SEED MU-380 Mini-ITX Reviewed

Posted October 14th, 2009 at 6:06 AM by Anti-Trend

We recently had the opportunity to take a detailed look at two Mini-ITX chassis from Lutec, a Taiwanese company which has specialized in ergonomic and space saving products for the Asian market. They are extending their SEED line to western audiences and asked us for our honest and unbiased impressions. With the review that follows, I will do my best to provide you with just such an assessment.

SEED MU-380 (Pictured with LITE-ON Slot Load Slim CD/DVD)

First up is the SEED MU-380. With a MSRP of around $70/USD, it is a mid-priced Mini-ITX nettop chassis aimed at light desktop or multimedia use. It comes in two varieties, the always classy black and a stylish black/silver two-tone. We received the black model, although we expect little in the way of functional differences.

Features and Specs

To get things rolling, let’s have a glance at the official features and specifications. As of this writing they aren’t yet available in English, so here they are as translated from Japanese:

MU-380 Features (Translated from Japanese)

MU-380 Specs (Translated from Japanese)

The Unboxing

There really wasn’t much to the packaging or included components, in fact they are exactly as one would expect from such a product. The box was relatively light but not flimsy, and the form-fitted Styrofoam is sufficiently thick as to absorb the impact of fairly rough freight travel.

MU-380 in original boxThe box, open. Oooooh. Ahhhh.This is what it looks like when you take things out of their boxes. I know, right? Riveting.Front of the MU-380, propped up against some foam.

Aside from the MU-380 chassis itself the packaging contained pretty standard fare:

  • 60-watt AC/DC brick
  • Power cord
  • 2 very small SATA cables
  • 50mm sleeve-bearing fan
  • Various screws and fittings
  • Metric hex wrench
  • A few clear-plastic cable ties
  • Brief, monochrome manual
  • 4 feet for horizontal orientation
  • 2 Stands for vertical orientation

The external AC PSU is exactly the type one would associate with a laptop.

This turkey is stuffedPost-unboxingMU-380 is topless and proud.All of the contents, all lined up for you.

The Build

For the test build, I utilized the following hardware:

  • ZOTAC IONITX-D-E Intel Atom N330 Dual Core 1.6 GHz 441 NVIDIA ION Mini ITX Motherboard/CPU Combo
  • G.SKILL 4GB (2 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 800 (PC2 6400) Dual Channel Kit Desktop Memory Model F2-6400CL5D-4GBPQ
  • LITE-ON Black 8X DVD+R 8X DVD+RW 8X DVD-R 6X DVD-RW 5X DVD-RAM 8X DVD-ROM 24X CD-R 24X CD-RW 24X CD-ROM 2MB Cache SATA Slot Load Slim CD/DVD Burner
  • Seagate Momentus 7200.4 ST9160412AS 160GB 7200 RPM 16MB Cache 2.5″ SATA 3.0Gb/s Internal Notebook Hard Drive

ZOTAC IONITX-D-E

The process of assembling a system often reveals a lot about the quality of the chassis. During this build, the first thing that struck me is just how sturdy the MU-380 feels in the hand — not at all flimsy like some other nettop chassis I’ve encountered. The chassis’ two panels are each affixed with 4 metric hex-bolts.

Hex bolts

Thankfully, they’ve included a small metric hex key in case you don’t already own one.

The optional ODD and HDD mounts are provided by a lateral tin mounting bracket. I was able to affix both the optical and 2.5″ HDD to this frame without issue, each of which felt solid and well-positioned afterwards.

Mounted HDD and ODD

Build Problems

Close inspection of the internal PCB which houses the 24-pin ATX power feed revealed some potential issues.

Electrolytic caps and sketchy solder joints.

The board utilizes cheap electrolytic capacitors, which are often among the first components to fail in electronics. This is especially true in high heat environments, where they can leak or even explode, much like common batteries. For this reason, many manufacturers have started using conductive solid polymer aluminum capacitors, which are much more durable and long-lived than electrolytic caps. Still, this can be overlooked, since a great many devices can be criticized in exactly the same way.

The solder joints on the 24-pin ATX12V connector, on the other hand, are somewhat more difficult to miss. Since it’s soldered directly onto the DC board, one cannot replace it without removing and re-soldering each joint — a daunting task, to say the least. Since some of the connections were a bit shaky on our test unit, I would be concerned about accidentally creating a cold joint by tugging a bit too hard. This makes the next problem all the more relevant…

Ooops! Molex Mini-fit Jr. is too short. He should have been more like his father.

The 24-pin ATX12V connector (aka Molex Mini-fit Jr.) in our test unit was too short for our motherboard by about 1 inch. I had to augment it with a 20-24-pin ATX extension, which added 6″ of cable and the resultant extra clutter to the build. Also on the topic of insufficient length, one of the two SATA cables provided were too short by half to reach either our optical or hard disk drive. As a result, I had to use a generic SATA cable as a replacement which was much larger than the included cables. You can see the Molex extension and the mis-matched SATA cables clearly in the photo below.

MU-380 - as tidy as I could get it.

It should be noted that I informed our contact at Lutec of the short Molex problem we encountered. He readily acknowledged the issue, and replied as follows:

“With the cable length of 20-pin Molex connector integrated on the DC board problem, we will extend the length of the cable in the chassis which we are going to export to the world wide. Because for MU-380 we used to sale it as barebones in Taiwan and the length of the connector is exactly fit-in ATOM 330 so if we try to use other boards then we will also use an extension cable, too.”

Moving along, the MU-380 utilizes a single 50mm fan to help expel hot air from the chassis and force negative airflow. The exhaust fan mounts to a tin bracket, which is then snapped into the side of the chassis and set in place with two small flush-head screws. It was quite difficult to get the fan into position, and took a bit more force than I was comfortable with. Once it was in place however, it didn’t move much and ran without notable noise or vibration.

That 50mm fan fits very snugly.

As you can see in the shot above, the heatsync on the ZOTAC IONITX-D-E stands off the motherboard a bit too tall to mount its optional fan. For this reason, all tests we ran with the MU-380 had to be done with passive cooling. This is of course with the exception of the aforementioned 50mm exhaust fan, which I connected directly to the CPU fan header on the motherboard.

Finished Product

The MU-380 sports some rather well designed power and reset buttons, which have a solid but not stiff feel when pressed. Nestled between them, the power and HDD activity LEDs are quite bright, as is the current trend. This could be a problem or an advantage of this chassis, depending on your perspective.

Buttons and LEDs

In addition to the exhaust fan, the side of the chassis (or top, depending on the orientation) also sports standard 1/8″ headphone and mic jacks, single USB2 connector, and an SD/MMC/SDHC slot.

MU-380 broadside

Our extremely full-featured ZOTAC IONITX-D-E board bristeld from this Mini-ITX nettop chassis. On the outer edge, the power plug can be seen.

MU-380 + ZOTAC IONITX-D-E

And of course, the chassis can also be mounted vertically ala bookend. To give the smallest footprint, vertical orientation is probably the best option. It also looks quite appealing.

MU-380 Front & top -- vertically-orientedMU-380 + ZOTAC IONITX-D-E verticalMU-380 Front -- vertically-oriented

Trial Run

In order to put the SEED MU-380 through its paces, I decided to go with a fairly obvious scenario and build it out to be a media jukebox with a full desktop environment. The software compliment I selected to this end was Debian Sid, XBMC, Boxee, and various packages from the Debian-Multimedia repository. Obviously the chassis doesn’t have much direct impact on these activities, but it also didn’t hinder them in any way during hours of operation. The front-mounted ports were fairly convenient to this end, though it admittedly would have been nice to have had more than one USB port at times.

"Oh, he say you Brade Runnah!"What, no Playboy Channel?

It did however get quite hot during normal operation, an issue which I decided to examine in more detail.

Test Results

As you might have guessed from its appearance, cooling is not the MU-380’s strong suit. For a litmus, I took the ATOM 330’s temperature after 8 hours of idling in a well-ventilated area, then again after a solid 8 hours of 100% load on all cores. The results are more than a bit troubling:

SEED MU-380 Thermal Performance

The idle temps eventually plateaued at a sweltering 72°C (161.6°F). Worse, exposing it to a constant max CPU load on all cores caused it to reach a ceiling of 86°C (186°F). This actually surpasses Intel’s specified maximum temperature allowable for the ATOM by 2°C.

It seems the single static-speed, low-RPM, 50mm fan mounted just adjacent the CPU was not enough to exhaust sufficient amounts of heat from the chassis. Before long, the chassis became saturated, and the outer skin of the MU-380 was nearly the temperature of the ambient air within. Interestingly, the results were identical whether it was oriented vertically or horizontally. To be fair, the ATOM 330 coupled with the relatively high-end NVidia ION chipset can generate quite a lot of heat as compared to a lower-performance chipset offering from Intel. But my experience here leads me to believe even a lower-end ATOM 330 would be uncomfortably hot.

Part of the problem is the narrow profile of the MU-380, which in my circumstances prevented me from affixing the ZOTAC IONITX-D-E’s optional CPU fan for direct cooling. To further compound things, the 380 only has one rather paltry intake and an identically claustrophobic exhaust on the opposite end. Even if the fan were tuned to a more aggressive RPM setting, or better still allowed the motherboard to adjust the RPMs dynamically, it would still be trying to draw air through what amounts to a very constricted intake. It’s a bit like trying to breathe through a straw.

Baby I love you, but your ports are too small.

Possible Tweaks

This being a Zone365 review on behalf of HardwareForums.com, where would we be without a little DIY engineering?

It occurred to me during the build that the internal DC distribution board is not only a source of potential problems, but also an eyesore which clutters the 380’s precious internal space. Fortunately, the only thing keeping it in place are a few Phillips-head screws. If you were to use a motherboard with a fully externalized PSU, for instance the ZOTAC IONITX-A-U, you could completely remove the MU-380’s internal power boards. In so doing, you’d open up some extra breathing room, remove clutter, and also be rid of a few potential failure points in the process. This prospect makes the SEED MU-380 a bit more attractive in my mind.

Conclusion

Lutec’s SEED MU-380 Mini-ITX chassis is intended to house a nettop or media appliance. Unfortunately, cooling problems effectively exclude higher-end Mini-ITX offerings such as the multi-core Intel ATOM 330 / NVidia ION combo. While I didn’t get the opportunity to test pairing the MU-380 with a lower-end ATOM offering, it’s well known that GMA945-based chipsets still put out a sizable amount of heat. Even with a mid to low-end ATOM offering, the 380 could potentially have a hard time keeping up with heat dissipation.

Between the heat issues and the obvious manufacturing flaws I encountered, it’s very difficult to recommend the MU-380. However, I will concede that matching the SEED MU-280 with an embedded-grade Mini-ITX solution housing multiple integrated NICs and Wifi would make an appealing SOHO router. The cooling requirements would be substantially relaxed as compared to an ION/ATOM combo, and the unique design would give a professional look to such an appliance. If that’s what you’re in the market for, the MU-380 might be worth a closer look. Otherwise, it’s a very tough sell.

Pros

  • Attractive appearance
  • Small, thin footprint
  • Solid feel
  • Horizontal or vertical orientation
  • Easily converts to a fully external PSU chassis
  • Extremely quiet
  • 60W PSU included

Cons

  • Above average price for build quality
  • Built with cheap electrolytic capacitors
  • Some elements cumbersome to assemble
  • Stock cables were too short
  • Extremely poor cooling
  • Not a good match to ATOM 330 / ION

Rating

HardwareForums.com / Zone365.com Rating for SEED MU-380: 2 out of 5

SEED MU-380 | 2 out of 5: Poor

Relevant Links

See also: SEED MA-280 Review

Comments

One Response to “SEED MU-380 Mini-ITX Reviewed”

  1. SEED MA-280 Mini-ITX Review on October 18th, 2009 12:26 PM

    [...] in light desktop or multimedia use, which is apparent in its appearance. Having just reviewed the SEED MU-380, my natural instinct is to compare the two. That would be largely irrelevant given the number of [...]

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