Bigger is better, right? You only have to look at the barrage of SmartPhones, Netbooks, NetTops and most recently tablet PCs, to see that this might not be the case - in computing anyway. System builders haven’t been forgotten in this move to the minute, either. Way back in 2001, Via announced its 17 x 17cm Mini ITX reference design. This form factor has slowly been gaining momentum ever since, with the range of options and features today better than it has ever been.
But are these diminutive boards fully featured or have their wings been clipped to make them fit? Today we will be looking at two of the current generation: the Sapphires AM3DD785G, an AMD AM3 motherboard, and the ECS H55H-I, an Intel LGA1156 board. Both are from established manufactures, support the latest tech and take the latest chips from Intel and AMD.
Product Sapphire AM3DD785G
Street Price £95
Starting with Sapphire's AM3 board, the packaging was a little more utilitarian than your standard enthusiast boards, so we’re guessing Sapphire is punting these to the corporate market as well. The board itself has the CPU situated in the centre, with 2 ram slots that can accept up to 8GB of DDR3 1333MHz and one PCI-E X16 slot around them. The chipsets on board are the AMD 785G and AMD SB710 South Bridge, and although these are not AMD’s latest, you still get Radeon HD 4200 IGP and enough ports for most mini-ITX systems. These include 10 USB (6 on the back panel), 4 SATA 300 and one PATA-133. The back connectors provide 6 of the USB, 3 analogue jacks, RJ45 Ethernet and video through d-sub, HDMI, or DVI through an included adapter.
Product ECS H55H-I mini-itx
Street Price £78
Next up is the ECS H55H-I board, based on the Intel H55 PCH, which supports the latest range of processors. There are some limitations to this, though, with the recommended TDP below 75w. Like the Sapphire board, the CPU takes centre stage. There aren’t that many configurations you can fit into this space, so expect a lot of similarities.
Feature-wise, they aren’t miles apart either, since there is space for two sticks of ram that take DDR3 1,333MHz up to 8GB and a PCI-E X16 slot. They’ve also managed to fit on 10 USB (6 on the back panel), 4 SATA 3Gbps and one eSATA 3Gbps. The back panel has 6 USB, 6 analogue jacks, S/PDIF out, RJ45 Ethernet, d-sub, DVI and HDMI. With Intel’s latest line of chips, some of the features that would have traditionally been on the Northbridge are now integrated into the processor, and this includes the IGP.
Now to look at the test setup. Both systems have 4Gb DDR3 1600MHz Kingston HyperX memory (clocked to 1333MHz), a Western Digital VelociRaptor hard drive, a LiteOn iHOS104 BD-ROM, and will be running Microsoft Windows 7. The processor for AMD is the Athlon II 610e, a 2.4GHz four-core energy-efficient offering at just above the £115 mark. For the Intel board, we will be using the I3 530, which runs at 2.93GHz, has two cores and four threads. This retails for around £95.
Installation of the boards was relatively pain free but can take a little planning, considering how close many of these components are to each other. We found the front panel connectors on the Sapphire particularly hard to connect, as they are positioned halfway up the side, next to the ram slots. After installing, it was time to have a poke around the bios.
The Sapphire bios is a little desolate, having no options for changing the voltages, frequencies or timings; ruling out over-clocking, although given the TDP restrictions on these boards, that might not be a bad thing! In contrast, ECS bios had a full complement of features, including the option to change frequencies and voltages throughout - although with no over-clock failure detection this might not be advisable. For the testing, we’ve gone for the base setup with no over-clocking, and we’re going to look at PC Mark Vantage, 3D Mark Vantage, X264 video encoding and the Mandel and Zlib tests in Everest ultimate edition.
Our first benchmark is PC mark vantage, which aims to replicate real-world application usage and is a good general workout of the system. Looking at the results, it would seem that the ECS Intel board is edging it in all categories. This seems to point to the Intel HD graphics that are integrated into the processor beating the 785’s Radeon HD 4200 - something that is a definite improvement over Intel’s last generation of IGP.
Next is 3Dmark vantage, which focuses on the graphical performance of the CPU and GPU running a number of gaming simulations. We normally run this on performance settings but because we’re testing integrated graphics, we’ve had to use the entry-level setup. The CPU scores of both systems are reasonably close, with the AMD coming out in front. But the ECS board cleans up on the GPU performance. We were expecting the integrated Radeon 4200 and Intel’s on-chip to be more evenly matched.
The x264 benchmark looks at how quickly a machine can convert a video from MPEG-2 to x264. The quicker it can do this the better. This benchmark is a pretty good test of CPU and GPU combined and, as such, it’s a bit closer, with the ECS board just ahead.
Everest Ultimate contains a number of interesting benchmarks, including one called Mandel, which measures 64-Bit Floating point calculations and is based on the “Mandlebrot” fractal: the higher the score the better. The second test we ran in Everest was Zlib. This tests a combination of the CPU and Memory using the Zlib compression library. In both tests the Sapphire AMD combo came up tops, which wasn’t much of a surprise considering its four-core architecture.
In real-world testing, we tried some Blu-ray and HD video playback, without issue on both boards. Either would be a good base for an HTPC. Gaming is a bit of a stretch for these chips, so unless you’re going to add in an extra graphics card, or you are only interested in casual 2d games, we’d rule this out.
When putting together a mini-ITX system power consumption is one of the key decision makers, our setup isn’t exactly optimised, but we’ve got a good idea of peak and idle Watts. The peak reading was taken during the x264 test. The ECS board seems to do marginally better when idle, while Sapphire wins under load. Both are reasonably close, though, and depending on your usage, either may come out top over time.
Having spent some time with these tiny boards, you can’t help but start to like them. Both have shown that they can handle web browsing and video playback without the need for any extra hardware. The integrated graphics are adequate for HD content, but gaming is out the window. The Intel ECS combination came out on top in terms of graphical performance and used less power while idle, but the Sapphire setup did well on the CPU and memory tests. Depending on your intended use, either of these setups might work out better.
Looking at the boards outside of the test setups we would say the ECS is slightly more polished while also marginally cheaper. The bios, although basic, did at have a reasonable range of features, and once paired up with a new Intel processor, this would make a great base for an HTPC. The Sapphire isn’t without its plus points either, and both boards are quite similarly matched in features and power consumption.
If you are in the market for a sleek low-power HTPC, or aiming to shrink the footprint of your desktop, both these boards are worth consideration.
With the addition of the PCI-E X16 slot - something relatively uncommon in the mini-ITX world - you could make a pint-sized gaming rig or extend their features in a number of other ways. In the end, when performance and features are this close, it probably comes down to personal preference - AMD or Intel.
For us though, the ECS just edges out the competition, offering a few more features, while also being lower in price. As such, it gets our recommendation. Thanks to ECS and Sapphire for providing the hardware.