The Budget Intel Atom Nettop

Intel Budget Nettop
Component Product Name Price
CPU + Mobo Intel BOXD525MW (Atom D525) $80
Memory Patriot Signature 2GB PSD32G13332S $25
Case + PSU Cooler Master Elite 100 RC-100-KKP3-GP + 150W PSU $61
Storage Western Digital Caviar Blue 500GB WD5000AAKS $36
Optical Drive Samsung SN-S083F/BEBE $26
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit $100
Total Price $328

For our budget Intel nettop, we start with the Intel BOXD525MW. This is the basic, no frills dual-core Atom board, sporting the 1.8GHz Atom D525. This is currently the fastest Atom CPU available, but that’s not saying a lot, and the GMA 3150 graphics are a major bottleneck for content like HD video. Compared to older Atom variants, there are a few benefits. First, it uses less expensive DDR3 RAM instead of DDR2 (DDR3 prices are now below DDR2). Note that this board uses laptop SO-DIMMs, not standard desktop DIMMs. One problem is that this board has only a VGA port (no DVI, no HDMI), but that’s part of the vanilla Atom experience. For the memory, we’ve selected basic RAM that’s compatible with the motherboard. There’s no sense in buying high-performance RAM for an Atom board, and 2GB is sufficient to run Windows 7 with moderate multitasking. If you’re doing stuff that would benefit from 4GB, you’re probably going to want a faster platform than Atom.

As noted in the introduction, we’ve selected four difference Mini ITX case + PSU combinations for this guide. Some are substantially more expensive, and the choice of case will affect other component choices as well. Some of the cases lack support for integrated optical drives, some use regular 5.25” optical drives, and others use laptop optical drives. The hard drive situation is also variable, as a couple of the cases use 3.5” hard drives while the others use 2.5” drives. Whichever case you select, make sure you choose the appropriate components elsewhere.

For the budget Intel setup, we chose the Cooler Master Elite 100 RC-100-KKP3-GP. We like this Cooler Master mini-ITX case because it’s cheap, includes a decent power supply, has VESA mounts so it can very easily be attached to the back of an LCD monitor to save space, and it can accommodate a 3.5” desktop hard drive instead of a 2.5” laptop drive. That means you get better storage performance and capacity (but still nowhere near SSD performance) for less money. We chose the Western Digital Caviar Blue 500GB as a nice balance between capacity and price. Most 3.5” hard drives seem to have bottomed out at around $35-$40 shipped, so there’s not much point going any smaller. You could go with Samsung, Hitachi, or Seagate as well and get similar performance, so if you find a better deal from a reputable retail outlet go for it. I recommend the Western Digital here simply because prices are essentially equal, performance is close enough to be a non-factor, and Western Digital’s RMA process in my experience is the best in the business. (Hopefully you never need to use it.)

The case supports a slim laptop optical drive, which will cost a bit more than a standard desktop drive, but the Samsung SN-S083F/BEBE burner we selected is the cheapest we could find. Note that it does not come with the smaller screws you need to mount it, so if you don’t have screws sitting around, you’ll need to improvise a mounting solution. (I’ve used double-sided tape, Velcro, and duct tape in the past.) The Samsung drive does not use a standard SATA connector, so you’ll need an adapter for that as well. Because of these inconveniences and the fact that USB devices are increasingly taking the place of optical discs, I consider optical drives in nettops an option—and I rarely install them. Keep in mind as well that external, USB-powered DVD burners are readily available for not much more than the cost of a standard internal optical drive. If you decide to forego an optical drive, you’ll want to research how to install Windows 7 from a flash drive. It’s very straightforward and requires a 4GB (or larger) flash drive and a separate system that has a DVD drive.

That brings us to the final item, the operating system. We’re using Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit on all of the nettops in this guide, as it’s the de facto standard for PC operating systems. I recommend using the 64-bit version instead of the 32-bit version because you might eventually want to drop another 2GB SO-DIMM in the box, and it’s the same price as the 32-bit flavor. The total system cost including optical drive is $328 (not including the possible cost of smaller screws and an adapter for the optical drive), or just skip the DVDRW completely and you can put this together for $302.

Nettop and Mini-ITX Buyer’s Guide AMD Zacate Budget 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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