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Nettop and Mini-ITX Buyer’s Guide

Computing enthusiasts are busy pushing their bleeding edge hardware to the limit with mammoth Photoshop and high def video files, mind-bogglingly complex Markov chain Monte Carlo and Folding@Home calculations, and the latest video games. Meanwhile, the majority of consumers use their computers to do little more than check email, browse and shop on the web, occasionally remove red eyes from family photos, and type the occasional letter. From that perspective, computer hardware outpaced most users’ needs years ago. Your Intel Core i7 or AMD Thuban wouldn’t even break a sweat in most households.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this point better than the proliferation of tablets and smartphones. While they may be impressive and useful for their intended market, they offer a computing experience an order of magnitude lower than even a midrange desktop computer. Within the last few years, the industry has witnessed the rise of low power, “good enough” CPUs—many of which now power our mobile gadgets. However, these electricity-sipping processors are not confined to the mobile market; they are available for desktop use as well, and unlike their obscure, often embedded solution predecessors, they offer a sufficient computing experience for many people’s varied purposes.

Intel unveiled its first Atom processor in early 2008. It was designed to be very inexpensive—cheap enough for OLPC (“One Laptop per Child”) use. It would need very little electricity and would be able to handle typical computing tasks in an acceptable manner. The Atom CPU family facilitated the rise of the netbook, which in turn catalyzed the nettop—a physically smaller, stationary computer for home use. Perhaps due to a lack of competition, and not wanting to risk cannibalizing sales of its traditional low-end CPUs, Atom (and its archaic GMA 950 integrated graphics) began to feel slower and slower as Flash proliferated across the web and even office suite software began to be more demanding. Today, one of the most painful off the shelf computing experiences is a single-core Atom with 1GB of RAM running Windows 7 Starter on a netbook. That is, low-end Atom platforms no longer offer a “good enough” computing experience. In fact, even dual-core Atoms with their slightly updated GMA 3150 graphics are insufficient; you really need at least an NVIDIA ION GPU to create a compelling choice for nettop use.

With the release of its new Fusion APUs, AMD recently raised the bar for nettop hardware. This guide details specific components for two Intel Atom-based nettops as well as two AMD Zacate-based nettops. We’ll provide a budget build as well as a more capable and more expensive build for both platforms. Each of the four builds uses a different case (each with its own pros and cons), and to an extent, the specific components are interchangeable between all of the systems depending on your particular needs. We’ll also discuss where you might consider going if you’re willing to spend a bit more money but want to stay with the nettop (i.e. mini-ITX) form factor.

Before we get to the component choices, let’s set the stage with a discussion of why you might want a nettop. Their advantages over a traditional desktop are numerous. Perhaps the biggest draw is that they use far less power. My midrange home computer with its AMD quad-core CPU, ATI Radeon HD 5770 video card, an SSD, five low-power storage drives, four memory modules, and four case fans can pull over 300 watts from the wall under load. Many nettops load at under 30 watts—less than 10% of a midrange desktop’s consumption. Given that most computers aren’t at load nearly as often as they’re idle (or near idle), nettops are a compelling “green” alternative to desktops, typically drawing 20 watts or less for the nettop compared to 60 watts or more for a basic desktop. They are also substantially cheaper. The budget Intel Atom system outlined in this guide will set you back $320, which is $100 (almost 25%) less than the budget computer described in our last budget system builder’s guide. Finally, they have a very small footprint. A nettop’s small size is especially advantageous where desktop space is in scarce supply (e.g. dorm rooms or cramped cubicles), and their small size even allows them to be placed on a shelf or mounted behind a monitor.

Nettops’ primary disadvantage compared to their bigger brethren is, of course, performance. While dual-core Atoms and AMD’s E-350 APU are fine for basic computing (and in the case of the AMD APU, even light gaming), both fall far short of even the cheapest desktop CPUs. We’ve got numbers if you want to compare something like the Intel Atom D510 vs. Intel Celeron 420, or AMD E-350 vs. AMD Athlon II X2 255. You can also see how the Intel Atom D510 and AMD E-350 stack up against each other. Mini-ITX cases also sacrifice expandability for small size; you’re not going to fit multiple optical and/or hard drives or PCI slot cards into these enclosures. Furthermore, small cases are more difficult to work with—they typically take more planning before assembly, especially if you want neat cabling.

Ultimately, whether the Intel and/or AMD nettops will be up to task for you, your Grandma, or your computer-averse friends is best determined by using them. Brick and mortar retailers like Best Buy usually stock both Atom and AMD Fusion netbooks, which perform similarly to their desktop counterparts, so you can check out similar systems at a store near you. Do note that bloatware’s effect on less capable systems is especially pronounced, so running a 1GB netbook with an active, resource-heavy Internet security suite is just asking for poor performance. A clean install (or uninstalling bloatware) will give you a much better experience, provided no one is frequenting sites that try to hijack your PC. And with that introduction out of the way, let’s get to the builds.

The Budget Intel Atom Nettop
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  • Chloiber - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    You made a small mistake in the table of the AMD Upgraded HTPC Nettop (look at Case/PSU & Storage ;) Reply
  • hnzw rui - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Perhaps you should have actually tested these systems prior to making your conclusion. While TDP of the i3-2100T is 35W, actual power consumption particularly at idle is very low. Depending on the specific motherboard used, assuming all other parts are equal, it's possible to get even lower idle power consumption from i3-2100T/H67 than a Zacate E-350 or Intel Atom/NM10. Frankly, even a regular i3-2100's power consumption wouldn't be too far off from Zacate and Atom. Reply
  • Gigantopithecus - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    I have actually tested these systems... Perhaps you missed this, "we instead chose the lower power i3-2100T that runs at 2.5GHz. Either can frankly run circles around the fastest of the other CPUs we’ve looked at, and while 35W is twice the TDP of the E-350, idle and lower load power shouldn’t be too much more."

    I have not been able to find a motherboard that idles as low as an E-350 setup with an i3-2100T (all other components being). That said, they do idle at only a few watts more (as the article clearly states). Under load, however, the 2100T systems I've assembled start pulling 10+ more watts from the wall. Obviously this is a small absolute amount of electricity, but it does represent a ~25% relative increase in power consumption. If you're aware of a mini-ITX board that paired with an i3-2100T idles at less than a Zacate mini-ITX board, I'd love to hear what it is!
    Reply
  • hnzw rui - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    http://www.xbitlabs.com/articles/cpu/display/core-...
    http://www.missingremote.com/review/intel-core-i3-...

    As for the i3-2100, at load (Linpack), it only consumes 5W more than the i3-2100T.

    In fairness, the Gigabyte board probably has higher power consumption compared to other E-350 motherboards.
    Reply
  • Gigantopithecus - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    There's no probably about it - the Gigabyte board they used in their comparison is one of the most power-hungry Zacate boards I've used. The MSI IS board uses 5-8W less at idle IIRC, dropping it below the 2100T's system idle consumption. Unfortunately, the 2100T by itself costs more than the less expensive Zacate board + APU combos. Reply
  • BforByron - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Hey could you guys throw some of the results for the i3-2100T on your bench list. I'm gonna make an HTPC and i want to compare the i3-2100 to the i3-2100T with and without a discreet GPU. I'm thinking of adding a 5770 to it and want to see the overall idle and load power draw as well as some game marks Reply
  • Roland00 - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Currently nvidia is making a newer version of their hybrid graphics that will use intel motherboards with nvidia graphic cards (H67 or Z68). The rumored name is "Synergy" and rumor has it will only need a h67 or z68 motherboard and a bios update.

    http://news.softpedia.com/news/Nvidia-Works-on-Its...

    Lucid also is making its own virtu technology. Which anandtech has talked about in the past. Supposedly you can get a beta of this software for free somewhere.

    If these technologies work as planned your cpu can use the intel graphics for normal desktop use and keep your gpu in idle, and crank up the gpu to full blast when you throw in a computer game.
    Reply
  • Out of Box Experience - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Sandy's 35 Watt may indeed idle at a watt or 2 more than the other platforms but given the same battery in a mobile setup, wouldn't the Sandy get a lot more work done with that same battery?

    If so, then it would be more efficient than a lower powered system

    This would be a great RealWorld test for these Low power Sandy Bridge systems

    How much work can you get done on the same battery by booting up and running the workload after idling for 20 minutes or so

    Seems Realworld to me
    Reply
  • ET - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    I don't think it's a matter of efficiency as much as a matter of usage. If you're playing videos, the E-350 should be just as good as the i3. If you're doing video conversion, the E-350 isn't even in the running.

    Still, if you're just looking at idle power than the two setups achieve the same amount of work (i.e., zero work), so I'm a little baffled why you started your comment with a comparison of idle power.
    Reply
  • Out of Box Experience - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    Quote:
    "I'm a little baffled why you started your comment with a comparison of idle power."

    Me Too!
    Where the heck is that Edit function?

    I'd still like to see a "Fair" comparison of how much work you can do with a given amount of power

    But what would be "Fair" ?
    Reply

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