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Wednesday, 11 March 2009 16:35

Cheap DIY nettop guide

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Build your own and save up to €100


Although they've been around for as long as their portable netbook brethren, nettop PCs don't draw nearly as much attention from consumers and the media alike. Nettops are a sound concept, small, good looking PCs capable of dealing with most everyday tasks, and they don't cost much either. Well, while they are small, cute and power efficient, they aren't exactly what we'd call cheap.

At the moment, two vendors are battling it out in the nettop arena, and you've probably guessed it's MSI and Asustek. The cheapest MSI Wind nettop costs €232. It's powered by an Atom N270 at 1.6GHz, has 1GB of memory, a 320GB drive and ships with Linux. Asus nettops cost a bit more, as the cheapest Eee Box 202 costs €274. It has the same CPU and 1GB of memory, a smaller 160GB hard drive, but comes with XP rather than Linux. Oddly, at the moment a Linux flavored Eee nettop costs €20 more than the one with XP.

These prices might seem quite attractive at first glance, but let's try and put together a nettop ourselves, and see what happens.

The obvious place to start is the motherboard, for example Intel's Essential Series D945GCLF with a 1.6GHz Atom 230, which sells for €59. Cheap, but we would recommend spending €69 on Intel's D945GCLF2 board, which will get you a dual-core Atom 330 and 945GC chipset. Other vendors offer mini-ITX boards with N270 processors, but we went with Intel, as it's cheaper and offers a dual-core option.

Now for the chassis. A year ago, it was quite hard to find an affordable ITX case, with most cases selling around the €100 mark, but thanks to increasing demand, many vendors have launched cheap and rather good looking products. We're interested in cheap stuff, and even under €60 you can choose between a dozen products from Compucase, JCP, Jou Jye and Foxconn. Most ship with 100W or 120W PSUs, although some feature 250W units, in case you're into overkill. €45 is enough to get a decent one, so let's move on to storage and memory.

You can get a 160GB drive for around €30, but for under €40 you can get 320GB of storage, so we'd go with the latter option. As for the memory, 1GB will cost you €9, while 2GB will set you back €16, and obviously 2GB is a much better choice.

The Wind and the Eee both feature optical drives, but you can probably live without one. In case you need it badly, or plan to use your nettop as a media center, you'll have to cough up €27 more for a slim DVD burner from Samsung.

Now let's sum up.

Going with the cheapest possible option, your homebrew nettop would theoretically cost you just €142. You'd get a single-core Atom, 1GB of memory, a 160GB hard drive and the cheapest Compucase chassis with a 120W PSU. If you add a DVD burner and a 320GB drive, it ends up at €178. That's €54 less than a similarly spec'd Wind, and it's even worse for the Eee, which ends up almost €100 pricier, although you do get XP.

If you want a dual-core with 2GB of memory, a slightly better chassis and 320GB of storage, you still won't spend a fortune. It will cost you €200 with a DVD drive, or €173 without it.

Obviously there are upsides to making your own nettop, but it's not a walk in the park. First of all, getting all the bits and pieces isn't easy, as most retailers don't stock up on ITX products due to low demand. Also, depending on the region you probably won't get such good prices in one place, forcing you to order stuff from two or more retailers, driving costs up significantly.

Although the choice of chassis is much bigger than a year ago, most of the cheap ones are somewhat bigger and a tad less stylish than the Eee or Wind. However, they feature 3.5-inch internal drive bays, so getting a huge and cheap drive is not a problem, or using an old drive from your desktop for that matter. This makes homemade nettops a much better choice if you plan to use them as media centers or HTPCs.

The fact that no available Atom board features HDMI doesn't make the platform an ideal candidate for HTPC building, but we might see some interesting products in the future (hint, Ion). In case you don't need an optical drive, you can save about €30, which doesn't sound like much, but can go a long way in this market segment. After all, we are talking about €150-€200 machines, not high end gaming rigs.

Also, don't forget to include a day's worth of fiddling about your nettop into the equation, as time doesn't come cheap, unless you've recently joined the army of unemployed recession victims.
Last modified on Thursday, 12 March 2009 00:33
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