The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Low End Theory – Dual Core Atom 330

Posted by Deliverator on October 8th, 2008

I was recently chatting on the phone with my brother about Netbooks while browsing local computer retailer Computerstop. My brother has been operating largely without a laptop for a while now as his ancient HP notebook (which he has owned since beginning college) has become progressively more senile. We discussed a number of different Netbook offerings, but he was disappointed at the performance of the single core Atom processor at the heart of virtually all of the current crop of Netbooks. In particular, he was concerned with an oft reported lack of processor oomph when it comes to decoding high resolution video. We discussed how the new dual core atom would likely burn through such tasks with ease, but were unlikely to be on the market, at least in Netbook form, for quite some time. No sooner had I said this than I spotted a mini-itx motherboard, given the lovely name D945GCLF2 by Intel’s squad of marketing geniuses, with a dual core Atom cpu sitting on the store shelf. The serendipity of it was too much for me and I walked out of the store with said box under arm, a mere $85 poorer for my impulse buy. My brother ended up deciding not to wait for a new generation of Netbooks and instead plopped down some hard earned for a lightweight but powerful Lenovo Thinkpad.

I took my new motherboard home and prepared to do a little micro surgery to upgrade my old mini-media center to something a bit more up to date. This system, previously based around a Epia SP13000 motherboard in a Travla C138 case, was barely adequate to the video decoding tasks of the day, but really hit a brick wall when trying to decode modern HD video streams and the like. It has been relegated to status as a secondary Ubuntu workstation for quite some time. I was hoping that with a new motherboard, I could return it to use in its original intended purpose. Unfortunately, I ran into quite a few snags along the way.

The first snag I encountered was that this board requires a auxiliary 4 pin 12 volt connection from the power supply, in addition to the standard 20 or 24 pin ATX connection. While this secondary connector has been common on power hungry full size desktop motherboards for quite some time, it is pretty rare in the low power mini-itx motherboard market segment. While the power supply in my Travla C138 case has receptacle for such a cable, it doesn’t appear to actually come with one. This is the sort of cable which I hate trying to find locally, and I usually just switch to eBay if a call to Vetco fails to turn up an oddball cable such as this one. I did end up finding a Molex to 4 pin cable in one of my scrap bins, but was unable to get the motherboard to post under such an arrangement. I tried a full size desktop power supply with the cable and was able to get the new board to post just fine, so at least I knew it wasn’t the cable’s fault. I tested out the Epia board again with the Travla’s power supply and it posted just fine. Just for kicks, I plugged the Travla supply into my power supply tester and all voltages came up nominal. I tried the Intel board in a couple other mini-itx cases with similar, cuss inducing results.

I hit up various mini-itx/compact computing forums online for answers, but didn’t have much luck, as this particular motherboard had JUST been released and not many people had experience with them yet. Eventually, I found a post that remarked on an interesting peculiarity with these new boards. Unlike the Epia motherboard, which tend to draw most of their power from the 12v rail, these new Intel boards, while similar or even lower than the Epia motherboards in overall useage, end up drawing somewhere around 5 AMPS on the 5v rail. Most of the compact mini-itx cases and power supplies on the market have been geared towards the power needs of the Epia motherboards and quite simply can’t supply enough juice on the 5v rail to let these boards operate properly. I headed back to Computerstop and purchased a small, if somewhat inelegant (when compared to the Travla C138) case manufactured by Inwin. This case, despite being one of the smallest Computerstop carries, is easily twice the size of the C138, but has the virtue of having a far beefier power supply. I took the new case home, installed the motherboard and other bits and had no problems getting through the smoke test with this supply.

In short order I had Windows XP and Ubuntu running quite snappily on the new board. While Intel and scared notebook manufacturers are doing their best to convince people that they need to spend a LOT more money on faster processors, I found the dual core Atom to be quite responsive in all the use cases under which I tested it. While it and the accompanying integrated graphics on this motherboard might not be up to playing a game of Supreme Commander or a marathon culling session of 12 megapixel photos in Lightroom, for the types of desktop computing tasks that 99% of the computer using public do on a daily basis, this platform is more than adequate and is very attractive in terms of its low price, small size, low power usage, etc.

Some random thoughts about this board:

-The dual core Atom CPU at the hear of this board only consumes something like 8 watts and is passively cooled, the motherboard chipset uses more like ~20 watts and has a bigger heatsink and a small and somewhat noisy fan.

-The board has two SATA ports and one legacy EIDE port. There is no eSATA. This may be limiting to some users.

-The board has two pin headers for adding additional USB ports. There are no Firewire ports or pin headers.

-The onboard video solution is decent and has a long track record. It won’t blow away any gaming benchmarks, but you won’t have any trouble with Google Earth or a 3d accelerated Linux desktop. It would have been nice to have DVI or HDMI out as an option on this board.

-Onboard sound solution is kinda meh.