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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.