Tranquil T2e.SP13000 review
The adage that children should be seen and not heard may have been consigned to history’s rubbish bin, but there’s something else in the home that would be much easier to live with if it played by those rules: media centre PCs. The notion of an ugly beige box muscling into the living room has very little appeal, but doubly so when it pumps out loads of heat and fan noise to disturb your TV viewing.
Tranquil, a UK-based PC chassis maker, applies quiet, low-power designs to the challenges of this new PC environment, and in the T2e.SP13000 it offers a completely fanless system for Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (MCE). A laser-etched transparent front panel backlit by a blue LED transforms the otherwise plain DVD-player appearance, and it wouldn’t look out of place stacked with a stereo system.
There’s a clear trade-off between noise and performance. Although this is a PC in technical terms, in reality it’s an entertainment appliance. It’s not designed for users to grind through Photoshop tasks or blast aliens in the latest game. Instead, everything about the internals is chosen or built for low power consumption and silent running.
The tiny VIA EPIA SP13000 mini-ITX motherboard takes up only a quarter of the internal space and runs VIA’s 1.3GHz C3 processor with a CN400 chipset. On top of the CPU is an aluminium block sandwiching copper heat pipes that run to a massive 1.25kg heatsink. With dimensions of 39 x 301 x 63mm (WDH), it’s essentially the right-hand side of the chassis itself. It feels warm after prolonged use, but with the low-power CPU it never approaches hot. Still, you shouldn’t stuff this system inside a cabinet where there’s little ventilation.
A single memory slot holds 512MB of PC2700 DDR SDRAM, of which 64MB is reserved by the chipset’s integrated VIA/S3G UniChrome Pro IGP graphics. A riser off the motherboard supplies the only two PCI sockets for twin Black Gold Signature DVB-T (digital Freeview) TV tuner cards. This is one area where Tranquil beats both Hi-Grade with its DMS II (see A List, p48), which can’t yet be ordered with digital tuners. You can buy the Tranquil with only one card (for £825), but with dual tuners you can record one channel while watching another live. The riser arrangement is mechanically disappointing, though, and if you have problems during installation it’s worth taking off the T2e’s lid to check that the TV tuners haven’t worked loose, as they had in our review unit. Along the back, there’s a tiny 80W power supply. The transformer is external, looking like any average laptop’s power brick, and inside the main unit there’s just a small circuit board and heatsink.
At the front half of the chassis, there are two storage drives. On the left, you’ll find a quiet 160GB Samsung SpinPoint 7,200rpm hard disk encased in another enormous heatsink, which encloses it on three sides. The assembly is fastened to the steel case using rubber washers to minimise vibration, and there’s room inside for a second hard disk for RAID configurations. On the right of the case, there’s a slot-loading notebook DVD-RAM/-R/-RW drive, so you can burn content off to DVD. However, the thick transparent front fascia adds an extra 10mm to the depth of the access slot, making ejected discs hard to grab without getting fingerprints on them.
In our benchmark tests, the T2e scored a distinctly modest 0.51. On practically any standard PC or laptop, you’re looking for the ability to run anything you throw at it, but in this case it’s more than sufficient, and there’s no difficulty zipping through MCE. It’s worth remembering that although the VIA components aren’t designed for raw speed, they have specific tricks up their sleeves for handling multimedia, such as hardware MPEG2 and MPEG4 acceleration. The T2e.SP13000 still feels responsive with typical desktop applications, and Microsoft Office components open in under a second. It also handles other standard applications such as email, web browsing and simple photo editing. The integrated graphics solution won’t run to gaming, though.