Does Size Matter? Four Very Small Nettops Get Reviewed

Four Systems Appeal To Different Applications

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.

  • Nintendo Maniac 64
    So I'm guessing there aren't any nettops yet that use the low-voltage Trinity APUs? (17w A6-4455M and 25w A10-4655M)
  • daglesj
    Beware with the Lenovo Q180 if you buy the barebones DOS version to install Windows 7 64bit on it.

    The Audio doesn't work. The drivers Lenovo have up on the site are incorrect for 64bit. So far they haven't got round to changing it after 6 months.

    If you buy the version with Windows 64bit installed it works. But they just wont release the right driver.
  • The big problem with net tops is longevity and lack of upgrade abilities. If all you plan to do with them is surf the web,send email, chat and watch 2D video. You most likely won't care what hardware is in them. But that's not the negative about these small form factors. Its heat, and a question of how that heat will affect the hardware in such a small form? Not to mention the small PSU's and the question of why would you buy one of these over a decent well designed notebook? Even if you like the form factor and want to run Linux on one of these. Chances are Linux will challenge you on some problem with the hardware.
  • daglesj
    For day to day office work they do the job perfectly. I know quite a few businesses that are keen to drop their old 130W desktop boxes for something easier on the power bill. I rolled out a load of Atom ION boxes about 3 years ago and all of them are still going strong in some quite challenging environments. A few of them were even overclocked to give a little extra pep and no problems yet.

    The main thing that holds these boxes back are the HDDs. They still keep slipping 5400rpm drives in them. You put a 120GB SSD in there and you have a near perfect general office PC.
  • silverblue
    Looking at the D2700 vs. the 450 reminds me of days gone by with the P4D and the Athlon 64 X2. The higher clock speed plus HT of the Atom helps a lot with encoding but despite its clock speed disadvantage, the 450 easily holds its own.

    The next generation of both these CPU families would be worth watching out for.
  • jaquith
    I've been debating about purchasing a MINI PC vs Building, sadly one of my HTPC's just recently took a swan dive. So do I purchase something like the ASRock Vision HT for ~$700+ ($800), Build or Repair?!

    The only potential drawback to these MINI PC's as an HTPC is lacking of an internal 'TV Tuner' option. However, since Cable DVR's are very common place now the 'TV Tuner' need is getting smaller every day. I have Verizon FiOS and the newer black DVR's and a HTPC to record requires a CableCARD and PCIe CableCARD e.g. Ceton InfiniTV 4 but then you run into oddball things like "Copy Once."
    The Pro's & Con's are all from their size, but ~$700+ is a huge price and IMO reduces the demand. The only complete system in this article is the Lenovo Q180, the ASRock Vision HT 821B requires some form of OS and sure there's 'free' OSes but Windows 7 Home Premium OEM 64-bit will add an additional $100.

    Any of these listed can be used as a simple Desktop replacement. The workaround for storage is to either purchase a large capacity 'drive' (SSD or HDD) that can 'fit' or some form of external storage including an external drive (USB or eSATA if applicable) or Windows Home Server or similar network storage device.
  • chewy1963
    silverblueLooking at the D2700 vs. the 450 reminds me of days gone by with the P4D and the Athlon 64 X2. The higher clock speed plus HT of the Atom helps a lot with encoding but despite its clock speed disadvantage, the 450 easily holds its own.The next generation of both these CPU families would be worth watching out for.
    Just about the same performance between them back in the day. Of course it's different OS's and software, but, that was from the good ole days when Athlon 64 x2 ruled the x86 performance race.
  • stevelord
    I bought an Asus nettop last year from Walmart. And despite putting a SSD in it + 4GB of memory, it crawled at even loading web pages...especially forums. Wife noticed the speed difference and after lots of complaining sent me back to return it.

  • cleeve
    Nintendo Maniac 64So I'm guessing there aren't any nettops yet that use the low-voltage Trinity APUs? (17w A6-4455M and 25w A10-4655M)
    I couldn't find any, but this article has been in the works for a while so some might have cropped up.
  • cleeve
    jaquithThe only potential drawback to these MINI PC's as an HTPC is lacking of an internal 'TV Tuner' option.
    The Jetway Mini-Top in this article *does* have an internal TV tuner option. :)