SEED MA-280 Mini-ITX Reviewed

Posted October 18th, 2009 at 10:10 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 MA-280 (vertically oriented)

We tackled the SEED MA-280 this time around. This impressively small unit has a MSRP in the neighborhood of $70/USD, which is mid-priced for a Mini-ITX nettop chassis. The focus of its design is in light desktop or multimedia use, which is apparent in its form and function.

Features and Specs

I wasn’t able to find the official product specs in English at this point, but here they are as translated from Chinese:

MA-280 Specs (translated from Chinese)

Additionally, our contact at Lutec was kind enough to provide the product manual in PDF format, as a printed version wasn’t yet available in English. Hopefully they will not mind me reproducing it for you here:

MA-280B Instruction Manual

The Unboxing

Unboxings are always a bit tedious for me. The process is rarely noteworthy in my opinion, unless the packaging and presentation are either especially good or abnormally poor. As with many products, the MA-280 is neither. Still, here are some unboxing shots for you in the interest of thoroughness:

The box! It's rectangular, 4-dimensional, and has a neat handle....when she could stand it no more, Pandora opened the box...A SEED MA-280 appeared! FIGHT | MAGIC | ITEM | RUN ?Yes! Everything's out of the box. Can you believe it? I can't!

Aside from the chassis itself, the packaging contained the following:

  • 60-watt AC/DC brick
  • Power cord
  • 40MM fan
  • Plastic stand (for vertical orientation)
  • 4 adhesive-backed rubber feet (for horizontal orientation)
  • A bag of assorted case screws

Note that some variations of the MA-280 ship with an 80 or 100-watt PSU rather than the 60-watt shown here.

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

Having disassembled and reassembled the SEED MA-280 several times during the test phase, I believe I’ve got a pretty good idea of its attributes in the process. Overall the assembly went smoothly and I didn’t run into any major snags. The cover comes off easily with only 2 thumb screws, and is replaced just as readily. This may seem obvious, but some chassis I’ve worked with are a real struggle in one respect or the other.

MA-280 rear - it comes with thumb screws

The internal DC/DC board is mounted directly adjacent to the system’s single exhaust fan, which should help with its longevity.

DC / DC board with fan

Adding the motherboard and connecting it to the MA-280’s power and the front panel IO was a very simple and trouble-free process. After reviewing the MU-380, I feel it’s also worth mentioning that the included ATX power cables were just the right length.

MA-280 top-down on mobo

The optical disc drive mounting bracket was a bit unusual, utilizing a tool-less design. Instead of screws, the drive is held in place with an adjustable plastic component that snaps into its screw holes. The plastic bracket didn’t feel very sturdy, but since replacing an ODD is fairly rare, I don’t think it’s all that relevant.

ODD mounting platform

The MA-280 can house up to two 2.5″ HDDs simultaneously; one on the main horizontal support, the other on its own semi-independent mounting bracket. The thing that really struck me was that in either position they must be mounted upside-down. I’d always been told this was a bad way to mount them which can cause damage. However, in my research I wasn’t able to find any real info suggesting this is actually true.

Note that if you choose to use the central mount location, the HDD will likely hang directly above the main heatsync. HDDs may not mind being hung upside down, but they most certainly do not care for excessive heat. This means a HDD mounted in the position over the CPU may not last as long as it potentially could otherwise.

MA-280 fully populated

Should you choose to mount the SEED MA-280 horizontally, you’ll find the optional adhesive-backed rubber feet to be of generally good quality. They stick well, feel quite solid, and don’t detract from the overall look and feel of the chassis. The intended underside of the 280 is scored so you’ll be sure to stick the feet on straight, should you so desire:

MA-280 feet markersMA-280 with feet applied

It’s not too difficult to spot my fingerprints in the images above. They were intentionally left in the shot so you could see that the finish on the chassis is nice, and comes across as classy, but unfortunately shows fingerprints pretty clearly in most light. This is commonplace, and really more an observation than a flaw, but it does lead me to the MA-280’s build problems…

Build Problems

As with the SEED MU-380, the MA-280 also utilizes some cheap electrolytic capacitors in its DC/DC power board. But unlike the MU-380, the MA-280 has also augmented it with some solid caps, and the Molex connector is removable rather than being soldered onto the board. This is a definite improvement.

DC / DC board with removable Molex connector and some solid caps

Unfortunately, there were some minor manufacturing problems with our review sample SEED MA-280. Most noticeable was some plastic sheeting from the manufacturing process still clinging to the front bezel. I made an effort to remove it, but it was torn off from behind the bezel, and some of it remained firmly wedged between the bezel and the faceplate.

MS-280 plastic faceplate with some plastic still clinging to it

As is my habit, I informed Lutec about this issue rather than ambushing them with it in this review. They were quick to respond as follows:

“About the plastic sheeting on the front bezel issue I will response to our product manager, and contact the manufacturer see if they could improve that part in the next batch of the goods. I’m also appreciating that you have tried to torn it off to show the best appearance of our case.”

I’m normally more than happy to overlook such niggling issues on commodity hardware, but since I actually got right down in there with some needlenose plairs and still wasn’t able to remove the plastic sheeting in this instance, I thought it was at least worth bringing up. Hopefully Lutec can get the issue sorted out at the factory by the time the SEED MA-280 sees production in the west.

There’s actually another issue along the same ilk that I almost overlooked. A minor issue, but certainly one worthy of bringing to your attention. Normally the mic jack on ATX chassis and motherboards are color-coded pink. Likewise, speaker or headphone jacks are coded green. In the case of the MA-280, they seemed to be reversed at first glance. However, after testing I could confirm that the color scheme was actually correct. As it turned out, it was the labeling on the chassis itself that was incorrect…

MA-280 faceplate: the SPK and MIC jacks are mixed up. Ooops.

At first I assumed the issue was a factory defect that was specific to our sample unit. But after digging around a bit, I found the following image on the manufacturer’s website:

MA-280 audio jack -- image from manufacturer's website

Yikes. Looks like QA missed this one right out of the starting gate. Just to reiterate, the colors are correct, it’s the physical jacks that are reversed from what the “MIC” and “SPK” labels state.

Finished Product

Overall, I felt the build-out of the SEED MA-280 went quite well, and I was fairly pleased with the finished look. Whether vertically or horizontally oriented, the 280 looks decent.

MA-280 from front / side, horizontally oriented

The front panel bears the standard mic and headphone jacks (albeit mislabeled), along with two USB 2.0 ports. Unfortunately no card reader, nor e-SATA ports, though honestly they’re features I rarely utilize in chassis that do have them.

As for the front LEDs, they are as bright as most these days, which is to say very bright. Whether you see this as an advantage or a disadvantage is purely a matter of preference, so I’ll leave it at that. The power button feels solid and relatively high-quality, and doesn’t lend itself to sticking when pushed into a fully-recessed position. The reset button is of the tiny pinhole variety, many times too small for a human finger. If you want to reset this thing, you’ll need to use an implement such as a bent paperclip to press the switch.

SEED MA-280 (Pictured with LITE-ON Slot Load Slim CD/DVD)

I think you’ll find the size and density of the chassis is its single most interesting feature. To illustrate, I’ve included a few shots of the SEED MA-280 stacked atop another Mini-ITX chassis. It’s worth taking into account that both systems are actually housing two sets of identical components. Though they are both Mini-ITX standard, the size difference is more than a little noticeable. In fact, the generic chassis looks downright obese next to the tiny MA-280.

MA-280 and generic Mini-ITX for size comparison - frontMA-280 and generic Mini-ITX for size comparison - side

On the matter of cooling, the MA-280 is blessed with several vents on the sides in addition to the 40MM exhaust port on the rear. It would have been nice to see filters or at least screens on the intake vents, but this is a fairly rare feature in commodity chassis (especially nettop ones), so shouldn’t be seen as a major detractor.

Top ventsSide and rear vents

So much hardware in such a small chassis.

MA-280 rear (Featuring ZOTAC IONITX-D-E)

Trial Run

To test out the SEED MA-280, I used the same software compliment as in the MU-380 review. This was largely for the sake of my own convenience, though it is what I would consider typical for a nettop PC. Specifically, Debian Sid, XBMC, Boxee, and various packages from the Debian-Multimedia repository.

MA-280, meet Ash.SD video looks a lot better when things are actually moving.What is life without jazz?

The NVidia ION chipset I tested with supports VDPAU in Linux, making short work of HD video with only the tiniest load on the CPU.

The ION eats 1080p for breakfast.

Of course the chassis doesn’t have much influence on these activities, but it also didn’t detract from the experience in hours of operation. The 280’s slick appearance and size also fit quite nicely in a home media console:

MA-280 in A/V console

It did put out a bit of noise under full load as the fan RPMs increased, but nothing to hold a candle to the sound of the PS3 at full-bore.

Test Results

In light of the thermal issues on the MU-380, I made sure to look closely at the thermal performance of the MA-280. As with the MU-380, 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. For such a tiny example of the Mini-ITX architecture, the SEED MA-280 came through admirably.

SEED MA-280 Thermal Performance

At idle, the MA-280 leveled out at 46°C (114.8°F). After 8 hours of torturing the CPU and GPU with a full load, the temperature did not exceed 52°C (125.6°F). While this would be a touch on the warm side for a full ATX system, keep in mind that the MA-280 is an exceptionally tiny Mini-ITX chassis. Further, the ATOM 330 / ION combo we equipped it with is known to run quite warm, and (though I wouldn’t particularly recommend it) can work without issue at up to 84°C (183.2°F). Therefore, the MA-280’s temperature stability is more than acceptable for long-term use on even high-end ATOM 330 / ION systems.

Possible Tweaks

As with the MU-380, the MA-280 can easily be modded to remove the internal DC/DC board and thereby removing quite a lot of cable clutter. All that’s required is a phillips-head screwdriver and a motherboard with a fully-externalized power source, such as the excellent ZOTAC IONITX-A-U. You’ll be left with more room for cable management, better airflow, possibly room for extra hardware in your DIY project.

Conclusion

In my tests, the MA-280 worked flawlessly with my full featured ZOTAC IONITX-D-E (Intel Atom N330, Dual Core 1.6 GHz, 441 NVIDIA ION) Mini-ITX Motherboard/CPU combo. Such hardware is more than capable of giving a very enjoyable experience in a home theater or a light desktop. Best of all, it makes excellent use of available space. Thus the SEED MA-280’s pros outweigh its cons, but there are some rather bothering manufacturing nuisances. The fact that the front panel audio jacks are reversed and the front bezel had a clearly visible defect definitely detract from the quality of the product as a whole. If Lutec manages to get these headaches sorted out before we start seeing these in Europe and North America, it’s no great stretch to imagine the MA-280 being a success among DIY enthusiasts.

Pros

  • Not unattractive in appearance
  • Very small footprint for a PC
  • Horizontal or vertical orientation
  • Cools fairly well
  • 60W PSU included
  • Capable of handling an ATOM 330 / ION combo for a quality home theater experience
  • Easily converts to a fully external PSU when coupled with the right motherboard

Cons

  • Average price for the build quality
  • Somewhat short of silent
  • Internal DC / DC board uses some cheap electrolytic capacitors
  • Many petty manufacturing problems

Rating

Seed MA-280 | 3 out of 5: Average

Seed MA-280 | 3 out of 5: Average

Special Note: Since the MA-280’s issues are largely with the manufacturing process and not with its overall design, we’d be happy to accommodate Lutec by re-evaluating our rating if and when they manage to fix these irritants. Were its problems resolved, I believe the MA-280’s qualities might justify a 4/5 rating.

Relevant Links

See also: SEED MU-380 Review

Comments

2 Responses to “SEED MA-280 Mini-ITX Reviewed”

  1. SEED MU-380 Mini-ITX Reviewed on October 18th, 2009 12:59 PM

    [...] See also: SEED MA-280 Review [...]

  2. SEED MA-280 Mini-ITX Review @ Zone365 - on October 20th, 2009 4:39 AM

    [...] 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. Read More Here… [...]

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