In an unprecedented first for the TechRepublic Windows and Office Blog, I am going to take a look at unique hardware that can complement a Windows environment.
Imagine this scenario. Perhaps you want to build a PC that can deliver quality performance while remaining miniscule, which would help for places where free space is at a premium, like in a small operating room for doctors or in a tiny closet.
VIA Technologies, a company that has specialized in niche form-factors on PC motherboards for years, is about to unleash a Pico-ITX motherboard that is a quantum leap over its previous offerings. Enter the EPIA-P910. With a diminutive size that is barely larger than an audio cassette tape, this board packs hardware features that are sure to delight tiny-footprint PC enthusiasts. It includes an on-board 64-bit VIA Nano QuadCore CPU clocked at 1.0 GHz, USB 3.0, gigabit Ethernet, and mini HDMI-out. Also, despite the limited real-estate on the motherboard, a VGA port is also included for those stuck on legacy displays.
Before I begin, I do want to thank the good guys at VIA for sending out a review sample. They’ve been great at getting this hardware out for review quickly and supporting my effort every step along the way.
- Item: EPIA-P910 Pico-ITX Motherboard
- Company: VIA Technologies, Inc.
- Product URL: http://www.viaembedded.com/en/products/boards/1950/1/EPIA-P910.html
- Supported OS: Windows 7, Windows 8
- Price: $359.00
- Rating: 4 out of 5
- Availability: December 2012
- Bottom Line: This ridiculously small Intel-compatible motherboard is feature rich and works well with Windows. However, the high cost for the privilege of owning one, sets this product out of reach for most consumers.
When I first opened up the box, I noticed that the EPIA-P910 came with a few essentials aside from the motherboard, including a SATA data and power cable and a DC power brick for the power supply. The front panel ports for audio and USB 2.0, as well as a power button, come as an item that must be ordered separately from VIA. It plugs into the pins located next to the first SATA port.
If you have a computer case that already provides front USB ports, audio jacks and a power button, this accessory shouldn’t be required. The CMOS battery comes attached via a cable instead of inside a battery socket, due to the limited amount of space on the board. Finally, it should be noted that you can install up to 8GB of DDR3 laptop-sized memory in the single memory slot provided.
For the purposes of my review, I installed 2GB of memory and installed Windows 8 on a WD Raptor hard drive in order to put the hardware through its paces. Driver support was excellent and everything worked out of the box.
My first thought was to run a Windows Experience test and, out of a possible 9.9, the VIA got a 3.5 overall. Since I didn’t just want to play a numbers game and wanted to see how the hardware performs in the real world, I sat down with the EPIA-P910 and used it for a whole day, doing what I always do, such as watching 1080p YouTube clips, heavy web surfing and even playing small computer games.
I can honestly say that, for what it offers, this board is no slouch and would work nicely in an HTPC setting where high-definition video streams are a commonality.
What makes this system even more intriguing is that, according to VIA, the VX11H media core and Chromotion 5.0 integrated graphics provide support for 3D HDTVs and can push 3D content with ease. Unfortunately, since I don’t have a 3D HDTV, I haven’t been able to confirm how good the performance is.
The inclusion of a quad core CPU not only makes this a first for VIA’s line of Lilliputian motherboards, but tasks that are multithreaded seem snappier when compared against dual-core variants. Also, as an interesting aside for all the nerds out there, the VIA QuadCore supports out-of-order instructions in addition to sporting a relatively low thermal design power (TDP) of 27.5 watts (as a point of reference, most desktop CPUs have a TDP that can start at around 65W). Compared to Intel Atom with its pokey in-order x86 instructions, CPU intensive tasks like Handbrake and Prime95 are decidedly more brisk on VIA hardware.
On the downside, there were a few instances where surfing web pages slowed down intermittently and Flash files would occasionally get choppy, even maxing the CPU to 100% utilization. It should be noted that my disk activity was high around this time, so it was likely a disk I/O bottleneck that was slowing things down. If I had an SSD to use this with this board, I would have fared better.
At first glance, one could think of this small board as a souped-up Raspberry Pi. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. For one, VIA is targeting a different demographic with its offering, like those looking for x86 power in a small package which contains everything except the kitchen sink, as opposed to a bare-bones and hacker-friendly ARM board. Not to mention, at a street price of $359.00 when the EPIA-P910 hits the market in December of this year, it isn’t exactly cheap and expendable like the Raspberry Pi is.
If you are truly limited in space for a traditional computer and are looking for a system that can mount behind a desktop monitor or are building Windows-powered kiosks, and in-car PCs, the EPIA-P910 might be worth taking a look at, despite the high price. Because VIA doesn’t have the market penetration that Intel or AMD has with their x86/x64 products, the company tries these interesting form factors as a way to carve out a market for itself with boutique items.
If you are a builder on a budget looking to craft your own HTPC, you might want to consider VIA’s VE-900 Mini-ITX platform. Although it provides a dual core processor instead of a quad core like the one seen on EPIA-P910 as well as a larger overall board size, the price tag of $89 is much more attractive in my opinion.
For a tiny computer that will pack a nice punch, VIA’s EPIA-P910 will do well for you if you are willing to pay the premium and if you have a dedicated usage scenario where something like this would make perfect sense. If you do have space to spare for something a bit larger though, it might behoove you to save some money and shoot for the next size up and go with the Mini-ITX. It can still be small enough for most folks while packing similar or greater performance. Regardless, the EPIA-P910 is really awesome to behold, marking a new achievement in miniaturization and power with all the right compromises.