Media Pc Hardware Round-Up (Part 2) - Processors & Motherboards

6/25/2012 9:36:43 AM

Processors & Motherboards

The vast majority of HTPC chassis accommodate either mini-ATX or mini-ITX motherboards. The latter of these two sizes is a lot smaller, normally only providing a single expansion slot. Due to this lack of expandability, you should therefore aim to get a model with as much integrated as possible, because you won't be able to add extra functionality later through add-on cards. One of the best manufacturers of heavily integrated mini-ITX solutions is Zotac, a company that specialises in Intel Atom / NVidia Ion boards.

Description: mini-ITX motherboards

mini-ITX motherboards

The Intel Atom is a great little chip for basic use, like web browsing, word processing and basic office work. When faced with more stringent demands like decoding high-definition video, however, it falls flat. As anyone with a netbook will attest, if you try watching an HD video on YouTube, Intel's microscopic wonder just isn't up to the task. Atom-based processors are therefore very poor choices for an HTPC box, unless coupled to an NVidia Ion dedicated graphics chip. The Ion is a lightweight graphics processor that takes the burden of hardware video decoding away from the Atom chip, allowing for even 1080p video to be decoded with no dropped frames. The only requirement is that your player of choice supports hardware acceleration. We've tested a Zotac integrated motherboards solution with a recent HW-accelerated XBMC release and the results were spectacular; flawless 1080p video playback from a tiny mini-ATX motherboard without any need for additional component purchases beyond the case, RAM, PSU and storage.

Description: ionlTX S-E

the ionlTX S-E

Our favourite Zotac board is the ionlTX S-E. It features a passively cooled Atom D525 dual-core 1,8GHz processor, support for up to 4GB of memory, an NM10 NVidia Ion chipset with 512MB of dedicated video RAM, 802.11n wireless networking, and dual SATA ports. It has both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, USB 3.0, HDMI and DVI video connectors, as well as support for two SATA drives. The whole bundle can be snapped up for less than $224, making it an ideal, low-cost way to add a contemporary and feature-rich HTPC to your home.

Description: Intel® Core™ i3 Desktop Processor I3-540: Core i3-2100

Intel® Core™ i3 Desktop Processor I3-540: Core i3-2100

Those of us with a need for more performance than can be provided by an Atom-based solution should now look towards a Socket 1155-based mini-ITX motherboard. The i3 dual-core chips are relatively low-power consuming in their own right with a peak TDP of 65W, but if that is too much for your chosen HTPC case and PSU combo, you can go for ultra-low-voltage versions instead.

The i3 2120T, for example, is a 2.6GHz dual core chip with a TDP of just 35W. This is ideal for those who need extra performance without too much heat being generated.

When it comes to mini-ITX Socket 1155 motherboards, the brand new Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe is one to look out for. This beast of a tiny motherboard supports features that put most high-end, full-ATX motherboards to shame, including ten-phase digital power for overclocking, 802.11n wireless networking, four USB 3.0 ports, DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort and dual eSATA ports. The latter are excellent for adding additional storage to your HTPC in the future, and come in addition to the motherboard's four internal SATA ports. There's even a PCI Express 16x slot if you find some way to cram a discrete video card into your HTPC case as well.

If you have a larger form factor to play with, there's a vast array of mini-ATX motherboard choices to choose from. There's such broad scope here that regardless of what you're looking for, one manufacturer or another will have what you need. Mini-ATX motherboards are usually the cheapest category of boards on the market - they don't need the same degree of miniaturisation as mini-ITX boards, yet use fewer materials than full-size ATX models. Socket 1155 variants can be snapped up for as little as $72 for a mini-ATX H61 chipset board. Just make sure you don't skimp on $16 or $24 now only to have to spend double that adding a useful feature you need later via an add-in card!

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