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Old 08-01-2009, 12:44 PM   #1
2Tired2Tango
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Default ASRock, Asus and Nvidia.

My favorite local computer store took my lead --after telling them that VSFF was the up and coming thing-- and brought in some super tiny computers and really big monitors. I'm certainly glad they did...

I picked up an ASRock ION 330 and a 24" ASUS Monitor to set up as my entertainment system. I don't own a television and if you will recall my music system recently gave up the ghost on me... so combining these items with my much modified logitec speakers I've got more than enough entertainment to keep me busy.

The ASRock is a tiny thing, not much bigger than a "superman" lunchbox from the 50s... 7 x 7 x 3 ... it came packed with a dual core Atom processor, Nvidia ION bridges and video, 300gig hard drive, 2 gigs of ram and a dvd burner. The drives are laptop size but the memory is desktop stuff. On the back are a mess of USBs, Network, HDMI (DVI adaptor provided), VGA, stereo mini-jacks and multichannel SPDIF. Just about everything you need for a stand alone media system.

I had a little grumble with the Power switch on the computer. They didn't include a diffuser on the power led which lights up a keyhole symbol in blue. At night in a full-dark room, that thing flashes a large and blurry keyhole on the opposite wall of the room. Easy fix, though... pop off the front bezel and put a little bit of sticky paper (cut from an address label) behind the keyhole and voila... now it's illuminated perfectly evenly and no more blinky thing on the far wall... darn that was annoying!

(Update Oct,12,09: The latest version of the ASRock bias allows you to have the power led turn completely off. A nice feature, if the machine is on all the time.)


The case is piano black, which means ya gotta dust twice a day... but overall it's a very well made unit. No sharp edges inside, very sturdy and nicely designed for maintenance and easy access. Two screws on the case and two more inside and the whole thing comes right apart for you.

There are two fans, a tiny thing on the CPU heatsink and a 50cm one on the back of the case. I've never heard either of them yet. The DVD player makes a bit of noise when jumping about but it's nothing you'd ever hear with the speakers going. I'd class it as "nearly silent" in that you can hear it from about a foot away, if you listen for it... but not unless you do.

The Asus monitor is a monster; I'm going to have to buy a bigger TV stand. Its the same one recently discussed here (which is why I bought it) and it's glorious... DVD playback is a sight to behold on this beautiful monitor. One thing I was surprised by is the viewing angle. Usually when you get off on an angle to LCDs the colors go funny and sometimes they even go to negative. Not this one, the horizontal viewing angle is nearly 180 degrees. Vertically it doesn't fare quite so well, but I don't plan watching from the ceiling any time soon...

Of course no new setup is complete without a sidetrip into driver hell... While the ASRock driver disk installed everything perfectly, I wanted a one-shot installer disk with the drivers all integrated. This I did with NLite a deployment tool that lets you strip all the Microsoft crap out of XP and then integrate your own crap.

My first stretch was to create a Base OS with most of the stuff I never use taken out --- the old MSN Browser, the CD Burner, and most of the drivers I'll never use. This produced a version of XP only 270meg in size that installed to well under a gigabyte (700m).

Then the fun started. The next step was to take the ASRock drivers and integrate them into the installation so they were installed along with Windows. The theory being that I could produce a fully operational machine after the last installer reboot.... Note that I said "Theory".

Most of the drivers played along real nicely, installing with windows and working first time.

The display drivers (Nvidia ION) had a mind of their own and it took me about 10 passes of editing the .INF installer file to get them trimmed down to fighting weight. In the end I took out nearly 50 megs of stuff... yep, 50 megs... before the drivers worked. I was a little scared I'd messed up the Direct X and 3D support. Really, you don't just pull that much stuff out without losing something. However; when I finally got them to install with Windows I was pleasantly surprised to see everything working as it should... except for the Control Panel applet, which I never use anyway.

The end result of this day long process is a version of XP that installs in about 800 megs and runs without a swap file in 88 megs of ram. Just what the little box needed!

So... pleased as punch with myself and this new system... I'm off to watch a movie and get some sleep...

My rating? 8 out of 10 ... 1 point lost for the power button and 1 point lost for the bloated drivers.

(VSFF == Very Small Form Factor)
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Old 08-03-2009, 08:47 AM   #2
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Just a quick addendum to the previous post...

The ASRock ION 330 I got had the 1.0 version bios in it.

I noticed the fan speed was a bit irregular... you could feel the air puffing at the back of the computer.

If you flash to version 1.50 of the bios they've fixed the problem.

Still 8 of 10
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Old 08-03-2009, 07:13 PM   #3
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Nice review! I'm curious though, how's the performance overall... does 1080p run fine, or have you tested it? The audio and the rest is quite good, as well? Looks like quite a sweet system, I gotta say, and that monitor looks equally impressive. I'd also like to ask, how much did the machine set you back? That might be a deal-changer for some people.

As for using NLite, why not just invest in an inexpensive backup software, like Acronis True Image, to just back up the machine to? Or is this like a one time thing? What I mean is, with backup software, you could fine-tune Windows the first time, get rid of what you don't need, install the drivers and applications, then back up the entire thing to an external storage device. Then it's just a matter of taking 20 - 30 minutes to restore the thing if anything ever goes wrong.

As for watching TV on the ceiling, you mean I'm the only one who does that?!
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Old 08-04-2009, 03:31 AM   #4
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Nice review! I'm curious though, how's the performance overall...
It is a bit less speedy than my desktop machine... I noticed it mostly when doing intense chores like defragmenting a 75% full hard disk. But overall it's totally acceptable performance for anything I would be doing. (remember I'm not a gamer so I can live with a 1.6ghz cpu)

The one thing I really liked was that you can overclock both the CPU and GPU rather significantly... the Atom at 2.0 ghz almost kept up to my desktop but became unnervingly hot, even with the fan on full speed.

I think the bottleneck in the system is the use of laptop drives. The little 2.5 inch HDs are not as heavily buffered as the big guys and thus tend to handicap performance somewhat.

Quote:
does 1080p run fine, or have you tested it?
Not extensively... but a couple of downloaded test pieces (15 minutes each) played perfectly using Media Player Classic and the K-Lite codecs. Even with network activity going a mile a minute and me checking taskman there was no stumbling or hesitation... The CPU usage hovered around 35% which I took as pretty good, all things considered. Of course with the ASUS monitor, the full screen display was nothing short of spectacular.

Quote:
The audio and the rest is quite good, as well?
I have to qualify this part as I have no gear to try the S-PDIF output with but using the stereo output with my (much modified) logitec speakers the audio was ... ummmm... just about amazing. The clarity when playing cds is beyond question... much better than the soundblaster setup in my desktop machine. The machine has no midi support so I can't test it with the synth.

Quote:
Looks like quite a sweet system, I gotta say, and that monitor looks equally impressive. I'd also like to ask, how much did the machine set you back? That might be a deal-changer for some people.
Value wise, I'd class it as money well spent. The ASRock was $425 Canadian dollars, without operating system. The ASUS monitor was $249, which I considered a jaw dropping good deal.

When comparing the ASRock to the Triple E system (for example) keep in mind that you are getting a full blown PC... with burner, bigger hard disk, 1080p, and a wealth of IO on the back... I would suggest the extra $80.00 is more than worth it.

The only thing missing (ASRock, are you reading this?) is front panel connectivity. At least one USB and a card reader slot would be a big plus as would a headphone jack.


Quote:
As for using NLite, why not just invest in an inexpensive backup software, like Acronis True Image, to just back up the machine to?
NLite isn't about backups... It's about creating customized installs of XP (or Vista) that can be so specific as to work on only one machine. NLite lets me pull out a bunch of stuff I'll never use... it just never hits the hard disk in the first place. It also lets me pre-set most OS options before install.

I always partition my drives. Right now the little ASRock is running with a 5 gig OS partition that is 20% full with a full kit of multimedia software installed ... and there's very little risk of it ever overflowing.


As for backups... you should never backup software, only data. I don't even want to guess how many times I've been called in, only to discover they've copied a virus into their backups and re-activated it each time they restore. I generally use batch files to backup data to an off-line drive (in a USB sleeve). If there are software problems I reinstall... and I don't use Microsoft's dumb assed system restore, either... because it's just a real nice way of reactivating a virus when trying to fix something.

Quote:
Or is this like a one time thing?
Nlite creates windows installer disks. It's pretty much a 1 time trick... but if you ever have to re-load, you have a disk that will bring your system back up and usable with most of the OS settings and tweaks already in place for you... in less than 10 minutes... Using this technique I can install the OS on the ASRock, with all drivers functional, in under 6 minutes.


Quote:
As for watching TV on the ceiling, you mean I'm the only one who does that?!
Apparently so....
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Old 08-06-2009, 12:27 AM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by 2Tired2Tango
It is a bit less speedy than my desktop machine... I noticed it mostly when doing intense chores like defragmenting a 75% full hard disk. But overall it's totally acceptable performance for anything I would be doing. (remember I'm not a gamer so I can live with a 1.6ghz cpu)
Curious... how does it handle YouTube HD video, such as this?

Quote:
Originally Posted by 2Tired2Tango
I think the bottleneck in the system is the use of laptop drives.
Those drives are slow, but the CPU or chipset would become a bottleneck way before the hard drive. I've actually installed SSDs in netbooks and saw slower or equal performance as a normal notebook drive.

Quote:
Originally Posted by 2Tired2Tango
Value wise, I'd class it as money well spent. The ASRock was $425 Canadian dollars, without operating system. The ASUS monitor was $249, which I considered a jaw dropping good deal.
Nice price! Especially for the monitor! My friend is planning to build a new PC in a few months, so I'll keep that model in mind.

Quote:
Originally Posted by 2Tired2Tango
NLite isn't about backups... It's about creating customized installs of XP (or Vista) that can be so specific as to work on only one machine.
I realize this, but my method is still far, far easier, and quicker.

The idea is to install Windows XP fresh, and then uninstall whatever you don't want. Then, install the system drivers, then whatever applications you always want in the machine. Once you have your PC set up just as you like, back the entire thing up to a single file, and if things go wrong down the road, restore it.

Quote:
Originally Posted by 2Tired2Tango
As for backups... you should never backup software, only data.
I'd agree to this if it's regarding people who don't know how to use a computer. I'm talking about backing up the entire PC before any malware has the chance to get on your PC. And if something does, it's because A) You're using Windows XP, or B) You're using illegal software, and even nLite isn't going to protect you from that. I'm not saying YOU are, but most people who get infections on their PC get it from downloading ridiculous software from ridiculous sources.
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Old 08-06-2009, 05:28 AM   #6
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Curious... how does it handle YouTube HD video, such as this?
My neighbors are going to love me... It played perfectly at 4:00 am...

Quote:
Those drives are slow, but the CPU or chipset would become a bottleneck way before the hard drive. I've actually installed SSDs in netbooks and saw slower or equal performance as a normal notebook drive.
True enough. When time permits I'll probe this a bit deeper but do keep in mind we're talking about a minor issue. In normal use --web surfing, watching a flick, editing your web page, etc.-- I doubt you'd ever notice it.

Quote:
I realize this, but my method is still far, far easier, and quicker.
Yes it's easier... it may even be quicker to install then mirror. BUT it's not better. The problem is that Microsoft's idea of uninstalling features amounts to deleting the desktop icon and keeping the software in the system in case you change your mind. Then there's all the stupid poop in there you can't remove and end up disabling... And don't even get me started on security risks like "Remote Registry" and "Remote Assistance"

For example: Automatic Updates and System Restore never even hit the hard disk in my installs. Over the lifetime of an install (several years in many cases) this saves the user gigabytes of space since the system isn't creating endless backups of itself and hiding them in the Windows directory. (Set Windows explorer to view hidden files and system files then go look at your Windows directory... YIKES!) And, more importantly, it staves off that slow degradation in system performance for which Microsoft is so well known.

Really... You should give NLite a try before you do your next install and mirror operation. You'll only have to do it once for each configuration... That is, now that I have an ASRock ION 330 installer disk, it's going to work on them all... So if I and my friends end up with 50 of them amongst ourselves, 49 of them will be setup and working in 7 minutes or less... But that's not the big reason... The most compelling reason for trash cleaning Microsoft's OSs is the increase in performance and sustainability of an installation.
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Old 08-06-2009, 01:35 PM   #7
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Originally Posted by 2Tired2Tango
My neighbors are going to love me... It played perfectly at 4:00 am...
What a difference ION makes. No Atom-equipped PC I've touched so far has been able to handled HD YouTube video. To be fair though, it doesn't run well on my AMD Neo64 notebook, either.

Quote:
Originally Posted by 2Tired2Tango
Yes it's easier... it may even be quicker to install then mirror. BUT it's not better. The problem is that Microsoft's idea of uninstalling features amounts to deleting the desktop icon and keeping the software in the system in case you change your mind. Then there's all the stupid poop in there you can't remove and end up disabling... And don't even get me started on security risks like "Remote Registry" and "Remote Assistance"
Fair enough. I didn't realize nLite went the extra mile and took additional software out of the installation. Still, I'd choose my method any day... I'm not quite that minimalistic. As long as the software isn't running, I don't care if it takes up a few hundred MB on my multi-hundred GB hard drive. It's a time-consuming process, and the only gain is the satisfaction of knowing it's not there.

Quote:
Originally Posted by 2Tired2Tango
Really... You should give NLite a try before you do your next install and mirror operation.
Well, like I said, I really have no interest. I don't mind so much if there are a few things hanging around on the machine not being used, because over months over using a machine, you're going to create random files all over the machine anyway. Plus, I use fast Quad-Core machines with copious amounts of RAM... tweaking Windows to such an extent is just a waste of time, in my opinion. That's not to say I don't do some tweaking, because I do. I tend to focus on the things that actually do make a difference, though, such as Windows Search, Defender, Firewall, et cetera.

But I guess in the end, I don't even use Windows as my primary OS. I use Gentoo, and it's more optimized than any version of Windows is ever going to be ;-)

I see your point though, don't get me wrong. It just doesn't interest me to the extent it does you. I use Linux as my main OS, and I chose Gentoo because of similar reasons you choose to use nLite. But when it comes to Windows, all I use it for are our benchmarking machines, and whenever I want to play a game on this rig, so nLite or vLite don't interest me much at all.
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Old 08-06-2009, 01:42 PM   #8
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Fair enough. I didn't realize nLite went the extra mile and took additional software out of the installation. Still, I'd choose my method any day... I'm not quite that minimalistic. As long as the software isn't running, I don't care if it takes up a few hundred MB on my multi-hundred GB hard drive. It's a time-consuming process, and the only gain is the satisfaction of knowing it's not there.
Consider the two biggest security holes in Windows ... Remote Registry and Telnet Server ... would you rather have them sitting on your system unused but easily accessed ... oooooorrrrrr... would you rather they weren't there at all?

As I pointed out there's more to this than simply making skinny installs... it lets you fix a whole rack of security problems as well...

But, as you point out, we each have our own styles with this stuff. Being into some corporate stuff I will go the extra mile on security that might never become an issue for a home owner.



And a final note... Yes, the ASRock ION330 will run Linux just fine...
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Old 08-07-2009, 01:44 AM   #9
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Consider the two biggest security holes in Windows ... Remote Registry and Telnet Server ... would you rather have them sitting on your system unused but easily accessed ... oooooorrrrrr... would you rather they weren't there at all?
I haven't heard of telnet or remote registry being a security risk for a while, so I'm not sure how they are the "two biggest" security risks in Windows. But either way, telnet isn't enabled by default, so I'm not quite sure what threat it poses. As for them not being there at all, sure, that'd be great, but I'm not willing to go through such a route to get it done. Regardless, both services are easily disabled in the Services panel without having to take this route.

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Originally Posted by 2Tired2Tango
Being into some corporate stuff I will go the extra mile on security that might never become an issue for a home owner.
That's just it... it's not that important for a home user to go to such lengths, but it's a far different story when it comes to a corporate environment. We have similar mentalities in that regard. Our webservers don't even have FTP servers installed... the less crap that's installed, the less chance there will be security holes. The same goes for my home system. Gentoo makes it quite easy to make sure that the only software installed is software you told it to install.

Regardless of our disagreements though, I find nothing wrong with how you handle things, and I appreciate the fact that you take security so seriously.
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Old 08-07-2009, 05:47 AM   #10
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Regardless of our disagreements though, I find nothing wrong with how you handle things, and I appreciate the fact that you take security so seriously.
Disagreement? I don't see no freaking disagreement!

I am NOT angry

Security and backup are indeed very high on my list of computer priorities. Right after ease of use and fun.


Anyway... You'd be surprised how often the "go to guy" in small companies (or neighborhoods) is nothing more than an advanced user and their answer to everything is to turn stuff on. You'd be surprised how often I find telnet enabled and remote registry not disabled when working on machines. The big thing you learn when working for others is that people mess with stuff... and then I get to fix their mistakes.
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Old 08-07-2009, 06:20 AM   #11
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Those drives are slow, but the CPU or chipset would become a bottleneck way before the hard drive. I've actually installed SSDs in netbooks and saw slower or equal performance as a normal notebook drive.
An addendum on this point, Rob... The drive in the ASRock is a 5400rpm unit. The drives in my desktop are 7200rpm... so that would explain the difference I was seeing.
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Old 08-10-2009, 11:08 AM   #12
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Disagreement? I don't see no freaking disagreement!
Well, sorry for hi-jacking the thread, at least

Quote:
Originally Posted by 2Tired2Tango
The drive in the ASRock is a 5400rpm unit.
I am still not sure if this is the issue though, like I mentioned before. I've used SSDs in netbooks and have found the performance to be rather lackluster, so I'm not sure a 7200 RPM drive will improve much. I could be wrong though, and it's something I'd love to test in the lab sometime soon. I still think a lot of the issue comes down to the chipset and processor combination, not the drive itself.

But, it could also be that since SSD's tend to draw more CPU power over mechanical drives, it was the lack of performance from the Atom that throttled things. Can't conclude until I test it out though...
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Old 08-10-2009, 02:19 PM   #13
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I am still not sure if this is the issue though, like I mentioned before. I've used SSDs in netbooks and have found the performance to be rather lackluster, so I'm not sure a 7200 RPM drive will improve much. I could be wrong though, and it's something I'd love to test in the lab sometime soon.
I would be very interested in seeing the results of that.

As I said we're talking about slight differences here... 5% or so continuous speed... Still it is a difference that might matter someplace.

For now, I will stay with my original assessment that within it's intended audience --browsing, movies, music, etc.-- the performance is more than adequate.

BTW... I now have 4 of these installed at various places... all are happy... eveyone just loves the monitor.
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Old 08-11-2009, 10:43 AM   #14
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For now, I will stay with my original assessment that within it's intended audience --browsing, movies, music, etc.-- the performance is more than adequate.
That's the thing... it is adequate for this purpose. If you were planning on getting all of your work done on it, then things would change. I'd still be willing to bet the CPU would become a bottleneck long before the hard drive, though. The Atom processor just won't compare to even a low-end Pentium chip or something like it.
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Old 08-11-2009, 11:28 AM   #15
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That's the thing... it is adequate for this purpose. If you were planning on getting all of your work done on it, then things would change. I'd still be willing to bet the CPU would become a bottleneck long before the hard drive, though. The Atom processor just won't compare to even a low-end Pentium chip or something like it.
I agree it's not a 3ghz quad core multithreading system... and I don't think anyone really expects it to be that. And yes I agree, the CPU will hold things back a bit, which is to be expected.

Still... it is a dual core, multithreading 64 bit processor running 1.6ghz, which is not exactly to be sniffed at. 4 years ago we would have drooled for it...


What the Atom is meant for is "low end" stuff like web browsing, email, typing a few letters or, as I'm using them, as overgrown iPods... to play music and movies in people's living rooms.

I would never recommend the ASRock or any Atom system for gaming, drafting, animation or heavy corporate use... with the possible exceptions of use as a dedicated inventory station or word processor.

Rob, these are good little computers. They really are. I've got a couple of people using them as their main desktops right now and they're pleased as punch about getting rid of the "big ugly noisey monster" that used to take over their entire desk.

In line of friendly criticism... we must all keep our eye on the end user. What are they doing, what do they need to do it... Gaming and anmation are very demanding fields... but what most people do is 90% Internet access and 10% computation... Basically they use their computers like "Web TV" boxes and not much more. For this audience the Atom and it's derivitive systems are a god send... I think we all need to be careful not to get into a mindset that thinks anything slower than we already got is useless... This is often not the case.
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Last edited by 2Tired2Tango; 08-11-2009 at 11:32 AM.
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