Not too long ago, all-in-one PCs were the realm of repurposed mobile processors and proprietary components. Buying one invariably meant sacrificing the prospect of serious upgrades. Oh, sure, you could always swap in a higher-capacity hard drive or a little extra RAM. But upgrading the processor or motherboard? Forget about it.
That all changed last year. Intel introduced its Thin Mini-ITX platform, which, at long last, allowed all-in-one PCs to be built using standard components. As we discovered last August, when we went hands-on with the platform for the first time, building a Thin Mini-ITX AIO is surprisingly straightforward. The process of hooking up the integrated display and peripherals does involve some unusual plugs and connectors, but all the required parts are available at retail, and users are free to mix and match them to their liking.
Here’s what you need: a compatible chassis, a desktop processor with a 65W or lower TDP, and a matching motherboard. Thin Mini-ITX mobos have the same footprint as their Mini-ITX brethren, but their port clusters are shrunken to accommodate slimmer enclosures, and they have a few extra connectors on board—including those required to drive a touch-screen display. Intel provided the first wave of Thin Mini-ITX mobos, but companies like Gigabyte and ASRock were quick to introduce boards of their own. Today, there’s a number of non-Intel models listed at online retailers.
You’re also free to deck out your AIO with a Wi-Fi adapter, a Serial ATA or mSATA solid-state drive, a mechanical hard drive, a slim optical drive, and what have you. The exact expansion options depend on the kind of chassis you choose, but there’s usually room for a little of everything.
Since these are all standard parts, upgrading to a new generation of processors is supposed to be quite straightforward. In theory, all you need is a new mobo and CPU, and perhaps new RAM, too. You can keep your old chassis and monitor. You can even hold on to your Wi-Fi card and storage devices.
Our first brush with Thin Mini-ITX left us impressed—and hungry for more. Now, almost a year later, Intel has sent us a new all-in-one machine with the latest the platform has to offer: an Ivy Bridge processor, an IPS panel with touch-screen capabilities, a blend of solid-state and mechanical storage, and Windows 8. The machine came pre-assembled, but since it’s all built out of standard components, we’re going to take great joy in dissecting it to see what’s inside.
Also, we’ll try inserting the components into our old AIO chassis from last year. That ought to give us some indication of how easy Thin Mini-ITX systems are to upgrade. Intel says there should be no obstacles in our way, but a little first-hand confirmation never hurt anyone.
Mmm. Purdy. Well, except for that Core i5 sticker, which kinda ruins the whole pseudo-iMac vibe.
This sleek and sexy system is based on a MiTac M780T barebones chassis, which includes a 23.6″ IPS panel with a 1920×1080 resolution and 10-point capacitive touch input. (Don’t worry; we’ll cover the display more closely soon.) Out of the box, the chassis comes with its own cooling solution, but there’s no motherboard, processor, or storage included. Users have to provide their own. The M780T retails for about $550 at Amazon right now.
Intel sent us the machine pre-configured with a Core i5-3470S processor, which has four cores, a 2.9GHz base clock speed, a 3.6GHz Turbo peak, and a 65W thermal envelope. The processor was strapped to a Gigabyte GA-H77TN motherboard. This diminutive mobo is packed full of USB 3.0 and Serial ATA 6Gbps goodness, not to mention all the right headers and connectors to accommodate the MiTac chassis’ touch-screen panel, webcam, built-in card reader, and so on.
Intel also threw in eight gigs of DDR3 memory, a 180GB Intel 525 Series solid-state drive, a 1TB Western Digital mechanical hard drive, a slim DVD burner, an Intel Advanced-N 6235 Wi-Fi adapter, and a copy of Windows 8 Pro—because being able to poke and prod your way across Modern UI tiles is the whole point of that big, glass-clad touch-screen panel.
For reference, here’s a tally of all the parts and their prices:
|Processor||Intel Core i5-3470S||$197.99|
|Memory||8GB DDR3-1600 SO-DIMM||$49.99|
|Storage||Intel 525 Series 180GB mSATA||$199.99|
|WD Blue 1TB 5,400 RPM||$82.08|
|LG GT80N slim DVD burner||$25.95|
|Wi-Fi adapter||Intel Advanced-N 6235||$21.75|
|OS||Windows 8 Pro OEM||$96.19|
Already, this is looking like a big step up from the 21.5″ all-in-one we looked at last year. That system had a lowly Sandy Bridge dually, and the Loop chassis didn’t have touch input, lacked an IPS panel, and featured a much less elegant design with a somewhat awkward port arrangement. That config gave us a glimpse of the possibilities enabled by Thin Mini-ITX. Now, it seems, we’re finally seeing the best the platform has to offer.
Let’s go in for a closer look, shall we?
Upon closer inspection
Did I mention the MiTac display has an IPS panel? I guess that’s not entirely surprising, since we’re now seeing stand-alone IPS monitors retailing for under $150 at Newegg. Still, it’s a nice change from the plague of mediocre TN monitors that has gripped the PC industry for years.
We didn’t have time to run a full battery of display tests. However, we did take a few minutes to check viewing angles, since that’s supposed to be one of the chief advantages of IPS panel technology. Ideally, colors shouldn’t shift or change when the display is seen off-center—or at least, the shifting should be minimal.
The photos above show the display sitting vertically at 90° and leaning back and forward as far as it goes (80° and 105°, respectively). Also, one of the shots shows the system rotated 30° to the side.
The image seemed to lose a little bit of contrast when viewed from the side, but colors didn’t change dramatically. Even when looking at the screen from much further off to the side, I didn’t notice any color shift. Vertical viewing angles, however, were another story. There was a fair bit of contrast shift at 105°, and it got even worse when I looked down at the display from a standing position. Colors went negative, and the on-screen image was a mess.
Are these viewing angles better than those of a cheap TN panel? Absolutely. Are they on par with those of a pricier, stand-alone IPS monitor? No way. The poor vertical viewing angles wouldn’t pose as much of a problem if the panel could recline farther back, but as it is, the MiTac M780T isn’t very pleasant to use while standing up—unless, of course, you can find a tall enough surface to put it on. Now that I think about it, this thing could work as a kitchen PC. Hmm.
Other than that, this is a pretty solid display. It’s nice and bright at the maximum setting, and colors are vivid but not overblown. The default white balance seems to be a tad on the blue side, but it feels close enough to the 6500K sweet spot to be comfortable. I did notice some minor pixel-walk in the Lagom display test, but both of my own HP IPS monitors (a ZR24w and an LP2475w) suffer from the same problem, so it’s hard to fault MiTac for that one.
However, there was a red stuck pixel in the lower third of the screen, near the center. I think that may have been the first stuck pixel I’ve ever seen on an IPS panel. At least it was easy enough to ignore considering the size of the screen. The fact that the touch-friendly glass attracted smudges and dirt like a magnet helped to mask the stuck pixel, too.
But enough about the screen. There’s a whole world of hardware sitting right behind it.
The right edge of the system plays host to the DVD burner (a slim, tray-loading model), card reader, front-panel USB ports, and display brightness control. The power button is at the very bottom, parallel to the display, next to the power and storage activity LEDs.
I actually had trouble locating the power button at first, since there’s no hint of its presence on the front of the machine. A manual would have helped, but Intel didn’t include one in the box. Oh well; I figured it out eventually.
The left edge is where the motherboard’s I/O cluster lies. Here, Gigabyte’s GA-H77TN motherboard serves up stereo and microphone audio jacks, a set of four USB 3.0 ports, one DisplayPort output, one HDMI output, and one Ethernet port. There’s also the DC connector that supplies power to the system. (Thin Mini-ITX PCs don’t have internal power supplies, so AC-to-DC conversion is handled by a big external power brick.)
It might seem like an obvious design choice to have the port cluster on the side, but not all enclosures are this sensible. The Loop chassis we looked at last year had the cluster facing down, which made accessing the ports an ordeal. Think of how annoying it is to connect a DVI or DisplayPort cable at the back of your monitor. Now, imagine doing that for USB, Ethernet, and audio. Ugh. Thank goodness MiTac went with a more convenient layout.
Taking this puppy apart is surprisingly simple. To begin, you must lay the chassis flat with the screen facing down, then undo two screws sitting at either end of the system’s bottom edge. Once those screws are removed, the glossy rear panel slides toward the top, exposing the internal components.
If you’ve never seen a Thin Mini-ITX system before, the insides might look a little intimidating. You might wonder about all those small, green circuit boards scattered here and there. Do they need to be tinkered with? Are they third-party components that are required to make the system whole?
The answer to both those questions is no. In reality, you only need to worry about the motherboard, which occupies a small corner of the hardware compartment, and the storage, which fits at the other end. Everything else, as far as I can tell, is pre-installed and ready to hook up to the motherboard via included cables and connectors.
Plugging in those cables is easier than it sounds, too. You just need to match headers with corresponding plugs and watch for missing pins in order to determine alignment. Or, you know, you can read the manual. Even without one, I managed to take the machine apart and put it back together without breaking anything.
Here, we can see the 2.5″ mechanical hard drive and the DVD burner, which are both mounted upside-down from this angle. Installing those devices is simpler than you’d think. The big metal cage that holds the hard drive is secured in place only by two screws. Remove them, slide the cage toward the top of the chassis a quarter inch or so, and it all pulls free. As for the optical drive, that green converter board above it doesn’t interfere with installation. The optical drive actually slides in from the side, and it’s held in place by an L-shaped bracket and just two screws. (The bracket winds up sitting between the drive and the CPU cooler when everything is installed properly.)
Speaking of the CPU cooler, MiTac elected to include its own solution rather than the standard Intel Thin Mini-ITX heatsink, which we used last year. Happily, the MiTac cooler is just as easy to mount. There’s no need to touch the fan—only the base plate and fin array, and they’re really a single component, sort of like a squished tower-style cooler. The base plate is strapped to the CPU with four screws, and the fin array is held in place by a single screw at the other end, just to make sure it doesn’t wiggle around and exert undue stress on the heat pipes.
Curious to see how hot our quad-core CPU would get, I left the machine running a Small FFT Prime95 load for about one hour. Temperatures peaked at around 79°C, according to CoreTemp—a little on the toasty side for a desktop processor, but not enough to cause thermal throttling. Keep in mind that it’s not uncommon to see laptop CPUs running even hotter than that. Also, Prime95 is kind of a worst-case scenario; real-world applications don’t usually cause CPU temperatures to climb quite so high.
Now that you know what’s inside, here’s a look at the system from the outside—all plugged in, powered up, and ready to go, with Windows 8’s colorful Start screen awaiting input.
Yeah, that power adapter is pretty big. It measures 6.6″ x 2.4″ x 1.5″ and weighs just over a pound. The DC cable is plenty long, though (about 67″), so you can easily hide this monster under your desk.
Once you’ve concealed the power adapter, this machine is surprisingly elegant and fast. The Core i5-3470S absolutely screams, as would any quad-core Ivy Bridge processor. The presence of 8GB of RAM and a 180GB solid-state drive doesn’t hurt, either. System startup takes all of 19 seconds or so, and working in the desktop environment feels delightfully snappy.
The touch screen lets you use the Modern UI interface without a keyboard or mouse. I’m not sure I necessarily see the appeal, since poking and prodding your way across a 23.6″ panel quickly induces gorilla arm. Then again, as I noted earlier, this PC could be right at home on a kitchen countertop, especially if you’re just going to stand in front of it and quickly scroll through recipes. A touch screen is certainly perfect for when you’re making dinner. Scrubbing uncooked food off a mouse or keyboard is a chore, but wiping a glass surface clean takes all of a few seconds.
Really, the only missing ingredient here is a discrete GPU. The Core i5-3470S’s integrated Intel HD Graphics 2500 IGP can run older and casual games, but you can forget about serious shooters or other, graphically intensive titles. Just to give you an idea, the HD Graphics 4000 IGP on Intel’s fastest desktop processor, the Core i7-3770K, fails to run Battlefield 3 smoothly at 1366×768 using the lowest detail preset. The HD 2500 has fewer execution units and is even slower.
Now, it is possible to get HD Graphics 4000 in Thin Mini-ITX-friendly desktop processors. The Core i3-3225 and Core i5-3475S both have it, and their power envelopes are 55W and 65W, respectively. Even with those offerings, though, IGP performance won’t be enough to satisfy serious gamers.
One last thing to note: the system isn’t completely silent at idle. A faint mechanical whine is clearly audible when you sit facing the screen. I suspect that sound originates from the mechanical hard drive, whose platters spin continuously at 5,400 RPM. Fan noise also kicks in when the processor is under load, but it sounds different—more like a whoosh than a whir.
Upgrading the old chassis
Part of the appeal of Thin Mini-ITX is that, in theory, it allows for all-in-one systems to be upgraded with a new motherboard and processor. Intel tells us boxed Thin Mini-ITX motherboards are all “fully interoperable,” although a few incompatibilities do exist in some configurations. The chipmaker’s website has a handy compatibility matrix that shows which motherboards work with which all-in-one chassis. Incompatibilities are very few and far between, and most of them seem to be related to board issues or to violations of Intel’s spec.
Since the compatibility matrix didn’t prohibit it, we transferred the parts from the MiTac barebones into the smaller Loop chassis we tested last year. That chassis had been shipped to us with an Intel H61 motherboard and a dual-core Sandy bridge processor. We were curious to see how it would fare with an H77 mobo and a quad-core Ivy CPU.
In the photos above, you can see the Loop chassis and its original components. The internal layout is a little simpler (and messier) than in the MiTac enclosure, but all the key connectors and plugs are the same, and they’re in the same locations around the board.
And here’s the Gigabyte H77 mobo and Core i5-3470S in the same place. Not much of a difference, eh?
The upgrade was child’s play, even without a manual. The connectors—USB, LVDS, audio, front-panel, SATA, fan, etc—were all right where they were meant to be. The I/O shields had to be swapped, of course, but the process was no more complicated than doing the same thing on an ATX case. The most time-consuming step was probably swapping heatsinks—and that’s only because I forgot that the standard Intel cooler requires a backplate behind the CPU socket, while the MiTac cooler does not. The new mobo was already installed in the Loop chassis when I realized this fact, so I had to remove it, transplant the backplate from the old mobo, and fasten everything into place again. Frustrating, but harmless.
The newly upgraded Loop system booted on the first try. As far as I could tell, all the components worked perfectly right away, including the front-panel USB and audio ports, the card reader, display brightness adjustments, and so on.
Since the coolers had changed, I fired up Prime95 and CoreTemp again and measured temperatures throughout an hour of continuous load. This time, the processor peaked at about 90°C then settled around 87-88°C. That was a fair bit hotter than in the MiTac chassis, but it still wasn’t enough to cause throttling. The processor soldiered on at 3.2GHz, about half-way between the 2.9GHz base and the 3.6GHz Turbo peak, and there were no apparent stability issues.
For what it’s worth, Intel tells us both coolers are designed to accommodate 65W processors. Based on our testing, the solutions do work as advertised—but the MiTac one clearly does a better job.
Our first brush with a Thin Mini-ITX all-in-one last year left us impressed but perhaps not entirely convinced. After all, we didn’t know whether next-generation motherboards and CPUs would really be simple, drop-in upgrades. We had no idea if vendors other than Intel would release Thin Mini-ITX motherboards. And we wondered whether we would see more appealing all-in-one barebones chassis—offerings with better screens, touch input, and more sensible port layouts.
Nine months later, it’s clear Thin Mini-ITX really is all it’s cracked up to be. The MiTac-based build Intel sent us isn’t just a good example of the platform in action. It’s also an excellent PC, with a slim and well-designed exterior, a good-quality display with touch input, and very fast hardware under the hood.
Also, as we saw, upgrading an older Thin Mini-ITX machine with a new processor and motherboard is a piece of cake. Intel addresses potential compatibility kinks on its website, but those kinks are very few, and we encountered no issues in our testing. Thin Mini-ITX doesn’t just let you build a tantalizing all-in-one PC today; it also opens the door to serious upgrades down the road.
Intel Product Marketing Engineer Rob L’Heureux wasn’t willing to discuss numbers with us, but he said Intel is “very happy” with the platform’s adoption to date. He also lauded the “growing ecosystem” that’s developed around the platform, noting that more than 10 different chassis and as many boxed motherboards are now available. Intel has even worked with the folks at PCPartPicker to spur adoption among enthusiasts.
The only missing piece, as we pointed out earlier, is discrete graphics. Without the option to include a discrete GPU, Thin Mini-ITX all-in-ones stand little chance of becoming compelling gaming PCs. We asked L’Heureux about this situation, and though he said Intel has “nothing to announce right now,” he revealed that Intel is “absolutely analyzing discrete graphics.” His final comment on the subject? “Stay tuned.”
Thin Mini-ITX, it seems, has a bright future ahead of it.