I did an article back in January about how I thought the future of CPUs was being seen in the Fusion design that AMD was introducing. So when Gigabyte and AMD offered me a chance to see Fusion in action on our test bench I could no resist.
The E350N-USB3 is Gigabyte’s release using the AMD E-350 APU and comes fully equipped with features we see on better motherboards. The APU is not socketed so this is sold as an all in one. We find full USB 3 support, SATA 6Gb, On/Off Charging as well as Gigabyte’s Ultra Durable treatment which includes all solid capacitors and 2x the copper in the PCB.
The board is targeted for DIYers looking to build a small form factor media center PC . To meet this goal the onboard video, using a HD 6310 in the core of the APC, is designed to handle Blu-Ray and high def playback through an HDMI connector.
The system supports up to 8 Gigs of DDR3, has 4 SATA connections as well as 2 internal USB 2.0 Connections. On the 2 internal connections, the White connection is the On/Off Charge enabled for the front USB ports. There is also a PCIe slot that works at 4x speeds. The power hookup is pretty standard fare with the 24 pin and 4 pin power connections being used.
Moving to the back of the board we find 4x USB2 slots and 2x USB3 slots. We have a PS2 multi-slot as well as the various sound connections and finally we have a VGA, DVI and HDI connection set. This allows for dual video output in a few different configurations, it is limited to 2 outputs but the combinations are very open.
To say this board is small is an understatement. The board is in a mini-ITX design which means it is only a little over 6.5” square. To put this into perspective here is a picture of this board on the tray of Thermaltake’s Armor A90 case, a tray for mini ATX boards. When I first saw I described it to Doug as cute.
With the board in hand it was time to see what it could do. When I look at this board I see more than something for playing movies, I see a general purpose low cost PC, one for a family that is not heavy into their computer use or a business needing a solid work station for word-processing, maybe keep books or use the internet.
With that in mind I built up a system with 4 Gigs of RAM and a nice little HD, in this case I used a WD Scorpio Black 320 Gig. The 2.5” size means it would be a perfect fit for a small form factor build and it is one of the faster spindle drives in this form factor for use. And SSD would have been a great choice as well but a budget build for an family means we need a bit of space and the SSD just does not fit the criteria.
With all this in place we hooked the system up to a 1080 display and started testing. Why a 1080 display? Well this build begs use on an HD TV so a 1080 makes the most sense. In general use this little critter was snappy and very responsive. I would have no issues at all using this as a day to day PC for light work and surfing. For the family style testing I threw some photo editing at it. I was pleasantly surprised at how well it handled the basic editing. In fact when I handed it to my daughter to play with, she is studying photography, she was quite happy with the snappy response it had.
Next up we hooked the Fusion to Hulu and Netflix, the playback at 1080 was very sharp and smooth. I also loved that fact that since this was a full PC instead of just a console I could use a wireless keyboard and mouse to surf the entire internet from the couch on the big screen.
Finally what good is a family system that cannot do some gaming. Now I am fully aware this is not meant to be a gaming rig but AMD has been pushing how powerful these graphics are. So with that in mind I set a realistic expectation and fired up some MMOs at 720. The reason I chose 720 is the same reason I chose 1080, this is a standard HD TV setup. So at 720 I fired up LOTRO at stock settings and set about playing. While I was not engaging in PVP I was in the first section outside the Humans starter area. There was a lot of player activity and I made sure to get into some serious fights. The game play was smooth and looked good. I pushed the graphics to the High preset and the play stayed very smooth. WoW gave me an identical experience. EVE provided some solid performance but I would not try to PVP in it, plus the defaults where all it could handle. When I tried STO the poor little fella faltered and was not playable.
However I think my results brought out an interesting point. Some of the more often played titles did fine at 720 resolution with the stock build. If you need more gaming power your case could be the limiting factor. In a true small form factor build you might be stuck looking for half height cards. Our test build however used the Armor A30 case (review in two weeks) and it allows for full height cards. For this I used a Sapphire 6850 and gave our games round 2. As expected all performed better and even up to 1080 for most. Of the MMO testing however STO was still not liking what it was getting. Also while we could game with the discrete card at 1080 the numbers where no where near those of a bigger system.
One other factor I wanted to look at with this little brute was it’s heat and power consumption. The heat was not what I expected but then again the chip is called Fusion, not could Fusion. Under full load I have seen temps as high at 55C. Which this might seem a bit hot it is not really that bad when you consider that these temps where done in a small form factor case that is not designed to move air. As for power consumption this thing SIPS electricity. Using folding at home to push the CPU and GPU portions at the same time I was only able to get the full system build to pull 50 watts. That is not a typo, the full system build only pulled 50 watts and that was under load. At idle the system dropped to 39 watts. That means at full load this build only used as much power as a normal build with cool-n-quiet fully engaged and then dropping another 20 watts. That is some serious power consumption savings. During gaming with LOTRO the system never peaked beyond 45 watts.
Overall I am really impressed with this little package. It delivers solid performance for all ranges of basic computer use and does so in the price range of a good CPU ( still would need a motherboard). Additionally it has the ability to do basic MMO play at a reasonable resolution. Think how fun it would be for the kids to Play Wizards on the big screen. Well at least until Dad kicked them off to play LOTRO. When you realize you can build this general purpose budget family system WITH a Blu-Ray player for around $300 in parts or $400 for a higher quality build you get a win for the budget DIYer.
As for the E350N-USB, Gigabyte has a great little board. The quality and feature set are what you find on better quality boards and while you might pay a premium for this quality it is definitely worth it. Sure there are less expensive options when looking to build around the E-350 APU, but you get what you pay for and Gigabyte delivered the goods.
If you are looking to build a decent media system for the family, wanting a small business machine or perhaps the grand parents just need a basic system for email and seeing the kids on Skype. THIS is the platform you want to build on!
Segment as aired live 10 April 2011