VIA EPIA EN12000E: Today's most efficient CPU & mainboard

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PERFORMANCE: SUBJECTIVE IMPRESSIONS

It was very difficult to judge the performance of the EPIA EN12000E. On the one hand, testing by other sites such as SFFTech has shown conclusively that the 1.2 GHz Eden processor falls far behind even the lowly Sempron when conventional benchmarks are used. On the other hand, such benchmarks do not yield much insight into whether the EN12000E is powerful enough; they merely show where it stands in relation to other products on the market. If all of the available products are powerful enough for the task at hand, the differences uncovered by the benchmarking are somewhat artificial.

For this reason, we decided to test the performance subjectively by using the EPIA as we would any other system. Subjective differences between it and a number of other systems that we are familiar with could then be noticed.

Test 1: Writing a Review

The first test consisted of writing a full hardware review. This is not an extraordinarily strenuous task, but it does involve lots of multitasking. Four programs were used simultaneously during this test: Photoshop CS, Dreamweaver 4, FireFox (often with 10+ tabs open and the Adobe Acrobat plugin running in the background), and Outlook Express. Over the course of the day, all four programs see heavy use, and it is not uncommon to be switching back and forth rapidly between at least three of them. The baseline was my main system, based around a single-core Athlon 64 3800+, VIA's K8T800 Pro chipset, and 2 GB of RAM.

When using each application individually, there was very little subjective difference between the two systems. All programs responded with equal speed, and I never felt as though the EPIA was struggling to keep up with me. This is not surprising, since the majority of the work consists of typing and rendering web pages — which any computer has been capable of since about 1995.

Photoshop deserves a special mention, since there were some cases where I noticed a difference. The most significant difference was load times — not of the program itself but of images. The EPIA took significantly longer to decode the JPEG encoding and set the image up in memory for editing. The editing process itself was no different from on my main machine. Most of the limited functions that I use to prepare photos for the web ran perfectly well on the EPIA. Cropping, Resizing the image, color correction, the sharpen filter and saving all worked to my satisfaction.

However, one function never worked properly. Nine times out of ten, attempting to merge two images by dropping a layer from onto the other would freeze the system completely — no Blue Screen of Death, no pop-up from Windows asking if I wanted to submit an error report. Rather, the display would freeze entirely, and no amount of coaxing would unfreeze it. Even the reset button on the case was nonfunctional. Only holding down the power button for four seconds would allow the system to be rebooted. The fact that the error was so easily repeatable in a specific way suggests that the problem was a software issue, perhaps with the CPU driver.

Photoshop aside, the lower performance of the EPIA was otherwise visible only when switching tasks, when it would often take a second or two to redraw the new application. The delay seemed quite inconsistent: Sometimes the switch would be almost instantaneous, and others it would take longer. On average, though, the lag between tasks was quite minor and did not impact how I worked.

Test 2: DVD and Media Playback

VIA boasts of the EPIA's media playback abilities, and it wasn't hard to confirm whether it was up to the task. I have a library of video files (mostly anime) encoded in just about every imaginable combination of codecs. It was the work of a moment to select a few representative clips to test.

Two baseline systems were used for comparison:

  • An old, slow HTPC based on an AMD Duron 750 MHz with a VIA KT133 chipset and 768 MB of RAM, and...
  • Its replacement, based on an AMD Sempron 3400+, an nForce3 chipset, and 512 MB of RAM.

Both systems use an ATI Radeon 9250 to power an HD-capable TV out of the DVI port.

Before the testing could begin, the EPIA needed to be connected to the TV. This proved to be a lot of trouble. The main issue was that it did not properly autodetect which displays were connected, requiring the correct outputs to be manually enabled in the BIOS. This was a serious issue, as it involved moving a computer monitor into the living room next to the TV so that the setting could be switched over.

To make matters worse, switching between the two different display types confused the system enough that Windows would no longer boot no matter what combination of displays was connected. After several hours of experimentation, the only workable solution was to set the BIOS to "Optimal Performance". Oddly enough, the "Fail-Safe Defaults" did not produce a bootable system.

The display quality from the composite video output was very poor. In addition to being blurry (which is can be expected of any graphics card), the image had horizontal "ripples" that gradually moved up the screen. Unfortunately, neither the S-Video nor the Component outputs could be tested, as the correct cables were not available.

The results of the media playback are summarized in the table below. Unless otherwise noted, Media Player Classic was the media player and FFDShow (SSE2, 2006-05-22) was the decoder / renderer. The Duron system was tested using the non SSE2 version of FFDShow, as it does not support these extensions.

VIA EPIA EN12000E: Media Playback Performance
File Type / Codec
EPIA EN12000E
Duron System
Sempron System
DVD — Chicago
Played Fine
Stuttering
Played Fine
AVI / XviD
Played Fine
Played Fine
Played Fine
AVI / DivX 5
Played Fine
Played Fine
Played Fine
AVI / Windows Media 9
Played Fine
Played Fine
Played Fine
MKV / XviD
Played Fine
Played Fine
Played Fine
OGM / XviD
Played Fine
Played Fine
Played Fine
MP4 / x264
Stuttering
Stuttering
Played Fine
WMV / Windows Media 10 — 720P
Smooth video, stuttering audio
Stuttering
Stuttering
WMV / Windows Media 10 — 1080P
Stuttering
Stuttering
Stuttering

By and large, the EPIA had no problems with standard definition files. It worked perfectly for DVD playback and all of the codecs except for x264. x264 is an uncommon but up-and-coming codec that is still in the beta phases of development. When it is finally released in its full form, it may well be better optimized, but it clearly taxed the EPIA as it is now.

Subjectively, the EPIA was clearly better than the Duron system, which struggled with some DVDs (Chicago most of all) and fared even worse when trying to play x264. On the other hand, the Sempron had no problems with any of the standard definition files.

None of the test systems was capable of playing either of the HD samples correctly, although the EPIA probably came the closest to playing the 720P clip smoothly. Only an intermittent stutter in the audio track caused us to notice that the clip was not played back properly. Neither of the other two systems — or even my A64 3800+ main system — was capable of playing the 720P clip without frequent dropped frames. Oddly enough, using Window Media Player instead of Media Player Classic degraded performance significantly, and the EPIA was not capable of playing the 720P video smoothly when Window Media Player was used. None of the test systems were capable of playing the 1080P clip properly.

Test 3: Gaming

The EPIA is not designed for gaming, but why not try a single game just to see how it would do. The game was Warcraft III — hardly a challenge, but still the most graphics-intensive game that I own. According to Blizzard Entertainment, the minimum requirements are a 400 MHz processor and an video card with 8 MB of RAM. Once again, the reference system was my main system, based on an Athlon 64 3800+ and a GeForce 4600Ti graphics card with 128 MB of VRAM. This system is far more than the game requires, and plays fluidly even at 1600x1200 resolution.

The EPIA, on the other hand, struggled even at 1024x768 and was most playable at 800x600. Even then, some slight stuttering while scrolling across the game map showed that the onboard graphics were working hard to keep up.

CONCLUSIONS

If low noise and power efficiency are your primary requirements and you're willing to sacrifice a little performance, VIA's EPIA EN12000E can fit the bill quite nicely. Although you're almost certain to notice some difference in speed, I was shocked at how little functionality was lost by the much slower processor. After many horror stories about how poorly VIA's processors fare compared to Intel's or AMD's chips, I was prepared for the worst. In reality, however, my Duron 750 system felt much slower than the EPIA. In terms of responsiveness, the EPIA seemed roughly on par with the Sempron 3400+, which is clocked almost twice as fast.

Best of all, the EPIA can be run in a completely fanless system without overheating. Even a system based on a notebook processor cannot easily make that claim. The key is the exceptionally low power consumption of the processor and chipset together, which topped out at 35W under load and could be brought down to 24W when an efficient power supply was used.

That said, not everyone will want to compromise performance for noise and power consumption. There are more than a few things that the EPIA cannot do. Number one on that list is gaming. The EPIA struggled even with lowly Warcraft III. It also cannot handle HD video properly — at least not when it is encoded in Windows Media format. It is possible that an HD clip encoded in MPEG 2 — as is likely to be found on upcoming HD DVD and Blue-Ray discs — would have been able to take advantage of the hardware decoder and played back properly.

The system also seemed a little unstable at times, as the frequent system freezes with Photoshop will attest. The odd behavior when switching display types was also a little disconcerting.

Overall, the EN12000E seems best for a purpose-built system. So long as the performance is up to that purpose, the EPIA can probably do it cheaper, cooler, more efficiently, and more quietly than an AMD or Intel-based system. It would do well as a low-end HTPC or as a browser portal. However, for a general purpose PC where the performance requirements are unpredictable, the EPIA is almost certain to run into the occasional task where a little more oomph would be appreciated.

Much thanks to VIA Technology for supplying the EPIA EN12000E sample for us to review.

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SPCR Articles of Related Interest

Tiny, Silent and Efficient: The picoPSU
17" Apple iMac: The Official SPCR Review
Review: VIA EPIA M w/ new Nehemiah core
Review: 2nd Gen Mini-ITX - VIA EPIA-M9000
Review: VIA's Small & Quiet Eden Platform
Desktop CPU Power Survey, April 2006

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