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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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  • 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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