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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  • Chloiber - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    You made a small mistake in the table of the AMD Upgraded HTPC Nettop (look at Case/PSU & Storage ;) Reply
  • hnzw rui - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Perhaps you should have actually tested these systems prior to making your conclusion. While TDP of the i3-2100T is 35W, actual power consumption particularly at idle is very low. Depending on the specific motherboard used, assuming all other parts are equal, it's possible to get even lower idle power consumption from i3-2100T/H67 than a Zacate E-350 or Intel Atom/NM10. Frankly, even a regular i3-2100's power consumption wouldn't be too far off from Zacate and Atom. Reply
  • Gigantopithecus - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    I have actually tested these systems... Perhaps you missed this, "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."

    I have not been able to find a motherboard that idles as low as an E-350 setup with an i3-2100T (all other components being). That said, they do idle at only a few watts more (as the article clearly states). Under load, however, the 2100T systems I've assembled start pulling 10+ more watts from the wall. Obviously this is a small absolute amount of electricity, but it does represent a ~25% relative increase in power consumption. If you're aware of a mini-ITX board that paired with an i3-2100T idles at less than a Zacate mini-ITX board, I'd love to hear what it is!
    Reply
  • hnzw rui - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    http://www.xbitlabs.com/articles/cpu/display/core-...
    http://www.missingremote.com/review/intel-core-i3-...

    As for the i3-2100, at load (Linpack), it only consumes 5W more than the i3-2100T.

    In fairness, the Gigabyte board probably has higher power consumption compared to other E-350 motherboards.
    Reply
  • Gigantopithecus - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    There's no probably about it - the Gigabyte board they used in their comparison is one of the most power-hungry Zacate boards I've used. The MSI IS board uses 5-8W less at idle IIRC, dropping it below the 2100T's system idle consumption. Unfortunately, the 2100T by itself costs more than the less expensive Zacate board + APU combos. Reply
  • BforByron - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Hey could you guys throw some of the results for the i3-2100T on your bench list. I'm gonna make an HTPC and i want to compare the i3-2100 to the i3-2100T with and without a discreet GPU. I'm thinking of adding a 5770 to it and want to see the overall idle and load power draw as well as some game marks Reply
  • Roland00 - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Currently nvidia is making a newer version of their hybrid graphics that will use intel motherboards with nvidia graphic cards (H67 or Z68). The rumored name is "Synergy" and rumor has it will only need a h67 or z68 motherboard and a bios update.

    http://news.softpedia.com/news/Nvidia-Works-on-Its...

    Lucid also is making its own virtu technology. Which anandtech has talked about in the past. Supposedly you can get a beta of this software for free somewhere.

    If these technologies work as planned your cpu can use the intel graphics for normal desktop use and keep your gpu in idle, and crank up the gpu to full blast when you throw in a computer game.
    Reply
  • Out of Box Experience - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Sandy's 35 Watt may indeed idle at a watt or 2 more than the other platforms but given the same battery in a mobile setup, wouldn't the Sandy get a lot more work done with that same battery?

    If so, then it would be more efficient than a lower powered system

    This would be a great RealWorld test for these Low power Sandy Bridge systems

    How much work can you get done on the same battery by booting up and running the workload after idling for 20 minutes or so

    Seems Realworld to me
    Reply
  • ET - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    I don't think it's a matter of efficiency as much as a matter of usage. If you're playing videos, the E-350 should be just as good as the i3. If you're doing video conversion, the E-350 isn't even in the running.

    Still, if you're just looking at idle power than the two setups achieve the same amount of work (i.e., zero work), so I'm a little baffled why you started your comment with a comparison of idle power.
    Reply
  • Out of Box Experience - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    Quote:
    "I'm a little baffled why you started your comment with a comparison of idle power."

    Me Too!
    Where the heck is that Edit function?

    I'd still like to see a "Fair" comparison of how much work you can do with a given amount of power

    But what would be "Fair" ?
    Reply

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