June 14, 2013

Akasa Euler Case: Look Ma' No Fans!

The first ingredient and perhaps one of the most important for achieving a completely silent Thin Mini-ITX PC is the chassis choice. We picked the very compact Akasa Euler, which measures 228mm wide x 187mm long and just 61.5mm tall.
Despite the small footprint, the Euler tips the scales at 2.2kg, which is surprisingly heavy for a 100% aluminium design. This is better explained when you learn that the Euler acts as one big passively cooled heatsink. In fact it looks very much like one. Rather than featuring a flat outer shell the Euler is ribbed, featuring a series of 15mm tall fins.
But before we get inside the Euler let’s just have a quick look at its external design. Although the front plate is flat it is still constructed from aluminium which has been anodized black. The Akasa logo is featured in the bottom right hand corner, while a round silver power button can be found to the left along with a blue power LED and red activity LED.
The top of the case features 28 fins which measure 3mm wide and 183mm long. The left and right sides feature another 5 fins along with an open gap behind them to allow air to circulate through the case. Around the back we have a slot for the Thin Mini-ITX I/O shield which measures 25mm high and 159mm long.
Underneath, there's a VESA mounting system which allows the Akasa to be hung on the back of supporting monitors.
Four screws need to be removed in order to get inside the Akasa Euler, two from each side and the bottom panel will pop out. The only object inside the case is a mounting plate for the CPU socket which transfers heat from the heat spreader to the case's surface.
Because all Thin Mini-ITX motherboards have the CPU socket in exactly the same position it is possible for case manufacturers to implement these fixed cooler designs.
Traditionally when building a PC we'd install the motherboard first, but this is actually the very last step before replacing the case cover with the Euler.
Thus we installed the 2.5” drive first, in this particular case the OCZ Agility 4 256GB using two mounting plates. With the SSD installed we found it easiest to stand the Euler case on its side and lay the motherboard flat next to it. This made connecting the front panel connectors and SATA data/power cables much easier, before turning the motherboard upside down and aligning it with the I/O panel and CPU mounting brackets.
With the motherboard in place we secured the back cover of the case. From the front it was impossible to tell if there was anything in there at all. From the back we had a view of the I/O panel which showed off all the available connections, and on that note let’s move on to see what the Asrock Z77TM-ITX has to offer.

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Platform Choice: Asrock Z77TM-ITX, Core i5-3470T

Like most other top tier motherboard manufacturers Asrock has a range of Thin Mini-ITX motherboards on offer. Our motherboard choice, the Z77TM-ITX is the brand's premium alternative on this form factor, utilizing the Intel Z77 chipset and able to accomodate 3rd generation Ivy Bridge processors including the almighty Core i7-3770K.
But then of course we have to think about power and heat output. The Akasa Euler supports a maximum TPD rating of just 35 watts, completely ruling out any Core i7 CPU which range between 45 and 77 watts.
Even most of the Core i5 Ivy Bridge range is rated above the 65 watt mark, leaving Core i3 processors as the only viable option, with the low power Core i3-3220T and 3240T rated at 35 watts.
There is however one Core i5 processor which is rated at just 35 watts, though like the Core i3s it's dual-core only. The Core i5-3470T is almost identical to the Core i3-3240T plus the addition of Turbo support. Turbo means that the clock speed can be boosted from 2.9GHz to a healthy 3.6GHz depending on the work load.
The rest of the CPU specifications are in line with what you get from the Core i3 series, meaning there is a 3MB L3 cache and two cores with Hyper Threading for four simultaneous threads. Unfortunately to meet the 35w TDP the Core i5-3470T makes do with the HD Graphics 2500 integrated solution and that means gaming is out of the question.
Getting back to the Asrock Z77TM-ITX motherboard and the Z77 chipset, out of the box you get features such as dual-channel DDR3, SATA 6Gb/s and USB 3.0. Asrock has managed to include a pair of SO-DIMM slots supporting up to 16GB of DDR3 memory. They have also included a pair of SATA 6GB/s slots which support RAID (RAID 0, 1, 5, 10, Intel Rapid Storage and Intel Smart Response Technology), NCQ, AHCI and "Hot Plug" functions.
On-board audio is provided by the Realtek ALC892 Audio Codec which supports 7.1 CH HD audio with content protection and premium Blu-ray audio. Then we have Gigabit Ethernet which is provided by another Realtek chip, the RTL8111E-VL which supports Wake-On-LAN, LAN Cable Detection, Energy Efficient Ethernet 802.3az and PXE.
Asrock has also included a single PCI Express 3.0 x4 slot though we don’t imagine many will use it. Perhaps more useful is the mini-PCI Express slot which can be used for wireless cards, for example.
Moving around to the rear I/O panel we have a DC power input, two USB 2.0 ports, a DVI port, eSATA, HDMI, Gigabit Ethernet, two USB 3.0 ports and two audio jacks.

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Stress Testing, Benchmarks

Before we jumped into benchmarks we thought it'd be wise to first test how hot the Intel Core i5-3470T would get in the fanless Akasa Euler case. We opened up Prime95 and began stress testing. One hour later, we were surprised to find that the CPU temperature had reached just 58 degrees. That is remarkably cool and not much different from a standard heatsink and fan combo.
Leaving the system for 20 minutes at idle the CPU temperature dropped to just 38 degrees, which is a bit higher than the standard heatsink and fan combo but cool enough nonetheless.
We repeated the test while running OCCT (used to stress the integrated graphics engine) in conjunction with Prime95, though this didn’t seem to have any real impact on load temperatures. So with that out of the way we moved on to run a few performance benchmarks...
Synthetic Tests Yoga 13 Aspire S5 Core i5 - Akasa Euler MacBook Air Gigabyte U2442F

3DMark 06
3DMark Score 4393 3DMarks 5263 3DMarks 3842 3DMarks 5785 3DMarks 8497 3DMarks

PCMark 7

PCMark Suite N/A N/A 5136 PCMarks N/A 4875 PCMarks

Application Tests Yoga 13 Aspire S5 Core i5 - Akasa Euler MacBook Air Gigabyte U2442F

iTunes Encoding Test 1 min 25 sec 1 min 15 sec 1 min 15 sec 51 sec 1 min 14 sec

File Transfer Test

Small files 24 sec 10 sec 22 sec 22 sec 20 sec
Large file 22 sec 10 sec 13 sec 22 sec 10 sec

The iTunes encoding tests consist of converting 14 MP3s (119MB) to 128Kbps ACC files and measuring the operation's duration in seconds. For file transfers, we measure how long it takes to copy two sets of files from one location to another on the same hard drive. On the small files test we transfer 557 MP3s, totaling 2.56GB. For the large file, these same MP3s were zipped into a single file measuring 2.52GB.
Gaming Performance Yoga 13 Aspire S5 Core i5 - Akasa Euler MacBook Air Gigabyte U2442F

Far Cry 2

1024x768, Medium Quality 23.5 fps 35.2 fps 19.8 fps 37.3 fps 47.9 fps

StarCraft 2

1024x768, Medium Quality 16.9 fps 21.8 fps 12.4 fps 25.1 fps 28.5 fps

  • Intel Core i5-3470T (2.9GHz - 3.6GHz)
  • Asrock Z77TM-ITX
  • 8GB DDR3 RAM
  • Intel HD 2500 Graphics
  • OCZ Agility 4 256GB SSD
  • Windows 8 64-bit
  • 13.3" 1600x900 IPS LED multi-touch display
  • Intel Core i5-3317U (1.7 - 2.6GHz)
  • Intel HD Graphics 4000
  • 4GB of DDR3 RAM
  • 128GB SSD
  • Windows 8 64-bit
  • 13.3" 1366x768 LED-backlit display
  • Intel Core i5-3317U (1.7GHz - 2.6GHz)
  • 4GB DDR3 RAM
  • Intel HD 4000 Graphics
  • 2 x 128GB SSD RAID0
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
  • 13.3" 1440x900 LED-backlit display
  • Intel Core i5-3427U (1.8GHz - 2.8GHz)
  • 4GB DDR3 RAM
  • Intel HD 4000 Graphics
  • 128GB SSD
  • Mac OS X, Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
  • 13.3" 1600x900 LED-backlit display
  • Intel Core i7-3517U (1.9GHz - 3.0GHz)
  • 8GB DDR3 RAM
  • Nvidia GeForce GT 650M 2GB
  • Intel HD 4000 Graphics
  • Toshiba 750GB HHD
  • Crucial m4 128GB SSD
  • Windows 8 64-bit
When it comes to 3d gaming performance our Thin Mini-ITX build is pretty useless and really that will be true for any Thin Mini-ITX systems as they rely on the Intel HD Graphics. Although Intel’s upcoming Iris graphics engine, which will make its debut on the Haswell architecture, is said to be 2 - 3x faster than the HD 4000, that still doesn’t make it a completely competent gaming solution.
Where this build does shine is when it comes to CPU performance for productivity and even HTPC use. With a score of 5186pts it was faster than the recently reviewed Gigabyte U2442F which features a mobile Core i7 processor, even if it is the ultra-low power dual-core 3517U.
The OCZ Agility 4 256GB SSD also allowed our Thin Mini-ITX build to complete the file transfer tests very quickly. Note that all comparison systems also featured SSDs, as a traditional mechanical hard drive is going to be much slower here.

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Closing Thoughts: Who Is It For?

The Akasa Euler case is the perfect platform for a desktop Thin Mini-ITX system and while our configuration was well suited for office work, it has actually become my new HTPC. The fact that the Euler case enables silent computing alone makes it an ideal HTPC candidate.
Although we have shown just one of many possible Thin Mini-ITX builds, it’s a pretty cool one. The Core i5-3470T provides plenty of grunt despite being a dual-core processor and the HD Graphics 2500 is powerful enough to handle 1080p content: YouTube, 1080p HD rips, it all played smoothly.
Given load temperatures with the Core i5-3470T never exceeded 58 degrees, it is possible to get away with higher rated processors, such as the 45w Core i5-3570T or perhaps even the 65w models which range from the Core i5-3330S through the 3570S.
D-Link Wireless ADSL2+ Modem Router size comparison
There are plenty of users reporting to be using some of these higher TDP processors in the Euler without any issues, so before we wrapped up testing I decided to push the Euler case well beyond its limits with the Core i5-3570K, a 77-watt processor.
The thermal rating of this processor is 120% above spec for the fanless case, so I wasn’t expecting it to work or at least not for too long. However, with Prime95 placing 100% load on all four cores the CPU temperature never exceeded 75 degrees.
It should be noted that ambient room temperature was just 19 degrees on the day we tested this, so it wasn’t exactly hot inside. Still, the fact that a CPU with a TDP rating of 77 watts remained within safe operating temperatures in this tiny fanless case is pretty remarkable.
The Akasa Euler is an awesome little case that takes full advantage of the form factor. We got ours from Sidewinder Computer Systems ($95) which is one of a handful of retailers where we could find the case, though everyone else seems to be selling it for around $130. To that price you need to add $20 for the 120-watt power supply which we also used along our testing.
As we have come to expect, Asrock delivered the goods with their Z77TM-ITX motherboard which offers everything you could hope for from a Thin Mini-ITX motherboard. Although we are not certain how much this board will end up retailing for, we expect it to come in at around $120 - $140.
Admitedly this being our first real endeavour into the Thin Mini-ITX realm we were a little awestruck. Everything came together to create the perfect little computer that was not only silent but could also pack quite a punch.

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How to Access Region-Locked Online Content From Anywhere

Online services like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Spotify, Steam and many others have changed the way millions of people access media. They've brought upon an era of instant, on-demand digital media consumption in a world where linear programming, bundled content, and physical formats no longer fit many people's lives.

Unfortunately this is a revolution not everyone can partake in (not yet or not as easily, at least) as such services employ region locks to limit access from specific countries. More often than not it's not actually their fault, they just need to abide by archaic license agreements enforced by the actual content owners.
In this article we’ll offer you three alternatives to get around these restrictions. Each has their advantages and disadvantages and whichever route you choose will depend on the services you need to access as well as the devices you need to access them from -- not to mention whether you are willing to pay or not.
Most likely you'll only need one of these options. Here's a brief explanation of what you can expect from each of them, so you can jump to the one that better suits the task and quickly get on your way.



DNS redirector
Quick and simple way to bypass websites’ geographic restrictions.
Many free proxies available, but most don't allow streaming.
Solid free alternative but limited to Hulu, YouTube and Grooveshark.
Paid proxies start at ~$5 per month (pay as you go).
Easy to configure on browsers, but not always on other apps or non-PC players (consoles, streaming box, etc.)
Access and stream from any region-blocked website.
Encrypted connections, better privacy overall.
Few free options available, with speed and data limitations.
Paid VPNs start at ~$7 per month (cheaper when bought yearly).
Easy to configure on PCs, but not always on other non-PC players (consoles, streaming box, etc.)
Access only supported region-blocked websites (most popular services are covered).
Few free options available
Paid alternatives start at ~$5 (pay as you go).
Paid services offer fast speeds, encrypted connections.
Easy to configure on PCs, easiest to configure on non-PC players (consoles, streaming box, etc.)

Alternative #1: Proxy


Alternative #2: VPN


DNS redirector, Subscribing to paid services 

Alternative #1: Proxy

Alternative #1: Proxy

Using a proxy is a quick and simple way to bypass websites’ geographic restrictions. There are many public proxies freely available on aggregators like proxy.org, this database at Hide My Ass updated in real time, or via a simple Google search ([country name] free proxy). Ideally you’ll want to look for a “high anonymity” proxy, which doesn’t reveal your IP to the remote host or identifies itself as a proxy when connecting to websites.

To start using a proxy as an intermediary for your web requests simply enter the information in your browser:
Firefox: Tools > Options > Advanced > Settings > Manual proxy configuration.
Chrome: Settings > Network > Change proxy settings > LAN settings > Use proxy server > Advanced > HTTP.
IE: Tools > Internet options > Connections > LAN settings > Use proxy server > Advanced > HTTP.
Opera: Tools > Preferences > Advanced > Network.
As with almost anything that comes for free, though, there are a few caveats. For starters, most free proxies don’t allow streaming, so you’ll have to dig around. You may also need to change proxies frequently which is a bit cumbersome in the long run compared to a VPN. Lastly, since these are public proxies we’re talking about, there are really no guarantees of a secure connection, so you don’t want to leave them on all the time.
Another free alternative is ProxMate, a simple extension for Chrome and Firefox that unblocks region-specific content from YouTube, Hulu, and Grooveshark. Currently it’s limited to those services, but promises to add more in the future and also lets you set up your own proxy servers to automatically get around any country-specific blocks. Plus, you can conveniently enable or disable it straight from the browser toolbar.

After installing ProxMate you'll see a link to unblock videos on Hulu
If you’ll be using a proxy frequently, consider a paid service like FoxyProxy, which offers access to high-speed proxies in many countries and access to a VPN for $8 per month, or $4.50 if you buy the whole year.

Alternative #2: VPN

Proxies are okay for getting around region blocks occasionally but they are far from ideal if you want permanent, reliable access to media streaming services from your PC -- plus they only work with applications that actually support proxies, like browsers. Virtual Private Networks are a safer bet and you can even find some free alternatives, albeit with some limitations when it comes to speed and bandwidth caps.
Basically a VPN creates a connection between your computer and a server in a host country, which will assign you an IP and route all Internet traffic through that connection. This means your actual IP will be hidden and to any site you visit it will look like the request originated in the host server country.
Most VPNs offer some level of encryption for added privacy and security and some offer a choice of server locations; so if you want to watch Hulu, for example, you can connect to a server in the US. Switch to a UK server and you can access BBC’s iPlayer. Others even advertise total privacy packages with servers in the Netherlands or safe P2P downloads through servers in Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia, Estonia. But I digress.
HotSpot Shield is arguably the most popular free VPN service; it requires downloading a special app and you’ll be able to stream US-based content in no time, but you’ll have to put up with ads while browsing and very often with slow connections. Also, services like Hulu have been known to actively block HotSpot Shield.

My preferred free alternative and the one I’d recommend to anyone just getting started with VPNs is called TunnelBear. It works with a standalone app on OS X or Windows and it’s extremely easy to use. There’s no configuration involved, just install it and sign up for an account. Within the TunnelBear interface you’ll be able to turn the VPN connection on or off with a single click and switch between US or UK servers just as easy.
The only caveat (there’s always one with free services) is that you are limited to 500MB of data per month. On the upside, there are no ads, and you can always upgrade to a paid account with unlimited bandwidth for $5 monthly or $50 for the whole year, which is actually quite competitive. TunnelBear uses 128-bit and 256-bit encryption for its free and paid services, respectively, and doesn’t log any of your web activities.
Other paid alternatives I’ve tried ranging in price from $5 - $10 a month include StrongVPN and BlackVPN. Both are reputable services with their own advantages and disadvantages. Be sure to read their logging and privacy policies -- TorrentFreak ran a survey that gives you the gist of it on these and several other VPN services. In any case, for the purpose of this article which is getting around geo-blocks, you shouldn’t be too concerned about it. No one’s coming after you for streaming an episode of Parks and Rec overseas.

 Setting up these paid VPN services is not hard but requires a little more effort. We won’t go into details as you’ll find specific instructions for the service you choose -- something like this: BlackVPN or StrongVPN.

#3 DNS redirector, Subscribing to paid services

Alternative #3: DNS redirector

Although VPNs make up for the best region-cracking solution they aren’t without their drawbacks. For one thing, they require a middle man, which can result in speed loss for those with super fast connections. They are also easy to setup on a computer and some mobile devices but not so much if you want to use it to route Internet traffic from any device in your house -- Xbox 360, Apple TV, and whatnot. It’s not impossible but you’ll need to hack your router with custom firmware or buy a preconfigured one to run your network with.
If you don’t want to go through all that hassle then DNS redirectors pose an interesting alternative. Basically you’ll be able watch locked content on multiple devices -- even simultaneously -- simply by changing the DNS server settings on your computer, console, router, or a number of supported devices.
DNS settings in Windows 7 - you'll need to configure these on each device/player you want to use

It’s not entirely clear to me how it works (the explanations I’ve read from these services include the words “magic” and “secret sauce”) but in a nutshell they create a network tunnel from your location to a remote server usually in the US or UK, so it appears that requests actually originate from those countries.
It’s one of the easiest solutions I’ve come across and it works. The main disadvantage is that it only works for a set of supported services and players. The good news is that the list of supported services and players is usually pretty extensive and new ones are added if there’s enough demand for them.

For a free alternative try Tunlr. It supports close to 30 services, including most of the popular ones like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, and BBC iPlayer. Supported players include Mac and Windows computers, as well as the Apple TV, iPhone, iPad, Android devices, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles. Their service will remain free, they don’t log your internet activities, and though it works well they’re not aiming to provide a professional 24/7 service. “Tunlr is up when it’s up, and is down when it’s down,” reads their FAQ.
For paid services, Unblock-us and UnoDNS are popular choices, and both offer free trials. I’ve only tried the latter which advertises faster than VPN speeds, no bandwidth caps, 256-bit encryption, among other things. From my experience it does work quite fast and it has a huge list of supported ‘channels’ offered in a premium ($4.95/mo.) or gold ($7.95/mo.) plan. They support many different devices and work on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Device specific instructions for each service are available on their respective sites: Tunlr, Unblock-us, UnoDNS.

Subscribing to paid, region-locked streaming services

Any of the alternatives we’ve presented you with will let you get around region blocks and start streaming content regardless of your geographic location. It should be noted that none of these will enable free access to paid content, however. Some services like Hulu and Spotify offer free, ad-supported tiers in addition to a premium option while others strictly require a paid subscription in order to use them.
Unfortunately, most -- if not all -- for-pay services also require that the credit card you are using to subscribe is issued in the country you’re spoofing. So even if you want to pay the monthly subscription for Hulu Plus, for example, and you’ve gone through the extra effort and expense of setting up a VPN account, you still won’t be able to give them your hard earned money. You need to jump through a few more hoops.

A prepaid Entropay virtual card can help you with that. It’s like a regular Visa except you charge it upfront using your credit card and can only spend whatever funds you have available at the moment.
Here is what you need to do:
  1. Sign up for an Entropay account and choose the desired currency from the drop down menu in the process (e.g. USD if you need an US-issued card). Under Country, enter your actual country, so that it matches the billing address in file for the card you’ll use to fund your Entropay account.
  2. On the next screen fill in the details of the credit card you will use to fund the virtual Visa card. The charge up fee is 4.95% of the total amount and the minimum charge up amount is $20.
  3. That's it! Entropay will generate a virtual prepaid Visa for you to use with the amount funded. You’ll get a working card number, expiry date, name, and security code just like a regular Visa. In some cases Entropay may follow up to verify your details by asking for a photo ID and a credit card statement.
So there you go, you can now access region locked services and also pay for a premium subscription with a working Visa. All in all, it will cost you a bit more but your other options are moving to another country or wait it out until content owners decide to join the new millennium and work out international licensing.
It’s worth noting that you’ll still need to enter a valid country-specific physical address when registering with some services. Usually, any valid address will do, so just look up a commerce or something and use that.
Lastly, please note that, knowing of this loophole, some services have decided to stop accepting Entropay, so do some research before funding your virtual card. Netflix and Hulu Plus are among those sites, but people have reported it’s still possible to work around that extra hurdle by signing up for a US Paypal account, linking it up to your Entropay account, and then use Paypal as the payment option.

June 13, 2013

Fix Windows folder unresponsive/slow behavior, green loading bar

An old Windows fix for an equally ancient Windows issue. This Windows Explorer "bug" goes back to the days of Windows Vista, yet unfortunately remains a glaring annoyance in Windows 7 and Windows 8.
This unresponsive/slowdown behavior is typically seen when browsing the "Downloads" folder, so it's very likely it's happened to you as well. Windows tries to be smart about the files you store in your folders and thus optimizes the view and sorting options for pictures or videos. On either of those settings it will try to generate thumbnails for all your files (even when they are not pictures or videos) and take away precious seconds of your time, every - single - time.
Needless to say it's a very frustrating behavior, but thankfully something that can be easily fixed.
  1. In Windows Explorer, right click the Downloads folder (or any folder you are having issues with), then select Properties.
  2. Select the Customize tab
  3. From the drop-down menu, Optimize this folder for: "General Items"
That should do the trick.

Note: Windows might forget this setting in the future if you keep storing certain types of files (images or videos) and again default to optimize for them. I've had to change this setting back a couple of times in the past year, but most important of all, after the fix access is instant when I'm browsing around for my latest downloaded files.