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Beyond Atom: Exploring Performance ITX Solutions
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Date: Jul 06, 2009
Section:Systems
Author: Michael Lin
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Introduction
Thanks largely to all of the attention surrounding the Intel Atom platform and its alternatives like the Via Nano and NVIDIA Ion, small form factor (SFF) systems have been generating tech news in a big way for the past half year. While tiny toaster-sized machines have been relevant for some time, as proven by the continued success of Shuttle Computers, it has been a relative niche that doesn't get nearly as much hype as gigantic, fire-breathing gaming rigs.

Historically, there have been very good reasons why tiny little ITX machines weren't more mainstream. Pre-Atom, they have been a rather poor value for the general consumer. Despite being significantly smaller than a typical mid-tower, therefore requiring less materials and taking up less shelf space, ITX cases have had an uncanny tendency to cost more. ITX chassis were also often designed to use compact premium parts meant for notebooks, like 2.5" hard drives and low-profile optical drives, which further exasperated the value proposition. Not to mention most ITX cases also sport a flat low-profile design that generally didn't have space for full-height expansion cards which means you were restricted to low-profile cards; gaming was simply out of the question as low-profile video cards are rare--competent ones even more so.


Shuttle Computer specializes in Small Form Factor machines

Even if you got over the initial high cost and severe configuration restrictions, long-term value was poor due to a general lack of upgradeability. In the end, a potential small form factor customer was often looking at spending a solid chunk of change for an ITX machine, often enough for two similarly spec'ed standard sized towers. In many ways, the traditional ITX platform of old was like a notebook without the integrated screen or portability. Sure it's smaller than a typical desktop, but you get less performance for your dollar and you can forget about upgradeability or gaming.

All of these factors combined to keep ITX out of the mainstream. It wasn't until netbooks and the Atom came along and did away with the value problem that ITX finally made it back into the news. Now you can hardly go a week without hearing about a new Atom competitor or stumbling over a press release about another affordable SFF box. Not that we're complaining mind you. If you've been keeping up with our recent reviews, you'd know that we rather like the little machines. We love the flexibility, affordability and energy efficiency of a small form factor machine, but hate that we must part with our quad-cores and high performance video cards.

Although the new breed of Atom powered SFF systems, such as the Acer Aspire Revo, ASUS Eee Box, and Dell Studio Hybrid, are plenty affordable, they still aren't upgradeable or especially gaming friendly. In fact, all the buzz around Atom might have cemented the perception that SFF in general, and the tiny ITX form factor especially, are good for nothing more than low-power, energy efficient computing. However, in the shadows behind the hype of netbooks, nettops, Atom and Ion, there is a whole new breed of higher performance SFF components developing, designed to minimize the problems with upgradeability, over-reliance on notebook parts, and poor gaming performance.

If you find the idea of a tiny small form factor machine appealing but can't stand the limited performance and lack of customizability of current "nettops", then listen up. This is your lucky day as we're going to take you on a quick tour around some exciting new ITX products from SilverStone, Intel and Zotac and show you that "performance ITX" isn't an oxymoron but rather an outmoded stereotype and a relic of the past.

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Why ITX? Does Size Really Matter?
The primary difference between the ITX form factor and the much more common ATX is size. Ultimately, a couple inches here and there is what it all boils down to. At first this probably doesn't seem very significant, especially if you've never seen an ITX motherboard or chassis in person before.

It's difficult to envision the difference in size between the ITX and ATX form factors without first-hand experience, and a couple of measurements really don't convey the significance of the difference very well. So, we've put together a few illustrative photos to really give you a feel for the size of ITX. As you can see, once you lay them side-by-side, the difference between ITX and ATX is quite dramatic.



Size Comparison - Mini-ITX vs ATX vs DVD

Many readers of this article will likely have never owned a computer of any size other than a full or mid-tower. You might be wondering what the big deal is, after all you've found space for a mid or full tower in the past, why bother going small now?

Admittedly many of the advantages are aesthetic but there are many practical perks as well, not the least of which is the smaller footprint. It's one thing to have a 16" (40.6cm) tall mid-tower or 21" (53.3cm) tall full tower, but it's another thing entirely to have a tiny 7" (17.7cm) tall mini-ITX box.

An ITX case is also designed to live on the desktop. If you have pets or toddlers, you might appreciate putting your case on a desktop where they are less likely to get at it. An ITX case has a very small footprint and they're also short, so it's much easier to find space for it on your desk. Many low-profile ITX cases can even mount to the back of LCD monitors where it will essentially have no footprint at all. Placing your computer case on a desk is also a good way to reduce the amount of dust it eats. With its small size, you could stuff an ITX case into or on top of a shelf or hutch, high above even the desk surface where it is much less likely to encounter dust and pet hair, as well as the wandering hands (and mouths) of children.

ITX is also a good option for less typical usage scenarios, like Home Theater PCs and network gatekeepers. The size and aesthetic design of many ITX cases work well with a home theater setup, where a typical tower isn't likely to fit. The small footprint makes it ideal for headless applications, where you won't need a monitor, like with dedicated firewalls. You can basically stuff the case into any odd corner and forget about it.

Another practical advantage of ITX is lower noise. While ITX machines aren't necessarily always quieter than towers, they tend to be because of their smaller size and fewer components. With less things under the hood pumping out heat, you don't need as much cooling, which means less fans and noise. In many ITX builds, the only fan in the whole machine is the one cooling the processor. Some ITX cases are even completely passive, with no fans at all, and the case itself acts like a large heatsink.

Another less obvious practical advantage is lower power consumption. Once again, this isn't a property inherent in ITX, but ITX machines generally use very little power simply because they have fewer components. Most ITX builds can get away with a power supply with less than 250W. Some don't have a conventional power supply at all, instead relying on a power adapter brick to supply the measly 100W it might need to operate.

What about the down side?
While there are many high points to using an ITX form factor in your next build, it isn't without its compromises. The primary problem also happens to be unavoidable, and that is the lack of expandability. There simply isn't much room for components so you are generally stuck with dual hard drives and a single expansion card. This means ITX simply will not work for some builds, like very-high capacity servers or AV recording and processing machines.

However, the lack of space for components should not be a deal breaker for many typical builds. Thanks to the relatively high quality of modern integrated components, most builds can easily get by with a single expansion slot. Limited hard drive space is also less of an issue with the recent mass availability of 1 terabyte drives at reasonable prices. Other traditional hurdles like relatively higher cost and low availability are starting to fade into the past as well.

In the next couple of pages we will show you some currently available products, a case and two motherboards, that go a long way to minimizing ITX's weaknesses and bringing the full-potential of its advantages to bear.

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Silverstone SG05: Build Quality


Silverstone has had a line of small form factor cases for a number of years now in their SG series. Starting with the venerable SG01, which remains a popular case today, and more recently with the revamped SG02 and the all-new SG03/SG04. However these have all been mATX cases. While Silverstone has had ITX options for some time, they are from the HTPC-centric Lascala series, which are of the typical low-profile design. The Lascala cases are very nice looking, but don't quite offer the same performance features of the SG series. Silverstone put an end to this recently with the introduction of the SG05.

The SG05 is in many ways a bit of an innovation in ITX cases. It is the first computer case designed specifically for the ITX form factor that incorporates performance features like a large cooling system and enough space under the hood for a full size expansion card. In fact, the SG05 was designed with high-end, dual-slot graphics card support in mind.


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Like most of the rest of the SG lineup, the SG05 has a cube-ish design. It sports a very simple aesthetic with a single color and no accents. The SG05 is made of SECC steel with a plastic front panel. The case is so small, using aluminum to reduce weight would have unnecessarily increased costs. The SG05's most prominent feature is its large mesh fan grill which houses a 120mm intake fan. This fan has direct access to the interior of the case, and is protected from dust bunny assault by a removable dust filter located between the mesh and the fan.

Also visible on the front of the SG05 is the slim optical drive slot, and the front inputs. There are two USB ports, a headphone port and a microphone port located above the power and reset buttons.

 

 
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Silverstone took an interesting approach with cooling the SG05. The 120mm fan at the front of the case is the only fan and provides all of the case cooling. Air is sucked into the case from the front and then circulates through the case and exits via any one of three huge vented regions on the top, left and right sides.

Although the ITX form factor only has a single expansion slot, the SG05 offers space for two expansion cards. This is to provide support for dual-slot cards. The left side of the case is especially well vented, and a very large section of the side is aerated. The large patch of venting on the left side is perfectly positioned to allow a typical dual-slot video card direct access to the cool, fresh air from outside the case.

The right side seems to be well vented to allow similar access to the CPU cooler, however, the position of the power supply directly above the CPU socket could restrict your options.


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The SG05 has a one-piece cover which slides off after a few screws are removed. The SG05 does not come with thumbscrews and is therefore not a tool-less design. The SG05 comes with a SFX form factor 300 watt power supply. This is a high efficiency unit with an 80 PLUS rating. The power supply has a single 80mm cooling fan rated for 19dba. Overall, the included power supply should be sufficient for any build you can fit inside the case. While 300 watts doesn't seem like it would be enough for a gaming build, you should be able to power a high-end graphics card without issue since the power supply is feeding so few components total.

   
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As you might expect, there isn't much room inside the SG05 for drives. There is just enough space to fit a single 3.5" drive, a 2.5" drive and a slim optical drive. Storage options aren't exactly plentiful, but for most builds this shouldn't be an issue. The use of a slim optical drive is a bit inconvenient since they are relatively hard to find and cost quite a bit more than a typical 5.25" optical drive.

It might be in your best interest to invest in an external optical drive, or share an optical drive with another computer through the network. However, if you don't mind shelling out a bit extra for a more refined build, Silverstone offers a slick slot-loading DVD burner as well as a tray loading Blu-ray combo drive, both color matched to the SG05.

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Silverstone SG05: Installation


The Silverstone SG05's exterior is actually one large 3-sided panel that slides off after 4 screws have been removed. Once the panel is off, you get access to the innards from three directions. Installing hardware into a small for factor chassis is a bit of a pain due to the cramped conditions and the Silverstone SG05 is no exception. 


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In order get to as much access as possible, you will first need to remove the power supply. Once the power supply is out, you get relatively easy access to the inner surfaces.

The hard drive and optical drive are the easiest to install as they are the most readily accessible. The motherboard is a bit more difficult and it's best to install the CPU, cooler, memory and expansion card first, before sliding the assembly into place as one piece. Luckily the Silverstone SG05 has no sharp edges, since you will be messing around, sliding your hands along the metal chassis quite a bit.

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When considering what type of cooler to use in any small form factor case, and especially a tiny ITX case like the SG05, it is very important to make sure you pick a cooler that will fit in the limited vertical clearance available. In order to make room for a full-height expansion card, Silverstone had to locate the power supply directly above the processor socket. This severely limits the available headroom. While the stock cooler from Intel and AMD would fit just fine, you might run into problems with many after-market solutions.

According to Silverstone, there is enough space for a CPU cooler up to 3.07 inches (78mm) in height. That means you won't be able to fit a conventional tower coolers like the Thermalright Ultra-120 or Zalman CNPS-9900. However, low-profile coolers like the Thermalright AXP-140, Zalman CNPS 8700 will work just fine.


Silverstone NT-06 installed in a SG01

An interesting solution would be to use Silverstone's own NT-06 Lite cooler. At 3.07 inches (78mm) this cooler is exactly the right height to fit perfectly into any SG-series chassis. When installed in the SG05, the cooler would be nearly touching the power supply, and the power supply's fan would provide cooling for both units. This is a very space and noise efficient solution which is very popular with the other SG-series chassis like the SG01. However, we're concerned about the heat output from the CPU being sucked into the power supply, which may lead to issues down the road from heat stress.


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The included 300W power supply offers a decent array of connectors. You have your typical 24-pin motherboard connector, a 4-pin ATX12V connector, three SATA power connectors, two molex connectors and a single floppy power connector. The power supply also has a single PCI-E power connector. Overall, this should be enough for most builds, but the single PCI-E power connector may be a problem with some video cards so a molex-to-PCI-E adapter might come in handy. The lack of an 8-pin ATX12V connector shouldn't be of concern since ITX motherboards don't use them.

   
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While the Silverstone SG05 is can easily fit a full-height video card, length might be an issue. The SG05 is a very small chassis and it might not be long enough to fit the biggest video cards, despite that Silverstone has reserved the entire left side of the chassis to the expansion slot, with absolutely nothing in the way. According to the official spec, the SG05 will fit graphics cards up to 9" (229mm) in length.

Silverstone provides the following compatibility list:
  • ATI Radeon HD 4850/4830
  • NVIDIA GeForce 9800GT
  • NVIDIA GeForce 9600GT/GSO
  • NVIDIA GeForce 8800GS/GT/GTS
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTS 250

 

     
Radeon 4870
Radeon 4850
GeForce GTX 280

We attempted to install several video cards we had in the lab to get an idea of what would fit. First we tried a Radeon 4850, which should fit according to Silverstone. Sure enough, we had no issues getting it to fit inside the SG05, with nearly an inch of extra clearance. Next we tried a Radeon 4870, which is slightly longer. While it did fit, it did so just barely. This would be a problem since the PCI-E power connectors on most video cards, including the one we used for testing, is located at the vertical edge of the card. While the Radeon 4870 fits, there isn't enough room to hook up the power. However if you had a Radeon 4870 card with PCI-E power connectors located along the top edge, you might just be able to use it in the SG05.

As you can see in the image above, the GTX 280 didn't have the slightest hope of fitting in the SG05. While we don't have a photo, we also tried a GTX 260, which was also much too long. Overall, it seems like the Silverstone's list is pretty accurate.
 
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Intel DG41MJ motherboard


While several manufacturers currently offer mini-ITX flavors of several Intel chipsets, Intel has their own in-house line of products which currently includes a fairly sizable line-up of mini-ITX motherboards available for both the Atom platform, as well as LGA775 processors like the Core 2 series. These products are aimed at system integrators rather than end-consumers, but many hardware shops both online and off will often stock them so they are fair game for home builders.

The current Intel mini-ITX line-up includes several boards based on the G4x and Q4x chipset series. For the uninitiated, the G4x chipsets are based on the P4x series (flagshipped by the P45 Express) with the addition of an Integrated Graphics Processor (IGP). The Q4x series is similar to the G4x, except it is aimed at business and server applications and includes Intel's vPro technology. 

For the purposes of our look into performance ITX, we've obtained a Intel DG41MJ board, Intel's mini-ITX board based on the G41 Express chipset. This is an excellent little motherboard that is packed with integrated features in a small, low-power and energy efficient package. The DG41MJ is a good example of a modern low-cost ITX solution.



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Intel DG41MJ Motherboard
Specifications & Features
Processor and Chipset
Based on Intel G41 Express chipset
Intel ICH7 southbridge
Supports Intel Core 2 Processors (65W TDP dual & quad)

Memory
2 x DIMM (Max. 8 GB combined)
Support DDR2 667/800 MHz
Non-ECC, Un-buffered Memory
Dual channel memory architecture
   
Expansion Slot
1 x Conventional PCI slot
   
Storage
3 x SATA 3Gb/s ports
   
Audio
Integrated Realtek ALC888VC audio codec
6-channel audio (5.1)

Networking
Integrated Realtek RTL 8111D LAN
Supports 10Mb/s, 100Mb/s and 1000Mb/s
   
Internal IO
ATX 24-pin power connector
ATX 4-pin 12V CPU power connector
2 x FAN connectors
1 x CD-in connector
1 x Front panel audio connector
1 x Front panel header
1 x Chassis intrusion switch connector
2 x USB 2.0 front-panel connectors
3 x Serial ATA II connectors
1 x Serial port header

Back Panel I/O
4 x USB 2.0/1.1 ports
1 x PS/2 Keyboard
1 x RJ45 LAN jack
1 x Legacy Parallel Connector
1 x VGA-out Connector
1 x DVI-out Connector
6 -Channel Audio I/O (3 connectors)

Accessories
2 x SATA data cables
1 x Molex-to-SATA power adapter
1 x IO shield
 
Mini-ITX Form Factor
6.7 inch x 6.7 inch (17.02 cm x 17.02 cm)






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Compared to the currently available crop of ATX motherboards, the Intel DG41MJ is pretty tame and a bit on the outdated side. With only a conventional PCI slot, this isn't exactly a made-for-gaming board. However, when compared to your typical 945G-based Atom board, the DG41MJ is a performance monster, especially when equipped with a Core 2 Quad processor.

Oddly, the DG41MJ spec sheet claims it's only compatible with 65W Core 2 Quads and not conventional 95W models. While this is understandable in light of the severe cooling restrictions of most ITX setups, we don't believe it is a limitation inherent in the hardware and it would probably accept a 95W model if you absolutely insisted.

The DG41MJ comes with a small bundle with just three cables and the I/O shield. You get two SATA cables and a molex-to-SATA power cable, and that's it. Granted you aren't likely to need much more so the sparse bundle shouldn't be much of a hinderance. Also included is a quick setup guide, driver disc and a large board diagram sticker for attachment to the inside surface of your chassis, for easy access.

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Intel DG41MJ Layout & Features
The Intel DG41MJ is a very simple looking board. Despite having nearly all the same components of a typical ATX board crammed into a tiny mini-ITX square, the board still manages to look a bit on the sparse side. The magenta parallel port connector and green PCB give the board an overall retro look.


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The layout of an ITX board is quite different than your typical ATX model. Not only do the various components need to fit into a much smaller space, but the geometric restrictions on the location of various system components also differ greatly from ITX to ATX. For instance, in a typical ATX chassis, the hard drives are generally located in the bottom-front corner, which is why ATX boards generally have their primary storage ports located on the bottom-right edge of the board. In an ITX chassis, on the other hand, the hard drives are often located nearly directly above the motherboard, due to space restrictions. For this reason, the SATA slots on the DG41MJ are well-placed near the bottom-middle of the board.

Cooling is provided by a single passive heatsink situated above the G41 northbridge. During testing, the heatsink didn't get very hot and was generally safe to touch so it appears cooling is adequate. The ICH7 southbridge is located between the northbridge and the rear I/O. It's left to fend for itself with no cooling other than the open air. The chip did get pretty toasty and was hot to the touch, but nothing to worry about. An advantage of the sparse cooling on the DG41MJ is it leaves more space for the CPU cooler. There is plenty of space around the CPU socket, though you will likely be limited in height by your chassis.

   
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Probably the most noticeable difference between ITX and ATX is the number of expansion slots available. The mini-ITX form factor only has space for a single expansion slot. This makes for some tough decisions when it comes time to choose what will occupy the solitary slot. The DG41MJ is equipped with a conventional PCI slot which restricts your decision a bit more since PCI-E cards of any type are out of the question. However, many cards are still available for conventional PCI and the most important ones for likely ITX builds, like DVR and tuner cards for HTPC builds, are still offered for vanilla PCI.

In terms of features, the DG41MJ weighs in on the light side. While legacy I/O is present, there are no legacy storage options. Three internal SATA connectors are available but you won't find IDE or FDD support here. Only three SATA connectors may seem limiting, but it shouldn't be an issue since ITX chassis often only have space for a single drive anyway.

Overall the layout of the board is fairly good, though this is harder to determine with ITX, as opposed to ATX boards, since ITX chassis differ so greatly in layout.

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Zotac GF9300-D-E motherboard


Zotac is not new to the ITX scene. They have offered multiple mini-ITX solutions for both Intel and AMD processors for some time. While Zotac has ITX offerings for both the blue and green camps, all of their boards are based on NVIDIA chipsets including ION based boards like the one we recently evaluated. Zotac's ITX offerings currently cover the entire price spectrum from value-priced sub-$100 models based on the NVIDIA nForce 610 chipset to high-end products and everything in between.

The board we chose for the purposes of our look at performance ITX is Zotac's flagship mini-ITX board, the GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi (AKA. GF9300-D-E). Now here is an ITX motherboard that gamers can get used to. Just like the Intel DG41MJ, the Zotac packs all of the usual integrated components you'd need, but instead of the conventional PCI slot, this badboy is packing a PCI-E x16 slot. Provided your chassis supports full-size expansion cards, like the Silverstone SG05, you can stick a bonafide discrete graphics card in your little ITX box for a screaming SFF gaming setup.



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Zotac GF9300-D-E Motherboard
Specifications & Features
Processor and Chipset
Based on NVIDIA GeForce 9300 chipset
Supports Core 2 Processors


Memory
2 x DIMM (Max. 8 GB combined)
Supports DDR2 667/800 MHz
Non-ECC, Un-buffered Memory
Dual channel memory architecture
   
Expansion Slots
1 x PCIe 2.0 x16 slot
   
Storage
2 x SATA 3Gb/s ports
1 x eSATA 3Gb/s port
   
Audio
Integrated audio by HDA (Azalia)
8-channel audio with jack sensing

Networking
Integrated Gigabit LAN
Supports 10Mb/s, 100Mb/s and 1000Mb/s
   
Internal IO
ATX 24-pin power connector
ATX 4-pin 12V CPU power connector
2 x FAN connectors
1 x Front panel audio connector
1 x Front panel header
1 x Chassis intrusion switch connector
3 x USB 2.0 headers
2 x Serial ATA II connectors
1 x Serial port connector

Back Panel I/O
6 x USB 2.0/1.1 ports
1 x eSATA port
1 x PS/2 Keyboard
1 x S/PDIF Out Coaxial
1 x S/PDIF Out Optical
1 x RJ45 LAN jacks
8 -Channel Audio I/O


Accessories
2 x SATA data cables
1 x SATA power cable
1 x VGA-out port
1 x DVI-out port
1 x HDMI-out port
1 x I/O shield
1 x Wifi daughter card
1 x Wifi antenna
 
Mini-ITX Form Factor
6.7 inch x 6.7 inch (17.02 cm x 17.02 cm)



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If the Intel DG41MJ represents a typical performance ITX setup, then the Zotac GF9300-D-E represents the full-feature gaming oriented option. The PCI-E x16 slot lends a lot of flexibility, not only will you be able to use any modern video card but it's also compatible with PCI-E x1 and x4 cards. This allows you to use just about any type of expansion card.

Even without a discrete card, the integrated GeForce 9300 chip can handle lite gaming and is significantly more useful in that respect than the X4500 found on the DG41MJ, as we found out in our initial look at the GeForce 9300/9400. The GeForce 9300 chipset also supports Hybrid SLI, allowing you to link a discrete NVIDIA-based video card with the onboard GF9300.

The Zotac GF9300-D-E comes with a bigger bundle than the DG41MJ. Most notably, the bundle includes a WiFi daughter card which will enable 802.11b/g support. This is an excellent addition which will come in handy in just about any type of build.

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Zotac GF9300-D-E Layout & Features
The Zotac GF9300-D-E looks like a typical enthusiast ATX board that's been chopped in half. With its black PCB and orange highlights, the board has an unmistakable "high-end" look.


Other than the color scheme, the most significant difference between the GF9300-D-E's construction and the Intel DG41MJ, is the use of solid capacitors. The Zotac also sports a much larger heatsink, though it is still passively cooled.

The layout of the GF9300-D-E is similar to the DG41MJ. The board has two internal SATA ports which are located near the bottom-middle of the board. An additional eSATA port can be found on the rear I/O. Moving the third SATA port to the rear I/O is a good decision since it allows for easy storage expansion through the use of external drives. It's unlikely that you'll miss having the third SATA port internally since many ITX chassis only have enough space for a drive or two.

The GF9300-D-E offers a much more robust rear I/O choices than the DG41MJ. While it lacks a parallel port, it gains two more USB ports (6 total), S/PDIF coaxial and S/PDIF optical outputs. The integrated GF9300-D-E also has access to a HDMI-out port which would come in handy for HTPC setups.

   
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The presence of a PCI-E x16 slot offers much more flexibility than the conventional PCI slot found on the DG41MJ. Not only can you use a discrete video card for gaming-oriented builds, but you can also plug in auxiliary PCI-E x1 or x4 cards for HTPC setups. The board also has 3 internal USB headers for use with front-panel I/O, allowing for a total of 6 additional USB ports.

The GF9300-D-E comes with a small WiFi daughter card that connects to the board with a small bracket. The bracket is installed with two screws and connects directly with the PCB. Once installed, the daughter card is positioned so the antenna occupies a spot on the rear I/O. We've seen similar arrangements with several high-end ATX boards. In practice it provides convenient support for 802.11 wireless without taking up an expansion slot. The WiFi unit supplied with the GF9300-D-E supports 802.11b/g.

Overall, the Zotac GF9300-D-E appears to be a well constructed and laid out motherboard. As we mentioned earlier, it is harder to evaluate the layout of a ITX board vs an ATX board since ITX chassis vary in configuration so greatly. While a board may be a perfect fit for a certain chassis, it might be a terrible match for another chassis which has a significantly different configuration.

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Test Setup & Synthetics with SANDRA

To assess the performance of the Intel DG41MJ and Zotac GF9300-D-E motherboards, we pitted them against each other head-to-head. The second goal of these benchmarks is to provide a picture of the performance delta between the high performance ITX solutions we have looked at in this article and the more conventional nettops that are currently all the rage. To that end we have also included reference numbers, for the sake of comparison, from an NVIDIA Ion setup equipped with a dual-core Atom processor. This should provide some very interesting results since both the Zotac GF9300-D-E and the Ion use the GeForce 9x00 chipset, despite being different models. However the GeForce 9400 and 9300 differ only in the clock speeds of the integrated GPU, being equal in features and functionality in all other respects.

For these tests both the DG41MJ and GF9300-D-E were equipped with a Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200S processor, in light of the DG41MJ's support for only 65W processors. While we could have used a much more powerful processor, we felt the Q8200S with its extremely impressive thermal profile is an excellent candidate for any ITX build and a good representative of mainstream performance. While it may be entirely possible to use a hotter 95W Core 2 Q9650 processor with proper cooling and a performance chassis like the Silverstone SG05, it's simply not practical in most non-gaming builds.

HotHardware's Test Systems
Covering the bases

Intel DG41MJ
Core 2 Q8200S, 2.33GHz
2GB DDR2-800
Intel
GMA X4500
On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio
150GB WD Raptor
10K RPM SATA
Windows Vista Ultimate

Zotac GF9300-D-E
Core 2 Q8200S, 2.33GHz
2GB DDR2-800
GeForce 9300

On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio
150GB WD Raptor
10K RPM SATA
Windows Vista Ultimate

NVIDIA Ion Ref. PC
Atom 330, 1.6GHz
2GB DDR2-800
GeForce 9400M
On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio
74GB WD Raptor
10k RPM SATA

Windows Vista Premium

 Preliminary Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2009
 Synthetic Benchmarks

We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA XII, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2009 suite (CPU Arithmetic, CPU Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth and disk storage).  All of the scores reported below were taken with the processor running at the default clock speed of 2.33GHz, with 2GB DDR2-800 RAM.

The Atom processor gets completely destroyed by the Core 2 Quad. This was obviously expected. Despite being the dual-core model, the Atom at 1.6GHz and less powerful design simply doesn't have enough raw processing muscle to come anywhere near the full fledged Core 2 Quad. The DG41MJ and GF9300-D-E perform identically which is to be expected.


The Atom doesn't do any better in the CPU multimedia benchmark where it gets annihilated again. Not only does the Q8200S have a higher clock frequency at 2.33Ghz and double the cores, but the Core 2 Quad processor also contain more advanced core logic and also gets the benefit of significantly higher amounts of cache at all levels.


Things gets more interesting in the memory bandwidth test. The NVIDIA Ion and GF9300-D-E are in fact stable mates, both originating from the GeForce 9x00 product series. However, there are a few differences, the Ion uses the 9400M while the GF9300-D-E uses its namesake. Despite having essentially the same memory controller and pipelines, the Ion is beaten handedly in the memory bandwidth test because the more powerful Core 2 is able to better utilize available memory resources. Perhaps more interesting is that the DG41MJ comes out on top overall with a fairly significant 1GB/s lead.
 


The disk storage test was easily won by our two review sample systems as they were equipped with 10K RPM Western Digital Raptor 150 drives while the Ion reference system was using the obsolete 74GB model. However the real purpose of this test was to compare the storage sub-system performance of the DG41MJ and the GF9300-D-E, and we see that they post identical scores. 

Overall, all of the various SANDRA CPU benchmarks we ran reported scores in line with expectations. With our first round of benchmarks, we can already see what a massive advantage having a full fledged processor can be.

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General Performance: PCMark Vantage

Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Simulated Application Performance

Next, we ran our test motherboards through PCMark Vantage, Futuremark‚Äôs latest system performance metric built especially for Windows Vista. PCMark Vantage runs through a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads, including High Definition TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. Most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, so they can exploit the additional resources offered by multi-core CPUs.


For PCMark Vantage, we pit the DG41MJ and the GF9300-D-E head-to-head. Overall the results the two boards post are very similar, however there were a few areas where they differed greatly. The DG41MJ performed significantly better in the TV & Movies benchmark as well as the Productivity test. However the GF9300-D-E clearly won the Gaming and Memory tests. SANDRA had shown that the GF9300-D-E had poor memory bandwidth compared to the DG41MJ. It seems PCMark doesn't agree. However, these two tests are very different and can't be compared really.  The PCMark Vantage Memories tests isn't about memory bandwidth, it's about an end user usage model based on manipulating "memories" or images and pictures if you will.  Here digital photos in HD format are stretched, flipped and rotated, which is something the GF9300-D-E excels at apparently.

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General Performance: Cinebench & LAME MT

Cinebench R10 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D from Maxon. Cinema 4D is a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others.  It's very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput.

Cinebench R10
3D Rendering

This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The rate at which each test system was able to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below.


Cinebench was not kind to the Atom/Ion reference machine. With only two very low power cores, not to mention less cache, the Atom 330 simply couldn't compete. The competition between the DG41MJ and the GF9300-D-E was much closer with the DG41MJ taking a slight lead.  Then again, you're likely not going to be processing any high end 3D rendering with a machine that is targeted as a Home Theater PC.


LAME MT
Audio Encoding

In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content.  LAME is an open-source mid to high bit-rate and VBR (variable bit rate) MP3 audio encoder that is used widely around the world in a multitude of third party applications. In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file (a hallucinogenically-induced Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in single and multi-thread modes. Processing times are recorded below, listed in seconds. Once again, shorter times equate to better performance.


The two boards are completely deadlocked in the LAME MT MP3 encoding test. Both the DG41MJ and the GF9300-D-E post identical scores for both single-thread and multi-thread encoding. This is simply because the encoding process is very CPU dependent and the already small performance differences between the two boards don't weigh heavily enough to make a difference in the final scores.


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IGP Multimedia Performance
Let's face it, though integrated graphics have come a ways in recent years, it's still not viable option for a gaming machine. While newer IGPs can handle modern games at acceptable frame rates for lite or casual gaming, you'll still have a hard time driving the latest first-person shooters on a high-res screen.

However, IGPs of today also aren't completely useless outside of gaming. In this day and age of HD video, IGPs have gained new purpose as video playback accelerators. Both the Intel DG41MJ and the Zotac GF9300-D-E are equipped with IGPs that offer video decode acceleration; Intel's X4500 and NVIDIA's GeForce 9300 respectively. This would be an extremely valuable feature to have for any HTPC or multimedia-centric system build where you don't have the space or budget for a discrete graphics card, as is often the case with SFF builds.

 IGP Video Playback Performance
 Video Decoding with Intel and NVIDIA

We put both boards through a set of 1080P HD video tests and measured their CPU utilization levels to get a feel for how much of the heavy lifting the IGP is offloading from the CPU. We used two short video clips of less than 5 minutes in duration for this test. Each video clip was played 3 times on a loop while the CPU utilization was constantly monitored. The first clip is encoded with WMV and played back using Windows Media Player 11. The second clip is encoded with H.264 and played back using Apple Quicktime 7.6. In both cases the system was not running any other application and had identical software and hardware installations (besides the motherboard and drivers).

  
 Intel DG41MJ (Intel X4500)
 Zotac GF9300-D-E (GeForce 9300)

In the first test clip encoded in WMV, we see that both the DG41MJ equipped with the Intel X4500, and the GF9300-D-E performed quite well. Both IGPs were able to offload a very significant amount of the work involved in decoding the video from the CPU, with a resulting CPU utilization of less than 15%. The GeForce 9300 performed slightly better, with CPU utilization hovering between 6%-9%, while the X4500 managed CPU utilization of 7%-12%.

  
 Intel DG41MJ (Intel X4500)
 Zotac GF9300-D-E (GeForce 9300)

In the second clip encoded in H.264, we see slightly higher CPU utilization rates for both IGPs since H.264 is a bit more robust in terms of encoding which also requires more processing power to decode. In this test, the two IGPs performed more similarly with the Intel X4500 hovering between the 20%-28% range while the GeForce 9300 managed 18%-30%.

Overall, both IGPs provide a significant amount of video playback acceleration, certainly enough to handle general multimedia and HTPC playback duties with ease without the need for a discrete graphics card. This is good news for ITX motherboards like the ones we are looking at today, since they only possess a single expansion slot and you will be forced to make some tough choices about the slot's occupant. The ability to handle HD video playback with the IGP means you can save the only expansion slot for a DVR / TV tuner card, in the case of a HTPC.

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Gaming: Crysis, ETQW & HL2:Ep2

For the gaming benchmarks we decided not to include the Ion reference system since it didn't have the slightest hope of really competing except possibly with the DG41MJ's X4500. However the DG41MJ isn't meant for gaming in the first place so the real attraction here will be how the integrated GeForce 9300 compares with a discrete graphics card. For the purposes of this test we equipped the GF9300-D-E with a Radeon 4850. We chose the Radeon 4850 because you're unlikely to find a ITX case that will fit anything faster, as we saw in our Silverstone SG05 installation.

Crysis v1.21
DirectX 10 Gaming Performance


Crysis

If you're at all into enthusiast computing, the highly anticipated single player, FPS smash-hit Crysis, should require no introduction. Crytek's game engine produces some stunning visuals that are easily the most impressive real-time 3D renderings we've seen on the PC to date.  The engine employs some of the latest techniques in 3D rendering like Parallax Occlusion Mapping, Subsurface Scattering, Motion Blur and Depth-of-Field effects, as well as some of the most impressive use of Shader technology we've seen yet.  In short, for those of you that want to skip the technical jib-jab, Crysis is a beast of a game.  We ran the full game patched to v1.21 with all of its visual options set to 'Medium'.


Somewhat surprisingly, the GMA X4500 not only launched Crysis, but we were able to complete a whole set of benchmarks. However its performance is barely worth mentioning. The competition between the GF9300-D-E's integrated graphics and the discrete Radeon 4850 illustrates that for any sort of gaming oriented build, you just have to go discrete.


Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
OpenGL Gaming Performance


Enemy Territory:
Quake Wars

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is Based on an enhanced version of id's Doom 3 engine and viewed by many as Battlefield 2 meets the Strogg, and then some.  In fact, we'd venture to say that id took EA's team-based warfare genre up a notch or two.  ET: Quake Wars also marks the introduction of John Carmack's "Megatexture" technology that employs large environment and terrain textures that cover vast areas of maps without the need to repeat and tile many smaller textures.  The beauty of megatexture technology is that each unit only takes up a maximum of 8MB of frame buffer memory.  Add to that HDR-like bloom lighting and leading edge shadowing effects and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars looks great, plays well and works high end graphics cards vigorously. 


The GeForce 9300 gave a decent performance in Enemy Territory Quake Wars, producing playable frame rates. However, it was still a far cry (no pun intended) compared to a discrete graphics card. For the Radeon 4850, it was a walk in the park. The GD41MJ's x4500 is still essentially useless as with Crysis.


Half Life 2: Episode 2
DirectX Gaming Performance


Half Life 2:
Episode 2

Thanks to the dedication of hardcore PC gamers and a huge mod-community, the original Half-Life became one of the most successful first person shooters of all time.  And thanks to an updated game engine, gorgeous visual, and intelligent weapon and level design, Half Life 2 became just as popular.  Episode 2 offers a number of visual enhancements including better looking transparent texture anti-aliasing. We used a custom recorded timedemo file to benchmark all cards in this test.



The Half-Life 2 benchmark gave some interesting results. For the first time, not only did the X4500 post results higher than 10fps, but it also produced playable framerates, although just barely. The GeForce 9300 had no problem with the test and unsurprisingly the Radeon 4850 didn't even break a sweat.

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Conclusion

Performance Analysis:
The two ITX motherboards we put through our obstacle course of benchmarks, the Intel DG41MJ and Zotac GF9300-D-E, were both excellent performers. In general, they performed every bit as well as typical full-size ATX models. They both also support the full range of Core 2 series products which means you can have a full-power rig in a ITX form factor without much effort. We performed our tests with one of the lowest powered quad-cores offered by Intel, the Core 2 Q8200S. Despite this, the two motherboards still mopped the floor with Atom and Ion in every test. Even a cheaper Core 2 Duo or Core 2 derived Pentium model wouldn't have any trouble completely trumping Atom.  This isn't surprising however, the current Atom implementation, Ion-infused or otherwise, is built for netbook purposes, rather than an HTPC.

While both of the motherboards we look at in this article were designed for Intel processors, high performance AMD ITX motherboards definitely do exist. There are several quality ITX motherboards designed for AMD processors using both NVIDIA as well as AMD's own chipsets. Boards such as the J&W MINIX 780G, offers the same level of performance and features as the Zotac GF9300-D-E we looked at, except they're built for AMD processors. There are also many options available if you are looking for something similar to the Intel DG41MJ we looked at.

As we've seen, there is a whole different level of performance to be had in the same tiny ITX footprint. The Intel Atom may now be to most ubiquitous SFF platform, but it certainly isn't the only one and it's in no way the best, at least in terms of overall performance. In this article, we've given you a quick peek at what the modern ITX form factor has to offer. It is a far cry from the costly, under-performing, fully integrated ITX platforms of old. With the current availability of very high density storage, excellent mid-range video cards, low-power processors and now high performance ITX motherboards, it's now possible and even easy, to pack a full scale gaming rig into a ITX case for roughly the same budget as a typical mid-range tower.

However, as we've mentioned, ITX and SFF in general still suffers from one unavoidable short coming, the lack of space and expandability. You simply can't shove a storage server into a ITX case, there just isn't space. However for typical usage scenarios, ITX may just be a viable, perhaps even ideal alternative to the same old tower.


  

Silverstone SG05: The SG05 is an excellent chassis and in many ways represents an innovation in ITX chassis design. In the SG05, Silverstone has designed a tiny ITX case that will not only fit a full-height dual-slot video card, but keep it cool and happy too. The SG05 offers excellent thermal design for a ITX case. Despite only having a single 120mm case fan, the SG05 delivers good cooling for both the processor and video card. The included 300W power supply is also quite good.  With an 80 PLUS rating and a single quite 80mm cooling fan, the little SFX unit should deliver plenty of power for just about anything you can manage to fit inside the SG05. At a street price of $99 at the time of this publication, the SG05 is also relatively affordable.

Overall, we really liked the Silverstone SG05. While it can be used for just about any type of ITX based build, it especially shines when equipped with a gaming oriented setup with a beefy dual-slot video card. The Silverstone SG05 is an excellent representative of the potential available in the ITX form factor. It would be an excellent pick for any mini-ITX build and we think it should be your first pick for an ITX gaming rig.

 

  • Great Build Quality
  • Excellent Configuration
  • Dual-slot Graphics Support
  • Good Power Supply
  • Good Cooling
  • Only Supports Slim Optical Drives
  • Only Space For A Single 3.5" Drive

 


Intel DG41MJ: While it isn't the most feature-packed or flashy motherboard you'll ever see, the DG41MJ is solid. It doesn't have the PCI-E x16 slot of the Zotac, and for some people the conventional PCI slot may be limiting, but the board has performance in gobs and any processor-centric build would work wonderfully with the DG41MJ. It's also well suited for HTPC where the PCI slot can be put to good use with a tuner card. The integrated x4500 is barely of use for gaming except in legacy titles or casual online play, but it can stand its own ground in multimedia and handles HD video decoding without any issue.

In terms of performance, it was every bit as good as the Zotac GF9300-D-E we checked out in all of the general performance tests. In several cases, such as with memory bandwidth, the DG41MJ actually pulled ahead by a notable amount. At a current street price of $87, it's also much more affordable. Overall, the DG41MJ is an excellent choice for non-gaming setups.

 

  • Great Value
  • Great Performance
  • Quad-Core Support
  • Conventional PCI slot

 


Zotac GF9300-D-E:
If you thought the Intel DG41MJ was a bit on the mundane side, or if you are interested in a gaming-capable setup, then the GF9300-D-E is a great choice. The GF9300-D-E offers a huge number of features, the most notable, and likely the most important for many users, is the PCI-E x16 slot. With a larger case that supports full-height expansion cards like the Silverstone SG05, you can put together a full power gaming rig with basically no compromise on the graphics front.

The GF9300-D-E also supports Hybrid SLI which will come in handy in low-profile cases where you won't be able to fit a decent graphics chip. Low-profile graphics cards do exist, but they are on the low-end of the performance spectrum. Hybrid SLI will give these setups a considerable boost.

The GF9300-D-E is certainly not a one-trick pony either. Thanks in part to the included 802.11b/g Wi-FI daughter card, the GeForce 9300 chipset, the Zotac comes with an impressive array of integrated features which will come in handy in any build. The only down-side is the relatively higher $140 street price. At a $50 premium over the Intel DG41MJ, it won't be the the most cost-efficienct choice for every situation. However, as a premium high performance ITX motherboard, the Zotac GF9300-D-E absolutely shines.


 

  • Good Performance
  • PCI-E x16 Slot
  • Quad-Core Support
  • Hybrid SLI
  • 802.11b/g Wi-Fi Daughter Card
  • HDMI Output

 

  • Pricey

 



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