The AMD Zacate boards sounded like they would make a good replacement for my HTPC which was an AMD Athlon II X2 295 and 785G. That meant I could use shift parts around and use this more powerful system for something else and use less power. Plus my Antec NSK-1480 case was a little bigger than I wanted. A new mITX system sounded like a good idea. I have been going with Gigabyte boards for a while now and decided to grab their version, the GA-E350N-USB3. I knew it had the tiny little fan on it, and it seems some of the recent GB boards haven't been as good as others. But I did it anyways. The quick conclusion, I wish I would have waiting and gone with something else. But, I'm making it work. So, to begin...Noise
The first thing obviously is the little fan. It's actually not terrible. It's fairly smooth and wasn't really noticeable when I first turned it on at my office. It's not as quiet there as my basement at home. But even then I noticed it tended to cause some resonance and created a drone noise. I ended up removing the screws and sticking some soft foam along the sides with then held it in place in the heat sink. That helped with the drone. But it still is a tiny fan and is noticeable at close ranges. Here's a quick picture of it setup originally...
Now for the bad part, it runs at 12V ALL THE TIME! As far as I can tell, there is no fan speed control on this board at all. Gigabytes built in options for fan speed control have never been great. But the BIOS (no UEFI) didn't have anything for Smart Fan or whatever. Their EasyTune software had the fan speed control options disabled. And SpeedFan recognized some speed controllers but adjusting them did nothing. So I'm stuck with a static fan speed and fan-mates to regulate them. A fan-mate at full speed (just under 12V) was enough to bring the fan noise down enough to be acceptable. But being a small fan on a small heat sink, the CPU temperatures got pretty high. Probably why there's no fan speed control. You need that little fan running at full speed to keep it cool.Power
Power draw also wasn't as good as what I saw reported by other boards. Although that's harder to compare as who knows how accurate my kill-a-watt is or how my picoPSU setup compares to others. I was able to get 19W idle, 29W under 2x CPU burn and 34W with CPU burn + Furmark. Still better than any other full-powered desktop system I have. It actually is almost the exact same power draw as my old Pentium M 740 on an AOpen i915GMm-N. Except that it performs much better, especially on the graphics/video side.Undervolting
Next thing to try out was some undervolting. I was able to drop it by 0.1V which dropped the power to about 18/27/32. Not bad. A 0.125V undervolt seemed to be fine but I did have some crashes. Might have been the CPU overheating from the fan though. Not sure. 0.15V would crash shortly after booting into windows. But this confused me a little as it means it was running 800MHz@0.95V and 1.6GHZ@1.2V. That seems pretty high compared to other CPUs. Generally you can get by at 800MHz with 0.7-0.8V and 1.6GHz somewhere around 0.9-1.0V. Maybe this CPU is different... Or, I questioned if C'n'Q was running at first as CPUz and EasyTune never reported it running anything other than 1.6GHz. Then I was directed at a new version of CPUz. This one would show the speed drop. But that's when I noticed that some times it would show the speed going back up to 1.6GHz but the voltage would stay at the idle voltage of 0.95V. Well, if that's really what is happening, that would explain why I can't undervolt anymore. If I drop down to 0.9V idle but it actual runs the CPU at 1.6GHz, that's pushing the limit I would expect at that speed. I plan on asking Gigabyte about this. Not sure I'll get any kind of answer. If anyone has a different Zacate board, please share if you notice the same thing.Time to Hack!
So, the biggest problem was the small fan and heat sink. I have a bunch of old PII/PIII slot heat sinks laying around. Dell had some pretty beefy hunks of aluminum tied to these things. I decided to see if I could cut one up and make it fit. First thing was to remove the old HS. There are four spring loaded screws holding it. Two each for the APU and FCH. Once I got that off I noticed that the HS itself had two plates screwed to the bottom which actually made contact with the cores. Three screws each for these. First thing I noticed was that there was very little TIM between the HS and plates. They were screwed on pretty tight so maybe it didn't need much.
Next, I measured out what all I had to watch out for with the new HS. I cut out some paper templates and applied them to the new HS. I had to make sure not to hit any nearby components. They put some capacitors right in between the CPU and FCH. But once you're about 0.4" above the board, your clear of most things. I measured this without the mounting plates. The width of these actually push the heat sink up above some of the smaller components. So I probably could have made things a little easier by taking that into account.
It was a LOT of work cutting this thing up this much. And then I also had to clear out some room for the new bolts to come through with the washers and nuts behind them. For a while there I didn't think I was going to be able to make it work. But finally I got it all together.
I crossed my fingers and turned it on and it worked. Phew! Although I then plugged it into the TV and it wouldn't turn on. Oh crap. It seems to have been the PSU. I plugged back in my picoPSU and it was fine again. Had to re-wire some stuff to fit the picoPSU in the case. But then it was ready to go.
I also modded the case to have a 120mm Scythe S-Flex fan at 500rpm blowing down on the board. The case has a spot for a slim 80mm fan on the side (or top depending on the orientation of the case). But the air flow didn't really make it across the heat sink well so the temps got a bit warm. There's not much of an opening for air above the Scythe fan, but it still is able to keep things plenty cool.Conclusion
Given the price of the Gigabyte board, it seems like it should be... more. ASRock and MSI are both cheaper. Although without some stuff like USB3. (I could care less about that this time) ASUS costs more but seems better all around. Given the small heat sink, no easy way to change said heat sink and especially the lack of fan control, I really can't recommend this board over the others. I actually could have fit the microATX ASUS in my case. That probably would have been the better choice. But I've made due with what I have. This experience has me convinced that the next motherboard I get will not be a Gigabyte. Either ASUS or MSI most likely. The ASUS UEFI and overall fan control has me interested especially.