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Many said it was impossible. Even so, I finished building a highly efficient computer that didn’t use fans.

The PC’s design emphasizes low-wattage, power efficiency, fanless construction, compact size and excellent processing power per watt. I have been told that such a build was impossible, but ignored good advice and soldiered on. My final build took two years of planning, budgeting and research.

This article delineates the build options, construction process and performance of my custom build.

Planning and Requirements

I wanted my new computer build to fulfill several criteria:

First, I wanted it to be extremely power efficient, meaning it should use a power supply with well above 90% efficiency at load. Second, it should be VESA-mountable, meaning it should fit on the back of a standard monitor or television. Third, it should provide excellent performance-per-watt. Fourth, I wanted to use two solid state drives in a RAID 0 configuration. SSDs within a RAID 0 double already lightning fast performance.

Any of these features, individually, shouldn’t require a great deal of effort to properly build around. However, all of these features in the same computer required a great deal of planning and research. After all was said and done, I had a great deal of worries (rightfully so) about passively cooling the CPU, even though it was only 35 watts.

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My final build attempts to shoe-horn a Core i7 into a tiny box, just large enough to hold a mini-ITX motherboard.

My Fanless Core i7

The final product uses a very small form factor case with low wattage internal components.

CPU

I went with a special low-wattage quad core version of the Haswell Core i7-4000 series: The Core i7-4765. It consumes 35 watts at maximum draw, which makes it among the most power-efficient desktop processors ever sold by Intel. It’s a “tray” variant on the much faster Core i7-4770, meaning it comes without a heat-sink and fan. It also only sells from special distributors, who frequently apply ridiculous markups, or require about a month to fulfill the order.

CPU

The Core i7-4765’s lower maximum frequencies allows it to consume 35 watts at load – the tradeoff being that it only has a maximum 2.0 GHz clockspeed and 3.0 GHz, with Turbo Boost enabled. For the curious, Intel’s Turbo feature overclocks cores for brief bursts, if there’s operational room for the additional heat produced by overclocking.

Case and power supply

Several “carputer” cases existed that could easily fulfill my requirements. These typically only permitted a single 2.5-inch drive – unfortunately, I needed to fit two 2.5-inch drives.

After a great deal of waiting, China-based Realan came out with a case meeting my requirements. The Realan E-K3i mini-case – sold by the excellent US importer EcoSmartPC – combines a 96% efficient 120 watt power supply with a tiny mini-ITX form factor. It includes a VESA mounting bracket and a very high build quality.

realan

RAM

I went with Crucial’s low voltage, low-profile variant of the Ballistix line. It uses 1.35 volts – this actually doesn’t help much with keeping the wattage low. It did, however, save a great deal of precious space inside my tiny case.

ballistix

Hard drives

I’ve always liked the snappiness of solid state drives. In my particular build, I went with two RAID 0 OCZ Vector drives. They rank among the fastest SSDs around and in tandem provide ridiculously fast performance. For those not in the know, RAID 0 combined with SSDs allows near doubling of write and read speeds.

vector drives

Heat sink

The lowest profile heat sink I could find was the Evercool HPL-815. The heat sink, without the fan, is 31 mm tall, making it the lowest profile cooler I could find. Although a salesman claimed that the HPL-815 can cool a 35 watt CPU passively, I remained skeptical, given that a heat-sink four times its size could only reliably cool a 65 watt CPU, without a fan.

heat sink

Motherboard

I went with an MSI z87i mini-ITX motherboard. While MSI isn’t known for leading the pack in quality, they have an excellent reputation for offering value. This particular board was the cheapest Series-8 Z87 board in its form factor around. It also had the lowest wattage requirements out of all the Z87 motherboards currently being sold.

motherboard

assembly

Construction Process

First things first, I had to get out the anti-static pad and bracelet to prevent accidentally zapping my computer components.

Second, as with all SSDs, you should consider upgrading the firmware on the drives before installing the operating system. The two 128GB OCZ Vectors suffered from numerous teething troubles, despite a biblically long, 5-year warranty. Fortunately, OCZ eventually provided a firmware update kit, which easily updated the Vectors, without any issue. The proper setup and maintenance tips for SSDs How To Optimize SSD Speed & Performance How To Optimize SSD Speed & Performance Although Solid State Drives can deliver break-neck computing speeds, most users don’t know a nasty secret - your drive might not be properly configured. The reason is that SSDs don’t come optimized out of the... Read More will help maintain your drive’s performance and longevity. For most buyers, you should check to see if your drive manufacturer provides an firmware update toolkit. If they don’t, that’s a very bad sign.

Third, I didn’t seal the case up and instead left the motherboard anchored to the baseplate of the case. A common suggestion among PC builders is to first test the system to see whether or not it powers on, before screwing it into, and sealing up, the computer. This step saves a great deal of time later on, in case something goes wrong.

Fortunately, nothing went wrong.

Fourth, because my small form factor system doesn’t include enough room to use an optical disk drive, I needed to modify a flash drive to contain a bootable copy of the Windows installer. Fortunately, Microsoft makes a utility that will turn either a Windows downloadable ISO or DVD/CD into a bootable flash drive How To Install Windows 8 From A USB Stick How To Install Windows 8 From A USB Stick If you’re looking to install Windows 8 and your computer doesn't have a DVD drive, you’re not alone. Whether you have a Windows 8 DVD or a Windows 8 ISO file you've downloaded from Microsoft,... Read More .

The installation process took about 15 minutes. Unfortunately, Windows 8 is an extremely difficult operating system to work with. You may need several hacks to get it working more efficiently 10 Windows 8 Start Screen Hacks 10 Windows 8 Start Screen Hacks Windows is moving towards a more locked-down direction with Windows 8 and its Start screen and "Modern" app environment. There's no denying this -- you can't even set a custom Start screen background without installing... Read More .

Performance

In a word: Failure.

While all the individual components in my build worked, attempting to run the computer at full load cause temperatures to slowly rise. Over a ten minute period, the CPU’s temperature rose from 60 Celsius to 80 Celsius. With an aggressive underclock, however, the device may run indefinitely.

Another issue that may complicate matters is Haswell’s unusually high temperatures Two Ways to Cool Down Your Defective Overheating Intel CPU Two Ways to Cool Down Your Defective Overheating Intel CPU Looking to purchase a Haswell or Ivy Bridge Intel CPU? A secret may change your mind. According to bloggers, Intel recently got caught using thermal paste on its CPUs and lying about it – the... Read More . Due to a production flaw, Intel’s CPUs run much hotter than had they been designed properly. This may be contributing to the inability to passively cool the CPU.

Conclusion

Trying to build an ecofriendly computer is hard. While you don’t need to make it entirely fanless as I did, reducing the ecological impact of your computer by using fewer fans is entirely possible. However, a more viable method is to simply purchase a laptop. While a laptop doesn’t match the performance of a desktop Core i7 with SSD drives in RAID array, it can come pretty close while not costing much more.

Anyone else trying to build greener desktops? Please share in the comments.

  1. dragonmouth
    September 13, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    Look on the bright side, Kannon. You can use this PC as a space heater on cold, winter nights. :P

  2. Pablo
    September 12, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    Interesting experiment! I have been waiting for a low powered setup, what do you think of stuff like this: http://www.gigabyte.com/MicroSite/342/images/models.html it might not be all what you are looking for (for example you only have one mSATA) but is worth looking at...

  3. Va D
    September 12, 2013 at 5:12 am

    I was contemplating this on 1 of my earlier builds and came the realization that it's not feasible. You would have to trade off performance and the ability to cool in trying to build the lowest wattage PC which as you stated would just be easier to get a laptop or tablet instead.

    If you're adamant in trying to save/conserve energy, just spend a little more for more effective/efficient parts and look else where to save money. It cost me much less time and money to swap all my light bulbs in my house with LED ones and buying a LED Monitor than trying to make my PC more energy efficient w/o degrading performance.

    • Kannon Y
      September 12, 2013 at 5:32 am

      In hindsight, you are absolutely right. Still, the computer runs great, I just had to add a fan (which accounts for up to 5 watts). I'd like to get rid of the fan though.

      Unfortunately, I don't think a fanless, small form factor PC will be possible until at least Broadwell or possibly even the architecture following Broadwell. Unless we go with a custom case like the Akasa Euler.

  4. Mebly
    September 12, 2013 at 12:04 am

    The money you'd save on energy is nothing compared to the cost of this build for it's relatively low performance, or the replacement parts if the CPU decided to overheat or your RAID 0-ed SSDs decided to stop working.

    For $950 you could build a powerful computer with a full i7-4770K and a decent dedicated GPU. Sure it would consume a bit more power, but stuff is less likely to go wrong and you won't have to upgrade as quickly.

    Interesting experiment though.

    • likefunbutnot
      September 12, 2013 at 2:21 am

      What's the point of the discrete GPU in this scenario, exactly? You get full HD video decoding and multiple display support from Intel HD* graphics nowadays, so if you're not gaming, all the add-on card is doing is generating waste heat and adding complexity in the form of crappy drivers.

  5. tolep
    September 11, 2013 at 9:43 pm
  6. Eric
    September 11, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    It's a bummer the Haswell heat issue threw a wrench in your build. Are there other candidate CPUs out there, or is running the Haswell underclocked the best solution for now?

    • Kannon Y
      September 11, 2013 at 11:21 pm

      Hey Eric! Glad you got a chance to see me manufacture a potential house fire.

      I'm going to reseat the heatsink and reapply thermal compound. I noticed one of the cores showed much higher temps than the others, so it's likely a seating/TIM issue.

      Right now out of the Haswell chips, 35 watts is the lowest possible non CULV CPU you can buy. However, my CPU rarely went above 25 watts with turbo off. Underclocked, it used even less power.

      For small form factor PCs, there's Kabini-based BRIX units for AMD and among Intel, there's NUCs. They're not fanless, but they're low cost and offer good performance. The price is a little bit higher than you might pay for a similarly priced desktop, but the form factor is pretty fantastic.

    • likefunbutnot
      September 12, 2013 at 12:53 am

      Yes. They're called Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage (CULV) processors. They mostly go in ultrabook or tablet form factors and embedded systems that need to rely on battery power, but their Thermal Design Profile (TDP) is much better suited to passive cooling. There's a trade-off for looking at those sorts of processors, since you're giving up a lot in terms of performance per thread, but they're very efficient and are much, much easier to keep cool.

      The 22nm CULV Core i CPUs have U or Y suffixes and operate at between 1.5 and 2.9GHz (in turbo mode) on two CPU cores that may or may not have hyperthreading. They only consume 11 or 15W, which means they won't be crippled by thermal throttling if they're attached to a decent heat sink.

    • Eric
      September 12, 2013 at 3:05 am

      I ought to have been a little more specific. I was wondering what he might try plugging into this system in order to salvage the build. If I'm not mistaken the CULVs are all BGA processors. Which won't help him save this project from becoming a doorstop (or dismantled for parts). Of course, if one were starting from the ground up the CULV processors do sound like the way to go.

      @Kannon: Here's hoping it is a seating issue. Any plans to do some benchmarking? I'd especially like to see how the RAID 0 dual drive setup compares to a single drive...

    • Kannon Y
      September 12, 2013 at 5:33 am

      Once I get it reseated I'll run some benchmarks.

      I'm probably going to do a trouble-shooting article on my experiences getting this thing working right.

  7. Like Fun B
    September 11, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    You would've been far better off using a CULV CPU rather than a plain-old low voltage i7. You'd lose about half the clock speed on a per-core basis, but you'd also halve the TDP. Since very few tasks really require the full attention of a quad core, 3GHz CPU, it's doubtful that you'd notice a subjective performance change from one CPU to the other for anything but gaming (bad idea on a passively cooled system) or content creation (bad idea on a system that doesn't have tons of local storage capacity).

    In other news, two SSDs in RAID0 is a super-bad idea since you more or less have to give up on letting each drive's firmware handle memory cell wear leveling. Some Intel-based disk controllers do pass TRIM commands properly, but it depends substantially on both hardware and software environment and, unless you have a task load that is HIGHLY dependent on Sustained Transfer Rates, will probably result in no appreciable performance gain at a cost to drive lifespan, configuration complexity and likelihood of overall system failure (two system drives in RAID0 essentially doubles the likelihood of a hard disk failure without any corresponding improvement in redundancy).

    You would have been better off with an SSD and a standard 2.5" disk for bulk storage. At least in that configuration you could have a relatively spacious environment for local data and backups.

    In short, you're right. You failed. You built the wrong computer for your needs.

    • Kannon Y
      September 11, 2013 at 10:43 pm

      Great response! I really appreciate you taking the time to articulate a very well thought out critique.

      I did consider CULV "Core i7" (it's not really an i7, in the conventional sense). A friend of mine sells corporate servers - he recommended (this was the cheapest he could find) a $600 board + CPU. This was substantially out of my price-range, unfortunately, and limited to two cores. For Eclipse, which is multithreaded, that wasn't my first choice for a CPU.

      RE: RAID 0, tell me about it! I've been using RAID 0 for a very long time now and it's really a bogus deal. Relying on firmware GC caused a great deal of write amplification. And the early Sandforce controllers basically bricked after a few months of use. Even after RMAing them a couple times.

      It was, unfortunately, the cheapest way I could get 256 GB of SSD storage space from
      the Vector drives for $140. There are some other reasons for using RAID 0, but they aren't as important as the cost. I don't learn very well from my mistakes.

      I did learn to keep regular backups, so the failure rate isn't all that big a deal to me (because I've been using RAID 0 for four years now). Although you are right to malign its use as I have suffered tremendously in the past.

      On the positive side, as you hinted at, Intel did introduce TRIM in RAID 0 in Series 7 (and supposedly above) chipsets, so in theory I wouldn't be dependent on the firmware for GC. If they introduced it in Series 8 chipsets, then I don't think drive reliability is going to be that much of an issue.

      Anyway, it's looking like my overheating issue is actually being caused by an improperly seated heatsink. I suspect that I didn't apply enough thermal paste. Basically all the cores show stable temperatures, except one. The errant core is going up well over 100C at load, so by reseating and reapplying paste, I might be able to get this thing's heat issue under control.

      But as you've said, a CULV CPU would have been a better option. It definitely wouldn't have had any issue with passive cooling.

      Thanks again for the comment!

    • likefunbutnot
      September 12, 2013 at 2:40 am

      @Kannon,

      the thing is, RAID0 is really doing nothing for you, even for a software dev system. "Lots of tiny files" are more or less the name of the game for any kind of programming environment and unfortunately working with that kind of I/O load doesn't really play to any of the strengths that a RAID0 array since it's incredibly unlikely that any particular file is going to actually be striped across both your disks to take advantage of the discrete connections from both drives. You say you've been using it for a long time, but to what end? Have you tried skipping the RAID to see how it impacts your subjective user experience? I'd be willing to bet that the real-world difference between having it and not having it is infinitesimal.

      Even dealing with two SSDs, you'd probably do substantially better dividing OS/applications and user data between the two drives rather than mess around with a disk array.

      Intel's support for TRIM on SSDs in RAID is limited to Windows 7 (maybe 8; I'm not sure it's gotten around to official support for that yet), RAID0 only, and only with 7 and 8-series (i.e. not entry level) LGA1155, 1150 and 2011 chipsets. Intel's funky quasi-software RAID is the only RAID controller of which I am aware that has any support at all for wear leveling on attached SSDs. While that covers an awful lot of territory, there are plenty of users who might be tempted to try such a configuration who could be left out for one reason or other and frankly desktop RAID0 in general is about as useful as a spoiler on a Geo Metro.

    • Kannon Y
      September 12, 2013 at 5:24 am

      Thanks again, I really appreciate the advice.

      You're absolutely right. Ironically, a single Vertex 2 felt snappier and faster than a pair of them in RAID. I ended up getting the second Vertex to increase my storage capacity. In hindsight, I should have done as you suggested and also moved the browser cache via symlink to the second SSD and just run them JBOD.

      But are you sure RAID 0 doesn't effect compile times? Most stripes are pretty small. I would imagine it would help with compiling.

      "RAID0 in general is about as useful as a spoiler on a Geo Metro."
      :-) Well done.

      TRIM should be available in Windows 8 + series 8 chipsets. Anandtech claims this and so does Intel in their latest release notes on RST. Acer even makes a RAID 0 Ultrabook - they claim TRIM works.

      The sad thing about RAID and TRIM is that there's no detection method for determining whether TRIM is functioning properly. You basically have to rely on pounding the drives with writes and then benching to see if the system maintained its performance. RAID is definitely not ready for prime time, although ironically it's already being sold on consumer-grade products.

      Thanks again. I will probably just revert to JBOD on my primary rig, once I get the HSF reseated.

    • Like Fun B
      September 12, 2013 at 1:16 pm

      @Kannon,

      Skip the JBOD as well. That causes all the same problems with respect to wear leveling. Instead, use Windows 7/8 Libraries to isolate your user data on a single drive while reserving the other for Windows, Program Files and your IDE.

      And no, I don't think you're getting any benefit from RAID in your configuration, even while compiling. The files you're dealing with are going to be too small to be distributed across the disks in your array, which is really the only time the STR (sustained transfer rate) benefit from RAID actually kicks in. Nothing you're doing will really involve files that are even in the tens of megabytes except some OS and IDE components that will already be in memory by the time you get around to actually starting your compile.

  8. dragonmouth
    September 11, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    How wallet-friendly is this build? Would I have to take out a mortgage to pay for it?

    • Kannon Y
      September 11, 2013 at 10:09 pm

      Hey DM!

      This particular build cost $950, including all taxes and shipping. I had it set to come in at $600 for almost the exact same build, but ultimately ended up throwing in around $350 to squeeze extra performance out of it.

      Big mistake! Had I gone with cheaper parts and more conventional design, it would have cost less and performance better.

    • brady
      March 28, 2015 at 5:23 am

      hey im working on a semi eco build right now. im going for a balance between power efficiency, performance, cost , and most importantly i want it to look asthetically appealing. heres the parts im using. im still in the process of getting everything but i pretty much am decided on these.
      -msi eco b85m
      -8gb 4x2gb sticks of g.skill eco F3-12800CL9D-4GBECO
      - either the i5 4690s or 4590s
      - 1 mushkin eco2 60gb ssd and 1 120 gb ssd
      - 2 1tb western digital green hdd at 6gb/s
      -passive heatsink is the thermalright macho zero with 120mm fan duct
      - case is diypc cuboid-g
      -antec earthwatts 380 watt psu
      -i want to put one of the gtx 750 ti nvidia graphics cards just dont know which one exactly
      -also want to put one of the ht omega sound cards which is why i chose this mobo because of the pci slot
      - im thinking of putting two 140mm cougar led fans on top
      oh and a dvd burner or maybe even a bluray burner but i dont think i would use bluray too much

      so what do you think of this build. it wont be the most power efficient pc on the planet but for the cost and performance i would say its a pretty well balanced build and this is going to be used for making music and maybe some light video editing.
      - i will only be running linux OSs on this. primarily linux mint and manjaro linux

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