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.
We previously reviewed the MSI mPC 915 a couple months ago and found it to be very serviceable. It did lack Gigabit Ethernet and dual core CPU support, but the mPC 945 we'll be looking at today addresses those shortcomings. While some users may like bold and aggressive designs, the MSI mPC Series of SFF PCs have a more sophisticated look, sticking with basic colours and a sound design.
" Support LGA 775 Intel® Pentium D dual-core processor
" Support Pentium 4 Prescott & Celeron-D processors
" 1066/800/533 MHz Front Side Bus
||Intel 945G + ICH7
||Onboard GMA950 Intel Graphics
||2 DIMMs for dual-channel DDRII 667/533 memory, up to 2GB
||1 X PCI Express x16 slot
1 X PCI slot
||" Realtek Gigabit LAN Controller 8110SB (1000/100/10 Mb)
" 802.11b/g Wireless LAN (Mini PCI Card)
||8-channel high definition audio (Realtek ALC880)
The MSI mPC 945 SFF
The MSI mPC 945 SFF is packaged in a plastic bag surrounded by thick pieces of Styrofoam. In turn, this is placed in a simple box houses the whole package. Other than the PC which we will cover soon, there is a driver disk, power cable, manual, 2dBi Omni WiFi antenna and a CPU installation clip.
Like the MSI mPC 915m the mPC 945 features straight lines and a basic colour scheme. Rather than being splashed with fancy colours, the mPC is all white with a glossy charcoal coloured trim. There is a bit of a Rubic's Cube pattern on the front facade, which does serve a bit of a purpose which we'll get into lately, but mostly it is cosmetic. An all black version is offered, but only for the AMD models. Personally I think it's pretty sharp looking and will appeal to a lot of folks we think.
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. We mentioned the Rubic's Cube pattern pattern earlier having a purpose, and that purpose is stealthing two key 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. 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 center area 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 lights up 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 cases.
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.
This model of the mPC 945 includes a 802.11b/g Wireless LAN card and antennae for wireless communication. The antennae can be turned North/South 180° and rotated 360° to accommodate any special space requirements.
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 945 chipset, the mPC 915 uses MSI's very own MS 7196 v1.0 motherboard as the heart of the SFF. CPU support is limited to the Intel Pentium D and lower. The 945G Express Chipset features Dual Core support, dual-channel DDR2 memory, and a 1066/800 MHz system bus, all of which the mPC 945 supports.
The board also features the ICH7 chipset, which among other things controls the two DIMM slots, supporting up to 2GB of DDRII 667/533 memory. Both the 945G and ICH7 are passively cooled, with the 945G 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. Our MSI NX7600 GT didn't have any issues fitting, though you can see we lost the use of the standard PCI slot.
For those of you who do not wish to use a discreet graphics card, the mPC 945 is equipped with Intel's GMA 950 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 945, 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.