Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The YsBox is Here!

This article outlines a little project I just finished recently. The goal of the project was to create a "consolized" PC with the purpose of playing Falcom games (namely the "Ys" game series). This system was to be small, powerful, quiet, and budget savvy.

The Basics:

In looking for a small computer we must first consider the bare minimum requirements for our application. In this case, being as the more recent Falcom games utilize a 3D engine, we will require a decent 3D graphics card. Based upon this, we rule out: PC's without expansion slots and PC's with weak power supplies. The more I looked at small aftermarket PC cases, the more I realized that many OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) PC cases, such as those from IBM, HP/Compaq, Dell, Acer, ect. are a better balance of size, power, cooling, and expandability.

We already know that we need a good 3D card, but we aught to narrow it down further. PCI cards are basically out of the question. What you pay for a fair graphics card with a PCI interface vs. a PCI Express variant is plain silly. For example, you can buy an Nvidia 8500 GT PCI card for $75, or you can buy an Nvidia 9500 GT PCI Express card for $60. If we compare their performance, we see that the 9500 GT trounces the 8500. So, going with PCI Express is not only cheaper, but also provides better performance.

People certainly have different tolerances for noise. In my opinion, the PS3 runs unacceptably loud when it's hot. Same with the XBOX 360, for that matter. When investigating the loudness of a system, there are a few factors to look into: the power consumption of the CPU and the means of cooling said CPU. Older CPU's and high end CPU's both consume lots of energy. Early Pentium 4's consume at least 73W of power. Newer Intel multi cores consume at least 65W. The "off the shelf" solution for taming these baddies is to increase airflow by adding more fans or ramping up the speed of existing fans. More/faster fans means more noise, which is counterproductive to our goal. Where's the ace in the hole? Intel released a small series of desktop Celeron processors that only consume 35W. Lower power produces less heat, requires less airflow, and produces lower noise levels.

It's hard to say what a target price for such a PC should be. Modern gaming consoles are too expensive, in my opinion, so I placed my price point below those.

The Nitty Gritty:

I won't bore you with the tales of my failed attempts at meeting the goals of this project, but suffice it to say, what I came up with is a nice solution.

There are 3 Dell models of interest for this project: Optiplex 745, Optiplex 755, and Optiplex 760 (Small Form Factor models). All of them use the same case (despite Dell woefully using the wrong images on their own website).

The case measures: 9.26 x 31.37 x 34.03cm (3.65 x 12.35 x 13.40in.), which when compared to modern gaming consoles, it's right in there (yes, photos are indeed to scale).

Both the Optiplex 745 and 755 have 275W power supplies. The 760 has a 235W supply, which is still plenty of power for the Nvidia 9500 GT graphics card (I have run the 9500 GT on a Small Form Factor Optiplex GX280 which only has a 160W supply).

Intel's 35W CPU lineup for desktop computers is as follows (Note: all these CPUs are Single Core, 800 MHz FSB, 512 KB Cache, LGA775, and require a motherboard w/ Intel EM64T-enabled BIOS, like the Dell units I have specified):
  • Celeron 420 (SL9XP): 1.60 GHz
  • Celeron 430 (SL9XN): 1.80 GHz
  • Celeron 440 (SL9XL): 2.00 GHz
  • Celeron 450 (SLAFZ): 2.20 GHz
For reference, a used processor should cost around $15, $20, $30, and $40 respectively (including shipping).

If you are running Windows XP, I can almost guarantee that you do not need to upgrade the memory on these units. Going from 512 MB to 1 GB did not improve game performance by any perceivable degree. If you want to run Windows Vista (???) or just upgrade memory anyways, Newegg has great deals on Kingston Memory (often with free shipping). All 3 units have 4 memory slots for non-ECC DIMMs.

I also put together an "Accessory Kit" which contains items that will make this system even easier to use:
  • Stereo 3.5mm Headphone Plug to Female RCA Adapter - for running audio to your TV or stereo amplifier ($3.25 shipped)
  • Component Video Adapter - for those of you who want to play on your HD TV and don't have VGA, DVI, or HDMI connections ($2.20 shipped)
  • PS2 Game pad to USB Adapter - a familiar pad puts these games right at home with your other consoles ($4.99 shipped)
YsBox (target pricing, including shipping):

$60.00 - Nvidia 9500 GT (Low profile)
$10.00 - Low Profile adapter for graphics card
$100.00 - Dell Optiplex 7xx SFF w/ DVD drive
$20.00 - Intel Celeron 35W CPU
$10.00 - Accessory Kit
$200 - Total

YsBox (what I paid, including shipping):

$56.07 - XFX Nvidia 9500 GT (Low profile)
$6.99 - XFX Low Profile adapter for graphics card
$99.74 - Dell Optiplex 745 SFF, 1.6 GHz 35W, w/ DVD drive
$xx.xx - Intel Celeron 35W CPU (came inside PC)
$10.44 - Accessory Kit
$173.24 - Total

Note: OEM systems typically come with a Certificate of Authenticity (COA), which licenses you to a copy of Windows. Most of the systems I find have a Windows XP Pro COA, which is perfect for this project.

The Test Drive:

First off, this system boots quick. With a shortcut to a game in the Windows Startup folder, from the time I press the power button (from a cold boot) to the time the game starts is less than 30 seconds.

Noise generated at full load, measured from 2 feet away, is right around 35dB.

In Game Performance:
  • Ys I + 2 Complete:
    (Results @ Maximum Resolution, Maximum Settings, Game Difficulty Normal, fps not available)

    No perceivable slowdown.

  • Ys: The Oath in Felghana:
    (Results @ 1280 x 1024 Resolution, 75 Hz, Maximum Settings, Game Difficulty Normal)

    Level gameplay is a solid 75fps aside from loading new scenes.

    Boss battles typically stay in the 70's until you face Garland, where I've seen fps drop to 30 when things are really getting hectic. Galvaran is capable of dropping fps down to 41.

  • Ys Origin:
    (Results @ 1280 x 1024 Resolution, 75 Hz, Maximum Settings, Game Difficulty Normal)

    Indoor Area's run 30-75fps. Some areas on the outside of the tower, or with very involved backgrounds, can drop fps into the 40's, even without enemies present.

    Boss battle fps are all over the scale. Dules can have a range as broad as 20-55fps.

  • Xanadu Next:
    (Results @ Maximum Resolution, Maximum Settings, Game Difficulty Normal, fps not available)

    No perceivable slowdown.

The Linkage:



  1. cool Project!! I like your idea! ;)

  2. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.