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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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  • vol7ron - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    It's a good build, but for the price, I'm still not sold on the HTPC.

    I'm still looking for an HTPC to use as a DVR/PVR, at around the $300 mark. Basically, I think the market is in the home-builders TiVo/DVRs that have the ability to upgrade components and don't require monthly service fees.

    At $10/mo * 12 months, you're looking at renting them for ~$120/yr. So if I build it myself, I want the price to be under a 2-3 year rental (around the $240-360 mark).

    Does this make sense or am I the only one?
    Reply
  • Gigantopithecus - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    That makes perfect sense to me vol7ron! Simply put, it's difficult to assemble a system for $300 if you use all new parts and include $100 simply for the copy of Windows 7. However, if you're willing to look into free OS options like Ubuntu, it can definitely be done. MythTV is an excellent DVR/media center and my personal favorite open source (read: free) HTPC software. I've built a handful of the budget AMD Zacate nettop rigs that run MythTV and their users are very satisfied, at less than $300. Reply
  • lestr - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    As usual the critics second guess your every move without remembering this is YOUR porch and you are the big dogs on it. It's a guide not a granite obelisk. I enjoyed reading the various builds and results some readers presented. I, for one, am very happy this segment is addressed at ALL. The product mix, reasons for selecting - various cases, DVD/BD, memory and HDDs is more expansive than most guides. It shows that many options exist that a good number of readers may never have considered.

    Hopefully Llano will offer more than is available on Zacate.. dual channel memory, faster speeds, 6450 chip and more of those elusive mini-pcie slots for wifi AND SSD... I mean I CAN dream, can't I? Divorcing the electric co is a GOOD thing, isn't it?

    Since YOU brought it up... WHY hasn't Anand actually done a review of the better SFX PSU's? Seasonic, FSP and Silverstone all have 80+ and people are always fearful of PSU quality in low cost builds. You said it yourself...

    It would be nice if more readers chose to be positive and ADD to the information presented rather than waste time and space with nitpicking criticism. I wonder how many of them ever considered writing a guide? Keep up the good work.
    Reply
  • LeTiger - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    DangerDens's Tower 12 - Lan Rig edition would adequately fit the aforementioned: Photo Link is to the regular tower 12 sitting next to the "Lan Rig" tower 12.

    http://dangerden.smugmug.com/Cases/Tower-12-LAN-RI...
    Reply
  • ET - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    Why that particular version of software? I'm sure it's the latest and greatest, but it should be possible to buy fully featured software that's good enough and less costly. For example Corel WinDVD 10 Pro costs $40 on sale currently. It includes 5.1 and 3D support. Reply
  • ET - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    Also, just found about Roxio CinePlayer BD, and that's $50 as standard. Reply
  • Aikouka - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    I don't recall if I might have skipped over anything like this in the article, but did you consider mentioning that Windows 7 Professional might be desirable? The biggest reason why I put Professional on every machine (except for laptops) is because it has terminal services enabled. Now, I know what you're going to say, "aikouka... you can enable that in Home Premium with a quick little hack!" Yes, you're right... you can. You can also enable multi-user log-in as well as multi-session log-in. But hacking to enable features from higher-end versions is bad, right? :P

    Anyway, I usually do this for HTPCs because I tend to use DLPs and the idea of turning on the TV for a short test, driver/program install or updating is not exactly in my bulb's best interest :P.
    Reply
  • DanNeely - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    Because, like being able to join a domain for single signon, it's a feature only of value for a small fraction of users; and anyone who wants it can simply add the extra $xxx to the build price themselves. For home use, the only pro feature likely to be of value to a significant fraction of AT readers is the ability to use more than 16GB of ram; and that only matters in godboxes. Reply
  • Roland00 - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    The 2500t should also be mentioned, it is a very nice cpu with a low tdp (45w)

    4 cores, 4 threads
    running at 2.3 ghz with the following turbos 2.4 ghz (4 cores), 2.8 ghz (3 cores), 3.2 ghz (2 cores), 3.3 ghz (1 core)

    I personally went with the i3 2100t (dual core with hyperthreading 2.5 ghz) for my htpc but that was because the 2500t is kinda hard to find right now. It has a 1000k price of $216 or $89 more than the i3 2100t. That said I was shocked how fast this cpu combine with an ssd.
    Reply
  • 789427 - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    $229 for a zacate system with 500gb storage and 2gb ram.
    use Media center edition or Linux.
    Can we have some linux benches for Zacate displaying 1080p video?
    Does it bitstream?

    cb
    Reply

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