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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  • 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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