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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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  • 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

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