|Introduction and Specs|
|Steambox initiative, ASUS' Chromebox, Zotac's ZBox line or Intel's own NUC (Next Unit of Computing) mini PC. In fact, Intel has gone on record, projecting mini PCs like this have shipped over a million units in 2013 and are projected for strong growth this year as well. So what's the attraction?
Obviously there are a number of use cases for this class of device, whether it be as a home theater PC, a strategically placed and aesthetically pleasing family or office PC or even as an arguably (or not) more versatile alternative to console gaming. Regardless, the form factor itself has taken the market by storm with newcomers and veteran manufacturers designing offerings with various levels of horsepower and capabilities.
To date, many of these smaller devices haven't offered much in the way of gaming and multimedia oomph, with only integrated graphics or low-end mobile discrete GPUs on board at best. However, Intel's Haswell 4th generation Core series processors with Iris Pro Graphics (formerly known by the code name Crystal Well) offered the promise of more robust integrated graphics performance, since we first laid eyes on the Gigabyte-built device, we're showcasing here today, back at CES 2014 in Las Vegas earlier this year.
Surprisingly, there's actually a fairly full-featured assortment of integrated technology on-board the BRIX Pro and we're treated to all the latest connectivity options, including 802.11AC WiFi, four USB 3.0 ports and Bluetooth 4.0. You also get dual SODIMM slots that support up to 16GB of DDR3-1600MHz memory, as well as an mSATA slot and support for a standard 2.5-inch SATA drive.
All of this technology is crammed into this tiny, less than 5-inch square aluminum enclosure that of course doesn't have the real estate or thermal capacity to house the power supply, so there's an external AC adapter included to get the job done. It's actually a larger-than-expected power brick that accompanies the BRIX Pro, but more on that later.
In the Gigabyte BRIX Pro bundle, you also get a VESA mount plate and a few screws, the power adapter, a quick start guide and yes, you're looking at a DVD ROM for software and drivers. Curiously, you'll note that the BRIX Pro itself has no way of making use of the DVD since it doesn't house an optical drive. A USB stick with the software package would obviously have been a much better option. Let's take a closer look at the BRIX Pro itself and even pop the lid, next...
|Design and Internals|
Design and Internals - Building Muscle Into A Compact Frame
You have to love the size of the Gigabyte BRIX Pro, like its brethren, Intel's NUC, it quite literally fits in the palm of your hand. On the top there is a single backlit power button and on front you'll find a pair of USB 3.0 ports and a combo line-out audio jack for headphones or SPDIF output. There's also a large vent panel with a metal mesh screen on the right front corner of the device and though it's functional for mitigating thermal build-up, it's also a nice design cue as well.
The backside of the BRIX Pro is where all the action is and we'd have to say that GB hit all the major key feature requirements, with the exception of maybe an SD card slot, which would probably locate better on the front of the device.
Though SD cards aren't welcome in the design, you do get another two USB 3.0 ports (four total) for solid expansion and media access options, as well as an RJ45 Gig-E port, DisplayPort output and HDMI output. Back here is where the AC power adapter's barrel connector plugs in and you'll also find a Kensington security slot port. Does anyone ever use these anymore? They seem to be on most any PC device these days but I've never used one. Ever.
Once you remove the four screws that are recessed slightly behind four rubber grommets that act as skid bushings for the BRIX Pro, you can then remove the bottom cover of the machine and get access to its internals. As you'll note, there's a spare SATA power and data combo connector here that's available should you want to expand your storage to a 2.5-inch drive - and we'd recommend it be an SSD-only affair since both heat and mechanicals might be a challenge for a 2.5-inch HDD.
The SODIMM slots are easily accessible as well and you can upgrade to 16GB of DDR3-1600 memory, though our BRIX Pro came equipped with 8GB (2X4GB sticks). Pull one more screw and we can remove the Intel mSATA SSD that was installed in our machine and then get access to the combo 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth card that you see still installed in its slot. If you want to dig deeper still, just pull two more screws holding down the tiny BRIX Pro motherboard, then flex the front of the metal chassis out just a touch and lift from the rear of the motherboard (we pulled gently on a SODIMM socket) and you can then pull the entire CPU and motherboard assembly out. The front audio jack protrudes though the chassis just enough to hang it up but just flex the chassis out ever so slightly and it will clear the metal housing.
Densely-packed would be a gross understatement here. When you consider all this tiny PCB offers in terms of functionality, features and performance, it's hard to believe Gigabyte was able to pull it off in such an absolutely miniscule area. The all-copper heatsink sitting atop the Core i7-4770R CPU, is screwed into place through the motherboard and we didn't take the next step to try and remove it. On top of that heatsink is a blower fan that, when it spins up, can get pretty annoyingly loud. It has a big job to do to keep Intel's full integrated CPU and GPU engines cool, so it's no surprise. Again, more on this later. Let's button things back up and fire it up...
|Test Setup, SANDRA And Cinebench Performance|
|We decided to compare our Gigabyte BRIX Pro system to the closest set of desktop reference numbers we had on hand from our recent AMD Kaveri performance review. In certain scenarios, this will also compare Intel's integrated Iris Pro Graphics engine versus AMD's latest integrated APU offering with Radeon graphics. Though the desktop system are configured differently here, with 16GB of RAM (versus 8GB total in the BRIX Pro), these are similar setups with only small variations in available resources. It's not exactly apples-to-apples, these are all different platforms after all, but it's close.
We started our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, File System).
CPU and Multimedia Tests
Memory Bandwidth and Physical Disk Tests
The Intel Core i7-4470R powering the Gigabyte BRIX Pro puts up impressive numbers in terms of integer and floating point performance. Memory bandwidth is also strong with over 18GB/s available with the Haswell CPU and DDR3-1600 memory. Storage performance could be classified as a little pokey, however, with only an average of 340MB/sec in read performance across the drive but it's still plenty of throughput for just about anything you could think of throwing at a machine like this.
With Cinebench, we see a clear lead for the Gigabyte BRIX Pro and its Core i7-4770R processor versus AMD's previous high-end A10 APU and even the newer A8 with Radeon R7 (AMD GCN) graphics. In the OpenGL test, it sails past the AMD offering with anywhere from a 17 to almost 30 percent margin and in the CPU test it dusted our entire field of competitive reference systems as well.
|PCMark 8, Lame and SunSpider|
General Purpose Computing Benchmarks - PCMark 8, Lame and SunSpiderIn this next series of tests, we have some mostly CPU-intensive workloads with a bit of storage subsystem requirement as well.
Here again we see a clear advantage for the BRIX Pro and Intel's Crystal Well series processor (Haswell with Iris Pro Graphics) in both the Home and Work benchmark workloads. Intel's highest-end Iris Pro 5200 Graphics solution especially stretches its legs in the Home test workload.
Lame and Sunspider are both almost completely CPU-bound with perhaps a bit of sensitivity in memory bandwidth. The Gigabyte BRIX Pro comes in neck-and-neck with the Core i5-4670K and both of those chips are way ahead of the rest of the pack.
|Gaming and Graphics: 3DMark Firestrike|
Graphics Benchmarks and Game Testing - Intel Vs AMD Integrated GraphicsThis is where things start to get interesting with the Gigabyte BRIX Pro. In the following game benchmarks and actual in-game testing, we're specifically pitting Intel integrated graphics solutions versus similar solutions from AMD APUs. Its Intel Iris Pro Graphics 5200 versus the most recent Kaveri APU offering from AMD with AMD's GCN (Graphics Core Next) GPU architecture. Traditionally, Intel has been at a marked deficit versus AMD when it comes to graphics horsepower. Let's see if that still stands today.
3DMark Fire Strike has two benchmark modes: Normal mode runs at 1920x1080, while Extreme mode targets 2560x1440. GPU target frame buffer utilization for normal mode is 1GB and the benchmark uses tessellation, ambient occlusion, volume illumination, and a medium-quality depth of field filter. The more taxing Extreme mode targets 1.5GB of frame buffer memory and increases detail levels across the board. For the following tests, we ran the benchmark in Normal mode since we were testing integrated graphics solutions, versus high-end discrete GPUs.
In 3DMark Fire Strike, the Gigabyte BRIX Pro with the Intel Core i7-4770R once again edges out the competition but by only a small margin of 5 - 8% at most. In the GPU Test 2, AMD's Radeon R7 core in the A8 is much closer to Intel's Iris Pro 5200 Graphics. This test (GT2) focuses more on particle and GPU simulation with higher required pixel processing throughput, whereas GPU Test 1 focuses more on lighting and geometry.
|Gaming: Bioshock Infinite|
BioShock Infinite is clear game-of-the-year material. The floating city of Columbia is one of the most evocative, intense, and gorgeous environments we've ever seen in a PC game -- but how much you like it may depend on what sort of visual wizardry you prefer. BioShock Infinite is built on Unreal Engine 3, and while it pushes that framework's capabilities into the stratosphere, there's a clear difference between BioShock Infinite and, say, Crysis 3. BioShock Infinite emphasizes light, color and motion, and while the characters look more exaggerated and cartoon-like than some other games, they still look great. We tested the game at various resolutions with its DX11 code path with DOF effects enabled.
In the first, low resolution, CPU-limited Bioshock test, the Core i7-4770R in the BRIX Pro is able to keep pace with AMD's latest offering and offers a sizable gain over Intel's previous generation, likely due to memory bandwidth.
In the GPU-limited high res test, here again, the field is grouped pretty close together, with the exception of the previous generations of Intel Ivy Bridge CPUs, which were left far behind by the Haswell-based BRIX Pro, which almost doubled their performance. What's clear now is that, at least with Crystal Well and Iris Pro 5200 graphics, Intel has caught up to AMD's integrated graphics core performance, even the most recent GCN iterations found in Kaveri.
|Performance and Image Quality: Batman: Arkham Origins|
|Batman: Arkham Orgins is a prequel to 2011’s excellent Batman: Arkham City. This recently released prequel, however, lives up to and even surpasses its predecessor in many ways. The game has DirectX 9 and 11 rendering paths, with support for tessellation, multi-view soft shadows, and ambient occlusion. We tested in DX11 mode with all in-game graphical options set to high quality values, and then focused on playable resolutions and anti-aliasing levels.
First, we thought we'd look at rendering quality at our highest playable resolution. Specifically, what you see below are screenshots taken at 1920X1080 resolution with FXAA enabled. As you can see, image quality and lighting are quite good...
With Batman: Arkham Origins over various resolutions, you can see frame rate is also solid, right up through 1080p with high image quality and FXAA enabled. For FXAA, we selected the "Normal" setting which seems to do a decent job of cleaning up jagged edges in scenery. Even at 1080p with high image quality and decent AA turned on, we're able to maintain an average of over 40fps frame rate.
|Power, Thermals and Noise|
|This is where things get a little dicey for the Gigabyte BRIX Pro. Since the system is so tiny, it's a challenge to keep Intel's Core i7-4770R, which is a multi-chip module with its CPU/GPU core and eDRAM cache, cool with a limited thermal solution area to manage heat dissipation.
In fact, under any sort of serious load, the barrel fan on board the Gigabyte BRIX Pro spins up to an annoyingly loud whine. Simply put, the BRIX Pro's low profile and diminutive mechanical design is a polar opposite of its acoustical signature. Because it's so small, coupled with the CPU, GPU and Memory horsepower on board, its fan has to spin up very high to expel heat well enough for stable functionality.
And so, to scope thermal and power performance under pressure, we fired up Intel's own Extreme Tuning Utility to see what was going on with respect to clock speeds and temperatures. Then we measured current draw, at idle and under load, with a power meter.
If we just ran Intel's CPU stress test in the Extreme Tuning Utility, you can see that core temps ramp up to 100ºC and the CPU actually doesn't throttle. We should point out that we pulled down the latest BIOS for the BRIX Pro and it does help with fan speeds and max Turbo Boost settings such that throttling under heavy load is less of an issue now, versus when the system was first released. However, if we load the CPU with Prime95, even after just a couple of minutes, the CPU throttles hard to over 45% of max clock speed and pulls back to a little under 3GHz. The system remained stable while throttling but regardless, the Gigabyte BRIX Pro wasn't designed with a cooling solution capable of handling the full load of a Core i7-4770R at its top factory specified clock speed.
And herein lies the rub. Looking quickly at our power consumption testing at idle and load, you can see that the Intel Core i7-4770R-power BRIX Pro just sips power when it's sitting idle; it manages to stay under 20 Watts. However, load up the system as we did and it consumes over 85 Watts. The Core i7-4770R has a Max TDP of 65 Watts according to Intel specifications. We're well beyond that here and though, in many respects, the chip is more power-efficient than even AMD's latest midrange integrated APU, the 65 Watt max TDP cooling solution that was designed in for the BRIX Pro just doesn't cut it. For comparison, the other reference systems tested here have full desktop-sized cooling solutions employed.
|Performance Analysis and Conclusion|
A Note On Power Consumption and Acoustics:In terms of performance, we can't help but be impressed with what Intel has been able to achieve with their latest fully integrated processor architecture, especially with respect to graphics and multimedia performance. No longer can we poke at Intel for weak integrated graphics performance. In fact, the Crystal Well-based Core i7-4770R powering the BRIX Pro out-paced every reference system we pitted it against, in all gaming tests and almost every CPU-centric test. Without question, it left AMD's integrated APU line-up with their latest GCN-based Radeon R7 GPU in the rear view on more than one occasion. It's impressive, actually and if Intel can maintain good driver support, the prospects for their upcoming Broadwell CPU are encouraging.
The Gigabyte BRIX Pro is kind of a mixed bag, unfortunately. While it's highly integrated design and petite, sleek styling offer a really nice combination of performance and features in a tiny form factor, it's hard to get completely comfortable with a system that emits the kind of noise this little fella puts out under duress. Further, the thermal solution inside the BRIX Pro, at least as it exists currently, just doesn't appear to be up to the task of cooling one of Intel's most powerful integrated processors and its highest-end GPU core.
In reality, the Core i7-4770R that powers this machine really needs to occupy a larger footprint, like a more standard-sized HTPC, maybe an all-in-one system or a small-form factor desktop with a micro-ATX or mini-ITX sized motherboard. Cramming this much horsepower inside something the size of the BRIX Pro is a challenge to be sure.
Regardless, if you can overlook the occasional whine that emits from this system when it's under heavier loads, the Gigabyte BRIX Pro delivers exceptional performance and a nice assortment of IO options for a multitude of potential applications in the home or office. As a Steam Machine for gaming, it could get the job done nicely. The BRIX Pro can even drive 4K displays for some Ultra HD resolution content creation or video playback, though gaming at that resolution would probably not be an option.
The Gigabyte BRIX Pro is a powerful cube of the latest in CPU and Graphics technology that Intel has to offer in its integrated desktop line-up. The product is currently retailing for $449 to $599, depending on which CPU model you choose (either the Core i7-4770R or Core i5-4570R). If you're considering the BRIX Pro, it may be your best bet to opt for the slightly lower-end model, the BXi5-4570R for a little less money, since it also sports Intel's Iris Pro 5200 Graphics core but a slightly lower speed CPU core and perhaps a bit more thermal headroom.