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Want to build a completely silent, green computer system? It’s not hard and can cost as little as $200. Depending on your power prices, low-wattage machines save lots of money Can You Really Save Money By Building A Green PC? Can You Really Save Money By Building A Green PC? Read More and provide solid performance. After throwing together two eco-friendly machines, I’ve learned a few strategies for keeping your build costs and wattage requirements low.

This article covers component selection for assembling silent and green PCs (but you also can buy silent mini PCs premade 5 Silent Fanless Mini PCs That Will Save You Money 5 Silent Fanless Mini PCs That Will Save You Money Miniaturization continues to shrink the size of the average PC. What once required several rooms can now fit in your pocket. There's a new category, fanless Mini PCs, that's becoming popular. Read More , too). In particular, it covers low-power variants of standard computer processors, cases specially designed for fanless, low-power operation and other components that allow for silent, eco-friendly computers.

my computer build

Sketching Your Build Out

I’ve written before about rules for building eco-friendly PCs Build Your Own Low-Wattage PC with Three Simple Design Rules Build Your Own Low-Wattage PC with Three Simple Design Rules After a few failures and experiments building my own fanless, highly efficient computer, I can share three low-wattage builds designs that dispense with most moving parts and minimize the number of fans used. Read More . Saving energy requires using low-power internal components. A fine line between performance and wattage exists. The faster a computer, the more power it consumes. But recent advances in CPU architecture — noticeably present in low power variants of AMD’s APU (what’s an APU? What Is An APU? [Technology Explained] What Is An APU? [Technology Explained] Read More ) line of CPU/GPU hybrids and Intel’s T-series of processors — allow for computer builds providing adequate graphical performance along with extremely low power requirements. With the right cooling solution, these can become completely silent by dispensing with fans. Removing fans saves both power and improves ease of maintenance.

Before proceeding, take time to sketch out the relative power requirements of the system. Also pick one of the available platforms, such as AMD or Intel, to base your build on. I prefer using PCPartPicker (we’ve covered how to use PCPartPicker Save Time & Money! The 4 Best Sites For Automatically Building a PC Save Time & Money! The 4 Best Sites For Automatically Building a PC WARNING! Building a PC can cause the following symptoms - despair, rage, violence against inanimate objects, poverty, feelings of regret and worthlessness, depression and suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, websites exist that take the pain out of... Read More ) to sketch out the basic components and OuterVision’s eXtreme Power Supply Calculator to estimate power requirements. Once you’ve established a general part list, start choosing and buying parts.

Build Considerations

Silent, mini-ITX builds require special attention to four categories: CPU, motherboard, case and power supply. Regarding RAM and hard drives, the kind of RAM isn’t really important and you will definitely want an SSD, instead of a traditional HDD.

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Processor

Both AMD and Intel offer low power processors.

  • AMD: AMD’s latest line of APUs also include lower voltage variants, designated with a “T”. Of their two latest lines of APU, only Richland offers 45 watt processors. Considering that it also offers an integrated GPU, these offer excellent power efficiencies for media center or budget builds.
  • Intel: Intel makes several low voltage variants of their mainline CPUs. These are designated by “T”, “R” and “S”. For example, the Core i7-4765T is a 35-watt version of their mainline Core i7-4770 CPU. These lower wattage processors come with lower maximum clock speeds. For the sake of brevity, I will only list T-series processors and only from their Haswell lineup.

Intel low-wattage CPUs:

  • Core i7-4770T 45 watt $303 MSRP;
  • Core i7-4765T 35 watt $303 MSRP;
  • Core i5-4670T 45 watt $213 MSRP;
  • Core i5-4570T 35 watt $192 MSRP;
  • Core i3-4130T 35 watt $139.99 MSRP;
  • Celeron G1820T 35 watt $42 MSRP;
  • Bay Trail series: Bay Trail comes soldered directly to the motherboard, although it’s so new only one or two models are on the market. Keep in mind that Intel renamed its Atom series of low wattage CPU into two categories: Pentium and Celeron. But currently (March 2014) a single Celeron J1800 dual-core ITX board sells from any retailer – Gigabyte GA-J1800N-D2H for $74.99 + shipping via Newegg.

intel logo

AMD low-wattage APUs:

  • A10-6700T (Richland, 45 watt) for $155.99 via ShopBLT;
  • A8-6500T (Richland, 45 watt) for $108.59 via ShopBLT;
  • E1 and E2 series: These come soldered directly to the motherboard. Various examples exist, although my favorite is the passively cooled ECS KBN-I/2100 motherboard/APU combo. See below for a build using this particular model.

amd logo

The motherboard doesn’t make a big difference in power consumption, but small form factor cases require (for the most part) mini-ITX motherboards. A few passively cooled cases support microATX cases.

Passive cooling: Also note that small form factor desktop CPU/APUs can be easily passively cooled up to around 45 watts (watts are generally used as a means of measuring heat production, as well as power consumption). Personally, I prefer using heat pipes, but low wattage (around 10 watts and below) processors typically cool themselves using convection.

Cases

A number of small form-factor cases exist on the market. However, many require special motherboards. Only one provides versatility and cooling performance.

  • HD-Plex HD1.s: I currently use this case on my workstation build (see below). It offers fantastic cooling performance along with aesthetic beauty. However, it comes with a higher than average price tag of $179. HD-Plex actually makes a variety of fanless cases, but to the extent of my knowledge, the HD1.s is the only readily available, passively cooled case for the mini-ITX standard.

hdplexh1s case example

  • M350: This case works best with a mini-ITX that doesn’t require active cooling, such as the ECS KBN-I/2100. It can also accommodate a fan. I think it looks pretty good, too. I’ve seen it go for as little as $50.

m350 case

  • G-Atlantic GA2300: This particular case is somewhat mysterious. It offers passive cooling and rugged design for a wide range of Intel CPUs. However, it doesn’t appear to be available in the United States.

ga2300 g atlantic

  • Akasa Euler: Akasa’s Euler design offers passive cooling for thin mini-ITX motherboards. The entire case doubles as a CPU heat sink and it cools up to 35-watts of power. It sells from some retailers for as little as $99.

akasa euler

A lot of other mini-ITX fanless cases exist, but in my opinion, these three offer some of the best features and design.

Power Supply

I’m using picoPSUs in all the builds listed here. PicoPSUs offer around 96% efficiency, when converting from wall current (AC) to DC. They frequently offer between 60 and 150 watts. The average ATX power supply converts at around 70% efficiency. Some other points for consideration:

  • Connectors: Make sure that the picoPSU you purchase possesses the necessary number of connectors. Otherwise you will need to purchase splitters and adapters, which increase build costs. picoPSUs designated with “XT” offer a 4-pin CPU power connector.
  • Wattage: Most low-wattage PCs don’t require more than 90 watts.
  • Cable lengths: Measure your motherboard. You may require an extension cable for certain picoPSUs. The picoPSU plugs directly into the 24-pin ATX power port on the motherboard.
  • Case: Some cases come with picoPSUs built directly into them. These already include the correct cable lengths.

Alternatively, thin mini-ITX motherboards (more on them below) include an on-board AC-DC converter.

picopsu

Other power supplies:

  • ATX: Full-sized computers use ATX power supplies.
  • FlexATX: This specification arrived in 1999, offering a form factor designed for small form factor cases. It works in a wider variety of cases than either TFX or SFX.
  • TFX: These are thinner than regular power supplies. I see them appear more often in pre-built small form factor PCs from vendors such as Dell.
  • SFX: Small form factor power supplies offer lower wattages. These are frequently used, along with FlexATX units, in microATX builds.
  • Other: For additional details on other kinds of power supplies, check out Tom’s Hardware’s excellent article on the subject.

RAM and Hard Drives

RAM and hard drives don’t really make a big difference in power consumption. However, you do get better performance out of some kinds of RAM when paired with an AMD APU.

DDR3 desktop RAM range from 1.25 to 1.6 in volts. The wattage consumption of a 1.25v compared to a 1.6v stick isn’t much. You won’t need to pay a lot of attention to that. However, low-profile RAM may help with tiny cases. If you use an AMD APU, you will want to use two sticks (this provides dual-channel mode), which allows for better performance. Some AMD APUs are only single channel only need one-stick of RAM. 1866MHz RAM provides the best bang for your buck, but in general, the higher the RAM’s frequency, the better your performance with APUs.

Solid state drives (how do SSDs work? How Do Solid-State Drives Work? [MakeUseOf Explains] How Do Solid-State Drives Work? [MakeUseOf Explains] Over the past few decades, there has been a considerable amount of work in the field of computer hardware. While computer technology is constantly improving and evolving, rarely do we experience moments where we simply... Read More ) offer lower wattage requirements compared to traditional disc drives. Among SSDs, wattage consumption can go as high as 5-watts and as low as 1-watt during operation. Because they come in the 2.5-inch form factor, they also combine well with smaller cases.

ocz vertex 2

Three Sample Low Wattage Systems

For reference, I list three different variants of fanless PC in the (roughly) $250, $500 and $1,000 price range. I actually built both a $200 streaming media center and a $1,000 workstation, both without fans and they work great.

$250 AMD Linux-Powered Home Theater PC

This particular, ultra-budget build runs between 15 and 30 watts. The particular kind of processor used is a Kabini APU. It doesn’t play anything other than lower-end games at console resolutions (in some cases). With Windows 8, it will stream 1080p videos. For Linux, with the latest kernel update, it will play 1080p, although with some stutter. AMD continues to pump out updated Linux drivers, though, and they will likely correct streaming issues shortly.

The most recent Linux kernel upgrade offers out-the-box compatibility. However, it requires using a nightly build of Linux as of March of 2014. The motherboard will also accept a miniPCI wireless card, although this component has been omitted. Another cost saving feature of the ECS KBN-I/2100 motherboard is that it doesn’t require a 4-pin CPU power source – meaning, you can purchase the cheapest class of picoPSU available.

All prices accurate at the time of writing.

  • Power Supply: 60-watt picoPSU and adapter via eBay (package deal costing $74.95 on eBay)
  • Case: M350 mini-ITX via eBay (package deal, see above)
  • CPU: Included in motherboard (AMD E1-2100)
  • Motherboard: ECS KBN-I/2100 — $55.99 via Newegg with 24 MIR
  • RAM: Crucial Ballistix Sport 1x4GB — $38.79 via Amazon
  • Hard drive: Kingston SSDNow V300 — $65.99 via Amazon
  • Windows tax: Ubuntu Trusty Tahr — $0
  • Total: $235.72

Note: The system below uses a Realan case, not the M350.

realan pc

$500 Passively Cooled HTPC

Intel’s thin mini-ITX motherboards offer an even slimmer profile than mini-ITX. While not as efficient as using a picoPSU, it still offers significant power efficiency over a standard motherboard. It also requires a 19v power brick. The case that I used in this design, the Akasa Euler, also doubles as the heat sink, which allows fanless operation. This build can double as both an HTPC and a desktop.

Regarding the case, the Euler’s compatibility is officially listed as working only with two motherboards. However, the CPU placement on many thin mini-ITX boards allows a wider range of compatibility. It’s also VESA mountable, so you can attach it to the back of a monitor or TV.

All prices accurate at the time of writing.

  • Power Supply: 19v 70-watt universal adapter $11.79 via Amazon
  • Case: Akasa Euler — $99.99 via Sidewinder Computers (currently out of stock)
  • CPU: Intel Celeron 1820T 35 watt — $47.95 via B&H
  • Motherboard: ECS H87H3-TI thin mini-ITX — $108.50 via Amazon (coupon for $11 off)
  • RAM: Crucial Ballistix Sport 1 x 8GB SO-DIMM RAM — $74.99 via Amazon
  • Hard drive: Crucial M500 120GB SSD — $66.99 via B&H
  • Windows tax: Windows 7 Home Premium — $88.98 via DiscountMountain
  • Total: $499.19

$1,000 Passively Cooled Workstation/HTPC

The HD1.s case works with a wide variety of motherboards (both ITX and thin ITX) and processors. However, it also runs around $180. With a built-in power supply, it costs around $230. The build I made uses around 15-25 watts while in normal operation and uses a full-sized mini-ITX board (it’s also compatible with thin mini-ITX boards). The HD1.s case also works with a wide variety of processors, including almost all CPUs listed in this article. Although heavy and requiring a great deal of labor to assemble, it also cools at least up to 45-watt processors and offers VESA compatibility.

All prices accurate at the time of writing.

  • Power Supply: 150 watt AC-DC adapter — $65 (add-on option to case)
  • Case: HD-Plex HD1.s — $179 via HD-Plex
  • CPU: Intel Core i7-4765T — $315.99 via MacMall
  • Motherboard: Asrock Z87E-ITX mITX — $124.99 via Newegg with $10 MIR
  • RAM: Crucial Ballistix Sport low voltage and low profile 2 x 4GB RAM — $94.99 via Newegg
    Hard drive: PNY XLR8 PRO 240GB SSD — $129.99 via Newegg with $10 MIR
  • Windows tax: Windows 7 Home Premium — $88.98 via DiscountMountain
  • Cost: $998.94

my workstation pc

Conclusion

Building an ultra-quiet, fanless, low-power mini-PC with solid performance doesn’t require lots of money or effort. I don’t recommend that everyone run out and build fanless systems, but for enthusiasts, it’s now possible with a great variety of components.

Not only do these cases take up less space, but they also provide lower weight, VESA mounting and lower power requirements. Dispensing with fans saves around 2-5 watts per fan, depending on how hard it’s working to cool the system down. Removing the three fans required of the ATX specification actually drops around 6-15 watts from the build and improves your computer’s ease of maintenance.

Anyone else love tiny PCs offering silent, fanless and green computing? Let us know in the comments.

Image Credits: Magnifying glass Via Shutterstock

  1. Vit Jan
    September 21, 2015 at 9:43 am

    What about Android mini PCs like Rikomagic + 15W monitors (they are quite budget)

  2. dragonmouth
    March 13, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    What about using a DIY case?

  3. Félix D
    March 13, 2014 at 12:24 am

    In my opinion, the most expensive thing about a computer is the Operating System License, unless you are about to use Linux, or any free Operating System. Microsoft have Windows starting from around $125. Jeez!!

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