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

May 28, 2006 by Devon
Cooke

Product
VIA EPIA EN12000E

Mini-ITX Mainboard with embedded 1.2 GHz VIA Eden processor
Manufacturer
VIA
Technologies, Inc.
Market Price
~US$270

Few people are aware that there is an alternative to the mainstream processors
made by Intel and AMD. VIA sells a number of x86 processors, called
C3, Eden, and C7. Why aren't they better known? The main reason is performance.
No matter what benchmark is used, VIA's processors take a beating compared to
even low-end offerings from Intel and AMD.

On the other hand, even the lowest-performance offerings from Intel and AMD are overkill
for many — perhaps most — computing tasks, which is why VIA's
offerings are viable at all. Performance alone is no longer king, and
performance-per-watt is increasingly important. In this arena,
VIA is a pace or two ahead of both of the big boys. The original C3 processor
was designed with power efficiency as a primary design goal.

VIA's power-miserly approach has continued with the Eden and the latest C7 processors.
The Eden is designed with a thermal envelope of just 7.5 watts — which only Intel's limited edition Ultra Low Voltage processors can match. By comparison, both
the Pentium M and the Turion 64 are designed with a thermal envelope of around
30 watts.

VIA processors are most commonly embedded in a Mini-ITX motherboard. VIA's
own series is called EPIA, but other manufacturers also make VIA-processor embedded M-ITX motherboards. SPCR
has looked at several EPIA
boards in the past. Both SPCR and EPIA have evolved considerably since the last review in 2003, so
it's time to take another look. VIA was kind enough to supply a sample of the
EPIA EN12000E, a fully passive board featuring a VIA Eden processor clocked
at 1.2 GHz. A more powerful version with a 1.5 GHz C7 processor is also available,
but it is less suitable for a low noise system as it requires active cooling. We're told that the cores of these processors is identical; the clock speed is the only difference. (Then why call them by different names?)

The low power consumption and small footprint of the EPIA makes it a good candidate
for a home theater PC or any other application where space and power are limited.
VIA knows its market and has integrated just about everything an A/V nut could
want into the constraints of the tiny 17cm × 17cm Mini-ITX form factor.
The result is a system that promises to be small, silent and power efficient.
The big question mark is performance: Is it fast enough to work flawlessly in
a "digital" home?



The EPIA is only a little larger than the CD that its drivers come on.

SPECIFICATIONS

The EN-series is built around DDR2 memory and a host of other updates designed
to improve performance. It comes with integrated graphics, and can support
simultaneous TV output via composite or S-Video. With an appropriate add-in
card, it can drive a separate DVI monitor, and component video output can be
added with a simple adapter. The component outputs are capable of driving a
720P or 1080i HD signal. Only two output devices can be driven simultaneously.

Perhaps to make up for the performance of the processor, hardware MPEG 2 decoding
is a feature of the integrated graphics. This should guarantee that DVDs play
back properly, but it does little to ensure that more Internet friendly formats
— typically based on MPEG 4 — are decoded adequately.

On the audio side of things, S/PDIF is available through the same jack as composite
video — a jumper on the board selects between the two. If the composite
jack is needed, there is an internal header that can connect to an appropriate
adapter. Three 1/8" mini jacks support 5.1 channels of analog sound,
which should satisfy those who don't use S/PDIF.

Moving away from A/V connections, there are ports for two SATA devices and
two IDE channels. Only a single stick of DDR2 RAM is supported (Max. 1 GB),
and even that is limited to 533 MHz modules. Support for higher speed RAM seemed
spotty at best; the EN12000E would not boot or boot inconsistently
with 800 MHz memory installed. Only a single PCI slot is included, so
a PCI-splitter is needed to connect more than one extra card. AGP and PCI Express
are not supported at all, so upgrading the integrated graphics is not an option.

VIA EPIA EN12000E Specifications (from VIA's
product page
)
Model Name (Processor)
• 1.5GHz VIA C7 nanoBGA2
Processor (VIA EPIA EN15000)

• 1.2GHz VIA Eden nanoBGA2 Processor (VIA EPIA EN12000E)
Chipset
• VIA CN700 North Bridge

• VIA VT8237R-series South Bridge
System Memory
• 1 DDRII 400/533 DIMM
socket

• Up to 1GB memory size
VGA
• Integrated VIA UniChrome™
Pro AGP graphics with MPEG-2 acceleration
Expansion Slots
• 1 PCI
Onboard IDE
• 2 UltraDMA 133/100/66
Connectors
Onboard LAN
• VIA VT6122 GLAN Controller
Onboard Audio
• VIA VT1618 8 channel
AC'97 Codec
Onboard TV Out
• VIA VT1625M HDTV Encoder
Back Panel I/O
• 1 PS2 mouse port

• 1 PS2 keyboard port

• 1 Serial port

• 1 VGA port

• 1 RJ45 port

• 4 USB 2.0 ports

• 1 RCA port (S/PDIF or TV out)

• 1 S-Video port

• 3 Audio jacks: line-out, line-in and mic-in (Horizontal, Smart 5.1
Support)
Onboard I/O Connectors
• 1 USB connector for
2 additional USB 2.0 ports

• 1 1394 connector for 1 1394 port

• 2 SATA Connectors

• 1 LPC connector

• 1 Front-panel audio connector (Mic and Line Out)

• 1 Serial port connector for a second com port

• 1 CIR connector (Switchable for KB/MS)

• 1 SIR pin header (IrDA 1.0)

• 2 Fan connectors: CPU/Sys FAN

• 1 SMBUS connector

• 1 S/PDIF in connector

• 1 S/PDIF out connector

• 1 LVDS/TTL/DVI module connector (an add-on card is required)

• 1 Component (YPbPr) video pin header

• ATX Power connector
BIOS
• Award BIOS

• LPC 4/8Mbit flash memory
Operating System
• Windows 2000/XP, Linux, Win CE, XPe
Software Application
• VIA FliteDeck™
Utility

• MissionControl-H/W Monitoring, Remote SNMP Management

• FlashPort-Live BIOS Flash

• SysProbe-Live DMI Browser
System Monitoring & Management
• CPU temperature reading,
CPU voltage monitoring

• Wake-on-LAN, Keyboard-Power-on, Timer-Power-on, Watch Dog Timer,
FAN control

• System power management, AC power failure recovery
Operating Temperature
• 0~50°C
Operating Humidity
• 0% ~ 95% (relative humidity;
non-condensing)
Form Factor
• Mini-ITX (6 layers)

• 17 cm x 17 cm

EXTERNAL OVERVIEW

The bulk of the board is covered by the huge aluminum heatsink that allows all
of the board's components to be cooled passively. As a result, all of the many onboard
jumpers and headersare crammed around the edges
of the board and behind the back panel ports. With a lot of extra devices, wiring
everything up could be a bit of a nightmare. Even so, VIA has done a fairly
good job of keeping things accessible. The only major annoyance was the placement
of the BIOS reset jumper, which is wedged between the heatsink and the PCI slot.
It proved to be easier just to remove the battery than to use the jumper.



The board's internal connectors are clustered along the edges of the board.

The rear panel features the usual assortment of connectors — PS/2, VGA,
4 USB, Ethernet, Audio — plus an S-Video port and an RCA plug that can
be used for either composite video or S/PDIF. The only notable omissions are
firewire and a parallel port, which are both supported via internal connectors.



Plenty of external connectors.

Power is supplied by a single 20-pin ATX connector. There is little
room on either side of the connector; there is no room for a 24-pin plug. Because
the power consumption is so low, no +12V AUX connector is needed.



A 20-pin ATX connector feeds power to the board.



Lots of little chips and bits on the bottom of the PCB.

COOLING

The cooling system is simple. The massive aluminum heatsink
provides passive cooling for all three of the
major chips: CPU, northbridge, and southbridge. Not surprisingly, the heatsink
is not easily removable. It looks every inch an effective passive cooler. It
is large enough to provide a lot of surface area, and fins are widely spaced
with plenty of breathing room in between. The edge fins extend outwards beyond
the base of the heatsink to allow some air to flow underneath them.



A large heatsink with widely spaced fins — why don't graphics cards
use something similar?



Plastic bolts attach the heatsink to the board.

BIOS

The BIOS is fairly flexible, although it is clearly not targeted at overclockers.
The usual range of peripherals and interrupts can be tinkered with, as can memory
timings and even FSB. However, the CPU multiplier and processor voltage are
not adjustable up or down. There are also several options for configuring
TV output and enabling multiple displays.



Thermal Monitor 1 & 2 are similar to Intel's CPU throttling and SpeedStep
features.

CPU and system temperatures can be monitored, as can two fan speeds and all
of the usual voltages. However, no adjustments are available of any kind. This
is of particular concern where the fans are involved. It appears that both headers
run at 12V all of the time; there was no way of enabling or disabling
any onboard fan controller.



Plenty of onboard monitoring, but little adjustment.



Four categories of display devices are supported, but only two can be used
simultaneously.

One unusual feature was the ability of the board to power down the hard drive
when it is not in use. The user can set a delay between 1~15 minutes before
this happens.



The board can spin down the hard drive automatically when it's not in use.

TESTING

The EPIA EN12000E was tested for thermal performance and power consumption.
The tests were done with the system in three states: Idle (in Windows), CPU Load (using CPUBurn),
and Full load (using CPUBurn
and ATI Tool
simultaneously to stress both the CPU and graphics). CPU temperature was monitored
using VIA's Flight Deck application, although SpeedFan was also capable of reading
the thermal diode. System power was measured with a Seasonic
Power Angel
at the AC plug and does not include the power required by
the monitor.

The rest of the components in the system:

  • 512 MB generic DDR2 533 MHz RAM
  • Seasonic Super Silencer 300 SS-300FS power supply
  • Fujitsu MHT2080BH: 80GB, 5,400 RPM SATA notebook drive

Throughout the testing, the only sources of noise were the hard drive and the
power supply. For this reason, noise was not measured, as the board itself had
no effect on the noise level of the system.

Ambient conditions during testing were 21°C and 121V @ 60 Hz.

VIA EPIA EN12000E: Thermal and Power Measurements
Activity State
CPU Temperature
AC Power Draw
Idle
26°C
28W
CPUBurn
35°C
33W
CPUBurn + ATI Tool
35°C
35W

The results of the test made the EN12000E look very, very good. The idle temperature
was just 5°C above room ambient, and no wonder — the total system power
was just 28W! We have never before managed to get any system to idle
at less than 37W, even with a Pentium M with SpeedStep enabled.

Things did not change much under load. With the CPU under heavy stress, the
system power increased by only 5 watts and the temperature by 9°C to top
out at 35°C. Unfortunately, the thermal data is a little bit difficult to
interpret, since the accuracy of the sensor and the thermal tolerance of the
CPU is unknown. However, assuming reasonable accuracy in the Eden processor
thermal sensor,
a 35°C CPU temperature should have plenty of headroom as ~60°C is usually
considered a reasonable target for mainstream processors. VIA C3 processors have been known to keep running indefinitely even without a heatsink.

IN-SYSTEM TESTING



The only usable intake vent is quite small...

Our open air test bench clearly did not present much of a challenge to the
EPIA, so we decided to see how it did in more strenuous circumstances. An old Sereniti
2000
enclosure, one of the first designed specifically for Mini-ITX systems, was called into
service. The Sereniti has terrible cooling airflow. Two tiny intake vents on either side of the case
are the only sources of air, and airflow is expected to be generated by the
power supply.

We weren't interested in using the stock power supply, which is loud and inefficient,
so we were faced with a problem: How to fit a power supply into the tiny confines
of the our chosen enclosure? We did not have any other power supplies of the
same form factor as the original, but we did have a
picoPSU
, which was designed originally for mini-ITX.
The picoPSU is a tiny DC-DC power supply that allows the system to be powered
by an external power brick. As a bonus, it is both fanless and efficient.



An emergency cooling fan was installed where the original power supply was.

In addition to swapping the power supply for a picoPSU, we also took the opportunity
to round out the system by adding a DVD drive — an essential addition for
a home theater. When not in use, the power it consumes is negligible, but it
could become a significant factor when spinning quickly.



The DVD drive was added for the system comparison.

VIA EPIA EN12000E: In-System Test
Activity State
CPU
System
AC Power
Idle
30°C
52°C
17W
CPUBurn
41°C
56°C
21W
CPUBurn + ATI Tool
44°C
59°C
24W

This time, SpeedFan
4.28
was used to monitor the temperatures, and — surprise! —
an unknown thermal sensor suddenly showed up. Ordinarily, we do not monitor
sensors when we do not know what they mean, but this sensor was special: It
read much higher than the "CPU" temperature. We decided that it was
worth paying attention to. Further investigation in the BIOS revealed a sensor
labeled "System"; it seems reasonable that SpeedFan was reporting
this sensor.

Even inside the poorly-ventilated Sereniti 2000 with no fans running, the EPIA
was still quite cool, and perfectly stable to boot. Temperatures rose by about
5°C across the board: A tiny amount that is almost insignificant.

Unlike the open-air bench, there was a slight but significant difference between
the CPU-only load and the full CPU/Graphics load. With the graphics load in
play the CPU temperature went up 3°C — most likely because of an increase
in the ambient air around it.

On the other hand, the AC Power dropped dramatically thanks entirely to the
highly efficient PicoPSU. While the 28W idle from before was impressive, the
17W idle with the picoPSU more than doubled the power advantage over the previous
best. At idle, this EPIA system required less than half the power of any other system
we've measured
.

The power consumption under load was even
more impressive, topping out at just 24W — still much less than any other
system at idle.

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.

*

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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