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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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  • 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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