|Introduction and System Specs|
When we pause to think of some of the more memorable, market driving, changes to the computer industry, the advent of the mini-PC is one of the first to come to mind. What started out as a single offering from Shuttle has grown into a market in and of itself, with new entries from a wide range of companies hitting the retail channel regularly. What was a bold, pioneering direction to take for Shuttle, ended up being far bigger than many of us would have imagined.
Now that mini PC products have had time to mature, they have evolved into a major industry. What started as a basic design now brings innovative ideas to the table such as unique cooling designs aimed at lowering fan noise and more efficient case designs that accommodate more components without an increased footprint. Today, many options abound for the do-it-yourself HTPC crowd looking for innovative solutions in the quest to build the perfect mini-PC.
We're going to take a look at the latest mini PC to arrive from Soltek. While not necessarily a pioneer in the industry, Soltek has its own line of mini PCs that offer that latest technology wrapped up in a small package. Not willing to settle and stamp out new PCs based on existing designs, Soltek has come up with a few unique options to help set them apart from the rest. Let's take a look at see how they fared with a review of their QBIC EQ3501 Pro barebones mini-PC.
Since the QBIC EQ3501 Pro is a mini-PC, much of its components are already installed, so the bundle might seem lighter than typical motherboard packages. Nonetheless, Soltek included everything needed to get the machine assembled and functional quickly. Just add a CPU, Memory, Hard Drives and CD/DVD-ROMs and Soltek takes care of the rest. Two SATA cables were included as well as rounded floppy and IDE cables. For SATA power, a single molex-SATA adapter was included as well as plenty of zip-ties and mounting screws.
Documentation was plentiful with this unit, although it was a bit generic. For example, the Quick Installation Guide didn't cover the exact unit, instead showing how to install the older Pentium 4 rather than the socket 775 this model is equipped with. The User's Manual covered all of the motherboard's features and setup thoroughly, whereas the QBIC installation Guide rehashed the same information that the Quick Installation Guide provided. The Powerful System Utilities guide that covered installation and usage of bonus software included in the bundle such as PC-Cillin 2004, VirtualDrive 7, PartitionMagic 6.0SE, DriveImage 4 and more. Rounding out the package was a floppy disk with ICH6-R RAID Drivers, which are needed during installation.
|The Soltek QBIC EQ3501-Pro Up Close|
On the outside, the EQ3501-Pro has a beautiful mirrored front finish with a flat black body. The body colors come in 3 unique flavors; Aluminum, Mirror and Mania. This translates to white, gray and black combinations, each of which adorns the mirrored front panel. The front of the unit is very clean, with individual doors hiding the various system components. The QBIC EQ3501-Pro was designed to support 2 CD-ROM drives, as well as a single floppy drive. The CD-ROM drives have individual doors masking them, with an eject button that lines up perfectly with the drive's. The floppy disk and front ports are masked by doors that have a push release mechanism that can be activated by pressing the upper right corner of the door. We did find that if we pressed anywhere else on these doors, they tended to flex rather than release. After working with the unit, we found this to be a plus, forcing you to use the same spot to open the door, rather than pressing anywhere and accumulating fingerprints on the shiny finish.
The CD-ROM, Floppy and Hard Drives are all mounted in a removable drive cage. The drives could all be mounted outside the unit and then slipped into place when completely set up. Unfortunately, this assembly was a rather tight fit and brushed up against the power supply when being slid into place. With our particular CD-ROM drive, which is a couple of inches longer than some newer models that have recently been released, we found the cage to be a little difficult to get into place. However, with a newer, shorter CD/DVD ROM this should not be a problem.
The floppy drive space doubles as a hard drive bay for those looking to build a floppy-free system, and a second hard drive can be mounted underneath it in a perpendicular position. Sadly, when it comes to BIOS updating, Soltek does not offer a Windows-based updater, so a floppy drive will be needed if an update is ever planned.
The main focus of the unit is its oversized exhaust system. Rather than focusing on heat pipe designs as seen with other products, Soltek used a large side-mount fan to draw the heat from the case and pump it out quickly. Through the use of their ICyQ and SmartFan Technologies, the system controls all of the system fans to ensure maximum heat control while reducing power consumption and noise. The unit can be configured to run the fan at a continuous speed or throttle based on load by using a series of profiles in the BIOS. What we found, however, was no matter the choice, this unit was loud. Even with the fans set to slow down with lesser load, when the system was idle it sounded like a hair dyer on the lowest setting. Some may not be bothered by this when using the machine as a desktop unit, but those looking to build a home theater PC may find it a bit distracting. The loudest of the fans was the stock Pentium 4 cooler that came with our processor, making the argument for a heat-pipe design all the more practical.
The motherboard is based on an I915G + ICH6R chipset, offering up all the amenities of a full sized system minus the expansion slots. This board came with one PCI and one PCI-E 16X slot. This was adequate, but a second PCI slot would really be a plus. The unit comes with a broad collection of hard drive options, including one IDE and four RAID 0 and RAID 1 capable SATA ports driven by the ICH6R Southbridge. The rear of the unit sports a plethora of connections from VGA, Serial and PS/2 connections to USB, Gigabit Ethernet, IEEE1394 and five audio inputs and outputs. The front of the unit also provides two USB, one IEEE1394, one line-out, one MIC and a S/PDIF Out Port that glows red. Driving the unit is a 300W power supply with ample connections to support a wide range of hardware.
Soltek has developed a powerful unit with a wide selection of features and option that make the QBIC EQ3501-Pro a potent mini PC that can rival the functions of a full sized unit. The design of the drive cage could use improvement and the unit was fairly loud, but from a features and options standpoint, the units has a lot to offer and it looks good too.
|BIOS, HH Test Bed and Synthetic Testing Part I|
The BIOS of the EQ3501-Pro offers all of the features one would expect from a full sized unit, including advanced voltage and frequency settings for overclocking. The unit is also equipped with Soltek's Smart Acceleration Technology that allows for auto overclocking based on profiles in the BIOS. These profiles ranged from Enhanced, Performance and Maximum modes and will adjust the processor's speed as needed. Although these adjustments are dynamic, we can tell you that our 3GHz chip ran at 3.09GHz, 3.17GHz and 3.23GHz respectively at POST.
From a functionality standpoint, the BIOS has what you need for successful tweaking of system performance. The DDR memory can be set to run from 2.6v-2.9v in steps of .1v, while the Chipset voltage ranged from 1.5-1.8v in the same stages. The CPU voltage offered a wide scale, from 1.425 – 1.60v in increments of .0125v. The FSB could be set from 200 to 350MHz, giving more than enough headroom for overclocking.
Memory Timings were the standard fare, sporting CAS 2, 2.5 and 3 options and RAS to CAS and RAS Precharge options from 2 to 5 clocks. The memory frequency could be locked at 333MHz and 400MHz as well as having an Auto setting.
Clearly, the BIOS of the Soltek QBIC EQ3501-Pro comes well equipped and quite configurable. We are not a huge fan of Soltek's menu layout, but the BIOS comes with all the trimmings. Next, we'll shift focus to performance. First, we'll layout out the HH test bed, then we'll try our hand at a bit of overclocking.
When it comes to overclocking our 3GHz Pentium 4 socket 775, this chip has a proven track record. In a recent review, we managed to hit a top speed of 3.93GHz. On this occasion, however, we didn't come close to that number. The Soltek QBIC EQ3501-Pro appeared to be hampered by a similar problem we reported with a previously reviewed 915G board, where anything higher than a 217MHz bus speed resulted in the system recovering from a failed overclock, automatically resetting the bus to 200MHz. We updated the BIOS to the latest version, tried with various video cards and on-board video and the result was the same each and every time. As it stands now, overclocking with the EQ3501 is a lukewarm experience. With that 217MHz bus speed, we were able to push our processor to 3.25GHz, but that extra 250MHz didn't give any measurable performance gains worth reporting. If our experience changes in the future, we'll be sure to update this review and let you know.
Before we get down and dirty with the benchmarking phase of any motherboard review, we like to give the hardware a quick run of SANDRA. This utility does a good job at giving us insight as to how a certain configuration compares to its peers. By comparing the results to SANDRA's large internal database, we can get a rough idea of how the system stacks up. Here we focus on the three most important components, CPU, Multimedia and Memory performance. First we ran the tests at the default speed, then we ran them again overclocked.
At stock speeds, performance was inline with what we would expect to see. Once we overclocked the system, we did see fair gains in the CPU tests and the memory posted decent gains as well. Nonetheless, these gains did not result in any substantial performance increase in our tests.
|Synthetic Testing Part Duex - PCMark04 and 3DMark05|
In our next round of tests, we used FutureMark's latest 3DMark05 to isolate and measure CPU performance. This was acheived by running the benchmark's exclusive CPU 1 and CPU 2 tests and recording the overall score. For a frame of reference, we compared the results to that of another 915G based product, an ASUS P5GDC-V Deluxe and will continue to do so for the remainder of the review.
With the CPU test, the EQ3501-Pro fell a bit short when compared to the ASUS board. Here we see the ASUS model lead the test by 244 points. Next we'll focus on a more all-inclusive test to see if this is a common trend or a one time event.
When it comes to assessing overall system performance, FutureMark's PCMark04 fits the bill. This test focuses on the four key components of a system, CPU, Memory, Graphic and Hard Drive. We'll focus on the first three and record the individual results as well as the overall score issued in the end.
Unlike the 3DMark05 test, the Soltek EQ3501-Pro took the top spot, beating the ASUS board by 47 points. The memory performance leaned in favor of the ASUS board, where the scales tip in its favor by 42 points. The graphics performance was a virtual tie, with the Soltek QBIC posting a lead of 2 points overall. In the final wrap up, the total score was in favor of the Soltek QBIC EQ3501-Pro, posting a 22 point lead at 4399 points. While the stats here are very close, the Soltek QBIC EQ3501-Pro is clearly ready to run with the big boys, failing to cave to the impressive ASUS P5GDC-V Deluxe.
|Video Encoding with XMPEG and Windows Media Encoder 9|
One of the best ways to isolate CPU performance is by running a series of video encoding tests. To make sure the results are accurate, we run two separate tests, both of which should share a similar trend. First, we ran XMPEG with a 112MB MPEG file and converted it to AVI. We followed that with a 426MB AVI file in Windows Media Encoder and converted it to WMV format, recording the times for both.
As we've seen in recent reviews, there is no real variation in performance with XMPEG between two boards based on the same chipset. Here, each board completed the task in 1 minute and 12 seconds.
With Window Media Encoder 9, the conversion process took a bit longer, but still we so no real variation. The Soltek QBIC EQ3501-Pro did fall short by a mere 1 second, which results in a tie for all intents and purposes.
|Gaming Tests with UT2004 and Wolfenstein: ET|
Another series of tests we like to perform involves using several common gaming benchmarks with reduced image quality settings. This helps us look at CPU and Memory performance while reducing the effects of the video card on the results. First up is our custom UT2004 demo followed by Wolfenstein: ET.
As with the other tests, it was a close race between the two boards, with the ASUS model taking the top spot by roughly 1.5 FPS.
With the OpenGL based Wolfenstein: ET, the results favored the Soltek QBIC EQ3501-Pro by 1 FPS. Again, these results are not really in favor of one board or the other. In the end, we have a dead heat here, showing that Soltek means business against the more well established ASUS product.
|Full System Testing with the Winstones and Final Thoughts|
PC Magazine's Winstone Test Suite is an excellent benchmarking tool for testing the CPU, memory, and overall system performance. Content Creation Winstone focuses on common media intensive tasks, while Business Winstone assesses general workstation application performance. Below is a breakdown of each package's software complement that is used to issue an overall score when complete.
Once again, even in real-world testing with the Winstone's, the scores were very close. Here we see the ASUS P5GDC-V Deluxe top the Soltek QBIC EQ3501-Pro by 1.5 points in Content Creation 2004. Conversely, Business Winstone 2004 leaned ever-so-slightly in favor of the Soltek unit, although it was effectively a tie.
When the first mini PCs to arrive started to take shape, there were only a few players in the fledgling market. Today, the user has choices available from a broad range of manufacturers. While variety is always a good thing, it does make the decision making process a bit more daunting as you need to filter through many more options before making the final choice. In the end, if an Intel solution is what you are searching for, we think the Soltek QBIC EQ3501-Pro deserves to be on your short list.
From a performance perspective, the QBIC EQ3501-Pro offered competitive scores, showing that even though it may be small, it has a big heart. In each round of tests, the mini PC managed to compete on the same level as full-sized 915G board from ASUS. We were a bit disappointed by its overclocking potential, but from a stock perspective, this unit is pretty snappy.
When we look at the design of the system, we were relatively impressed. The front of the unit is elegant and clean and the mirrored finish was a nice touch. While the drive cage may prove to be a bit of a struggle with certain CD/DVD-ROM drives, it is workable and the added ability to fit a second CD/DVD-ROM was great. The four SATA ports may seem to be overkill since there is room for only two hard drives, but since SATA DVD drives have started to hit the market, you'll be ready if needed.
With excellent performance and a modern design, we walked away from this QBIC EQ3501-Pro with a good feeling. We would love to see a heat-pipe solution with future models to help get fan noise under control, but as it stands now, this is a nice design that will surely evolve over time.
We give the Soltek QBIC EQ3501-Pro a Hot Hardware Heat Meter Rating of...