Is ASRock's M8 A High-End Mini-ITX Winner?
Lacking any other barebones PC to compare, I built ASRock’s M8 up as a competitor to Don’s $1300 System Builder Marathon machine. And it did well, enjoying a 12.4% performance lead. There’s still a matter of value though:
A value loss of 3% is still a loss, even if it is marginal. And I have to take credit for that, if only because the parts I chose made this configuration lose its value race. It might look like I over-spent on my effort. In reality, though, I over-saved. Rather than picking and choosing what I wanted to put inside the M8 during an online shopping trip, I used hardware I had in the lab.
The $550 ASRock M8 includes $150 worth of overpriced optical drive and power supply, and style is the justification for that disc drive. The remaining parts include a $180 motherboard and a case that, based on subtraction, needs to be worth $220. Since M8 buyers are paying over $100 extra for a bit of pizazz, I experimented with the charts and found that the parts I picked really weren't bad. If the M8 sold for $450, I would have even beaten Don's $1300 machine. Ouch.
It's not that there aren't enthusiasts who'll pay an extra $100 or so for style. We simply don't like paying for it with money and a performance compromise (that's why Chris was so stoked about the Tiki, with its then-fastest GTX 680 and a then-fastest -3770K at a constant 4.3 GHz). The M8 is supposed to be a high-end gaming machine, but it runs too hot for that. And if you want to make a case for HTPC placement, let me assure you that it's too noisy. And yet, everyone I’ve asked still loves the machine, with its thick aluminum side panels, cast aluminum handles, and splendid good looks. ASRock could justify its price by simply pointing to how much it costs to make.
I won't blame ASRock for the M8’s shortcomings. DesignworksUSA conceptualized this thing, after all. And even if BMW Group hadn’t specified the easily-correctable (and poor-performing) fan orientation, there are still problems with the size of these fans. The limited airflow of 70 x 10 mm fans forces ASRock to use 4000 RPM models, and the design team could have switched to 80 x 25 mm fans early on without significantly altering the case’s size or shape.
With the tooling paid for, there are few things ASRock could do to turn this barebones system into more of a winner. First, it could start shipping the machine with the fans configured for bottom-to-top airflow, since that solved the worst of my thermal issues. Second, it might want to include (and even charge for) a custom-fit CPU cooler to maximize surface area within its confined space. Third, it could lower the minimum fan speed below 1000 RPM, so that the machine at least idles quietly. None of those changes require ASRock to sacrifice the money already spent on manufacturing the M8.
Update October 28
ASRock has informed us that it has shipped the M8 with upgraded fans that have a wider RPM range, with an 800 RPM minimum, to reduce low-load noise. We can only hope that they also fix the fan direction.
A second look at the Page 6 airflow diagram appears to indicate that the chassis designer intended the CPU fan to receive air through vents in the side panel. Another photo on that page shows that this side panel is molded with faux louvers. Actual louvers have slots, and modders would likely find additional cooling benefits by slotting these louvers.