Akasa’s Fan-less Solution for Skull Canyon…from a Galaxy Far, Far Away!

Ever since Intel introduced Skull Canyon a few years ago, I’ve enjoyed almost everything about it. While I never considered it a “true” NUC, given its size, I loved the look of it, the power of the CPU, and ports it included.

One thing I’ve never liked about it, though, is the fan noise. Granted cooling an i7 in such a small package was never going to be easy, but Skull Canyon’s fan is loud enough to be distracting when it’s under load…It sounds like a small aircraft taking off when you’re doing anything beyond basic web browsing. I’m a multi-tasker, and I generally have at least two NUCs running on my desk at any given time. So having one of them screeching while it’s on is kind of annoying. So annoying, in fact, that I found myself using my Skull Canyon less and less, and instead relying on lesser NUCs to do things like video editing. Sure I had to wait longer for videos to compile to finish, but at least I didn’t have a a jet taxiing on my desk all the time. Of course when Intel introduced Hades Canyon, that problem was more or less solved. While Hades dual fans do ramp up when it’s under load, they’re a softer tone and don’t create such a distraction. But I was still bummed that I couldn’t enjoy my otherwise highly useful Skull Canyon.

There are surprisingly few fan-less options out there for Skull Canyon. Akasa, one of the best known fan-less case companies out there, offered one back when Skull was first on the market, the hilariously named Galactico:

There’s something familiar about this case…

It was a large case, to be sure. So large I wasn’t sure it made sense to use it. After all, if you were buying a Skull Canyon, one of the big selling points was the small size. What’s the point of buying such a tiny computer if you’re going to throw it into a case that easily quadruples the size. Still, I was interested in a fan-less, silent solution so I started looking out for one. Finding one was easier said than done, though. The Galactico was, I learned, a limited run. Akasa hadn’t made many of them, so they were few and far between. And they weren’t cheap. Used ones on Ebay were going for over $200, which is pretty steep for a replacement case.

As luck would have it, the kind folks over at SimplyNUC learned of my search and reached out to me. They just so happened to have one, new in the box, and were willing to part with it. Those guys are awesome. It wasn’t something they normally stocked, and I imagine they’d bought it back in the Skull Canyon days as part of some mad scientist experiment. Still, I jumped at the chance to try this case out, and before long it arrived at my door. And when it arrived, I knew I was in for something…different

Size Matters

When I opened the box, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.

They said it was big, but I didn’t expect it to be…BIG!

I mean, seeing pictures online is one thing. But when you pull the case out of the box you realize it’s enormous. Easily five or six times larger than the Skull Canyon itself.

Skull Canyon piggybacks on it nicely

I stared at it for a while, wondering if I’d made a huge mistake. But I’d already committed to this journey, so I soldiered on.

The Look

Ok, I get it…Galactico. Because it looks like Darth Vader’s tie fighter from Star Wars. Cute. This is easily the coolest computer case, NUC or otherwise, I’ve ever seen. It looks like something right out of the Star Wars universe and geeks everywhere (myself included) would definitely get a kick out of it.

The “fins” on each side are a bit sharp on the corners, so I’ll have to be careful not to snag skin or clothes on them. I’m going to have to be careful where I set it, too, as it would easily scratch a table or workbench.

But oh, man does it look awesome. Was the tie fighter look intentional? If it was, they nailed it. If not, that’s one heck of a coincidence.

Just sayin’…

Installation

Let me try to set the tone for the installation process: it’s long, it’s complicated (by NUC standards), and it’s confusing at times. Installation instructions consist entirely of a single-sided fold-out made up mostly of pictures. The pictures do walk you through the process, but some of them are somewhat confusing. Expect to stare at them for a while before you know what you’re supposed to do.

I actually filmed the installation. But when I went to edit the video I realized it was about 20 minutes of actual work in between about an hour of me staring at the instructions. Not much fun to watch. And although I could edit the video down to just the installation, that wouldn’t give you the full picture. There are several installation videos for it on Youtube if you’re interested in seeing it.

I can understand why the installation is complicated. We’re talking about passively cooling an i7 CPU. That involves heat pipes, thermal paste, and several thermal pads distributing heat out through the case. Still, those pictures could definitely have used some text to explain what was going on in each of them. Now that I’ve gone through it, they all make sense and I could easily do it in half the time. But who’s going to do this more than once, right?

The process starts with complete disassembly of the Skull Canyon, right down to the bare board. You’ll need to completely clean off the original thermal paste to allow for good contact with the thermal pads provided with the case.

All the way down to the bare board

By the way, this means you’re left with some spare parts that might bring a few dollars on Ebay:

You then have to install a thermal “sandwich” (two thermal pads on either side of a metal heatsink) for each of the m.2 SSDs you plan on using.

Depending on whether you plan on using a 2.5″ SSD you’ll need to install an adapter in the second m.2 slot.

The next step is removing a ton of screws from the case to allow you to partially disassemble it:

That’s a lot of screws

After that you move on to installing the board, but the instructions neglect to mention you need to add your RAM before you do this, as the board is installed face down. And here is where we get into one of my issues with the design: once the whole thing is fully assembled, you’re not going to want change or add RAM or m.2 drives. That would require a full disassembly, meaning removal of the sides of the case, removal of the heat pipes, and removal of the board. This would be prohibitively time consuming, and would also likely require new thermal paste. Compare that to a typical NUC, where changing the drive or RAM only requires removal of the back plate. Quite a difference. The point is, pick your RAM and drives for the long run, because you’re not going to want to change them later.

Once the board is installed, you apply thermal pads to the CPU and GPU, then a metal heat sink. You then apply the supplied thermal grease to the heat sink and the corresponding grooves on the sides of the case. The heat sink screws onto the motherboard. You then lay down the four heat pipes, and install another heat sink on top of them, after applying thermal grease to it as well. It is secured to the first heat sink via four screws. Finally, you apply still more thermal grease to the sides of the case you removed before, then reinstall them. If it sounds complicated, it is. Especially with the non-descriptive instructions. Once you’re done, you’ll have effectively dispersed heat from the chips out through the heat pipes into the case. The size of the case is, I assume, to allow for maximum heat dispersion.

So let’s talk about the thermal grease. It’s supplied in two tear-off pouches, which are cumbersome and annoying to use. A syringe of it would have been much preferred, and would’ve been infinitely easier to apply. There also isn’t enough of it, as I ran out before I was done. Maybe I used too much, but I’d rather have some squeeze-out around the heat pipes than risk overheating the board. Fortunately I had a spare syringe of Arctic Silver handy, so I used that to complete the build.

Great stuff!

The heat pipes extend out to the sides of the case where they’re sandwiched between the top and bottom of the case:

One of the heat pipes goes right across the connector for the CMOS battery. Since I’d removed the battery during installation, I had a fun time getting reconnected.

I highly recommend connecting the battery BEFORE you install the heat pipes

The next steps involve connecting the case’s internal cables to the board, giving access to the audio jack, USB ports, and SATA connection. After that it’s just a question of installing the back panel and replacing all of the screws. And oh my are there a lot of screws. The back panel alone is held on with eight screws.

I’d like to say that once Skull Canyon is installed in the case it’s fully functional, but you do lose access to the memory card reader. There’s no external access to it, so you just have to live without it. Not sure I actually care, but I know there are people out there who use their card slots on a regular basis. That’s the only sacrifice, though, as everything else works just fine.

Cooling

Performance-wise, it does its job well. The CPU temperature is lower at idle than it was in the original Skull case, and under load it never gets above 68 degrees. The case never gets more than mildly warm to the touch. Plus, silence is golden. Funny enough, when I plugged it in and turned it on the first time I instinctively thought I’d forgotten to plug in power because I didn’t hear anything. Then I remembered I wasn’t supposed to hear anything, and it was fantastic to see it boot into Windows completely silent. The large size makes for excellent heat dispersion.

Final Thoughts

So let’s finish up by looking at what’s good, bad, and ugly about the Galactico case.

The Good

I can’t say it enough; the case looks awesome. And it does it’s job of cooling very well. Also, it gives you an easy option for adding a 2.5″ drive internally. Of course that comes at the expense of one of the m.2 slots, but it’s still a nice option.

The Bad

  1. The instructions suck. If Akasa still made these cases I’d send them my feedback that the instructions need descriptions to go along with the pictures. I found myself staring at the pictures much longer than I should have just to figure out what I was supposed to do.
  2. As mentioned, the case is HUGE. It’s absolutely massive compared to a stock Skull Canyon. I can’t see many uses that would justify having a case this big with a NUC board inside it. If you don’t need your computer to be small, you’re not buying a NUC in the first place. I get that the size is necessary for proper cooling, but that kind of proves my point.
  3. The metal fins are sharp at the corners and are likely to cut flesh, snag clothing, and scratch desks. I’m going to install rubber feet on the bottom just to protect my work bench.
  4. The case has no mounting options at all, as the fins would make it nearly impossible to use a bracket on the back. And while I find the idea of mounting a beast like this on the back of a monitor kind of hilarious, it would look nice mounted to a wall. Of course you’d lose the tie fighter effect that way, and I don’t think I’d want to give that up, so not being able to mount it isn’t a terrible loss for me.
  5. Back when I reviewed SimplyNUC’s Porcoolpine NUC I mentioned it was kind of a dust magnet. That’s true with the Galactico too. It collects dust quickly, and no amount of compressed air keeps it clean for long. Check out some of the closeups and you’ll see what I mean. Just something you have to deal with when you have so much exposed aluminum, I suppose.

The Ugly

Upgrading or modifying the system becomes nearly impossible in the Galactico case. It’s far too difficult to swap memory or drives. You shouldn’t have to completely disassemble your computer to add RAM. I know I don’t look forward to having to replace my thermal pads and grease just to upgrade the RAM.

Conclusion

I should hate this case. It’s far too big to be practical, it’s crazy expensive, and installation is a long, involved pain in the…patella. The design doesn’t lend itself to system upgrades at all, either. All that adds up to something I shouldn’t want.

But here’s the thing; just look at it. It’s the coolest thing ever! Issues aside, I actually love the darned thing. I may install Libreelec on it and use it in my living room as my home theater PC. Quite the conversation starter. Plus, it makes me more likely to get some actual use out of my Skull Canyon.

The Galactico case is an ambitious but flawed effort, with its beautiful look and compelling features hampered by an overly complicated installation and cumbersome design. But when I look at the case I don’t see a mistake; I see a sleek, Star Wars-inspired case that makes me smile. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut, and my gut’s happy to have Darth Vader’s NUC.

5 thoughts on “Akasa’s Fan-less Solution for Skull Canyon…from a Galaxy Far, Far Away!

  1. Yep, gotta love it when an installation is made more difficult because the instructions suck. I’ve never had an installation make me sweat (literally and figuratively) so much!

    Like

  2. If you ever have to replace the M.2 SSD, it’s really hard because it’s on the bottom of the MB. You have to disassemble everything. Be prepared to reapply the thermal grease.

    Like

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