ASUS DIGIMatrix Review: Computer Systems Invade Consumer Electronics Market

It is expected that the tendency towards Mini PC systems turning into home entertainment centers become much stronger this year. Almost all systems will be a combination of a PC, stereo system, MP3 and DVD/VCD player. And the first example is already here. Please, meet ASUS DIGIMatrix – a home PC and a multimedia center in one purely consumer case.

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
01/18/2004 | 11:05 PM

The production of desktop mini-systems becomes more and more widely spread. According to the analysts’ forecasts, the number of SFF PC sold in 2004 will more than double compared with the sales volumes of these systems in the year 2003. And this is not surprising at all. Since contemporary PCs can also function as many home electronic appliances, such as movies and music playback devices, it is quite logical that more functional computers will little by little oust the traditional highly tailored devices.

 

Many mainboard manufacturers, who were willing to enrich their product range, liked this idea a lot. This is how stylish-looking small barebone systems also known as small form-factor PCs appeared in the today’s market. The pioneer here was Shuttle Company, which introduced the whole family of small systems in the popular “cubic” format. On the one hand these systems boasted highly original design, which made them suitable for any interior, including that of a typical living-room, small size and the performance level comparable to that of an ordinary desktop PC. A little later other manufacturers also joined Shuttle in this new field. Now “cubic” barebone systems are also offered by such companies as ABIT, AOpen, BIOSTAR, EPoX, Shuttle, Soltek, and get more and more popular.

The competition in the SFF market inspired some manufacturers to develop more outstanding solutions than just a stylish-looking small computer. For example, the MegaPC family from MSI combines the features of a cubic SFF PC and those of a music center, which doesn’t require the OS to work as such.

Among the mainboard companies developing and manufacturing mini-systems, there has been only one big name until recently, which didn’t stand out in any way. I am talking about ASUS. Yes, ASUS has been offering office barebones for quite a while already. However, they didn’t manufacture any SFF systems, which could be called consumer solutions. At the same time, keeping in mind that ASUS is one of the best mainboard developers in the industry, everybody have been expecting something brand new and outstanding from them, not just a common cubic system. Well, finally, the first home barebone system from ASUS has been announced and released into the market. It differs drastically from the similar competing solutions. I believe the arrival of this new mini-system aka DIGIMatrix, many barebone manufacturers will revise their vision of a home PC architecture. Even ASUS calls its own DIGIMatrix “digital entertainment PC”, which does make perfect sense. Designed like a DVD-player, DIGIMatrix may serve not only as a PC, but also as a DVD/VCD player, music center of TV and FM tuner.

All in all, DIGIMatrix is really worth taking a closer look at. Especially, since we are most likely to see similar looking “entertainment” solutions from other manufacturers pretty soon.

Specification and Package

ASUS DIGIMatrix mini-system differs greatly from any other barebone systems, which we have already reviewed on our site (see our Mobile section for reviews). It also told on the package contents. ASUS DIGIMatrix is stuffed with all sorts of preinstalled equipment and lacks actually only three things to be called a fully-fledged computer: the CPU, memory and hard disk drive. Moreover, you will not be able to add anything extra into DIGIMatrix system besides these three components. However, we will talk a little bit more about the expansion options by DIGIMatrix a little later in our today’s article.

And at first, please take a look at the formal specification of this device:

The package of ASUS DIGIMatrix is pretty rich. Besides the system itself you can also find there a remote control unit, an external power supply unit, a radio antenna and a lot of adapter-cables, namely: VCR cable, HDTV-to-S-Video adapter, HDYV cable and a cable for the 6-channel sound system. Of course, there are also CD-discs with all necessary software and a user’s manual.

ASUS DIGIMatrix: Closer Look

First of all, I would like to point out that I was greatly surprised after I took the system out of the box. The thing is that this system turned out much smaller than I had imagined looking at the pictures.

Here is a very funny poster we found on the site of one Asian reseller offering ASUS DIGIMatrix systems. Look how nicely it characterizes the size of this mini-system:

Really, DIGIMatrix is only 4.4 liters big, while the cubic system from Shuttle is 11 liters in volume. This way, if we regard DIGIMatrix as a computer, we will have to assign it to a more light-weight category than “cubic” SFF systems. It is exactly the small interior volume of the ASUS system that limits the maximum clock frequencies of the CPUs, which can be used in it. The manufacturer considers it impossible to efficiently cool down CPUs with more than 2.4GHz core clock frequency in a case like that. I would like to point out here that despite this claim, we carried out the full set of tests for DIGIMatrix and Intel Pentium 4 2.53GHz processor, and didn’t reveal any problems. So, the 2.4GHz maximum limit set by ASUS should be regarded as a recommendation, but not a must.

I would also like to note that unlike typical cubic systems ASUS DIGIMatrix uses an external power supply unit from Lite-On, which provides the constant voltage of 19V and maximum current of 6.3A. This way, this PSU features only 120W power capacity, which should actually be more than enough keeping in mind the limitations imposed over the maximum frequency of the CPUs used in DIGIMatrix. Besides, you will also be unable to install any external graphics cards or other expansion devices into this system, which also lowers the required power consumption.

The exterior of DIGIMatrix is very similar to the design of consumer electronics devices, such as video-players, DVD-players, etc. That is why putting this ASUS device next to your TV-set will not disturb the atmosphere and interior design of your living room. ASUS DIGIMatrix goes very well with consumer electronics devices, so that most of your guests will never tell that it is a personal computer at the same time.

“False” front panel of ASUS DIGIMatrix is actually none other but just a cover. It carries only traditional controls, like those you usually see on many home appliances. I am talking about a massive volume control wheel, PC Power On button and 5 control buttons, such as Play/Pause, Stop, Forward/Rewind buttons and Video/Audio Functions enable/disable button, which allows using DIGIMatrix without starting the computer and the operation system. Moreover, the front panel is also equipped with three LEDs indicating the status of the system power, HDD activity and card-reader activity. Next to them there is a digital indicator displaying the current time in standby mode (by the way, this time is taken from the PC system timer), and the PC temperature when the system is running. If you are using DIGIMatrix as a player or a tuner only, then this indicator can also display the frequency of the radio station you are listening to, the track number and the like.

If you open the decorative cover you will see the evidence proving you are looking at a PC. There are a lot of interesting things under this cover. Firstly, there is an optical slim optical drive, which can be a DVD-ROM, a DVD-ROM/CD-RW or DVD-R/RW, depending on the supply. Secondly, you will see the slits of the card-reader, which can work with flash cards of almost any format. Next to the control buttons there is an IR-port ensuring that the remote control unit included with the system will work fine. Besides, the front panel also carries 4 USB 2.0 ports and 2 IEEE1394 ports (one 6-pin port and one 4-pin port). Here you will also find an optical SPDIF out and two audio jacks: for the headphones and the microphone.

I would like to draw your attention to the fact that ASUS DIGIMatrix doesn’t have a very common thing for all computer systems: a floppy drive. Anyway, card-reader is a worthy replacement for the floppy drive, especially since DIGIMatrix knows to use USB devices for boot-up and update the system BIOS from the Internet. However, there also were a few curious amusing incidents. When we tried to update the BIOS with the help of ASUS EZ Flash utility embedded into the mainboard Flash-memory, DIGIMatrix tried accessing floppy drive A:, which is certainly not among the system components.

The back panel of DIGIMatrix system is also pretty heavily loaded with different output ports and connectors. You can find a connector for the radio antenna, three audio jacks, a connector for TV-cable/antenna, video-In, two RJ45 network connectors, PS/2 ports for mouse and keyboard, an ATA/133 connector for the additional disk subsystem, a PSU connector, a connector for the additional disk subsystem power supply, and the ports for VGA or DVI monitors and HDTV (TV-Out). I would also like to say that despite the presence of all three Video-Outs, you can simultaneously use only two of them. You can switch between a TV-Out and a DVI Out in the BIOS Setup.

This way, DIGIMatrix boasts the complete set of connectors, which you can only think of in relation to this system as a consumer audio/video player. If you consider DIGIMatrix as a computer, you will probably wish they have also offered serial and parallel ports. At the same time, however, I do not think that these ports are a necessary thing for the computer systems of the kind, since all the modern peripherals can be connected via the USB or FireWire protocols.

ASUS DIGIMatrix Inside: Assembly

So, let’s find out what we have to do to create a fully-fledged home entertainment center from the ASUS DIGIMatrix barebone system. When the case cover has been removed (by the way, the screws ASUS uses for case cover fastening cannot be unscrewed with your fingers: you will need a crosstip screwdriver), you will see the following picture:

The saying “there is not an inch of room” is the most exact phrase to describe what you see inside ASUS DIGIMatrix. As you could have already guessed no additional devices can fit into this system besides those, which are already there. However, ASUS took good care of those users, who will be assembling this system on their own: all major components can be easily reached when the case is open.

The memory slots can be reached freely, the CPU should be installed after removing the cooler, which is fastened to the socket with 5 screws. And the HDD is put into a closed chassis, with a cover fastened to the framing with two screws. These three devices are everything you need to complete your ASUS DIGIMatrix based system, as everything you might need is already there. Moreover, there are no empty slots there. As a result, you can close the case and power up the system when the CPU, the memory and the hard disk drive have been successfully installed.

The only inconvenience you can come across when assembling ASUS DIGIMatrix is the location of the Clear CMOS jumper, which is situated next to the HDD chassis and is very hard to reach. However, you will need it very rarely, I should say, especially since you will hardly undertake any CPU overclocking experiments or the like in your ASUS DIGIMatrix system.

ASUS DIGIMatrix Inside: Components

ASUS DIGIMatrix is based on ASUS P4SQ mainboard. ASUS developed this mainboard specifically for DIGIMatrix systems that is why you will never see it in retail stores. This board looks very extravagantly:

As we see, it has a processor socket and two DIMM slots onboard. Besides that, there are only two MiniPCI slots. Actually, this design peculiarity prevent you from upgrading your system easily, especially, since both slots are already occupied in a standard DIGIMatrix supply: there is a TV-tuner installed into the upper slot, and a WiFi module installed into the slot at the bottom of the board.

For the TV-tuner ASUS uses Life View FlyTV Platinum mini card from the third-party manufacturer. This tuner is based on the SAA7135 chip and uses Philips’ analogue circuit. As for the WiFi module, it is ASUS’ own home product. The MiniPCI WiFi card supports 802.11b protocol and up to 11mbit/sec data transfer rate. The software supplied together with this WiFi card allows using DIGIMatrix in Infrastructure and Ad-hoc modes, as well as making it a software access point supporting up to 31 clients. In other words, this card offers just the same features as those, which go together with ASUS retail mainboards.

The third external device installed in ASUS DIGIMatrix is a separate FM-tuner. It is hard to say, why ASUS didn’t involve the already existing TV-tuner for radio channels reception, but the fact is undeniable.

All other features of ASUS DIGIMatrix are implemented on the mainboard and chips integrated on it. ASUS P4SQ mainboard used as a basis for the reviewed barebone system is built on SiS651 chipset supporting Pentium 4 Celeron processors with 400/533MHz bus and single-channel DDR333/DDR266 memory. This chipset features an integrated SiS315 graphics core, which is also enhanced with the additional SiS301 chip. Due to the latter, ASUS P4SQ mainboard supports DVI-Out and TV-Out.

The IEEE1394 ports are implemented by the external VIA VT6307 controller, which is very widely spread in the today’s desktop mainboards.

The six-channel sound in ASUS P4SQ mainboard is implemented by the pretty popular but slightly outdated AC97 sound codec – AD1980 from Analog Devices. Moreover, the codec is enhanced by the additional chip responsible for hardware decoding from mp3 format. This hardware combination is involved into mp3 files playback without starting the OS, which is possible due to special software aka Audio DJ. This software is stored in the flash memory and will be discussed in greater detail later today.

Since the SiS962L South Bridge used in this board supports only 6 USB 2.0 ports, VIA VT6202 controller supporting four additional USB ports has been involved. As we have already mentioned there 8 USB 2.0 ports are laid out, one more is used by the TV-tuner and the last one is used by the built-in card reader. By the way, unfortunately, the card reader supports USB 1.1 only, which slows its down a bit compared to what it could have shown. The card-reader is based on NEODIO ND3050 controller, which ensures the compatibility of this device with Compact Flash Type I/II, Microdrive Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro Secure Digital, MultiMedia Card and Smart Media Card.

The chipset South Bridge of the ASUS P4SQ mainboard also ensures the support of two ATA/133 channels. One channel is used to connect the optical drive and the HDD, while the other one leads outside the case and is intended for external data storage systems.

10/100Mbit Ethernet is implemented by the logical controller integrated into the chipset and the physical controller from Realtek – RTL8201BL. As for the Gigabit Ethernet controller, it is a separate chip: 3Com940.

Note that this specific mainboard doesn’t have any FDD connector and no laid out spots for parallel and serial ports connectors. However, despite the absence of these few things, ASUS P4SQ is rally an impressive product: there are so many components onboard, and all of them are so smartly spread over the PCB, making ASUS P4SQ a perfect solution for small DIGIMatrix cases. We really admire ASUS engineers for having designed something like that.

Moreover, we can’t disregard the fact that DIGIMatrix is supplied with a slim optical drive by default. In fact, ASUS notebooks are also equipped with optical drives like that. The system we got our hands on this time featured a DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive, which could play DVD discs at 8x speed and CD-discs – at 24x speed. The CD-R speed equals 24X, while the CD-RW – 4x. Note that DIGIMatrix is also accompanied with a special program for work with the writing drives, which is called Nero eXpress version 5.5.

ASUS DIGIMatrix Inside: Cooling

The cooling solution used in ASUS DIGIMatrix is quite compact on the one hand, and highly efficient on the other, which distinguishes it from all other analogues. This is not surprising, actually, because there is not too much room inside DIGIMatrix case, just like in notebooks, for instance, however, the system is built with desktop components, which dissipate quite a bit of heat. Nevertheless, ASUS DIGIMatrix is cooled down by two fans 60mm and 70mm big with pretty low rotation speed.

The CPU in ASUS DIGIMatrix is equipped with two solid copper heatsinks with thin ribs about 1.5cm high. Both heatsinks are connected with one another via a heatpipe, which is very god at transferring the heat from the heatsink pressed to the CPU surface to the “free” heatsink. The fans installed onto these heatsinks suck the air into the case through the holed in the cover. The warm air is blow outside the case through the slits in the sides of the system. This way the system is constantly cooled down by the cold air coming from outside.

All in all, this cooling system is pretty efficient and copes well with its primary task: CPU cooling. We tried using ASUS DIGIMatrix even with a Pentium 4 2.53GHz processor and it was absolutely stable throughout the entire test session. However, at the same time we are concerned about the HDD health. The air circulation in the HDD area is very weak and the drive is cooled down by the air, which has already gone through the CPU heatsink and hence warmed up. As a result, it would be not the best idea to use especially “hot” hard disk drives with high rpm rate in ASUS DIGIMatrix.

Moreover, you should also keep in mind that nothing should be put on top of DIGIMatrix system. If the holes in the upper part of the case get covered by some object, this will block the air circulation and the system will get overheated with all the resulting consequences.

In order to illustrate the thermal status of ASUS DIGIMatrix platform we decided to take the temperature of different system components in the idle mode and under the maximum CPU workload, which we carried out with the help of CPUBurn utility. We installed Intel Pentium 4 2.53GHz CPU, 512MB of DDR333 SDRAM and Western Digital Wd400JB HDD into our ASUS DIGIMatrix system.

 

Idle

Burn

CPU temperature, oC

50

67

System temperature, oC

47

56

HDD temperature, oC

47

57

First fan rotation speed, RPM

1500

3200

Second fan rotation speed, RPM

1200

3450

As we see, the thermal situation in this system (if we disregard high HDD temperature) is quite acceptable. Moreover, since ASUS DIGIMatrix supports Pentium 4/Celeron processors with their own effective anti-overheating technologies, there is no need to worry about the reliability of this system.

As for the noise produced by ASUS DIGIMatrix system, I have to stress that it is very low compared with the level of noise generated by regular desktops or “cubic” mini-systems. Even when the fans rotate at their maximum, the noise level never goes beyond 30dB. For your information: the regular desktop systems generate about 50dB of noise.

Performance

First of all, I have to say that high performance is not the number one priority thing for systems like ASUS DIGIMatrix. The major purpose of a mini-system like that is to be a digital home entertainment center. Besides CD/DVD playback, listening to the radio or watching TV, other typical tasks for a system of the kind include: mp3 and mpeg4 music and movies playback. Besides that, this system should be OK for work in office applications, Internet surfing and the like. Of course, all these tasks do not require a high-performance system at all. However, if you are looking for a gaming system, then ASUS DIGIMatrix is very unlikely to be a good choice. SiS315 integrated graphics is still far not the best 3D graphics accelerator today.

This is exactly the reason why we decided not to compare the performance of ASUS DIGIMatrix with that of other mini-systems. We will simply show you the results of some benchmarks. As far as the specific tasks intended for DIGIMatrix as a home multimedia system are concerned, this system copes with them very well.

ASUS DIGIMatrix was tested with Intel Pentium 4 2.53GHz CPU, 512MB of DDR333 SDRAM and Western Digital WD400JB hard disk drive. The graphics core received 64MB of the system RAM for its specific needs.

PCMark04, PCMarks

2192

PCMark04, CPU

2301

PCMark04, Memory

2258

PCMark04, Graphics

654

3DMark2001 SE, Default

1509

Business Winstone 2004

15.3

Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004

17.1

Quake3, four, 1024x768x32, fps

35.2

Unreal Tournament 2003, dm-antalus, 1024x768x32, fps

11.39

Serious Sam 2, Grand Cathedral, 640x480x32, fps

26.4

Everything is clear without any additional comments, I suppose. It is almost impossible to play any of the upcoming as well as some current-generation games on ASUS DIGIMatrix system. As for the benchmarks, which do not use 3D graphics at all, the performance of the mini-system from ASUS can be considered acceptable.

ASUS DIGIMatrix As a Digital Multimedia Center

Now that we have already tested DIGIMatrix as a PC, it’s high time took a look at this system as at a digital multimedia center. Especially, since it is the major purpose of systems like ASUS DIGIMatrix.

There is a special program intended to help the users take advantage of the multimedia features of our today’s system. They ship this ASUS Home Theatre program, which works from Windows, together with the DIGIMatrix barebone solution. The interface of this utility is very simple and logical and should make life a lot easier for those DIGIMatrix users who are not very familiar with computer equipment. So, let’s check out what this software tool actually offers us:

When we launch Home Theatre there appears a menu on the screen offering you to set the work mode for the system: Watching TV, listening to the radio, listening to music, viewing picture slideshows, watching videos or DVDs.

Let’s take a closer look at these modes:

Of course, you can navigate through Home Theatre not only with the mouse or keyboard, but also with the remote control unit, which goes with the system.

Theoretically, Home Theatre software can really make it much easier to use DIGIMatrix as a consumer electronics device. However, our experience with this utility showed that it still needs some polishing off. Besides the lack of some very useful features, which should be available by any multimedia center, Home Theatre has some problems with the already existing functions.

First of all, I was very disappointed to find out that Home Theatre is very slow. It takes up to a few seconds for DIGIMatrix to switch from one work mode to another. Moreover, this program freezes quite often, which is also pretty annoying. Hopefully, ASUS will be able to eliminate these upsetting drawbacks in the nearest future.

It should also be pointed out that a big drawback of Home Theatre is the lack of widely spread DivX MPEG4 support, which makes this software less functional. Moreover, we wish the support of mp3 sound files was not so limited, because so far it is impossible to play these files directly from a CD-disc. Home Theatre could be much easier to use, if the user could select folders with digital multimedia content. In the present utility version these directories are set during the software installation, so that you have no chance to change the folder names when the software is already running.

It is also no good that the software bundle of ASUS DIGIMatrix doesn’t include any utilities for TV and FM tuner management. This way it is impossible (without any external tools) to watch TV and listen to the radio in the background mode, when DIGIMatrix is running some other applications. However, this is the advantage of a PC based multimedia center that the user has freedom of choice as it comes to software. There are a lot of different programs in the Internet intended for tuners management and any user will be able to find a tool for his taste. The same way the incompatibility with DivX format can be eliminated. All you need to do is to install the corresponding codec onto your DIGIMatrix-system and you will be able to watch movies saved in this format in the standard Windows Media Player.

Rich networking capabilities of ASUS DIGIMatrix make it evident for us that this system should be connected to the World Wide Web. This way you will be able to get fresh multimedia content regularly. Especially since it is no secret for anyone that despite all effort undertaken by the legal authorities, new movies and music leak into the Web very rapidly.

In conclusion to our ASUS DIGIMatrix multimedia center review I would like to say that this system allows listening to the radio and playing DVD and VCD discs without even loading the operation system. To make it happen you should use a special small utility aka Audio DJ, which is stored in the flash-memory together with the mainboard BIOS. However, note that this utility has very limited functionality and highly ascetic interface. That is why we will not go into details describing it today. In fact, the only evident advantage of this Audio DJ tool compared with Home Theatre described above (besides the ability to work without starting the OS) is its ability to play mp3 files directly from a CD-disc.

Conclusion

Well, we have just told you about a very interesting barebone system aka ASUS DIGIMatrix. Even though it is a PC, it is intended to replace the usual DVD-players and music centers in our apartments. ASUS DIGIMatrix will not become a gaming platform, but it has every chance to become a great toy for grown-ups as an excellent digital home multimedia center. Featuring built-in TV and FM tuners, supporting wide networking capabilities, and equipped with a DVD-ROM drive and a remote control unit, ASUS DIGIMatrix can easily win a place next to your TV-set in the living-room. This way, ASUS DIGIMatrix is not an office system, but a home entertainment solution. This is exactly how you should look at it.

However, even if we regard it as such, there are a few puzzling things about it still. We hardly have any complaints about the exterior and features of this system. However, since ASUS positions this system as a multimedia center, then it automatically implies that the main target group for DIGIMatrix includes people without or with very little computer experience. Therefore, it would be more logical to sell DIGIMatrix fully assembled. So far, it is supplied as a barebone system and hence requires additional purchases and installation of the missing components, namely memory, CPU, HDD and operation system. This will definitely scare away some potential customers. I believe that ASUS DIGIMatrix should be sold the same way as all notebooks: power it on and work.

The Home Theatre software supplied with the system is also not quite OK. Even though the system is not preassembled, Home Theatre utility is functionally limited and doesn’t do many useful things. For example, it doesn’t allow working with folders on the hard drive and doesn’t support the widely spread DivX format. In fact, all these problems can easily be solved, since ASUS DIGIMatrix is a computer as well, but in this case computer experience is necessary again.

As a result, even though ASUS did its best to design something close to a home appliance, it can still be demanded only among PC users. At the same time, I don’t think that any advanced computer geeks will care at all for DIGIMatrix, because it doesn’t boast any impressive PC specifications.

However, all our criticism about ASUS DIGIMatrix has nothing fatal about it. ASUS is quite capable of modifying the specification a little bit and improving the software within a short time. Therefore, we will definitely look forward to the day when all the above mentioned drawbacks are eliminated. After that we will have every chance to call ASUS DIGIMatrix an excellent purchase as a gift for those who are not very experienced in computer technologies, for instance.

Summing up, I would only like to say that the arrival of a mini-system like ASUS DIGIMatrix signals about a new era of home computer systems serving as digital multimedia centers. You shouldn’t see visions to forecast that other manufacturers will very soon follow in ASUS’ footsteps with their systems like DIGIMatrix.