The Compact Fusion Reactor
Fusion that isn't just a load of hot air
Sandy Bridge's troubles don't affect all categories of PCs. In the price range of this lilliputian build, only uber-cheap, low-power CPUs can compete—and there's some new hotness from AMD that shakes up this segment almost as much as Sandy Bridge does more expensive systems.
|Memory||Kingston 4GB (1 x 4GB) DDR3-1333||$41.99|
|Storage||WD Scorpio Black 250GB||$49.99|
|Samsung SN-S083F slim DVD-RW||$26.99|
|Case/PSU||Antec ISK 300-65||$69.99|
|Total||Buy this complete system at Newegg||$298.95|
Processor, motherboard, and graphics
Integration is the name of the game with AMD's new Brazos platform. Much like other Mini-ITX Brazos motherboard we've looked at, ASRock's E350M1 incorporates a Zacate processor with dual 1.6GHz cores and DirectX 11 integrated graphics on a cute little 6.7" x 6.7" circuit board. The only difference is that, with a $109.99 asking price, the E350M1 is quite a bit cheaper than the competition.
Don't let the low price fool you, though. The E350M1 has a surprisingly complete array of features: one physical PCI Express x16 slot, four internal Serial ATA ports, six USB 2.0 ports, one eSATA port, and a choice of DVI, HDMI, and VGA display outputs. We wish the heatsink covering both the Zacate CPU and its Hudson I/O hub weren't crowned by a tiny fan, since such small fans can and often do get noisy over time, but active cooling seems hard to avoid among Mini-ITX Brazos mobos right now.
Unfortunately, the E350M1 unexpectedly went out of stock as we were writing this guide. We think it's almost too good a deal to pass up, but if you can't wait, check out the next page for a slightly pricier alternative mobo that's actually in stock.
DDR3 prices have sunk so low that, even for a bargain-basement build like this one, we'd be remiss not to include 4GB of RAM. Since Zacate doesn't have a dual-channel memory controller, we've gone with a single, high-density 4GB module, courtesy of Kingston. A dual-channel kit would cost about the same, but it'd fill both of the ASRock board's DIMM slots. This way, if you ever feel the urge to upgrade your $300 pint-sized PC with 8GB of RAM, you can. Neat, huh?
Just remember to install a 64-bit operating system if you want to use 4GB of RAM or more. 32-bit OSes have enough address space for 4GB of RAM, but that figure is an upper limit for all memory in a system—including video RAM, which will matter if you ever feel like chucking a real graphics card into the Compact Fusion Reactor. In practice, 32-bit versions of Windows will only let you use 3 to 3.5GB of actual system memory, and they'll normally restrict each application's RAM budget to 2GB. Workarounds exist for 32-bit Windows, but Microsoft says they can hurt compatibility; it advises that folks run a 64-bit version of Windows instead. We're inclined to echo that recommendation. Check out our OS section on the second-to-last page of the guide for more details.
Our chosen enclosure doesn't have room for full-sized hard drives and optical drives, so we've had to opt for mobile offerings. On the mechanical storage front, WD's Scorpio Black 250GB looks to us like a sensible choice, considering its 7,200-RPM spindle speed, low price, five-year warranty, and overwhelmingly positive user reviews on Newegg. If you think 250GB is cutting it a little close, check our alternatives on the next page for a higher-capacity option.
On the optical side of things, Samsung's slim SN-S083F drive appears to be an equally capable candidate, with DVD burning capabilities, Serial ATA connectivity, good user reviews, and a surprisingly affordable price tag.
Enclosure and power supply
And now, for a teeny little case to tie all of this hardware together. We've used boxy Mini-ITX cases before, but Antec's ISK 300-65 takes the form factor to the next level, featuring an external power-supply brick and much slimmer dimensions: just 12.9" x 3.8" x 8.7". That leaves room for only a pair of 2.5" hard drives and a slim optical drives, but it makes for a svelte PC that's easy to tuck away out of sight. Antec still provides space for a low-profile expansion card, too, which will come in handy as we explore home-theater-PC expansion in our alternatives section on the next page.