another new htpc mini-itx

I’m having a hard time deciding what to do to get my replacement Mini-ITX board for my HDTV.  I’m hoping that if I do a bit of a braindump, it might help me sort things out, and soliciting outside opinions wouldn’t hurt either.

The basic story is that, last time I bought a Mini, I did a lot of research on the VIA C7 boards and had a good one picked out, but at the last second changed my mind to get an MSI instead with an Intel Atom 330 (dual-core 1.6ghz with hypertheading).  I just saw all the fancy CPU features and went ga-ga, and ignoring it being from MSI, I picked that one.

I made a lot of assumptions with this board, and I’ve had a lot of problems since.  I won’t go into the details here, since that’s boring, and I’ve already covered it.

Now then, I’m looking at options for replacments, and it’s basically come down to two contenders: a Zotac Nvidia ION chipset with an Intel Atom, or another Zotac Mini-ITX board without an integrated CPU.

For reference, here’s the two boards I’m looking at: Zotac GF9300-D-E and Zotac IONITX-C-U.

As far as specs go, they are nearly exactly identical.  The only real differences is that the ION has a PCI-Express Mini slot, while the other has a regular one.  But aside from that, they both have onboard Nvidia graphics chipsets (ION: 9400M, GF9300-D-E: 9300M), so using VDPAU isn’t going to be a problem.

The difference I’m looking at is that one is fanless (the IONs all are) and the other isn’t.  Now, generally speaking, I hate background noise.  I sometimes can’t filter it out when I’m trying to pay close attention to something, as in watching TV or a movie, which is where this thing would be.  So having a fanless HTPC would be a top priority, but if it’s going to overheat with the Intel Atom, then I don’t want to risk it.

The alternative is to get the 9300M Mini, and put a low-powered Celeron in there with a quiet fan and hope for the best.  That CPU would come with speedstepping so I could throttle it down to pretty low.  My VIA at home runs at 800 mhz all the time and does perfectly fine for standard-definition playback, which is what my entire library is in now.  I’m guessing (and this is where problems start to form) that if I throttle it low enough, and it’s already a slow processor to start with, that the fan won’t be kicking into high gear much and it’ll be easier to ignore.

On the flipside, the argument for the Intel Atom is that, if I get one of the IONs with the Atom 230 instead of the 330, then it would run less hot to start with.  My MSI Mini-ITX at home is a 330 and is both a dual-core 64-bit and has hyperthreading.  Both the 230 and the 330 have hyperthreading, and run at 1.6 ghz on the ION, but only the 330 is dual-core.

I really can’t decide which one I should get, and have been bouncing back and forth between the two options for a while now.  Frankly, it’s driving me a little insane.  On one hand, I’m betting that the fan won’t be loud, and on the other, I’m hoping the CPU won’t run too hot and burn things out.  It’s a gamble either way.  Right now I’m leaning towards getting the 9300.  I figure I’d have more options with picking my own CPU and fan and being able to throttle it myself.

8 comments on “another new htpc mini-itx

  1. Levi

    I recently was looking at similar systems for a myth frontend. I decided to go with a micro-ATX system instead because it was quite a bit cheaper. If I was going to go mini-ITX, though, I’d definitely go for the ION. It’s an integrated solution that’s been proven to work well with MythTV, and for the extra cash over the ATX systems you actually get reduced fan noise and fewer moving parts. Get a passively cooled chassis and net boot, and you’ll have a silent box, which is worth way more than CPU flexibility.

  2. nightmorph

    Uh, double-check the specifications for the IONITX, dude: it does not come with any expansion slots. No PCI, no PCIe, nothing.

    Here’s a relevant review of the 9300 board by SilentPCReview; it’s probably just the sort of review you’re looking for:

    Tech Report has a good review of the IONITX:

    I know you’re after hardware video decoding, so it’s expected that you’d go for the VDPAU stuff nVidia offers in their proprietary driver. Otherwise, I’d suggest finding an ATI board, as the =R600 chipsets are now completely working for 2D accel. Flicker-free Xv playback.

    Interesting, AMD is making improvements to its UVD2, speeding up transcoding:

    The problem, though, is that neither UVD1 nor UVD2 have come to Linux in any form, despite repeated promises by ATI to do something with their XvBA (x-video bitstream acceleration). Not even the proprietary drivers support it. Developers have poked the sample code and the proprietary driver headers, but right now there’s still no way to do anything with the (theoretical) beginnings of XvBA support.

    Shame, really. ATI stands to gain so much if only they’d get off their butts and prod their partners to do the same and finally deliver some progress on XvBA for Linux. They don’t usually do free drivers, but if not a code drop, at least s’more documentation and specifications would go a long way toward securing their place in the Linux community.

      1. Steve

        Oh, you said the IONITX. Whoops. It has a PCIe Mini. Look closely. Two of the four ION boards come with a bundled 802.11n wifi card, and the other two are just empty, so you can put your own in. I’ll probably get my own Intel.

        1. nightmorph

          Eh, thought you meant a regular PCI or PCIe slot, like most min-ITX boards have.

          Y’know, there’s room for a PCIe x1 slot on those IONITX boards in addition to the miniPCIe slot; shame Zotac didn’t include one. Granted, there aren’t too many PCIe x1 peripherals, aside from networking cards which are taken care of by the mini-slot. But I have seen a few TV tuners, which might be a good fit.

    1. Steve

      I’ve thought about ATI, but the nvidia PureHD stuff works, and it works now, and it works well enough … besides, these things don’t cost *that* much (amazingly enough) that I could always switch to something else later on down the road, and a year or two from now they’ll probably be much more powerful, with the bugs worked out, etc., etc.

      That said, I think I decided on the fanless. I had lunch with a good friend of mine who jogged my memory. He said, “your version of quiet and a normal person’s version of quiet are two completely different things.” I pick up on any background noise. Fanless, it’s gotta be.

      I’m willing to bet that all the problems were with the MSI board. Google seems to agree with me. Apparently they are crappier than I thought.

  3. nightmorph

    Huh, your blog software hates using greater-than-less-than symbols. Meant to say that both the R500 (and lower) and the R600 (and higher) chipsets have proper 2D acceleration. I’m about to buy a nice low-wattage card as I’m aiming to downsize/sidegrade my desktop. Will probably go for a 4xxx part, rather than 3xxx. Either chip will deliver working 2D accel.

    1. Steve

      I’ve been wanting to get an ATI card for a long time, just to see how well they handle and how good the video looks, because sometimes there is *some* artifacts / blocking with the nvidia on playback of DVDs. I have a second Mini that is starting to die, and I might replace it with something that uses an external video card. I dunno. I would consider ATI if I knew I wasn’t gonna go HD on it. I’d love to get one to play with it, but I’m not that rich.


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