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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  • StardogChampion - Tuesday, May 10, 2011 - link

    A link would be helpful: http://outsidethestb.blogspot.com/2011/02/dc-psu-m...

    Leave a comment with contact info if interested or drop my the HTPC forum on AVSForum.com and find me. I build them to order.

    It's a crazy hobby, isn't it?
    Reply
  • FullHiSpeed - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    "the case is 7.5” tall"
    http://www.thermaltakeusa.com/Product.aspx?C=1419&...
    Dimension (H*W*D) ... 5.12 x 8.66 x 13 inch
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    Fixed... Amazon appears to have the wrong dimensions (or they used the box dimensions). Anyway, 5.12" is still about 1" taller than the other cases. Reply
  • kenyee - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    I'm looking for something that would work w/ MythTV w/o using a separate audio cable...

    Bummer that none of these can do 3D Bluray yet...that means you still have to have an external Bluray player :-P
    Reply
  • hnzw rui - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    The Core i3-2100T does 3D. Just not sure about Linux support. Reply
  • shamans33 - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    There's a lack of direct comparisons between different cases and PSUs.

    I build quite a few mini-itx systems and this "guide" doesn't cover AMD high end offerings, common pitfalls in building mini-itx systems, noise, actual temperatures, heatsink clearance, actual power usage, alternative PSU choices, many mini-itx case choices, etc.

    Furthermore, accessories are not even discussed and there isn't an emphasis for including wireless capabilities in the system.

    This guide reads like an advertisement and doesn't have the really essential information people need to decide what parts to get.
    Reply
  • Gigantopithecus - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    I'm sorry you feel that way, shamans33. The primary goal of the guide was to describe the components available for building a nettop, i.e. systems that take up little physical space and use low-power components.

    Having built many mini-ITX systems, I'm not exactly sure what you're referring to? The Atom and Zacate boards all include heatsinks that will fit in any of the mentioned cases, which should be obvious from pictures of the products. The extremely low-profile stock i3-2100T heatsink fits in the Thermaltake case recommended in that specific system. Temperatures have never been an issue for me in these cases and configurations, so I didn't think that warranted elaboration. As for alternative PSUs - again, these all come with integrated PSUs or external power bricks, and we recommended alternatives to the stock Thermaltake case's PSU. Others commented on inconsistent case choices - we presented five mini-ITX cases that we've used many times and have been more than satisfied with. This article was not supposed to be an exhaustive list of mini-ITX cases... As for actual power usage, narrow ranges are given, and we pointed to more in-depth articles on Anandtech that give exact figures.

    As for accessories, including wireless, a nettop is just like any other desktop PC. You get the accessories to go with it that you want, and I didn't think those were within the scope of this article. Wireless is a good example - it's not like USB WiFi adapters are new and exciting technology...

    I tried to describe what these systems can do, what they can't do, and pointed out where to go if you want to find out more about exact capabilities. I honestly have to wonder if you read the entire article. :P
    Reply
  • shamans33 - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    I'll give you some examples...
    In-win BP and BQ series cases
    880g and 890gx amd mini-itx motherboards
    High end AMD CPUs
    M350 case with PicoPSU
    Low profile, high performance CPU heatsinks
    Single slot low-profile pciex cards (because of space restrictions usually).

    Mini-itx systems often have functional roles that are different from typical desktops and would have a different set of recommended accessories: wireless keyboards, esata/usb3 docks, etc.

    Here's one system spec I recently built:
    BP655 - $40
    Zotac 880G - $115
    2x2GB DDR3 - $40
    AMD X3 450 - $80
    500 GB HDD - $40
    OS - $100

    Total: $415

    12.20" x 3.90" x 10.40" (Far smaller in every dimension than your final option)
    200W PSU
    1x 80mm fan.
    Wireless-b/g/n
    Gigabit ethernet
    USB3
    Sata3

    You can even pair a 5.25" optical drive with a 2.5" SSD and a 3.5" 2 or 3 TB HDD.

    You could call it a nettop buyers guide. But I wouldn't call it a mini-itx buyers guide.
    Reply
  • shamans33 - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    Another build I've done in the past:
    M350
    SILVERSTONE NT07-775 90mm CPU Cooler
    Intel E5400
    Zotac 9300G
    PicoPSU-80
    2x2GB DDR2
    750GB HDD
    DVD-RW slot drive

    At-wall power usage: 27W Min. 35W Average. 45W Peak.
    192 x 210 x 62mm , 2.5L
    Reply
  • ET - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    I agree. I would have preferred an article about mini-ITX cases that doesn't have all the other fluff, and can provide comparison of heat performance and other details. Reply

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