Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/8262/ecs-liva-review-the-nettop-rises-again




Introduction and Setup Impressions

Nettops and netbooks, as a class of products, have been on the decline over the last few years. The most significant issue with the nettops was obviously the anaemic CPU performance. As consumers realized that they could get much better performance per watt from other platforms, the shift to tablets well and truly buried the old nettops and netbooks. However, the introduction of SoCs based on the new Silvermont Atom cores has served to address some of these major drawbacks. But, are those enough to revitalize a market that is almost already extinct? ECS, emboldened by the success of the Intel NUC form factor, is all set to find out with their LIVA mini-PC kits.

Readers might recognize ECS as more of a motherboard vendor. The ECS LIVA mini-PC kits are a little bit out of the pure motherboard-play zone. ECS has created a small motherboard (BAT-MINI) for Bay Trail-M parts. Since all of those are BGA, the Intel CPU is soldered on-board. A bunch of other components are included in the kit so that only the OS is necessary to complete the system. The full configuration of the ECS LIVA review unit is provided below.

ECS LIVA mini-PC Specifications
Processor Intel Celeron N2806
(2C/2T x 1.60 GHz (2.00 GHz Turbo), 22nm, 1MB L2, 4.5W)
Memory 2GB DDR3L-1066
Graphics Intel HD Graphics
313 MHz / 756 MHz (Turbo)
Storage 32 GB eMMC
Networking 1 x Gigabit Ethernet, 2x2 802.11n Wi-Fi
Audio Capable of 5.1/7.1 digital output with HD audio bitstreaming (mini-HDMI / mini-DP 1.2), 3.5mm Audio Jack
Operating System

Windows 8.1 (Retail unit comes barebones)

Pricing $180
Full Specifications ECS LIVA Specifications

Even though the retail unit is sold barebones, our unit came with a copy of Windows 8.1 Professional. Some of the above internal components didn't come pre-installed in our review unit package.

  • ECS BAT-MINI Motherboard with Intel Celeron N2806
  • WiFi / Bluetooth Combo Card with antennae
  • AC Power Adapter (5V @ 3A DC)
  • LIVA Case
  • Manual & Driver DVD

Assembling the unit was quite easy, with just the matter of sticking the antennae to the chassis, mounting the Wi-Fi card in the M.2 slot, ensuring proper orientation of the board inside the chassis and snapping in the top. Our initial review sample had a small issue with the power button in the chassis. It was resolved by leaving a small gap between the top and the bottom sides of the chassis in order to align the switch the power button on the motherboard. However, ECS immediately came out with a replacement that didn't exhibit the issue and that resulted in a clean build. In any case, the issue seemed to be a one-off, as other reviews on Amazon and Newegg don't seem to indicate anything similar.

The chassis on the left had an issue with the power button's alignment, while the replacement on the right resolved that issue

In the rest of this review, we will first analyze the Bay Trail-M platform in detail and take a look at how ECS has managed to utilize it in the LIVA. We will follow this up with a benchmark section (which includes wireless and storage system evaluation numbers). The passive nature and size of the unit make it an ideal HTPC candidate, and we will take a look at how it fares in HTPC scenarios. Before the concluding section, we discuss the power consumption numbers and thermal performance. However, prior to all that, we have a table presenting the details of various systems that are compared against the ECS LIVA in this review.

Comparative PC Configurations
Aspect ECS LIVA
CPU Intel Celeron N2806 Intel Core i7-4770R
GPU Intel HD Graphics Intel Iris Pro Graphics 5200
RAM SKHynix H5TC4G63AFR 4Gb x16 DDR3L
11-11-11-20 @ 1067 MHz
4 x 4Gb (2 GB)
Corsair Vengeance CMSX8GX3M2B1866C10
10-10-10-32 @ 1866 MHz
2x4 GB
Storage SanDisk eMMC SEM32G
(32 GB, eMMC 4.41-compatible)
Samsung SSD 840 EVO
(120 GB, 2.5in SATA 6Gb/s, 19nm, TLC)
Wi-Fi AzureWave AW-NB136NF (Broadcom BCM43143) 802.11n + BT 4.0 M.2 Adapter
(2x2 802.11n - 300 Mbps)
Realtek 8821AE Wireless LAN 802.11ac
(1x1 802.11ac - 433 Mbps)
Price (in USD, when built) $180 $829

Note that this is only relevant to the networking and storage subsystem evaluation. For performance metrics, it doesn't make sense to look at the CPU and GPU credentials of the LIVA against devices in a much higher price class (We are trying to get in more Bay Trail systems for review, but currently don't have any in the $180 price range). Therefore, only the raw performance numbers will be presented. If readers are still interested in the comparison, reference can be made to our most recent mini-PC review for the corresponding numbers of others systems.



Platform Analysis

Previous generation nettops were mostly based on the Atom D525 / Atom D2700 CPUs. In order to make the graphics performance and HTPC aspects attractive, the ION platform was introduced (combining these anemic CPUs with a low-end NVIDIA GPU). Despite the improvements enabled by the GPU in the ION platform, the Atom CPUs held back the performance quite a bit. Intel hardly paid any attention to improving the performance of the CPU cores in the Atom processors, reusing the Bonnell microarchitecture for multiple generations. In the move from 32nm to 22nm, Intel finally realized that the microarchitecture for the Atom lineup needed a major upheaval.

Silvermont into the Picture

The increasing competition from smartphones and tablets made Intel rethink their strategy for the Atom lineup. The ageing Bonnell microarchitecture was replaced by Silvermont, bringing out of order execution and other improvements into the picture. Intel also moved from a PCH-based setup to integrating all the I/O aspects along with the Atom CPU cores into a SoC. With so many code names associated with Silvermont-based products, we thought it would be best to present a bulleted list indicating the markets which Intel hopes to address with each of them.

  • Bay Trail
    • Bay Trail-T: Atom Z36xx and Z37xx series for tablets
    • Bay Trail-M: Pentium and Celeron branding (N-series) for notebooks and AIOs
    • Bay Trail-D: Penitum and Celeron branding (J-series) for desktops
    • Bay Trail-I: Atom E38xx for the embedded market
  • Merrifield
    • Atom Z34xx: Low-end to mid-range smartphones
  • Moorefield
    • Atom Z35xx: Premium smartphones
  • Avoton
    • Atom C2xx0: Microservers and cloud storage
  • Rangeley
    • Atom C2xx8: Network and communication infrastructure

The various possible components in a Bay Trail SoC are given in the diagram below.

Depending on the target market (as specified in the bulleted list above), some of the components in the above block diagram are cut out. For example, Bay Trail-T does away with the SATA and PCIe lanes. Bay Trail-M is more interesting to us in this article, as the ECS LIVA's Celeron N2806 belongs to that family. It pretty much takes the original Bay Trail configuration as-is.

ECS LIVA - Motherboard Design

The Celeron N2806 used in the ECS LIVA is a 2C/2T solution with a base frequency of 1.6 GHz and a burst speed of 2.0 GHz. With a maximum TDP of 4.5 W and a SDP (scenario design power) of 2.5 W, it is a perfect fit for a passively cooled system. For the purpose of cost-optimization, ECS decided to avoid using the SATA ports. Out of the four PCIe 2.0 lanes, only one is used by the Realtek RTL8168/8111 PCI-E Gigabit Ethernet Adapter. The USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports are used as-is. The eMMC (SDIO0) port is used for storage purposes, while the other SDIO port is used to create the M.2 socket to which the Wi-Fi module is connected.

In effect, ECS has made judicious use of the available I/O to provide consumers with a mix of essential external ports at an optimal price point.



Performance Metrics

The ECS LIVA was evaluated using our standard test suite for low power desktops. First off, we have some Futuremark benchmarks. PCMark 8 provides various usage scenarios (home, creative and work) and offers ways to benchmark both baseline (CPU-only) as well as OpenCL accelerated (CPU + GPU) performance. We benchmarked the ECS LIVA for OpenCL accelerated performance in all three usage scenarios. PCMark Suite from PCMark 7, as well as 3D Mark benchmarks were also run. All the Futuremark benchmark numbers are presented in the table below.

ECS LIVA - Futuremark Benchmarks
Benchmark Score
PCMark 8 (Home OpenCL) 1035
PCMark 8 (Creative OpenCL) 766
PCMark 8 (Work OpenCL) 1135
PCMark 7 - PCMark Suite 2215
3DMark 11 (Entry - 1024x768 - Score) 374
3DMark 13 (Cloud Gate Score) 1015
3DMark 13 (Ice Storm Score) 11711

Some of the other benchmarks that we processed on the ECS LIVA include Cinebench R15 (OpenGL, single-threaded and multi-threaded), x264 v5.0, 7-zip, TrueCrypt (The Celeron N2806 doesn't have AES-NI support, so the results are on the lower side) and Dolphin emulator.

ECS LIVA - Miscellaneous Benchmarks
Benchmark Score
Cinebench R15 (OpenGL) 4.66
Cinebench R15 (Single Threaded) 31
Cinebench R15 (Multi-Threaded) 49
x264 v5.0 Pass 1 8.67 fps
x264 v5.0 Pass 2 1.51 fps
7z Compression 1926
7z Decompression 3305
TrueCrypt 109 MBps
Dolphin Emulator 3032 s

Network & Storage Subsystem Evaluation

We have recently started analyzing the storage and networking credentials of mini-PCs under review. On the storage side, one option would be repetition of our strenuous SSD review tests on the drive(s) in the PC. Fortunately, to avoid that overkill, PCMark 8 has a storage bench where certain common workloads such as loading games and document processing are replayed on the target drive. Results are presented in two forms, one being a benchmark number and the other, a bandwidth figure. We ran the PCMark 8 storage bench on selected PCs and the results are presented below.

Futuremark PCMark 8 Storage Bench

Futuremark PCMark 8 Storage Bench

We find that the eMMC solution in the ECS LIVA nicely slots in between HDD-based solutions and SSD-based ones. For the price point of the product, this is a very good choice (though we wouldn't have objected to 64 GB eMMC coming in as default).

On the networking side, we restricted ourselves to the evaluation of the WLAN component. Our standard test router is the Netgear R7000 Nighthawk configured with both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz networks. The router is placed approximately 20 ft. away, separated by a drywall (as in a typical US building). A wired client (Zotac ID89-Plus) is connected to the R7000 and serves as one endpoint for iPerf evaluation. The PC under test is made to connect to either the 5 GHz (preferred) or 2.4 GHz SSID and iPerf tests are conducted for both TCP and UDP transfers. It is ensured that the PC under test is the only wireless client for the Netgear R7000. We evaluate total throughput for up to 32 simultaneous TCP connections using iPerf and present the highest number in the graph below. The ECS LIVA Wi-FI card is not dual-band capable, and hence, it was conencted to the 2.4 GHz SSID.

Wi-Fi TCP Throughput

In the UDP case, we try to transfer data at the highest rate possible for which we get less than 1% packet loss.

Wi-Fi UDP Throughput (< 1% Packet Loss)



HTPC Credentials - Network Streaming and Local Playback

Given the ECS LIVA's fanless nature and the presence of Intel HD Graphics, we expect most purchasers to use it as a media playback machine / HTPC. Given the specifications, it is quite clear that we are not looking at a madVR capable machine, but one targeted at the entry-level / average HTPC user or someone looking for a HTPC to put in a second or third room (non-primary HTPC). There are two HTPC aspects that we will explore in this section, one related to network streaming (OTT services), and the other related to local file playback. Prior to that, we have a small sub-section dealing with refresh rate accuracy.

Custom Refresh Rates

We found last year that Haswell provided excellent display refresh rate accuracy, but never tested out Bay Trail systems on that aspect. Fortunately, our experience with the ECS LIVA put any lingering doubts to rest.

The gallery below presents some of the other refresh rates that we tested out. The first statistic in madVR's OSD indicates the display refresh rate. madVR itself drops plenty of frames to keep up with the playback requirements (which is expected given the system specifications), but those are not related to the refresh rate of the display.

Network Streaming Efficiency

Evaluation of OTT playback efficiency was done by playing back our standard YouTube test stream and five minutes from our standard Netflix test title. Using HTML5, the YouTube stream plays back a 720p encoding, while Adobe Flash delivers a 1080p stream. The power consumption at the wall as well as the GPU usage while playing them on Mozilla Firefox are provided in the graphs below.

YouTube Streaming - HTML5

YouTube Streaming - Adobe Flash

Netflix streaming evaluation was done using the Windows 8.1 Netflix app. Manual stream selection is available (Ctrl-Alt-Shift-S) and debug information / statistics can also be viewed (Ctrl-Alt-Shift-D). Statistics collected for the YouTube streaming experiment were also collected here.

Playback using Adobe Flash is leaner on the resources compared HTML5 streaming. This is likely due to the fact that the HTML5 stream delivers a 720p version which needs scaling in addition to decoding for display on a 1080p screen. In any case, the power numbers for YouTube and Netflix streaming are the lowest that we have seen on a desktop machine so far.

Decoding and Rendering Benchmarks

In order to evaluate local file playback, we concentrate on XBMC's native decoding / rendering (used by the average HTPC user) and the combination of native DXVA decoding with EVR and EVR-CP (using MPC-HC v1.7.3). The following table summarizes the GPU usage and power consumption at the wall in various cases. Numbers in bold indicate visible dropped frames.

ECS LIVA - Decoding & Rendering Performance
Stream EVR EVR-CP XBMC
  GPU Load (%) Power (W) GPU Load (%) Power (W) GPU Load (%) Power (W)
480i60 MPEG2 75.44 6.22 69.64 6.14 80.62 7.19
576i50 H264 72.94 5.81 68.85 5.81 42.16 4.91
720p60 H264 74.46 6.87 79.47 7.55 86.32 6.86
1080i60 MPEG2 92.78 8.17 98.44 8.40 87.73 7.82
1080i60 H264 98.78 8.51 95.71 8.44 91.65 8.07
1080i60 VC1 98.03 8.49 97.88 8.52 88.95 7.98
1080p60 H264 80.63 7.39 98.37 8.63 88.63 8.06
1080p24 H264 36.80 5.30 45.89 5.70 43.23 5.20
4Kp30 H264 67.39 6.47 99.13 8.58 70.36 6.59

The ECS LIVA is more than sufficient for XBMC playback of common media files (DVD - 480i60, Blu-ray - 1080p24 etc.). It is only when it comes to high resolution / high frame-rate interlaced videos that problems start creeping in. That said, I do believe that the average / entry-level HTPC user's playback requirements probably don't include such video streams.

HD audio bitstreaming works if one downloads the audio drivers directly off Intel's website. However, with the Netflix Windows 8.1 app in our setup (ECS LIVA + Pioneer Elite VSX-32 + Sony KDL46EX720), attempts to bitstream Dolby Digital Plus resulted in the video completely freezing. This is the same bug that I talked about in the Intel NUC review at the beginning of the year, and it continues to be unresolved to this date. In fact, this problem is not restricted to the Netflix app, but even XBMC, if it attempts to bitstream Dolby Digital Plus in non-WASAPI mode. As a non-primary HTPC, users are probably not going to use the ECS LIVA to bitstream HD audio. Intel should still look into it for using their iGPU in a primary HTPC. The problem is quite clearly in the Intel HD Audio driver, and a fix for that is long overdue.   
   



Power Consumption and Thermal Performance

The power consumption at the wall was measured with the display being driven through the HDMI port. In the graphs below, we compare the idle and load power of the ECS LIVA with other low power PCs evaluated before. For load power consumption, we ran Furmark 1.12.0 and Prime95 v27.9 together.

Idle Power Consumption

Load Power Consumption (Prime95 + FurMark)

In order to evaluate thermal performance, we first ran our test for load power consumption and made sure that the unit wasn't getting throttled. In order to determine the efficiency of the cooling system, we first loaded up the CPU alone using just Prime 95 for around 30 minutes. This was followed by addition of the GPU load (FurMark) for another 30 minutes, and then removal of the CPU load for 10 minutes. The system was then left idle. The various frequencies and temperatures during this loading process are recorded in the graphs below.

The above graphs show that ECS has designed a 25% overclock into the Celeron N2806, operating it at 2.00 GHz throughout our CPU loading test (with and without the GPU loading). The GPU is also able to sustain the maximum dynamic frequency of 750 MHz+ without thermal issues. At idle, the cores drop down close to 500 MHz and the GPU drops down to around 350 MHz. On the temperature side, we see the temperature stabilizing at slightly less than 100 C. With a junction temperature of 105 C, I believe consumers don't need to worry about thermal throttling at usual room temperatures (~78 F was the ambient when we tested) irrespective of the load on the unit.



Concluding Remarks

Coming to the business end of the review, it is clear that ECS must be applauded for trying to resurrect the nettop by cutting the appropriate corners while delivering a better performing machine (compared to older nettops) in a fanless chassis. The absence of SATA and SODIMM slots reduce the BOM cost and the eventual end-price for consumers (which is the reason the ECS LIVA is cheaper than a Bay Trail NUC). The use of a micro-USB conenction for power gives rise to interesting use-cases. For example, a TV with an USB port delivering around 10 W of power should be enough to run this unit for almost all common tasks.

On the flip side, the LIVA kit does have aspects that can be fixed by ECS. One of our major peeves was the positioning of the two USB ports. The placement between the micro-USB power inlet and the HDMI port makes it very difficult to utilize the USB ports (particularly for thick thumb drives). One or both of the USB ports need to be either in the front or on the sides. In addition, the Celeron N2806 SoC inside the LIVA kit doesn't have Quick Sync enabled. At the same price point, Intel has a new stepping which includes Quick Sync (the Celeron N2807). Quick Sync can enable some interesting use-cases. It would be good on ECS's part to integrate a Bay Trail-M part with Quick Sync enabled in the LIVA kits. In terms of storage, 32 GB of eMMC turns out to be very less after installing a couple of Windows updates. 64 GB should be the minimum, particularly since flash storage needs plenty of free capacity in order to maintain performance.

Back to the bigger picture, the question here is obviously the effect of LIVA on the nettop category. ECS has managed to put out a product which delivers better performance per dollar and better performance per watt compared to previous generation nettops. The category itself (small, underpowered machines used for basic computing tasks) has received a boost thanks to Chromebooks (and, in turn, Chromeboxes). The potential market for the LIVA could be further expanded if ECS were to get Chrome OS to run on it (though I personally prefer the flexibility offered by Windows), or if Windows were to be supplied for free (given that Microsoft is essentially not charging license fees for certain classes of products now, in order to compete with the Chromebooks and Chromeboxes). The ability to run Windows on this miniature unit, while being fanless in nature, should prove to be a great selling point for the unit. I do hope ECS will make note of some of the suggestions above (particularly with respect to the motherboard / chassis design) for future products in the LIVA lineup.

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