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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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  • JarredWalton - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    From the link you just gave: "How big of an issue this is depends on the user. Some can just ignore the judder, others will attempt to smooth it out by setting their display to 60Hz, while others will be driven absolutely insane by it."

    I'm guessing you're one of those that fall into the latter category. Most people that aren't HTPC enthusiasts probably don't even know there's a problem. Anyone using a laptop to watch Blu-ray for instance has to deal with various forms of judder caused by the 3:2 pulldown. Which is why we say, "You pretty much have everything you need for a decent HTPC...." Not a "perfect" HTPC, but a "decent" HTPC. Anyway, I'll make a note of the 23.976FPS issue in the article.
    Reply
  • JohnMD1022 - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    newegg shows 2 SFX 80 plus PSUs for $50 (300w) and $54 (350w) plus shipping. Reply
  • Zap - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    If you were mentioning this because of the last system with the Thermaltake chassis, you need to be aware that it cannot take an SFX PSU that has a protruding fan, like the 300W Seasonic. Reply
  • gamefreakgcb - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    Specs:
    Antec ISK 300-150 mini-itx case (mentioned in this article)
    Gigabyte H67N-USB3-B3
    Intel i5 2500k
    2x4GB Corsair XMS3
    1x64GB SF-1200 Based SSD
    1x500GB 2.5" platter (pending)
    1x 5.25" slim DVD-RW (pending)
    Internal 150W PSU (included with case)

    The motherboard is the worst to pair with this case (all the headers i.e. sata, power, front panel, etc. are right next to the lone exhaust fan in the case), I have yet to play with undervolting the CPU, but stock everything (stock thermal paste with stock HSF and stock single exhaust) my temps reached as high as 80 with Prime95 and power draw never passed the 123 Watts at the wall (using the P3 Kill-A-Watt) and normal usage shows about 40 or so watts with light load (browsers with flash and the like, total idle is about 34 watts. I will get a chance to play with it tomorrow to see if I can bring the VCore down a bit, but the case is tiny, it fits vertically in the CD Tower Rack on my desk. It is very very snappy (even with a lone Kingston SSD, which I will most likely upgrade to an Intel 510 series), and fairly quiet (I do not need extreme silence). I would like reviews of some more mini-itx cases on this site though. I only accidentally stumbled upon this case.
    Reply
  • dagamer34 - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    I'd say ditch large hard drives in HTPCs and go with SSDs instead. A 60GB drive is $100-120, and in a truly networked home, most of your media should be stored on a server anyway. This way you get quick sleeps, resumes, and reboots, making it much closer to an embeddable electronic part than a PC. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    Resume (from sleep) is usually quite fast on Win7, and who really cares how fast a system goes to sleep? If you're putting it to sleep, you walk away and whether it's asleep 5 seconds later or 60 seconds later really doesn't matter. (Interesting note: I think part of the reason Win7 sleeps so slowly is that it usually does a "sleep + hibernate", so if power goes out it can still resume from the HDD image. At least, I have two systems that do that.)

    Anyway, we mention the SSD + HDD option on both upgraded systems. It really depends on what you plan to do with a system, and if you're mostly storing video for HTPC use the benefit of a $100 SSD upgrade is questionable. If you're using it as a general PC much of the time, by all means go for it. Personally, I wouldn't bother with an SSD unless I was already using a faster processor than Atom/Brazos, but I know some people want an SSD on any system they use.
    Reply
  • Xorg - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    The problem with all of these small form factor systems is NOISE. i have yet to use or see one that didn't sound like a vacuum cleaner under load. Reply
  • obarthel - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    Passive Asus board in a passively cooled M-350 ? Optional quiet 4cm fan (whichever brand/model) if required ? Reply
  • AgeOfPanic - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    Nice article and a good introduction to some cool little hardware. I immediately started to pick out some hardware for a build of my own. Then I talked to my brother and I realized another option for for the budget Zacate system. Why not buy a netbook with almost the exact same hardware? That way, you are mobile and at home you just attach it to a larger screen.Costs a little more, but definitely expands the possibilities as well. The only reason to go with a nettop for me would be to have faster hardware, maybe based on Intel H55 or something. Reply
  • obarthel - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    Very true that. We can get

    1- Netbook @400 euros incl. Windows. 11.6", 2Megs, 320Gigs E-350 MSI netbook. Windows license included. Portable, but not very elegant for Desktop, HTPC, or NAS use and possibly not too quiet. Only 1 internal HD, so no SSD, or get a large+expensive one to hold OS+Apps+Data, or a small one for OS+Apps and an external HD for data. Add +40 for 4GB RAM, +120 for 1TB HD, +100 for a 60GB SSD

    2- Homebrew @400 euros w/o OS (+100 for Windows) nor screen nor KBMS (+60 for MS ARC series), 4 megs, 1TB HD+ 60GB SSD, VESA-mountable M-350 case. Internal HD+SSC possible with the M-350 case (130 euros for case+PSU+picoPSU+VESA mount+2nd HDD bracket, though). Perfect fit for my needs, but expensive compared to the Netbook or...

    3- Premade Nettop @390 euros w/o OS (+100 for Windows) nor screen nor KBMS +60 again): Zotac ZBOX AD02 (E-350, no ram, no HD) for 250euros , and add 4MB RAM (+40) and 1TB disk (+100).

    So Netbook turns out cheaper if you want Windows, and the portability is nice. If you don't need portability, nor Windows, homebrew or premade are cost-competitive, especially if you don't care about keyboard and mouse or have extras lying about, and allow you to get exactly what fits your needs. In my case, I'd like to have an SSD since everybody says it makes such a huge difference, and I'd like to complete my move to Linux after a successful tryout on my current Atom Netbook (so I don't need portability, either)... SO I'm trying to convince myself that playing around building my own stuff and shelling out 130 for the M-350/PSU/picoPSU/mount and whatnot makes sense. Activating reality distortion field NOW....
    Reply

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