VIA Nano and Intel Atom Review – Battle of the Tiny CPUs

Posted: August 1, 2008 in Beware, Computer Related, From Me, Tweaks
Tags: , , , , , , ,

VIA Nano Reference Platform

The mini-ITX platform has officially been adopted by Intel with the Atom products meaning that the VIA-created standard should actually become a standard now — good news for all.  For those that haven’t seen a mini-ITX motherboard yet you’ll be scratching your head at seeing such a compressed design.  There are two DDR2 DIMM slots, four SATA channels, one IDE connection and a single PCI Express x16 slot for graphics or other add-in cards.

On the back of the reference board are a CompactFlash connection (for some solid-state storage action) and a mini PCI slot as well.  These would be GREAT features to have on a retail board as well – I imagine booting off of an 8GB high-speed CF drive and using a standard drive for storage.

The external connections on the VIA reference board include the standard PS/2 connections, USB ports, serial output, dual NICs and VGA output to use in conjunction with the integrated S3 graphics core on the north bridge.  There are audio connections as well on the right hand side that support up to 6-channels of output.

Here you can see the VIA 82375 south bridge under a passive heatsink, four SATA channels on the motherboard that all support RAID and the single PCI Express x16 slot that gives the VIA Nano platform such an edge over Intel’s Atom for real world user applications.  Without a PCIe slot on the Atom motherboards, OEMs and users are forced to use the inferior integrated Intel IGP or a PCI graphics board, really limiting the possibilities of getting top performance out of the Atom architecture.

VIA’s reference design supports up to 4GB of DDR2-667 MHz memory though the controller is just single channel.

The only power connection on the VIA Nano motherboard is a 20-pin ATX power connector – don’t worry your 24-pin power supply connections will work just fine though.

Under that single large heatsink with the fan on it lies the VIA CN896 north bridge chip and the VIA Nano processor; in our case the CPU is the Nano L2100 which operates at 1.8 GHz on an 800 MHz front-side bus with a max TDP of 25 watts. The north bridge handles all the PCI/PCIe and memory controller functions and also sports the VIA Chrome9 HC IGP that supports DX9 features.  Nothing to scream about, but it turns out to be faster than Intel’s solution.

Here’s the classic “chip next to a quarter” image.

Intel Atom D945G Platform

Just like the VIA board, the Atom processor is soldered and permanently affixed.

The Intel D945GCLF is the same form factor as the VIA Nano reference platform: mini-ITX.  This board design looks to be much simpler at first glance and that is in fact the case as we investigate a bit further into the design.

The only expansion slot that the Intel Atom motherboard offers is a PCI slot – any graphics expansion you plan to do will have to be relegated to this older interface.  This is really VIA’s best selling point – they are allowing their platform to be completely open but Intel is ONLY ALLOWING their boards and board partners to ship with PCI slots.

The Intel board only has a single DIMM slot supporting up to 2GB of DDR2-667 memory.  The ATX power connector is again a 20-pin rather than 24-pin but will still fit with 24-pin PSUs.  There is a single IDE connection and two SATA channels for your storage connectivity.

Here you can see the processor heatsink is incredibly small and passive only and is dwarfed by the chipset heatsink above it.  Notice also that the Intel board requires you to use a secondary 4-pin power connection in addition to the standard ATX power connector.

The external connections on the board are similar to those seen on the VIA Nano reference board – PS/2, USB 2.0, serial, parallel, a single 10/100 NIC, 6-channel audio outputs and a VGA output.

Removing the heatsink reveals the full array of Intel chips – the Atom processor at the top, 945G north bridge in the middle and the Intel ICH7-M south bridge at the bottom.  It is interesting to see how much more cooling the 945G chipset requires compared to the Atom processor.

Wow, that is a TINY processor!  The model on this board is the Atom 230 that runs at 1.6 GHz on a 533 MHz FSB.

This poorly edited photo should show you the exact size comparison between the VIA Nano and Intel Atom processors – the Atom is the skinnier chip in the center with the Nano encompassing it with a much larger square.  It just goes to show that even though we think the Nano is incredibly small, Intel has a more cost efficient chip to offer up – the real question will be performance!

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