For my increasingly
complicated interesting home setup I wanted to explore setting up a more robust router. One that I could use for both my home network —meaning the usual home-type devices; Apple TV, PS4, mobile phones, et cetera– as-well as my servers. I also wanted to combine several tasks currently performed by different machines into one device. For example, I had been running Pi-hole and OpenVPN on a Raspberry Pi 3 B+ that could be moved to this device, too. I also wanted to experiment with the usual home entertainment suspects; Plesk, and something for my old, pre-Spotify-era music library.
I stumbled upon the HCiPC computers through a video by Cameron Gray. He did his usual extensive look into what his particular model looks like, and I recommend you checking out his video if you're interested in this kind of device. I ended up picking a slightly differently specced model; His has an Intel Celeron C1037U CPU with 2MB cache clocked at 1.8Ghz, whereas mine has an Intel Atom D525 with 1MB cache, also clocked at 1.8Ghz. His Celeron model is a bit better performance wise, but will eat a tiny bit more energy too. The difference is mostly negligible though.
The unit arrived relatively quickly, and was well packaged. It didn't come with any frills or extras, other than a bag of extra screws and a single pair of SATA data and power cables, in case you want to install a hard drive or SSD into it. Here comes a word of advice, too; Make sure you contact the seller and confirm key features and accessories you want or need. Even if the product listing describes features as being present, there is no guarantee they actually are.
In my case I ended up with a unit that did not have the second SATA data and power ports soldered on the motherboard, no CF card slot, and no power cable included. While I was able to use the unit as it is, if you happen to want two internal hard drives or SSDs in this unit for your specific needs, it'll be good to ensure the unit will actually have this ready for you.
With that said, let's take a look at its internals.
The case is also well constructed, I have no complaints about it. The two USB2.0 ports, 6 LAN ports and 1 management port are all located in the front of the unit, along with two lights, with one indicating power (green), and another indicating "hard drive" activity, which is a very bright red light. Depending on where you plan to set this unit up and how much you like blinking lights, you might want to consider covering this disco light up.
Speaking of location; The fans included with the unit are not very quiet. They're not massively loud either, but certainly louder than I think is necessary. While this may not matter depending on where you set things up, you may want to consider upgrading the included fans with something quieter.
HCiPC also has "desktop" models (whereas this is a rack-mountable option), which might come with quieter fans, so that might be an option too. I have not checked those models out though, so I have no personal experience with them.
Installing a Hard Drive
As I mentioned before, my particular unit only comes with one pair of SATA data and power sockets soldered on, but the case has space for either one 3.5" hard drive, or two 2.5" drives. You can also replace the mSATA M.2 drive with something more substantial, so that gives you quite a bit of flexibility.
In my test setup I installed a 1TB 3.5" drive. I was considering having some temporarily downloaded files hosted by this unit, as-well as setting it up as a local cache server, so I went with a 1TB drive. I ended up not setting things up exactly this way, but I'll cover the software side of things in a later post.
I routed the SATA data and power cables underneath the drive plane as I didn't want it flopping around freely in the case, but you don't have to do this of course. As you can see in the photos, they simply bound all cables inside the unit together with a single cable tie, so you could easily remove their cable tie and make a new, uh, bouquet with the SATA cables included.
I don't have much to complain about the hardware of this unit. It's a well built, barebones device that serves its purpose well enough. For the price it's a pretty great deal, especially as it comes with 6 built-in Intel 82583V Ethernet controllers, so as a custom router and/or simple file server this can be a great fit. I wouldn't want to recommend this for a full-on NAS-type setup, though, as there is very little expandability in the hard drive department. But for having something that's running 24/7 anyway serve a few useful or otherwise frequently-used files from one internal drive can be a great use case.
Speaking of power; this unit does not use all that much, as can be expected. In my limited tests I noticed about 17 watts of usage, which included a 3.5" drive, so if your particular setup does not need a drive you can expect something more along the lines of ~13 watts.
HCiPC has several different models that all look quite similar, which can make things a littel confusing, but there's a lot of good potential here. For example, they have slightly newer models that come with 8 built-in Intel NICs, which is even better if you're looking to set up a router and need the extra ports (you might not even need a switch this way). Other units include the aforementioned desktop model, as-well as a deeper unit that gives you space for a total of four hard drives. Lastly, they tend to sell two models; one includes the RAM (usually 4GB) and SSD (usually 64GB), but they also often have a barebones model which excludes the two. This might be a good choice if you're either planning to use a larger SSD or already have RAM and SSD.
You can find HCiPC's computers on AliExpress, they have an official store there. When selecting the unit you want, be sure to read all details carefully as some they have multiple options available that have small but important differences. As mentioned before, I highly recommend you also contact them to ensure the unit you have chosen has all the features you consider important, so you won't get any surprises when the unit actually arrives.
I might cover what I have been doing on the software side with this unit a bit later, please get in touch with me if you are interested in that. I'm @hellodeibu on Reddit and Twitter, and I'm on YouTube, too.