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 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.
Our testing methodsWhile it may be entirely inappropriate to compare the GA-E350N-USB3 to full-sized desktop motherboards, we’re gonna do it anyway. You see, we already know that the E-350’s Bobcat cores are no match for modern desktop CPUs. We don’t, however, know how its Hudson platform hub stacks up. There’s no better way to find out than throwing Hudson into the mix against cutting-edge desktop chipsets riding the latest enthusiast motherboards.
To ensure that the E350N at least has someone its own size to pick on, we’ve also included some memory and application performance results from the MSI E350IA-E45 motherboard in Scott’s E-350 review. The MSI board has the same 1.6GHz APU and should offer equivalent performance. However, while the MSI board was run with 4GB of 1066MHz memory at 7-7-7-20-2T timings, the Gigabyte had 8GB of RAM cranked to 1333MHz with 9-9-9-24-1T timings. Scott also used a different hard drive and PSU, so I haven’t included his results in our power consumption tests.
To focus our attention, I’ve greyed out the desktop motherboards in some of our performance graphs. The E350N, its MSI twin, and our chipset results have all been color-coded to make the graphs easier to read.
With few exceptions, all tests were run at least three times, and we reported the median of the scores produced.
|Processor||AMD E-350 1.6GHz||AMD Phenom II X6 1090T 3.2GHz||Intel Core i7-870 2.93GHz||Intel Core i7-2600K 3.4GHz|
|Motherboard||Gigabyte GA-E350N-USB3||Asus M4A89GTD PRO/USB3||Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD4P||Asus P8P67 PRO||Intel DP67BG||Gigabyte GA-P67A-UD4P||MSI P67A-GD65||Zotac H67-ITX|
|Platform hub||AMD Hudson M1||AMD 890FX||Intel P55 Express||Intel P67 Express||Intel P67 Express||Intel P67 Express||Intel P67 Express||Intel H67 Express|
|South bridge||AMD SB850|
|Chipset drivers||AHCI: 126.96.36.1999||Catalyst 10.12||Chipset: 188.8.131.529
|Memory size||8GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz|
|Audio||Realtek ALC892 with 2.55 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.55 drivers||Realtek ALC889 with 2.55 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.55 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.55 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.55 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.55 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.55 drivers|
|Graphics||Radeon HD 6310 with 8.792.0.0 drivers||Asus EAH5870 1GB with Catalyst 10.12 drivers|
|Hard drive||Raptor WD1500ADFD 150GB|
|Power Supply||PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750W|
|OS||Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate x64|
We’d like to thank Asus, Corsair, and Western Digital for helping to outfit our test rigs with some of the finest hardware available. Thanks to each of the motherboard makers for supplying their boards, too, and to AMD and Intel for providing the CPUs.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- TrueCrypt 7.0a
- x264 3.19
- 7-Zip 4.65
- Metro: 2033
- IOMeter 2006.07.27
- Stream 5.8 64-bit
- CPU-Z 1.41
- HD Tach 3.01
- HD Tune 4.01
- RightMark Audio Analyzer 6.2.3
The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at a 60Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.
All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
Don’t even bother comparing the memory performance of the desktop boards to our Fusion offerings. It’s not going to be pretty.
Even the Zotac H67 board running with its integrated graphics enabled offers gobs more bandwidth and much lower latency than the E-350 boards.
The Gigabyte board scores much higher than the MSI in the bandwidth test thanks to its faster memory clock. MSI does support a 1333MHz memory clock, too, but we didn’t use it. Our disparate test configs have given Gigabyte a bit of an unfair advantage. Technically, we’re overclocking the memory controller on the Gigabyte board, since AMD doesn’t officially sanction 1333MHz memory speeds on the Brazos platform.
The gap between the two motherboards is only a couple of nanoseconds quicker when we look at memory access latencies, though.
Think the E-350 can hang with Sandy Bridge, Lynnfield, and a six-core Phenom in a handful of application benchmarks?
Think again. As expected, there’s no difference in performance between the MSI and Gigabyte E-350 boards. The Gigabyte config’s faster memory doesn’t deliver higher performance in these tests.
Serial ATA performance — HD Tune
Even without RAID support, Hudson M1’s 6Gbps Serial ATA controller looks pretty impressive on paper. Let’s see how it handles a couple of 6Gbps drives starting with the fastest mechanical model of them all: Western Digital’s latest VelociRaptor.
Hudson’s burst speeds aren’t quite fast enough to catch the P67 Express. That said, the Brazos platform’s SATA controller is quicker to the draw than the P55 and 890GX.
Things continue to look promising for Hudson in HD Tune’s sustained transfer rate tests.
Wouldn’t you know, the first Fusion Controller Hub has impressive SATA access times, too. So, what happens when we plug a 6Gbps Crucial RealSSD C300 into the board?
The P67 Express gets even faster, while Hudson maintains a healthy lead over the P55 and 890GX.
We see wider gaps in HD Tune’s sustained read and write speed tests when they’re running on the SSD. Again, Hudson is second only to Sandy Bridge’s core-logic sidekick—you know, the one with broken SATA ports.
SSD access times are very quick indeed. Hudson has a nice lead with writes but pulls up a little slower than the Intel chipsets with reads.
Serial ATA performance — IOMeter
Next, we tackle IOMeter, which hammers drives with increasing I/O loads. We’ve restricted our testing to IOMeter’s workstation and database access patterns because they’re slightly less irrelevant to the sorts of workloads likely to face a Zacate-based system. IOMeter makes good use of the Native Command Queuing capability built into the AHCI specification, and as one might expect, it loves the quick access times of solid-state drives. First, though, let’s see how things shake out with the ‘raptor.
Things are looking good for Hudson in IOMeter.
However, the board does burn through more CPU cycles than the other platforms. Considering Zacate is going up against full-fat desktop CPUs, I’m surprised the gaps aren’t larger. Perhaps the picture will change when the C300 is crunching our IOMeter workloads.
Not really—the performance of Hudson’s Serial ATA controller once again shadows that of the desktop chipsets. The P55 falls a little short because its SATA interface is limited to 3Gbps.
Overall CPU utilization is much higher this time around, especially for the Fusion platform. Yikes. Chewing through nearly 20,000 IOps requires a fair amount of CPU power, and there’s only so much on tap in the E-350.
Serial ATA performance — TR DriveBench
TR DriveBench simulates disk-intensive multitasking sessions by playing back pre-recorded traces of all disk activity associated with different workloads. You can read more about DriveBench on this page of our latest SSD round-up. We’re only using the file copy and virus scanning traces today, since they’re the most demanding of the workloads we’ve concocted. In fact, both are likely workloads for a Brazos-based system.
Interesting. The Fusion chipset performs well with our mechanical hard drive, but it falls a little behind the leaders with the SSD. Even in its poorest showing, Hudson is only about 10% slower than the P67 Express.
USB 2.0 performance
AMD’s Hudson M1 platform hub may not include SuperSpeed USB connectivity, but it does have a handful of old-school USB 2.0 ports. How fast are they?
Pretty quick, all things considered. Hudson’s read speeds are a little slower than its desktop competition. However, the AMD chipsets have quicker writes. 13% CPU utilization isn’t even that bad considering that the six-core Phenom is at 7%.
PCI Express performance
We now test PCI Express performance with an auxiliary storage controller that has a PCIe 2.0 x1 interface plus two 6Gbps Serial ATA ports. To those ports, we attach a pair of SandForce-powered SSDs configured in a RAID 0 array. This RAID card is usually plugged into a motherboard’s PCIe x1 slot, but we’ve used the x16 slot on the E350N because that’s the only expansion option available. Since the slot’s PCI Express lanes are coming directly from the APU rather than from the Hudson platform hub, we’ve labeled the results “E-350” in the graphs below. Our 890GX board has PCIe slots connected to PCI Express lanes stemming from its 890GX north-bridge and SB750 south-bridge components, and we’ve tested both.
Excellent. The E-350’s PCI Express lanes have no trouble keeping up with those offered by the P67 Express.
We measured system power consumption, sans monitor and speakers, at the wall outlet using a Watts Up Pro power meter. Readings were taken at idle and under a load consisting of a Cinebench 11.5 render alongside the rthdribl HDR lighting demo. We tested with Windows 7’s High Performance and Balanced power plans.
Motherboard makers usually ship their boards with energy-saving features that promise to lower power consumption without resorting to CPU throttling that might hinder performance. We’ve tested the Asus, MSI, and Gigabyte desktop boards with their power-saving features enabled and disabled. The Intel and Zotac boards aren’t equipped with such features, and neither is the E350N. Those boards were tested with only Windows handling power management.
You’ll notice two E350N configurations in the graphs below. One uses the same PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750W PSU as the other systems. 750W is definitely overkill for a Zacate-based system, so we’ve also tested with the 200W PSU from Thermaltake’s budget Element Q Mini-ITX enclosure (look for a full review soon). Those results are labeled “200W” in the graphs. For our purposes today, you’ll want to look at how the E350N compares with the Zotac H67 IGP config, which is the only other one not equipped with a discrete graphics card.
Surprisingly, the 750W Silencer is more efficient than the low-wattage Thermaltake PSU. The Thermaltake case-and-PSU combo costs quite a bit less than the standalone Silencer power supply, though. For what it’s worth, Scott observed lower idle power consumption from the MSI E-350 board using a different system configuration and power meter. He also used a laptop-style 85W PSU.
The key takeaway here is that Zacate-based systems have much lower power draw than enthusiast desktops. While the Zotac Mini-ITX board draws to within striking distance at idle, the very same system pulls nearly 2.5 times more power than the E350 under load.
Many have been curious about how AMD’s first Fusion APU would respond to overclocking. With that in mind and a dashboard full of clock-speed and voltage controls at my fingertips, I couldn’t resist turning the screws on the E350N. To keep our memory modules out of the equation, the DRAM multiplier was lowered to yield a 1066MHz memory speed with the default 100MHz base clock. With that done, I turned my attention to increasing the base clock speed.
A 110MHz base clock yielded a CPU speed of 1.76GHz according to CPU-Z. The system was perfectly stable at stock voltages with a combined workload of Prime95 and the rthdribl HDR lighting demo, so I pushed a little harder. Windows managed to boot with a 115MHz base clock speed, and our stress test ran without a hitch. However, the system blue-screened when I tried to reboot and was never perfectly stable with a 115MHz base clock again. Fiddling with the numerous voltage options didn’t help, either.
After probing the limits of the E-350’s CPU cores, I started on the integrated Radeon. Everything went smoothly up to an 800MHz GPU clock. At that speed, the system crashed during our stress test and failed to recover gracefully. Stability remained elusive even after backing off the GPU clock to 750 and 700MHz—speeds that had been stable before our initial crash. Discouraged and frustrated, I gave up after confirming that the board still worked properly with its default 500MHz GPU clock.
As is always the case with overclocking, your mileage may vary. I didn’t bother with our usual virgin sacrifice this time around, and that might’ve upset the gods with influence over such matters. Based on the fact that Zacate and Ontario were designed to be low-power parts with relatively modest clock speeds, I wouldn’t expect either to have substantial overclocking headroom.
Motherboard peripheral performance
Our last stop on the testing front is the wonderful world of onboard peripherals. Can the E350N’s onboard goodies keep up with what’s offered by the big boys?
|HD Tach USB 3.0 performance|
| Read burst
| Average read
| Average write
| CPU utilization
|Zotac H67 (IGP)||160.5||162.7||55.9||3|
So far, so good. The E350N’s USB 3.0 transfer rates aren’t quite as speedy as those of our full-sized desktop mobos, but they’re in the same ballpark. The one obvious exception is CPU utilization, which is understandably higher on the E350N.
|HD Tach USB 2.0 performance|
| Read burst
| Average read
| Average write
| CPU utilization
|Zotac H67 (IGP)||37.5||33.7||24.1||1|
We’ve graphed most of these USB 2.0 results already, so I’ll be brief. The E350N’s USB 2.0 performance is solid as long as you can live with slightly higher CPU utilization.
|HD Tune Serial ATA performance – VelociRaptor|
|Burst (MB/s)||Average (MB/s)||Random 4KB (ms)||Burst (MB/s)||Average (MB/s)||Random 4KB (ms)|
|Gigabyte P55 (Marvell)||240.9||129.9||7.2||240.8||127.7||2.7|
|Asus P67 (Marvell)||201.8||129.7||7.2||203.0||92.3||2.6|
|MSI P67 (Marvell)||189.8||128.5||7.3||187.0||87.0||2.6|
|Zotac H67 (IGP)||286.1||129.6||7.2||263.8||124.0||2.7|
Hudson’s 6Gbps Serial ATA controller offers respectable performance whether you’re using a mechanical VelociRaptor…
|HD Tune Serial ATA performance – RealSSD|
|Burst (MB/s)||Average (MB/s)||Random 4KB (ms)||Burst (MB/s)||Average (MB/s)||Random 4KB (ms)|
|Gigabyte P55 (Marvell)||196.2||258.6||0.17||190.8||177.7||0.38|
|Asus P67 (Marvell)||172.2||258.5||0.18||172.6||116.0||0.39|
|MSI P67 (Marvell)||165.9||215.4||0.20||165.6||109.7||0.36|
|Zotac H67 (IGP)||193.4||288.7||0.16||195.3||209.4||0.37|
Or a fancy solid-state drive.
|NTttcp Ethernet performance|
|Throughput (Mbps)||CPU utilization (%)|
|Gigabyte P55 (1)||936.8||2.7|
|Gigabyte P55 (2)||945.4||2.1|
|Zotac H67 (IGP)||935.8||3.7|
The E350N’s Gigabit Ethernet throughput is lower than one might expect given the performance of the other boards. I’m not sure whether Hudson’s PCIe interface is to blame for impeding throughput or if the E-350’s CPU cores are responsible for slowing performance in this test.
|RightMark Audio Analyzer audio quality|
|Frequency response||Noise level||Dynamic range||THD||THD + Noise||IMD + Noise||Stereo Crosstalk||IMD at 10kHz||Overall score|
|Zotac H67 (IGP)||5||4||4||4||3||4||5||4||4|
According to RightMark Audio Analyzer, the E350N’s analog audio signal quality is no worse than Zotac’s Mini-ITX H67 board. Of course, I suspect most folks will want to use the board’s digital audio outs, whether it’s directly via S/PDIF or bundled with a video stream over HDMI.
If you’ve been following along since page one, you’ll already know the answers to the questions we posed at the start of this review. For everyone who skipped over my eloquent prose, carefully constructed charts, and pretty graphs, I’ll recap.
The Hudson M1 platform hub isn’t nearly as flashy as the APU that makes up the heart of AMD’s first Fusion offerings. However, this tiny core-logic component is stacked with 6Gbps Serial ATA ports and second-gen PCI Express lanes. The performance of Hudson’s SATA controller is especially impressive, although the lack of RAID support does hinder the platform’s suitability for closet file servers and network-attached storage. Folks who want redundant storage will have to resort to purely software- or OS-based RAID implementations.
Gigabyte was smart to hang USB 3.0 and Gigabit Ethernet controllers off of Hudson’s PCIe lanes. These integrated peripherals are a little slower on the E350N than they are on full-sized desktop boards, but that’s just it—they’re only a little bit slower. Considering the vast difference in CPU performance between the E-350 and modern desktop CPUs, I can live with peripherals that only lag a step behind.
I’m not so keen on the Gigabyte board’s overclocking potential, though. The BIOS might serve up loads of memory timing, clock, and voltage options, but our sample’s E-350 wasn’t particularly happy when pushed beyond stock speeds. Zacate wasn’t expected to be a potent overclocker, so its reluctance to run at higher speeds isn’t a great disappointment. Unfortunately, Gigabyte appears to have focused its BIOS efforts on exploiting Zacate’s seemingly minimal overclocking headroom while ignoring its obvious suitability for unobtrusive desktops and home-theater PCs. The complete lack of BIOS-level fan controls on this class of motherboard is even more mind-boggling than the use of a tiny little fan on the APU heatsink.
In addition to being poorly tailored for Zacate’s ideal applications, the E350N is also a little pricey at $150 online. MSI’s E350IA-E45 sells for $10 less and lets users set a temperature threshold for its APU fan. If you can live without USB 3.0, ASRock has an E-350 board available for just $110. Asus puts the very same APU on a $175 E35M1-I Deluxe, so the Gigabyte board isn’t the most expensive of the lot.
Given that competitive landscape, I’m a little hesitant to recommend the E350N at present. The addition of decent fan speed controls to the board’s BIOS would make this a much better platform for quiet desktops and home-theater PCs. Zacate is an excellent choice for those kinds of systems. Adding a stack of tweaking options to the BIOS isn’t going to turn it into a compelling overclocking platform, though.