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Intel D945GCLF m-ITX: Atom For The Desktop

Intel D945GCLF: Atom For The Desktop

September 4, 2008 by Lawrence Lee

Product Intel D945GCLF

Intel CPU/Motherboard
Manufacturer Intel
Street Price US$70~80

The release of the original Asus
EEE PC
popularized the sub-notebook market almost over night. Asus' success
spurred their competitors into making similar products, such as the MSI
Wind
and Acer Aspire
One
. The Asus EEE has grown into an entire line including updated, larger
portable computers, and mini-desktops systems as well. To keep power consumption,
heat, and cost at a minimum, all of these new products utilize Intel's Atom
processor. As SPCR's editor Mike
Chin reported from the Intel Developers Forum
last month, Intel says there
are more than 700 projects involving the Atom.

Atom is an extremely efficient, low-power chip that Intel hopes will find its
way into not just netbooks, but any small portable device which requires a fair
amount of CPU power. In Atom, Intel has created their smallest, and in some
ways, their most technologically advanced chip using a 45nm fabrication process.
On paper, it resembles the early Pentium 4 somewhat in that it is a single core
processor with a relatively low clock speed, 512KB of L2 cache, a 533Mhz front
side bus, and hyperthreading. Unlike the Pentium 4, which turned into a hot,
inefficient beast in the middle of its life cycle, desktop versions of Atom
have a TDP of only 4W, which is very low, indeed.

Low power processors have traditionally been much valued in the mini-ITX market,
where products are often embedded and sealed in kiosks, PoS displays and other
specialized applications where cooling, access and AC power may be limited.
Atom is an excellent candidate for such applications.

Intel's Celeron-based D201GLY2 was
a milestone for the form factor when it was released a year ago. For the first
time a mini-ITX motherboard with an embedded processor was widely available
at a very affordable price. It was also Intel's first mini-ITX board. While
the D201GLY2 utilized a SiS chipset to power the board, the D945GCLF being examined
here is an all-Intel solution utilizing a 1.6Ghz Atom 230 processor and Intel's
GMA 950 integrated graphics in the 945GC chipset.



The D945GCLF box is small, not much larger than the packaging for Intel's
processors. The box is shaded in classic Intel blue.




In keeping with the board's compact size, the accessories are kept to
a minimum.


Intel D945GCLF: Specifications (from the
product web page
)
Form factor

Mini-ITX / micro-ATX compatible
(6.75 inches by 6.75 inches [171.45 millimeters by 171.45 millimeters])
Processor Integrated Intel® Atom™
processor 230 with a 533 MHz system bus
Memory * One 240-pin DDR2 SDRAM
Dual Inline Memory Module (DIMM) sockets

* Support for DDR2 533 / 667 MHz DIMMs

* Support for up to 2 GBS of system memory
Chipset * Intel® 945GC and ICH7
Audio Intel® High Definition Audio in the following configuration:

* Realtek ALC662 audio code (2+2 channel HD audio)
Video Intel® Graphics Media
Accelerator 950
I/O control SMSC* LPC47M997 based Legacy
I/O controller for serial, parallel, and PS/2* ports
LAN support 10/100 Mbits/sec LAN subsystem
using the Realtek LAN adapter device
Peripheral interfaces * Six USB 2.0 ports

* Two SATA ports (3.0 GB/s)

* One parallel ATA IDE interface with UDMA 33, ATA-66/100 support

* One serial port

* One parallel port

* PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports
Expansion capabilities One PCI Conventional* bus
connector

PHYSICAL DETAILS & LAYOUT

A board's layout is important in several regards. The positioning of components
can dictate compatibility with other products (third party heatsinks mainly)
and also ease of installation. Poorly placed power connectors can also disrupt
airflow and make the system more thermally challenging.



Viewed from the side.

The efficient Atom processor only requires a tiny, low-profile heatsink to
provide adequate cooling. Next to it, monstrous by comparison, sits the northbridge
cooler. Not only is it many times taller (43mm high measured from the PCB),
it also comes equipped with a 40mm fan hard-mounted with two screws. That is
a hint to the Achilles heel of this board.



Layout.

As a mini-ITX board there are very few expansion options. There are two SATA
ports and fan headers, and only one IDE port, PCI slot, and onboard USB header.
While the embedded low-power processor uses very little real estate, parts of
the layout still seemed cramped — the CMOS battery, memory slot, and IDE port
almost touch.



The back panel.

The back panel has an old school look, complete with legacy serial and parallel
ports, which Intel says are still of high interest in commercial and industrial
specialized applications where this board will see the greatest demand. To cut
costs, only the bare essential features are provided: Analog video via a single
VGA port, 10/100 ethernet, and a 4-channel high definition audio controller.
This is more similar to the Zotac
NF610i-ITX
we recently reviewed, rather than the full featured (but much
more costly) Albatron KI690-AM2
AMD-based mini-ITX board or the similarly pricey EPIA
EN12000E
from VIA, the originator of the mini-ITX form factor.

BIOS

BIOS options on mini-ITX boards are typically spartan. The presence
of an IGP and the extremely limited cooling associated with the platform makes
manufacturers nervous about allowing users the ability to customize their
clock/voltage settings.

Notable Available BIOS Adjustments
Setting
Options
CPU FSB N/A
CPU Voltage N/A
Memory Frequency 400/533/667Mhz
Memory Timings Basic
Memory Voltage N/A
Video Memory Size 32MB, 64MB, 128MB

Typical of Intel motherboards, the BIOS is completely locked
down with only the very basic memory options available. It doesn't look like
we'll be overclocking Atom today.



"Boot Configuration."

There is some limited fan control available — a fixed speed
of between 50% and 100% for any fan connected to the system fan header.



"Hardware Monitoring."

The Hardware Monitoring section provides a basic readout of

the system's temperatures, voltages and fan speeds.

TEST METHODOLOGY

Test Setup:

Measurement and Analysis Tools

Our main test procedure is designed to determine the overall system power
consumption at various states (measured using a Seasonic Power Angel), and to
test the integrated graphics' proficiency at playing back high definition videos.
Standard HD-DVD and Blu Ray discs can be encoded in three different codecs by
design: MPEG-2, H.264/AVC and VC-1. MPEG-2 has been around for a number of years
and is not demanding on modern system resources. H.264 and VC-1 encoded videos
on the other hand, due to the amount of complexity in their compression schemes,
are extremely stressful and will not play smoothly (or at all) on slower PCs,
especially with antiquated video subsystems.

We use a variety of H.264/VC-1 clips encoded for playback on the PC. The clips
are played with PowerDVD 7 and a CPU usage graph is created by the Windows Task
Manger for analysis to determine the approximate mean and peak CPU usage. High
CPU usage is indicative of poor video decoding ability on the part of the integrated
graphics subsystem. If the video (and/or audio) skips or freezes, we conclude
the board's IGP (in conjunction with the processor) is adequate to decompress
the clip properly.

Video Test Suite



720p | 25fps | ~5.7mbps
Dark Knight:
Dark Knight Trailer 3
is encoded in H.264 with Apple Quicktime.




1080p | 24fps | ~10mbps
Rush Hour:
Rush Hour 3 Trailer 1
is encoded in H.264 with Apple Quicktime.




1080p | 24fps | ~7.5mbps
Coral Reef:
Coral Reef Adventure trailer
is encoded in VC-1 using the
WMV3 codec (commonly recognized by the moniker, "HD WMV").


TEST RESULTS

As the motherboard only has a single memory slot, and Windows Vista is a notorious
memory hog, we went with XP for our test system. The hardware we used was basic:
1GB of system memory, a notebook hard drive and an 80 Plus SFX power supply.

Test Results: Intel D945GCLF
Test State
CPU Usage
System

Power (AC)
Mean
Peak
Off
N/A
1W
Standby (S3)
N/A
2W
Idle
N/A
27W
Dark Knight
62%
94%
31W
Rush Hour
97%
99%
33W
Coral Reef
63%
73%
33W
Prime95
100%
31W
Prime95 + ATITool
100%
38W
Grey boxes indicate test failure.

The D945GCLF idled at 27W — while this is an impressive number it is only
4W less than the Gigabyte
GA-MA74GM-S2
micro-ATX motherboard we reviewed recently. What amazed
us more was the power difference when the system was placed under load. The
test configuration only used 4W extra when running Prime95 — it's no wonder
Intel did not bother equipping the Atom processor with a low power state. Amazingly,
the power consumption increased an additional 7W when the IGP was stressed with
ATITool. Indeed, the GMA 950 graphics processor and chipset is more power hungry
than the processor itself — power consumption during video playback was
actually 2W higher than during Prime95's torture test.

As the board is equipped with only a single-core CPU and a dated video subsystem
(GMA 950), we weren't able to run our typical video test suite. It became evident
after playing our most basic VC-1 clip, "Coral Reef," that the system
was completely inadequate for playing VC-1 content. Not only did the audio skip
during playback, but there were frequent pauses and massive frame-loss. We tried
a variety of different software players and decoders, but none of them were
able to make our VC-1 clip resemble anything but a slow, awkward slideshow.

"Rush Hour," our 1080p H.264 test clip was more or less watchable
but exhibited frequent slow-downs, producing a dizzying motion blur effect at
times. The most demanding clip the system could play flawlessly was a 720p H.264
trailer for "Dark Knight." The D945GCLF, with its basic feature-set,
is just not powerful enough to play anything higher than 720p video — not
unless it is encoded with a less demanding codec such as DIVX or XVID.

Mini-ITX Comparisons
Test State
Intel

D945GCLF
Intel

D201GLY2
Albatron

KI690-AM2
Mean CPU Usage
System Power
Mean CPU Usage
System Power
Mean CPU Usage
System Power
Idle
N/A
27W
N/A
32W
N/A
32W
Rush Hour
97%
33W
93%
40W
35%
~53W
Coral Reef
63%
33W
95%
40W
50%
~57W
CPU Load
100%
31W
100%
40W
100%
85W
D201GLY2 system tested with Sparkle Power SPI220LE
power supply (efficiency is very similar to the Seasonic SS-300SFD used
with the D945GCLF & KI690-AM2). NOTE: Grey boxes indicate test
failure.

Somewhat surprisingly, the D945GCLF and its 1.6Ghz Atom processor is actually
less capable of playing back high definition video that its predecessor, the
Intel D201GLY2. The D201GLY2 with its apparently more powerful Celeron 1.2Ghz
processor, played the Rush Hour clip smoothly and the Coral
Reef
clip with less choppiness than the D945GCLF. This is more than
just an assumption as benchmarks performed by Tom's
Hardware
seems to confirm that the Atom is a very slow CPU by modern standards.
On the bright side however, power consumption was 5W lower that the D201GLY2
when idle, and 7-9W lower when the system was in heavy use.

Compared to an AM2 mini-ITX board we tested many moons ago, there simply isn't
any competition. The Albatron
KI690-AM2
, even paired with one of AMD's slowest dual core processors, the
X2 3800+, shamed both Intel platforms with its smooth and almost effortless
playback. By comparison, the D945GCLF's video playback seems like it is hand-cranked
by a narcoleptic monkey. Of course, the Albatron is just about impossible to
find on the retail market and costs close to$300.

FAN CONTROL

SpeedFan is our application of choice for customizable control. If properly
supported, it can be configured to raise/lower multiple fan speeds to designated
limits when any specified temperature threshold is breached.



SpeedFan correlations.

As Intel does not provide any official hardware monitoring software for the
board, it is hard to determine whether any of the temperatures SpeedFan reports
are accurate. When the system was put under load, we observed that the "Core
0" and "Core 1" temperatures did not budge. "Ambient,"
"Remote 1" and "Remote 2" rose in varying degrees, 6°C,
18°C and 9°C respectively compared to idle. When we placed a fan on
the northbridge heatsink however, "Remote 1" continued to gradually
rise, while the other two temperatures lowered, indicating that "Remote
1" is the CPU temperature. Unfortunately we were unable to isolate the
other two readings.

The SYS_FAN header can be controlled using the Speed01 control tab, but for
some reason the number entered results in the exact opposite reaction. 0% results
in the fan running at maximum speed. The fan speed is equivalent to 9V at approximately
65%, 7V at 80% and 5V at 90%. Setting it to 100% results in the fan turning
off, however the board seems to jump-start it back on after a few seconds unless
fan control in the BIOS is disabled. It can also be set to a static 50-100%
in the BIOS but aside from that there is no fan control to speak of — neither
header changes fan speed automatically based on CPU load, temperature, or otherwise.

COOLING

To test the cooling on the board, we lowered the CPU cooling fan's voltage
to 7V to reduce the amount of top-down airflow the nearby components received.
We then stressed the system with Prime95 and ATITool and whipped our our handy
IR thermometer to check the results. After about 15 minutes of load, the southbridge,
northbridge, and CPU heatsinks registered 52°C, 40°C and 43°C respectively.
All three heatsinks were warm to the touch, but nothing more. The voltage regulation
circuitry was not notably hot either. It seems that cooling is not really an
issue for this particular board.

NOISE

As the board comes with a fan on the northbridge heatsink, we conducted a brief
analysis of its properties.

Intel D945GCLF Stock Fan Measurements
Fan Voltage
Fan Speed
Noise Level
12V
5760 RPM
9V
4660 RPM
7V
3630 RPM
5V
2340 RPM

The chipset fan is a typical ball-bearing 40mm fan with poor noise characteristics
(i.e. whiney!). At 12V it is simply unacceptable, registering 29 [email protected] in our
11 dBA hemi-anechoic chamber. Luckily, it undervolts fairly well and can be
done so in the BIOS or with SpeedFan if it is connected to the SYS_FAN header.
It is effectively silent in most working environments at 7V, and at that speed,
cooling does not seem to be compromised, at least not on our open test bench
with ambient temperature around 23°C. Airflow when mounted inside a case
will determine the minimum speeds you can set for the northbridge heatsink fan.

MP3 SOUND RECORDINGS

These recordings were made with a high resolution, lab quality,
digital recording system
inside SPCR's own 11 dBA ambient anechoic chamber, then converted to LAME 128kbps encoded MP3s. We've
listened long and hard to ensure there is no audible degradation from the original
WAV files to these MP3s. They represent a quick snapshot of what we heard during
the review.

These recordings are intended to give you an idea of how the
product sounds in actual use — one meter is a reasonable
typical distance between a computer or computer component and your ear. The
recording contains stretches of ambient noise that you can use to judge the
relative loudness of the subject. Be aware that very quiet subjects may not
be audible — if we couldn't hear it from one meter, chances are we couldn't
record it either!

The recording starts with 5 seconds of the room ambient, followed by 5 seconds
of the product's noise at various levels. For the most realistic results,
set the volume so that the starting ambient level is just barely audible, then
don't change the volume setting again while comparing all the sound files.

FINAL THOUGHTS

We were surprised how fast the 1.6Ghz Atom processor "felt". While
setting up the system, installing drivers and programs, we experienced no significant
difference compared to the AMD X2 and Intel Core 2 systems we use regularly.
When we started to multitask, however, the slow-downs were obvious. While hyperthreading
does help, it is not a real substitute for a second CPU core, and the difference
is clear when you tax the system.

Users under the impression that the D945GCLF is well-suited a compact HTPC
will be disappointed. While the Atom processor is extremely energy efficient,
it is also very slow and the limited amount of memory that can be added will
make recording/encoding content difficult. The outdated onboard GPU and its
lack of digital outputs makes it a poor choice for a media extender, unless
the video being played is no higher resolution than 720p and you don't mind
an analog output for video. The chipset fan is a minor annoyance that can be
dealt with easily.

The D945GCLF seems to be a side-step in Intel's roadmap. Except for power consumption,
it is not really an improvement over the Celeron-based D201GLY2. Some may view
it as simply a desktop showcase for the Atom processor. If they really wanted
to make it better than its predecessor, they could have paired it with their
latest G43/G45 chipset and armed it with DVI, HDMI — that would have turned
heads.

While it doesn't provide a better experience than the D201GLY2, its low power
consumption makes it a good choice for a cheap, small, cool and quiet machine
for casual email, web surfing, music playback, and watching videos that 720p
or lower res. The main trick here is finding a mini-ITX case and power supply

to house and cool the board quietly. It would also do fine as a home server
to be tucked away into some corner. Two SATA and one PATA ports are few, but
with the sheer size and low cost of today's hard drives, D945GCLF could form
the basis of a small, perfectly useful home server. There are also six USB ports
for connecting up additional external drives.

The best news for some readers is that this board will have a sibling, one
with two heads. Intel announced quietly at IDF that a dual-core Atom is coming.
One of these dual-core Atoms will be embedded in the D945GCLF2,
featuring the same 945GC desktop chipset as the D945GCLF. Too bad they didn't
go for the suggestions we made above — G43/G45 chipset, DVI, HDMI. On the
other hand, Intel probably knows that such a product would hijack sales from
the full featured socket-775 mini-ITX boards that they will soon introduce,
DG45FC
and DQ45EK
, based on the Q45 Eaglelake chipset. In fact, within the next
24 hours, we'll have one of the DG45FC boards in house for testing . Busy, busy!
With Intel muscling in, it's a busy time for the entire small computing devices
sector.

PROS



* Very low power consumption

* Affordable

* Easily made quiet


CONS



* Poor onboard graphics

* Fairly slow CPU

* Lack of connectivity (DVI, HDMI, S/PDIF)

Our thanks to Intel
for the D945GCLF sample.

* * *

Articles of Related Interest

Zotac NF610i-ITX: Compact, low
cost, Core 2 solution


Gigabyte GA-MA74GM-S2: AMD 690G,
Take 2


Asus P5E3 Premium: A Mean, Green
Motherboard?


Asus M3A78 Pro: An ATX 780G
Motherboard


Intel D201GLY2 Mini-ITX mainboard

Albatron KI690-AM2: A Mini-ITX Powerhouse

* * *

Discuss
this article in the SPCR forums.



Note: There are many ongoing discussions about this board, mostly
in the CPUs & Motherboards forum. Just try a search for D945GCLF.

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