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MSI's Mini-ITX monster

Pictured above is the first Brazos-based motherboard to make its way into Damage Labs, MSI's E350IA-E45. This thing is bristling with connectivity options, befitting Brazos' mission as a compact but competent version of the do-everything PC platform. Like many Brazos boards, this one fits the 17-cm-by-17-cm dimensions of the Mini-ITX form factor.

Also like all Brazos-based mobos, the APU CPU processor is soldered in place, with a heatsink/fan combo already mounted. If you're like me, you'll take one look at that tiny fan and get flashbacks to whiny chipset fans of old. Nearly every small fan like that, no matter how quiet it starts out, eventually ends up rattling and buzzing like Charlie Sheen halfway into a briefcase. MSI tells us the cooler on our pre-release sample differs from the final one, which will be larger and bluer than what you see above. In fact, we got a look at what appears to be the production cooler at CES:

Happily, that's a nicer looking deal. Less happily, it still includes a teeny little fan. We did find that MSI had implemented some very decent fan speed controls in this board's BIOS, and the fan on our cooler was pretty quiet with the right settings enabled. Still, we can't help but worry about how it will sound over time.

There are many possible applications for a Zacate-based mobo like this one, but when we lay eyes on that HDMI output port, the eight-channel analog outputs, and two flavors of SPDIF ports, we think about the potential to build a small, quiet home theater PC around it. Don't expect anything too special on the analog audio front, though. The board has a Realtek ALC887 audio codec onboard. They're cheap and competent, but you'd want to use one of the digital audio outputs for a home theater system.

Notice the one PCIe x16 slot on the board, suggesting the possibility of hosting a TV tuner or even—crucially for the evil experiment we're about to conduct—a discrete graphics card. Although that's a real x16 slot physically, it has only four lanes connected electrically, the maximum Zacate allows.

We should pause to note that this is not an enthusiast-class motherboard in the usual sense. The board has a UEFI BIOS with a very traditional (and quite snappy) text-based menu interface on top, and there is an "overclocking" section present. However, the only setting that might be construed as overclocking is the ability to run the DDR3 memory at 1333MHz, higher than AMD's officially supported max of 1066MHz. The rest of the settings control things like DRAM timings and enabling Cool'n'Quiet. There's no option for raising the CPU clock speed at all. Before you think that's horribly weak sauce, consider for a moment that many Atom boards in this class don't even offer DRAM timing controls, let alone a temperature-based threshold for the CPU fan speed like MSI provides here. This board won't win any medals for tweakability, but MSI has acquitted itself rather well overall, in our view.

MSI plans to offer two models of this board. The one with the big, blue heatsink and USB 3.0 support should cost about $139.99 at online vendors, while a lower-end version with a smaller cooler and no USB 3 will go for 10 bucks less. Although we've not yet seen either one listed at Newegg, MSI tells us they should be showing up for sale any day now.

We were a little surprised when we first got those prices from MSI. AMD had told us to expect Brazos boards to start at "somewhere under $100." Clearly, this is more of a premium product than the cheaper options apparently also coming. Yes, we're talking about a motherboard, CPU, and cooler combo, but you can pay less for a combo based on a low-end desktop processor, like this Biostar mobo, AMD Sempron, and cooler combo for 80 bucks. You'll also find older dual-core Atom boards like this one for $75. Obviously, at $140, you're paying a premium for miniaturization, for low power draw, for Brazos' expanded graphics and video capabilities versus Atom, and perhaps for protection from rogue elements of society. Systems in this class are meant to be dirt cheap, like a jumbo pack of Twinkies from Costco. Feels like we're initially being asked to pay Whole Foods Organic Cream-Filled Cakes prices here, to me. Perhaps these boards will settle closer to $100 over time.