back to article Look ma, no fans: Mini PC boasts slimline solid-state active cooling system

A Hong Kong-based PC maker is claiming a first with the release of a Mini PC featuring a silent, solid-state active cooling system for its processor. Zotac Technology said its ZBOX pico PI430AJ features novel solid-state active cooling tech, in the shape of the AirJet Mini module from Frore Systems of San Jose. AirJet Mini is …

  1. elsergiovolador Silver badge

    Counter productive

    AirJet Mini is described as a self-contained active heat sink module that is 2.8mm

    It's like selling old squeaky chair and boasting about added premium ear plugs.

    Why not ditch legacy Intel and use some proper technology?

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Counter productive

      We need to get away from this solid state technology and return to proper brass gears.

      No more cooling concerns, so long as you keep everything properly oiled

      1. AlanSh
        Mushroom

        Re: Counter productive

        Brass Gears? That's a bit modern isn't it. I think steam powered compute power is the answer - and then your system could really go up in a puff of smoke.

        1. elsergiovolador Silver badge

          Re: Counter productive

          I thought we could just throw stones...

          1. Unoriginal Handle

            Re: Counter productive

            Isn't that just a primitive abacus?

            1. Horridbloke
              Boffin

              Re: Counter productive

              Not exactly, that's a random number generator coprocessor for abacus systems.

        2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Counter productive

          Ant powered would work - if only we could get enough bugs in (GNU pterry)

          1. David 132 Silver badge
            Thumb Up

            Re: Counter productive

            Pfft, my alma mater has an upgraded version that uses chickens - far more efficient, because they also get eggs.

            And I'm sure they've minimized the risk of a quasi-expansion blit phenomenon adapting itself to a living organism...

            (GNU Pterry indeed.)

      2. Ciaran McHale

        Re: Counter productive

        I recommend doing cloud-based computing, because the tiny water droplets provide an effective, and environmentally friendly, cooling mechanism.

    2. yagb

      Re: Counter productive

      but even with something more energy efficient, we still possibly need a cooling system.

  2. Zack Mollusc

    is that good?

    How does it compare with a traditional fan? Does a 1W fan move more or less than 4.whatever W of heat? Is the selling point the efficiency or the size?

    1. Filippo Silver badge

      Re: is that good?

      I don't know, but I think the fan is more efficient and scales better with size. I may definitely be wrong on that. But even if I'm right, I could easily imagine a Mini PC generating enough heat that passive isn't enough - but not much more than that. In such a case, the solid-state gizmo could win on size and silence, even if it means the whole box takes a few extra watts compared to using a fan.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: is that good?

        Really this is more solving the problem of heatsink as much as fan.

        The challenge is to get a lot of heat in a small space (the CPU) into a lot of space at lower temperature (the room)

        Instead of metal finned heatsink to get the heat into the local hot air and then blow that air away with a fan - this takes the hot air very close to the cpu and blows it far enough away that it dissipates.

        It would probably still benefit from a case fan, otherwise you just end up with a bloom of hot air near the magic fan

      2. MrDamage Silver badge

        Re: is that good?

        The Mele Q3 is a mini-PC with passive cooling, running N5105 and similar. The external case gets up to about 2.5 Hiltons during light loads, and up to 4 Hiltons during updates, and applying said updates is glacial.

        1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

          Re: is that good?

          Icon...?

          Where is the Paris Hilton angle?

          1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge
            Pint

            Re: is that good?

            Where is the Paris Hilton angle?

            The icon is far away & long since gone, but her name lives on as a unit of heat.

      3. yagb

        Re: is that good?

        Current systems, on average budget around 15% of total system power for fans.

    2. joed

      Re: is that good?

      Maybe it has more to do with noise levels than power dissipation itself. Speaking from personal experience power, noise levels and ability to provide smooth youtube playback (1080p or 4k depending on the attached tv) are deal-breakers for mini pcs. I still have an zbox pc and this thing rocked for 1080p media pc (and was fanless). Somehow I've had no such luck with newer celeron based Nuc like systems. Somehow Intel could not 4k deliver video decoding performance in the power envelope required for fanless build. Went through couple newer gen lower end boxes before settling on i7 Nuc (definitely not silent). In the end got a deal for the cheapest m2 mac mini and while this thing is virtually silent, the idiosyncrasies of macOS are not the best match for htpc (limited media playback support, no support for CE and Apple's UI choices), still livable though.

      1. David 132 Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: is that good?

        >Somehow Intel could not 4k deliver video decoding performance in the power envelope required for fanless build.

        Counterpoint - I have here an 8th-gen NUC8I5INH, which is one of their Compute Element modules with a Core i7-8665U 15 watt CPU. It's installed in a NUC Rugged Chassis (CMCR1ABC), which is a fanless aluminium case about the size of a hardback book.

        Currently as I type this it's playing a 1080p, 10-bit color H.265 MKV file from the LAN, and VLC is taking about 0.6-0.7% of the total CPU - ironically, Windows Update, this being a Win11 box - is hogging 25%+!

        CoreTemp reports the 4 physical cores at between 85-95°, with no sign of throttling.

        OK, so... in the time it took me to compose this comment my wife came in for a long chinwag, and meanwhile, Windows Update finished - core temps have gone back down to 57° or so.

        Echoing your use case I've just played a 1080p Youtube video; Firefox isn't terribly efficient for that, but even so, the process' CPU load maxed out at 22%, and again, no overheating.

        So there are fanless Intel solutions out there, but I'll be the first to admit that this is not a common solution - it's a commercial/industrial system, aimed at embedded, PoS, and digital signage applications - not home theatre.

        1. BinkyTheMagicPaperclip Silver badge

          Re: is that good?

          1080p is not 4K! On my J4105 based Wyse 5070 (somewhat slower than your CPU, slightly inferior GPU) if I try a bit of YouTube 1080p it's smooth as silk. 1440p has some hiccups (currently using a 1200p monitor), 4K is a stuttering slide show.

          There's also the question of expense. This box (second hand off ebay), with added SODIMM and M.2 SSD cost me under 200 quid. There are equivalent other off the shelf new solutions for up to a couple of hundred quid more.

          Beyond that it's still possible to go fanless, but it's increasingly expensive. For a system that runs a browser, a bit of LibreOffice, a few Unix based utilities, and a little Dosbox I do not want to spend 500-600 quid such is my arrogance of current technology prices (yeah, I know in the 90s I was spending well over a grand to do *anything*), but with so much computing power available for so little now it's coloured my expectations.

          1. David 132 Silver badge
            Thumb Up

            Re: is that good?

            1080p is not 4K!

            [Citation Needed] :)

            Fair point. I read the initial comment as "can't do 1080p or 4K".

            So to ensure that I wasn't deluded, I've just played a chunk of a 4K H.265 file from the LAN (Bohemian Rhapsody, FWIW) and decode is silky smooth, with VLC hovering at about 1.5% of the CPU according to Task Manager. CoreTemp reports all 4 cores hovering around 53-57C.

            My point remains. There are fanless solutions for Intel, but you have to be somewhat discerning.

    3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: is that good?

      "How does it compare with a traditional fan?"

      No idea :-)

      "Does a 1W fan move more or less than 4.whatever W of heat?"

      No Idea :-)

      "Is the selling point the efficiency or the size?"

      The selling points are the almost silent cooling and the physical size of the box, so the real question is will a 1W fan produce enough cooling at the same noise level in the available space.. Longer term is how reliable is this cooler? Small fans tend to be less reliable longer term than larger fans, so if it beats a fan on long term reliability then the new cooler may win.

    4. JoeCool Bronze badge

      No moving parts

      Thus, no longer a point of failure / repair.

      The selling point seems to be cooling capacity (airflow) , for the given size.

      1. sten2012 Bronze badge

        Re: No moving parts

        Same point maybe, if not closely related. Maybe not this device specifically (as they aren't marketing that way), but solid state cooling is great for industrial computing in dirty environments where fans are particularly prone to gunk, drawing in dust and seizing.

  3. Will Godfrey Silver badge

    How is it solid state?

    There are moving (vibrating) parts which will wear out at some point.

    1. GBE

      Re: How is it solid state?

      My thoughts exactly. Something that wiggles back and forth is "solid state" while something that spins isn't?

      And silent it is not.

      The quoted value of 21dbA isn't even that quiet. There are plenty CPU fans that are well below that [though they are probably larger].

    2. elsergiovolador Silver badge

      Re: How is it solid state?

      I hope it doesn't sound like a coil whine...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: How is it solid state?

        This, a million times this! A lot of people can't hear coil whine. I'm jealous of them. This would be a deal killer.

    3. DJO Silver badge

      Re: How is it solid state?

      You can move air about without any moving parts:

      Convection is easiest but needs a carefully designed enclosure that will always be the right way up and have unblocked vents.

      Ionic wind is another nice method and what could possibly go wrong with having a megavolt PSU close to a 5v processor.

    4. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: How is it solid state?

      >moving (vibrating) parts which will wear out at some point.

      Not if it's well within the elastic limit. A video projector chip has millions of little mirrors moving at 100khz for years

      1. GBE

        Re: How is it solid state?

        A video projector chip has millions of little mirrors moving at 100khz for years

        Why would they be moving at 100KHz?

        TI's DLP docs claim the mirrors can move at "up to 10KHz".

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: How is it solid state?

          They do PWM to set the grey level (the mirror can only be on/off) so have to run at 1000s of times the frame rate.

          I'm a bit NDA on how fast the fastest can do but you can work it out.

          1. Will Godfrey Silver badge
            Boffin

            Re: How is it solid state?

            I would question that.

            Bearing in mind that brightness sensitivity is nowhere near as great as colour sensitivity, it only needs to be a significant fraction of visual response time, which is around 1mS.

            1. This post has been deleted by its author

  4. GBE

    what could possibly go wrong with having a megavolt PSU close to a 5v processor.

    Indeed. And nobody has used 5V processors for decades. These days, I/O voltages typically max out at 3.3V (e.g. PCIe) and DDR RAM uses 2.5V I/O. CPU cores are usually running at 1.2V to 1.5V.

  5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Flanders & Swan said it first

    "tiny membranes that vibrate at ultrasonic frequency"

    "The human ear can't here as high as that/But you've got to please the passing bat"

    1. Paul Kinsler

      Re: Flanders & Swan said it first

      Indeed, is the system actually quiet, or just apparently quiet to humans..?

      1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

        Re: Flanders & Swan said it first

        If it is vibrating a membrane all the time, it's going to be quite loud at some frequency or another. If it is around 1 MHz I probably don't care. If it is 21KHz, it might induce problems in nearby objects (and animals, of course).

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Flanders & Swan said it first

        Good point. It's already known that some sounds not audible to the human ear can cause all sorts of issue from minor irritation to "sick building syndrome" and similar.

  6. BinkyTheMagicPaperclip Silver badge

    It really grinds my gears when 'silent' systems aren't silent

    If I ruled the world, marketers of 'silent' systems that made any noise would be fined, adverts changed, and any purchasers provided a 100% refund.

    I'm very happy with the Wyse 5070 I use as my main browsing box (which is silent in its configuration without an expansion slot), but finding it was a drawn out process of studying specification sheets, and searching on the Internet to find a sizeable proportion of 'silent' or 'noiseless' systems actually included a fan. Many, many manufacturers try extremely hard to hide this.

    I'll grant that things such as coil whine or EM interference can be a bit of an edge case, but a system that has moving parts is not silent. End of Story. Full Stop. No Appeals. I don't care who thinks 20db is inaudible, *I* make that decision, no one else. If I want a system that makes noise, I'll switch on my main PC with four fans and three GPUs (virtualisation).

    I'm also grateful that some companies get it right. I use Cisco SG300 switches at home, because in many (but not all) cases they're full featured and fanless. Cisco clearly label the noise level and the fan status of each model. I've too many experiences of kit that's suitably capable, but unacceptable in a domestic setting.

  7. Bartholomew
    Facepalm

    my understanding is ....

    That the high frequency ultrasound is disrupting any steady state laminar flow that would normally be produced by much slower, larger area, low decibel fan. This does take more energy, but any audio effects are going to be above the hearing range of typical humans. So instead at steady state having a very hot surface layer with progressively cooler layers of air above, the pulsed jet stream of air is blasting away hot air near the surface with lots of turbulence and replacing it with much colder air. Effectively it is reducing the thickness of the skin/surface/friction effect by using a lot more energy.

    In my mind it is not going to be as efficient as liquid cooling. I'm not even convinced that it would be as efficient as well designed traditional air cooling with large surface areas for maximum thermal transfer. The one area where it will have advantages is in space constrained system were there is limited space available to maximise surface area for heat transfer, but as the cost of using much larger amounts of energy to transfer the same amount of thermal energy away from the system.

  8. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

    Chimney

    Solid state cooling, no energy needed to move the air.

    You can still have a small footprint to the PC, but, add a chimney stack of suitable cross sectional area and height, with a finned heatsink at the bottom. The natural convection driven airflow will do the rest.

    This type of arrangement was what was in place at Windscale as backup should the forced air mechanism fail on the air cooled pile

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windscale_fire

    1. PRR Bronze badge
      Mushroom

      Re: Chimney

      For not-HOT objects, convection is a weak thing. Back in pre-Pentium days we estimated the stack to keep a fast '386 from melting. A 2 foot stack is not worth the tin to make it. Unless you can run Silicon fire-hot, and we can't. A "good" stack turns out to be like 10 meters tall. Yes, I happen to have an idle oil-furnace chimney, but most folks won't. And if I put my conventional fan-blow desktop in the cellar, _I_ won't hear a thing except my checkbook crying about the super-long monitor and USB cable to my living space.

      Broadband 20dB SPL _is_ silent unless you sit with your ear to the box. Even a mile back in the woods my house ambient does not fall that low. Yes, fans can have narrowband sound components which hardly bother the meter but hurt the ear. I know the spectra of 60Hz fans and unless a winding is loose the blade-whoozz typically gives a pinkish random hiss. (Was used as a noise-source for testing.) 3-inch fans similar 'cept motor buzz some octaves higher and more overtones. This newfangled supersonic boundary layer scrubber is too novel for me to predict. I'm sure I won't hear it but you young dudes may.

      1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

        Re: Chimney

        Thanks for the informed comment about not hot objects. Yes, age does make a difference.

    2. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge

      Re: Chimney

      I have a fanless Xeon E3-1285L in my Airtop - 100% convection cooled.

  9. PhilipN Silver badge

    Zotac

    Since nobody has addressed the point amongst all the smart-alecky remarks, I have tried a couple of Zotac products and was pleased with them. Particularly handy when the desk space is limited. I shall give this one a whirl.

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