Update 9/2/2011: Unfortunately, despite its continuing popularity, the Chenbro ES34069 has been discontinued by the manufacturer. We are currently in the process of bringing in a replacement product, and expect to see it next month.

Update 5/27/2011:  It’s been quite a while since this article was originally posted, but it’s still one of our most popular.  Because of the ongoing interest, we’ve decided to bring the ES34069 back in stock, with the 180W power option as standard.

Additionally, we’ll be adding several updated systems based on this case over the next few weeks.  We should have an Atom D525/ICH9R system up next week, with a Core i5/i7/P4500 and AMD Fusion options to follow soon.  All will have 5-6 SATA (and mSATA PCIe Mini Card SSD support on the Fusion board) ports with onboard RAID to take full advantage of this case’s storage options.

When we first brought in the Chenbro ES34069 NAS case, we were a little unsure as to how popular it would be with our customers. After all, it is extremely large for a Mini-ITX chassis, and rather power hungry (for a small form factor platform) and is a little more highly priced than some of our core cases.  However, we were pleasantly surprised.  The Chenbro ES34069 has been selling regularly and steadily for several months due to its unique feature set and excellent design.

The Case

ES34069 Case

Kristina initially reviewed the Chenbro ES34069 back in March of this year, outlining its (considerable) feature set and impressive build quality.  She also designed a basic NAS system using the IEI KINO-690S1 mainboard.  However, since the KINO-690S1 was our only AMD board with a socketed processor, and because demand for it was unfortunately rather low, we no longer carry the board or the processor. Thus, it became necessary to find an alternative mainboard, and hopefully one that could truly take advantage of the massive storage capabilities and extended functionality of the Chenbro chassis.

Unfortunately, with the KINO-690S1 gone, our board choices were limited. The VIA EPIA SN series had the requisite 4 SATA ports; but its USB headers were in an awkward location, preventing use of the Chenbro’s 4-in-1 Card Reader.  Also, the SN has a PCI-express x16 slot instead of the standard PCI, thus preventing the use of the Chenbro PCI riser card.

And, while the SN18000 is VIA’s fastest mainboard in terms of processing power, many customers have preferred the horsepower provided by an Intel dual-core solution for intensive applications like HD playback and content streaming. Overall, the SN is a fine low-power solution for this application, but it simply cannot take advantage of the full list of features this chassis has to offer. None of our other currently available boards have the requisite 4 SATA ports needed to really take advantage of the four hot-swappable SATA drive bays.

The Board

GA-6KIEH

Enter the Gigabyte GA-6KIEH-RH. I had seen pictures of a prototype of this board at Computex earlier this year, and was intrigued by the board’s wide range of connectivity, its quality components, and Gigabyte’s solid brand name. Now that the 6KIEH has entered full production, we are working with Gigabyte’s embedded division to carry them on our Web site.  It is based on the Intel GME965 chipset, which supports Intel Core 2 Duo Mobile Socket P processors from the Santa Rosa refresh and uses the Intel GMA X3100 integrated graphics solution. Thus, it should have plenty of horsepower for HD video playback and content streaming/backup.

The GA-6KIEH-RH mainboard is one of the most full-featured Mini-ITX mainboards I have ever seen. It has a heretofore unheard of five SATA ports, four of which can be linked in a variety of RAID configurations, including RAID 0,1,5, and 10 with the onboard Silicon Image 3114 RAID controller.  This RAID controller, typically included in outboard hardware RAID card solutions, is an excellent feature for an NAS system.

The board also has the requisite PCI slot, in addition to a Mini PCI and a PCIe Mini card slot with a unique tool-less locking bracket. Both USB headers are well within reach of the short card reader cable, and there is an IDE channel available for a slimline optical drive as well as any additional storage you might need. On the bottom edge of the board below the IDE port lies an extremely low-profile CF card slot, thoughtfully designed so that the card is accessible even after the board is installed.  Thankfully, this bottom-mounted component is quite slim and does not seem to cause as many compatibility headaches as most bottom-mounted CF and Mini PCI slots typically cause with our cases.

Backpanel I/O

On the back panel, we have a full suite of video connections: VGA, DVI-D, YPbPr (up to 1080i), and HDMI (up to 1080p) as well as an S/PDIF coaxial audio connector. This means that a Chenbro solution using this board could make an excellent HTPC or multimedia server.  The dual Gigabit LAN ports support this, allowing high-definition media streaming, and the four USB ports (plus four more through headers) provide plenty of peripheral connectivity. Gigabyte even thoughtfully provides a punch-out hole on the backplate for a wireless antenna or a TV Tuner card.

The Build

Armed with this strong base, in an effort to build a full-featured NAS/media server system I gathered the following components:

Case: Chenbro ES34069
Mainboard: Gigabyte GA-6KIEH-RH
CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo T8300 2.4 GHz processor
Memory: 2x 2 GB Emphase Industrial DDR2 667 DIMMs for a total of 4 GB (3.25 GB recognizable)
CPU Cooler: Coolermaster EPN-41CSS-01 Core 2 Duo Mobile CPU Cooler
Optical Disc Drive: Panasonic CW-8124-B Slot-Load Slimline CD-RW/DVD Combo Drive
System Drive: Seagate 80GB 2.5” SATA HDD (7200 RPM)
Storage Drives: 4x Seagate 3.5” 80GB SATA HDD (feel free to invest in larger sizes as needed)
Accessories: Chenbro 4-in-1 Card Reader; Qcom 802.11g Mini PCIe Wireless Card, Antenna + Pigtail Cable

Building a system in the ES34069 is a complex task. The case has been described by some of our build team as “over-engineered” for a reason. Certainly, it is durable and well-constructed, and every component is secured to the case by a plethora of screws, clips, and connectors. Components are often locked into place behind other components, and connectors can be hidden underneath or behind brackets.  This means that any components installed out of order will result in you assembling and disassembling parts of the case multiple times during the system build… as I discovered during my initial compatibility test!

Thus, planning and thinking everything through is even more important with a Chenbro build than with many of the other systems we sell here at Logic Supply. If you really want to spare yourself the trouble (and it can be a lot of trouble) we do offer a “Build and Test” service where we will assemble your system ourselves, as well as run a full CPU burn and memory test.  Check our FAQ for more information about the “Build and Test.”

Front Panel

After removing the case side panel and sliding the motherboard tray out a few inches, the most important and delicate step is removing the front panel. After removing the four hot-swap hard drive trays, it is necessary to pop loose the five plastic clips that hold the front panel in place. With some units of this case, this is relatively simple; with others, I have found that it can be necessary to loosen the clips from the back.

Unfortunately, loosening them from the back requires a lot of work; you have to remove the mainboard tray entirely (which includes threading all of the cables through the cable management holes,) remove the DC board, then pop out the lower pair of SATA backplane boards in order to reach the clips from behind.  If you are not careful when removing the front panel, you will break the clips that attach it to the case, preventing it from locking in place properly ever again.

Fully Assembled ES34069

Regardless, once the front panel is off, installing the 4-in-1 card reader requires removing both brackets that hold the optical drive in place.  Once that is completed, it is a simple matter to attach the card reader to the appropriate slot with a pair of screws, then plug in the data cable that connects it to a USB port on the mainboard.

Next, I recommend installing the 2.5” system drive while the optical drive brackets are still detached and out of the way. It mounts by popping it into place so that the screw holes on the drive line up with a pair of extrusions on the inside of the front panel.  The drive is then secured with a pair of small screws.
Once this system drive is in place, the optical drive bracket can then be screwed back into place. Then, the optical drive itself can be snapped into place in its removable tray (it locks in with no screws!) and slid into position. The IDE adapter board screws to the back of the drive with a pair of included screws, and then it’s a simple matter to run an IDE cable from the adapter board to the mainboard. I used a round cable to ease cable management woes.

Mounting the mainboard to the mainboard tray is thankfully quite simple, and connecting all of the various cables to the onboard headers is made easy thanks to Gigabyte’s thoughtful labeling and color scheme.  Unfortunately, the ES34069 has a lot of extra LEDs to monitor LAN activity and HDD usage for each individual drive, but there are no headers for most of these LEDs so I just connected the primary HDD and Power LED connectors to the appropriately labeled pin headers on the board and routed the other connectors out of the way.

With the system drive, mainboard, and 4-in-1 card reader in place, I could re-attach the mainboard tray. (Don’t forget to replace any brackets or SATA backplane boards you removed in order to get to the faceplate clips!)  From there, it’s a simple matter of connecting the various onboard cables to the board connectors.  Make sure that the case’s four red SATA cables (labeled 1 through 4) are plugged into the four purple SATA connectors on the mainboard, as those are the four ports connected to the Gigabyte board’s internal RAID controller. The SATA 2.5” system drive connects to the yellow SATA port on the board, and the included SATA power to Molex plug provides power to the system drive.  The 4-in-1 card reader cable plugs into one of the yellow USB pin headers, and the front panel USB cable attaches to the other.

Top View of ES34069

I installed a Qcom Wireless LAN 802.11b/g PCIe Mini network card and wireless antenna and pigtail at this point.  Conveniently, Gigabyte has included an appropriately-sized antenna punch-out on the backplate for a standard SMA antenna connector… this will support everything from TV tuner inputs to wireless LAN.  After all the onboard cabling is connected, it’s merely a matter of routing cables around the sides of the board and out of the way of the CPU cooling fans and venting holes, then snapping the front and side panels back into place.

The System

Chenbro 34069 Chassis

Voila! We now have an NAS (Network Attached Storage) or media server built. The HDMI and YPbPr outputs enable the system to interface with nearly any HDTV at up to 1080p resolution. The coaxial S/PDIF will send 6-channel audio to many home theater receivers. And, with 4 3.5” drives, you will have plenty of storage for media files… you can even use the optical drive to digitize your audio and video media collection so you don’t have to change DVDs or CDs.

If you are more interested in the business applications of a small NAS like this Chenbro/Gigabyte system, its small size, relatively low power use, and configurable RAID controller create a secure, power-efficient data server that can be placed in a corner and forgotten. You can even install a light OS such as Windows XP Embedded or Ubuntu Linux on a CompactFlash card, install it in the slot on the bottom of the mainboard, and leave the system to run as a backup appliance.

System Testing

Unfortunately, there is no current driver support for Windows Vista for the onboard Silicon Image 3114 RAID controller, so if you’re hoping to get a Vista Home Premium HTPC (Home Theater PC) set up, you’re out of luck till December, which is when Gigabyte has told me that they hope to have the appropriate drivers ready.  This means that installing the RAID drivers can be bit of a headache if you don’t have a floppy drive handy as Windows XP requires that any third party RAID controllers be installed via a floppy drive prior to installing the operating system.

Since the ES34069 has no connector (or place) for a floppy drive and I have no USB floppy drive on my test bench, I was unable to get a RAID array running in time for this post. Thus, I have not been able to measure the real hard disk performance that such a setup can offer. However, I could test the basic functionality of the system, as well as it’s performance using JBOD (Just a Bunch Of Disks) instead of RAID.

I am not a big fan of system benchmarking, as it is a drawn-out and slightly bothersome process that can often offer inconclusive (or biased) results that just aren’t useful when evaluating a system for a specific purpose.  So, I have put together a small set of more “real-world” tests to get a basic idea of how well this system might perform in the sort of situations and conditions it might be subjected to.

Finally, I was not really able to effectively put together a networking test for the system, as evaluating such a setup would depend on a myriad number of factors not necessarily based on the capabilities of this specific unit. The dual Gigabit LAN connectors featored on this mainboard should offer plenty of network capacity; indeed, it is extremely likely that other components of the system would cause a performance bottleneck before the LAN when faced with taxing file transfers.

Test 1: CPU Burn in a Sealed Box

Because storage or media systems such as this one are usually tossed into a corner, a cabinet, a closet, or a sealed entertainment center, it is worth determining whether or not the system can handle heavy-duty operations for an extended period of time in a small, closed environment with little airflow.

For this test, I used our own in-house testing software, which has a CPU burn functionality that stresses a CPU far beyond what is considered a normal operating load.  This software is normally used to test all of our outgoing completed systems, and is designed to catch systems that could have thermal problems.

To simulate the sealed environment of a cabinet, I placed the system in a small, sealed enclosure, and left it overnight in a standard CPU burn. When I came back this morning to check on it, the onboard temperature reporting software reported an operating temperature of 62 degrees C on the CPU and a system temperature of 45 degrees C, which is within our operating temperature requirements for the system components.  Since the CPU burn stresses the heat-producing parts of the system far more than almost any real-world application would, I would certainly say that the system has passed.

Test 2: Video Playback (HD and DVD)

Since one conceivable home use for this system is as a media server/HTPC, it is worth determining how strong video playback performance can be overall. During full-screen playback of a 720p .wmv video file, CPU usage maxed out at around 12% overall, and showed less than 50 MB of system memory in use throughout the file’s playback. Thus, although I wouldn’t use the onboard Intel GMA X3100 graphics to play high-end games, it appears to be more than sufficient for video playback.

Playing a standard DVD on the system was a similar story. Using VideoLan’s open source VLC player, CPU usage peaked at 15% and memory usage peaked at 60MB briefly. There were no skips or stutters. Unfortunately, I do not have a Blu-Ray drive handy to test true hi-definition streaming media; however, something tells me that this configuration should be able to handle even that taxing load.

Conclusions

After my (admittedly small) battery of real-world tests, I can conclude that this system really can make an excellent small form factor NAS, HTPC, or media server. The GME965 platform on the Gigabyte 6KIEH mainboard is more than capable of handling HD video and DVD playback, and the system kept within a reasonable operating temperature during its overnight CPU burn in an enclosed box.

Unfortunately, due to space constraints (this post is getting quite long already!), I was unable to detail the procedure for installing RAID on the system by “slipstreaming” the necessary drivers onto a Windows installation CD. This allows the installation of RAID drivers without using a floppy drive. I will cover this operation in a later post, when I can get into more of the details of setting up a RAID array in this system.