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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  • 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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