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Four Systems Appeal To Different Applications

Does Size Matter? Four Very Small Nettops Get Reviewed

When small size is the common denominator, it’s easy to forget that these are very different machines able to do very different things.

ASRock Vision HT 321B

In a previous story, we tested ASRock's Core HT 252B with a Core i5-2520M that easily outclassed competing machines armed with Intel Atom and AMD E-350 processors. Sporting desktop-class compute horsepower, its only real weakness was an HD Graphics 3000 engine.

That shortcoming is largely overcome by the Ivy Bridge-based Core i5-3210M and its HD Graphics 4000 logic in ASRock's Vision HT. It's able to play the four games we threw at it at 1280x720 and three of the four at 1920x1080. Moreover, ASRock improves the little machine's chassis, adds Bluetooth connectivity, and includes dual-band Wi-Fi.

ASRock’s newest model excels at pretty much everything, and does it does so a tiny package. The trade-off is that you have to pay a hefty premium. Availability isn't expected until mid-July, at which time we're told the system will sell for $680. That's significantly less than the $800 price ASRock asked for this machine's predecessor, but you're still paying a lot for the privilege of big performance in a tiny form factor. And remember, you still need to add the price of an operating system.

If you're alright with the cost caveat, ASRock's Vision HT 321B does establish itself as the top-of-the-line system to beat.

Jetway Mini-Top JBC700C9JG

Jetway's Mini-Top JBC70 is both potent and configurable, which enthusiasts should really appreciate. By picking your own processor, storage, and memory, you have the ultimate influence over what this little box can do and how much it costs.

The way we tested it, with a Celeron G540, 4 GB of RAM, and a 500 GB Western Digital hard drive, you'd be out about $450. That's pretty compelling for a small machine capable of so much. For a bit more money, it can be souped-up with a Sandy Bridge-based Core i5. Plus, thanks to an on-board GeForce GT 520M GPU, it handles games much more deftly than the HD Graphics 3000 engine you'd get from an Intel CPU. Swapping over to the on-die graphics engine using Nvidia's Synergy technology should even let you exploit Quick Sync during video transcode jobs.

Our main concern about the Mini-Top is an incompatibility with Nvidia's newest drivers, suggesting some reliance on Jetway for newer software rather than the graphics vendor. Secondary to that is the lack of robust BIOS settings. If we had the ability to adjust voltages and multiplier ratios, we could tweak a standard-voltage processor to run like a T-series chip. Instead, you'll need to find a low-voltage chip of your own and run it exclusively at its default settings.

We see incredible potential in the JBC700 if Jetway updates its firmware to accept low-power Ivy Bridge-based processors, and company representatives claim this will happen. When it does, we expect the $180 barebones Mini-Top (without Nvidia's GeForce GT 520M GPU) to support just as much performance as ASRock's Vision HT, so long as you drop in the right 35 W CPU. Although this system isn't as well-equipped (ASRock gives you Bluetooth and dual-band Wi-Fi, after all), it'll probably be a lot more attractive to the enthusiasts watching their budgets. 

Lenovo Q180 31102BU

Lenovo’s Q180 is an evolution of the Atom-based HTPCs we’ve seen in the past, armed with a faster D2700 CPU and much better Radeon HD 6450A graphics chip. Add a high-quality mouse and keyboard, plus the inclusion of Windows 7 Home Premium, and we can’t deny the value of this ready-to-go package for $430 (particularly as it's on sale for $330 as we prepare this piece for publishing).

Could there possible be a negative? Sure. The Atom D2700 is faster than its predecessor, but it remains the slowest processor in our round-up. It's a bit slower than AMD's E-450, and the Celeron/Core i3 are both far superior.

But the Q180 isn’t meant to be a performance monster, nor is it priced as such. This PC is meant to handle productivity-oriented tasks and play back video. It does a respectable job of both. It even muscled through the Blu-ray videos we threw at it. Our only real reservation comes from its hesitation playing back 1080p content on YouTube (the lack of Blu-ray 3D support is far less concerning). If you're aware of those limitations, though, and willing to live with them, then Lenovo's is quite a value play. The best part is that you don't have to worry about snagging an operating system or extra peripherals, just a display.

Zotac Zbox Nano XS AD11

The Zbox Nano appeals to our inner-geek, the part of us that loves to see amazing things from increasingly-smaller technology. We love that it hosts enough performance to play back Blu-ray movies, even if stereoscopic content overwhelmed it. High-quality YouTube videos may be a little bit much for it as well, but it still does a great job at 1080p.

AMD's E-450 is slightly more powerful than Intel's Atom D2700 in most of our benchmarks, and a bundled SSD makes a huge difference in boot-up and application loading times. Really, the end result feels far more powerful than we would have expected.

To be honest, it’s hard to get past our natural affection for this tiny PC. But the cold facts make it appear a little less appealing as we reach for our wallets. This is an ultra-tiny personal computer with no optical drive, 2 GB of RAM, a 64 GB SSD, an E-450 APU, and a remote control. And it sells for $380. That’s pricier than Lenovo’s on-sale Q180, a system that comes with much more capacity, optical storage, plus a mouse, keyboard, and operating system.

If size is a primary concern, though, Zotac's Zbox Nano does deserve serious consideration. I can think of several applications for this thing, from driving a touchscreen to pulling video from a networked server and playing it back in my living room. Wherever tiny profiles are preferred, the Zbox nano XS AD11 is viable.

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