O/C Tech: Making AMD's Socket AM1 Viable

AMD's socket AM1 is notoriously slow and gloriously inexpensive. Contributor Joe Trott tunes his machine in an effort to answer the question: Can this low-energy platform meet the most-basic needs of a performance enthusiast?

Today, I'm taking a road less traveled, although it won't be my first trip. I have often wondered how low I could go and still have a viable system. I previously paired an AMD X2 4850e with an HD4670 and found it "sufferable," but I especially wanted more CPU power for non-gaming tasks. Now let's see what happens if we simply add more cores.

Can the AM1 platform, featuring a low-power (25W) Kabini chip, serve as a viable general use machine? Does it ever make sense to use one? In particular, I'm motivated to find out if it is possible for someone in an off-grid environment where every watt counts to still enjoy using a full-function PC, even with a limited power budget.

Parts Selection

Let's start with the motherboard. I have not been happy with the AM1 selections of our Best Motherboards, primarily because they have a mere two SATA ports. That may be adequate for a kiosk or HTPC, which has network storage available, but it's not sufficient for enthusiast oriented standalone builds that include an SSD boot drive, a larger mechanical HDD storage drive, and if only for loading commercial software and watching movies, an optical drive. Personally, I consider not being able to have three drives a deal breaker. ASRock has a couple of suitable options, however, and I chose their AM1H-ITX. It offers four SATA 6Gb/s ports and also throws flexible power options into the mix. It also offers overclocking, according to the company. Let's take a detailed look at this board and what it's capable of.

Specifications

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The codec is the high-end ALC892, which is near the top of the heap for motherboard sound. It offers 97dBA S/N on the outputs and 90dBA S/N on the inputs. It isn't professional quality, which requires at least 100dBA, but it is certainly good enough for mainstream use, including a 7.1 HTPC setup.

ASRock's AM1H-ITX uses Realtek's 8111GR network controller for its RJ-45 port, offering gigabit speeds. There is no radio on the board, however there is a mini-PCIe slot allowing you to add your own. Furthermore, it seems that ASRock may be expecting you to do this, as the I/O plate even includes cutouts for a pair of antennas. There are two USB3.0 ports and two USB2.0 ports on the rear panel, as well as HDMI, DVI-I, DisplayPort, and VGA monitor connections (HDMI or DisplayPort may be used, but not both at the same time). There's one more connector back here on the far right, a standard DC IN power connector. Yes, this board can be run off a laptop's 19V power brick. Capacitors are all solid, and chokes are ferrite core rather than the less efficient iron.

A Closer Look

Along with the board, you get a somewhat small 5-1/16" x 7-1/8" glue-bound manual, which will not want to lie flat. In addition to English you get German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Turkish, and four [pictographic] Asian languages I do not recognize (Thai, Japanese, Chinese, ?) plus Bahasa Indonesian. There is a driver CD, I/O shield and the usual two SATA 6Gb/s cables. The screw for the mini-PCIe slot is already on the board. You also get a cord with three SATA power connectors on it; explanation coming up!

Like all ITX motherboards, the layout is somewhat cramped. A long card will overhang the front panel connectors, but should not interfere with them.  The CR2032 battery is wrapped and taped to the back of the I/O connectors, so replacing it will involve some futzing around since it plugs into a two-pin header in the upper right corner.

The board is thick enough not to make you think it will snap while installing the stock AMD cooler. That uses a couple of pushpins not too different from the Intel cooler, although there are only two of them, unlike Intel's four. The SATA ports are all in the lower left corner, and alternate, so the clips will always face out. To the right of the SATA ports, and left of the 24-pin power connector, is a SATA power connector. This is where that included SATA power cable plugs in. If you use a DC power adapter, this cable provides power for up to two SATA devices. I'd like to see power for at least three here, although I suppose you could use a "Y" adapter or two.

Between the CPU socket and the PCIe slot is a cluster of other headers for the USB ports, a COM port, and the CLRCMOS jumper. There is also a TPM header. There is enough space around them that plugging cables in was not difficult. The front panel audio connector is behind the audio jacks on the rear panel, and there is finger room around it too. To the front of that you will find the mini-PCIe slot, with its screw already installed.

The only bizarre placement is the speaker header, which is way over on the right edge of the board. Despite the cramping, I did not find anything obstructed on the AM1H-ITX. Fan headers are near edges. There is no CPU power cable; this board is for CPUs with a maximum TDP of 25W, and it is not needed. There is also no diagnostic display or pilot LED when power has been applied.

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  • SirNathan
    I like your article, but wanted to point out that there's a similarly-priced Intel board available with a Celeron included and 4 SATA ports http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16813135350
    or this slightly more expensive model http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16813157494
  • quilciri
    I really want to like the AM1 platform as well, but as far as meeting usage needs, I find that it is surprisingly squeezed between the intel platforms you mentioned and the vastly cheaper/lower wattage raspberry pi 2 (and now 3) systems....or even the Pine 64.

    If you're just web browsing, emailing, etc, the pi is adequate. If you need more performance than that, it's likely you need a lot more performance and the AM1 sits in a middle ground there isn't much demand for. It does make a good minimal HTPC for 4K video if you want to run windows on your HTPC, but that's all I can think of. (the just released Pine 64 board supports 4K video playback for much cheaper, but only runs android).
  • salgado18
    That was a great read, thanks. I've always wondered what as AM1 all about.

    Could you test the system with one more game, maybe a modern one? These games are a bit niche, and it's hard to compare the system to others. Maybe an Unreal Engine game, like Tomb Raider (the first reboot, not the latest game)?
  • Onus
    I would not have thought to use such an old game in my tests, but after writing this up, I also tried Diablo II (that's 2, not 3) on Scrooge, and frame rates were 11-18; essentially unplayable, which is a darn shame. I had hoped to use Scrooge as my "lab assistant," recording data, researching and capturing product screen shots, etc, then playing casual games while waiting for tests to complete.

    Regrettably, my gaming time is so limited these days that I have not bought any new games for quite a while.
  • salgado18
    47340 said:
    I would not have thought to use such an old game in my tests, but I also tried Diablo II (that's 2, not 3) on Scrooge, and frame rates were 11-18; essentially unplayable, which is a darn shame.


    That's very unexpected. Why is the system good at 3D online games, but bad at old 2D games?

    Do you have any numbers of the A4-6300 in similar workloads? It is very close in price, and is a dual-core 3.9GHz CPU.
  • Xaltar
    I would love to see how the Athlon 5350 holds up against Intel's Celeron N3150. While the Intel is an SoC and the Athlon is socketed I don't see AMD releasing new AM1 CPUs for this platform which essentially means that if you already have the Athlon 5350 (the most powerful AM1 option) it may as well be soldered onto the motherboard as there is no further upgrade path. I suspect the N3150 may actually beat the 5350 across the board, including graphics and TDP.
  • Sam Bittermann
    Quote:
    I would not have thought to use such an old game in my tests, but after writing this up, I also tried Diablo II (that's 2, not 3) on Scrooge, and frame rates were 11-18; essentially unplayable, which is a darn shame. I had hoped to use Scrooge as my "lab assistant," recording data, researching and capturing product screen shots, etc, then playing casual games while waiting for tests to complete. Regrettably, my gaming time is so limited these days that I have not bought any new games for quite a while.


    Yikes, I would have hoped it would have been able to play at least Diablo 3 on medium settings with a 750 Ti but that cpu just can't feed it fast enough. Great article and thanks for over clocking numbers!
  • Onus
    I believe HardwareSecrets did at least one comparison article (may have been two) with low-TDP Intel SOCs against AM1 systems. For most tasks, the Intel builds were stronger, but for graphics, AMD won.
    If there is interest, I'll write up a G4400 system from the same perspective.
  • Epsilon_0EVP
    Regarding the temperatures, the lower temperature is most likely bugged, since that's a well-known issue with AMD temperature sensors. But the upper temperature may actually be correct at idle. I have seen reports of people running an AM1 APU with no heatsink, and they run just fine. Temps of 40C are still perhaps too low, but this is in fact a very cold chip.
  • joex444
    The bias here is rather disappointing as the author starts with the belief that the system will work for the targeted needs. We see this with "I really want to like this platform" and "Unfortunately, objectivity demands that I grit my teeth and admit that this platform may not be your best choice." One should treat this like an experiment, offering some reason to test the AM1 platform against a G3258 and explaining what purpose the AM1 may offer. Some experiments are performed to compare the two, then an objective conclusion is written devoid of remarks related to the grittiness of one's teeth or the hopes and desires one had going into the experiment. Then we have the memory test where dual channel vs single channel is compared. Obviously no OC is going to overcome that as you need to double the RAM speed in order to even hit parity.

    I'm also confused why they believe a DC adapter instead of PSU would yield lower power usage when a PSU is nothing but an AC -> DC converter. Perhaps the system throttles certain components? It was mentioned two SATA drives may be used. Quite frankly, for a system like this I can't imagine why one would have 3 or 4 drives, even if one is a blu-ray drive for an HTPC. With the USB 3.0 ports, external drives should not be slow, you just need decent external drives.

    The gaming is clearly not for this system, but I don't understand the point in comparing a G3258 + GT730 to an AM1 + GTX750Ti. The author claims the latter doesn't bottleneck the GPU, but in order to prove this they should provide numbers for the G3258 + GTX750Ti. Any difference is a sign that the AM1 cannot keep up with the GPU, though it could also be the case that the G3258 bottlenecks it as well.

    Also interesting is how on the OC the AM1 platform loses points in the PCMark8 Home test. For what appears to be a 12% OC, that's not expected.
  • CarbonK
    Quote:
    47340 said:
    I would not have thought to use such an old game in my tests, but I also tried Diablo II (that's 2, not 3) on Scrooge, and frame rates were 11-18; essentially unplayable, which is a darn shame.
    That's very unexpected. Why is the system good at 3D online games, but bad at old 2D games? Do you have any numbers of the A4-6300 in similar workloads? It is very close in price, and is a dual-core 3.9GHz CPU.


    That may be because older games usually only utilize a single core while newer games can use multiple cores or threads. Also a factor is the fact that game genres with many objects onscreen tend to be CPU heavy. RTS, MOBA, City-Building/Simulating, or games like Diablo 2 do benefit from a more powerful video card, but generally speaking it's better to have a powerful CPU. Newer 3D games are less CPU intensive and will benefit greatly from a powerful GPU.
  • Onus
    Bias in favor of what, or of whom? I've been working with low-power stuff for a while now (I will be giving a solar power class this Saturday in fact), and hoped that AM1 would be a good choice for an environment in which every watt counts. This was an experiment, to find that out. If Scrooge used 10W less, it might still be worth the loss in performance, especially in non-gaming tasks (this PC might be used in one of those off-grid tiny houses, where gaming at all may not matter), but for my needs, it turned out not to be quite good enough; perhaps "sufferable," but no more. It will be interesting to see (for me, anyway), what the power numbers of a G4400 look like.
    A DC adapter could lower the power used due to removal of conversion losses, especially in the intended environment; in particular I was thinking of a 12V->19V auto adapter, in which losses might be trivial because you're removing two conversion steps (12V AGM -> 120VAC -> 19VDC).
    This was never a head-to-head comparison of the G3258 vs. the 5350, and I stated a few reasons in the article. Just as a nature photographer may toss a quarter into a picture to provide scale though, I needed something else to serve that purpose. The CPU I'd been using in previous motherboard tests seemed a reasonable choice for that. Insofar as games often rely more on the graphics card than on the CPU, the GTX750Ti vs. GT730 Heaven numbers supported that, even with a stronger CPU behind the GT730. Yes, it's a synthetic, but even +/- a whopping 20% wouldn't change the obvious confirmation.
  • Onus
    120171 said:
    ... Do you have any numbers of the A4-6300 in similar workloads? It is very close in price, and is a dual-core 3.9GHz CPU.

    That might be a good question for Eric Van Der Linden or Jacob Terkelson, two other writers who have looked at some of the AMD systems (and may have most or all of the parts on hand). Since one of my specific goals was low power, it did not occur to me to look at any 65W chip.
  • logainofhades
    For a low power AMD rig, I probably wouldn't look below an A8 7600, with its 45w mode. I feel the chips below it just are not enough, even for everyday use.
  • Sergio Guzman
    I'm writing this on a 2.52Ghz quad AM1 processor/8 gigs/3 TB HD/ 23 inch 1152p display and it.. works. Not wonderfull but righ now I have open 2 browsers, about 20 tabs, some video aps, some other apps, and its very responsive. I even do some (720p) editing in Vegas with dozens of clips and things get done. I know I can clock it at least to 2.7/2.8, I tested it, but the stock mini-cooler goes mad.
  • Onus
    Is that also a 5350? What board do you have that can take it that high? The highest setting on mine was 2.4GHz.
  • LordStreetguru
    I had a 3850 system that worked fine, not sure what you mean by notoriously slow, it's a 25W part running at 2ghz from AMD, it won't be amazing, but it's perfectly valid for an email/facebook machine, though I was able to run minecraft/Source 1 games fine on the integrated graphics, as well as emulation pre PS2 era
  • LordStreetguru
    Quote:
    I like your article, but wanted to point out that there's a similarly-priced Intel board available with a Celeron included and 4 SATA ports http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16813135350 or this slightly more expensive model http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16813157494


    Might be worth it to stick to AM1 for USB 3.0 for some people, dunno if there's an intel SoC with it on board
  • hurnii
    For an article with "O/C Tech" in the title, I'm surprised it didn't contain more details on the overclocking. From the screenshots, it appeared that the APU's multiplier was locked (as lack of a "K" at the end of the CPU name would suggest). O/C'ing by means of changing the PCIe clock speed has never been all that effective (read: "stable") on AMD platforms (or most Intel, with some exceptions), it's not surprising that unforeseen issues (like USB3 dropping to USB2 or needing faster memory) arose. Are there any AM1 CPUs with unlocked multipliers (or, any AM1 platforms which can get around the lock)? How well does the GTX 750Ti put up with the increased PCIe speed? Was "3d" mode selectable while not overclocked? Was the video card even run while not O/C? - Thanks
  • cody_mckee
    Just last week I put together an HTPC using a 5350, MSI AM1I motherboard, 2x4Gb Crucial Ballistics 1600 (recycled from a different system), and a WD Black 1Tb(also re-used). It has worked great for a little browsing and playing 1080 content to a Mitsubishi 60 in. plasma TV from ~2006 via DVI / Monlink. I plan to try some emulators on it as well. For my uses, only having two SATA ports is not a problem. I seems like it is going to be a useful low power solution, and the little case I put it in looks good next to the TV when compared to the old laptop that used to be there. Thanks for giving this platform some coverage.

    I originally installed Ubuntu and Steam and tried out Half Life 2. It was probably playable, but I wasn't impressed. I ended up installing Windows 7 after Ubuntu would not get along with the TV. Might my bad experience with HL2 be related to Linux drivers, or is this hardware just not up to the task? Is it worth another shot on Windows?