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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  • 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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