As a long-time Windows Media Center user, I’ve been sad to see the product gradually fade away after peaking with Windows 7 before finally being sent to Microsoft’s ‘Naughty Room’ (where you’ll find the other great products that died as a result of inattention or infighting.) Windows Home Server was the other part of my home media solution, and met an equally ignoble fate at the hands of Microsoft’s hatchet team.
It must be something I said.
Why A Server?
The popular solution is to put everything in the cloud, but then one becomes a slave to bandwidth. And while the cloud is a great back-up solution, I’m not ready to make it the primary location for all my media. As such, I need to replace my aging collection of obsolete hardware with something shiny and new. I’ve selected Plex running on Windows 10 as my software of choice (more on that in the next instalment) and because I plan to use transcoding to serve up video to all various device form factors used in the family, the new server needs to be quite powerful. Plex recommends a 2000 PassMark CPU for each 1080p stream, so going for the full i7 seemed the best approach to allow for 4 – 5 simultaneous streams.
Silence Is Golden
Since I plan to plug this server into the TV in order to use the richer Windows 10 Plex client for lounge usage, the server needs to be as silent as possible. QuietPC.com specialise in fanless PCs with a wide variety of configurations. Calculating my storage needs (8tb to start with) I selected the MiniQube chassis with a combination of traditional disks and SSD. This chassis is large enough to include a truly epic fanless cooler for the CPU and a powerful fanless PSU. I’m not a fan of separate PSU blocks – an appliance type device should just need one cable. Adding in 16gb of RAM to deal with whatever Plex and Windows 10 throw at the server seemed sensible too.
Now That’s What I Call Packaging
7 days after ordering (and numerous discussions with QuietPC’s technical team to ensure the specification I had settled on would actually work) the box arrived in packaging that would have impressed the iteration of IBM that gave the world the PS/2. A very large cardboard box for what I was expecting to be a small server. In actual fact, the 27cm x 18cm brushed metal box feels surprisingly large and quite heavy. It does have a feeling of quality to it, and the metal doubtless assists with cooling in the absence of fans.
I did not specify a media slot, so the front of the box is plain, with just an illuminated power button that changes colour depending on what the server is doing (indeed, the server is so quiet, this is often the only indication of life). The front also features 2 USB 3 ports and some audio sockets. The back of the box has an array of desktop ports including more USB 3 ports, HDMI, DVI and as a nod to the last century, VGA and PS/2 connectors. There are 2 spare PCI Express slots in the box which could take a graphics card or TV tuner. However, I think adding those might interfere with the airflow.
Applying power shows a QuietPC splash screen and then loads the last few pages of the Windows 10 set-up. Which is where it all went a bit wrong.
After completing the last steps of the install (entering the product key) the new machine dropped straight into the restart loop of doom. I’m familiar with this occurring during Windows 10 updates, but not on a brand new install on a new PC. After trying a number of ways to get around this, the technical team at QuietPC offered to take the server back or have me reinstall Windows using a USB image. Creating this image did not present a problem for me, and reinstalling Windows itself took less than 10 minutes (such is the speed of this server.)
However, other users may find this more of a problem and, to be fair, one does expect one’s shiny new computer to work out of the box. QuietPC assure me that this is an extremely rare occurrence and have also laid some of the blame at Microsoft’s door. I do have to also commend the team at QuietPC for their efforts in trying to resolve the problem.
Up And Running
Once running, the server itself is nearly silent with just the whir of the drives being audible. Running 24/7, I have not noticed any temperature issues. It is a little early to accurately measure the power consumption versus the hardware I used to run. I will cover the Plex installation next time, but so far I have been very impressed with both the performance and stability of the system. And to top it off, it appears my old Media Center Remote and Keyboard work as well. Now I just need to remap The Big Green Button…
Update from QuietPC
QuietPC responded to my issues with the Windows 10 installation with the comments below:
“We do a lot of testing on the system prior to setting it to ‘out of box’ mode and it’s at that point we can’t test it any further but here’s what we do to test the system beforehand:
Once a system has been built and before we install the operating system it is left on a memory test overnight. This normally catches memory problems but it’s always possible for memory to fail once the customer receives and starts to use the PC and this has happened on a few occasions.
Then we install Windows and all the associated drivers and before proceeding we check the integrity of the main system drive using HDDScan to ensure that’s not going to cause any issues.
After that we run the Passmark Burn in tests, which test the whole system including the memory for a second time. Alongside the Burn in Test, we simultaneously run the Valley Benchmark program to push the graphics as hard as possible and again both these tests are left running overnight to stress test the system. Only when all tests have finally been passed do we then start to run through all the other checks that we do such as testing that all the ports work and any peripherals such as monitors/keyboard and mice also work.
Sadly we can’t go through the initial ‘Welcome to Windows’ section where the customer sets up their account but for the most part, there are usually no issues at this point.”