The Budget Intel Atom Nettop

Intel Budget Nettop
Component Product Name Price
CPU + Mobo Intel BOXD525MW (Atom D525) $80
Memory Patriot Signature 2GB PSD32G13332S $25
Case + PSU Cooler Master Elite 100 RC-100-KKP3-GP + 150W PSU $61
Storage Western Digital Caviar Blue 500GB WD5000AAKS $36
Optical Drive Samsung SN-S083F/BEBE $26
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit $100
Total Price $328

For our budget Intel nettop, we start with the Intel BOXD525MW. This is the basic, no frills dual-core Atom board, sporting the 1.8GHz Atom D525. This is currently the fastest Atom CPU available, but that’s not saying a lot, and the GMA 3150 graphics are a major bottleneck for content like HD video. Compared to older Atom variants, there are a few benefits. First, it uses less expensive DDR3 RAM instead of DDR2 (DDR3 prices are now below DDR2). Note that this board uses laptop SO-DIMMs, not standard desktop DIMMs. One problem is that this board has only a VGA port (no DVI, no HDMI), but that’s part of the vanilla Atom experience. For the memory, we’ve selected basic RAM that’s compatible with the motherboard. There’s no sense in buying high-performance RAM for an Atom board, and 2GB is sufficient to run Windows 7 with moderate multitasking. If you’re doing stuff that would benefit from 4GB, you’re probably going to want a faster platform than Atom.

As noted in the introduction, we’ve selected four difference Mini ITX case + PSU combinations for this guide. Some are substantially more expensive, and the choice of case will affect other component choices as well. Some of the cases lack support for integrated optical drives, some use regular 5.25” optical drives, and others use laptop optical drives. The hard drive situation is also variable, as a couple of the cases use 3.5” hard drives while the others use 2.5” drives. Whichever case you select, make sure you choose the appropriate components elsewhere.

For the budget Intel setup, we chose the Cooler Master Elite 100 RC-100-KKP3-GP. We like this Cooler Master mini-ITX case because it’s cheap, includes a decent power supply, has VESA mounts so it can very easily be attached to the back of an LCD monitor to save space, and it can accommodate a 3.5” desktop hard drive instead of a 2.5” laptop drive. That means you get better storage performance and capacity (but still nowhere near SSD performance) for less money. We chose the Western Digital Caviar Blue 500GB as a nice balance between capacity and price. Most 3.5” hard drives seem to have bottomed out at around $35-$40 shipped, so there’s not much point going any smaller. You could go with Samsung, Hitachi, or Seagate as well and get similar performance, so if you find a better deal from a reputable retail outlet go for it. I recommend the Western Digital here simply because prices are essentially equal, performance is close enough to be a non-factor, and Western Digital’s RMA process in my experience is the best in the business. (Hopefully you never need to use it.)

The case supports a slim laptop optical drive, which will cost a bit more than a standard desktop drive, but the Samsung SN-S083F/BEBE burner we selected is the cheapest we could find. Note that it does not come with the smaller screws you need to mount it, so if you don’t have screws sitting around, you’ll need to improvise a mounting solution. (I’ve used double-sided tape, Velcro, and duct tape in the past.) The Samsung drive does not use a standard SATA connector, so you’ll need an adapter for that as well. Because of these inconveniences and the fact that USB devices are increasingly taking the place of optical discs, I consider optical drives in nettops an option—and I rarely install them. Keep in mind as well that external, USB-powered DVD burners are readily available for not much more than the cost of a standard internal optical drive. If you decide to forego an optical drive, you’ll want to research how to install Windows 7 from a flash drive. It’s very straightforward and requires a 4GB (or larger) flash drive and a separate system that has a DVD drive.

That brings us to the final item, the operating system. We’re using Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit on all of the nettops in this guide, as it’s the de facto standard for PC operating systems. I recommend using the 64-bit version instead of the 32-bit version because you might eventually want to drop another 2GB SO-DIMM in the box, and it’s the same price as the 32-bit flavor. The total system cost including optical drive is $328 (not including the possible cost of smaller screws and an adapter for the optical drive), or just skip the DVDRW completely and you can put this together for $302.

Nettop and Mini-ITX Buyer’s Guide AMD Zacate Budget Nettop
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  • obarthel - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    The Zotac Zbox AD02 (AMD E-350) is 7.4 x 7.4 x 1.73". No mSATA though, and only 1x2.5" internal slot.

    The M-350 mini-itx chassis is 7.56 x 8.27 x 2.44, so a wee bit bigger a noticeably thicker, but it does allow you to build your dream PC (1155 mini-ITX MB, your choice of core i3/5/7 CPU, no PCIE card allowed except for one specific and outdated Intel board), and with the right CPU cooler allows you to stick in 2 x 2.5" HD/SSD, all the while modestly behind your screen. That case + doodads will set you back $130, though, since everything is extra (PSU, picoPSU, VESA mount, 2nd HDD mount).
    Reply
  • Zap - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    Thermaltake Element Q for the high performance? Seriously? It would have been better off with the ISK300/310 from earlier. That Element Q is a rebrand of the Apex MI008 case, which is popular because it is cheap, not because it is good.

    Also, doesn't Zacate make Atom/ION redundant?
    Reply
  • uncola - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    I thought that case looked familiar.. I'm about to upgrade from an old school avsforum recommended apex mi-008 intel e5200/zotac geforce 9300itxwifi mobo build to a new school antec isk 310/intel core 2100/asrock h67n mobo build Reply
  • ProDigit - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    Where are the N550 processors in this test? Reply
  • Gigantopithecus - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    The N550 is available almost exclusively in nettops AFAIK. I've never seen it available in a mini-ITX board aside from a few bizarrely expensive Jetway products. Reply
  • 7Enigma - Monday, April 25, 2011 - link

    Funny this article comes out as I just had this conversation with my dad. Their current system (used only for email/internet access/Skype) is over 6 years old and definitely feeling its age. Even with a fresh OS install it just has passed it's point of usefulness due to the P4 using a lot of watts with very low performance.

    My mom has a 3yr old Lenovo dual-core that other than the pathetic 5400rpm drive is significantly more computer at 1/3-1/5 the power consumption of the old P4 Dell system. My plan is to rip out the junk HDD and replace with an 80-160GB drive (likely an Intel G2 since ANY SSD upgrade will be like a new computer), slap on Win7 to replace the current XP on the Dell and Vista on the laptop, and have a desktop replacement that is really a notebook.

    I'll still use external keyboard/mouse/display, but essentially for under $200 (Win7 copy and SSD) the computer will be like new.

    Now I need to find out if there is a bios setting/hack for defaulting the display to the external VGA port instead of having to Function + F7 every time they boot the system.

    Thanks again for the article.
    Reply
  • vailr - Monday, April 25, 2011 - link

    Your hi-end system uses the Lian Li PC-Q09B.
    However, the included PSU seems (per comments on Newegg) to have the older 20-pin connector, not the current standard 24-pin connector. Although: Newegg's documentation & photos don't really show which version is included.
    Side note: Newegg also offers this same case in a red color, for $50 cheaper.
    Reply
  • twinclouds - Tuesday, April 26, 2011 - link

    I apologize if the same idea has been posted by someone else. It is impossible to read all 10 pages.
    I put together with i3-2100t in a small package. The case is an old Shuttle X70 case. I used a 80W pico-ATX power supply with a 60W brick adapter. The motherboard is an GA-H67N. The smart fan controls the fan speed well without much noise. Every thing works pretty well with no overheating problem. It is amazing that it is possible to put a full power (non-gaming) system together in such a small package.
    P.S. I don't know what happened to Gigabyte motherboards nowadays, though. They have two power off modes, one at <1W and the other at ~3W. The low power mode does not support WOL, which I want. Only the 3W mode does. It is a waste for the power off mode that consumes 3W. Not sure why Gigabyte cannot do better.
    Reply
  • Schafdog - Thursday, April 28, 2011 - link

    I am happy that AT is taking this subjject up and hope it will be followed up on.

    I am wondering why no one, to my knowledge, can delivery a system with idle power of 10 watt while not limit to less powerful CPU, when apple can do it with the Mac mini. Since I am aiming for a NAS it needs more SATA ports than the Mac Mini, which will draw some more power.

    I know that apple uses laptop part, so is there any boards that I dont know about?

    The only I know, is fit-pc2i with a 5-10 watt usage, but this is only a Atom CPU. and doesn't solve the port issue
    Reply
  • djfourmoney - Wednesday, May 11, 2011 - link

    1) Silverlight 5 will support the AMD APU with Hardware Acceleration, this is important to those that use Netflix streaming.

    The beta is out and works....

    2) Some of these are completely new builds, others are using parts laying around. This is especially the case for those that work in the industry somewhere.

    No reason to spend $390 unless your adding TV Tuners...

    3) The USB 3.0 version of the AsRock is out and only $10 more.

    4) There are at least 5 quality cases for under $50 available

    If I wasn't beyond broke I would have bought one already. Maybe by mid-summer.
    Reply

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