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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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  • 7Enigma - Monday, April 25, 2011 - link

    Glad someone else pointed this out because this is exactly what I'm currently using on my desktop system connected to my bedroom TV. Work perfectly. Reply
  • Holly - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Although getting a decent soundcard increases the cost of the machine a lot I am suprised and disappointed there was no proper sound card in any of setups. Frankly I have had lots of various mobos with integrated sound and have yet to find one that doesn't get left in dust when you compare with decent sound card... ofc, that's the case when you are not using $20 plastic speakers for your home theatre. Reply
  • numbertheo - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Except for the budget Atom system, all of these setups have some kind of digital audio output. I would suspect that most home theaters have some kind of receiver, AV processor, or DAC already present. In my opinion, people willing to set up a full blown home theater have better options that a sound card.

    On the other hand, a test of the integrated audio would be nice since I have had problems with it in the past.
    Reply
  • haukionkannel - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    As numbertheo said, external DAC or similar system is most propably better alternative than sound card in these system. Arcam rDAC or something similar offer allmost hifi guality... ofcource they cost near 300$ so they allmost douple the prize of these systems... Reply
  • UrQuan3 - Tuesday, April 26, 2011 - link

    I'll second the request for soundcard testing.

    I've had trouble finding a *receiver* for much under $1000 that has a good D/A converter. On the other hand, a $100 soundcard outputing 5.1 analog to a $250 receiver often does very well. Much better than the same class of receiver using SPDIF.

    This surprised me, but it's very true.
    Reply
  • LeTiger - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    I've been using since last January

    Zotac Atom/Ion A-U $179
    Crucial 2gb DDR2-800 $55
    OCZ 30gb Agility $109 (boot drive)
    WD 1tb Green $55
    Samsung 750gb spinpoint $45
    Dangerden Tower $99

    Total: $542

    Works like charm. (unless you have an addiction to Photoshop)
    Reply
  • Aikouka - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Hi Zach,

    About your last configuration... are you sure that the heatsink will fit properly? I have the same case with a Clarksdale build, and I actually ended up using Thermaltake's Slim X3 HSF ( http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8... ). The thing is, even with the X3, there's barely any room between the PSU and the HSF.

    What about using a PicoPSU instead? I haven't personally ever used one, but it should give room for significantly more airflow. The 35W TDP CPU should certainly help as well.

    The PSU in the ElementQ also has a very long ATX connector cable... it's actually too long in my opinion!
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    The stock HSF on the 2100T is very low profile, so it should work well. Other SNB CPUs might not fit without a different cooler. As for a PicoPSU, I don't think you'd want to do that with the Element case, simply because it already has the space for an SFX PSU. You'd end up with a big hole on the back. In other cases, though, it might be worth trying. Reply
  • Aikouka - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    I do agree that it is definitely low-profile. I am actually just finishing a build with an i3 2100T right now, and I pulled down my i5 2500k box to compare the HSF. I didn't even notice that there was a difference since I've never seen the stock HSF :P.

    The "big hole" is the reason why I haven't tried it yet, but I am assuming that someone has to make a "cover" for it that you can attach the plug to.

    My i3 HTPC (it's an i5-540) does run a little bit hot, but it's not a 35W TDP unit... I believe it's 70-something. I have read a few comments of people putting a fan in the side of the Element Q case to help with airflow as well.
    Reply
  • StardogChampion - Tuesday, May 10, 2011 - link

    "You'd end up with a big hole on the back."

    I make/sell backplates in the ATX and SFX12V form factor to plug that hole. They can have mounts for either type of picoPSU jack and for the ATX and 80mm case fan and the SFX12V a 60mm fan.
    Reply

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