Intel Upgraded HTPC Nettop

Intel Upgraded HTPC Nettop
Component Product Name Price
CPU + Mobo ASRock A330ION (Atom 330 + NVIDIA ION) $120
Memory Patriot 4GB (2x2GB) PSD34G1333K $40
Case + PSU Antec ISK310-150 Black/Silver + 150W PSU $80
Storage Samsung SpinPoint MP4 HM640JJ 640GB 7200RPM 16MB $60
Optical Drive Sony Optiarc BC-5500H-01 BR-ROM/DVD-ROM $90
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit $100
Extra Software CyberLink PowerDVD 11 Ultra $100
Total Price $590

For our upgraded configurations, we’re going to look into making something that’s a bit more capable as an HTPC. On the Atom side, the only way you can do that is if you get a better GPU than the 3150, and the easiest (and cheapest) way to do that is to purchase an ION motherboard. With the arrival of AMD’s Brazos, most motherboard manufacturers are shifting to that platform. It certainly doesn’t help that when Intel moved from the original Atom platform to Pine Trail, they integrated the Northbridge into the CPU package and essentially killed off the ION chipset, so now you’d have to get a Pine Trail board with a PCIe slot if you wanted a discrete GPU. The result of all this is that we’re sticking with the older Atom 330 + ION for our upgraded Intel configuration, which is not without drawbacks.

For this setup, we’ve selected the ASRock A330ION board, but availability and pricing can be a little sketchy on any of these older ION boards. As one of the major flaws with the Atom platform was its inability to play HD video smoothly, NVIDIA used their ION (a rebadged 9400M chipset) to address this issue. Paired with the dual-core Atom 330 CPU, this platform can play HD videos and even Blu-ray content—though not 3D Blu-ray. The ASRock board also has VGA, DVI, and HDMI ports. We first looked at the ION platform almost two years ago, and you can still get a good idea of its capabilities and limitations from our original assessment. For the memory, we’re again using desktop DIMMs, but now we’re upgrading to 4GB (2x2GB) of Patriot memory. The basic desktop DDR3 kits seem to have bottomed out at around $40 shipped without rebates. 2GB is sufficient, but the $18 extra can provide more headroom for multitasking.

The remaining components once again depend on the case selection, and we’ve selected the upgraded Antec ISK310-150 this time. We like this case a lot because it comes with a reasonably quiet 80mm fan, typical minimalist Antec aesthetics, and uses an external power adapter (which makes no noise, and is more efficient than internal power supplies—especially considering these low-powered nettops draw at most 25-30% of even a low wattage 150W PSU). It’s also available with a black bezel if you prefer that to the silver bezel. As with the ISK 100, this case uses 2.5” laptop hard drives, not 3.5” desktop hard drives. We’re only using one HDD again, but this case can fit two drives so SSD + storage drive is again an option.

For the hard drive, we’re going to offer an alternative to the 500GB Seagate that has seen so much use in laptops during the past year. Samsung recently launched their 640GB 7200RPM SpinPoint MP4 HM640JJ, at the same $60 price point as the Seagate. The higher areal density should improve sequential transfer speeds, and it will certainly be faster than the 5400RPM laptop drives. For the optical drive, you could stick with the same Samsung mentioned in the basic Intel configuration, but our upgraded nettops are going to take more of an HTPC role so we’re going the Blu-ray route. Slim BD-ROMs are difficult to find for less than $100, and in fact this is the only slim BD-ROM Newegg currently stocks. Note that it’s a DVD-ROM as well, so there are no burning capabilities to speak of—we suggest you use a different system for burning, and particularly video encoding/transcoding as such tasks can be painfully slow on Atom.

If you’re going to watch Blu-ray movies, you’ll also need appropriate software. The software included with the Sony drive is underwhelming, and CyberLink’s PowerDVD Ultra tends to work well with a variety of platforms. It also happens to cost $100, so you might want to start with the basic Blu-ray software and only upgrade if you want access to other features.

With all of the upgrades and a copy of PowerDVD, the total system cost is nearly double that of the base Atom setup, though much of that comes from choosing to include Blu-ray support. $590 is a lot to pay for an Atom nettop, certainly, and we’ll discuss other options in our conclusion. If you want to skip out on Blu-ray playback, you can get the above system for $400. Using the same case and components, the difference in motherboard choice makes this platform $10 more than the basic AMD E-350 setup, or $37 more than the stock Atom configuration.

AMD Zacate Budget Nettop AMD Upgraded HTPC Nettop
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  • codedivine - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Great article. I also hope that AT will cover even more mini-itx and small form factor stuff in the future. I have been looking at compact gaming builds (which is different from the HTPC focus of this article) and reliable info is a little hard to gather on the topic. Reply
  • Mr Perfect - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    I second the SFF gaming rigs. Almost every publication(not pointing fingers at AT here, this is across the board) have two classifications of users: gamers with a 50 pound full size ATX boat anchor, and light workload people with SFF Atom machines. There are plenty of people out there cramming i5s and i7s into DTX cases along with high end graphics cards, but they're only represented in forums. Reply
  • ggolemg - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Bought the MSI E350IA-E45 AMD Fusion ITX Motherboard, paired it with a mechanical 7200 rpm hdd, 8GB patriot 1333 ddr3 ram, great little setup if you do *not* want to be able to view 720p streaming video. It is just absolutely worthless as a streaming HTPC for web video. Went so far as to move chrome/firefox's cache to ram to try and improve speed. Hulu is just ok, still stutters here and there, any other streaming sites are just about worthless at greater than 480p.

    My whole setup was ~$450 of wasted cash.

    Maybe I can overdo the cooling and overclock, that would be about the only way this could ever be used for what I want.
    Reply
  • metaltoiletry - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    I was scared of that happening when I built my HTPC a little over a year ago or so. After reading reviews I went for overkill.

    Zotac mini-ITX w/ wifi 9300 (integrated Nvidia 9300)
    4gb of DDR2
    Intel Q8200 with a Cooler Master Gemini (ii? I think and replaced the fan with a slim 120mm - otherwise it wouldn't fit in the case.)
    Silverstone Sugo (included efficient 300w PSU - maybe it's 350 - can't remember)
    Silverstone slim Bluray drive
    7200rpm HDD

    Everything works flawless, though, cost almost twice as much as your setup.
    Reply
  • hnzw rui - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Built a year ago and have had no problems with the CPU not being fast enough. Granted, issues with 24p content exists, but that doesn't really affect me since my TV doesn't support 24p.

    Silverstone Sugo SG-05 w/300W PSU, $100
    Intel DH57JG, $120
    Intel Core i3-530, $100 (MicroCenter)
    Kingston 2x2GB DDR3 1333, $80 (RAM prices were still high back then)
    Scythe Big Shuriken, $35
    Western Digital WD10EADS, $70

    TOTAL: $505

    No optical drive, though. I stream everything from the media server or the internet (Hulu, Netflix, etc). If SSD's were cheaper back then, I'd have used one for this build.
    Reply
  • Gigantopithecus - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    How bizarre! All of the E-350 systems I've built handle 720p video via YouTube and Hulu full screened with aplomb; YouTube 1080p full screened also works smoothly. Hell even the Atom 525 with GMA3150 is sufficient for streaming 720p. I'd strongly recommend looking into driver-related issues - as well as which version of Flash you're using (update to 10.2). Good luck! Reply
  • qhoa1385 - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    weird, my set up can handle 1080p no problem
    my GIGABYTE GA-E350N-USB3 with 4GB 1333 Ram, 5400 drive can handle any 1080p i throw at it

    I'd say probably driver issues
    Reply
  • iuqiddis - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    As the folks before me have mentioned, you might have a driver problem. I have a lenovo x120e with AMD E-350, and it streams youtube 1080p and 720p perfectly. Reply
  • ET - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    The E-350 should be powerful enough for what you need. It's a matter of drivers and software. I've seen people report problems on E-350 and C-50 laptops and that were solved with updates and setting changes. Enough people are playing videos well on an E-350 that I see no reason why you shouldn't. Go to a good forum and ask for help. Reply
  • karhill - Monday, April 25, 2011 - link

    I've got that MSI E350 Zacate board in a Windows 7 64bit ITX machine (2GB ram) and it runs Hulu 480p just fine. It runs 720p youtube flash content without issues. It runs netflix content just fine. It runs 1080p youtube content 95% fine (an occassional stutter in high-activity scenes). Reply

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