Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Ivy Bridge Upgrades via Small Form Factor Boards

The Current SFF (Small Form Factor) Market and Trends:


As I mentioned in a previous post, I had suspended work on my iMac G4 20" upgrade until Small Form Factor Ivy Bridge Boards become available.  I have become somewhat of a small form factor enthusiast as a result of these projects and am excited by the accessibility of what previously were industrial only form factors as well as new specifically targeted enthusiast boards such as the Raspberry Pi, Android Compatible ARM boards, and Intel's NUC line.  I am pleased to report that I am in possession of one SFF Ivy Bridge Board and have another two ordered and en route.

As the size and power consumption of powerful processors and boards continue to decrease these mods will only continue to get easier, more diverse, more powerful, and less expensive.  The one "nuisance" of the recent computing era (at least for these projects) has been an unbalanced focus on shrinking things primarily by thickness.  The ultrabook and tablet markets have caused a "flattening" of components without as significant a change in the other dimensions.  Take the Mac Mini for example, the overall volume decreased as a result of a dramatic reduction in height, but this was in spite of an actual increase in the footprint (length x width).
Old on top, New on bottom
Courtesy of CNET

SFF Computing and iMac G4 Mods

A Tight Squeeze
As far as the iMac G4 mod (and many other mods/projects) are concerned this can actually complicate things.  For those not familiar with my approach to the iMac G4 is Mobos smaller = better.

To sum up, the original iMac was convection cooled were physical contact via heat pipes carried heat to the top of the dome where a fan blew out. Thus the very poorly ventilated case was designed to be cooled with room temperature air coming in through slits at the bottom of the dome and hot air being blown out through the top of the dome.  Any air cooled motherboard/cpu (by far the hottest and most important component) benefits from being as close to the top as possible because it decreases the distance the heated air has to travel before it reaches the case fan and ventilation and decreases the heat of the overall dome and the heat the components above the mono/cpu are subjected to.  Also, probably most important, placement at the bottom of the dome will unavoidably result in poor, obstructed ventilation.  Any other component, especially wiring, will have to go above the CPU and mobo.  As the dome tapers to the fan at its apex and the faraday (metal inside) cage makes most of the periphery of the dome difficult to use for components.  If all you want is a motherboard and cpu, it can be done with a large heatsink to the top of the dome and a low thermal output processor, but no other components could be added and wiring would still be difficult.

Using a small form factor board allowed me to use a Core i processor at the top of the dome and allowed the rest of the dome to be used for a pico PSU, a full 5.25" optical drive, and a 2.5" solid state HDD.  As the widest point base still barely fits a mini itx (and port blocking is a problem), so options have been limited.  I am fairly certain the the mac mini will eventually shrink in all directions and that it will be suitable for a G4 mod.  In addition, I am hopeful, new form factors of computing will emerge and we will see other alternatives to the ultrathin rectangles that dominate today.  But for now, this is what I am working with:

Current Ivy Bridge SFF Options:

I will be reviewing each of the options based on features, cost to performance ratio, size and workability with the iMac G4 mod, and "hackintoshability".  Therefore, expect this post to be a work in progress with periodic updates.  Again, I am focusing on high performance x86 architecture, but this is by no means a slight to alternatives such as low-power Nano/Pico x86 boards or increasingly popular ARM devices, this is simply a matter of personal preference.

Choice 0: Quanmaxx KEEX-6100 ECX board

KEEX-6100 with large heatsink

I am listing this as "Choice 0" because it is based on Sandy Bridge Architecture, but it has been overwhelming successful particularly as a hackintosh running OSX Lion.  It is available from Quanmaxx's USA store and is even available in a wide temperature variant.  Here it is seen with an extra large heatsink I adapted when I upgraded this to a Core-i7 Quad.

Choice 1: Avalue's EPI-QM-77

Front View
Though this EPIC board is slightly larger, this board is"thinner" as a result of more room for ports on the edges, thus no need for the stacked ports seen on the ECX boards.  It remains a small form factor that easily fits the iMac G4 chassis.  It is available from Global American and I have it in my possession and just started working with it.

Back View
In terms of size, here are pictures of this board in the middle with a Core i Mini-itx on its left and the Quanmaxx (with regular heatsink) on the right.  The first picture shows overall dimensions,while the second shows thickness/height.

From Left to Right: Mini itx, EPIC, ECX

From Left to Right: Mini itx, EPIC, ECX

Choice 2: Aaeon's GENE-HM76 ECX

Also available as a more expensive QM77 (has extra corporate features, most apple mobile Ivy bridge processors are HM77 (very similar to HM76).
Courtesy of Aaeon
This is a true ECX board and identical in size to the Quanmaxx ECX.  I have purchased this board from NextWarehouse and it is en route.

Choice 3: Intel NUC: DC321BY QS77

Courtesy of Newegg

Although it only contains a Core i3, this is the one I am most excited about.  This is because of reasons outlined in my previous post.  This is the smallest Core i board that intel believes is possible.  This board is targeted at the mainstream and this model includes thunderbolt connectivity.  This comes with a "chassis" and is likely to see upgraded models at regular intervals in the future.  It is widely available from vendors including Newegg.  It has been ordered and I will continue to update as I learn more.





11 comments:

  1. I was wondering what your thoughts on Intel's thin-mini itx platform and the Intel DQ77KB board in particular. I am looking to build a NES or N64 PC and have been debating whether to use this board or wait for the Intel NUC. The NUC looks great, but I wish it had USB 3.0 and an ethernet jack. I know there's a NUC that trades out the thunderbolt port for dual HDMI and Ethernet, but I'm not sure if its worth considering.

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    1. I am familiar with the Sandy Bridge (67) version of this board. I thought the board was fantastic and I suspect that the new chipset is even better. It has been used in several mods, including cube mods, on tonymac's site. It seems to be easy to work with. All things being equal, I would choose this over the NUC. The reason is because this is an established product, while the NUC is a first generation experiment by intel. In the first press release for the NUC, it appeared that intel had no intention for this to be a consumer/hobbyist board. It was billed as an industrial board for applications like kiosks and digital signage. It was only later (perhaps seeing the success of boards like the Raspberry Pi) that Intel changed focus. In fact, there is little difference between this and how the ECX for factor was presented (as an industrial small form factor) years ago.

      My point is that the jury is still out on the future of this form factor. I hope intel continues support and offers frequent upgrades, but there aren't any guarantees. As long at the board fits, the thin mini itx offers more comparability, versatility, and expandability than the NUC at this point.

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  2. Hi everyone. I have searched for the EPI-QM77 board and I couldn't find where to buy it. Global American doesn't show prices and it requires to have an company to start a quote. Where do you buy those boards? How much does this board cost? Thanks!

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    Replies
    1. Juan, I now recommend the intel NUC, which is widely available. Number 3 above. The gene hm76 I got from nextwarehouse. The epi-qm77 i bought from global American. You don't need a company for a quote, you just need to put something in the field. Type in private buyer or your name again, it doesn't matter. I've dealt it's them several times and their customer service is fantastic. They will contact you soon after. They sell to private buyers not jut companies. However, the board is a fortune - it was something like $400 at base, no CPU or anything.

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  3. Yep, they just send me back my quote and the service was really impressive, unfortunately the price is insane high. I only wish intel NUC where a little bit more powerful. If it just have a Core i5 and USB 3.0 it will be definitely my choice.

    Is it really really bad to use a Mini-ITX board even if you put in there an ultra low consuming processor?

    Thanks!

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    1. There is no bad or good, it's all personal preference. A mini itx is a tough fit, it has to go in at an angle (unless you grind down some of the posts in the faraday cage). Someof the ports will likely be blocked, how important this is depends on the board and its port locations. Fitting anything else, even a drive will be a challenge. Anything you do squeeze in will be directly above it and will make cooling a challenge.

      I once fit a mini itx first generation Core i board in the bottom and managed to get it closed. It lasted 25 minutes for me before either overheating or shorting out. I decided I had to go in a different direction. I can only give recommendations based on my experiences, I recommend a small form factor board, but is it possible to fit in a mini itx, yes. Is there possibly a way to keep it reasonably cool? Maybe.

      Technology improves at a rapid rate. If you are unhappy with available small form factor systems, I would advise converting the G4 for use as an external screen and then making an all in one when the system you want is available.

      Intel has announced the plan on continuing the NUC line despite stopping other desktop mobo production. Other competing board manufacturers have announced NUC inspired designs. Food for thought, but again, ultimately you should design the system for your needs.

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  4. i'm contacting you desperate… i did use your blog to make my own 15" iMac g4 intel. First of All: thank you very much for all the work here!


    what i did:

    - the DVI transformation (exactly as mentioned by pgee70)
    - I used the original PSU to power the screen, and i think i messed up here…

    what i did

    - plug the cord to the motherboard
    - plug the ground on the faraday cage (like original mount)
    - plugged to the MB the 16 connector PSU
    - disassembled one of the MOLEX:


    i connected the inverter cables as:

    -black -> black molex
    -green -> 1Kh resistor -> red molex (5V)
    -blue-> yellow molex (12V)
    -red ->red molex (5V)


    when i turn on the motherboard, the screen flashes and goes off immediately (plugged to the computer mac mini)

    i hope you'll find what's wrong here…i don't know what to do :( … thank you very much for the reply!

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  5. Thanks for the sharing of such information we will pass it on to our readers.
    Friv 4
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    ReplyDelete