One Final Option and Closing Thoughts

Nettops can be an appealing solution for many computer users. For some, a nettop could very well be their sole desktop computer, but for others they’re only powerful enough for kitchen duty, serving up MP3s and recipes. We’ve given four different builds as starting points, but there are plenty of other alternatives. We mentioned power as one of the benefits of Atom and Brazos platforms, but the truth is you can get pretty low power requirements even with desktop CPUs these days. To be honest, many of us couldn’t be happy with an Atom setup for a lot of use cases, and even ION can’t mitigate the CPU bottleneck. Brazos may be twice as fast as Atom but it's not the perfect CPU/APU for all users—though Llano should fill in some of the chinks in the AMD's armor. In the meantime, as a final idea let’s put together a higher performance mini-ITX system using a Sandy Bridge processor.

Intel High Performance Mini-ITX
Component Product Name Price
Motherboard ASRock H67M-ITX (H67 chipset) $90
Processor Intel Core i3-2100T (2.5GHz) $135
Memory Patriot 4GB (2x2GB) PSD34G1333K $40
Case + PSU Thermaltake Element Q VL52021N2U + 200W PSU $65
Storage Samsung SpinPoint F3 HD103SJ 1TB $55
Optical Drive Samsung BD-ROM/DVDRW Combo SH-B123L/RSBP $65
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit $100
Extra Software CyberLink PowerDVD 11 Ultra $100
Total Price $650

We put together an HTPC-style setup similar to the Atom and Brazos builds, with the necessary parts to work together. Our core components now include the motherboard and a separate CPU, and we selected the ASRock H67M-ITX board and one of the cheapest 2nd Generation Core i3 processors. While we could have gone for the i3-2100 clocked at 3.1GHz with dual-cores and Hyper-Threading, we instead chose the lower power i3-2100T that runs at 2.5GHz. Either can frankly run circles around the fastest of the other CPUs we’ve looked at, and while 35W is twice the TDP of the E-350, idle and lower load power shouldn’t be too much more. The motherboard includes VGA, HDMI 1.4a, and DVI outputs, along with two USB3 ports, four USB2 ports, one eSATA port, S/PDIF, and five audio jacks. You pretty much have everything you need for a decent HTPC or even a desktop, with the only shortcoming being the lack of gaming potential (and there's still the 23.976FPS issue).

The one thing you need to account for is the CPU and its larger cooler, so now we have a fifth case option. This case is decidedly bigger than the other cases because it needs to be—especially if you go with a standard SNB processor instead of a low power option. An Atom or Brazos chip under full load might put out 15-20W of heat, but a Core i3 running at 3.1GHz is going to dissipate up to 65W, and even the i3-2100T will put out 35W. To accommodate the CPU cooler, the case is just over 5” tall (compared to 4” or less on the other builds). The i3-2100T comes with a low profile cooler, but things get very cramped in mini-ITX in a hurry, so if you want a different CPU you'll want to investigate alternative HSFs. The case also comes with a 5.25” external drive bay, one external 3.5” bay, and one internal 3.5” bay. That means we’ll have yet another alternative for the optical drive and hard drive.

The Thermaltake Element case comes with a 200W PSU, but it’s not a high-quality energy efficient PSU. You should probably swap it out with something better, but finding a good quality SFX PSU can be a bit difficult. We’ve selected the FSP FSP300-60GHS, which is 80 Plus certified and only costs $37. A 300W power supply is more than you need, but unfortunately finding even a vanilla 80 Plus SFX PSU is difficult. If you want to go all out on the PSU, Silverstone’s ST45SF is 80 Plus Bronze certified, but if 300W was more than you need the 450W Silverstone is positively overkill—and it costs $80. Even though we’re not comfortable with the stock PSU, you can always use it short term and hope for the best, but we’d suggest looking for better alternatives if possible.

For storage, this time we can get a 1TB 7200RPM drive in the Samsung SpinPoint F3 for just $55. We also went with Samsung for the BD-ROM combo drive, and since it’s a full 5.25” drive instead of a slim model it only costs $65 and included CD/DVD recording capabilities. The Samsung drive includes an OEM copy of PowerDVD 9, which is sufficient for basic Blu-ray playback, but often the bundled versions lack support for 5.1 audio decoding and will down-mix to 2.1—thus we’re back to including the $100 PowerDVD Ultra.

The final price for this setup comes out to $640 for this particular build, but you can easily get under $500 (e.g. by dropping Blu-ray). So you get much higher performance and more storage for only $50/$60 more than the ION/E-350 configurations. It will also use about twice as much power (perhaps more), it’s almost twice the size (thanks to the case), and it won’t be silent. Still, it’s hard to argue against the performance boost if you’re looking for a PC that can do more than just basic computing. Another alternative is to just forget about desktops altogether and buy a laptop—these days, it won’t cost much more for a laptop that adds a display, speakers, keyboard and trackpad yet still has HDMI support, and laptops are usually more optimized for low power consumption than even nettops.

For an inexpensive mini-ITX nettop, AMD’s E-350 provides a very good starting point. Once you move up to the $500+ range, you should consider the many alternatives. Everything involves compromise of some form—you can go small, quiet, and inexpensive but somewhat slow, or opt for faster performance but a larger, noisier, and/or more expensive PC. And that’s just looking purely at mini-ITX builds; as our last budget guide shows, it’s entirely possible to put together a mid-tower desktop for under $500 if you’re not set on a tiny form factor.

Whichever way you go, you can do a lot of interesting stuff for less than $500. Perhaps most importantly, energy isn’t getting any cheaper. If energy conservation matters to you (or your friends or clients), the low-power Atom/E-350 builds outlined in this guide are compelling choices. Some people might make good use of the latest quad-core and hex-core uber-chips, but there’s a large percentage of people that can be perfectly happy using a modern nettop.

AMD Upgraded HTPC Nettop
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  • codedivine - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Great article. I also hope that AT will cover even more mini-itx and small form factor stuff in the future. I have been looking at compact gaming builds (which is different from the HTPC focus of this article) and reliable info is a little hard to gather on the topic. Reply
  • Mr Perfect - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    I second the SFF gaming rigs. Almost every publication(not pointing fingers at AT here, this is across the board) have two classifications of users: gamers with a 50 pound full size ATX boat anchor, and light workload people with SFF Atom machines. There are plenty of people out there cramming i5s and i7s into DTX cases along with high end graphics cards, but they're only represented in forums. Reply
  • ggolemg - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Bought the MSI E350IA-E45 AMD Fusion ITX Motherboard, paired it with a mechanical 7200 rpm hdd, 8GB patriot 1333 ddr3 ram, great little setup if you do *not* want to be able to view 720p streaming video. It is just absolutely worthless as a streaming HTPC for web video. Went so far as to move chrome/firefox's cache to ram to try and improve speed. Hulu is just ok, still stutters here and there, any other streaming sites are just about worthless at greater than 480p.

    My whole setup was ~$450 of wasted cash.

    Maybe I can overdo the cooling and overclock, that would be about the only way this could ever be used for what I want.
    Reply
  • metaltoiletry - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    I was scared of that happening when I built my HTPC a little over a year ago or so. After reading reviews I went for overkill.

    Zotac mini-ITX w/ wifi 9300 (integrated Nvidia 9300)
    4gb of DDR2
    Intel Q8200 with a Cooler Master Gemini (ii? I think and replaced the fan with a slim 120mm - otherwise it wouldn't fit in the case.)
    Silverstone Sugo (included efficient 300w PSU - maybe it's 350 - can't remember)
    Silverstone slim Bluray drive
    7200rpm HDD

    Everything works flawless, though, cost almost twice as much as your setup.
    Reply
  • hnzw rui - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Built a year ago and have had no problems with the CPU not being fast enough. Granted, issues with 24p content exists, but that doesn't really affect me since my TV doesn't support 24p.

    Silverstone Sugo SG-05 w/300W PSU, $100
    Intel DH57JG, $120
    Intel Core i3-530, $100 (MicroCenter)
    Kingston 2x2GB DDR3 1333, $80 (RAM prices were still high back then)
    Scythe Big Shuriken, $35
    Western Digital WD10EADS, $70

    TOTAL: $505

    No optical drive, though. I stream everything from the media server or the internet (Hulu, Netflix, etc). If SSD's were cheaper back then, I'd have used one for this build.
    Reply
  • Gigantopithecus - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    How bizarre! All of the E-350 systems I've built handle 720p video via YouTube and Hulu full screened with aplomb; YouTube 1080p full screened also works smoothly. Hell even the Atom 525 with GMA3150 is sufficient for streaming 720p. I'd strongly recommend looking into driver-related issues - as well as which version of Flash you're using (update to 10.2). Good luck! Reply
  • qhoa1385 - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    weird, my set up can handle 1080p no problem
    my GIGABYTE GA-E350N-USB3 with 4GB 1333 Ram, 5400 drive can handle any 1080p i throw at it

    I'd say probably driver issues
    Reply
  • iuqiddis - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    As the folks before me have mentioned, you might have a driver problem. I have a lenovo x120e with AMD E-350, and it streams youtube 1080p and 720p perfectly. Reply
  • ET - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    The E-350 should be powerful enough for what you need. It's a matter of drivers and software. I've seen people report problems on E-350 and C-50 laptops and that were solved with updates and setting changes. Enough people are playing videos well on an E-350 that I see no reason why you shouldn't. Go to a good forum and ask for help. Reply
  • karhill - Monday, April 25, 2011 - link

    I've got that MSI E350 Zacate board in a Windows 7 64bit ITX machine (2GB ram) and it runs Hulu 480p just fine. It runs 720p youtube flash content without issues. It runs netflix content just fine. It runs 1080p youtube content 95% fine (an occassional stutter in high-activity scenes). Reply

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