Saturday, December 20, 2008


Last night I put together a new PC for my MIL.  It's based on an MSI Wind small form factor barebones system.  As usual, NewEgg delivered that parts I ordered very quickly.  It took two days to receive my order, even though I'd selected 3 - 5 business shipping.

The Wind barebones system comes with a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom CPU, an external power supply, and the SATA II data and power cables already attached to the motherboard.  Also included in the box were a Windows driver CD, a short User's Guide booklet, and screws to mount the hard disk and optical disk.

The Wind comes with 6 USB 2.0 ports (2 on the front), audio in/out on front, a speaker jack on the rear, along with jacks for surround sound speakers, and a flash card reader in front.  The card reader can handle compact flash and Sony Memory Sticks.  Dimensions of the SFF system are a scant 11.8" x 9.5" x 2.6".  Here are a couple of pictures of the Wind sitting on my desk next to my 20" widescreen monitor, with a coffee mug and my Black's Law Dictionary, 6th Ed. for scale.  (Click on the thumbnails for full size pics.)



For networking there's an onboard Realtek Gigabit Ethernet adapter.  The Intel GMA950 video adapter is onboard, as is the Realtek ALC858 sound card.

Rounding out the parts of the system are:

1. A Samsung SATA DVD-RAM drive.
2. A Western Digital 160 GB SATA hard disk.
3. A 200 pin SODIMM, 2 GB stick of Kingston DDR2-533 RAM.

The system is cooled by an exhaust fan mounted on the back which draws air in from vents on the right side (if you have it laying flat) of the box.  These vents are on the bottom of the case if you prop the system vertically, so MSI includes a stand which elevates the box off the floor.  (One could put the case on the other side but then the system would not take advantage of the fact that hot air rises.)  One thing that helps system cooling is that the 65W power supply is external.

Assembly of the system was straightforward.  Remove two screws on the back and you can remove the top/side of the case.  You then need to remove the front bezel, take out the filler for where optical drive goes, and mount the disks, using the screw holes on the bottoms of the disk drives.

Inserting the stick of RAM was a bit trickier.  The motherboard has one slot for a 200 pin DDR2-533 SODIMM.  The slot is tight and the latches securing the end of the SODIMM took some persuasion to allow the stick in, but after a few minutes I got it seated.

The motherboard also has two slots which remain unused in this system: a mini PCI-E slot for a wifi or TV tuner card, and a Compact Flash slot.  The latter can be used for building a completely solid state system, installing the operating system on a CF card.  Somewhat annoyingly, even when empty the CF slot shows up as Disk 0 in the system, which results in Windows being installed onto E:.  This caused one post-installation problem, which I'll discuss below.

Windows XP Professional SP3 installed easily after I got the system put together.  Note that the system does not have PS/2 ports for the mouse and keyboard, so you must use USB.  Keep this in mind if installing a pre-SP2 version of Windows or other OSes which don't support USB keyboards and mice during installation.

During installation I partitioned the hard disk, creating a 50 GB system partition with the remained to be used for data.  This will simplify reinstalling Windows if I need to do so down the road.  Post install, I created an account for my MIL and pointed her "My Documents" desktop shortcut to a folder on the second partition, the F: drive.

Once XP was installed I popped in the disc to load the drivers for sound, video and the network.  The sound driver required a reboot but IIRC, the video and NIC drivers did not.  I currently have the box connected to my Acer 20" widescreen LCD monitor, and the Intel GMA950 has no problems running it at 1600x1050 resolution, in 32 bit color.

The applications I installed are:

1. Anti-malware HOSTS file from
2. AVG Antivirus
3. Ad Aware
4. Firefox 3.0.5 with two extensions, Adblock Plus and Linkification
5. Foxit Reader (PDF reader that's much lighter than Adobe's)
6. PDF Creator
7. VLC for viewing videos and listening to audio files
8. MS Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Publisher 2007
9. CPUID Hardware Monitor
10. Nero Burning ROM
11. CCleaner
12. Skype, to be used with a webcam she already has

As mentioned above the system sets up the internal CF reader as Disk 0, and Windows sees this as C: in Disk Manager.  I thus wound up with the DVD burner as D: but the system partition on the hard disk as E:, and the data partition as F:.  Not having XP installed on C: caused the installation of Adobe's Flash Player to fail with an insufficient disk space error.  After hitting Google I found a workaround: connect a USB flash drive to the system.  Then, go into Disk Manager and change the CF reader to an unused drive letter (Z: in my case), change the USB flash drive to C:, then rerun the Flash player installer.  Upon doing so it ran.  My MIL will be happy now that she'll be able to watch videos on Youtube. ;-)

I was a bit concerned about system cooling.  The intake vent is right next to the RAM which partically blocks airflow, since the SODIMM protruded at right angled to the motherboard.  In laptops the RAM would be flat against the board.  I fired up CPUID Hardware Monitor and then watched several Youtube videos, an activity which warms up other systems I've used.  CPU temp stayed around 104* to 106* F.  I followed this up with the first two tracks from Derek and the Dominos Live at the Fillmore, played in the DVD-RAM drive.  CPU temp remained around 103* to 104*, so as long as the vents remain clear cooling should be adequate.  (I haven't tried ripping CDs or DVDs, which might stress the system more, raising temperature.)

The Derek and the Dominos CD played fine using VLC.  When I put in a Star Wars DVD and tried to watch it I got audio and a bunch of pixelated junk, however.  Another DVD player might work better, I'm not sure.  My MIL won't be watching DVDs on this system, in any event.

Since my MIL doesn't know yet that I've built this system for her, it's a bit tempting to throw Ubuntu or OpenSUSE on the box to see how it would handle Linux.  From how it works with XP, I think it should have plenty of power, especially with a lightweight desktop like XFCE.

The Wind is low powered by today's standards.  However, it does have enough processing power to handle light office tasks, web browsing, email, viewing online video, and listening to music.  Compared with a more powerful system, it's green, using less electricity and generating less heat.  The small dimensions make it easy to fit into cramped spaces.  In a sense, it could be viewed as the PC world's equivalent of a Mac Mini, but easier to work on and less expensive.  For users in need of a system which will do the tasks listed above, and who don't need a more powerful system for sophisticated audio/video processing, the MSI Wind barebones PC is a good option.  With disk space being cheaper than ever, the Wind could be the basis for an inexpensive, low power home server.  Finally, the onboard CF slot also offers interesting opportunities, such as building a flash based system for use as a web or X terminal.


Anonymous said...

thanks for the post!

Matt Oxley said...

thanks for the CF reader fix, you saved my arse.

Also, i have built two of these so far, great little machines (and the new BIOS allows for overclocking btw), but i was not comfortable with the temp on them so i cut holes in the side panel right behind the HD and but an 80MM fan on one of them, temp stays between 19-25C..and i found a fan that fit right between the two heatsinks that i was able to rig into the machine comfortably that did the same thing, try it out.