Have Nettops Transcended Productivity?
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 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 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.
They are small form factor PCs or home theatre PCs, but they are not nettops.
btw: Mac mini should be in this lineup.
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.