Biostar Barebone Systems: Minimal Size Maximal Functionality

If you want a small modern home PC with the functionality of a desktop system then you should definitely check out our review of a few solutions from Biostar. We can’t think of a home application this machine wouldn’t be able to handle: starting with the latest games and finishing with the role of a home information-and-entertainment center.

by Vasily Melnik
06/12/2005 | 02:05 PM

It’s a very easy thing to find a barebone system today since they have long been present in a broad assortment on the shelves of shops. So, the only problem that remains is the problem of choice. Yes, there are many different models available, but most of them are based on the Socket 478 platform which cannot satisfy a demanding user today. Moreover, the functionality of many available solutions is not sufficient for building a full-fledged and small-size computer for home use.

 

So, it seems that people who want to have a compact and quiet system have to give up a big portion of the functionality peculiar to ordinary PCs on the latest platforms and to do with a variety of the Socket 478 platform. However, there have recently appeared barebone kits based on new platforms which change the market situation considerably.

The two models from Biostar we have got for our today’s tests represent two diametrically opposite approaches to designing such a system. The iDEQ 210P has the typical component layout with all its typical drawbacks, while the iDEQ 300G is a completely new model with an i915G-based mainboard of the BTX form-factor inside. This latter system is of a highest interest to us since there are few if any barebone models in the market that can boast the same or better characteristics. The iDEQ 210P will serve us as a reference point.

Running a little ahead, I should tell you that the majority of barebone kits are going to be made to comply with the requirements of the BTX standard soon. And this review will show you why.

First Glance

The two small neat boxes differ externally: the box of the iDEQ 210P carries the slogan “Play hard! Work smart!”, whereas the iDEQ 300G allures the potential buyer with the homelier concept “Simplify your life!”.


iDEC 210P – Play hard! Work smart!


iDEC 300G – Simplify your life!

The box contains the barebone proper and a small package with accessories like drivers, software, documentation and fasteners. The iDEQ 300G also comes with a remote control, an antenna for receiving FM radio stations and a special power cable for a SATA hard drive.


The accessories to the iDEQ 300G.

The iDEQ 210P was the first to be extracted from the box and thoroughly examined. The striking thing about the device is its weight. The chassis and the external casing are made of aluminum (the front panel being the only plastic detail here) and the barebone is almost weightless. The device’s appearance corresponds to the slogan on the box: black panels and a minimum of LED indicators or any other embellishments.


Soberly designed in black, the barebone looks very modest.

The top moveable cover on the front panel conceals a bay for 5.25” devices and a multi-format card-reader. A group of interface connectors (USB 2.0, FireWire and audio) are located under the bottom flap panel. The moveable cover is a right solution because now it’s the user who decides what’s more important: nice looks or quick access to the optical drive and card-reader. As for the interface connectors at the bottom, I don’t think they should be covered at all. It’s not quite convenient to open the panel up each time you want to plug in a USB flash drive, for example.


The moveable cover is a very lucky solution.

The back panel is quite typical for devices of that type. There are vent holes of the power supply at the top, with an exhaust fan a little below. At the bottom of the rear panel there are interface connectors. Not quite comprehensibly, the manufacturer put two COM ports there, although this interface is evidently obsolete today and is used but rarely. It would be better to have two more USB ports instead one COM there.


The back panel of the iDEQ 210P offers the standard menu
of connectors, but with two COM ports.

The iDEQ 300G is a much more serious device. You know it as soon as you take it out of its box. Everything, from the painting to the functional front panel, cries loud that this barebone belongs to the vast clan of multimedia centers. There’s everything necessary to claim the title of “media-PC”: a big and informative display, buttons for directly controlling the media player, volume controls, a remote control, and a stylish exterior. The only drawback here, and one that seems to have become a common flaw of all such devices, is the oversensitive-to-touch plastic. So, if you are going to frequently use all the functions of the device, get ready a piece of clean cloth for wiping your fingerprints off.


Stylish exterior and compact size are the best combination
for a media center.

The front panel is designed most appropriately: the single decorative cover conceals the optical drive only, while the interface connectors and the card-reader are easily accessible.

The front panel doesn’t differ from the classic iDEQ 210P in the number of connectors. The card-reader has the same functionality, too. When attached to the power mains, the device shows on its display the current time or the number and frequency of the selected radio station. The color of the display isn’t annoying, but it would be good to have some control over its brightness. You cannot disable the display in a dim room to watch a movie with comfort. It may also be disturbing at work, but this is rather a matter of habit.


The informative display and the bright highlighting of the buttons
are handy in the daytime, but are all too conspicuous in the evening.

The back panel of the iDEQ 300G differ from that of the iDEQ 210P. Particularly, the slots of the add-on cards have moved to another side. The exhaust fan is missing. You can notice such unusual things as a SATA connector and a connector for the enclosed FM antenna. Note also the third (!) expansion card with a network connector and two connectors for powering up a SATA drive. This seems to be the best implementation of external SATA for today, you know. It’s easy to put the interface connector proper on the rear panel, and I’ve seen examples of that, but some manufacturers forget about the power for an external SATA device.


The back panel of the iDEQ 300G has some changes
in the layout and offers a couple of new things.

Closer Look

I won’t rant much about the configuration of the systems: the table below gives you more detailed information than my mentioning the same in the body of the review would do. Let’s better take a closer look at those numerous small things that are not included into the specification.

So, the technical characteristics of the two barebone systems are like follows:

As I said above, the iDEQ 210P is a classic barebone and its design is quite traditional with a solid chassis, an aluminum case and a traditional system of ventilation. The device is dismantled easily: you just unfasten the four screws at the rear panel and take off the top and side walls. The component layout inside doesn’t differ from any other typical barebone.


The iDEQ 210P has a classic component layout.

But unlike with many competing models, the user of an iDEQ 210P is not going to remove or unfasten anything else once the side and top walls are taken off. Despite the classic approach to placing the components, it is most easy to access any connector. You don’t even have to remove the top panel – the CPU cooler can be easily accessed from top as well as from a side.


The CPU socket is near the center and this greatly facilitates
the installation of the CPU proper and of the CPU cooling system.

As for the cooling system, it can handle any processor model from the AMD Sempron series as well as the AMD Athlon 64 2800+ or 3000+.

  
The cooler suits well for cooling junior Athlon 64 processors.

The heat transfer is probably performed through the copper sole alone. Then two heat pipes carry heat to the heat-spreader, and the two aluminum wings fasten the cooler on the frame around the socket. The fastening is very handy – you can mount the cooler with your single hand.

The employed power supply – the ENP-3125 model from Enhance Electronics – has a total wattage of 250W.


The declared characteristics of the ENP-3125 make it possible
to build a rather advanced computer.

The max currents on the +5 and +3.2V lines are somewhat too high than is really necessary, while the 16 amperes on the +12V line is the bare minimum for today. A processor like AMD Athlon 64 3000+ and a GeForce FX 5900 graphics card would consume as much as 160 watts together. And these are not the only consumers on this power line in the system.

Take note also of the mini-PCI slot on the mainboard: this function may come in most handy.


You can seldom see a mini-PCI slot in desktop computers.

The owner of an iDEQ 210P actually needs no guides or instructions as to the assembly, but the owner of a 300G will have to read one in any case. It seems simple at first: unfasten three screws, remove the panels, and assemble your computer.


The side and top panels removed, the system seems
ready for the assembly.

But it’s not as simple as it seems. Wrong – it turns to be much simpler than it seems! But you still must read the manual beforehand. Besides removing the panel, the entire front side of this barebone can be lifted up and fixed in this position.


No, this is not a transformer toy.
This is an easy-to-assemble barebone from Biostar.

You don’t have to remove the front panel to perform this operation. Moreover, it’s rather hard to put it back again. The two connectors the front panel connects to the mainboard with are very short. It’s quite easy to detach them, but much more difficult to attach back.

As I mentioned above, the iDEQ 300G is based on a mainboard of the BTX form-factor. All the heat-generating elements are placed in a single line. Thus it became possible to use a new cooling solution consisting of a single fan and an exhaust blower. This cooling system can handle successfully a processor like Intel Pentium 4 3.2GHz for Socket LGA775.


Socket LGA775 is surely an alluring feature for people
who’re shopping for a modern and compact computer.

The central processor and the chipset’s North and South Bridges are all well cooled: the plastic tunnel puts every cubic inch of air to good use.

 
A competently designed cooling system.
Such solutions with plastic air-ducts are implemented in server racks.

Proper cooling of the CPU and chipset is important, but what about the graphics card and hard drives? They are out of danger, too. The barebone’s innards are well ventilated thanks to the special holes in the sides of the air-duct. The CPU cooler is a separate heatsink (the fan is fastened on the face panel) with a massive copper sole, four heat pipes and aluminum ribs. A few more small blocks of thin copper ribs are additionally soldered right to the sole, but they play a minor role in the heat transfer process.

  
The small and neat cooler is a good example
of a heat-pipe-based cooling device.

Another innovation brought by the BTX standard has long been called for in barebones. The PCI Express x16 and PCI slots are shifted to the right, and the installed graphics card now doesn’t block the PCI slot and you can plug an add-on card there.


We have long waited for this simple solution that helps to use the functionality
of the barebone to the full.

Of course, you cannot install a top-end graphics card with a dual-slot cooling system here. But many cards of the GeForce 6800 GT or RADEON X800 PRO/XL class are equipped with a small single-slot cooler, which is quite enough for this barebone. An additional expansion card can be seen on the left. It carries an RJ-45 socket, a power connector for an external SATA hard drive and an adapter from the standard IDE cable to the Mini-IDE connector.


The network connector and the power connectors for
an external hard drive didn’t fit onto the rear panel.

The system is powered by a power supply from Teamgreat Technology. With wattage similar to that of the iDEQ 210P’s PSU, this model differs from it by having an active power factor correction device.


It’s a rare thing to meet active PFC in such a small power supply with.

I’ve already talked about the currents. So I only say that this power supply is sufficient for assembling a high-performance configuration. If you need more, then you should consider desktop computers rather than barebone systems.

On the whole, it is very hard, if possible at all, to find a match to the iDEQ 300G in terms of functionality. Well, I had actually expected something like that from a first product with support of the new CPU socket – it would be wrong to release a barebone based on the new chipset from Intel and to forget about the rest of innovations which are so vitally important in a barebone. I don’t think users would pounce on a product whose only difference from the competitors is the CPU socket.

Assembly and Setup

We used the following parts for assembling the computers: Intel Pentium 4 3.2GHz and AMD Athlon 64 3000+ CPUs, two 256MB modules of Kingston HyperX DDR400 SDRAM, a combo-drive from LG, a Western Digital 300BB hard drive and a Gainward FX5900 graphics card (for the iDEQ 210P).


The components we stuffed the barebones with.

Even an inexperienced user should find it easy to transform a barebone from Biostar into a regular computer. Both barebone systems come with in-depth instructions on the assembly process, so you only have to put the components in and attach the power cables. The optimal sequence for the iDEQ 210P would be like that: carefully install the CPU and mount its cooler.


You can fasten the CPU cooler with your single hand.

Then you fasten the hard drive and install the memory modules. The HDD basket is detachable and can accommodate two drives at once, but you’d better stop at one since two drives would find it too hot in such a cramped space.


Put the hard drive and the memory modules in.

The graphics card goes in last of all. If you install it before fastening the HDD basket, there will be some risk of damaging the card as you’ll be manipulating the hard drive. If your card has an additional power connector, make sure you can use the standard Molex for that. Its cable is rather short and I just couldn’t attach it to the card in my case. So, check the length of the cables beforehand and use an extension cable, if necessary.


The graphics card should be the last item installed.

As for assembling a system in the iDEQ 300G, I can’t give you any useful advice just because you can do it in any sequence. The system is ideally designed and there’s no chance an installed component would hinder the installation of another one. The only pitfall is that you should make sure beforehand that your graphics cards fits into its space if its cooling system occupies more than one slot of space.


We can’t find any faults with the design of the barebone’s interior. It’s ideal.

Unlike with the iDEQ 210P, the 300G can take in two hard drives without problems: they will both feel comfortably thanks to the good case ventilation.

As for the BIOS settings, the user shouldn’t tamper with them without need. Both systems worked normally right after my assembling them, requiring no additional setting-up.

Conclusion

The iDEQ 210P didn’t astonish me in the slightest: the classic component layout and the lack of any new-fangled devices will suit to people who want a computer for work rather than for entertainment. Yet it is quite possible to transform the iDEQ 210P even into a compact gaming station, sufficiently fast for the majority of current games. The overall impression can be worded as “assemble it, turn it on – and it works”. And I hadn’t expected anything more from it. This neat and inconspicuous device would make an ideal second PC at your home. It is also quiet at office work: the cooling system is excellent, despite being designed in the classic way. I don’t recommend this barebone to those who need more than just an ordinary computer. This barebone just cannot do too much.

If you want a small modern home PC with the functionality of desktop systems, the iDEQ 300G may suit you well. I can’t think of a home application this machine wouldn’t be able to handle. It can be the foundation of a computer that can equally well cope with the latest games and the role of a home information-and-entertainment center. The cooling system is perfect. The intake fan stops altogether at small load or in the idle mode and the exhaust blower works at such a low speed that the system becomes absolutely noiseless. Then, the working system looks splendid, but there’s a single drawback to it – you cannot turn the highlighting off. When the system is powered down, the display shows the current time and you cannot disable this feature, either. As I’ve said above, this illumination is rather annoying when you’re watching video in a dim room. You may even want to cover the barebone with a thick napkin.

If you hope to use it as a juke-box, i.e. to reproduce Audio CDs, MP3s and radio channels without booting the OS up, I have to disappoint you – the radio feature is the only one available, and in a limited variant. That is, you can control the volume, select the station and enable/disable the FM mode from the device’s front panel only. Without the working OS, there’s only one active button on the remote control – Power Off. The rest of the buttons become available as you boot the OS up. But there’s limitation even in the choice of the OS: Windows XP Media Center Edition only. I don’t say this OS is bad for a home system, but any limitation is bad.

As for advantages, there are almost no problems with setting up and using the iDEQ 300G. You don’t have to bother about additional device drivers, about purchasing a remote control or anything else. You just install the OS, the drivers for the mainboard and peripherals, and you’re ready to work. All of this seems to be the result of the steady progress towards standardization and unification. The new creation of Biostar looks more like an audio/video player with a colorful onscreen menu rather than a media-PC in terms of multimedia functionality. And the end-user decides for him/herself if it’s good or bad. I, personally, returned to the classic PC without regret having played with the handy remote control and enjoyed the conveniences of Windows XP Media Center Edition. Many friends of mine, however, on seeing this small gray miracle with lacquered panels and hearing my account of what it could do, expressed the desire for a closer acquaintance. The fair sex were even ready to replace the plain gray box with the iDEQ 300G right away. Well, this is something the marketing folk should think about, while you must know one thing: it would be extremely hard to find a match for the iDEQ 300G in terms of functionality, capabilities and design. At least, today.