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Mini-ITX Nettop Platforms

Although many mainboard manufacturers will undoubtedly introduce their own platforms for miniature PCs, we decided to dwell on reference solutions that Intel and VIA offer together with their low-power processors.  As a result, we are going to talk about two Intel mainboards with embedded Atom processors and one VIA mainboard with embedded Nano processor Let’s take a closer look at these solutions now.

Intel D945GCLF

Intel’s desire to win the netbook and nettop market found its way not only in specialized processor microarchitecture. Together with the new Atom they also introduced a few platforms of their own proprietary design that include a mainboard with an integrated Atom processor. We tested several mainboards like that when working on this review. One of them was D945GCLF with Atom 230 processor.

As we have already mentioned above, this process targeted specifically for nettop devices works at 1.6GHz frequency and supports 533MHz system bus. Its Vcore is set at 1.1V and typical heat dissipation equals 4W.

CPU-Z utility reports the following about this processor:

 

Due to Hyper-Threading support the system sees this single-core processor as two virtual cores:

 

Intel nettop concept implies that Atom processors should be used together with Intel 945GC core logic equipped with an integrated Intel GMA950 graphics core. This particular chipset is used in Intel D945GCLF mainboard. However, this mainboard doesn’t reveal its features and functionality to the full extent. Namely it doesn’t have PCI Express x16 graphics slot and has only one DDR2 SDRAM DIMM, although Intel 945GC supports external graphics cards and dual-channel memory access. Looks like Intel tried to make D945GCLF cheaper this way. And they did succeed. This mainboard with the integrated CPU and GPU retails at around $70-$80.

GMA950 graphics core available on this platform supports DirectX 9.0 and works perfectly fine with Windows Vista Aero interface. Unfortunately, it has very limited functionality for video playback, so there is no way to take workload off the CPU during HD content playback.  As for 3D performance, GMA950 has four pixel pipelines working at 400MHz frequency, which is pretty good for entry-level integrated graphics. However, since it uses part of the D945GCLF system memory working in single-channel mode for video needs, it is hardly possible to use the integrated Intel 945GC graphics accelerator in 3D mode.

Another frustrating thing: there is only analog D-Sub out on this board. It would be impossible to connect any monitors to D945GCLF using digital interface.

ICH7 South Bridge is responsible for supporting peripheral and external devices. It provides two SATA 3Gbps ports and a PATA port and the rear panel contains a pretty extensive variety of connectors. Among them are 4 USB 2.0 ports (two more are laid out as pin-connectors), 100Mbit network port, parallel and serial ports, PS/2 connectors for keyboard and mouse and three analog audio-jacks. To be fair I have to say that they also used a Realtek ALC662 HD codec for the sound tract.

Keeping in mind that nettops are first of all very small systems, Intel engineers designed their D945GCLF platform in Mini-ITX form-factor that was introduced a few years ago by VIA. So, this board measures 17x17cm.

The number of expansion slots on this board is minimal. Besides one DDR2 DIMM slot, there is only one single PCI slot. However, it is more than enough for a highly integrated solution like D945GCLF.

A system built around D945GCLF platform requires a regular power supply unit of small capacity. The mainboard is equipped with two standard power connectors: a 20-pin and a 4-pin one. Both of them need to be connected to the PSU.

The cooling system on D945GCLF is pretty primitive. The processor is cooled with a miniature aluminum pin-heatsink. The chipset North Bridge is manufactured with relatively old 90nm process and has typical heat dissipation of 22W. As a result, it needs active cooling. Even a small cooler with a fan would do. ICH7 chip does just fine without any heatsink at all.

 
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