289 Square Centimeters: High-Performance Mini-ITX Platforms Comparison

We tested two LGA775 mainboards designed in Mini-ITX form-factor: Intel DG45FC and Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi. These boards based on Intel G45 Express and Nvidia GeForce 9300 chipsets can become an excellent base not only for an HTPC system, but also for a compact high-performance platform.

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
04/29/2009 | 08:16 AM

Over the past few years home computer systems have been spreading out very rapidly. Not so long ago it was considered normal to have only one computer system within a single household. Today we can state that having several computer systems per person has become quite common. True, besides a primary computer system for leisure and entertainment, any technologically educated user tries to get also a personal notebook computer (and maybe also a netbook). Besides, users like that often equip their place with such specific systems as a home file server or a multimedia center. The expansion of the natural habitat of computer systems affects the structure of the computer components market. Before people used to look for universality and performance in the first place and these solutions made the biggest part of any manufacturer’s product range. Today, compact size and power-efficiency become just as important. As a result, the products range not just according to their price and performance, but there are also a lot of solutions targeted for some specific application fields and offering unique and sometimes unexpected combinations of features.

 

Namely, speaking of mainboards to be discussed in our today’s article, we can say that there is the whole class of solutions with compact size being their key distinguishing feature. And we are not going to talk about the well-known Micro-ATX form-factor that can barely surprise anyone these days, but about much more miniature solutions. Mini-ITX form-factor is one of the most popular today. It defines the mainboard PCB size as 170x170mm. On the one hand, this format allows building very compact computer systems that can go very nicely with any computer electronics devices, and on the other hand, you can still use regular widespread desktop components in them. This combination of qualities makes Mini-ITX almost ideal mainboard form-factor for Home Theater PC systems (HTPC). Moreover, since Mini-ITX doesn’t impose any serious limitations, except the ability to accommodate several expansion cards at the same time, these small mainboards may become a perfect choice for traditional mainstream and budget desktop systems.

Since we came to speak about Mini-ITX solutions, we have to say right away that they can be divided into two principally different classes. The first one includes the boards designed for nettops and similar computer systems. Systems like that are not very fast that is why mainboards of this type usually come with an integrated energy-efficient processor, such as Intel Atom or VIA Nano. The major advantage of mainboards like that is maximum integration, low power consumption and heat dissipation as well as low cost. We have already discussed a few solutions like that in our article called “The Battle of Low-Power Processors: Best Choice for a Nettop”, so today we are going to focus on the second type of Mini-ITX platforms. They include mainboards that can boast pretty “grown-up” specifications despite their small size. They are equipped with a traditional CPU socket that allows using high-performance desktop processors and have much more features for expansion.

Today we will try to show that small size doesn’t necessarily mean low-performance. Contemporary miniature mainboards can be very powerful. A couple of boards we are going to discuss within this review should become a vivid illustration of what Mini-ITX platforms are capable of. Two solutions from Intel and Zotac that got our attention are built around high-end integrated chipsets: Intel G45 Express and Nvidia GeForce 9300. Teamed up with a high-speed CPU, these mainboards may become a good basis for a high-performance but compact platform.

Intel DG45FC

We decided to start our discussion of Mini-ITX mainboards with a solution that appeared in the market earlier. One of the first Mini-ITX mainboards with LGA775 processor socket to become widely available was Intel DG45FC. Intel picked their own G45 Express chipset to become the basis for their compact platform. It is the analogue of a well-familiar Intel P45 Express but features an integrated Graphics Media Accelerator X4500HD graphics core. Although Mini-ITX form-factor sets certain limitations on the mainboard functionality that are primarily determined by the physical dimensions of the board as well as the size of corresponding system cases, Intel decided to use a fully-fledged chipset designed for performance desktop platforms. Intel G45 Express core logic set supports dual-channel DDR2 and DDR3 SDRAM, add-on PCI Express x16 graphics cards and comes with ICH10 South Bridge providing Gigabit network, 6 SATA-300 and 12 USB 2.0 ports.

In other words, G45 Express boasts pretty up-to-date functionality, which, however, is evidently excessive for a compact Mini-ITX platform. Therefore, let’s not dwell on the chipset that much, because many of its functions are not implemented on Intel DG45FC, but focus on the actual mainboard instead.

The first thing that you should pay attention to when you get to know the new mainboard is its layout. For logical reasons it is dramatically different from the typical ATX and Mini-ATX layouts. The LGA775 processor socket alone with the free space around it necessary for successful cooler installation takes a significant part of the PCB. No wonder that the mainboard designers had to make all other functional units much smaller. Even the processor voltage regulator circuitry on Intel DG45FC consists only of three phases. And its capacity only allows using CPUs with 65W maximum TDP. It means that Intel DG45FC can only work with dual-core CPUs on Core microarchitecture or recently announced energy-efficient quad-core processors. However, we didn’t expect anything else here, because powerful processors would require large coolers that could definitely never fit into a Mini-ITX case.

Although the processor socket and two core logic chips take almost all of the PCB, there was enough space along its edges to accommodate several expansion slots. First of all, we should mention two DDR2 memory slots that enable dual-channel memory mode. The board supports CPUs with 800, 1067 and 1333MHz bus frequencies, but the memory can only work as DDR2-667/800 SDRAM – DDR2 memory types that are officially supported by the 4th series of Intel chipsets. No wonder: the mainboard developers follow closely the recommendations of their colleagues from the chipset division. The board supports maximum 4GB of memory. However, it is important to remember that the integrated graphics core also uses some of this memory.

Besides DDR2 SDRAM DIMM slots that occupy the entire right side of the PCB, Intel DG45FC also had enough room for one PCI Express x1 slot that can be used for different expansion cards. However, you will hardly ever use it: the ICH10R South Bridge already supports all interfaces a contemporary system might need for external devices. There are four SATA-300 ports that can also be used for RAID arrays of type 0, 1, 0+1 and 5; two pin-connectors for USB 2.0 ports and pin-connector for an infra-red port. The back panel of the board offers another six USB 2.0 ports, an eSATA connector, Gigabit network port and audio-ports: five analogue and one optical SPDIF.

Note that Intel DG45FC uses an eight-channel IDT 92HD73E sound codec that may not seem very familiar at first glance. In fact, it is a legal successor of the Sigmatel sound chips. This codec supports Dolby Home Theater technologies and provides 95dB signal-to-noise ratio.

The mainboard connector panel also bears the following video outputs: Dual-Link DVI and HDMI 1.3 (with audio support), which are implemented in the integrated graphics core - Graphics Media Accelerator X4500HD. From the integrated graphics standpoint, it is a pretty advanced solution that supports high resolutions up to 2048x1536 and can display the image on two devices such as a monitor and an HD TV set, for instance. The important thing is that this graphics core features a special hardware engine called Clear Video Technology that should provide hardware acceleration of HD video playback. Thanks to this technology, Intel DG45FC mainboard can decode HD video content recorded with the most popular codecs (H.264, VC-1 and MPEG2) with minimal CPU utilization.

Moreover, GMA X4500HD also boasts some 3D acceleration features. This core working at 533MHz has 10 unified shader processors. Therefore, taking into account that GMA X4500HD is DirectX 10 compatible, we can expect it not only to work with Aero-interface, but also to demonstrate acceptable performance in some 3D games with no complex graphics.

However, at the same time Intel G45 Express chipset with the integrated GMA X4500HD graphics core is quite economical. The maximum calculated TDP of its North Bridge is 24W, which allows it to do with just a small aluminum heatsink. However, this heatsink heats up to scary temperatures during work, so you might want to think of putting together an optimal cooling solution for your Intel DG45FC based system.

It is hard to expect a miniature and highly integrated mainboard like Intel DG45FC to offer too many enthusiast-friendly functions. So, it is not surprising that the board initially targeted for HTPC or media servers has only the simplest options in its BIOS Setup. Of course, any overclocking is out of the question. The configuration settings include the options for changing DDR2 SDRAM frequency and timings and graphics core settings allow choosing the maximum amount of system memory that can be used for the video needs.

I have to say that Intel bundles their DG45FC mainboard with a pretty good set of commercial software including Acronis True Image backup tool, Norton AntiVirus, Diskeeper 9 system utilities set for OS optimization, DivX Pro codec and a couple of other applications of different practical value. But unfortunately, there is no video player among them that could be very handy considering the positioning of Intel DG45FC solution for multimedia use.

Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi

Our story about the existing Mini-ITX platform would be totally incomplete if we only discussed the solutions based on Intel G45 Expresws chipset. The thing is that Intel is not the only one offering integrated core logic sets for CPUs with Core microarchitecture. Nvidia does that, too. You don’t often see Nvidia chipsets in contemporary mainboards; however, they are quite popular in then mobile solutions market. Compact platforms find themselves between desktop and mobile solutions and Nvidia works very hard to promote their chipsets in this particular market segment. There are a few mainboard makers helping them here, Zotac being one of the most aggressive ones lately. They designed one of the most popular Mini-ITX mainboards based on Nvidia GeForce 9300 chipset.

Although it is the first time we mention GeForce 9300 name in our articles, our regular readers should already be familiar with this core logic set from the Nvidia ION platforms that we have already mentioned many times on our site. This compact concept PC based on Intel Atom processor uses GeForce 9400 chipset that differs from GeForce 9300 only by the graphics core frequency. Everything else about these two solutions is absolutely identical. So, Nvidia GeForce 9300 is a single-chip integrated chipset supporting LGA775 processors, DDR2 or DDR3 SDRAM, PCI Express bus and all major interfaces. If we leave out the graphics core, the functionality of this chipset will be practically the same as that of just discussed Intel G45 Express: just like the competitor from Intel, GeForce 9300 supports Gigabit network, 12 USB 2.0 ports and 6 SATA-300 ports.

Identical features and functionality make Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi mainboard very similar to Intel DG45FC we have just discussed.

However, the form-factor is yet another important reason for similarity between the two LGA775 Mini-ITX mainboards: it simply doesn’t let the engineers show all they can do farcing them to use the same typical layout. As a result, the top part of Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi PCB is occupied by the processor socket, the chipset is at the bottom, the right and lower edge of the PCB are given away to expansion slots. However, if you take a closer look at the Zotac board you will notice some unique peculiarities even when it comes to CPU support.  The thing is that Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi is equipped with a more powerful processor voltage regulator than Intel DG45FC that consists of four phases. As a result, the board is formally compatible with a much broader range of CPUs with maximum calculated TDP approaching 95W. In other words, the above mentioned mainboard may work with any CPUs on Core microarchitecture supporting up to 1333MHz bus except the solutions from Core 2 Extreme series.

Zotac engineers provided their mainboard with two DDR2 DIMM slots. The board formally supports DDR2-667 and DDR2-800 SDRAM; however, in reality GeForce 9300 chipset boasts a very rich set of memory frequency dividers, which allows not only to clock the memory in a much broader range, but also to overclock it independently of the CPU bus. The board supports maximum 8GB of system RAM.

The interesting peculiarity of Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi mainboard is the PCI Express x16 slot for external graphics accelerator. If the card is a GeForce, the board will be able to employ Hybrid SLI and HybridPower technologies by combining the integrated and the add-on GPU or by switching between them to achieve the most optimal balance between performance and power consumption. This way, even despite its small size, the Zotac board may become part of a high-performance system equipped with a high-end CPU and high-performance graphics accelerator. However, in this case you will have to sacrifice another great advantage of this solution - compact size, because the high-end graphics card as well as the cooler for your high-performance processor will not fit into any Mini-ITX system case.

The core logic chip is located between the processor socket and PCI Express x16 slot. Although GeForce 9300 is a single-chip core logic set, it occupies almost the same space as both Intel G45 Express chips on Intel DG45FC mainboard. The thing is that GeForce 9300 aluminum heatsink is of “double” size. They went for the heatsink of this size trying to make sure that the chipset will work in the most favorable thermal conditions even though its heat dissipation is claimed to be no more than 25W, according to the official specifications.

Besides microchips and slots Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi mainboard features three pin-connectors for six USB 2.0 ports and a serial port connector. Besides, there are two standard SATA-300 ports that support RAID 0 and RAID 1 arrays. Other ports are laid out on the back panel. Among them are PS/2 keyboard connector, 6 USB 2.0 ports, one eSATA port and RJ-45 network connector.

There are three analogue audio connectors nearby together with an optical and coaxial SPDIF Outs. They are implemented via a pretty ordinary six-channel Realtek ALC662 codec that also supports all important technologies, such as Dolby Digital Live, DTS CONNECT and Dolby Home Theater, which you may need if you decide to use Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi as a basis for a fully-functional home theater.

The back panel also carries three different connectors for monitors and TV sets: D-Sub, Dual-Link DVI and HDMI 1.3 (with audio support). The mainboard allows connecting two display devices at a time with the maximum resolution of 2560x1600 supported by the integrated graphics core. However, high video resolutions are not the only advantage of the integrated GeForce 9300 chipset. The biggest plus of this integrated Nvidia solution is very good 3D performance (for an integrated GPU). It is achieved due to 16 unified shader processors working at 1.2GHz. The resterization unit including 4 ROP is 450MHz. Since GeForce 9300 is DirectX 10 compatible, its potential is more than enough for acceptable performance in many contemporary games. The GPU built into GeForce 9300 core logic set has only one serious drawback: it uses part of the system memory for its video needs slowing it down because of certain architectural peculiarities.

We can’t leave out one more important feature of the GeForce 9300: this chipset GPU has PureVideo HD engine providing hardware acceleration of the HD video stream in H.264, VC-1 and MPEG-2 formats. In other words, Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi plays HD video with minimal CPU utilization, just like Intel DG45FC.

Moreover, I have to add that just like other Nvidia GPUs, GeForce 9300 supports CUDA technology that allows transferring some common calculations from the CPU to the GPU. The number of applications that can benefit from this feature of Nvidia graphics solutions keeps growing day by day. Among them are Folding@Home distributed computing project or Elemental Technologies BadaBOOM video encoding utility, for example.

Having gone so far into details about the features of Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi graphics core we have almost forgotten about one more unique feature of this mainboard, which gave its name the “WiFi” suffix. The thing is that this mainboard comes with a daughter card, which is a wireless network controller with USB interface. This controller uses a VIA VT6656 chip and supports 802.11b/g protocols. The accessories also include a 2dBi antenna.

Summing up what we have learned at this point, we can say that Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi has much more extensive functionality than Intel DG45FC. First of all, it refers to the graphics core, but can also be seen in several other aspects. For example, we have every right to state that Zotac platform looks much more like an enthusiast solution. The BIOS Setup of this board, unlike that of Intel DG45FC, offers some options for overclocking of the system CPU and integrated GeForce 9300 graphics core.

To be more exact, the board offers special functions for adjusting the CPU, memory and chipset voltage and allows setting the FSB frequency in a pretty wide range. At the same time, it gives you a lot of freedom in managing the memory frequency dividers and timing settings.

The board also allows adjusting the graphics core frequency:

Frankly speaking, we were a little surprised to discover overclocking CPU and GPU tools in the BIOS of a Mini-ITX mainboard. Any increase in the frequencies and voltages over their nominal value leads to inevitable increase in heat dissipation and power consumption, which is not very good for compact systems like HTPC. Therefore, it would make much more sense to have some options for lowering the voltages of the major system units below their nominal settings. However, unfortunately, there are no options like that in the BIOS Setup.

Intel DG45FC and Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi: Specifications

Testbed Configuration

For our comparative testing of two Mini-ITX platforms we put together two similarly configured systems built on the above described mainboards: Intel DG45FC and Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi. Note that we tried to end up with real system configurations that is why we also used a Mini-ITX IN-WIN IW-BM639 system case with a low-capacity 120W power supply unit. The size of this system case and the capacity of the PSU in it guided out choice of the CPU and processor cooler. As a result, we used the following hardware components:

 

Performance

PCMark Vantage

Although at first the GeForce 9300 based mainboard looked more promising due to its powerful graphics core, the actual benchmark results turned out pretty diverse. Of course, in those benchmarks where GPU performance matters a lot, Zotac board proved faster than Intel solution. However, there are also tests with a completely different picture: a serious advantage of the Intel based platform. For example, we see this particular outcome in the office Productivity pattern or TV&Movies pattern dealing with video content processing. The reason for this outcome is pretty unexpected and is connected with the different memory subsystem performance of the tested platforms. Although both systems were equipped with DDR2-800 SDRAM modules and formally worked in the same mode, in reality Intel platform boasts higher practical bandwidth and better latency than the other solution.


Intel G45 Express


NVIDIA GeForce 9300

Additional testing revealed that the memory of the GeForce 9300 based system slows down when the integrated graphics core is activated, because it uses system memory for its own needs. And although the GPU integrated into the Intel chipset also has no video memory of its own, it doesn’t suffer from the same performance drop. As a result, the graphics performance advantage of Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi mainboard can be partially compensated by the advantage of Intel DG45FC in tasks critical to the memory subsystem speed.

Other Applications

We are going to talk about the performance of our today’s testing participants in a few popular applications and benchmarks:

In this case we have great proof that an Intel based solution will work faster in applications where graphics performance is not crucial. However, as soon as we get to 3D performance, things turn to completely the opposite. Therefore, it would be extremely interesting to check out GeForce 9300 performance in games. Was the sacrifice of the memory performance for the sake of higher GPU speed worth it? It is a really good question if Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi based system can provide acceptable 3D gaming performance. I would like to remind you that Nvidia ION platform using a more powerful GeForce 9400 chipset wasn’t fast enough in contemporary games.

3DMark06, 3DMark Vantage

First of all let’s check out the results obtained in synthetic Futuremark 3DMark benchmarks:

Well, we haven’t expected anything else here. The advantage of the GPU integrated into Nvidia chipset is beyond all doubts, even if you just look at its formal specifications. The results of those tests where graphics core performance is crucial are a perfect illustration to the theoretical numbers.

3D Games

The results of synthetic benchmarks give us an idea of the graphics solutions relative performance, but do not illustrate the situation in actual games. Let’s fill in this gap. First, we decided to see how Mini-ITX systems with integrated graphics can perform in contemporary games. For example, such as Crysis Warhead. Note that since we didn’t expect any remarkable results, we set the image quality to Performance right from the start. Only in this test mode one of the testing participants performed at a relatively acceptable level in the lowest resolution.

The advantage of the integrated GeForce 9300 chipset is out of the question, however, we still can’t regard it as a fully-fledged 3D accelerator. However, it is way too early to make any conclusions from the results of only one single game, so we also tested our Mini-ITX platforms in Far Cry 2.

When the image quality is set to Low and DirectX 10 functionality is disabled, Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi performs quite well, unlike its rival. Nevertheless, we can see that contemporary games run acceptably fast on platforms with integrated GPUs only if we sacrifice the image quality.

However, the previous-generation games run much more impressively in miniature Mini-ITX systems.

For example, the frame rate in Unreal Tournament 3 released in 2007 is on an acceptable level in low resolutions even at medium image quality. However, this is only true for GeForce 9300 based mainboard: Intel based platform again proves totally unsuitable for gaming.

To complete the picture we added a popular race arcade called Trackmania Nations Forever. Although it is a relatively new game, it doesn’t load the graphics processors as heavily as first-person 3D shooters.

And again only Nvidia chipset and Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi mainboard demonstrate acceptable performance in low resolutions. Although Intel solution is not completely hopeless here, either.

Nevertheless, summing up the results of this test session we can conclude that Intel DG45FC cannot be considered a gaming platform: integrated graphics performance may only suffice to launch some very old 3D applications at best. Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi proved a better choice in this respect. However, it is important to keep in mind that although this solution is pretty powerful for an integrated GPU, it can only be fast enough in the lowest resolutions and with the lowest image quality settings. Therefore, Mini-ITX mainboards should barely be considered as a serious choice for a universal computer system.

Anyway, do not forget that in some cases the gaming performance of miniature systems may be improved by add-on graphics accelerators: some Mini-ITX mainboards, like Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi, allow that. Although, in this case the system may no longer be that compact anymore.

HD Video Playback

It has become common that miniature mainboards are primarily used for HTPC systems these days. Therefore, HD video playback becomes a typical type of load falling on Mini-ITX platforms. In fact, contemporary processors are powerful enough to playback any HD content. Nevertheless, the developers of integrated chipsets add hardware video decoding support into their graphics cores taking most of the playback load off the CPU. The major advantages of this approach are the lowering power consumption as well as the possibility of lowering the system cost by using “simpler” CPUs.

Both mainboards discussed today are based on chipsets supporting hardware HD video decoding. Nvidia GeForce 9300 features PureVideo HD engine, while Intel G45 Express – Clear Video Technology engine. Although these technologies have different names, they have absolutely identical functionality providing full hardware video decoding for MPEG-2, VC-1 and H.264 (AVC) formats currently used for HD video content. Therefore, Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi as well as Intel DG45FC suit quite well for computer media centers.

When we studied the integrated GPU performance during video playback, we measured CPU utilization during H.264, VC-1 and MPEG-2 movie playback in 1080p. We used Cyberlink PowerDVD 8.0 player, however, you can obtain the same results with any other video player of your choice that supports DXVA (DirectX Video Acceleration). The results are summed up in the following table:

The numbers differ very slightly that is why it is impossible to determine your preferences in favor of this or that platform basing only on these results. Both tested mainboards working as part of an HTPC ensure low CPU utilization and acceptable image quality in this application.

Power Consumption

The results of our Mini-ITX platforms performance tests showed that we can’t claim equality between Intel DG45FC and Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi. These platforms are based on different integrated chipsets that is why they behave differently in applications creating different types of workload. Looks like the only possible application field where Intel and Zotac mainboards performed similarly was video playback. Both solutions did equally well there.

Nevertheless, we can’t regard the obtained results as totally comprehensive. Many users who decide to go with a compact system worry not only about performance but also about power consumption. This factor not only affects the amount of your electrical bill, but also is directly connected with the heat dissipation levels and the possibility to use small system cases equipped with quiet cooling systems. Therefore, we couldn’t leave out the power consumption tests performed under different types of workload. The table below offers power consumption readings for complete platforms without the monitor based on different Mini-ITX mainboards and configured as described above.

The actual benchmark results show that the system built around GeForce 9300 based mainboard is about 6-8% more economical under typical (non-peak) load. It is an absolutely logical result, because the single-chip Nvidia chipset offers better calculated maximum heat dissipation than Intel G45 Express.  The manufacturer claims GeForce 9300 TDP to be at 22W, while G45 combined with ICH10 South Bridge has a total TDP of 28W.

This difference in power consumption and heat dissipation between the chipsets used in Intel DG45FC and Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi is also projected onto thermal mode. While the chipset heatsink on Zotac solution remains slightly warm throughout the entire test session, the heatsink on Intel platform can burn your fingers. Moreover, Intel DG45FC hardware monitoring system reports up to 90-100°C temperature on the chipset North Bridge.

At the same time I would like to stress that any Mini-ITX platforms with integrated graphics will be quite energy-efficient: even under maximum workload their power consumption will be described with two-digital numbers. If we compare the obtained results with the power consumption readings for fully-functional systems, we will see that the graphics card is the most energy-consuming part. By replacing the add-on graphics accelerator with an integrated solution you can make the practical power consumption of your platforms several times lower.

Conclusion

Our test session showed that Mini-ITX mainboards are an extremely attractive option for home computer systems. They are pretty power-efficient and remarkably small, but at the same time powerful enough for most applications run on a home multimedia and entertainment centers. Therefore, the LGA775 mainboards tested today should be assigned to a completely different category than Mini-ITX solutions on Intel ATOM and VIA Nano, which we have already discussed before. True, Intel DG45FC and Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi have nothing in common with nettops. They boast much higher performance and much richer functionality. Of course, they are not as universal as full-size mainboards. Namely, it is hard to build a high-performance system on a Mini-ITX board, but they work just fine for a bunch of other things, such as home theater PCs, for instance.

Both mainboards tested within our today’s review performed very well: Intel DG45FC and Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi easily cope with all sorts of workload including HD video playback. Intel G45 Express and Nvidia GeForce 9300 chipsets they are based on have integrated hardware tools for video decoding that guarantee flawless playback with minimal CPU utilization. This is why these mainboards may be used for HTPC systems that can do much more than just playback movies.

As for more specific recommendations, we can conclude the following. Zotac mainboard on Nvidia GeForce 9300 performed a little better in most tests. It was not only power-efficient, but also ensured acceptable performance in previous-generation games running in not very high resolutions. This way, Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi will suit fine not only for HD video playback but also for a few other interactive activities. However, if you are still trying to put together an HTPC with gaming functionality, then maybe you should first check out the recommended graphics accelerators for it. Even though integrated graphics made a significant leap forward over the past few years, it is still not the best gaming choice out there.

Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi also appeals to us due to its expansion capabilities. The manufacturer bundles this board with a wireless 802.11b/g network controller and the board itself has a PCI Express x16 slot that allows improving the graphics performance of this platform if necessary. However, unfortunately, this mainboard on Nvidia chipset has one very frustrating weakness: memory subsystem performance. This is the reason why it was defeated by the other testing participant, Intel DG45FC, in a number of computational benchmarks.

Intel platform, however, is attractive not only due to high memory subsystem performance. It is cheaper, it is wider available in retail, plus it comes with an impressive software bundle. Moreover, the use of a CPU and chipset from the same manufacturer is a good guarantee against any possible compatibility issues.

However, the most important result of our today’s test session is proof of the fact that we absolutely can build a compact high-performance system from the components available in the today’s market. Although we wish there was bigger and better choice of Mini-ITX system cases, you already can find an inexpensive solution that will look fir for a living-room environment. Moreover, since the leading component makers take active part in promoting Mini-ITX platforms and solutions, we have every reason to hope that things will eventually change for the better.