Four and a half years have passed since AMD acquired ATI and announced its Fusion plans for world domination. That's how long it's taken for the first accelerated processing unit (APU) to emerge. Make that two APUs: Ontario and Zacate. The former is a 9W part best suited to inexpensive netbooks like Acer's Aspire One 522. Zacate uses the same silicon but offers slightly more power within a 18W thermal envelope that's perfect for budget ultraportables, lightweight desktops, and home-theater PCs.
These first Fusion APUs are more Atom killers than true world beaters. They don't have nearly enough horsepower to keep up with desktop CPUs, including budget models. However, they offer snappy performance for basic tasks and an integrated graphics processor capable of fueling smooth HD video playback. The on-die Radeon can handle light gaming provided you stick to smaller indie titles. In the more powerful Zacate-based E-350, the Radeon HD 6310 is will even produce playable frame rates in older big-name games.
The E-350 is teamed with AMD's Hudson M1 platform hub, a sort of miniature but very modern core-logic chipset. In addition to four second-generation PCI Express lanes (complementing four lanes in the APU), Hudson M1 serves up a quartet of 6Gbps Serial ATA ports and a boatload of USB 2.0 ports. That foundation is a great basis for Mini-ITX motherboards like Gigabyte's GA-E350N-USB3, which adds USB 3.0, Gigabit Ethernet, and a BIOS loaded with overclocking options. This marriage of a low-power core with high-performance peripherals is sort of a second degree fusion—like a pulled-pork sushi roll that's been popped into the deep fryer.
As a sucker for all things deep fried, and for Mini-ITX, I had to check out the E350N for myself. Does its APU have much overclocking headroom? Can the board's high-performance peripherals keep up with those on full-sized desktop mobos? Is this the perfect starting point for a mini HTPC? Let's find out.
A tour of the board
Here's a quick look at the E350N's rap sheet:
|APU||AMD E-350 w/Radeon HD 6310 IGP|
|Platform hub||AMD Hudson M1|
|DIMM slots||2 DDR3-1333|
|Expansion slots||1 PCIe x16 (x4 bandwidth)|
|Storage I/O||4 6Gbps SATA RAID via Hudson M1|
|Audio||8-channel HD via Realtek ALC892|
1 PS/2 keyboard/keyboard
2 USB 3.0 via NEC D720200
4 USB 2.0 w/ 4 headers
1 RJ45 via Realtek RTL8111E
1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out
1 analog rear out
1 analog surround out
1 analog line in
1 analog mic in
1 optical S/PDIF out
That's quite a lot of hardware for something that costs $150. All you need is an enclosure, hard drive, and memory to form a complete system.
Lest you think Gigabyte has adopted a generic black-and-blue color scheme across its entire lineup, there are plenty of models sticking with the old-school turquoisey blue. Amen. I especially dig how the heatsink's dark-grey metal contrasts with the board's light-blue accents.
Beneath the hunk of finned metal sits a power-efficient Brazos tandem that runs quietly in ultraportable notebooks like HP's Pavilion dm1z. Despite the fact that the E350N is surely headed for much airier confines, Gigabyte has equipped the heatsink with a 40-mm cooling fan. The fan is all but inaudible from a few feet away—today. However, as we've often noted, tiny fans like this one tend to develop an annoying whine over time. That's the last thing you want coming from a home-theater PC in the living room or a lightweight desktop tucked into the corner of a dorm or bedroom. I'd be more forgiving if the board were more cramped, but there's loads of room for a larger passive cooler.
Gigabyte hasn't let the E350N escape the clutches of its Ultra Durable 3 branding. That's just a fancy way of saying that the board uses higher-quality electrical components and thicker copper layers. Those little touches are common on enthusiast-oriented desktop boards but less often found in the Mini-ITX realm.
Space constraints also prevent some Mini-ITX boards from offering full-sized DIMM slots. Not so with the E350N, which can host a pair of DDR3 modules at speeds up to 1333MHz. Users can dedicate as much as a gig of system memory to the APU's integrated Radeon.
The presence of a PCI Express x16 slot would usually get me excited about the prospect of building a pint-sized gaming rig. However, even with a powerful graphics card riding shotgun, the E-350's CPU cores are simply too slow to keep up with modern games. At least the PCIe slot gives the board some flexibility on the expansion front. Look closely, and you can see that the slot has only four lanes of electrical connectivity. All of those lanes stem from the E-350 APU.
Just beyond the PCIe slot in the picture above sits a cluster of SATA ports linked to the Hudson M1 chipset. 6Gbps connectivity is probably overkill for a system of this caliber, but it's nothing to complain about. The lack of RAID support might upset folks considering the E350N for a home storage server, though.
Of course, burying this board inside a closet with a bunch of hard drives would be a waste. The DVI and HDMI outputs are there for a reason, and multi-channel digital audio can be passed over HDMI to a compatible television or receiver in fancy formats like TrueHD and DTS-HD. You also get a separate S/PDIF audio output, although the board's audio codec doesn't provide real-time multichannel encoding or headphone virtualization.
Gigabyte kicks in a couple of USB 3.0 ports, and the addition of Gigabit Ethernet is a nice touch. However, I'm a little bummed that there's no Wi-Fi onboard. Wireless networking can always be added via a USB dongle, but I'd rather see it integrated—especially on a product with living-room aspirations.
The E350N's BIOS has a lot more overclocking options than one might expect from a Mini-ITX board. I have to question Gigabyte's priorities, though. Here we have a BIOS that lets users increase the base clock speed by up to 20% and take the GPU clock from a default of 500MHz all the way up to 2GHz. There are voltage controls for no fewer than five system variables, including the USB 3.0 chip. All the important memory timings can be tweaked, and you can choose between a couple of memory bus speeds.
For some reason, however, fan speed controls are nowhere to be found. That makes about as much sense as putting an adjustable spoiler and suspension on your mom's grocery getter... and then ripping out the climate control. I guess Gigabyte thinks more people are interested in overclocking a Brazos board than putting one inside a quiet desktop or media box. Odd.