I've always been a fan of small form factor (SFF) PCs ever since they first came out. Alright, I lied. I'm a fan of the "cube" style of SFFs, as the desktop style doesn't really appeal to me all that much. Other than appearance, the main issue I have with desktop SFFs is that they are hard to work with since they tend to be low profile. Furthermore, standard height peripheral cards will not fit in these cases.
This has been my opinion of some of MSI's recent SFF offerings but my interest did pique when offered a chance to look at MSI's first in their line of mPC Series of SFF PCs. This PC follows the more popular shape of SFFs, and I do like the more sophisticated look of it when I saw the initial photos. Looks only go so far though, so let's move on to the rest of the review and see how it performs.
||Intel Pentium 4 LGA775 800MHz Front Side Bus
||Intel 915G + ICH6
||Onboard GMA900 Intel Graphics
- 2 x 184-pin DDR DIMM Sockets.
- Supporting unbuffered non-ECC DDR 400/333 DRAM up to 2GB.
- Supporting Dual-Channel.
||1 X PCI Express x16 slot
1 X PCI slots
||Realtek ALC800 Audio Codec
The MSI mPC 915 SFF
Unlike the retro toaster/muscle car look the Soltek QBic Mania, which was the last SFF PC we looked at, the MSI mPC follows straight lines with a bit of a Rubic's Cube pattern on the front facade. Rather than being splashed with fancy colours, the mPC is all white with a bit of black trim. An all black version is offered, but only in the Athlon Socket 754 model. The other Pentium model, the mPC 945, is also all white. The appearance we think will appeal to more people than it will dismay, and personally I think it's pretty sharp.
The chassis is constructed primarily of aluminum, but the front facade is all plastic. Overall the mPC measures 210 (W) x 330 (D) x 175 (H) mm, and fully loaded, around 7 pounds. The main body is a one piece shell, which makes dismantling a little quicker than having three panels to remove. Each side of the body has ventilation holes to aid in system cooling.
The front of the mPC is essentially one piece with two doors for stealthing a couple areas. The upper three squares hide the optical drive. The door is designed so that it should not catch the optical drive when it closes, and 9/10 times, the door closes without any user intervention. We only tested the setup with a flat front DVD bezel. MSI has stated curved bezels will not work, and it's fair to say slot loaders will not either.
The middle section has two buttons. The one on the left is the optical drive eject button and the one on the right is the power button. The power button glows a mild blue when the PC is turned on. Next to the optical drive eject is the HDD LED light. The front facade is not completely opaque, thus you will be able to see the light in most scenarios.
The lower section of the front hides the 7 in 1 card reader which supports CF, MS, SM, SD, MMC, MS-Pro, and Micro Drives. Only two drives can be used at any given time though as Windows Explorer only recognizes two physical drives. Also in this area are two USB ports, one 4-pin IEEE1394, one 6-pin IEEE1394, SPDIF in, the Headphone out connection and the Mic-in.
Moving on to the back of the box, we can see that you can only fit a maximum of two peripheral cards in the mPC. There are two exhaust grills for the both the 260W power supply and 80mm rear fan. The PSU has a physical power switch in the event you need to turn off the PSU completely for maintenance. For input and outputs, you have the 7.1 audio ports, two PS/2 ports, the serial port, VGA port, a SPDIF out, four USB and the 10/100 LAN jack.
One thing that drives me nuts is misplacing thumbscrews that I remove when working with cases. Sure, I'm just disorganized overall, but for people like myself, the mPC uses thumbscrews that do not release itself from the chassis cover, hence, keeping all the bits and pieces together.
Based on the Intel 915G chipset, the mPC 915 uses MSI's very own MS 7115 v1.0 motherboard as the heart of the SFF. CPU support is limited to the Pentium 660 and lower. Since the chipset is the 915G, there is no Dual Core support, though the mPC 945 will work with those CPUs.
The board also features the ICH6 chipset, which among other things handles the two DIMM slots, supporting up to 2GB of DDR400 (officially) Dual Channel ram. Both the 915G and ICH6 are passively cooled, with the 915G using a larger aluminum heatsink. Some of the rear MOSFETs are also cooled by some large aluminum heatsinks.
For expansion, there is one PCI Express x16 and one standard PCI slot. The PCIe slot is located on the inside of the mPC and given its location, video cards with large two slot coolers should fit without modification to the side panel. The space is tight though, and we barely got an All-In-Wonder X1900 in there.
For those of you who do not wish to use a discreet graphics card, the mPC 915 is equipped with Intel's GMA 900 integrated video. It's not that great for gaming, especially if you have thoughts of playing Half-Life 2: Episode One on the box, but it does support DirectX9 and is alright for older, pre-2004 3D games.
Almost everything is tool free in the mPC 915, making installation a snap. The instructions are clearly outlined in the user manual, but for optical and hard drive installation, it's as easy as putting them into place and snapping down some locks, much like drive rails we've seen in other cases.
Another factor that makes installation easy is the neat cable routing that is pre-done by MSI. All the key cables are carefully routed and secured with plastic clips keeping them out of the way.