Zalman HD135 HTPC Case

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Product: Zalman HD135 HTPC Case
Provided By: Zalman USA
Price: ~$300 CDN

Introduction:

Home theater PCs are becoming more and more popular among the home theater enthusiast for several reasons.  The largest reason for building and utilizing an HTPC is the consolidation of home theater components.  An HTPC can potentially replace your DVR, cable box, dvd recorder, dvd player, stereo receiver, media bridge, and stuff it into one nice tidy package.  And of course the most convenient benefit...one remote to do it all!  Well known for their excellent thermal solutions, Zalman entered the HTPC market some time ago with their first case, the HD135.  Does the HD135 stand up to Zalman's quality standards?  Read on to find out.

First Impressions:

The HD135 comes packaged in a standard box with plenty of styrofoam protection.  Inside you'll find the remote, software, instructions, and hardware housed in a smaller box.  The weight of the case was the first thing that caught my attention.  It's constructed entirely of aluminum, (with some itty bitty exceptions) but as you can see the aluminum is quite thick giving the case plenty of rigidity.  At first glance the remote appears to provide more than enough functions and is well laid out.

 
Case
 
Remote

The HD135 is built to handle a full size ATX system including a full size ATX power supply.  The case is finished to fit in with any other home theater components you may have and looks very much like a stereo receiver without a giant volume knob.  Zalman paid attention to detail when they built the HD135 to look like any other home theater component.  They even used chrome feet with rubber pads on the bottom.  Let's pop the top and see what's inside.

 
Lid
 
Inside

The lid detaches toolessly with two thumb screws at the rear, and slide it back.  Immediatly you'll see the top vent fan and fan shroud designed to assist the cpu fan in pulling in fresh cool air.  The plastic shroud is also telescopic to adjust for different heatsink mounting heights.  Inside the case itself the stand-offs are pre-installed for a standard ATX motherboard.  The expansion slots do not require tools either and use a lever locking mechanism that works quite well.  A fan is also mounted in the bottom of the case right next to the PSU to provide additional air flow. 

 
Expansion Slots
 
In

Since this PC could also be used as a media server there are plenty of drive bays to accomodate and storage hungry user.  With six 3.5" bays this case has the potential to hold 4.5 TB of storage.  Only one 5.25" drive bay is provided for a single DVD drive as the area under the drive houses the electronics to drive the VFD.  The mass of wires you see serve many suproses.  Two fan headers are provided for fan control, two thermal probes are provided for temperature monitoring, a power cable is required to operate the VFD / electronics, and the rest are for the USB and Firewire headers which are found under the flip down panel at the front of the case.  I also noticed the threaded holes for the case lid are a steel insert to prevent thread stripping through the aluminum.  Good idea!

 
Front
 
Screwed 


System Installation:

The following system was installed into this case:

  • Asus P4C800-E Deluxe
  • Pentium 4 3.0E @ stock with Thermaltake air cooler
  • 2 GB Crucial Ballistix DDR500
  • Lite-on DVD Drive
  • Raptor 36 GB 10,000 RPM
  • Sapphire X800GTO
  • Audigy 2 ZS
  • Thermaltake 350W PSU


By no means is this a tame system as far as thermal output goes, but we'll see how it does crammed into this case.  Installation was farily straight forward and simple.  Since most of the stand-offs are installed it was easy as dropping in the board and screwing it down.  With the board installed there was still enough room to slide the removable drive bays out to install the drives.  The drive bays are held in with a single screw and are removed with a little bit of effort to slide them towards the back, out of their slots.  I would suspect the tight fit was intentional to prevent any vibrations.  The hard drive installed painlessly.  The DVD drive was a little trickier as you need to replace the front bezel of the drive with the one included to keep the finished look of the case complete.  I had to reposition the bezel once, and I would recommend removing the stock bezel, installing the drive, and then installing the new aluminum bezel to ensure everything is lined up properly.  Be very careful when you go to attach the new bezel as the tape Zalman uses is super sticky.  If you put it in the wrong spot the first time you might have trouble getting it off to adjust it.  As luck would have it the IDE cable for the DVD drive and the IDE port on the motherboard are directly on top of each other.  What's worse is the power cable is also underneath them both.  With a little convincing I was able to get everything plugged in, but it was a tight fit with this particular motherboard.  Here's a shot of one of the removable drive bays, and the entire system installed.

 
Bay
 
Installed

The CPU cooler I used was similar to the stock heatsink in terms of height and it was impossible to put the case lid on with the fan duct installed, so off it came.  I managed to keep the fan in place, but the shroud had to go.  The user guide recommends moving the additional fan so its placement is directly above the cpu fan for optimal performance.  Following the recommendation I moved it, and found something worth sharing. 

The stock position for this fan has the holes countersunk for the mounting screws so they sit entirely flat.  None of the other holes are countersunk so the heads of the mounting screws stick up and above the surface of the case.  Not only does this reveal the now empty countersunk holes which stand out like a wolf in the herd of sheep, but the screws now look like they were an after thought like they don't belong there.  It looks tacky.  This is what the rear of the case looks like with everything installed.  Also check out my super strength fingers as I hold up this entire computer by only one foot of the case.  Looking at this case from the rear, if you turned it up on its side, it'd look just like any ordinary PC case.

 
rear



Fire It Up!

Upon firing the system up for the first time, the VFD comes to life and displays this until you get the software installed:

A fresh install of Windows XP Media Center Edition was performed, then the system drivers, then the Zalman drivers.  All of the Zalman drivers installed without a hitch.  The software package includes the USB drivers for the display unit and remote, MPlay software for customizing the display and remote, Media Bay media center software, and SpeedFan to assist in controlling noise. 

MPlay has plenty of customization to suit your needs and change the way the VFD works.  There are 10 different preset display modes which you can see listed in the software.  Every one of the display modes is fully customizable.  The display itself can even be customized to adjust brightness.  Here's some screens of the MPlay software and some of the different modes:

 
Mplay1
 
MPlay2

 
Fans
 
NetStats
 
CPUStats

The beauty of MediaBay is it'll provide media center functionality to a PC that doesn't have Windows XP Media Center Edition installed.  MediaBay can be installed on Windows 2000 or WIndows XP (Home or Pro) and give you media center capabilities.  I chose to installed XP MCE to see if the remote would work with it, and indeed it does.  With the USB drivers installed for the display and MPlay installed the remote would launch and control Windows Media Center just fine.  I couldn't find any functionality in Windows Media Center that Media Bay doesn't provide.  Media Bay even has a few extras as it'll play flash files as well.  Here' a screen shot of Media Bay in action:

Neither Windows Media Center or MediaBay would play a DVD without a third party decoder installed such as PowerDVD.  It's obvious both WMC and MediaBay were designed to have all the media files stored locally as neither wanted to look for media files on a share.  I could get MP3s to stream, but pictures, videos, and dvds would not stream through a shared folder.  This poses a problem in my opinion as a massive storage server could be stored in another room while an HTPC could be used as the interface to those files.  This removes both heat and noise from the case.  MediaBay cannot actually 'see' a share.  The shares have to be mapped to a drive letter, which is really no big deal, but even after mapping several of my media folders MediaBay would not play any of my mpeg videos, DivX videos, or (legally) ripped DVDs.  Just for fun I threw in GeexBox to see if it would play nice with shares and if the Zalman remote would work with it.  Surprisingly GeexBox saw every single share and had absolutly no trouble navigating them.  GeexBox also played every media file I could throw at it.  It also played my (Legally) ripped DVDs.  However, the remote was not recognized and could not be used.

SpeedFan is the last app included in the Zalman software suite.  This little utility is used to monitor fan speeds, system temps, CPU load, an adjusts the fans accordingly.  SpeedFan also has the capability to raise and lower the motherboard FSB to lower thermal output during times of low load.  Pretty nifty.  Here's a few screens:

 
SpeedFan1
 
SpeedFan2



The Remote: 

The remote was one of the most disappointing features in the package as it controlled functions of the mouse pointer and navigation through the media software poorly.  The round disc in the middle of the remote is used to navigate menus and it didn't seem to matter how I pushed the disc 8 out of 10 times it would move twice.  It became very frustrating after a short time when you want to 'menu down' one item and it flies right by.  When not in WMC or MediaBay I thought the navigation disc would be used to move the mouse pointer around the screen.  Not so much.  The remote / software has a function called 'warp' which cuts the monitor into 9 sections and allows you to press the numbered buttons on the remote to 'warp' to that zone.  Moving the mouse pointer incrementally only works with the warp function on, which is very irritating to see a bunch of lines on your screen when all you want to do is move the mouse a half inch to the next icon.  Once I got the hang of moving the mouse pointer with the remote I found the movement to be erratic and incremental.  There was nothing smooth about it.  The pointer would move about a 1/8th of an inch at a time.  My 5 year old Remote Wonder moved the mouse pointer much smoother than this.  The remote works, but I'd rather use a cordless mouse on the couch for navigation and just use the remote for changing channels or the volume.  It's also worth mentioning that the remote will not power on the PC if it's shut down.

Vista Compatability:

With Vista being newly released I had to try out all the Zalman software and the remote on Vista just to see if it would work.  It does!  All of the Zalman software installed onto Vista without a single hiccup.  The software functions just as well as it did in XP MCE.

Conclusions:

After using this HTPC for a few weeks I did notice that it fingerprints quite easily and also picks up finger oils.  Buttons that are commonly pushed and the areas around them look extra shiney.  The aluminum bezel looks cool but I think this case would look equally nice with a full size door for the DVD where the user doens't have to change bezels.  This would make installation that much easier.  This is a full sized case and has the ability to house an SLI system provided the cards aren't too long.  I did notice this case it quite loud, but keep in mind I have an un-nessisarily high thermal output system installed in this case.  For it's functions the hardware is overkill.  This case is well designed for maximum airflow and it has many slots, fans, and holes for heat *and noise* to get out.  With a system more suited for an HTPC and some good air coolers or perhaps even watercooling this case would quiet down quite a bit.  The case itself reached a maximum temperature of 110°F near the raptor, but in general the case was warm all over which means it's conducting heat through the aluminum very well.  Not once did I have a single problem with overheating.  This is a high quality well built case, but the shortfalls in the software and especially the remote might be too much for some people.

Pros:

  • Well built, thick aluminum, ridgid case
  • Looks just like any other home theater component
  • Customizable VFD
  • MediaBay turns any version of windows into a media center
  • SpeedFan software controls thermal output / noise
  • Can install full size ATX system and power supply
  • Cools well...


Cons:

  • ...but is noisey
  • Remote has limited functionality and issues with navigation
  • Couldn't open any video files or pictures from a share or mapped drive
  • Fingerprints easy
  • Not all holes on top fan are countersunk


Score:

BCCHardware.com Rating
Quality:
8/10
Performance:
9/10
Software Pack:
6/10
Stability/Durability:
8/10
Features:
9/10
Value:
7/10
Total Score 7.8

 

Thanks Zalman USA for sending out the HD135 for us to check out!  If you have any questions or comments regarding this review, please feel free to drop us a line in the forum at the link below.