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Dueling Zacate motherboards from Asus


Small and medium garments for the E-350 APU
— 12:37 AM on August 11, 2011

Seven months after its debut, AMD's Zacate processor remains largely unequaled. Intel's Atom might sip less power, making it more suitable for tablets and handhelds, but it's got nowhere near the horsepower—especially when it comes to graphics. While low-voltage Sandy Bridge CPUs can squeeze into comparable thermal envelopes, they're nowhere near as inexpensive.

If you're in the market for an uber-cheap ultraportable or a low-cost, low-power, small-form-factor desktop, Zacate is where it's at.

Today, we're celebrating Zacate's unique position by studying a couple of Asus motherboards based on Zacate's quickest and most popular incarnation, the E-350 Fusion APU. The E35M1-I Deluxe serves up the E-350 on a Mini-ITX circuit board packed to the gills with peripherals and connectivity options, including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Meanwhile, the E35M1-M Pro trades some of its cousin's copious connectivity for a larger circuit board with more expansion slots.

The Deluxe might be ideal for a home-theater PC, especially since Asus outfits it with a large passive heatsink. The Pro could be better suited to power a low-cost desktop, and its microATX form factor should still slip into some small-form-factor enclosures. Both boards have compelling attributes. The question is, are they worth their respective price premiums over cheaper Zacate mobos like Gigabyte's E350N-USB3?

Asus' E35M1-I Deluxe
Priced at $174.99, the E35M1-I Deluxe isn't exactly the most affordable Zacate mobo around. That said, it's hard to imagine how Asus could have crammed more features onto a 7" x 7" board.

Let's see... we've got a gigantic, heat-pipe-laden heatsink mercifully free of tiny, whiny fans; a PCI Express x16 slot ready to accommodate discrete graphics cards (although it has only four signal lanes); five 6Gbps Serial ATA ports; and a couple of memory slots. That little card you see sandwiched between the SATA ports and the memory slots is the board's 802.11n Wi-Fi controller—a nice touch for sure, since it makes the E35M1-I Deluxe ripe for home-theater builds while leaving the full-sized PCIe slot open for business.

Another noteworthy inclusion is Asus' MemOK! feature. Should the Deluxe be populated with unsupported RAM, pressing the MemOK! button next to the DIMM slots will make the board automatically cycle through memory profiles until it finds one that works.

Around back, the Deluxe leaves little to be desired. The only notable omissions are VGA and FireWire ports, but the presence of DVI, HDMI, USB 3.0, and external Serial ATA should provide some consolation. There's even an internal connector for two more USB 3.0 ports powered by a second NEC controller.

The purple nub above the red USB 2.0 ports plays host to a Bluetooth antenna, by the way. It glows blue when the Bluetooth controller is in use.

Instead of an old-school BIOS, the E35M1-I Deluxe comes outfitted with the same UEFI we've seen in many of Asus' recent full-sized desktop motherboards. The interface is split into "EZ" and advanced modes, both of which allow mouse input and look rather slick. Users probably aren't going to go digging for overclocking options (which are, as you'd expect considering the board's low-power pedigree, few and far between). Nevertheless, some folks may enjoy the UEFI's other perks, like the ability to boot from a detected drive simply by clicking on it.

In addition to a state-of-the-art UEFI, Asus includes its AI Suite of utilities for Windows. This software package includes Fan Xpert, which allows delightfully precise fan-speed control. Users can easily customize fan curves that determine how rotational speeds ramp up in response to rising temperatures. Similar controls are available through the UEFI, but they're limited to defining minimum and maximum fan speeds and a corresponding temperature for the latter. Fan Xpert offers a slicker interface and the ability to tweak the speed and temperature for three points along a fan curve.

The board admittedly doesn't ship with a fan strapped to that jumbo heatsink, but it has couple of three-pin headers for case fans. If you're building a small-form-factor HTPC, chances are the two fan headers will suffice.