Review: Low-Power AMD Platform, the best for HTPC
After testing Atom and Nano platforms, its time to shift our focus to AMD. Rumors say Intel is scared of AMD's ULV offerings, and we will see if there is any truth to this.
J&W is the first vendor ever introducing an high-end miniITX board. It has all the features you can wish for with SATA RAID II support for four hard drives, eSATA, 6x USB 2.0, Gb LAN, VGA, DVI, HDMI, analog and digital sound-outputs. There is no other consumer miniITX solution in the market which is even comparable to it.
As you can see, it's also the first miniITX solution featuring an all solid capacitor design. Using the AMD 780G chipset with 128MB DDR2 sideband-memory gives the board superiority against any other competition on the market. Using an Marvel 8056 chip you also get native PCIe Gb LAN and Realtek's ALC885 gives you a quite good onboard sound solution. You need to use a 4cm fan, as long as you are not gaming, you can run it with 5V, otherwise we recommend to buy a quieter fan.
The board features a three-phase VRM, which could do 95W, but we strongly advise only to use max. 65W TDP CPUs. Small cases have the disadvantage that airflow is considerabley lower compared to a standard tower. The less your CPU TPD, the better. The chokes and other chips are on the backside of the PCB, so don't forget to use the plastic cover for the case which J&W provides to prevent a short-circuit which could damage the board.
The board also features a PCIe x16 slot, but due to restraints on the PCB it only supports x4 speed. So, with PCIe 2.0 enabled you will get enough speed if you consider this board for gaming.
J&W finally got the package right. The box looks really nice and with a nice bundle it doesn't disappoint. Two SATA cables with clips, HDD cable, HDD to SATA power-cable, back panel and a 4cm fan complete the package, besides manual and driver-CD.
AMD's low-energy offering with their Geode CPUs is now years in the market. It is time to change strategy and to introduce new CPUs. The first AMD sent us is the AMD Athlon 2000+ which is only clocked with 1GHz, so we don't believe it's any competition to Atom at all. Rated with a TDP of 8W it should be close to Atom, considering power-consumption only. But for POS-systems and normal office/Internet usage it suffices.
The more interesting CPU is the Dual-Core Athlon X2 3400e. There is no official TDP, because this CPU is not ready for the market yet. We suspect it is 22W, which is the same as the 3250e, but this CPU clocks only with 1.50GHz, while the 3400e does 1.80GHz. In other aspects the low-energy Athlons and Athlons X2 are identical to their desktop counterparts, but use much less energy.
J&W MINIX (provided by J&W)
AMD Athlon 64 2000+ 1.00GHz (provided by AMD)
AMD Athlon 64 X2 3400+ 1.80GHz (provided by AMD)
Jetway Radeon HD3870 (provided by mec-electronics)
ITX 80W external/internal power supply
Seasonic S12II 330W power supply
Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 80GB (provided by Seagate)
Even when only clocked with 1GHz, the AMD Athlon 2000+ clearly beats the Atom single-core and comes close to the Atom dual-core. If AMD can pull out a single-core CPU which clocks with 1.30GHz it can clearly beat even the Atom dual-core. The AMD Athlon 64 X2 3400e is in an entirely different league, it's like fusion-drive against hyper-drive.
Atom 330 dual-core 1.60GHz for reference:
AMD Athlon 64 2000+:
AMD Athlon 64 X2 3400e single-threaded:
AMD Athlon 64 X2 3400e:
Sandra shows similar results, but we didn't bother to test the AMD Athlon 2000+, because it's slower compared to the standard Atom single-cores clocked at 1.60GHz.
The 780G gives weak gaming power on the MINIX board supported by 128MB DDR2 sideband-memory, but compared to VIA or Intel chipsets it's way ahead.
Of course we could not resist to put an HD3870 in our board and run 3DMarks. Compared to the same tests we did with the Nano platform AMD is leading clearly; of course, we tested with the dual-core only.
While the AMD Athlon 64 2000+ is not that impressive, because there is no Cool'n'Quiet, the AMD Athlon 64 X2 3400e can match its little brother in power consumption. Both AMD processors on the 780G board have the same idle power consumption as Intel's Atom/945GC platform. Under load we did not expect AMD to catch Atom, but the single-core is quite close, the dual-core at least matchs the single-core Nano. Even with a HD3870 the AMD platform is quite close to Nano, although it's dual-core and about three times faster.
The HD3xxx tests show maximum consumption, while the others show average consumption.
This is a very impressive little board. It has all the features you wish for and some more. The only negative point we could find is the small 4cm fan. It's too loud, but you need to cool the Northbridge heatsink, especially when you are using onboard graphics for playing some older games. At least there are some quieter aftermarket fans available which should solve that problem. Due to the quite packed board you may run into troubles with third-party cooling solutions. The thermal management will reduce the noise of the boxed cooler which will suffice. Also, the need for SO-DIMM is no disadvantage because prices for notebook-memory are quite close to desktop memory. Our OCZ 2GB PC2-6400S kit is available for around €30, while a similar 4GB kit costs around €60.
If you need more performance you can still put in a Phenom X4 65W CPU. We hope next year AMD will introduce a 45nm 45W Phenom X4, which will be much more appealing.
This board is a top selling board for J&W in the Japanese and South-Korean market and is available for $150, which roughly translates to €130. But besides the high price, this is the first high-end mini-ITX solution available and we can't find any reason why not to buy it. Unfortunately, it will be hard to buy in Europe or the U.S., but we hope J&W can expand its distribution network soon.
AMD Athlon 64 2000+:
Clocked only with 1GHz, this CPU is enough for POS-systems, office and Internet. Playing a 720p movie-file is not possible without a stutter effect. The same CPU with 1.30GHz would manage to cope with it. AMD has the Athlon 64 2650e which clocks at 1.60Ghz, if you want to play 720p content with software codecs. Playing some older games with the integrated graphics of the 780G board is out of the question, but at least it is a step ahead for AMD compared to their Geode offerings. With GPU accelerated VC-1 and h264 playback, the AMD package is worth considering for any HTPC solution.
AMD Athlon 64 X2 3400e:
This CPU kicks the life out of any Atom and Nano CPU currently on offer. Of course, it's no match for Core desktop CPUs, but there aren't any other ITX boards in the market which could do the same as the board we tested. So, we think you have no alternative if you look for a HTPC machine where you can play a game once in a while. Of course, HD content is no concern, 720p just plays fine. We don't have a 1080p file, but we assume even using a software codec should not cause a problem. Putting in a decent mid-range card such as a HD4670 you can turn off your big tower and save some energy. Yes, Intel should be scared about this 22W TDP CPU, because in the ITX market they have nothing to compete against it.