by Ilya Gavrichenkov
02/16/2012 | 07:40 AM
Compact Mini-ITX systems have long become a pretty popular topic in the computer market. Since the processor makers switched their focus to improving the performance-per-watt ratio of their products, there started to appear more interesting platforms that allowed building decent multimedia, home or office systems in compact system cases. The most popular solutions are built around Intel Atom and AMD Zacate, but Intel also began production of energy-efficient CPUs with Sandy Bridge microarchitecture. We have recently reviewed LGA 1155 Mini-ITX platforms and arrived at the conclusion that systems built on them demonstrated the same level of computational performance as the common mainstream computer systems.
However, compact form-factor continues to set serious limitations for the graphics sub-system. Unfortunately, there are many reasons why even mainstream contemporary graphics cards cannot be used in a typical Mini-ITX system. Graphics cards are pretty large, they require serious cooling and usually consume much more power than the power supply units in compact system cases can provide. It means that miniature computers should rely solely on graphics integrated into the processors, which, honestly, immediately sets restrictions to their possible application field eliminating the gaming usage almost completely.
However, AMD came up with a solution a while back and started actively promoting their APU concept – hybrid processors, in which computational cores are combined with a pretty fully-functional and relatively fast Radon HD graphics cores. In fact, the first desktop APU implementation - Llano processors – can be used perfectly fine in an entry-level gaming system, because their integrated graphics core is powerful enough to deliver necessary performance.
All that said, it is particularly interesting to discuss the possibility of building compact Mini-ITX systems with AMD Llano processors inside, i.e. designed for Socket FM1 CPUs sold under E2, A4, A6 and A8 brands. Of course, they are not as energy-efficient as Sandy Bridge processors from the T series, for example, however, there are a few models with 65 W TDP among them. These processors are quite fit for compact computer systems, therefore a lot of mainboard makers designed and started to produce Mini-ITX mainboards for Socket FM1.
Today we are going to talk about four currently available Mini-ITX mainboards based on AMD Lynx platform. They are all designed in the same form-factor and support Socket FM1 CPUs. All mainboard makers decided to go with the same exact core logic set – AMD A75. Since it is one of best feature-rich i/o hubs, all miniature AMD Llano mainboards support current interfaces and therefore look very attractive, probably just as good as the LGA 1155 mainboards of the same size.
ASRock Company has been very aggressive lately trying to move away from the image of a budget solution provider and establish themselves as a manufacturer of enthusiast-friendly products. So far they have been partially successful with that, but their Mini-ITX mainboard for AMD A-series processors doesn’t fit into this concept at all. ASRock A75M-ITX is an extremely affordable product selling for less than $90. That is why when we first got this board, it immediately reminded us of the ASRock mainboards from back 3-4 years ago. We can clearly see how they managed to keep the price of this product so low: the processor voltage regulator circuitry has no cooling of any kind, the cooler retention frame is attached with plastic push-pins and has no backplate, and the PCB textolite hasn’t been cleaned up well after the soldering process.
Of course, low price point also had its impact on the mainboard features. ASRock A75M-ITX has a minimum number of additional controllers, so most of its functionality is implemented in the chipset, although they decided to go with far not the cheapest AM75 chipset. As a result, the board supports current SATA 6 Gbps and USB 3.0 interfaces.
ASRock engineers decided to use the available number of ports as follows. All four USB 3.0 ports supported by the chipset are brought to the back panel, therefore, there are no onboard pin-connectors for the USB 3.0 ports on the case front panel. However, there are two pin-connectors for four USB 2.0 ports in addition to two USB 2.0 ports already laid out on the back panel. A75M-ITX has four SATA-600 channels and one more eSATA 6 Gbps port on the back panel.
Besides eSATA and USB, the back panel comes with five analogue audio jacks implemented via Realtek ALC892 codec, an optical SPDIF out, PS/2 mouse/keyboard connector, Gigabit network port implemented via Realtek RTL8111E controller and a pair of monitor outs. I have to admit that ASRock engineers put together a very strange combination of video outs: analogue D-Sub and digital HDMI. There is enough room on the back panel for at least one more out, but it remains unused. Therefore the maximum screen resolution this mainboard supports is 1920x1200.
The PCB layout of ASRock A75M-ITX shows very well how difficult it is to design Socket FM1 products in Mini-ITX form-factor. In terms of their functionality, Llano processors are a good fit for systems like that: they have limited heat dissipation and a powerful graphics core, but their geometrical dimensions and pretty large retention mechanism for default coolers force mainboard makers to use all sorts of tricks when designing miniature mainboards for them.
An excellent example of the non-traditional approach to mainboard design is the location of the three DDR3 DIMM slots, which have been rotated by 90 degrees from what their typical orientation would be. As a result, ASRock A75M-ITX mainboard had to sacrifice even part of its back panel. although it didn’t really have any serious consequences for the external devices connectivity, but all other mainboard units were in acceptable places: I doubt you will encounter any serious problems during the system assembly with ASRock A75M-ITX inside.
The mainboard has three fan connectors, but two of them, related to the CPU, are paralleled together. These parallel connectors have different number of pins and can accommodate a CPU cooler with either a three-pin or a four-pin fan. The rotation speed control will work in both cases. Note that you will need a cooler that generates sufficient airflow for the area around the processor socket, because the processor voltage regulator components on ASRock A75M-ITX don’t have even the most primitive heatsinks on them. The chipset is topped with a small heatsink attached using plastic push-pins with springs.
The processor voltage regulator circuitry has four phases and according to the manufacturer, it should be compatible with the entire Socket FM1 CPU range including 100 W models, too.
The accessories bundled with ASRock A75M-ITX are not particularly generous. Besides the traditional I/O Shield for the back panel, there are also two SATA cables and a short audio-cable.
Although ASRock A75M-ITX is an entry-level product, it has a fully functional UEFI BIOS. It not only has contemporary graphics interface, but also offers overclocking-friendly tools and options. There are special options for adjusting the clock multiplier, base clock generator frequency and major voltages.
There is only one limitation: the maximum base clock generator frequency is limited by 136 MHz, which is actually more than enough for a Mini-ITX mainboard. However, we will face some other obstacles way before we hit the maximum during overclocking involving integrated graphics. For example, during our practical tests ASRock A75M-ITX remained stable only with the base clock generator frequency increased to 116 MHz with an HDMI monitor. If you use an analogue D-Sub monitor , then your overclocking experiments will stall even sooner: at 107 MHz BCLK.
Although there is an option that allows changing the frequency of the graphics core integrated into the processor, it is impossible to overclock it independently. GPU frequency increases in proportion to the base clock generator frequency, and the special setting in the BIOS doesn’t affect anything at all.
Besides overclocking, ASRock A75M-ITX allows using the CPU and memory at lower voltages, which is a very demanded feature for compact systems. However, this feature hasn’t been implemented fully. The voltages are set as absolute values, which means that since we adjust them manually, the mainboard stops lowering the voltages automatically in power-saving modes.
Overall, ASRock A75M-ITX could be a pretty good solution for compact systems based on AMD A8, A6 and A4 series processors, especially if we consider its price. However, we were disappointed with the reliability of this product. Because of some BIOS errors the mainboard corrupts its own BIOS, which makes it fully non-operational and forces the user to turn to technical support for help. There are numerous reports of the issue in multiple hardware forums, and we also were lucky enough to experience it to the fullest: only the second mainboard sample made through the entire test session successfully.
When you look at Asus mainboards designed in Mini-ITX form-factor you can notice certain general principles used by the company developers across the board. Almost all miniature platforms from this maker boast extensive functionality and obviously, Asus tries to win the users’ hearts by offering them numerous additional functions, which are not available on other Mini-ITX mainboards. So, no wonder that Asus F1A75-I Deluxe designed following the same exact principles boasts functionality similar to that of a full-size mainboard rather than a Mini-ITX product. Therefore, it proudly bears “Deluxe” title in its model name.
Speaking about the features of the Asus F1A75-I Deluxe mainboard, we should start by saying that it is based on AMD A75 chipset, which is the most feature-rich option for Socket FM1 CPUs. Thanks to the chipset the board immediately acquired support of USB 3.0 and SATA-600, which didn’t require any additional onboard controllers. But the chipset functionality on this mainboard is extended with special controllers for WiFi and Bluetooth implementation.
The integrated Wi-Fi module is designed as a daughter card, which goes into a mini-PCIe slot on the mainboard. The Wi-Fi adapter itself is AzureWave AR5B95 based on Atheros chip supporting 802.11b/g/n standards. However, this model works only in 2.4 GHz frequency range, which may be insufficient for some users. Luckily, Wi-Fi module can be replaced because the exiting mini-PCIe slot is compatible with any half-size cards. As for the Bluetooth, it is implemented as a miniature Atheros AR3011 controller built into one of the USB ports on the back panel.
Besides two antenna ports and a Bluetooth module, the back panel also has four USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, eSATA 6 Gbps port, PS/2 connector for keyboard or mouse, a Gigabit network port implemented via Realtek RTL8111E controller, Clear CMOS button, a digital optical SPDIF out, three analogue audio-jacks working through eight-channel Realtek ALC892 codec and a set of monitor outputs. I have to stress that Asus F1A75-I Deluxe only supports monitors (and TV-sets) with digital interfaces, but there is a variety of choices available for them. The mainboard back panel has DVI-D, HDMI and DisplayPort connectors. I would like to remind you that integrated graphics of the Llano processors allows using two monitor-configurations and the maximum supported resolution is 2560x1600 (in this case it is available if you connect the monitor using DisplayPort).
In addition to the ports and connectors on the back panel that we have already listed, there are also onboard pin-connectors for two more USB 2.0 ports and two USB 3.0 ports.
While the features and functionality of the Asus F1A75-I Deluxe mainboard are quite impressive, the PCB layout doesn’t have the same positive effect on us. We have problems with two things: the location of the 24-pin power connector and the location of the processor socket. By moving the power connector for the thick PSU cable closer to the back panel Asus created a very non-standard layout, which may make proper cable management in some Mini-ITX cases very challenging. The fact that the CPU socket has been placed right at the PCI Express x16 slot is an even bigger problem, because many low-profile processor coolers will block this only expansion slot completely.
Asus F1A75-I Deluxe ended up with this pretty strange components layout because Asus engineers were trying to move the chipset and the processor voltage regulator close enough to one another so that could be cooled by the same heatsink. Of course, they accomplished this goal: the components are cooled by a single shaped aluminum heatsink with secure screw-on retention.
The actual processor voltage regulator circuitry has four phases, but Asus engineers also utilized their latest invention – Digi+ VRM, which promises high efficiency and power-saving at the same time. As a result, Asus F1A75-I Deluxe is not just compatible with all Socket FM1 processors including models with 100 W TDP, but also allows overclocking these processors by raising their Vcore and enabling a special feature counteracting the voltage drops under heavy load. At the same time, this voltage regulator dynamically controls the number of active phases depending on the operational load thus providing even bigger energy savings.
The board is equipped with two four-pin fan connectors. The rotation speed of both four-pin fans connected to them can be adjusted using PWM method, while the three-pin fans will rotate at their maximum speed at all times. Moreover, I have to point out that these connectors are not in the most convenient spots and will be very hard to reach when the entire system has already been put together.
The board belongs to the Deluxe series not only due to its extensive characteristics and features. The accessories bundle is also worth the “Deluxe” title. Besides the pretty ordinary SATA cables with connector locks, a pair of WiFi antennas and I/O Shield for the system case back panel, there is also a remote control unit with a USB receiver.
This remote control unit is pretty unique. Besides the standard multimedia functions it may also serve a fully-fledged QWERTY-keyboard with all keys located on the back side of the unit.
Of course, the keys layout is not the most convenient one and the infra-red communication between the unit and the receiver has its shortcomings, too, but one fact is undeniable: Asus did come up with a pretty unique way of communicating with media centers based on their F1A75-I Deluxe mainboard. This keyboard certainly won’t suit for office application, but in home multimedia systems it will definitely keep you seated comfortably on your couch no matter what.
Asus F1A75-I Deluxe uses Asus’ standard EFI BIOS with typical graphics interface.
I have to say that the functionality of this BIOS has hardly been limited in any way compared with the BIOS of full-size mainboards. It has everything necessary for processor overclocking, memory timings fine-tuning and adjusting the voltages. It was a pleasant surprise to see that the board supported XMP profiles, which is a pretty rare feature in mainboards for AMD processors. It also allows downclocking – the processor and memory voltages may be set below their nominal values. Although, the minimum DDR3 SDRAM voltage is only 1.35 V and not 1.25 V.
Asus F1A75-I Deluxe did perfectly fine during our overclocking experiments. It tolerates well significant increase in the clock generator frequency allowing AMD processors to function stably in non-nominal modes, namely, during CPU and graphics core overclocking. However, remember that Asus F1A75-I Deluxe is the most expensive Socket FM1 mainboard of all models participating in our today’s review, so we honestly didn’t expect anything less from it.
Gigabyte also pays special attention to the growing market of Mini-ITX systems. They try to offer products in this form-factor for all current processors. The Lynx platform also wasn’t an exception, but for some reason this compact Socket FM1 mainboard is positioned as a solution for developing markets only and is not available in the USA. As a result, Gigabyte A75N-USB3 is a very rare product, which you won’t often see in stores. I have to say that it is a real pity, because it is very well built and has great functionality and could obviously become popular otherwise.
Gigabyte engineers used their own approach to designing their Mini-ITX mainboard. Unlike products from Asus and Zotac, Gigabyte A75N-USB3 is relatively simple and therefore quite affordable in terms of price. However, the quality of the board didn’t suffer in any way and the board looks very well-built. We can’t complain about the functionality either. Gigabyte A75N-USB3 has everything a contemporary compact system may need due to the advanced A75 chipset it is based on.
In fact, it is that chipset that provides the mainboard with support of contemporary SATA 6 Gbps and USB 3.0 interfaces. Gigabyte engineers allocated the ports in the chipset in the following way. Four SATA-600 ports are laid out on the mainboard itself and an additional SATA ports is located on the mainboard back panel as an eSATA connector. Together with this connector the back panel has all USB 3.0 ports the chipset has to offer (a total of four) and two USB 2.0 ports laid out as an onboard pin-connector. Unfortunately, in this case there is no way to allocate any of the USB 3.0 ports for the system case front panel, but many mainboard have the same exact issue these days. Besides, there aren’t that many Mini-ITX system cases yet that could boast USB 3.0 ports in the front anyway.
The back panel of Gigabyte A75N-USB3 doesn’t boast a variety of ports as well. Besides the above mentioned six USB ports and eSATA connector, there are three analog audio-jacks, an SPDIF out, a Gigabit network port and two monitor/TV-set outs. The network controller is implemented with a Realtek RTL8111E controller, and sound is provided by the eight-channel Realtek ALC889 controller, which offers a slightly better SNR than the other controller modifications.
Note that the mainboard allows connecting monitors as well as TV-sets using digital interface exclusively. It has only two Outs: HDMI and DVI-D, which is incompatible with D-Sub adapters. Moreover, in both cases the maximum supports screen resolution will be only 1920x1200.
The PCB layout of Gigabyte A75N-USB3 is probably the best of all four mainboards reviewed today. There are no components on the back of the PCB, and all slots and connectors are located in traditionally convenient and easy to reach spots. However, I have to admit that I am a little concerned about the distance between the processor socket and the PCI Express x16 slot. It is bigger than on Asus F1A75-I Deluxe, and the cooler retention on A75N-USB3 has been rotated by 90 degrees, but some low-profiles coolers, like Scythe Big Shuriken 2, for example, may prevent you from using an external graphics card on this mainboard.
The manufacturer classifies Gigabyte A75N-USB3 as Ultra Durable 3 mainboard, which means that the board meets specific quality standards and uses 2 oz copper PCB. The processor voltage regulator circuitry on this mainboard is also not a primitive one and uses combination DrMOS modules and has four phases. As a result, even though there is no cooling on the voltage regulator components, Gigabyte promises that their A75N-USB3 not only will be fully compatible with the entire range of Socket FM1 processors including 65 W and 100 W models, but also will remain stable during overclocking.
However, the one-chip chipset does have a heatsink. And even though it is only a not very intimidating low-profile aluminum plate, we didn’t detect any overheating issues during work: the heat dissipation of the A75 chip doesn’t exceed 8 W. the mainboard has two fan connectors : one four-pin connector for the processor cooling fan and another three-pin connector for a case fan. The mainboard is capable of adjusting only the CPU fan rotation speed, but is may be done via PWM as well as voltage control.
Gigabyte A75N-USB3 comes with a set of primitive accessories. Besides the mainboard itself there is a disk with the software and drivers, a user manual, an I/O Shield for the back panel and two SATA cables.
While most mainboard makers have long been using BIOS with graphics interface, a number of Gigabyte products continue to come out featuring old-school BIOS with text interface. Gigabyte A75N-USB3 is one of them. Luckily, it doesn’t affect the functionality that much. This BIOS has everything necessary for proper configuring of multipliers, frequencies and voltages.
Besides special overclocking-friendly functions, the BIOS of Gigabyte A75N-USB3 also allows to lower the frequencies and voltages below their nominal values. The low-voltage memory is also fully supported.
During our overclocking experiments, Gigabyte A75N-USB3 proves capable of working in non-nominal modes. Even when the clock generator frequency was significantly increased, we didn’t experience any issues with the monitor outs, or functioning of the SATA interface in AHCI mode. This is a very good indication not only for a Mini-ITX mainboard, but for any Docket FM1 mainboard in general. However, a special setting we dug out in the heart of the BIOS that should allegedly allow us to independently overclock the graphics core (like the one we have just seen by the ASRock board) didn’t work. GPU frequency in Llano processors increases only when the BCLK frequency does, and there is no other way.
Of course, Zotac Company, a veteran in compact solutions market, couldn’t pass the opportunity to offer their take on a new Socket FM1 Mini-ITX platform. And as it is usually the case with their mainboards, Zotac A75-ITX WiFi (in some price-lists it is referred to as A75ITX-A-E) turned out to be the most feature-rich product in our today’s test session. That is Zotac’s traditional approach: no simple Mini-ITX products. With a total of eight USB 3.0 ports, Zotac A75-ITX WiFi exceeds in functionality even Asus F1A75-I Deluxe, not to mention the other two testing participants. However, the price of this mainboard is not really out of reach: in fact, it is even a little cheaper than the above reviewed Asus board.
Just like other Mini-ITX Socket FM1 mainboards, Zotac A75-ITX WiFi is based on the top chipset in the lineup – AMD A75. This chipset does support contemporary interfaces, like SATA 6 Gbps and USB 3.0, but can only deliver 4 USB 3.0 ports maximum. So, in order to make their mainboard stand out in the number of USB 3.0 ports, Zotac engineers had to use additional controllers and this time they decided to go with VIA Labs’ ones. Their major peculiarity is that they are capable to “split” the chipset USB 3.0 ports into more physical connectors. As a result, they provide an absolutely “transparent” solution for the operating system that doesn’t require any special drivers.
That said, it is not surprising that there are as many as six USB 3.0 ports on the back panel of Zotac A75-ITX WiFi. Two more ports are laid out as onboard pin-connectors allowing to bring USB 3.0 interface to the system case front panel. as for the USB 2.0 ports, there are only two of them available as an onboard pin-connector.
As for the SATA 6 Gbps ports, there are only four of them on Zotac’s mainboard, just like on the other products reviewed today. Moreover, there is no additional eSATA port on the back panel, as the developers probably believed that USB 3.0 ports would be able to accommodate all data storage devices, even though eSATA could provide higher bandwidth.
As you may have guessed from the name, one of the key features of Zotac A75-ITX WiFi is the wireless interface support. It is implemented in a similar way to Asus’. There is a mini-PCIe slot on the board with a WiFi controller installed in it. However, Zotac decided to go with a combination AzureWave AR5B195 daughter card supporting not only 802.11 b/g/n but also Bluetooth interface. This half-size card is based on Atheros controllers.
Another unique feature of Zotac A75-ITX WiFi is two independent Gigabit network interfaces implemented via two independent Realtek RTL8111E controllers. Therefore, this Zotac mainboard may be used not only for a multimedia center, but also for a home server.
Keeping in mind developers’ strong desire to provide their mainboard with a maximum number of various interfaces, it isn’t surprising that its back panel is pretty tightly packed. Overall, there are six USB 3.0 ports (and no USB 2.0 ports at all), two Gigabit network ports, PS/2 port for keyboard or mouse, five analogue audio-jacks (Realtek ALC892 codec), optical SPDIF, Clear CMOS button and two antenna connectors. At the same time, there are only two monitor outs: HDMI and DVI. Both of them support maximum resolution of 1920x1200, but in this case you can connect analogue monitors to the DVI out using a special adapter.
Despite a large variety of additional onboard controllers, Zotac A75-ITX WiFi has a pretty common layout. Although quite a few component shave been moved to the back side of the PCB, I doubt it will cause any serious problems. However, the processor socket and PCI Express x16 slot are far enough from one another, and the 24-pin ATX power connector, SATA ports and a connector block for the front panel buttons and indicators are all in front of the DDR3 DIMM slots. Overall, we noticed only one serious issue with this layout: very inconvenient place for the four-pin power connector. It has been moved to the back panel and is really hard to reach, especially, when the system is assembled inside the system case.
The cooling of the necessary system knots has been very well thought-through. Aluminum heatsinks with tall fins are installed onto the chipset as well as onto the voltage regulator, which has four phases and uses DrMOS components. Zotac guarantees full compatibility with all AMD A series processors including 65 W as well as 100 W models. The mainboard offers two four-pin fans connectors, only one of which (the processor fan) can have adjustable rotation speed using PWM method.
Zotac A75-ITX WiFi doesn’t come with any unexpected accessories, like a remote control unit, for example. Besides the user manual and a CD disk with the drivers, the box contains only three SATA cables, two WiFi antennas and a DVI→D-Sub adapter.
But the biggest disappointment awaits us in the BIOS Setup. And it is not the fact that this BIOS doesn’t boast the fancy graphics interface. The major problem is that the available settings are really scarce. Of course, there is everything necessary for proper configuring of available controllers and interfaces, but if you have any plans to overclock your processor, then Zotac A75-ITX WiFi is a definite no.
The board doesn’t allow changing the base clock generator frequency, making even minimal overclocking completely impossible. There are no options for lowering the CPU voltages, which have become pretty popular in compact systems. Hardware monitoring options are extremely limited. Zotac A75-ITX WiFi has no thermal diodes, so the only way you can monitor the thermal characteristics of a compact system built on it is with the temperature readings reported by the CPU. So, Zotac A75-ITX WiFi is indeed a mainboard with broad functionality, but not intended for progressive enthusiasts.
When we tested Mini-ITX platforms for Socket FM1 processors we made two assumptions. First we assumed that the users shopping around for compact mainboards prefer to use not 100 W processors, but more energy-efficient models with lower power consumption. Therefore, for our test session we chose a quad-core Llano processor with 65 W TDP. It was AMD A8-3800 with the nominal clock frequency of 2.4 GHz. However, it was capable of overclocking to 2.7 GHz in Turbo mode.
Secondly, we didn’t install an external graphics card into our testbed and decided to rely on the Radeon HD 6550D graphics core integrated into AMD A8-3800. Of course, all mainboards participating in our today’s test session can work with an external graphics accelerator, but we believe that integrated graphics is a more reasonable and popular solution for a Mini-ITX system.
Taking into account these two assumptions we put together the following testbed:
We used Futuremark PCMark 7 benchmark to estimate the average platform performance. It measures the execution speed for typical applications widely spread in everyday usage models.
To test the performance during data archiving we used the benchmark built into the WinRAR 4.0 utility.
Final rendering speed was measured in Cinebench 11.5.
The diagram below shows the results obtained in x264 HD Benchmark 4.0, where a short video is encoding in two passes and the entire process is then repeated four times. We are offering you average results of the first as well as second iteration.
We measured the performance in Adobe Photoshop using our own benchmark made from Retouch Artists Photoshop Speed Test that has been creatively modified. It includes typical editing of four 10-megapixel images from a digital photo camera.
Gaming 3D tests portion starts with 3DMark Vantage with the “Performance” profile.
Since the graphics core integrated into AMD’s APU supports DirectX 11, we also ran a few tests in 3DMark 11 suite, also with “Performance” profile selected.
To investigate the platforms performance in real games we selected a few titles, including Far Cry 2, Crysis 2 and Aliens vs. Predator 2. These 3D shooters boast contemporary graphics and load the graphics sub-system pretty seriously. Of course, we can’t claim that the graphics core integrated into AMD A8-3800 is capable of delivering good gaming performance here, but these games will serve the comparison purposes just fine. We measured the fps rate in 1280x800 resolution and set the image quality to High or Medium.
We suddenly discovered that there is quite noticeable difference in performance between tested Socket FM1 systems. The gap between the fastest and the slowest of the four tested systems may sometimes reach 6-7%. It means that the mainboard makers have applied different optimizations, primarily to the memory sub-system. Therefore, the performance difference between the platforms is greater in those applications that are sensitive to the memory sub-system speed. This is also true for the tests that involve the graphics sub-system, because Socket FM1 based systems use part of the system memory for the needs of the graphics sub-system.
As for the specific mainboards we tested today, I have to stress that the best results belongs to ASUS F1A75-I Deluxe. ASRock A75M-ITX was a little bit slower, and Gigabyte A75N-USB3 and Zotac A75-ITX WiFi were the lowest of the four.
The performance differences between the tested Socket FM1 mainboards are no significant enough to consider them the only argument justifying the mainboard choice. There is another parameter that is much more important for the Mini-ITX systems – power consumption. This parameter determines how quiet and energy-efficient the compact computer system is going to be. Moreover, even the slightest difference in power consumption may have very serious consequences for miniature systems: the need for an additional fan or a higher-wattage power supply. Therefore, we paid special attention to power consumption tests this time.
The thing is that mainboard makers can seriously influence the power consumption of systems built on their products. The key factor here is the efficiency of the processor voltage regulator circuitry. This is where the skills of the engineering team can really shine.
The graphs below (unless specified otherwise) show the full power draw of the computer (without the monitor) measured after the power supply. It is the total of the power consumption of all the system components. The PSU's efficiency is not taken into account. The CPUs are loaded by running the 64-bit version of LinX 0.6.4-AVX utility. We used FurMark 1.9.1 to load the graphics core. Moreover, we enabled all power-saving technologies and Turbo Core mode to correctly measure computer's power draw in idle mode.
The differences between the testing participants stand out even more in the power consumption tests than they do in performance tests. Even though all four boards have four phases in their processor voltage regulator circuitry, their actual performance is completely different.
ASUS F1A75-I Deluxe is the energy-efficiency leader, which is quite understandable. Its processor voltage regulator circuitry uses innovative digital-analog design, and besides, this mainboard has a special EPU processor managing the number of active phases in order to improve the voltage regulator efficiency. As a result, ASUS F1A75-I Deluxe based system consumes a few watts less than the competitors in idle mode as well as under diverse operational loads. This is particularly impressive considering that Asus mainboards has a lot of additional onboard controllers and is the fastest of the four boards.
However, it is important to keep in mind that if you are really concerned with the energy-efficiency of your Mini-ITX system and do not need a powerful graphics core, then it would make much more sense to give up Socket FM1 platform altogether. Even with an energy-efficient AMD A8-3800 65 W processor inside its power consumption is still higher than the power consumption of LGA 1155 platforms with similar computational performance. And taking into account that Intel can also offer 35 W CPUs, the superiority of solutions from Intel becomes undeniable.
One more thing we checked was the ability of our mainboards to overclock processors. However, it is important to understand that in case of Mini-ITX products, a test like has more of a theoretical rather than practical value. Compact systems have limited heat dissipating abilities and are usually equipped with not very powerful PSUs. Therefore, the owners of systems like that very rarely (if ever) overclock their system processors, because overclocking increases the processor power consumption and heat dissipation quite significantly. Nevertheless, good overclocking potential in reference to a Mini-ITX mainboard may indicate that it is a truly high-quality product. If a mainboard works perfectly fine under significantly increased load in overclocked mode, then it should cause absolutely no problems whatsoever in nominal mode.
Of course, this part of our test session was performed in an open testbed and not inside a crowded Mini-ITX case. Since we used an AMD A8-3800 processor with a locked clock frequency multiplier, the only way to overclock it was by raising the clock generator frequency. As you know, raising this frequency speeds up not only the computational cores of the processor, but also the APU graphics core.
You can check out a special review on our web-site to learn more about the specifics of Socket FM1 systems overclocking.
The first board to leave the competition was Zotac A75-ITX WiFi. The BIOS of this mainboard doesn’t allow changing the clock generator frequency, so there is no overclocking to talk about.
ASRock A75M-ITX mainboard allowed us to increase the clock generator frequency to 116 MHz without losing the system stability. Further overclocking involving integrated processor graphics was impossible, because there were some issues with the image quality on the screen. Therefore, we suspect that the results may be better with an external graphics card, but this wasn’t the goal of our today’s test session.
The screenshot above shows that the maximum processor frequency during our overclocking experiments on ASRock A75M-ITX reached 2.78 GHz, and the graphics core overclocked from the nominal 600 to 696 MHz. This seemingly insignificant overclocking produces 12% higher 3DMark11 scores than in nominal mode.
Gigabyte A75N-USB3 demonstrated good overclocking results. We managed to easily increase the base clock generator frequency from the nominal 100 to 145 MHz. all we had to do was to raise the processor core voltage by 0.15 V and the graphics core voltage – by 0.1 V. as a result, the CPU remained stable at 3.48 GHz with the graphics core working at 870 MHz.
The performance gain in 3DMark11 reached 42%, which is a lot for a miniature mainboard. In terms of overclocking potential, Gigabyte A75N-USB3 is just as good as some full-size products.
However, the winner’s crown in this part of our test session belongs to Asus F1A75-I Deluxe. It demonstrated even better results than Gigabyte based platform and allowed setting 1 MHz higher base clock generators frequency of 146 MHz.
It could be the Loadline Calibration function that helped Asus mainboard here, but in any case, it was the only mainboard that scored 1488 points in 3DMark11, which is 45% better than the performance in nominal mode. The CPU in this case worked at 3.5 GHz frequency and the Radeon HD 6550D core – at 876 MHz.
Overall, Mini-ITX mainboards for Socket FM1 processors made a very positive impression. Using AMD APUs for a compact computer system makes perfect sense in many respects, and the mainboard developers who decided to address the market need for corresponding platforms did a good job. Although AMD A8, A6, A4 or E2 series processors and their coolers are pretty large in size, the Mini-ITX mainboards designed for them have very rich functionality: they have all contemporary interfaces, PCI Express x16 and sometimes even mini-PCIe expansion card slots. Of course, in some cases the developers had to find a compromise, for overall, Mini-ITX mainboards for Socket FM1 platform look just as good as their compact LGA 1155 counterparts.
The systems that you can build with a Llano processor and one of the mainboards discussed in this article will offer good overall performance, pretty fast integrated graphics and acceptable power consumption, especially if you use energy-efficient 65 W processors. However, the primary goal of our today’s review was to compare the available mainboards and make some valid recommendations. So, let’s proceed to the specifics.
Asus F1A75-I Deluxe performed best of all in our today’s test session. It not only demonstrated the highest performance of the four tested boards, but also proved to be the most energy-efficient mainboard and did great during overclocking. Its functionality was also quite pleasing: it has wireless network interface, which is a great feature for a mini-system, and comes with a useful and unique accessory – a remote control unit with a QWERTY-keyboard. However, this mainboard is not completely fault-free. Take, for example, its not so convenient layout. But despite this fact, Asus F1A75-I Deluxe still looks great, especially against the background of other mainboards tested today, and had its price been a little lower, we would be recommending this mainboards for each and every one. Nevertheless, we can’t help awarding Asus F1A75-I Deluxe with our highest title – X-bit’s Editor’s Choice:
However, Asus F1A75-I Deluxe mainboard may be a little too pricy for some users and in this case we would recommend checking out Gigabyte A75N-USB3. This mainboard is free from excessive unnecessary features and therefore is able to stay at a more appealing price point. At the same time, this board has everything necessary, is very well built and boasts good overclocking potential. In other words, Gigabyte A75N-USB3 is the best Socket FM1 Mini-ITX mainboard in terms of price-to-performance that is why we decided to award it with our Recommended Buy title:
Although Zotac A75-ITX WiFi mainboard didn’t fall into “our favorite” category. I am sure it will still find its market. The key peculiarity of this product is a wide variety of supported network interfaces. So, even though it doesn’t offer any overclocking-friendly features and is not particularly energy-efficient, Zotac mainboard will be a great choice for compact home multimedia servers.
The last mainboard, ASRock A75M-ITX, also has a big chance of winning its part of the market, because this particular mainboard is extremely inexpensive. So, if you can’t find Gigabyte GA-A75N-USB3 mainboard, which we recommend, or don’t feel like investing over $100 into the Mini-ITX platform for your Socket FM1 system, then ASRock A75M-ITX is the one and only choice you have. If you are lucky, this mainboard will become a good base for your Mini-ITX system. But if you decided to go with ASRock, be prepared to work with the warranty and claims department of the computer hardware store where you purchased the board, because it may get to that.