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Have Nettops Transcended Productivity?

Nettop Round-Up: Four Tiny PCs, Benchmarked And Reviewed
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If nothing else, this comparison shows us that the nettop space offers something for everyone, so long as your pockets are deep enough. Each PC introduces unique features in a very small form factor. As a result, the four contenders give us strengths and weaknesses not shared by the rest of the field.

Arctic MC001-BD

Arctic realizes its idea of complete silence in the MC001-BD, a product that tries to fit in with the HTPC crowd. While the Atom D525 processor driving this thing is the least-powerful CPU represented, we're not looking at demanding transcode workloads or threaded rendering projects here. If you need heavy lifting, a nettop is not on your radar, we're sure.

Instead, the video playback capabilities of AMD's Mobility Radeon HD 5430 and the included Blu-ray drive let the MC001-BD shine in its target segment: the home theater.

We do have a few reservations, though. There is no bundled remote, although Android and iPhone owners should get access to free remote control application in the near future. Moreover, this system is incapable of Blu-ray 3D playback because the mobile GPU can't accelerate it and the CPU is too slow to handle it in software.

Priced at $714 including Windows 7 Home Premium, this is the second-most expensive offering in our round-up, too. There aren't a ton of choices for completely silent nettops, though. So, if you can live with this machine's few shortcomings and demand passive cooling, the MC001-BD is at least worth considering.

ASRock CoreHT 252B

With a Sandy Bridge-based Core i5-2520M driving its platform, ASRock’s entry is significantly faster than the other nettops in our round-up. In fact, the CoreHT 252B has enough processing power to stand up against desktops (despite the fact that its CPU is a mobile model). In productivity-oriented benchmarks and light gaming tests, the CoreHT 252B walks on by the rest of the field without consuming much more power or generating much more noise. The included remote and Blu-ray drive make it a capable HTPC with the chops to play back Blu-ray 3D over HDMI.

Not surprisingly, the highest-end features are accompanied by the highest price tag, too. Selling for $800 without an operating system, you could build one heck of a desktop with a lot more horsepower for less money. It wouldn't be as small, as power-friendly, or as quiet as the CoreHT 252B though, and it probably wouldn't hide in a home theater rack, either. Go into this one knowing you're paying a premium for its physical dimensions.

ASRock’s interpretation of a power media-oriented nettop is very capable, and it's ideal for folks who don't want to compromise on performance but still need the very small footprint.

Giada i50-B5541

Giada does big things in tiny spaces. Despite its miniscule stature, the Core i3-430UM in the i50 double the raw performance of Intel's Atom D525 and AMD's E-350 in many compute-intensive disciplines. Bereft of a DVD or Blu-ray drive, the i50 is not ideal as a traditional media center. However, with Flash decode acceleration, it’s at least capable of playing back streaming video over the Web. Its bundled remote control is a bonus for that task, though probably not as useful when you factor in the need for a keyboard. In addition, this is the only nettop in our round-up with an integrated Bluetooth controller. Its only clear weakness is a lack of 3D gaming potential, a consequence of relying on Intel's HD Graphics engine. But gaming isn't what this nettop was designed to do, anyway.

Yes, ASRock's submission is a lot faster. It's also more expensive. You can buy Giada’s i50 for $659, complete with Windows 7 Home Premium. If you can live with Ubuntu, 2 GB of RAM, and a 320 GB hard disk, it sells for as little as $465. Both options are solid values for anyone prioritizing size in their search for a nettop able to handle typical online tasks and basic productivity.

Zotac Zbox AD03BR-Plus

We liked Zotac’s Zbox HD-ID34, and the newer AD03BR-Plus offers even better specifications in the same elegant package. The E-350 APU performs well in applications that don't require a lot of processing power. And the integration of AMD's Radeon HD 6310 is a boon for video playback. Equipped with a Blu-ray drive, the AD03BR-Plus is ideal in a media center environment.

Yes, the dual-core Bobcat-based E-350 processor is fairly weak, only marginally better than Intel’s Atom D525. This system could also use more USB connectivity. And the lack of a bundled remote is strange for a piece of hardware so obviously geared toward the HTPC space. 

Unfortunately, the fact that the graphics component in AMD's E-350 doesn't support MVC acceleration means the two processing cores are tasked with trying to handle Blu-ray 3D playback in software (ultimately, they're too slow for this). But at $504 with no operating system (and $399 for a version without an operating system, hard drive, or memory), the Zbox AD03BR-Plus is still a considerable value proposition. It looks good and performs well in the living room. As far as HTPCs go, the only thing missing here is Blu-ray 3D support.

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  • 10 Hide
    chumly , October 10, 2011 4:59 AM
    These all seem expensive to me, considering you could probably build a better mini itx slim form factor system from scratch for about half the price.
  • 10 Hide
    Pyree , October 10, 2011 4:57 AM
    IDK, $800 for the ASRock CoreHT 252B. A laptop cost less, has better performance for that price range, better mobility and space saving plus you have everything (screen, speaker etc). I rather get a laptop for a small office.
Other Comments
  • -2 Hide
    jdwii , October 10, 2011 4:53 AM
    MISTAKE

    Quote:
    But at $504 with no operating system (and $399 for a version without an operating system, hard drive, or memory),
  • 10 Hide
    Pyree , October 10, 2011 4:57 AM
    IDK, $800 for the ASRock CoreHT 252B. A laptop cost less, has better performance for that price range, better mobility and space saving plus you have everything (screen, speaker etc). I rather get a laptop for a small office.
  • 10 Hide
    chumly , October 10, 2011 4:59 AM
    These all seem expensive to me, considering you could probably build a better mini itx slim form factor system from scratch for about half the price.
  • 1 Hide
    AMD X6850 , October 10, 2011 5:11 AM
    Quote:
    As mentioned, no remove comes bundled with the Zbox.


    Remote?
  • 1 Hide
    cleeve , October 10, 2011 5:19 AM
    AMD X6850Remote?


    Thx, fixed!
  • 1 Hide
    molo9000 , October 10, 2011 5:59 AM
    Nettops? These things are far too expensive to be nettops.
    They are small form factor PCs or home theatre PCs, but they are not nettops.

    btw: Mac mini should be in this lineup.
  • 0 Hide
    amk-aka-Phantom , October 10, 2011 6:45 AM
    Very nice article. I was about to request something like it :) 

    Mac Mini should be in this lineup? Actually, a good idea. I'd love to see how it compares to similar Wintel boxes.

    I'm through with these small boxes because they're a pain in the a$$ to service and the hardware isn't good for the price ($800?! gimme a break!), but I see value in them for people who are ready to pay more for the small size.

    If I would build a small form-factor box myself, I'd use something like this new Lian Li case which was in Tom's news recently - it can fit proper PCI/PCI-E cards.

    Again, lovely article. Keep it up.

    P.S. The ASRock box is great.
  • 1 Hide
    compton , October 10, 2011 7:14 AM
    I second the sentiment that these aren't really nettops. Luckily, the next iteration of Llano should rectify that, creating the golden triangle of CPU , GPU, and low cost. At least that's what I expect anyway. These reviewed units are more HTPC solutions than low cost nettop. Intel has a new half height miniITX initiative with a rare and relatively expensive 1155 mini ITX to match. However, once Intel's iGPU gets a serving of HTPC friendly features, you could build your own full featured, passively cooled system to take these units on performance and price as well. The move to 22nm should make low powered passively cooled CPUs easy to get right. As it stands, each of the solutions tested are pretty good, but I'm not sure that any of them are worth the asking price. In particular, I've always avoided Atom like the plague, and I don't think they're appropriate in small form factor systems that cost more than about $200.
  • 4 Hide
    ruban71 , October 10, 2011 8:16 AM
    Can we now have a comparison against a couple of ITX builds? Choose an nice looking case and show us what can be put together for similar money.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , October 10, 2011 10:10 AM
    I've owned an E350 - struggles with HD playback in a linux system, there doesn't appear to be any support for the amd hardware decoding. So if you were thinking of making a linux htpc out of it, go for something more powerful... It will perform better though as in the article above if using Windows (Using I think - Media Player classic which allows hardware h.264 decode.)
  • 0 Hide
    amk-aka-Phantom , October 10, 2011 10:33 AM
    Quote:
    I've owned an E350 - struggles with HD playback in a linux system, there doesn't appear to be any support for the amd hardware decoding. So if you were thinking of making a linux htpc out of it, go for something more powerful... It will perform better though as in the article above if using Windows (Using I think - Media Player classic which allows hardware h.264 decode.)


    I agree; I had to deal with E-350 (great mini-ITX Gigabyte board, btw, has everything) two weeks ago. It's a fail in Ubuntu, I barely got Compiz to work there without issues :lol:  and my 900 MHz Celeron M can usually max it out...
  • 0 Hide
    halls , October 10, 2011 1:58 PM
    Thanks for including the Starcraft II benchmark! Please test more systems with this game!
  • 1 Hide
    max40watt , October 10, 2011 2:28 PM
    My E-350 w/ Win7 running inside an old Nintendo makes for a fine HTPC.



  • 0 Hide
    zaho0006 , October 10, 2011 3:43 PM
    Also would say my E-350 system is fine, was under $300 to build with Windows and no Bluray drive. Plays back anything but 1080P mkv files from WMC (which works fine in other software) and handles all of my HD recording/playback from WMC as well.
  • 2 Hide
    leandrodafontoura , October 10, 2011 4:04 PM
    Why no MacMini in the comparison?
  • 0 Hide
    chumly , October 10, 2011 4:20 PM
    ruban71Can we now have a comparison against a couple of ITX builds? Choose an nice looking case and show us what can be put together for similar money.


    I'd also like to see an ITX system marathon.
  • 2 Hide
    fulle , October 10, 2011 4:39 PM
    The prices are just too high. It shouldn't be possible for me to just buy a superior performing laptop instead, and actually SAVE money.

    In that vain, it's difficult for me to even build a llano based system myself, at a low enough cost to justify doing so.
  • 0 Hide
    cobra5000 , October 10, 2011 5:35 PM
    OVERPRICED!
  • 0 Hide
    K2N hater , October 10, 2011 8:57 PM
    I wanna see how good some undervolted Llano performs against anything else when set on an ITX heatsink-like case. I have a feeling running Crysis on a silent rig with system power comsuption below 80W is the deal of the decade.
  • -1 Hide
    deadlockedworld , October 10, 2011 10:25 PM
    molo9000btw: Mac mini should be in this lineup.


    I completely agree -- this was a large omission as the Mac mini is actually the class leader in this segment. Surprisingly, it is even price competitive with the PC options listed above! (weird for Apple)

    This comparison would be more valuable than typical PC/Mac because OS is largely irrelevant for a websurfing/netflix nettop. The lighter footprint of Mac OS would probably yield better performance.
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