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Antec ISK110 VESA Case Review .............................. ....................

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Antec ISK110 VESA Case

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Introduction

Founded in 1986, Antec is recognized as a pioneer in the high-performance computer components and accessories for the gaming, PC upgrade and Do-It-Yourself markets, and has maintained its position as a worldwide market leader and international provider of quiet, efficient and innovative products. They recently sent us their ISK110 VESA case to test.

To say it's small would be something of an understatement but with the prolferation of numerous mini and tower case designs we think its time for something new. Antec have always led the way with cutting edge features that have gone on to become widely adopted (such as LED lights on fans) so could this form factor be the next big thing? Obviously this is not aimed at enthusiasts or even those that like multiple hard drives - in fact any sort of discrete graphics card will be impossible. At the other end of the scale it is easy to dismiss the ISK110 VESA as just another HTPC case but we think it is much more than that. In the course of this article we will see just what uses it can be put to.

 

Case Packaging

Clicking on any picture in this review opens up a larger, more detailed image and in some cases may be the only way to spot fine details.

 

Starting with the box which is smaller than that which a DVD player would come in, about the same size as a shoe box. There is no colourful packaging unlike most Antec enclosures. This is largely because the current market is for OEMs but we hope that will change as the possibilities are explored.

 

 

Inside we can see the main enclosure along with a sideways desktop stand, a VESA monitor mount with holes for all VESA configurations, cabling, two thermal insulation sheets and the power supply. This PSU is rated at 90W and is of the sort commonly used with laptops. This is understandable as the lack of internal space makes an external PSU mandatory.

 

The Antec ISK110 VESA unveiled  

The unit measure just 8 inches square and can easily be balanced in the palm of one had. One side has a large ventilation grill while the back is sealed. From a modders point of view, it would be easy to use masking tape to protect the plastic edge of the side panels and then spray with any colour paint using cans available from any DIY outlet such as Halfords here in the UK.

 

The sides also have grills and on the front we can see 4 USB 2.0 sockets and audio jacks. On the back is the plate for a typical mini-ITX motherboard but we recommend removing it and using the one that comes with an actual motherboard. The optional desktop stand allows the unit to be placed in the upright position and ease of access to the front USB ports albeit at the expense of some small amount of desk space.

   

It's remarkably empty once opened up. Connectors are provided for the front USB 2.0 ports (needs two cables whereas our Gigabyte board only had one connector so two of the ports were left unconnected). Only a few capacitors are needed as the PSU circuitry has been moved onto an external power block.

 

The back shows where a hard disk would go. The central plate is attached with 4 screws and when these are removed a 2.5" drive (up to 9.5mm in thickness) can be screwed into place (using the provided thermal insulation strips). We used a 120GB SSD for our tests. It is actually possible to use 2 2.5" drives so RAID configurations are possible. The power and data connectors are slipped through a gap between the frame and the motherboard but otherwise fit snugly.

 

 

Once we put the motherboard in things look more familiar but gone are any expansion card slots and only 2 DIMMs are present (plenty for most purposes). Installation is easy as long as everything is done gently. Our Socket FM1 CPU looks very large here and it is easy to see why similar sized enclosures from other manufacturers only use NetBook type processors such as the Atom and Zacate - both insufficiently capable for mainstream purposes.

 

 

Now that we have put in the processor, cooler and memory things are starting to look quite crowded. Of particular note is the woefully inadequate cable length of the 4-pin ATX connector which could not reach the motherboard connector without us resorting to an extension lead. We used an AMD A6-3500 triple core CPU with onchip GPU rather than motherboard graphics. This allows us to run the latest DX11 games and have HDMI output from a connector on the back plate (delivering sound too). 2 sticks of Corsair XMS DDR3-1600MHz RAM (4GB) finish things off. The cooler looks massive compared to the size of the enclosure and we did not use the smaller stock cooler as we wanted to avoid as much unnecessary noise as possible by going with a PWM solution.

 

 

Even with a low profile cooler we didn't think we would be able to get the lid on but because of the way the gril is raised it actually fit quite comfortably. The PWM fan is very efficient and responds quickly to temperature changes. The final assembled unit was re-assuringly heavy with a sturdy build quality. Given some small cable ties we could have tidied things up a bit but cable management is never going to be a design consideration on a case this small and most of the time it will be hidden out of sight behind a monitor.

 

 

The real test (and the reason why the word VESA is in the title) is shown above. The bracket fits easily on to any VESA mount on a monitor and the case slips onto the bracket and is held in place with 3 thumb screws from below. As can be seen, the case is dwarfed by even a modest 22" monitor. This is a good thing because it gives the impression of using an all-in-one PC but without the drawbacks or the high price tag. The PWM fan on our cooler was whisper quiet but sprang quickly to life under high load. It's worth remembering that at least an inch or two of clearance is required for proper cooling (so best not to push the monitor right up against a wall).

 

 

Among the new market segments we found were children of all ages from those about to start secondary school (left) to those who had recently started primary school (right). It was the "cute" factor and the savings on desktop space that the kids really liked. From the point of view of parents, a mini tower takes up floor space and is easily kicked by kids. A desktop case will likely have children poke things into it and risk fluid spills etc. This unit is cleverly hidden away behind a monitor and is actually very convenient - especially with a wireless mouse and keyboard that can be put away when not needed. Reasons for the favourable response from youngsters varied but included the portability, lack of visibility behind a monitor, dimensions similar to popular games consoles and quiet operation. We suspect that the recent trend of greater emphasis on ICT in early years education in most European countries has resulted in greater computer literacy and awareness among children that would otherwise be occupied with other activities.

 

 

The only problem parents are left with is having enough units to go round in those households with multiple children!

 

HTPC Performance

What about HTPC performance? Especialy compared to similar sized offerings from Zoltac and Asus?

The key here is all down to the CPU. Firstly, these micro designs all rely on processors such as Intel's Atom and Nvidia's ION chipset instead of a mainstream "desktop" CPU. In reality, they can barely cope with 1080i video let alone 1080p or even 3D Blu-Ray. When they do play high definition content the CPU utilisation is usually very high (often at 100%) meaning that not enough processing power is available for decoding. This results in two types of visual defect - dropped frames which are seen as stuttering and incomplete decoding which results in blockiness, smearing and similar artifacts. Both of these can be quite annoying when sititng down to enjoy a movie. So how does our system compare?

 

Here we see a 1080p clip rendered in flawless perfection and the CPU utilisation of our test system stays below 15%. This was only possible because we used a relatively powerful 3-core AMD Fusion processor with embedded discrete level graphics (Radeon HD 6530D).

 

Even high speed action can be reproduced effortlessly using a fraction of the computing power available. If this was an Atom based processor the picture above would be a blocky mess.

 

Conclusion

The Antec ISK110 VESA is a truly remarkable enclosure. It allows a custom built PC to be installed into the smallest case we have encountered that is not OEM only (i.e. the components are not soldered into place). While there are obvious limitations in using a Mini-ITX form factor motherboard, not everyone needs a discrete graphics card or multiple disk drives. We have overcome many of these limitations by using a triple core AMD processor (limited to 65W TDP) which includes embedded graphics capable of running most modern software and the latest games. This gives many times more processing and graphical capability than competitors designs which have opted for the safe (but lacking vision) approach of catering only to the markets of casual HTPC users and those just wanting to surf the Internet. A desktop version of a NetBook rather misses the point and this is where the ISK110 VESA really shines - in allowing the full capability of a mainstream desktop system to contained within such a small space.

The ISK110 VESA refuses to be pigeon-holed into a less demanding task (such as HTPC) but is a true multi-purpose home computer. We can even see it appealing to the corporate market by having the style and looks of All-In-One units (or even iMacs) without the hefty associated price tag with the only aesthetic choice needing to be selection of monitors to use. The same thinking would apply to schools and colleges. The biggest surprise market segment we found was that kids love it - particularly girls! If Antec were to spray the grill pink as an optional version then they may be onto a real winner (realistically though, it is not worth an extra SKU for them since it is so easy to spray the side panel grills any desired colour).

It's not without a few flaws. The cable length of the 4-pin power connector is too short for many Mini-ITX motherboards (although extension leads are cheaply available online) and the lack of an internal optical drive means that HTPC use will require prior ripping to hard drive or streaming from another server but that is to be expected of an enclosure of this size. Even with these minor caveats we have been unable to find another enclosure that comes close to allowing so much power to be contained within such a small space (as well as the unique use of a monitor's VESA slots for mounting a case out of sight) and this is a testament to the skills of the Antec design team and the innovative designs we have come to expect from them.

All things considered we think that this and similar designs have a bright future and award the Antec ISK110-VESA our Hardware Review Gold award.


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