most of their length had to be tied back. Make sure you save a cable tie for this purpose. I suppose it’s better to have more length than not enough length, but having tons of extra cable length just contributes to interior clutter. The last thing you should do is mount the drives that will be mounted to the brace that sits above the expansion slots.

The cover for the DVD drive drawer is attached to the front of the case, to provide a continuous bezel even when no DVD drive is installed. However, when you install your DVD drive, remove the large aluminum extrusion from the door, and use the included double-sized foam tape to affix the cover to the end of the drive drawer. It’s too bad Thermaltake didn’t include provisions for ejecting the drive tray when the door is closed – you’ll have to use Windows’ own command to activate the eject function.

Honestly, overall, if these are the worst problems in this case (by which I’m referring to the drive bay clearance and the long cables), then it’s doing pretty well (though I wasn’t happy about scratching up my PSU). Now that we’ve looked at some of the issues related to building a system in this case, let’s look at some thermal testing and noise analysis for this case.



Thermal Performance and Noise

Thermal testing followed a simple format. Thermal testing was performed with the motherboard’s thermal CPU fan control deactivated, but with AMD Cool n’ Quiet active. First, a run of 3DMark2006 with default settings was performed on the system, heating up the processor to a lower temperature than its eventual load temperature.

Then the machine was allowed to sit with only the operating system running for 30 minutes while the temperatures stabilized, and the idle temperature was recorded. Next, another run of 3DMark2006 was performed, with the peak CPU and IGP/Northbridge temperatures being recorded as ‘load’ temperatures. Here are the results of that test.

Temperatures
Idle
Load
CPU26 C 42 C
Northbridge29 C31 C

The Thermaltake Mozart case had no trouble keeping the AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+ EE processor nice and cool, with its low 65W power output. The motherboard’s AMD 690G northbridge also stayed relatively cool, though its tiny passive heatsink felt warmer to the touch. The dual 60mm fans at the rear of the Mozart case move enough air to keep a higher-performance processor cool, so I’d have no problems with running a Core 2 Duo E6600 in this case, thermally speaking.

Though one may wonder why a home theater PC would need that kind of processing horsepower, even to keep Vista Home Premium happy. The X2 4200+ represents the type of processor that enthusiasts are more likely to use in this case.

Noise

Unfortunately, things aren’t so rosy when it comes to the noise level produced by this case. The 60mm rear fans incur a hefty noise penalty at their relatively higher speed, though the worst noise offender in this case is the front 80mm case fan. The Etasis ET750W power supply used in testing is hardly silent, though I stopped its fan for about a minute while listening to the noise made by the Mozart’s fans.

The Mozart isn’t silent by any means, and I personally wouldn’t want it sitting in my equipment rack with all the noise that it makes. It might be acceptable if it is placed in a nearby closet, or in a remotely-located rack for a whole-house audio/video system, but it certainly makes its presence known in smaller rooms. This will be a serious disappointment for anyone who (like myself) thinks that PCs should be seen and not heard.



Conclusion

One of the most important decisions you can make in any PC build is the case that you choose. That’s because the case is the part of the PC that you interact physically with, and it not only has a large bearing on the look of the PC, but also the sound, and the weight. Home theater PC cases should be chosen for elegant aesthetics, but also for low noise output.

If the Mozart case has a deal-breaking fault, this is it – the Mozart is likely to be simply too loud for many people’s tastes. There were other issues – I scratched up the painted finish on a $179 power supply trying to squeeze it into the space provided, and the front door of the case doesn’t seem to line up with the rest of the front bezel, lending a cheap feel to an otherwise decent case.

There were some positive aspects of this case, however, reflective of Thermaltake’s many years of building PC cases for enthusiasts. The interior of the case offers plenty of space to work, and the exterior design is quite an elegant one. It looks darn good sitting on a desk. The case is solidly constructed, and while a little inconvenient at times, the internal braces add excellent rigidity to the case. One of the major benefits of this case is its ability to mount five 3.5″ drives, allowing you to build in over three terabytes of storage.

To sum it up, the Thermaltake Mozart case is an honest, solidly constructed case, with an elegant design and some thoughtful touches. However, it’s easy to spot the corners that were cut in its design and manufacturing, and in the end, I can only award the Thermaltake Mozart a Techgage score of 7. It’s an okay value, but it’s only an average representative of its market category.

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