Review: VIA EPIA M w/ new Nehemiah core

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REAL WORLD PERFORMANCE

So how do all the above benchmark improvements translate in actual use?

Since the biggest improvements are in multimedia, DivX and DVD playback were used to see, hear and otherwise perceive difference between the Nehemiah and Ezra-T core versions. A 19" ADI monitor (a good performer with up to 1600 x 1200 resolution) and a Panasonic GAOO 27" TV were used. High resolution Grado SR-60 headphones were used, along with an assortment of typical multimedia PC speakers.

Generally, no significant differences were observed between the two boards for video performance on the monitor. Divx and DVD playback were both very nice, smooth and detailed without frame dropouts or artifacts. Better than TV, in general, though because one sits further back with the large screen of a TV, it is hard to say for sure. In any case, if the monitor was just a bit bigger so I could sit further back comfortably, I'd personally be happy to use the EPIA M for watching DVD movies. No attempt was made to multitask -- i.e., check email while watching a movie, etc. (It just seems silly...)

Only a small number of DVD movies and Divx files were used. Perhaps these were not demanding enough of the playback system. It is possible that a very demanding video clip could have showed more of the difference.

Observing CPU utilization, the M10000 might be very slightly more efficient (maybe 5% average?) -- it was hard to tell, as the difference was small. AC power consumption, as measured with a Kill-a-Watt meter, seemed very slightly better for the M10000, and likely directly proportionate with the possibly reduced CPU load.

The sound quality on both boards was the same on all the media tried, with all speaker options. Again it is possible that more demanding sources -- or a full multi-channel speaker system -- could have shown more of a difference. Suffice it to say it was certainly satisfactory for the purpose.

The same generalization can be made using a TV for video: Not much difference between the two boards. Neither were very good, not any better than a VCR. But this is what I have also found with non-integrated video cards on AMD XP and Intel P4 systems. Playback over TV of DVD or Divx is not very good through the S-video link.

The bottleneck may be the Panasonic TV, considered fairly high end a couple of years ago but lacking the higher definition of the latest and greatest TVs today. It could also be the generic S-video cable. I have been told that a better quality S-video cable may improve matters. I have yet to see good enough PC-to-TV video performance in my admittedly limited experience to believe it desirable in any form. It would be most interesting to see what a really good PC-to-TV setup could do.

CONCLUSION

The Nehemiah EPIA M is a welcome advance in the growing Mini-ITX world. Its higher processing power and efficiency will surely be beneficial, especially as clock speeds increase. The new quieter fan is a much needed improvement, and as we have seen, VIA is likely going to continue juggling cooling solutions to keep noise to a minimum as their platform ramps up in speed and power.

When all is said and done, the sheer space and electrical power efficiency of this little device is hard to beat. The photo below shows an EPIA M10000 system encased in a slim black Morex Cubid 2699 case along side a standard size mouse and the ADI 19" monitor. The case stands only a foot tall, and it is hardly bigger than a thick 3-ring binder, or about the size of two notebook computers stacked.

The comparison to a notebook is not a stretch. The Morex case sports a PSU that uses a small external transformer encased in plastic. The highest AC power draw, during a cinematic climax in an action movie DVD, was 49W. A reasonable guesstimate on the best power efficiency of this PSU is 60%. This means the entire system was pulling just 29W (DC). In idle, the AC power draw dropped to just 27W or ~16W DC power draw. This is in notebook territory! My Dell P3-866 notebook draws 25W on active idle and 35W peak on DivX playback (which consumes less power than DVD because the DVD drive is not working).

That wraps things up for now. Look soon for a review of two mini-ITX cases, including the Morex shown above.

Much thanks and appreciation to VIA for providing us the review sample and for their assistance with relevant information.

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POSTSCRIPT - March 21, 2003

The odd clock speed of the sample Nehemiah EPIA-M board and my inability to see any real world improvements over the Ezra-T M9000 board raised questions for some readers. This led to a lengthy exchange with VIA personnel now back from Cebit, exhausted. It helped to clarify a few key issues:

There is absolutely no question that the sample IS a Nehemiah core erroneously locked at the wrong clock speed. They agree that this made for a better apple-to-apple comparison against the M9000 board, allowing the cores to be compared without the interference of differing clock speeds.

This page about VIA C3 power efficiency tells us that that the peak power dissipation of Nehemiah core at 1 GHz is 15 Watts. In contrast, an Intel Celeron at the same speed is said to draw 27.5W. What the page does not tell us is the fact that the Ezra-T at 1 GHz draws 18W. The Nehemiah draws 3W less power; it is more powerful yet consumes less electrical power -- a neat trick. My observations above about slightly decreased power were not imagined.

VIA says the improvement in multimedia processing power is most easily seen in the creation of video files. The time it takes with the Nehemiah is considerably shorter, apparently, than with the Ezra-T. I cannot confirm this at this time as such software is unfamiliar to me, but have little reason to doubt the claim. When time allows, we will return to this issue in future.

Finally, VIA says:

"The Nehemiah is a new more efficient core that provides more performance for general tasks while still maintaining quiet operation, even higher power efficiency, a low profile and great DVD and audio. The fact of the matter is also that the Nehemiah core will take us to higher CPU frequencies later this year, where the Ezra-T had basically reached its ceiling." (emphasis mine)

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