The netbook and nettop market segments have substantially grown in the last few years, and with it a whole new wave of compact and energy efficient computing platforms. Although this may seem like a relatively new idea, it actually isn't.
VIA Technologies, who you might recall as one of the leading manufacturers of motherboard chipsets from yesteryear, began pushing the concept long ago developing the Mini-ITX standard in the process. It's now been a decade since they released the first reference design for an ITX motherboard to promote the low-power C3 processor they bought from Centaur Technology.
The first VIA EPIA motherboards were sold in 2002 featuring the Eden processor. Although the VIA EPIA motherboards were very efficient in terms of space, many argued that they were too expensive for the processing power they provided.
VIA struggled with the technology for six years until June 2008, when Intel started to notice the emerging low-power market. The chip giant introduced a line of Mini-ITX boards using their Atom processor, taking huge leap forward from VIA's C3 and C7 offerings. Moreover, Atom was the key to making the form factor viable for use in personal computers.
Admittedly the Atom processors were still pretty sluggish by desktop standards commanded by quad-core CPUs of the time, but they allowed manufacturers like Asus to build the highly successful line of Eee netbooks, and the dozens if not hundreds of low-powered, low-cost systems that followed behind. The initial Atom "Diamondville" architecture suffered from some inadequacies as it relied on the older 945G chipset for most of its features, including the graphics engine.
Intel eventually released the "Pineview" architecture late last year, which moved the memory controller and the GMA 3150 graphics engine onto the processor. Still, both the Atom CPU and the GMA 3150 lacked power and as a result manufacturers such as Asrock who wanted to build more powerful HTPC dedicated systems has to rely on the Nvidia Ion add-on chip for graphics.
Historically, AMD has been known for delivering the best integrated graphics in the business, yet they've barely dabbled in the low-powered netbook and nettop arenas. Now some three years after Intel released the Atom, AMD is taking its shot at this exciting market segment.
AMD Fusion is the marketing name for a series of APUs (Accelerated Processing Units) that have supposedly been in development since 2006. The final design is the result of AMD's merger with ATI, combining general processor execution as well as 3D geometry processing and other functions of modern GPUs into a single chip.
AMD's ultrathin platform, code-named "Brazos", was introduced on January 5, 2011 as the company's fourth mobile platform targeting the ultra-portable notebook market. It features the 40nm AMD Ontario APU, a 9-watt chip for netbooks and small form factor desktops, and Zacate, an 18-watt APU for ultrathin, mainstream, and value notebooks and desktops.
Both low-power APU versions carry two Bobcat x86 cores on-chip, support for DirectX 11, DirectCompute (Microsoft programming interface for GPU computing) and OpenCL (cross-platform programming interface standard for multi-core x86 and accelerated GPU computing). Both also include UVD dedicated hardware acceleration for HD video including 1080p resolutions.
The Asus E35M1-M Pro motherboard we are testing today is, of course, an implementation of the AMD Fusion/Brazos platform that packs a dual-core AMD Zacate 18W processor (formally known as the E-350 APU), graphics support for the aforementioned standards along with USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gb/s, making for a relatively inexpensive bundle at $140. Read on...