Review: 2nd Gen Mini-ITX - VIA EPIA-M9000

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INSTALLATION and USE

As there was no time to scour out a case or build something like the Breadbox PC for this board, an open system was temporarily assembled on a piece of scrap plywood. The system is shown below.

Test System Details

VIA EPIA-M9000 Mini-ITX integrated motherboard
256 MB DDR266 SDRAM Slot for only one strip
Seagate Barracuda IV 40G Our reference quiet hard drive
Toshiba SD1502 DVD-ROM Drive
Nexus NX-3000 Quiet ATX/PS2 PSU
Windows XP Pro SP1 with all patches
Samsung 955DF monitor 19" flat screen CRT monitor
PowerDVD XP 4.0 DVD playback software
Cable Internet access As part of 10/100 network

Installation of Windows went smoothly, with no significant glitches or problems. The system was quickly inserted into the home office network, which provides broadband Internet access via a shared cable modem.

General Computing

Boot time with Windows XP was respectable, coming in at 40~42 seconds. Power down only took 8~9 seconds.

Performance for general computing is fine. Subjectively, web browsing, email, and MS Office applications all worked smoothly without any serious loss in speed compared to two conventional systems: an AMD XP1600+ and a P4-2.2G system. No, it isn't the equal of those faster systems in all processes. Image manipulations generally took a longer than I am used to with most applications; the EPIA M is not the ideal platform for large image content creation. Smaller images (for the web, for example) were no trouble, however.

As VIA's primary target market for the EPIA-M9000 is the home multimedia entertainment PC, I focused more on its video / audio playback capabilities.

Good Quality Audio

With playback of CDs, WAV files and MP3s using Windows Media Player and Real Player, there is little to complain about in the EPIA-M9000. The sound quality is as good as with the higher power systems on hand. There are no pops or crackles in normal play.

Only if the audio output circuitry is overloaded (with too high a volume setting, bass boost or extreme special effects) does extraneous noise become a factor. This occurs only at very high levels and may have been specific to my setup. The clipping distortion of the onboard analog amplifier can become audible when pushed to extremes, so take a bit of care to ensure that the gain on the PC audio software controls is not set too high. This is common to all PC-based audio systems, however. For high quality multi-channel playback of movies, a separate surround-sound amplifier / speaker system is recommended with any multimedia PC.

Audio was a source of some problems with the original EPIA. (See Mauriet's lament.) After making the Breadbox PC and playing with it for a while, I came to the same conclusion. There seem to be too many digital artifacts in the form of pops and crackles, regardless of signal source. The EPIA-M with the CLE266 chipset fixes that.

Excellent DVD Playback

Playing several DVD movies on the 19" monitor using PowerDVD XP 4.0, I was impressed with the detailed imagery and smooth playback. There were no dropped frames, and the 30 frames per second performance remained constant throughout the extended use period. The sound quality was also excellent through a separate stereo (2-channel) hi-fi amplifier / speaker system. I do not have a Dolby surround sound system, so this aspect of performance could not be checked.

There was only one anomaly: using headphones on the Dolby surround headphone setting with Power DVD caused frame rate to suffer, with stuttering making playback unwatchable. All other audio setting were perfectly fine.

CPU utilization during DVD movie playback ranged 51~79% for the small handful of movies tried. This is considerably higher than the 22~35% CPU utilization obtained with the P4-2.2 system (with Matrox 550 AGP video card) but the comparison is only significant if you plan to multitask while watching a movie. That's not something I imagine most people want to do. It is not exactly a pleasant way to immerse yourself in the magic of a good movie.

The overall DVD playback performance is definitely a step up from the EPIA 5000, which suffers the odd dropped frame, occasional stutter and sometimes less-than-perfect audio reproduction. The EPIA-M9000 exhibits none of these problems.

Other Video Sources

In my view, these sources are of lesser importance than DVD because the typical resolution available is limited by the source. It is a veritable alphabet soup for digital video formats and software, but DivX, a version of MPEG-4, is tis becoming the most widely accepted standard, much like MP3 for audio. The quality of the few DivX movie trailers I have seen is impressive. Having little experience with Divx, I cannot say the testing is professional or conclusive.

Some movie trailers and music videos in a number of different format were downloaded to play on the EPIA-M9000 as well as the XP and the P4 systems mentioned above. The only authoritative conclusion that can be drawn is that with high quality encoding, the EPIA-M9000 is about equal in quality to either of the other systems. The Divx trailers (one of Warcraft III, the game, in particular) are generally very high quality and comparable to DVDs. With poor quality encoding, all there systems fared poorly.

CPU utilization with Divx files ran 85~100%, compared with about 40~50% for the AMD and Intel Systems. Again, this may be a factor if you multitask with other applications while watching a Divx movie, but it seems an unlikely thing to do.

TV Hookup

A Panasonic GAOO 27", two years old, with S-VIDEO and other inputs, is the only TV available. It is a high resolution TV with excellent picture quality. It was connected to the PC via a 6 foot long S-VIDEO cable. For reasons that could not be determined, the TV resisted all attempts to display the PC output beyond the bootup script. As soon as the Windows screen appeared, the TV screen simply went blank. The same problem was encountered with the other systems, one with a Matrox G550, the other a Matrox G400 Max. Nothing worked, so for now, the TV looks like the culprit. This issue will continue to be explored (with help from VIA) and a followup posted when more information is available.

STAYING COOL - and QUIET

The AC power dissipation of the system as described above was a maximum of 60W while playing a DVD. The minimum was ~52W. The PSU is known to be ~70% efficiency; therefore, DC power delivered was 36~42W. By contrast, the XP and P4 systems used for comparison drew 80~100W total (DC power) while playing DVDs. Accounting for the estimated power draw of the DVD-ROM drive and the hard drive, the power dissipated by the EPIA-M9000 board and one stick of 256 MB of memory appears to be only about 18W at maximum. At minimum, it might be as low as 14~15W.

The fan on the CPU HS is about the size of that found on northbridge heatsinks on conventional motherboards. An AVC model C4010T12H measuring 40 x 11 mm, its main specs are 6200 RPM, producing 7 CFM @ 12VDC. Its rated noise at this speed is 32 dBA @ 1 meter. It is a lot noisier than the EPIA 5000, which has no fan and therefore makes no noise. In the UBC anechoic chamber, with the motherboard powered by a fanless PSU, a reading of 33~34 dBA was obtained at 1 meter, verifying AVC's noise spec.

This noise level is not high by mainstream PC standards, but can be heard even inside a decent case if a quiet PSU and hard drive are employed. It is a somewhat high pitched sound. In the test environment of 18~20C, the CPU temperature was maintained at just around 54C. Even after an hour of high CPU utilization with Divx and other digital media, the CPU temperature did not exceed 60C.

The CPU in the EPIA-M9000 is a variant of the VIA C3 processor, which is very tolerant of high temperatures, well in excess of 80C. Their CPU Burn video (at the bottom of this VIA Arena page or downloadable here) shows a C3-800 MHz processor running perfectly stable with a game demo -- without any heatsink for over 24 hours. So...

Slowing down the HS fan

A Zalman Fanmate 1 fan voltage controller was connected between the motherboard header and the HS fan. The fan speed was then reduced to about 3300~3400 RPM. Both the frequency and the noise level was lowered considerably. I did not have access to the UBC anechoic chamber and its high precision sound level meter at this point. The fan was probably making too little noise for it to be measured accurately at 1 meter anyway. As a rough guide, it was about as loud as the Seagate Barracuda IV single-platter drive sitting on foam (decoupled). Seagate rates this drive at 2.0 bels (20 dBA sound power). Suffice it to say that with the very quiet Nexus NX-3000 power supply, this fan speed reduction brought the overall system noise down to a whisper. A quiet whisper.

CPU temperature naturally rose. It went up 7 degrees in the BIOS to 61C and remained stable at this temperature for 20 minutes. This was the fan setting used throughout the range of tests and video applications described earlier. As mentioned already, there was no instability in the system.

HS Fan Speed
Noise
CPU Temp**
Stock: 6300~6400 RPM
33 dBA @ 1 M
54C
Slow: 3300~3400 RPM
18 dBA @ 1 M*
61C

*This is a guesstimate based on the perceived noise compared with the Seagate Barracuda IV 40G drive. **At 20C room ambient.

VIA mentioned that the CLE266 chip might exhibit high temperatures with prolonged DVD playback. A thermal sensor was placed in the center of the chip heatsink and monitored with DigiDoc. At idle, the heatsink reached ~33C. At the end of a 2 hour movie, it was hot, but not too hot to touch. The measured temperature was 43C.

CONCLUSIONS

VIA is right on target with the EPIA-M9000. For an entertainment PC, its audio and DVD playback performance is on par with much more powerful non-integrated motherboard + CPU + video card + audio combinations from AMD and Intel. EPIA-M's tiny size and low power consumption, its ability to stay cool and quiet, and its low cost combine to make a compelling statement: smaller is better.

VIA's spiffy Hi-Fi PC, soon coming to a computer -- um, electronics? -- store near you.

In recent weeks, VIA have been promoting a Hi-Fi PC based on the EPIA-M series boards, as shown here by Mini-ITX.com. Mini-ITX.com reports (and ZDNet-UK confirms) that:

VIA's Hi-Fi PC will play CDs and DVDs straight from a program called "PlayNow!" sitting in the BIOS. Without the overheads of an operating system loading from hard disk, a DVD or MP3 CD will play from startup in about 5 seconds. The OS will boot as normal if no DVD is present. Currently PlayNow! won't play content from a connected hard drive, just from a CD/DVD. The Hi-Fi PC won't be sold direct by VIA, but will be provided to manufacturers in a barebones form - they will add their own branding. Although the imminent EPIA-M is at the heart of the Hi-Fi PC, the extended BIOS functionality won't be - licensing issues have prevented this.

When we've had a chance to play with a proper case for the EPIA-M9000, we'll tell you all about it. We may also be able to bring you a review of the fanless EPIA-M6000, and perhaps even the sexy Hi-Fi PC.

Much thanks and appreciation to VIA for providing us the review sample and for their assistance with relevant information. To keep up to the latest news about VIA's EDEN platform, you can subscribe to their newsletter by going to the link on the left.

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