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Asus Eee Box B202: An Atom-based mini PC

It’s tiny, svelte, and yes, very quiet. It uses the popular Intel Atom low power processor and a chipset designed for mobile use. It’s part of the continuing miniaturization of computing devices. What’s a cute mini PC like the Asus Eee Box good for? Our review delves into the details.

September 8, 2008 by Mike Chin

Product Eee Box B202
Manufacturer Asus
MSRP US$350

We’ve covered the launch of the original Asus
EEE PC
and how it popularized the sub-notebook market. We’ve also discussed
the rapid emergence of an entire class of truly small PCs, often described as
nettops, in our coverage of
the Intel Developers Forum
last month. In the same IDF report, we also covered
the amazing success of the Intel Atom processor, which was at the core of the
Intel D945GCLF mini-ITX board
reviewed a few days ago
. The Asus Eee Box touches on all of these various
elements: It is an expansion of the Asus Eee line of products into the desktop
market, it is a tiny nettop PC, and it features the Intel Atom processor.

Like the Eee PC, the Eee Box is sold as a complete PC. It was shown at Computex
Taipei in June. We ran a preview of the product then. At that point, the anticipated
price was lower: $269 for a 1GB memory + 80GB HDD Linux edition, $299 for a
1GB memory + 80GB HDD XP edition and $299 for a 2GB memory + 160GB HDD Linux
edition. The sample that came to SPCR is the second of the configurations mentioned
above, but the price has gone up by $50, and the Linux versions have been eliminated.

The basic technology inside is similar to Intel’s Atom-based mini-ITX board, the D945GCLF which we reviewed last week. The CPU is a mobile variant, although how much less power that would draw is questionable, as the “desktop” Atom 230 maxes out at 4W. The Intel board uses the relatively inefficient 945GC chipset, which was first used on the Mac Mini. Apparently, the chipset in the Eee Box is the 945GSE Express, designed for mobile PCs, but still equipped with the same Intel GMA 950 video chip. Being a mobile chipset, the 945GSE Express may have lower power requirements than the 945GC, which is promising. Given the 945GSE Express chipset, the Eee Box is actually closer to the Eee PC than to the Intel D945GCLF m-ITX board.


Eee Box measures just 8.5” x 7” x 1”.

The shape, size and weight of the Eee Box are compelling. Not
that it’s the first very small PC; there have been many over the past few years.
But it’s also sleek and stylish in a way that the Mac Mini or the AOpen Mini
PC computers are not. The slim box, angled slightly on its minimal stand, looks
elegant enough to go on any desktop. The 1″ thinness is made possible by
excluding an optical drive, a move that seems justified in this age of ubiquitous
flash memory sticks. With four USB ports, memory card reader, gigabit LAN and
Wi-Fi 802.11n, the Eee Box is not lacking in inputs. Most compelling is its
ability to mount on the back of your LCD monitor, becoming invisible in the
process.

So does the Eee Box have what it takes to replace a standard desktop
PC? Is its performance up to being a home entertainment hub as the Asus
Eee Box web page
submits? And is it quiet enough for SPCR to recommend?

Asus Eee Box B202 Specifications
OS Windows XP Home
Processor Intel Atom N270 (1.6 GHz, FSB 533)
Memory DDRII 1 GB
Storage 80 GB
Chipset 945GSE + ICH7M
VGA On-board Intel GMA 950, 1600 x 1200 max resolution
Networking 10/100/1000 Mbps LAN, 802.11n WLAN
SD/MMC/MS slot SD, SDHC, Mini SD, (Micro SD through adapter) ; MMC,
MMC plus, MMC4.x, RS MMC, RSMMC4.x (MMC mobile through adapter);MS,MS PRO
Audio Azalia ALC888 Audio Chip
Front Ports USB x 2, Card Reader x 1, Headphone-out jack (WO/SPDIF)
x 1, MIC x 1
Rear Ports USB 2.0 x 2, Gigabit LAN x 1, DVI out x 1, Line-Out
(L/R) with S/PDIF x 1, WiFi antenna
Accessories 19VDC, 4.74A, 65W power adapter
Mouse (optional)
Keyboard (optional)
VESA mount (optional)
WiFi antenna
Stand
Dimensions 8.5” x 7” x 1” or 223×178×26
mm (w/o stand)
Weight Net: 2.2 lbs; Gross: 6.6 lbs.

BASICS

Eee Box comes in a package that’s only a bit bigger than the product itself.
Still, there’s a lot of packaging bits and pieces inside, especially plastic
bags. The box shows the four available colors.


Eee Box package on our desktop, with M-Audio Tampa microphone preamp and
a Zonbu Mini
computer
in the background.


All those plastic bags!


With the Eee Box and stand came three AC cables with different plugs (for various
parts of the world).
The AC/DC adapter outputs 19VDC at 4.74A; it’s rated for 65W.
There’s also a stand for the back of a VESA-compliant LCD monitor.

Examining the exterior of the Eee Box, we noted that the slots along the top
from edge are exhaust vents for a cooling fan, and similar slots along the bottom
edge are intake vents. Convection will aid a bit in cooling airflow.


Exhaust vents on top…


…intake vents on bottom.
(Note: The plastic film on this side of our sample was left on.)

A SPDIF output is said to be on the back panel, but only a 3.5mm mini jack for audio appeared to be there. The manual mentions a “mini jack
to S/PDIF adapter” which didn’t make any sense. The only thing that looked
like the adapter drawing was a little white plastic device… which on close
examination proved to have a protective cap on one end. The way this adapter
converts the 3.5mm mini jack into an optical SPDIF jack seems just short
of miraculous.


The adapter, with and without cap.


The 3.5mm audio jack… converted to optical SPDIF out.

Access to the 2.5″ 80GB hard drive is from the bottom. Two screws hold
the sled that the drive is mounted in. Interestingly, the drive, a Seagate model
LD25.2 Series SATA, has a sticker with a notice that warns: “NOT SUITABLE
FOR LAPTOP COMPUTER USE”. Seagate’s
product page
states that this model “was designed and optimized for
consumer electronics applications.” It probably isn’t engineered to withstand
the level of shock that laptop drives are.


A 2.5″ Seagate drive that’s not for laptops.

Getting the Eee Box ready for use took just a couple of minutes. Threading
the single large knurled screw to attach the stand was about the most fiddly
part of the task. Note that the system accepts only only USB mouse and keyboard;
there are no legacy ports.


This photo shows the relative size of the unit against a 19″ 4:3 ratio
LCD monitor.

LCD MONITOR MOUNTING

As mentioned earlier, the adapter which allows the Eee Box to be mounted on
the back of an LCD monitor requires a monitor that has VESA-compliant mounting
holes for external stands. An older Gateway monitor was the only one in the
lab that proved suitable.


VESA-compliant mounting holes.


The VESA bracket adapter for the Eee Box is screwed into place, then a single
bolt needs to be threaded.


Eee Box on back of monitor… before any cable management.

One odd problem we immediately encountered was that our sample did not work
with the DVI input of the Gateway LCD monitor. No matter; using a DVI to VGA
adapter on the Eee box and running a VGA cable into the VGA input of the Gateway
monitor gave us fine quality output on the display anyway. We checked with Asus
on whether they’d encountered any compatibility issues with the DVI output if
the Eee Box (the only video output it’s equipped with); they did only with one
older monitor. Later, with an update to the Eee Box BIOS (601), all compatibility
issues with monitors disappeared completely.

EXPRESS GATE

This Linux mini-OS is a feature we’ve seen on Asus motherboards
before, including the P5E3 Premium,
the M3A78 Pro and M3N78
Pro
. In fact, its featured on at least half a dozen Asus board models, but
it’s the first time we’ve seen it in a full system. In the Eee Box, this instant-on
mini OS is an excellent fit. It’s promoted as being accessible in 5 seconds
after turn on; this is about right. Once you’re set up a profile in Express
Gate, we were connected to the web via Wifi through our wireless router in about
15 seconds. This is quicker than with any PC running any conventional OS, about
as quick as accessing the web with a Windows PC out of S3 sleep mode.


The Express Gate desktop is accessed in under 5 seconds.

Four application are provided: A web browser, an image browser/manager
with direct upload to Flickr
if you have an account there, “Pigdin” instant messaging, and Skype
Internet phone. For many users, the web browser is probably most important;
through it, you can access web mail, web-based apps, web-media videos, photo
collections, etc. All the apps were intuitive and easy enough to use, especially
for checking email or visiting web sites. One function is conspicuously absent:
A media player to play videos and music. It would not be a surprise to see this
added in future, as Express Gate can be updated like a real operation system
or BIOS.

BIOS

Express Gate can be enabled or disabled in the BIOS, which is
spartan with hardly any adjustments or tweaks. Remember, this is no enthusiast
system but a complete plug-and-play system. The Hardware Monitoring section
has only one line, to turn the automatic fan control (Q-fan) on or off. The
latter option is definitely not recommended: The internal fan shifts to full
speed and stays there. It’s noisy, measuring some 37 dBA@1m.

Booting into Windows XP (Home) was brisk enough, taking about
30 seconds from Express Gate, and about 5 seconds more from turn on. It was
a relief to discover that there was no clutter of superfluous trial software,
unlike typical systems from suppliers like Dell or HP.

TESTING METHODOLOGY

Equipment

Measurement and Analysis Tools

Our main test procedure is designed to determine gauge the overall user experience
while using the PC in typical functions, measured the system power consumption
at various states, and to test the integrated graphics’ proficiency at playing
back high definition videos, an important function in the role of a home entertainment
hub, which Asus says the Eee Box is good for. An external DVD player would have
to be added to complete the latter role, but many people are collecting movies
and video clips in digital form for playback from a home server on the network.

We use a variety of H.264/VC-1 clips encoded for playback on the PC. The clips
are played with PowerDVD 7 and a CPU usage graph is created by the Windows Task
Manger for analysis to determine the approximate mean and peak CPU usage. High
CPU usage is indicative of poor video decoding ability on the part of the integrated
graphics subsystem. If the video (and/or audio) skips or freezes, we conclude
the board’s IGP (in conjunction with the processor) is inadequate to decompress
the clip properly.

Finally, an Asus MK241H 24″ widescreen LCD monitor with 1920×1200 native
resolution was also used. The Eee Box had no trouble with this setting, even
though the initial spec sheet indicated that 1600×1200 is the highest display
resolution.

Video Test Suite


720p | 25fps | ~5.7mbps
Dark Knight:
Dark Knight Trailer 3
is encoded in H.264 with Apple Quicktime.

 


1080p | 24fps | ~10mbps
Rush Hour:
Rush Hour 3 Trailer 1
is encoded in H.264 with Apple Quicktime.

 


1080p | 24fps | ~7.5mbps
Coral Reef:
Coral Reef Adventure trailer
is encoded in VC-1 using the
WMV3 codec (commonly recognized by the moniker, “HD WMV”).

VIDEO / POWER TEST RESULTS

The Eee Box idled at just 16W. It drew 6W more when running two instances of
Prime95 or playing hi def video clips. Power consumption increased to 25W when
the IGP was stressed with ATITool while Prime95 was running.

These numbers are very modest, especially in comparison to those obtained with
the Intel D945GCLF mini-ITX
board reviewed last week.
That system drew 27W in idle, 31~33W playing video,
and 38W at full tilt; all this with a PSU that’s one of the most efficient we’ve
tested at low loads. That the Eee Box lowers power consumption by over 10W at
all states is excellent. What these numbers suggest is that the 945GSE Express
chipset used in the Eee Box is considerably more efficient than the 945GC of
the Intel mini-ITX board.

A summary
page at Intel of the 945GSE Mobile Express chipset
states that the maximum
TDP of the chipset itself is just 6W. On the same page, under the heading “Valid
Processor Combinations”, one combination is listed: The Atom N270 and 945GSE
Express Chipset with 82801GBM I/O Controller Hub (ICH7M), with a “System
TDP” of just 11.8W.
This explains why the Eee Box is so much more
energy efficient than the Intel D945GCLF.

It even suggests that there may be room for further reduction of power with
a more efficient AC/DC adapter: If the total TDP of the system is only 11.8W,
and the AC power measured is 25W, then the power supply is working at less than
50% efficiency. Alas, it may not be quite so simple. The PSU is also supplying
power for the wifi and the hard drive, and perhaps a bit to the USB keyboard
and mouse as well.

As it stands, with a typical 19~20″ LCD monitor set to medium brightness,
the total power consumption of an Eee Box system would be no more than ~50W
on average, and possibly as low as 40W depending on your LCD monitor. Those
are compelling low power consumption figures.

Test Results: Asus Eee Box B202
Test State
CPU Usage
System
Power (AC)
Mean
Peak
Off
N/A
1W
Standby (S3)
N/A
1W
Idle
N/A
16W
Dark Knight
65%
92%
22W
Rush Hour
98%
99%
22W
Coral Reef
65%
75%
22W
Prime95
100%
22W
Prime95 + ATITool
100%
25W
Grey boxes indicate test failure.

As with the D945GCLF test system, we weren’t able to run our typical video
test suite. The system is inadequate for playing any 1080p content. Not only
did the audio skip during playback, but there were frequent pauses and massive
frame-loss. The most demanding clip the system could play flawlessly was a 720p
H.264 trailer for “Dark Knight.” It generally did fine with most 720p
clips as well.

GENERAL USAGE

Everyday tasks such as web browsing, checking emails, and uploading photos
from an SD card felt little different from most other PC systems in the lab.
Standard desktop functions like opening windows, searching for files, accessing
other PC folders through the wireless network — all these felt perfectly
normal. Sure, it’s not as speedy as the quickest quad-core, 4GB RAM, VelociRaptor
driven PC that’s under my desk these days, but neither did it feel like a slug.

Trying to do any “serious” image editing with large photos in Photoshop
was quite slow, however; nothing beyond a quick “optimize for web”
process is recommended here. Ditto with video editing; the Eee Box lacks the
horsepower to make such work smooth or pleasant.

NOISE

When the Eee Box is turned on, a small fan (presumably a blower
of some type) starts with a short 1-2 second burst of high speed, then slows
right down to very low speed. The noise of this fan and of the 2.5″ hard
drive is audible from a couple feet away, but it’s pretty quiet. Asus states
that it’s “barely audible — 26 decibels”, but no other details
about the noise measurement are given.

In a quiet, carpeted home office (10′ x 20′ x 8′) with an ambient
level of 19 dBA, the SPL when the Eee Box was powered up (on a desk) measured
22 dBA. Under a wide variety of loads with the room temperature at 22~25°C,
the measured SPL of the Eee Box hardly varied, rising perhaps 1 dBA under the
worst conditions. The subjective impression did change under such load, as it
was caused mostly by the fan spinning faster, and a tonal peak was noticed at
~420Hz when the fan was spinning at its highest speed. Under all the various
normal load conditions, the fan never reached the speed or noise level noted
when the automatic fan control was turned off in the BIOS.


Mounted on the back of the monitor, atop table on our hemi-anechoic chamber.

Measured in the 11 dBA ambient of our
hemi-anechoic chamber
, the SPL at both idle and peak was far lower than
the 26 dB specified by Asus. It’s possible that this specification is in unweighted
decibels; i.e., without the A-weighting normally applied to simulate human perception
of SPL.

Measured / Perceived Noise
State
SPL
in anechoic chamber
Subjective
Sleep n/a Silent
Idle 18 dBA@1m Extremely quiet; audible from within a couple
of feet but benign, with no tonal aspects.
Full load 19~20 dBA@1m Still quiet, but with a bit of tonality,
centered at around 420Hz.
Idle, on monitor 14 dBA@1m – from front of monitor The monitor blocks much of the noise. If
the wall behind is some distance away or covered with damping material such
as a curtain, the subjective noise is even lower than measured.
Full load, on monitor 15~16 dBA@1m – from front of monitor See comments above. The tonality at 420Hz
is still there, but substantially muted by the monitor.
Q-fan off; fan on full speed 37 dBA@1m Mostly broadband noise but loud, with some
tonality in the mid-band. Fan runs at full speed. There’s no reason to ever
turn Q-fan off.

COOLING

SpeedFan gave us some numbers to look at, despite the absence of any hardware
monitoring in the Eee Box BIOS. The changes between idle load and maximum load
were small, like the changed in the fan noise. SpeedFan indicated 2900 RPM at
idle and 3200~3300 RPM at maximum load, with temperature rises in the CPU and
“system” of just 2~4°C. The hard drive temperature ranged 45~48°C.
All this was in an ambient room temperature of 23~26°C. Asus has done a
fine job of achieving good cooling with minimal noise in the Eee Box.


SpeedFan screen capture with Eee Box at full load.

MP3 SOUND RECORDING

These recordings were made with a high resolution, lab quality,
digital recording system
inside SPCR’s own 11 dBA ambient anechoic chamber, then converted to LAME 128kbps encoded MP3s. We’ve
listened long and hard to ensure there is no audible degradation from the original
WAV files to these MP3s. They represent a quick snapshot of what we heard during
the review.

The recording of the Eee Box was made with the unit at idle, and the microphone
1m away, first on a table in the hemi-anechoic chamber, and then mounted on
the back of an LCD monitor, and the microphone 1m away from the front of the
monitor. It starts with the room ambient, followed by the product’s noise.
For the most realistic results, set the volume so that the starting ambient
level is just barely audible, then don’t change the volume setting again while
comparing all the sound files.

Unfortunately, at this time, we have no comparable sound files of system recordings
made in the anechoic chamber with our new microphone.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Eee Box vs. SqueezeBox

My personal ideal use for the Eee Box puts it on the back of a good LCD
monitor in an open wall cabinet in the living room. It will have several
main functions:

  • Convenient web/email PC – no more going downstairs or waiting
    for a laptop to power up and connect on wifi.
  • Slideshow machine for displaying digital photos so that all
    those thousands of photos get some appreciation on a nice big high resolution
    screen instead being lost forever or viewed only online. The Google
    Photos Screensaver
    for Windows might be just about perfect for this
    application.
  • Music control PC to access the uncompressed CD-quality music
    files on my network and output it through SPDIF into my high end DAC
    for playback through my home audio system. This would be in combination
    with a good wireless media keyboard/mouse, to replace the more limited
    menu / control of a Squeezebox,
    which has been in use since our
    review back in 2005
    .

Hence, the absence of HDMI, 1080-resolution video playback or more elaborate
audio outputs are moot for me. The very low power consumption, low noise,
wifi and back-of-monitor mounting are perfect.

The Eee Box is an interesting expansion of the Asus Eee line (even though the
choice of moniker is most unfortunate, imo). It is a perfectly capable PC for
most users, performing all the routine functions we ask of our PCs with no disappointments.
No one expects it to be a workstation or gaming rig, and in those functions
the Eee Box would fail. Unfortunately, the B202 doesn’t quite live up to the
billing of home entertainment hub. It cannot handle video with higher resolution
than 720p, which means it will fail to play many BluRay movies. The absence
of a DVD drive also limits it somewhat, but external DVD players are plentiful
these days, and so many users are collecting movies as digital files rather
than on plastic disks.

The energy efficiency of the Eee Box is a very positive point. Through most
tasks, it draws less than 20W, and the most demanding thing the typical user
will ask of it, playback of 720p video, will only draw 22W. This is exceptionally
low power demand, better than just about any PC we can think of.

The ease with which the Eee Box can be mounted on the back of an LCD monitor
is welcome. On the back of our 19″ Gateway or 24″ Asus monitor, and
with just a bit of cable management, the box became essentially invisible and
well-nigh inaudible, making possible an unobtrusive, elegant, always-on web/email
box in the living room.

It’s probably not cheaper than a similarly equipped DIY box with an Intel D945GCLF
Atom mini-ITX board, but it might be quieter and it’s more elegant than any
of the mini-ITX enclosures currently available. It’s probably also significantly
more energy efficient except, perhaps, if you opt for a very high efficiency
AC/DC adapter with a PicoPSU.

We know that a dual-core Atom is coming. Will there be an Eee Box with a dual-core
Atom? Probably. Will it play 1080 resolution clips? We don’t know, but many
people won’t care. They already have a big screen 40″+ 1080i high resolution
LCD or plasma TV for movies, but they don’t have a cute, perfectly functional
mini-PC that hangs quietly on the back of a monitor in the living room or kitchen.
Is $350* a good price for such a machine? It probably depends on your needs,
wants and budget, but some people will find it irresistible.

PROS

* Very low power consumption
* Very quiet
* Good enough performance
* Built in wifi
* SPDIF out
* Stylish, small & mounts on back of monitor

CONS

* Can’t play 1080 video
* Fairly slow CPU
* No HDMI
* No DVD / BluRay drive

Our thanks to Asus
for the Eee Box sample.

* * *

*An aside about the price of such machines: NCIX, an online store
based in Vancouver, had a major promotion of the Eee Box when it was first
released for sale here. They offered a free 22″ Asus monitor for the
first 10 buyers of the Eee Box; this was most likely an Asus-sponsored promotion.
I had a go at the lineup, but it was well over 15 persons long when I showed
late, and almost everyone seemed to be there for the Eee Box + monitor deal.
It was interesting to chat with those waiting. One geeky pundit suggested
that the Eee Box was actually ideal for those who would never know to buy
one unless advised by one of their geeky friends, of the type who were mostly
in the lineup. The ordinary low-end Dell, HP, Apple or Lenovo buyer would
feel too insecure about buying a non-standard PC like the Eee Box when for
the most part, it’s precisely all they need: A small, quiet, energy efficient
box for email, web, photo sharing, the odd youtube/facebook video.

The big PC system brands have not ignored the small box trend. Dell is
now offering the Studio
Hybrid
, a wee box with optical drive only marginally bigger than the Eee
Box; it starts at $499 with keyboard and mouse but runs an Intel C2Duo CPU
that can easily play BlueRay. The HP
Pavilion Slimline s3500t
is similar to Dell’s offering but just a
bit bigger and starts at the same price. Neither brand has any Atom-based
low power PCs as of yet, although both offer mini laptops:
Dell’s Atom-powered Inspiron Mini 9 and HP’s
VIA C7-M based 2133
.

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Shuttle’s Smallest Yet: XPC X100
Asus P3-P5G33 Barebone Slim PC
Intel D945GCLF m-ITX: Atom For The Desktop
Albatron KI690-AM2: A Mini-ITX Powerhouse

* * *

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