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Good Things In Small Packages: Seven Nettop Platforms, Tested

Seven Compact Solutions For The Nettop Niche

None of these systems are hot rods. Even modern Ultrabooks with comparatively-low clock rates smoke each of these platforms, with the exception, perhaps, of the Core i3-2330M-based machine. Nevertheless, they provide perfectly adequate performance for everyday office tasks and even multimedia playback. Only the elderly Nano X2 U4025-based configuration, with its Chrome9 graphics engine, struggled with our VC-1-encoded test.

But can we declare one winner in this comparison? Not really. What would we use as our criteria? If we were only looking at performance, then Intel's Core i3-2330M and, to a lesser extent, Celeron 857 completely outclass the competition. They're not really nettop-specific platforms, though, but rather a transplanted mobile processor and pared-down desktop chip, respectively. As such, they hold the performance crown, but also command notable premiums over some of the other options.

At least on paper, AMD's APUs are clear winners when it comes to graphics, and the E-450 demonstrates how big of an impact a 100 MHz-faster GPU clock can have. However, the discrete Nvidia GPUs found in the Atom-based nettops distort the picture somewhat. Intel's integrated solutions can't offer anywhere near that level of performance on their own. Then again, dedicated GPUs also compel higher price tags and greater power consumption. Thus, the AMD-powered boxes are more elegant in their approach.

The software you plan to run on your nettop flavors any discussion of CPU performance. Single-threaded applications like Lame, iTunes, and WinZip that rely on good IPC throughput and high clock rates allow the AMD APUs to flex their per-clock performance advantage. Even VIA's Nano X2 U4025 does surprisingly well in those workloads. As soon as you switch over to apps able to utilize more than two threads, such as transcoding utilities, professional rendering software, and even some Photoshop filters, the Intel CPUs move up in the charts thanks to Hyper-Threading support.

There's one final factor to consider. While you can mostly mix and match components in the desktop space, flexibility is definitely limited by all of these nettops. Buying a barebones model gives you the freedom to pick your memory and storage. So, perhaps the greatest impact you can have on performance/responsiveness is adding an SSD to a typically disk drive-equipped configuration. But maybe alacrity or power consumption don't factor into your decision at all. Perhaps form factor, pricing, and a base level of competency are all you need. Then, there's always your preference of vendor to consider. Fortunately, in this case, Zotac does a good job of representing all of the available options
 with its Zbox family.