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VIA's EPIA-M10000 platform

A viable pint-sized home theater platform?

Manufacturer VIA
Model EPIA-M10000 Pro
Price (street) US$162
Availability Now

HOW FAST is fast enough? How much power does one need for basic office applications? What about high quality DivX and MP3 playback?

The question of "how fast is fast enough" has plagued me since VIA's tiny EPIA-M10000 platform arrived at my doorstep in what seemed like far too small a box to hold a motherboard and CPU. Just 17 cm square, the EPIA-M10000 is a midget (sorry, little person) among small form factor platforms. The fact that the board features a new revision of VIA's notoriously slow C3 processor almost makes it hard to take the EPIA-M10000 seriously, but I'm trying to be open-minded.

With a new "Nehemiah" core C3 processor running at a cool 1GHz, a full-speed FPU, support for DDR SDRAM, and a hardware MPEG-2 decoder, the EPIA-M10000 at least has the potential to be fast enough for mainstream desktops and even home theater PCs. Read on as I explore the features and performance of VIA's newest Mini-ITX platform to find out just how much power this pint-size platform is packing.

The specs
What's the EPIA-M10000 all about? Let's take a quick look at the spec sheet.

CPU 1GHz VIA C3/EDEN (Nehemiah core)
Form factor Mini-ITX
Chipset VIA ProSavage CLE266
North bridge VIA VT8623
South bridge VIA VT8235
Interconnect V-Link (266MB/s)
PCI slots 1 32-bit/33MHz
AGP slots None
AMR/CNR slots None
Memory 1 184-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 1GB of DDR266/200 SDRAM
Storage I/O Floppy disk
2 channels ATA/133
Serial ATA None
Legacy ports 1 PS/2 keyboard, 1 PS/2 mouse, Serial and Parallel ports
USB 2 USB 2.0/1.1 ports
2 additional USB 2.0/1.1 ports via PCI expansion header
Firewire 2 IEEE 1394 Firewire ports via PCI expansion header
Audio VIA 6-channel "Vinyl Audio" (VT8235/VT1616 codec)
analog front, rear, and center output
shared mic and line-in inputs
digital S/PDIF output
Video Integrated CastleRock graphics with MPEG-2 decoder
VGA and S-Video outputs
Ethernet 10/100 Fast Ethernet via VT6103 PHY
BIOS Award
Bus speeds None
Bus dividers DRAM: 100 or 133MHz
Voltages DRAM: default, 2.6-2.8V in 1V increments
Monitoring Voltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring

The EPIA-M10000 is a veritable orgy of integrated peripherals, which may not seem especially impressive to those used to seeing high-end enthusiast-oriented motherboards packing in nearly every integrated feature under the sun. What's important to remember here is that the EPIA-M10000 integrates all of its peripherals into significantly less board real estate than most motherboards.

Better than Ezra
I'll be covering each of the EPIA-M10000's integrated peripherals in finer detail over the following pages, but before I get into that, I should take a moment to address what's probably the least familiar element of the EPIA-M10000: its 1GHz C3 "Nehemiah" processor, which comes in an EBGA packaging that's soldered right onto the board.

AMD and Intel have the lion's share of the PC processor market, but VIA's been stubbornly producing its C3 processors for a while now. Of course, the performance of its previous C3 processors, which were based on the "Ezra" core, left much to be desired.

Lucky for the EPIA-M10000, VIA has a new version of the C3 dubbed "Nehemiah" that promises to address the performance issues of previous C3 processors. The new Nehemiah core carries forward Ezra's 4-way associative 64KB L1 data and instruction caches, and its exclusive 64KB L2 cache with 16-way associativity. Like Ezra, Nehemiah is built using 0.13-micron process technology on a die just 52mm2, but where do the two chips differ?

  • A handful of transistors - As graphics chip manufacturers push out new GPUs with transistor counts well over 100 million, VIA uses just over 20 million transistors for the Nehemiah core. By comparison, Intel's original Pentium 4 core weighed in with twice as many transistors. The current "Northwood" cores run about 55 million transistors, give or take.

  • From 3DNow! to SSE - Though the Ezra C3 core supported AMD's 3DNow! SIMD instructions, VIA has switched teams with Nehemiah and dropped 3DNow! support in favor of Intel's SSE instructions. SSE2 isn't supported, but the 180-degree turn in instruction support is interesting to note.

  • A full-speed FPU - The Ezra core scaled all the way up to 1GHz, but its "half-pumped" floating point unit never made it beyond 500MHz. With Nehemiah, VIA has the C3's FPU running at full processor speed, which should dramatically improve the new core's performance in graphics-intensive applications, as in other FPU-intensive tasks.

  • A little extra pipe - VIA has added an extra four stages to the C3's pipeline with the Nehemiah core, bringing the total up to 16. Nehemiah's 16-stage pipeline puts it somewhere between Intel's Pentium III processor, which has a 10-stage pipeline, and the Pentium 4, whose pipeline is a lengthy 20 stages. Nehemiah's extra pipeline stages should help allow higher clock speeds, although a deeper pipeline brings with it a higher penalty for branch mispredictions.

  • Nudge up the voltage - Low power consumption still remains a key mantra for VIA's C3, but the Nehemiah core actually requires a higher core voltage than its predecessor. Ezra C3 processors ran on only 1.35V, but the new Nehemiahs require 1.4V. This extra voltage lets the Nehemiah core debut at 1GHz, but the processor requires active cooling at that speed.

  • Hardware encryption engine - Though it's not going to do a thing for mainstream users, VIA has added a hardware random number generator to the Nehemiah C3 core. This number generator is a key component of VIA's PadLock Data Encryption Engine, which makes Nehemiah an intriguing option for server products, but does little to add value for the rest of us.
Ok, enough about Nehemiah. Let's check out the EPIA-M10000.