Good Things In Small Packages: Seven Nettop Platforms, Tested

It'd be easy to dismiss nettops as underpowered attempts at miniaturization, but they’re good enough for surfing the Web, writing emails, and watching some video. Today, we're comparing seven different platforms based on CPUs from Intel, AMD, and VIA.

As hardware enthusiasts, it’s a point of personal pride for us to build systems using the newest, best, and fastest components whenever we can. That approach makes a lot of sense for hardcore gamers looking for the best performance within a certain budget. By the same token, if you use your rig for professional applications, investing in an expensive hexa-core CPU with twelve threads can pay for itself very quickly. Every second you're not waiting for your machine to finish a task is money in the bank.

It’s easy to forget, then, that for many usage models, massive processing power is simply overkill. If all you’re planning to do is browse the Web, compose emails, or balance the family budget in Excel, you don't need a multi-core overclocked processor with the latest graphics card. An affordable nettop gets the job done just fine.

Although these little boxes aren't designed to pack much of a punch, and they don't necessarily fare well in efficiency metrics, they do have their strengths. On one hand, their low-power CPUs allow for very small and quiet devices that look more like a stack of CDs than a computer. On the other, they use very little power. It'd be almost impossible to match them using desktop-class hardware. And yet, they still offer enough performance for basic productivity-oriented apps.

For a while there, the word nettop was practically synonymous with Intel’s Atom processor. But that's no longer the case, and there is quite a variety of models based on other platforms, too. That's why we wanted to take a more comprehensive look at the competitive landscape and see how they all stack up. Originally, our plan was to invite several companies to submit models for testing. However, multiple vendors ended up offering us very similar hardware, prompting us to go another direction instead.

Zotac is very well known as a purveyor of compact nettop-class systems, and its product portfolio pretty much covers all of the available hardware able to fit inside a compact chassis. It made sense, then, to simply pull models from Zotac's catalog.

So, today we're taking a look seven currently-available combinations of nettop hardware from Intel, AMD, and VIA.

Representing AMD, we have the two Brazos family flagships: E-350 and E-450. Intel-based entries are both the most numerous and the most varied. There’s the pedestrian Atom D525 (Pine Trail) supported by Nvidia's Ion 2 GPU, an Atom D2700 (Cedar Trail) processor paired with a GT 520M graphics, a Celeron 857, and Core i3-2330M. Those last two are Sandy Bridge-based parts, and both lean on their integrated HD Graphics engines. Built around VIA’s Nano X2 U4025 and its Chrome9 GPU, our final platform comes out of left field, which makes it all the more interesting. Don’t let its age fool you; this little CPU has more bite than we originally suspected.

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    Top Comments
  • Nintendo Maniac 64
    What I really want to see is a nettop using AMD's 17w A6-4455M. Being a Trinity APU, it actually WOULD have enough grunt to run Crysis, and without it looking like crap to boot!
    21
  • friskiest
    bavmanThese things suck. Why would you dish out the $300-400 theyre asking for them? I recently built a file server that was basically a dumbed down tower with an g620 cpu, 4 gigs of ram for under $200 (excluding all the hdds). Throw in a $50 graphics card and it would dominate any of these nettops.


    You pay for the size, power and niche factor in here,.. these are Nettops,.. you're not supposed to play AA or AAA games in here,. just browse the net,. watch movies and listen to music- as implied
    18
  • we_san
    Just curious. Are these in the same price segment ?
    12
  • Other Comments
  • JOSHSKORN
    In all honesty, when it can run Crysis...I'll be impressed. Until then...alrighty.
    -35
  • falchard
    I think this review is bias. Its missing the AMD small form factor benchmark. Any game.
    7
  • A Bad Day
    JOSHSKORNIn all honesty, when it can run Crysis...I'll be impressed. Until then...alrighty.


    Well, if you run it in:

    -320p resolution
    -Directx 8
    -All eyecandy off

    You'll get around 5-10 FPS.
    7
  • bavman
    These things suck. Why would you dish out the $300-400 theyre asking for them? I recently built a file server that was basically a dumbed down tower with an g620 cpu, 4 gigs of ram for under $200 (excluding all the hdds). Throw in a $50 graphics card and it would dominate any of these nettops.
    -19
  • we_san
    Just curious. Are these in the same price segment ?
    12
  • friskiest
    bavmanThese things suck. Why would you dish out the $300-400 theyre asking for them? I recently built a file server that was basically a dumbed down tower with an g620 cpu, 4 gigs of ram for under $200 (excluding all the hdds). Throw in a $50 graphics card and it would dominate any of these nettops.


    You pay for the size, power and niche factor in here,.. these are Nettops,.. you're not supposed to play AA or AAA games in here,. just browse the net,. watch movies and listen to music- as implied
    18
  • Nintendo Maniac 64
    What I really want to see is a nettop using AMD's 17w A6-4455M. Being a Trinity APU, it actually WOULD have enough grunt to run Crysis, and without it looking like crap to boot!
    21
  • molo9000
    Shame these still aren't good at H.264 decoding. They would make great HTPCs.

    The hardware decoding of the VIA chipset would be a killer feature, if there actually was some software that supported it. Seems like XBMC doesn't support it either.
    3
  • hmp_goose
    The point of the Nano was power consumption, right? Didn't we just debunk that?
    1
  • daglesj
    I rolled out a load of Ion 330 Asrock boxes a couple of years ago for business use. Customers still love their little black boxes. These were the early 1.6Ghz dual core Atoms.

    For work use (basically 95% of what 95% of the worlds computers users actually do in the REAL world) they work great.

    There is more to life than endless benchmarking and Crysis.
    9
  • outlw6669
    JOSHSKORNIn all honesty, when it can run Crysis...I'll be impressed. Until then...alrighty.

    The E-350 (and by extension the E-450) already can.... without even requiring a dedicated GPU....

    http://goo.gl/zrpqN
    5
  • outlw6669
    Something else I would have liked to seen.

    What effect does AMD's integrated GPU have on performance?
    Looking at the other AMD APU articles, it could potentially be quite a performance boost.
    1
  • Anonymous
    Nice. It would be interesting to see some ARM-based Linux nettop like TrimSlice benchmarked, too.
    1
  • Augray37
    bavmanThese things suck. Why would you dish out the $300-400 theyre asking for them? I recently built a file server that was basically a dumbed down tower with an g620 cpu, 4 gigs of ram for under $200 (excluding all the hdds). Throw in a $50 graphics card and it would dominate any of these nettops.


    Um, people want them because they're very very small. how small is your $200 tower plus Windows 7 plus the $200+ in HDDs plus $50 graphics card?
    8
  • back_by_demand
    I already use a nettop in the living room to run XBMC, wired network with all my content on NAS drives in the attic, programmed universal remote to control it, best technology investment ever
    5
  • back_by_demand
    bavmanThese things suck. Why would you dish out the $300-400 theyre asking for them? I recently built a file server that was basically a dumbed down tower with an g620 cpu, 4 gigs of ram for under $200 (excluding all the hdds). Throw in a $50 graphics card and it would dominate any of these nettops.

    Because an ATX tower case PC would use more power, be noisier and look stupid attached to your TV
    ...
    These are designed to be invisible and silent so you can use them as HTPC (for example)
    4
  • serendipiti
    I don't agree with your conclusion.
    You know that all of these systems have their own niche.
    In that particular scenario is acceptable to mention Core I3 performance. That's OK.
    I have to admit that I got somehow disappointed by AMD's performance, but I think that
    the power numbers make them real winners. In that constrained space where acoustics matter is all about low power numbers, isn't it ?
    2
  • jblack
    And what about price?


    I think anyone would go for the Core i3 in this situation if they are all priced similarly. You even mention it commands a premium in price, but you don't tell us how much any of this costs......
    5
  • Branden
    anyone who knocks these compact computers obviously don't understand their purpose.
    they're not supposed to be able to handle BF3 or handbrake, they're meant to handle basic everyday tasks while using up very little power and space. these things would be ideal for 90% of people who don't do much beyond itunes or facebook (and certainly not gaming or photoshop).

    in fact my HTPC is an E-350, it's small a silent, all a HTPC needs to be. it can handle 1080p blu-ray flawlessly, and with a SSD and 8GB RAM it boots up nearly as quickly as the HDTV warms up.
    i'm so happy with it when it comes time to build a new PC for my parents (my old socket 939 is serving them just fine) something like an E-350 is what i'll be looking at.
    3
  • Hazle
    pretty glad Brazos didn't disappoint. was kinda skeptical getting an E-350 last year when i had to get a new laptop. those benches do seem about right; browsing with a Brazos may not be the best compared to my desktop, but rarely do i need more than 15 tabs, and if my Pentium M could handle office work, i didn't see why Brazos couldn't.

    best of all was the media playback with 720p and 1080p videos with hardware acceleration. a great improvement compared to how my old laptop would struggle to play HD content.
    3