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Small-form-factor PCs have gone mainstream. The SFF revolution, led by motherboard and case maker Shuttle is now going full tilt, and these machines are beginning to show up everywhere from living rooms to corporate boardrooms. Another increasingly popular destination for SFF PCs is in entertainment centers, where they can act as DVR, HDTV tuner, DVD player, and jukebox. Loyd Case recently wrote about his adventure with AOpen’s XC Cube AV (EA65-II) as a home theater PC (HTPC), and came away with mixed opinions about its suitability to the task.

Kloss PC (no relation to the legendary speaker designer, the late Henry Kloss) has introduced its 915 series of SFF PCs, aiming them squarely at the HTPC crowd. It’s easy on the eyes, but does it have the function to match its form? We put the Kloss KL-I915B through our battery of tests to answer that for you. Continued…

The KL-I915B is part of a three-product lineup that consists of

  • KL-I915B—The “entry-level” case and motherboard, priced at $320.
  • KL-I915A—Same as the 915B, but adds a remote control, an IR receiver and front-panel volume and media transport controls, priced at $350.
  • KL-I915W—Same as the 915B, but adds wireless 802.11b/g wireless Ethernet to the mix, priced at $400.

All three ship with CyberLink’s PowerCinema 3.0 all-in-one home entertainment software, which provides a 10-foot UI for managing and accessing movies and video files, photos and music—with or without a remote control.

The bare-bones KL-I915B system arrives with the motherboard, a specialized CPU cooling fan, and a remote control to drive the bundled InterVideo CinemaNow 10-foot UI media application. At the top of the unit is an air intake that’s directly above the CPU cooling fan, which has a cowling that draws cool outside air in and passes it through the CPU’s heat-pipe cooling system.

The KL-I915B uses a two-floor design approach to house the system’s components, where the “downstairs” is occupied by the 250-watt power supply; hard and optical drives are installed here, too. “Upstairs,” you find the motherboard, which includes a single X16 PCI Express (PCIe) slot and a single PCI slot. By putting the power supply and spindles downstairs, the motherboard area has an almost airy feel to it, with easy access for installing the CPU, memory, and expansion cards. The one downside of this design is that it adds about 1.5 inches to the system’s overall height. If you’re trying to wedge an SFF PC into a tight spot, you should take measurements first to make sure it can accommodate a 9-inch tall case. Continued…

Like every other 915-based SFF PC we’ve seen to date, Kloss’ KL-I915B doesn’t offer support for DDR-2 memory, so your only option here is DDR1. DDR2 would provide higher performance, particularly on media encoding applications. DDR-2 would kick out less heat because the actual memory core clock is 1/2 the clock rate “seen” by the system. DDR1, by contrast, clocks the core at the same speed as the external I/O clock. For more about DDR2’s advantages, see Loyd Case’s piece about the evolving memory landscape.

Because Kloss’ KL-I915B system uses the 915G chipset, the unit’s back panel has a VGA connector if you want to use Intel’s integrated Media Accelerator 900 graphics processor. If you’re only planning to run office applications and surf the web, this graphics solution is adequate, but if you’re considering the Kloss for use as an HTPC, you’ll want to install a discrete graphics card, which will give you better image quality for video playback. For an office machine, good video playback is a nice extra, but in an HTPC, it’s a must-have.

In the above picture, you can see the release latch for the optical drive cage and the release for the hard-drive sled. Both spindles were pretty painless install, though you do have to install the optical drive first, and the hard-drive second. The system comes with custom S-ATA and ATA cables with motherboard-end terminals that are perpendicular to the cable to make the motherboard connection easy and so that the case cover slides easily into place.

There’s an additional 3.5-inch drive bay where you can add a second hard drive, a multi-card reader—or if you’re really old-school, a floppy drive. This bay doesn’t have a sled of any kind. Instead, you just slide your spindle or reader in and attach mounting screws from either side.

We really liked the design’s space that allowed largish hands to get into the upper part of this case to install the CPU, memory, and CPU cooler. We found out (the hard way) that it’s best to install the PCI card first before you put in the PCIe graphics card. Unfortunately, because there’s only a single PCI slot, you’re faced with a tough decision—TV tuner card, or sound card?

The KL-I915B ships with a C-Media HD Audio down on the motherboard, which has 6.1 analog channel output as well as optical (TosLink) S/PDIF in and out. If you really wanted a PCI TV tuner card, then you either have to use the integrated audio, or use a USB-based audio solution like Creative’s Audigy 2 NX. However, if you use the integrated C-Media HD Audio solution, you won’t be able to play back full-resolution DVD Audio, since HD Audio lacks the needed secure bus to handle the decryption in DVD-Audio’s content protection scheme.

As we were putting the test system together, we made another unfortunate discovery: the Kloss KL-I915B doesn’t have a PCIe power connector to support higher-end 3D cards that require more power than the PCIe slot alone can supply. While you can obtain a power adapter cable, the unit’s 250-watt power supply lacks sufficient juice to power high-end 3D cards.

The Kloss’s design seems more focused on quiet operation than full-on performance. If you’re building an HTPC, you may not be especially interested in the biggest, baddest 3D card, but if you’re going to be building an HTPC using the Kloss as your base, then you’ll need to consider a midrange 3D card. For our testing, we used a GeForce 6600 GT card with 128MB of memory. Continued…

The Kloss driver installation disc pops up a menu that lets you select the drivers you want to install, but you have to manually install motherboard, graphics, audio, and Ethernet drivers one at a time. There’s no provision to gang the driver installation and have the utility auto-manage any needed reboots. In addition, the installers for the IR receiver’s driver and CyberLink’s PowerCinema 3.0 are buried on the CD, and the AutoRun-invoked UI doesn’t have any pointers to them. We wound up having to hunt for those and install them by hand.

We also had to update the AMI BIOS from version 2.03 to 2.04, just to make sure we had the latest BIOS, and thankfully, Trigem supplies a Windows-based BIOS installation utility. With floppy drives increasingly (and deservedly) on the endangered species list, DOS-based BIOS flashing utilities are more of a pain to use than they used to be. We did take a brief traipse into the BIOS, and found it lacked the deeper granularity of motherboards suitable for overclocking. The AMI 2.04 BIOS did add the switch for the XD (execute disable) bit supported on newer Pentium 4 CPUs, but lower-level settings such as memory timings were not exposed.

We had planned to test with an Audigy 2 sound card installed, but after installing the card and its drivers, the system locked up hard on reboot. It repeatedly locked up each time we tried to bring it back up. We tried disabling the C-Media HD Audio solution in the BIOS and uninstalling its drivers, but to no avail. Next we tried another Audigy 2 card on the off chance that the first one had gone bad, but got the same result. We did notice as we removed the first card that it was very hot, having picked up quite a bit of heat from the power supply directly below it. We can’t say for sure, but we’re left wondering if the heat from the power supply was causing instability in the Audigy 2’s onboard chips.

This issue was troubling not so much because we couldn’t get a discrete sound card working—the integrated HD Audio can do a pretty good job for most applications except gaming. If the power supply’s heat output has the same adverse effect on a TV tuner card, and you want to use this Kloss system as an HTPC, then you’re really up chocolate creek without a Popsicle stick.

Next, we tried to put the C-Media audio drivers back in the system and re-enable the HD Audio onboard audio via the BIOS, but were unsuccessful. Ultimately, we had to blow away our first Windows installation, and start from scratch, and wound up using the C-Media audio solution.

As an inspection test, we installed RightMark Audio Analyzer, and hooked up a loopback cable to the integrated audio’s line-in and its front L/R output, and took some measurements at the 44.1KHz/16-bit resolution. What we found is that the C-Media solution’s analog I/O section delivered about 90dB of dynamic range, which at this resolution isn’t bad, though a discrete PCI sound card would be up around 93 to 94dB on this same test. As previously stated, the other option would be to use the integrated audio’s S/PDIF output and run that into your home theater receiver. Continued…

We performed a clean install of Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2. Then we ran the following benchmarks:

  • BAPCO SYSmark 2004, which replaces our now-obsolete Winstone suite.
  • PCMark04, to gauge memory and CPU performance.
  • 3DMark05 CPU Test as a memory and CPU check.
  • Two games: Unreal Tournament 2004 (ET multiplayer timedemo) and Doom 3
  • SPECviewperf 8.01. This is a graphics intensive test using recordings from a suite of professional 3D applications. It hammers on the graphics interface and actually stresses both AGP and PCI Express a bit more than the game benchmarks.

For testing, we equipped the Kloss KL-I915B with the following components:

Kloss KL-I915B SB81P System
Processor: Pentium 4 Model 540 at 3.2GHz Pentium 4 model 550 at 3.40GHz
Motherboard and chipset: Kloss 915, using Intel 915G chipset Shuttle FB81; Intel 915G Core Logic
Memory: 2 x 512MB Kingston DDR/400 using SPD timings 2 x 512MB Kingston DDR2/400 using SPD timings
Graphics: Nvidia GeForce 6600 GT with 66.93 ForceWare driver ATI Radeon X800 XT PCIe; 256MB Memory; Catalyst 4.10 Drivers
Hard drive: Samsung 100GB S-ATA drive Seagate 160GB SATA Drive with support for Native Command Queuing
Optical drive: ATAPI DVD-ROM Drive ATAPI DVD-ROM Drive
Audio: Onboard C-Media HD Audio Sound Blaster Audigy 2
Operating system: Windows XP Professional with SP2 Windows XP Professional with SP2

For comparison, we also present results gathered on the Shuttle SB81P, which is also based on the 915G chipset. Continued…

Here, we can see that on the Content Creation tests, the Shuttle system is about 13% in front, beyond the 6% CPU clock delta that exists between these two systems. We weren’t able to dial in custom memory timings, and the BIOS likely sets those timings by SPD. But the more likely cause of this gap is the different hard-disks in the systems.

We tried repeatedly to get the Office Applications Test to complete, but we encountered a script error on the Adobe Acrobat test that stopped the test suite cold, and as a result we couldn’t get a score. At press time, we had contacted TriGem about this issue, but hadn’t heard back from them.

The Overall and CPU scores correlate to the CPU clock difference between the two systems, however the Shuttle system is 14% faster on the memory testing, which is likely a result of the memory timings used on that system. Otherwise, these two systems are running essentially even here. Continued…

The two systems are running very close to even here, and the small performance difference seen here maps closely to the 6% CPU clock difference between the two systems. One issue with this test is that the unit of measure is frames per second. You can plainly see, these frame rates are very low, and while we can usually see mathematical differences between two tested systems, the perceptual difference is almost nonexistent.

UT2004 tends to be CPU-bound, and at this low resolution (640×480) with rendering settings dialed way down, we see the two systems are essentially tied, even with the disparate 3D cards. Doom3, even at 640×480 and using the low quality settings still imposes fill-rate demands on a 3D card, and that difference made itself felt here. But since the Kloss system lacks a PCIe power connector, it can’t host a high-end 3D card that needs more power than the PCIe slot can provide. Continued…

This one came as a bit of a surprise, since we were using a midrange 3D card in the Kloss system. nVidia has historically always had better OpenGL drivers, and that pedigree was evident here. To be fair, this is a workstation-focused test, and ATI has a completely different driver stack designed for workstation applications from its FireGL team. The performance difference here isn’t especially large, but we expected the results to tilt the other way. Continued…

There’s a lot to like about the new Kloss PC design. The upstairs/downstairs internal design is a refreshing (and roomy) change to the crowded designs we’ve seen from the likes of Epox, AOpen, and Shuttle. However the location of the power supply directly under the expansion cards does cause whatever’s in the PCI slot to become quite hot to the touch. And, we were unable to bring up an Audigy 2 sound card in the unit’s expansion slot, owing to system instability. If you’re okay with using the onboard C-Media HD Audio, then this isn’t an issue. And, given the lack of a PCIe power connector for higher-end 3D cards, this system is clearly aimed at the HTPC crowd rather than at hardcore gamers.

The Kloss KL-I915B’s performance is pretty solid, though mixed versus Shuttle’s direct competitor, the 915G-based SB81P. On CPU-focused tests, Kloss stacks up well against Shuttle, and during the course of our testing, the unit stayed very quiet, even when there was a heavy workload on the CPU. This attribute in particular would make the Kloss system an excellent HTPC, we just wish it had a second PCI slot to allow the option of adding a discrete sound card and a TV tuner card. Granted, you could use an ATI PCIe-based All-in-Wonder card and put a sound card in the lone PCI slot, but that limits your TV tuner choices severely, and we couldn’t get an Audigy 2 sound card to run in the system’s PCI slot.

All told, this is a strong first outing from TriGem/Kloss. We like the external look. We like the internal design (mostly). But for an SFF PC designed as an HTPC foundation, a few rough edges still need to be smoothed.

Product: Trigem’s Kloss KL-I915B
Company: Trigem Computer
Pros: Sleek design both inside and outside; easy access to CPU, memory, and expansion slots.
Cons: Taller than typical SFF PCs; power supply sitting under motherboard does heat up any PCI expansion card installed; won’t support higher-end 3D cards; could use another PCI slot.
Summary: Kloss brings a refreshingly new design to the SFF PC market that’s designed to create an elegant looking HTPC. Its internal ease of access matches its external good looks, though it could use another PCI slot, and better thermal shielding between the power supply and the motherboard that sits right above it.
Price: $350 (MSRP)