The Budget Intel Atom Nettop

Intel Budget Nettop
Component Product Name Price
CPU + Mobo Intel BOXD525MW (Atom D525) $80
Memory Patriot Signature 2GB PSD32G13332S $25
Case + PSU Cooler Master Elite 100 RC-100-KKP3-GP + 150W PSU $61
Storage Western Digital Caviar Blue 500GB WD5000AAKS $36
Optical Drive Samsung SN-S083F/BEBE $26
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit $100
Total Price $328

For our budget Intel nettop, we start with the Intel BOXD525MW. This is the basic, no frills dual-core Atom board, sporting the 1.8GHz Atom D525. This is currently the fastest Atom CPU available, but that’s not saying a lot, and the GMA 3150 graphics are a major bottleneck for content like HD video. Compared to older Atom variants, there are a few benefits. First, it uses less expensive DDR3 RAM instead of DDR2 (DDR3 prices are now below DDR2). Note that this board uses laptop SO-DIMMs, not standard desktop DIMMs. One problem is that this board has only a VGA port (no DVI, no HDMI), but that’s part of the vanilla Atom experience. For the memory, we’ve selected basic RAM that’s compatible with the motherboard. There’s no sense in buying high-performance RAM for an Atom board, and 2GB is sufficient to run Windows 7 with moderate multitasking. If you’re doing stuff that would benefit from 4GB, you’re probably going to want a faster platform than Atom.

As noted in the introduction, we’ve selected four difference Mini ITX case + PSU combinations for this guide. Some are substantially more expensive, and the choice of case will affect other component choices as well. Some of the cases lack support for integrated optical drives, some use regular 5.25” optical drives, and others use laptop optical drives. The hard drive situation is also variable, as a couple of the cases use 3.5” hard drives while the others use 2.5” drives. Whichever case you select, make sure you choose the appropriate components elsewhere.

For the budget Intel setup, we chose the Cooler Master Elite 100 RC-100-KKP3-GP. We like this Cooler Master mini-ITX case because it’s cheap, includes a decent power supply, has VESA mounts so it can very easily be attached to the back of an LCD monitor to save space, and it can accommodate a 3.5” desktop hard drive instead of a 2.5” laptop drive. That means you get better storage performance and capacity (but still nowhere near SSD performance) for less money. We chose the Western Digital Caviar Blue 500GB as a nice balance between capacity and price. Most 3.5” hard drives seem to have bottomed out at around $35-$40 shipped, so there’s not much point going any smaller. You could go with Samsung, Hitachi, or Seagate as well and get similar performance, so if you find a better deal from a reputable retail outlet go for it. I recommend the Western Digital here simply because prices are essentially equal, performance is close enough to be a non-factor, and Western Digital’s RMA process in my experience is the best in the business. (Hopefully you never need to use it.)

The case supports a slim laptop optical drive, which will cost a bit more than a standard desktop drive, but the Samsung SN-S083F/BEBE burner we selected is the cheapest we could find. Note that it does not come with the smaller screws you need to mount it, so if you don’t have screws sitting around, you’ll need to improvise a mounting solution. (I’ve used double-sided tape, Velcro, and duct tape in the past.) The Samsung drive does not use a standard SATA connector, so you’ll need an adapter for that as well. Because of these inconveniences and the fact that USB devices are increasingly taking the place of optical discs, I consider optical drives in nettops an option—and I rarely install them. Keep in mind as well that external, USB-powered DVD burners are readily available for not much more than the cost of a standard internal optical drive. If you decide to forego an optical drive, you’ll want to research how to install Windows 7 from a flash drive. It’s very straightforward and requires a 4GB (or larger) flash drive and a separate system that has a DVD drive.

That brings us to the final item, the operating system. We’re using Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit on all of the nettops in this guide, as it’s the de facto standard for PC operating systems. I recommend using the 64-bit version instead of the 32-bit version because you might eventually want to drop another 2GB SO-DIMM in the box, and it’s the same price as the 32-bit flavor. The total system cost including optical drive is $328 (not including the possible cost of smaller screws and an adapter for the optical drive), or just skip the DVDRW completely and you can put this together for $302.

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  • DNW - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    I no longer build my own PC's, so I am interested in a store-bought alternative. I will be using it is a dedicated HTPC, and it must have Blu Ray (I don't have a BR in my home theatre). What are my choices under about $500?
  • Roland00 - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    For that price range you won't find what you want without going refurbished or adding the bluray drive yourself. If you don't mind adding an optical drive it is quite easy to obtain.
  • obarthel - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    Zotac (Zbox, the one with the integrated BR drive) and Dell (Inspiron Zino HD 410) have small systems; Asrock too, but higher specs and more expensive.
  • aviphysics - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    I would really like to see anandtech incorporating a comparison to commonly available prebuilt systems in these guides. Last year after a lot of searching I found that a pre-built acer SFF box was about $100 cheaper then the cheapest equivalent custom rig.

    I love building custom systems but a good reality check would be very nice.
  • 7Enigma - Monday, April 25, 2011 - link

    Exactly, once you get below $500 it is EXTREMELY difficult to beat a prebuilt system. And a simple reinstall of the OS removes all the bloat...
  • CDew - Tuesday, April 26, 2011 - link

    I second that! I would love to see a system such as the Acer AR3700 used as a baseline for the Atom. It has a D525/ION (or ION 2 depending on whose specs you read), 2GB DDR3, and seems to offer the best possible Atom platform available today.

    How is that relevant to an article on building your own HTPC?

    If price and performance are the main factors in deciding on what to build, would anyone choose to build an HTPC if the best possible price/performance comes from a prebuilt system for $350? If you can build you own with better performance, then perhaps it's worth a bit of additional cost. But how do these Atom systems compare to a prebuilt Acer AR3700? We don't know.

    Unfortunately, in all the Brazos vs Atom articles that I have read, Brazos has a performance edge, but that's over Atom systems that seem to have lesser configurations than the Acer AR3700.

    Any chance that we could get an update with baseline prebuilt Atom and Brazos systems?

  • gfody - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    should've left the atom build out completely. it's worthless.
  • obarthel - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    Not really, for a NAS: performance is no issue, power consumption not really, but Atom is still good there, and, above all, Linux/FreeNAS support is better.
  • AmdInside - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    I used to have an Ion netop as a htpc and the performance is just too low. The reason for a htpc today insteadmof a internet device like apple tv or roku is to let you do a lot of other things and franks the cpu of the e-350 or atomis just terrible. I currently use a core i5 happily while my ion system lies lonely on the floor of my office.
  • will2 - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    My 'Nettop Guide' interest is in a smaller size of Nettop than those in your review, similar to the Revo 3610 launched over a year ago (Atom330+ION1), that consumed 21W average, 26W on foll load. What would be of interest is the same 7.1x7.1x1.2" volume or LESS, same mix of ports/WiFi, that has a more power efficient SoC able to run Linux or W7, that has in addition to the 2.5" HDD, a mSATA slot to run the Intel 310 SSD.

    The recently released SNB i7-2657 17W TDP would make an interesting choice if it were not for the fact SNB prices are way above the NETTOP market. So the AMD E350 18W TDP, (or, perhaps its imminent AMD replacement) for now looks like the only feasible candidate to make for a cooler running Revo style Nettop with improved performance.

    Regarding your "you could buy a 60GB SSD for the OS and apps and add in a larger 5400RPM drive for mass storage"; - I was thinking a small 32GB SSD should be more than enough to run Windows 7 + the Average mix of Apps for a Nettop/HTPC. Is there any reason you picked 60GB ? Also, any links to a discussion of SSD sizing for OS+Apps appreciated.

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