• What
    is this?

    You've landed on the AMD Portal on AnandTech. This section is sponsored by AMD. It features a collection of all of our independent AMD content, as well as Tweets & News from AMD directly. AMD will also be running a couple of huge giveaways here so check back for those.

    PRESENTED BY

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
POST A COMMENT

101 Comments

View All Comments

  • codedivine - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Great article. I also hope that AT will cover even more mini-itx and small form factor stuff in the future. I have been looking at compact gaming builds (which is different from the HTPC focus of this article) and reliable info is a little hard to gather on the topic. Reply
  • Mr Perfect - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    I second the SFF gaming rigs. Almost every publication(not pointing fingers at AT here, this is across the board) have two classifications of users: gamers with a 50 pound full size ATX boat anchor, and light workload people with SFF Atom machines. There are plenty of people out there cramming i5s and i7s into DTX cases along with high end graphics cards, but they're only represented in forums. Reply
  • ggolemg - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Bought the MSI E350IA-E45 AMD Fusion ITX Motherboard, paired it with a mechanical 7200 rpm hdd, 8GB patriot 1333 ddr3 ram, great little setup if you do *not* want to be able to view 720p streaming video. It is just absolutely worthless as a streaming HTPC for web video. Went so far as to move chrome/firefox's cache to ram to try and improve speed. Hulu is just ok, still stutters here and there, any other streaming sites are just about worthless at greater than 480p.

    My whole setup was ~$450 of wasted cash.

    Maybe I can overdo the cooling and overclock, that would be about the only way this could ever be used for what I want.
    Reply
  • metaltoiletry - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    I was scared of that happening when I built my HTPC a little over a year ago or so. After reading reviews I went for overkill.

    Zotac mini-ITX w/ wifi 9300 (integrated Nvidia 9300)
    4gb of DDR2
    Intel Q8200 with a Cooler Master Gemini (ii? I think and replaced the fan with a slim 120mm - otherwise it wouldn't fit in the case.)
    Silverstone Sugo (included efficient 300w PSU - maybe it's 350 - can't remember)
    Silverstone slim Bluray drive
    7200rpm HDD

    Everything works flawless, though, cost almost twice as much as your setup.
    Reply
  • hnzw rui - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Built a year ago and have had no problems with the CPU not being fast enough. Granted, issues with 24p content exists, but that doesn't really affect me since my TV doesn't support 24p.

    Silverstone Sugo SG-05 w/300W PSU, $100
    Intel DH57JG, $120
    Intel Core i3-530, $100 (MicroCenter)
    Kingston 2x2GB DDR3 1333, $80 (RAM prices were still high back then)
    Scythe Big Shuriken, $35
    Western Digital WD10EADS, $70

    TOTAL: $505

    No optical drive, though. I stream everything from the media server or the internet (Hulu, Netflix, etc). If SSD's were cheaper back then, I'd have used one for this build.
    Reply
  • Gigantopithecus - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    How bizarre! All of the E-350 systems I've built handle 720p video via YouTube and Hulu full screened with aplomb; YouTube 1080p full screened also works smoothly. Hell even the Atom 525 with GMA3150 is sufficient for streaming 720p. I'd strongly recommend looking into driver-related issues - as well as which version of Flash you're using (update to 10.2). Good luck! Reply
  • qhoa1385 - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    weird, my set up can handle 1080p no problem
    my GIGABYTE GA-E350N-USB3 with 4GB 1333 Ram, 5400 drive can handle any 1080p i throw at it

    I'd say probably driver issues
    Reply
  • iuqiddis - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    As the folks before me have mentioned, you might have a driver problem. I have a lenovo x120e with AMD E-350, and it streams youtube 1080p and 720p perfectly. Reply
  • ET - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    The E-350 should be powerful enough for what you need. It's a matter of drivers and software. I've seen people report problems on E-350 and C-50 laptops and that were solved with updates and setting changes. Enough people are playing videos well on an E-350 that I see no reason why you shouldn't. Go to a good forum and ask for help. Reply
  • karhill - Monday, April 25, 2011 - link

    I've got that MSI E350 Zacate board in a Windows 7 64bit ITX machine (2GB ram) and it runs Hulu 480p just fine. It runs 720p youtube flash content without issues. It runs netflix content just fine. It runs 1080p youtube content 95% fine (an occassional stutter in high-activity scenes). Reply

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now