A small, custom chassis
Right before the holiday weekend we got an email from Digital Storm detailing some changes to the Bolt system based on ours, and other reviewers, feedback. Design changes include:
- "Quieter operation" after moving from a Bronze level 500 watt 1U power supply to a Gold level unit. I have put that part in quotes because I am hesitant to believe that much has changes on the sound levels of the system; we are still talking about a 1U unit here with two tiny fans. Until DS publishes some sound level metrics, we'll consider this a modest change.
- Digital Storm has also given the Bolt "a less glossy and improved external finish" to help prevent fingerprints and dust from reflecting in light.
In addition, there have been some hardware changes in the Level 3 unit that we were sent that are fairly significant:
- Upgrade from a 60GB cache SSD to a 120GB SSD dedicated to the OS installation.
- Storage drive lowered from a 1TB to a 500GB
- Upgrade from a Core i5-3570K to a Core i7-3770K CPU
That is a pretty hefty change in hardware specs, in particular the move from the Core i5-3570K to the i7-3770K. That increases the CPU performance of the Bolt pretty handily and they were able to do that without raising the price.
This definitely gives us a better opinion overall for the entire Digital Storm Bolt configuration as tested and makes it a much better option when compared to the other recent systems we have reviewed.
END UPDATE 11/22/2012
A couple of months ago Digital Storm contacted us about a new design they were working on that they claimed would easily become the highest performance, smallest custom PC on the market. The result of that talk was the new Digital Storm Bolt, a system designed in-house by DS to target PC gamers that want a powerful PC without the bulk of traditional desktop designs.
Digital Storm claims that the Bolt is the "thinnest, most powerful gaming PC ever designed" and we tend to agree. This is not chassis that you can buy off the shelf but instead was custom designed for this system and actually requires some very specific hardware for it to function completely. Items like a 1U power supply, 90 degree PCI Express riser extensions and slim-line optical drives aren't found in your standard gaming PCs.
Available in several starting "levels" of configuration, the Digital Storm Bolt can include processors from the Core i3-2100 all the way up to the Core i7-3770K and graphics cards starting at the GTX 650 Ti 2GB and increasing to the GTX 680 2GB. Our system came with the following hardware:
- Intel Core i5-3570K @ 4.2 GHz
- Low Profile CPU Heatsink
- 8GB DDR3 1600 MHz memory
- GeForce GTX 660 Ti 2GB
- 60GB cache SSD + 1TB 7200 RPM HDD
- Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WiFi motherboard
- 1U 500 watt power supply
- Windows 7 Home Premium x64
- Custom DS Bolt Chassis
Starting cost for this configuration is $1,599.
Check out our quick video review!
The box the Bolt ships in is pretty timid compared to some of the crates that have hit our office recently but that's just fine by me. Due to the small size of the case though I have actually had some laptop boxes (the Alienware M18x comes to mind) that were bigger!
There she is, the Digital Storm Bolt, a combination of custom steel case design and fingerprint-loving piano black paint. Measuring just 14-in tall and 3.6-in wide the case is going to be able to fit and blend in places other desktops simply could not.
Subject: Motherboards | October 31, 2012 - 11:21 AM | Tim Verry
Tagged: motherboard, mini-itx, hdc-12/e-350d2, ECS, e-350d, amd
Elitegroup Computer Systems (ECS) has launched a new motherboard and processor combination that pairs a mini-itx form factor board with an AMD E-350D Accelerated Processing Unit (APU). Measuring 17cm x 17cm, the HDC-12/E-350D2 is similar to the Biostar product covered previously, except for feature set. The ECS model uses the cheaper A45 FCH chipset and does away with modern expansion ports such as PCI-E 3.0 and USB 3.0. While it is less capable, it is also less expensive that the other boards.
The board has a bundled AMD E-350D APU with dual CPU cores and integrated HD 6130 graphics. The memory controller supports a maximum of 16GB of DDR3 RAM running at 1066MHz via two DIMM slots on the motherboard. The A45 chipset supports two SATA II 3 Gbps ports, and that is one area where the low cost nature (and associated compromises) of the A45 chipset hits home as the higher end boards have more ports and support for SATA III 6 Gbps. Aside from some fan headers and headers for USB ports, the only other expansion option is a single legacy PCI slot at the bottom of the board.
External IO options include:
- 8 x USB 2.0
- 1 x VGA
- 1 x DVI
- 1 x Gigabit Ethernet
- 3 x analog audio jacks
The lack of an optical audio output is disappointing as well, but the board can be powered by a single 24 pix ATX cable – no 4 or 8 pin CPU power required. In the end it is a cheap base for a low power system. It would make a great router / firewall device with the addition of a PCI Ethernet NIC, for example. The only real downside would be wireless as you would need to use USB NICs to add that capability. This could also make for an entry level HTPC build as the APU is capable of hardware accelerating 1080p video.
Along with the HTPC vein, ECS is bundling coupons for free copies of Cyberlink's MediaEspresso 6.5 LE and MediaShow 5.1 LE transcoding and playback software with the motherboard.
The ECS HDC-12/E-350D2 will retail for a sub-$100 price, and should be available for purchase soon.
Read more about Mini ITX motherboards at PC Perspective.
A look outside and in
We handle a fair amount of system reviews here at PC Perspective and use them mainly as a way to feature unique and interesting designs and configurations. We know how the hardware will perform for the most part; doing extensive CPU and GPU testing on nearly a daily basis. Sometimes we'll get systems in that are extremely budget friendly, other times vendors pass us machines that have MSRPs similar to a Kia automobile. Then there are times, like today, we get a unique design that is a great mix of both.
AVADirect has had a Mini Gaming PC design for a while now but recently has gone through a refresh that adds in support for the latest Ivy Bridge processors, NVIDIA Kepler GPUs all using a new case from BitFenix that combines it in a smaller, mini-ITX form factor.
The quick specifications look like this:
- BitFenix Prodigy chassis
- Intel Core i7-3770K CPU, Overclocked at 4.4 GHz
- ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe Z77 Motherboard
- EVGA GeForce GTX 680 2GB GPU
- OCZ 240GB Vertex 3 SSD
- Seagate 2TB SATA 6G HDD
- 8GB Crucual DDR3-1866 Memory
- Cooler Master 850 watt Silent Pro PSU
You'll also see a large, efficient Prolimatech cooler inside along with a Blu-ray burner and Windows 7 for a surprisingly reasonable $2100 price tag.
The BitFenix Prodigy chassis is a unique design that starts with sets of FiberFlex legs and handles surrounding the mini-ITX case. The minor flexibility of the legs absorbs sound and impact on the table while the handles work great for picking up the system for LAN events and the like. While at first I was worried about using them to support the weight of the rig, I had no problems and was assured by both BitFenix and by AVADirect it would withstand the torture.
Check out our video review before continuing on to the full article with benchmarks and pricing!
Subject: Motherboards | September 23, 2012 - 09:21 PM | Tim Verry
Tagged: VIA EPIA-M920, VIA, mini-itx
VIA recently announced a new motherboard and processor combination meant for embedded systems like Point of Sale (POS) machines and digital signage. The EPIA-M920 is the company's first mini-ITX form factor board to feature its VXIIH chipset. VIA has packed a lot into this 17cm x 17cm motherboard, and the specs suggest that it is a capable machine. It can't match the NUC, but it should cost less -- and one SKU can even be run fanless. The EPIA-M920 comes in two iterations depending on the processor you select: the 12Q and the 10E. The EPIA-M920-12Q packs a 1.2GHz VIA QuadCore E processor, and requires a CPU HSF with fan. On the other hand, the EPIA-M920-10E is powered by a VIA Eden X2 dual core processor at 1.0GHz. The 10E version can run without any heatsink fans, and is passively cooled by two small aluminum heatsinks over the VXIIH chipset and processor.
The VXIIH chipset includes the Chromotion 5.0 video processor that hardware accelerates a number of video codecs includinig MPEG-2, MPEG-4, VC-1, and H.264. VIA claims that the graphics processor can handle videos with those codecs at resolutions up to 1080p (they did not specify bit rates, however) without affecting the CPU. Further, the GPU supports DirectX 11 graphics and stereoscopic 3D content.
The VIA motherboard can support up to 16GB of DDR3 RAM running at 1333MHz (via two SO-DIMM slots). Internal headers include:
- 2 x LVDS (Low Voltage Differential Signaling)
- 1 x USB 3.0
- 4 x USB 2.0
- 2 x SATA
- 3 x RS232 (congifurable: 5V/12V)
- SDHC card slot
- PCI-E x4 slot
In addition, the mini ITX motherboard will happily accept power connections from either an AC or CD power supply and is compatible with the slim, low wattage, DC PSUs though no specific recommended wattage was stated.
Rear IO on the motherboard is also fairly impressive considering the size. Via has packed in the following connectors.
- Dual Gigabit LAN ports powered by two VIA VT6130 controllers.
- 2 x USB 3.0
- 2 x USB 2.0
- 2 x HDMI
- 1 x VGA
- 1 x COM
- 3 x audio jacks (VIA VT2021 HD codec)
- 2 x PS/2 ports
The VIA EPIA-M920 motherboard supports Windows 7, but it is primarily aimed at embedded markets, and as such is compatible with the Windows Embedded Standard 7, Windows XP Embedded, and POSReady 7 operating systems. VIA intends for this system to be used to power digital signage, point of sale machines, ATMs, kiosks, embedded gaming platforms, and other digital media applications where low power flourishes. VIA Technologies Embedded Platform Division Head Epan Wu stated that "the VIA EPIA-M920 Mini-ITX packs in all of the latest technologies from VIA providing embedded system designers an ideal platform to create groundbreaking new devices."
Unfortunately, no pricing or availability information was stated in the press release. It should be available to system integrators soon, however. You can find more photos of the EPIA-M920 mini ITX motherboard in VIA's photo gallery.
Subject: Motherboards | September 10, 2012 - 09:29 AM | Tim Verry
Tagged: mini-itx, htpc, fusion, biostar, APU, amd, a68i-350 deluxe, a68
While Intel has gotten a lot of Mini-ITX love lately, AMD is not out of the game yet. Motherboard manufacturer Biostar recently launched an AMD Fusion APU powered Mini-ITX motherboard that would make for a nice little HTPC. The A68I-350 Deluxe is based around some of the latest technologies including support for DDR3, PCI-E 3.0, and USB 3.0 standards.
The A68I-350 Deluxe motherboard measures 17 cm x 17 cm and comes with a bundled dual core AMD Fusion 350D APU. A heatsink and passive cooling for the south bridge are also provided in the package. The graphics card, memory, storage and other accessories are up to you, however. The Mini-ITX board features two DDR3 DIMM slots that support a maximum of 16 GB. Located in the lower right-hand corner are three SATA 3 6Gbps ports. Below that is a single PCI-E 3.0 x16 slot for a graphics card or other peripheral. Additional internal IO includes:
- 1 x printer header
- 2 x USB 2.0 header
- 1 X front panel audio
- 1 X front panel header (hdd, power, reset, ect)
- 1 x S/PDIF-OUT header
- 1 x CPU fan header
- 1 x system fan header
- 1 x serial header
According to Biostar, the motherboard also uses all solid capacitors to improve longevity.
Rear IO on the board is not quite as extensive as some of the other offerings available, but is still fairly good for the price. It features two PS/2 ports for keyboard and mouse, one HDMI out, one VGA output, two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, one Ethernet port (Realtek RTL8111F Gigabit controller), and three audio output jacks (Realtek ALC662 6-channel HD audio).
The AMD APU that comes with the A68I-350 Deluxe features Radeon 6310 graphics, which are not the fastest but will still provide plenty of oomph for watching videos on the big screen. While it has not yet shown up at online retailers like Amazon and Newegg yet, it is reportedly already shipping and will have an MSRP of € 66 (euros) or approximately $84 USD. Considering the Intel options that have recently surfaced are going for $100+ easily, this Biostar motherboard should provide a nice budget option for your next HTPC or small form factor PC build!
You can find more information on the A68I-350 Deluxe over at the Biostar website.
There is something alluring about packing high-end motherboard hardware into a mini-ITX form factor, and it looks as though EVGA will be joining the small form factor game with its first Z77 mini-ITX board. German enthusiast site OCaholic managed to get its hands on the board for a short preivew, and with dimensions of 17 cm x 17 cm, the motherboard packs a ton of overclockable hardware into an attractive design.
The Z77 motherboard features an Intel LGA 1155 socket that can accept either Sandy Bridge or Ivy Bridge processors in the i3, i5, and i7 flavors. To the left of the CPU socket is an 8-phase power phase with International Rectifier IR3550M MOSFETS. There is also an additional power phase dedicated to getting clean power to the memory. To the right of the CPU socket are two DDR3 memory slots capable of supporting a maximum of 32GB of RAM.
The top right corner of the mini-ITX motherboard features red power and reset buttons as well as an LED display capable of displaying error codes should you push the board too far and it fails to post. The EVGA motherboard features a UEFI BIOS from which you can overclock or reset the board to defaults that should be similar to the company’s current offering.
Along the bottom of the Z77 motherboard is a PCI-E 3.0 X16 slot for adding a graphics card. Directly above the PCI-E 3.0 slot (from left to right) is a USB 3.0 header, mSATA connector, southbridge, and four SATA ports. Two are SATA 6.0 Gb/s ports (Intel RAID 0, 1, 4, 0+1), and the other two are SATA 3.0 Gb/s ports that support Intel RAID 0, 1, 5, 0+1, and JBOD. While it should not be a problem for most users, the SATA ports and RAM slot are packed in really close to the PCI-E slot, so if you are using a graphics card that utilizes a large heatsink, you will probably want to avoid this board. Unfortunately, that’s just one of the compromises necessary to get a motherboard this small though. At least the SATA ports are above the PCI-E 3.0 slot and not to the right of it (like some boards are set up).
Rear IO on the EVGA Z77 mini-ITX motherboard is pretty impressive for a board of this size. You get two USB 2.0 ports, Bluetooth, a small clear CMOS button to reset the BIOS to defaults, four USB 3.0 ports, 1 mini DisplayPort (or possibly Thunderbolt) port, two eSATA 6.0 Gb/s ports, 1 HDMI port, 1 Gigabit LAN port, five audio output jacks courtesy of a Realtek ALC898 8-channel controller, and one optical audio output (S/PDIF).
Unfortunately, there is no word yet on price or availability. Talk around the internet seems to suggest a release date sometime in September and price above $150, but as always you should take those numbers with at least a few grains of salt. Even so, this is an interesting motherboard, and I’m always glad to see more competition in the small form factor and mini-ITX hardware space.
The EVGA board has now joined the Gigabyte GA-H77N WIFI and the ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe in the Z77 Mini ITX game. Here’s hoping the increased competition can bring prices down so I can get to building a nice Mini-ITX powered HTPC like the one Ryan built with an AMD APU (and desktop Trinity’s launch date seems to be getting further away rather than closer).
You can find more photos of the EVGA Mini-ITX motherboard over at OCaholic, and as always PC Perspective has you covered on mini-ITX motherboard news. Stay tuned for more details on this EVGA board as we get them!
Subject: Systems | August 13, 2012 - 05:13 PM | Jeremy Hellstrom
Tagged: SFF, mini-itx, Intel, DH61AG, all-in-one
Intel's thin Mini-ITX is the same length and width as a regular mini-ITX board at 6.7" x 6.7" but it sports a thinner port cluster and horizontally stacked SO-DIMM memory slots to allow it to slip into a smaller place, perfect for an all-in-one build. That is why when you look at the system you will be hard pressed to see the case, as the motherboard is built right into the monitor. Unlike some other all-in-one systems, this one is user serviceable and to an extent is also upgradeable. If you are wondering how it performs then all you have to do is check out The Tech Report and all will be revealed.
"Today, we're going to be spending some quality time with an all-in-one PC based on Intel's Thin Mini-ITX standard. The individual parts are all available at retail, and the resulting machine is slim, slick, and surprisingly straightforward to put together."
Here are some more Systems articles from around the web:
- Lenovo IdeaCentre A720 Review @ TechReviewSource
- Cyberpower Fang III Black Mamba Review -the £4,000 system @ Kitguru
- LRDIMMs, RDIMMs, and Supermicro's Latest Twin @ AnandTech
- Dell Precision T1650 Workstation Review: Ivy Bridge Xeons Bring Performance @ AnandTech
- Palicomp Alpha Pulse Gaming PC @ Kitguru
- Guru3D Rig of the Month - July 2012
Subject: General Tech, Graphics Cards, Motherboards, Cases and Cooling, Processors, Chipsets, Memory, Displays | August 7, 2012 - 10:07 AM | Tim Verry
Tagged: Z77, motherboard, mini-itx, Intel, gigabyte, ga-h77n-wifi
During a European roadshow, Gigabyte showed off a new Mini-ITX form factor motherboard for the first time. Called the GA-H77N-WIFI, the motherboard is well suited for home theater and home server tasks. Based on the H77 chipset, it is compatible with the latest Intel Core i3 (coming soon), i5, and i7 "Ivy Bridge" processors. The board goes for an all-black PCB with minimal heatsinks on the VRMs, and the form factor is the same size as the motherboard that Ryan recently used in his Mini-ITX HTPC build.
The GA-H77N-WIFI features a LGA 1155 processor socket, two DDR3 DIMM slots, PCI Express slot, two SATA 3Gbps ports, two SATA 6Gbps ports, and an internal USB 3.0 header. There are also two Realtek Ethernet controller chips and a Realtek audio chip.
- 1 PS/2 port
- 2 USB 3.0 ports
- 2 HDMI ports
- 1 DVI port
- 2 Antenna connectors (WIFI)
- 4 USB 2.0 ports
- 2 Gigabit Ethernet ports
- 1 Optical S/PDIF port
- 5 Analog audio jacks
The dual Gigabit Ethernet ports are interesting. It could easily be loaded with open source routing software and turned into router/firewall/Wi-Fi access point. To really take advantage of the Ivy Bridge support, you could put together a nice media server and HTPC recording/streaming box (using something like SiliconDust's HDHomeRun networked tuners or Ceton's USB tuner since this board is very scarce in the way of PCI-E slots). What would you do with this Mini-ITX Gigabyte board?
Unfortunately, there is no word yet on pricing or availability, but the motherboard is likely coming soon. You can find more information on the motherboard over at tonymacx86, who managed to snag get some photos of the board.
A selection of parts
AMD is without a doubt going through some very tough times with massive personnel issues as well as some problems with products and profitability. But that doesn’t mean the current product line from AMD is without merit and that you can’t build a great system for various environments, including those users looking for a mainstream and small form factor gaming and home theater PC.
While preparing for Quakecon 2012 we needed to build a system to take on the road for some minor editing and presentation control purposes. We wanted the PC to be small and compact, yet still powerful enough to take on some basic computing and gaming tasks. I happen to have some AMD Llano APUs in the office and thought they would fit perfectly.
If you are on the hunt for a small PC that can do some modest gaming and serve as an HTPC, then you might find our build here interesting. And while it isn't nearly as exciting as building a Llano PC while blindfolded - it's pretty close.
Case: Lian-Li PC-Q08B
Subject: General Tech | July 14, 2012 - 02:39 PM | Tim Verry
Tagged: quad core, arm, SoC, Android, xbmc, htpc, mini-itx
This week has been rife with ARM computers. The latest ARM system comes in the form of a mini-ITX form factor motherboard and quad core ARM processor combination from embedded system manufacturer Kontron. Named the KTT30/mITX, it measures 17 cm x 17 cm, the little motherboard provides a plethora of IO ports and the relatively short (depth-wise) motherboard would be great in a HTPC box, assuming the software is there (an XBMC release ported over from the Raspberry Pi build would be nice to see, for example).
The motherboard is paired with a quad core ARM Cortex A9 processor running at 900 MHz, video hardware acceleration coprocessor, and up to 2GB of DDR3L memory. It is reportedly capable of playing back 1080p H.264 videos. Internal connectors include two SD card clots, a SIM card socket, and two mPCIe connectors. Rear board IO includes three USB 2.0 ports (one micro, two regular-sized type A), an HDMI port, Gigabit Ethernet NIC, S/PDIF audio, two RS232 serial ports, and three analog audio output jacks.
It looks like a neat little board, though only if the price is right. If it is prohibitively expensive, it may be bumping up against AMD’s APU and accompanying motherboards. And because the APUs can utilize x86-64 software, that is a big positive in its favor. With that said, if this board is cheap enough, it could make sense as the base of a cheap HTPC.
Read more about the Mini-ITX ARM-powered system over at Fanless Tech.
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