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Nettop and Mini-ITX Buyer’s Guide

Computing enthusiasts are busy pushing their bleeding edge hardware to the limit with mammoth Photoshop and high def video files, mind-bogglingly complex Markov chain Monte Carlo and Folding@Home calculations, and the latest video games. Meanwhile, the majority of consumers use their computers to do little more than check email, browse and shop on the web, occasionally remove red eyes from family photos, and type the occasional letter. From that perspective, computer hardware outpaced most users’ needs years ago. Your Intel Core i7 or AMD Thuban wouldn’t even break a sweat in most households.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this point better than the proliferation of tablets and smartphones. While they may be impressive and useful for their intended market, they offer a computing experience an order of magnitude lower than even a midrange desktop computer. Within the last few years, the industry has witnessed the rise of low power, “good enough” CPUs—many of which now power our mobile gadgets. However, these electricity-sipping processors are not confined to the mobile market; they are available for desktop use as well, and unlike their obscure, often embedded solution predecessors, they offer a sufficient computing experience for many people’s varied purposes.

Intel unveiled its first Atom processor in early 2008. It was designed to be very inexpensive—cheap enough for OLPC (“One Laptop per Child”) use. It would need very little electricity and would be able to handle typical computing tasks in an acceptable manner. The Atom CPU family facilitated the rise of the netbook, which in turn catalyzed the nettop—a physically smaller, stationary computer for home use. Perhaps due to a lack of competition, and not wanting to risk cannibalizing sales of its traditional low-end CPUs, Atom (and its archaic GMA 950 integrated graphics) began to feel slower and slower as Flash proliferated across the web and even office suite software began to be more demanding. Today, one of the most painful off the shelf computing experiences is a single-core Atom with 1GB of RAM running Windows 7 Starter on a netbook. That is, low-end Atom platforms no longer offer a “good enough” computing experience. In fact, even dual-core Atoms with their slightly updated GMA 3150 graphics are insufficient; you really need at least an NVIDIA ION GPU to create a compelling choice for nettop use.

With the release of its new Fusion APUs, AMD recently raised the bar for nettop hardware. This guide details specific components for two Intel Atom-based nettops as well as two AMD Zacate-based nettops. We’ll provide a budget build as well as a more capable and more expensive build for both platforms. Each of the four builds uses a different case (each with its own pros and cons), and to an extent, the specific components are interchangeable between all of the systems depending on your particular needs. We’ll also discuss where you might consider going if you’re willing to spend a bit more money but want to stay with the nettop (i.e. mini-ITX) form factor.

Before we get to the component choices, let’s set the stage with a discussion of why you might want a nettop. Their advantages over a traditional desktop are numerous. Perhaps the biggest draw is that they use far less power. My midrange home computer with its AMD quad-core CPU, ATI Radeon HD 5770 video card, an SSD, five low-power storage drives, four memory modules, and four case fans can pull over 300 watts from the wall under load. Many nettops load at under 30 watts—less than 10% of a midrange desktop’s consumption. Given that most computers aren’t at load nearly as often as they’re idle (or near idle), nettops are a compelling “green” alternative to desktops, typically drawing 20 watts or less for the nettop compared to 60 watts or more for a basic desktop. They are also substantially cheaper. The budget Intel Atom system outlined in this guide will set you back $320, which is $100 (almost 25%) less than the budget computer described in our last budget system builder’s guide. Finally, they have a very small footprint. A nettop’s small size is especially advantageous where desktop space is in scarce supply (e.g. dorm rooms or cramped cubicles), and their small size even allows them to be placed on a shelf or mounted behind a monitor.

Nettops’ primary disadvantage compared to their bigger brethren is, of course, performance. While dual-core Atoms and AMD’s E-350 APU are fine for basic computing (and in the case of the AMD APU, even light gaming), both fall far short of even the cheapest desktop CPUs. We’ve got numbers if you want to compare something like the Intel Atom D510 vs. Intel Celeron 420, or AMD E-350 vs. AMD Athlon II X2 255. You can also see how the Intel Atom D510 and AMD E-350 stack up against each other. Mini-ITX cases also sacrifice expandability for small size; you’re not going to fit multiple optical and/or hard drives or PCI slot cards into these enclosures. Furthermore, small cases are more difficult to work with—they typically take more planning before assembly, especially if you want neat cabling.

Ultimately, whether the Intel and/or AMD nettops will be up to task for you, your Grandma, or your computer-averse friends is best determined by using them. Brick and mortar retailers like Best Buy usually stock both Atom and AMD Fusion netbooks, which perform similarly to their desktop counterparts, so you can check out similar systems at a store near you. Do note that bloatware’s effect on less capable systems is especially pronounced, so running a 1GB netbook with an active, resource-heavy Internet security suite is just asking for poor performance. A clean install (or uninstalling bloatware) will give you a much better experience, provided no one is frequenting sites that try to hijack your PC. And with that introduction out of the way, let’s get to the builds.

The Budget Intel Atom Nettop
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  • obarthel - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    The Zotac Zbox AD02 (AMD E-350) is 7.4 x 7.4 x 1.73". No mSATA though, and only 1x2.5" internal slot.

    The M-350 mini-itx chassis is 7.56 x 8.27 x 2.44, so a wee bit bigger a noticeably thicker, but it does allow you to build your dream PC (1155 mini-ITX MB, your choice of core i3/5/7 CPU, no PCIE card allowed except for one specific and outdated Intel board), and with the right CPU cooler allows you to stick in 2 x 2.5" HD/SSD, all the while modestly behind your screen. That case + doodads will set you back $130, though, since everything is extra (PSU, picoPSU, VESA mount, 2nd HDD mount).
    Reply
  • Zap - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    Thermaltake Element Q for the high performance? Seriously? It would have been better off with the ISK300/310 from earlier. That Element Q is a rebrand of the Apex MI008 case, which is popular because it is cheap, not because it is good.

    Also, doesn't Zacate make Atom/ION redundant?
    Reply
  • uncola - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    I thought that case looked familiar.. I'm about to upgrade from an old school avsforum recommended apex mi-008 intel e5200/zotac geforce 9300itxwifi mobo build to a new school antec isk 310/intel core 2100/asrock h67n mobo build Reply
  • ProDigit - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    Where are the N550 processors in this test? Reply
  • Gigantopithecus - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    The N550 is available almost exclusively in nettops AFAIK. I've never seen it available in a mini-ITX board aside from a few bizarrely expensive Jetway products. Reply
  • 7Enigma - Monday, April 25, 2011 - link

    Funny this article comes out as I just had this conversation with my dad. Their current system (used only for email/internet access/Skype) is over 6 years old and definitely feeling its age. Even with a fresh OS install it just has passed it's point of usefulness due to the P4 using a lot of watts with very low performance.

    My mom has a 3yr old Lenovo dual-core that other than the pathetic 5400rpm drive is significantly more computer at 1/3-1/5 the power consumption of the old P4 Dell system. My plan is to rip out the junk HDD and replace with an 80-160GB drive (likely an Intel G2 since ANY SSD upgrade will be like a new computer), slap on Win7 to replace the current XP on the Dell and Vista on the laptop, and have a desktop replacement that is really a notebook.

    I'll still use external keyboard/mouse/display, but essentially for under $200 (Win7 copy and SSD) the computer will be like new.

    Now I need to find out if there is a bios setting/hack for defaulting the display to the external VGA port instead of having to Function + F7 every time they boot the system.

    Thanks again for the article.
    Reply
  • vailr - Monday, April 25, 2011 - link

    Your hi-end system uses the Lian Li PC-Q09B.
    However, the included PSU seems (per comments on Newegg) to have the older 20-pin connector, not the current standard 24-pin connector. Although: Newegg's documentation & photos don't really show which version is included.
    Side note: Newegg also offers this same case in a red color, for $50 cheaper.
    Reply
  • twinclouds - Tuesday, April 26, 2011 - link

    I apologize if the same idea has been posted by someone else. It is impossible to read all 10 pages.
    I put together with i3-2100t in a small package. The case is an old Shuttle X70 case. I used a 80W pico-ATX power supply with a 60W brick adapter. The motherboard is an GA-H67N. The smart fan controls the fan speed well without much noise. Every thing works pretty well with no overheating problem. It is amazing that it is possible to put a full power (non-gaming) system together in such a small package.
    P.S. I don't know what happened to Gigabyte motherboards nowadays, though. They have two power off modes, one at <1W and the other at ~3W. The low power mode does not support WOL, which I want. Only the 3W mode does. It is a waste for the power off mode that consumes 3W. Not sure why Gigabyte cannot do better.
    Reply
  • Schafdog - Thursday, April 28, 2011 - link

    I am happy that AT is taking this subjject up and hope it will be followed up on.

    I am wondering why no one, to my knowledge, can delivery a system with idle power of 10 watt while not limit to less powerful CPU, when apple can do it with the Mac mini. Since I am aiming for a NAS it needs more SATA ports than the Mac Mini, which will draw some more power.

    I know that apple uses laptop part, so is there any boards that I dont know about?

    The only I know, is fit-pc2i with a 5-10 watt usage, but this is only a Atom CPU. and doesn't solve the port issue
    Reply
  • djfourmoney - Wednesday, May 11, 2011 - link

    1) Silverlight 5 will support the AMD APU with Hardware Acceleration, this is important to those that use Netflix streaming.

    The beta is out and works....

    2) Some of these are completely new builds, others are using parts laying around. This is especially the case for those that work in the industry somewhere.

    No reason to spend $390 unless your adding TV Tuners...

    3) The USB 3.0 version of the AsRock is out and only $10 more.

    4) There are at least 5 quality cases for under $50 available

    If I wasn't beyond broke I would have bought one already. Maybe by mid-summer.
    Reply

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