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Desktops (Apple) Emulation (Games) Media Games

Ask Slashdot: Passively Cooled Hardware For Game Emulation? 229

akutz writes "I recently sold a 2011 Mac mini on Craigslist because after using it to rip my Blu-ray collection, I tried to use it as an emulation station connected to my TV. However, emulators like Dolphin, BSNES, etc. would cause the Mac mini's fans to spin up like turbine engines — much too loud for my liking. I ask, therefore: What hardware would you recommend for building a passively cooled mini-system that will serve as a media center's emulation station?"
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Ask Slashdot: Passively Cooled Hardware For Game Emulation?

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  • by obarthelemy ( 160321 ) on Thursday September 08, 2011 @06:45PM (#37346192)

    i've ried to go fully fanless, with very low-power CPUs (atom, E-350) and no graphics card. The T climbs quickly. OTOH, a low-power CPU (i3 2100T with the included 600 RPM fan, a PSU with a quiet FAN and an 80+ gold rating, and probably no graphics card, will make no audible noise, less than the hard disk. has lists and reviews of components.

    • by greg1104 ( 461138 ) <> on Thursday September 08, 2011 @06:59PM (#37346370) Homepage

      Right; the next jump from "the Mac Mini fans are too loud" doesn't have to be fanless, which is particularly troublesome in an emulator situation where the CPU will always be running. The key to low noise fans is to get big ones that move air even at lower speeds, which right now means 120mm. Using fans that are too small, in order to make the case really tiny, is what the Mac Mini does wrong for this application. A case like the Sugo SG05-B [] will give you those in a reasonable form factor. It won't be tiny, but there's a fundamental trade-off here: you can either make your fans cool well, be small, or be quiet--never all three at once. I have done here on past emulator boxes is to use a case with a larger fan like that, combined with one of the Zotac Mini ITX boards using an Intel Atom processor.

      • Having a small fan doesn't need to be a hinderance.... I have a mini ITX-based HTPC system with a 1.5" fan on the CPU, and it's still damned near silent, even when watching h.264 full screen 1080p video. If you have sufficient air flow around the CPU, then you don't need the CPU fan to move much air specifically over the CPU. Put it in a case like this one [], and minimize the number of moving parts (in my case, no moving parts aside from the CPU fan), and you can do quite nicely with a small fan keeping the C

        • >>If you have sufficient air flow around the CPU, then you don't need the CPU fan to move much air specifically over the CPU.

          Right, which is something a lot of people ignore. They'll make a silent PC and then stick it into a cramped airless cabinet beneath their TV, and then wonder why their new linux-based DVR keeps skipping as the CPU desperately tries to step down its power use to keep the temps under control.

          • Unless that's a software feature the CPU won't step down its power use to prevent an overheat. I wrote a script for my server to do just that (I wrote about it here [])

        • You mean a 40mm fan? Wow that's small. I've only seen them in 1U rackmount servers and some HDD coolers, never on a CPU.

          A few years ago I was running my home server on ancient hardware - a 700Mhz P3. It had two 60mm fans stock but they were worn out, I just screwed a scrap 80mm fan right into the aluminum heatsink (that's how the stock fans went in as well - just screws dug into the heatsink fins). Worked great and even though the fan was running flat out all the time, it wasn't that loud as long as I kept

    • E-350's have decent graphics capabilities and you can pick up CPU+MOBO combo's for a very nice price []
      and then a CASE+PSU combo's for []

      The bare-bones system will thus cost as little as $130, and will kick the snot out of Atom solutions.
      • Wow that is a very nice price for a silently cooled cpu+mobo - I might need to order one.

        Just wanted to add that for a PSU in this system you would definitely want to go with a picoPSU [].
        • for the same price, you can get an H61 board, and a Pentium or i3 (the 35W versions are nice, and not that muh more expensive) that will "kick the snot out of" the E-350, except for graphics, and even there...

          • Link?

            If I can get an i3 and H61 board for $89 I'd probably buy that instead.
            • If I can get an i3 and H61 board for $89 I'd probably buy that instead.

              Very unlikely, as the cheapest H61 board is about $40, and I can't find an i3 that will fit it for less than $110, and both those prices are rock-bottom, include rebates, etc. Real world would be closer to $180 for the combo.

              • There are Celeron, and then Pentium, below the i3. Main difference is the graphics part, goes from HD to HD2000 to HD3000, which is a concern for games and emulation, though the CPU itself will be much better than Atom/E-350. Prices start at $56 at newegg.

          • The cheapest i3 chip is $100 and is 73W. The 35W chips are $135. You still dont have a motherboard.

            That was an E-350 + Motherboard for $90. Thats also passive cooling (silent) on this 18W combo. Are any of the i3's capable of running on passive?

            If you cant find emulator performance reviews for the E-350, look for people running the emulators on old 3.73ghz P4 boxes, because the E-350 is a bit faster than those.

            Intel literally has nothing in this class.
    • However if you insist on fanless, the answer is to go large, not small. A tiny system like a mini has to have fans since there isn't much room for heat sinks. In terms of moving heat you can have surface area or airflow, and tradeoff between the two, but you have to have one or the other.

      So you get a large case, for full sized ATX parts. Then look at graphics cards that you can get fanless, or get an aftermarket fanless cooler from someone like Arctic Cooling. It is expensive and you don't get high end, but

    • good remarks, you could go with an external picoPSU and small case. The cheapest I could find is the T-3410 at case+ picoPSU (35W cpu max, no room for expansion ie no graphics card) is around $70. That brings you down to a single fan: the Intel stock one, @600RPM, is silent. I've done that exact build for a friend. Tried it for me as a fully passive E350 with Asus's passive board, but lost my nerve seeing the temp was always 60-70 C, and added a small, and noisy, fan. I should have gone wit

    • Silent PC Review's articles, while not always about the latest hardware, are REALLY well written. They do lots of sound related testing (decibels up close, decibels from far away, etc), and often have lots of very detailed pictures. Their article is the primary reason I bought my Antec Mini P180 (which, granted, is likely not at ALL what the original poster wants).

      To the original poster: Build a silent PC yourself, with the hardware necessary to meet the performance needs of your emulators. Large fans tha

    • by cgenman ( 325138 )

      As a long-time hardware silence modifier, I second

      Some Rules:

      1. Be aware of how much air circulates around the device. Those TV cubby-holes that are built to enclose systems are absolutely terrible for air circulation. Either put the system outside of the TV stand, or add fans there too.
      2. BIGGER fans can move the same amount of air while moving more slowly... the smaller the fan, the more it tends to scream. Certain big 'ole desk or table-fans can run slowly enough to be silent, yet

      • Certain big 'ole desk or table-fans can run slowly enough to be silent, yet move a hell of a lot of air. You get a lot more mileage than you should by pointing a 2' wide desk fan at the back of a computer.

        No need, you can get 140mm or even 200mm PC fans these days.

    • OTOH, a low-power CPU (i3 2100T with the included 600 RPM fan, a PSU with a quiet FAN and an 80+ gold rating, and probably no graphics card, will make no audible noise, less than the hard disk. has lists and reviews of components.

      Dolphin is a Wii emulator [], so it may need a real graphics card, especially if he's considering 1080p (wii doesn't do 1080p but the emulator does).

      I'd recommend the $40 fanless Radeon HD 5450. [] As you can see from this review the 5450 provided double the framerates compared to a i3 2100 without a video card, in many cases going from unplayable 20-something fps to very playable 50+ fps. []

      Of course in that same review they threw in a $70 Radeon HD 5570 which many times offered 2-3x the framerates of the f

    • by mcvos ( 645701 )

      Exactly. It's not that hard to build a PC with only a few slow, quiet fans. Silent PC Review [] helped me out a lot 3.5 years ago.
      I've got an Antec Solo case, Seasonic S380 (I think) PSU, passively cooled E8400 and HD3850, and I think a Nexus case fan. Two fans total (the PSU and the Nexus) do make some sound, but you only really hear it when the rest of the world is really, really quiet. And even then it's barely audible. If your game makes any kind of sound at all, you won't hear it.

      And I'm sure than you can

    • I had a similar - if completely different problem. I got fed up trying to work with the constant whirr of my GPU/CPU fans coming from my desktop PC. After a bit of experimentation (replacing fans with quieter ones), I finally plumped for some of this stuff [], and the results are pretty impressive. If you're an extreme overclocker it's probably not for you, but for everyone else it's a godsend!
    • My home server/HTPC only has a fan in the PSU - and the only reason I haven't gone fanless is because I can't justify the cost for such a tiny noise savings, especially with so many spare PSUs lying around.

      It has an Intel E5500 (2.8 dual core) with a Xigmatek Loki cooler with no fan, using onboard video (good enough for non-gaming stuff, and it's energy-efficient).

      Now if I pegged both CPUs it would eventually overheat - in the BIOS I set it to hard-shutdown at 75C. To keep the temps under control I have a m

  • You can't do Gen6 emulation without real hardware- real hardware is not passively cooled. Liquid cooling mitigates the problem though, I guess.

  • by IYagami ( 136831 ) on Thursday September 08, 2011 @06:56PM (#37346326) []

    Or a complete solution from Zotac for330 USD: []

    • The review on the Zotac box doesn't include any noise measurements. In fact - the only mention of noise that I found in the review was:

      I worry about its aural characteristics trending toward a high-pitched whine over time, and I'd actually prefer a slightly larger enclosure if it accommodated a bigger heatsink-and-fan assembly that ran quieter under load.

      Probably not a great recommendation for a user who is looking for a silent pc.

  • All reasonably modern machines, including silent low-end machines (like the passive AMD A-350 setup one person suggested), are well above the requirements of emulating 5th-generation or slower consoles (i.e. up to and including the n64 and original Playstation).

    But for newer consoles you have to have a fair amount of speed, and any system with the capacity to run Dolphin at playable framerates is going to need a fan. You can make a fairly quiet system that will do it (look for mid-range low-wattage CPUs and

    • by jensend ( 71114 )

      Oh, and use snes9x or some other reasonably speedy emulator rather than bsnes unless you're playing a game that snes9x etc can't handle well. bsnes is more accurate than other emulators but that comes at a tremendous performance cost. Your mac mini likely wouldn't ramp up fan speeds doing snes9x.

      • That's a misconception. There are 2 versions of bsnes, one that's very accurate and requires a lot of power and another that works for most games and will run fine on even low end Atoms while still being more accurate than most other emulators.

    • Heck if you want to emulate PS1 games you could buy a PSP with video out. I can't believe a handheld that came out 6 years ago can emulate a PS1.
  • Take Mac Mini motherboard out of chassis.

    Replace hard disk with SSD

    Submerge everything in a mineral oil filled aquarium. Put in fake fish, gravel, a castle, and a bubble pump, for an authentic effect.




  • Up to a Playstation 1 you only need an 800Mz machine with a decent video card. Dreamcast needs a lil bit more for smooth operation but it's fine.

    PS2 is where stuff gets tricky, because the devs haven't bothered to support heavy multi-threading or multiple cores to any reasonable degree, but most games can be run at decent speed and compatibility.

    You really do not need much hardware-wise until you get to PS2-level stuff.

    • Maybe I'm playing the wrong games. It seems like it got too focused on fixing the issues to make the various FF games work, but chokes to death on almost everything else I've tried. I got some love from Persona 3 and Rogue Galaxy, but even the original Ratchet and Clank was too much. And I'm not running a wimpy chip, either (Phenom II X6 1090T).

      • by Khyber ( 864651 )

        What is your video card and settings? I had zero issues with Persona 3 FES or Persona 4.

  • Small spaces make quiet cooling difficult. Bigger fans are quieter at moving the same amount of air. The more air you move over a given heat sink the better the cooling (with diminishing returns, see various HSF reviews). So go for something larger with good airflow and some very quiet fans.

    My HTPC has a PSU with a fan that I've never heard since it's temperature controlled and I'm not abusing it. The HSF is a Scythe Ninja something or other with a Panasonic D12SL 120mm fan, can't hear it. Graphics car

  • As the subject says, small, quiet, and performance, choose 2. You can easily make a passive cooled (quiet), high performance system to do emulation, it won't be small. You can build a small, high performance system, it won't be quiet. You can build a small and quiet system, it won't have the performance needed. Pick your poison. Personally I am of the quiet and high performance kind of person. Go get a nice Antec Fusion Remote MAX case, slap together a nice Intel i5 system, put in a big massive Noctua NH-D
    • by Dahamma ( 304068 )

      You forgot to add "price" in there. My system is quiet, fast, and relatively small - but using an SSD and efficient cooling/case, it's not particularly cheap. Not Mac-Mini small either, though, more mini-tower small. But if you really want quiet and fast an SSD is pretty much a requirement these days...

  • by wierd_w ( 1375923 ) on Thursday September 08, 2011 @08:33PM (#37347126)

    Simple solution:

    Buy several large 4 liter cans of shop grade mineral oil (It doesnt have the "perfume" normally found in baby oil, which is also mineral oil), and a small aquarium. Put some shiny black light aquarium rocks in the bottom.

    Put the systemboard, including the heatsink and fan, directly into the aquarium. (I would suggest something in a tiny form factor, like a mini ITX, since you can use a beefy wall wart to power it, rather than a full blown PSU.)

    Route cables up and out the top through a repurposed aquarium filter tube. Where the charcoal filter would be in the tank filter, use wireties to control the cabling. You can put a cable switch box in there to serve as the port end connect point, so your normal AV and HID cables arent hanging out of the "water".

    Populate the tank with those mechanical bobbing fish, and some bubbler toys.

    Fill the tank with the mineral oil, drop in some aquarium bubbler stones for dramatic effect, and place a blacklight in the aquarium tank light of the cover.

    VOILA. Something that wont sound like a jet engine, has heavy thermal mass to dissipate the heat of the system, has a continual supply of lubricant for the ball-bearing CPU fan, and makes an interesting accent to the room all in one go.

    The fish arent real, and the mineral oil doesnt evaporate, so you never have to clean the tank, assuming you keep ambient dust out.

    • by adolf ( 21054 ) <> on Thursday September 08, 2011 @09:43PM (#37347512) Journal

      Mineral oil works.

      But one should be aware of the effects of condensation. Any water which condenses in the system (and it will, especially if you're pumping non-dry atmospheric air through it for show) will settle to a layer at the bottom, and may eventually become ruinous to any electronics it finds.

      Not that this is likely to be a big deal straight away, but it could eventually become one. Keeping the board(s) elevated a bit, with a little drain valve under the layer of rocks should fix that up neatly enough. A few drops of a water-based dye that isn't solvent in oil (food coloring?) to better visually differentiate the layers might be fun, too.

      Such home modification generally stipulates the use of an aquarium made from either acrylic or non-tempered glass, but both are easy to find (10gal and smaller are generally non-tempered, as a rule).

      Later on down the road (probably years from now), just drain off the water. There's no need to try to get it all out since that won't happen anyway. Then, for maximum material efficiency, just boil the results to get rid of the water and put it any leftover oil back in the tank. :)

  • Like many tech-savvy home users I want a file server at home,but the reality is 95% of the time it is doing nothing. Be it noise (fan less), eco-friendly (use less electricity) or room friendly (make less heat) a low powered fan less system seems to be a great idea.

    But it's damn hard to find. There seems to be an assumption that low powered and fan less means you want super-small. Pico, or mini-ITX. No one seems to think you would use it for a file server, so > 2 SATA cuts your choices by 50%, and

    • by erice ( 13380 )

      No one makes motherboards with Intel mobile processors for end users. Repurposing a laptop has other drawbacks.

      I think it's an untapped market...perhaps a small one, but big enough more solutions should exist.

      Really? Google for "atom server board". You will find several options.

      • Atom is not a mobile processor. Atom is a humorous commentary on the market inertia of x86, even in places where ARM is much better suited.
    • With the caveats that none of these make it to your 5W (but get close at between 7W and 15W) and acknowledging that none of these are server grade , [] has a fantastic list of Atom based boards.

      Gigabyte's D525TUD offers 4xSATA, 1xIDE and PCI for a RAID card. Asus have the AT4NM10T and AT5NM10T which lose the IDE port of Gigabyte, but replaces PCI with PCIe x4. Jetway do a board with 4xSATA and ION graphics - your fileserver cou
  • I bought an HP "box" about 6 months ago for my TV. It's big and powerful enough that the fans don't go crazy when I run ZSNES. My opinion: go with something about the size of a home theater receiver, because it'll be able to move enough air to cool itself without making lots of noise.
  • Why not just put it into an entertainment center with an open back (for ventilation) and a closed front?

    As others have pointed out, the way to get rid of the noise from a small, fast fan is to replace it with a big, slow one. Not exactly easy in a Mac mini, but if you added some big slow fans to the entertainment center to move the air around the Mini (or whatever you get) then the fans inside might not have to work as hard. Another option would be to remove the case from the Mini. I don't know if the new '

  • Try one of the ASRock barebones PCs []. I bought one to replace my last home-built silent PC.

  • If this is in a rec room or den, just buy a mini-fridge. Cool your CPU and your beer of choice at the same time. You'll have to get creative with the cabling, and your electric bill will suffer, but so long as there's nothing perishable in the fridge you can run it at the lowest setting. And the large thermal mass of all of that beer (you'll have to keep it stocked, of course) housed in aluminum (with its high thermal conductivity) is the perfect heat sink.
  • I've been building a lot of mini-itx systems lately and attempting to keep them as quiet as possible. I've built several systems that are near silent and only have one fan in them, yet perform quite long as the motherboard's built in video card is good enough for you. Just get a PICOPSU-160-XT and a (fan-less) power brick from mini-box, and it moves a great deal of the heat outside the case. Get a good, low-noise cpu fan and an SSD hard drive, and it will be whisper quite. Add a water cooled cpu c

  • low end cpus are not good for EMU uses also for a media center you may want to have to room for a x4 pci-e cable card tuner. A big HDD to hold data. Maybe a SSD for the OS and apps.

    Some Emulation setups like visual pinball + pinmame you need a better video card then on board Intel video.

  • Based on my own experience, reflected in a number of anecdotes in support forums, I believe the Mac Mini (and Macbook Pro) is configured not to run the fan at all until the CPU temp hits 80 C (and thermal shutdown at 90), at which point you go from zero dB fan noise to turbine mode. A frequent mistake when opening up a Mini is to leave the fan control lead unplugged, causing the fan to go max rpm the moment power is reapplied.

    A workaround is to have the fan spin at a lower rpm, and ramp up gradually as the

    • by pbjones ( 315127 )

      the new Mac-Mini runs it's fan all of the time, but at only 1800 rpm, once you start to work the thing hard it needs to run at twice that speed. Bad case design leads to noise as the air exits the box. Someone could do a kit that sits under the mini and does a better job of cooling. But as the OP has sold the mini, it's too late. Spend money, buy a nice passive cooled case.

  • The problem I've seen from games and emulators is that if your CPU has the horsepower, they will max it even if they don't need it. Why does a 3D game need to render at 160 FPS when my hardware is only capable of displaying 60 FPS? It doesn't, but it's hard-coded to render as many FPS as possible so it does.

    The easy fix I've found is to throttle your CPU. For older versions of Windows and Core processors, you could use a utility like RMClock [] to limit its max GHz. For i3/i5/i7 processors and Windows 7
  • by Jiro ( 131519 )

    I'd agree to just mod a Wii. It's not going to run bsnes but it's quiet, it's actually easier to mod than an Xbox, it will still emulate just about everything from the 16 bit era and before (unless your game only works on bsnes), and since it is a Wii, it plays Wii and Gamecube games so you won't need Dolphin.

  • I build this HTPC system last year and loaded it with XBMC [] Live running on Ubuntu (now 11.04) that can do full 1080p hardware accelerated decoding of complex scenes without dropping a single frame (I do my own encodings). Because the Intel Atom is a dual-core at 1.8 GHz along with nVidia Ion Next Generation which is equivalent to a GT210 video card it can shred on graphics.

    HTPC - iAtom 1.8 2C, 2GB DDR3, 40GB SSD, 2TB HDD, Blu-Ray, ATSC+ClearQAM, Mini-ATX, 120mm Fan []

    Subtotal: $588.91
    Shipping: $22.2

    • The chassis fan is connected to the CPU fan lead, there is no CPU fan on this motherboard. The temps are high but they are always this high even with the fan spinning slowly to cool down the case and also the fan in the power supply.

      There might be less expensive and more powerful options available this year with the AMD and Intel with integrated graphics but I haven't looked into them in terms of thermals, Mini-ITX, case compatibility, noise, etc. My little HTPC runs non-stop as my Linux server and HTPC b

  • Honestly, for all I've read about the "silent PC" it just convinces me that it's all in people's heads and the "silent PC" has become the new expensive Monster Cables pushed at you by the sales reps at Best Buy. I used a G4 Mac Mini for years in my living room, and sitting twelve feet away I can honestly tell you I never heard the damn thing. I then went out and replaced it with an Early 2009 24" iMac, put it on an end table less than 3 feet away, and connected three external hard-drives to it and they're

    • Heck, I have a 2009 mac mini in my sleeping room, and I am rather sensible to noise but I under normal circumstances I dont hear the thing, no matter what other posters say. If I have media on, there might be noise, but the tv takes care of not hearing the mini and if it is in normal mode waiting to do something or standby, there is not a single noise.

  • Is the question you need to answer. Decent emulation of old hardware often requires fairly hefty CPU - and there's no getting around that (other than trading off frame rate or accuracy).

    I suspect you may (counter-intuitively) find more success with large cased desktop hardware than the small form factor laptop style hardware - the reason for this is that large fans make less noise for the same airflow than small high speed ones.

    Sure, a mini, laptop, etc is fairly quite when it is idle. Ramp up the CP

  • Here are the fanless systems I have used :

    * Neo []. The whole case is an aluminum radiator, with fins on two sides, and holes.
    It died after 4 years (DC input capacitor on mobo, I guess).

    * FitPC2i []. The aluminum case is the radiator, with no fins, no holes (except for connectors).
    Very small. Still running fine after 1 year (in the dust).

    Both systems are silent - 0db - with solid state storage. Instead of SSD I use USB key and mmc on the FitPC2i.

    Various configurations use those fanless cases, you can find so

  • I assume someone has already pointed out that the mac mini's problem isn't active cooling but too small of fans (a mistake I"ve made before as well).

    What I'd suggest is longer cables. Specifically, I normally put my TV-connected computers in a different room and just run a USB cable and HDMI cable to them. If your cables can't reach, for $50 you can extend HDMI over 2 cat-6 cables. You can also get self-powered USB repeater cables which can let you extend USB out pretty far. Then your computer can be
  • Your best option is an i3-2100T on a bare bones H61 motherboard. TDP for the i3-2100T is only 35 watts. It will run circles around Atom and AMD fusion solutions. The faster the cpu gets it's work done the faster it can get back into a low power sleep state. The i3 idles lower than Atom and every AMD chip. Put a good, large, low profile heatsink on the i3. You want one with a big, slow 120mm fan. Go with a low rpm 120mm yate loon fan for optimum quietness.

(null cookie; hope that's ok)