The mini-ITX form factor is becoming more and more popular these days, reasons being quite objective. Many users just don't need expandability that full-fledged desktops offer. Of course, this puts a limit to performance as well, but what compact solutions can offer is already sufficient for many areas of application. All the more so that manufacturers have begun making specialized hardware parts instead of adapting desktop components. AMD Brazos is a fresh example. We should see a multitude of Mini-ITX motherboards based on this platform in the near future. And today we shall review one such solution — Sapphire Fusion Mini E350.
The motherboard looks very familiar. Although the platform is new, we've been seeing these layouts since Atom (especially the new generation). Processor and chipset are located by each other, since there's no sense in situating them further. And there's actually no PCB space, too.
Such a layout suggests covering processor and chipset with one heatsink and a large, slow fan just to be safe. Unfortunately, Sapphire decided otherwise. Two compact heatsinks would've been okay, too, if it wasn't for that CPU fan mounted on one of them. It was especially, um, noticeable on first board samples, because it spun as fast as 7000 rpm and was almost as noisy as a rackmount server. Luckily, this was fixed in mass-produced boards by adding a resistor that halved fan speed. But that was still a halfhearted measure — the motherboard has a 4-pin fan connector that could've been used to easily adjust fan speed. Meanwhile, some other manufacturers release passively-cooled Brazos-based motherboards which are much better tailored to HTPC use.
But these are all drawbacks there are, more or less. Use of SO-DIMM on such motherboards isn't a standard, but it's a popular thing nevertheless. Such memory is a bit more expensive — by about 10-15 percent — but that's within acceptable limits. Space freed by use of smaller memory modules is utilized in full. In particular, they didn't save on SATA ports, so the board has five (most competing products have four), and another one is offered as eSATA. There is enough space for a couple of auxillary controllers, too, as well as a POST indicator, a rare sight on such motherboards. Also onboard is a header for 4 USB 2.0 ports and even a COM-port one (cable not included). But the key feature is the full-size mini PCIe slot allowing use of any, not just half-size, laptop expansion cards, be it Wi-Fi, WiMAX, 3G, or a compact SSD drive. Note that the mini PCIe slot isn't exclusive to Mini E350, but the implementation has been the best in the market so far, because most competing boards support half-size cards at best. So, in terms of expandability, platform features are implemented nearly to the full.
Now we'd like to say a few words about AMI BIOS, or rather UEFI (although it looks a lot like a classic BIOS, just the font is nicer). Anyway, AMI did a good job with the potentially useful faster PC boot-up feature, not wasting too much effort on visual bells and whistles instead. Sapphire's role in this was minimal, but at least they chose the best firmware available. After all, a media center should boot up as fast as possible.
Sapphire Fusion Mini E350 is based on the A50M Fusion Controller Hub and features controllers listed below.
- Integrated audio based on the 7.1+2-channel Realtek ALC892 HDA codec. Front-panel I/O, optical and coaxial S/PDIF-Out on the back panel, onboard S/PDIF-Out for an HDMI-equipped graphics card.
- Gigabit Ethernet based on Marvell 88E8057 (PCIe x1).
- USB 3.0 based on NEC µPD720200F1 (PCIe x1). Two blue ports on the back panel.
- Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR based on Atheros AR3011 (USB).
Speaking of the Bluetooth controller and its implementation by Sapphire, many will find it useful (again, it's a media center). On the other hand, installing it sacrifices two USB ports, while a regular dongle would've only occupied one, so you could've use the freed port for a miniature Wi-Fi 802.11n adapter or something. What's more important, importing products with wireless interfaces is not easy in many countries, so most retailers may abandon this bothersome 'quest' and stick to importing competing boards instead. This is perhaps the only serious drawback, because Brazos has more than enough USB ports, and the company only used half of those.
The remaining features are logical: the platform itself currently lacks Gigabit Ethernet and USB 3.0, so these are added by the manufacturer. There's hardly any functionality left to add, and there's also not much space left. Although there's still one unused PCIe lane, so they could've added another USB 3.0 controller to put some ports on the front panel as well. All the more so that all PCIe lanes meet the version 2.0 specifications, benefitting NEC controllers.
The back panel is reasonable, except for two things. Firstly, they should've added a couple more USB 2.0 ports, because four might not be enough. Especially as there are many unused left — of the chipset's fourteen four are used on the back panel, four on the front panel and one for Bluetooth. Well, of course there are two blue USB 3.0 ports as well, but those require the respective controller to be enabled and drivers to be installed. Or Sapphire could've provided a USB/eSATA combo instead of a regular eSATA. Or, ideally, both. Well, that's all drawbacks there are.
Speaking of good features, we should mention three independent video interfaces on the back panel: D-Sub, DVI and HDMI, all popular and widespread.
For test results please see the separate AMD E-350 review.
On the whole, Sapphire Fusion Mini E350 is an interesting solution that offers more expandability than competing boards. Gigabit Ethernet and USB 3.0 are not a peculiarity for this class of products, and the supplied Bluetooth is surely not a drawback, even despite the implementation. But the motherboard is not perfect, and by that we mean the cooling system. Luckily, mass-produced modifications are much quieter than the first sample we got, but we still think they should've done a better job with it (provide a single large heatsink with a large and slow fan, for example). So in its current state Sapphire Fusion Mini E350 will be of more interest to enthusiasts or experienced users able to use board's benefits to the full and replace the cooler themselves.
The motherboard was provided by its manufacturer.
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