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Review: VIA’s Small & Quiet Eden Platform

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Silent PC Review’s first “official” review, on the VIA EPIA-5000, one of the all-integrated Mini-IPX motherboards in the recently launched Eden platform by VIA. Small can indeed be quiet!

May 20, 2002 – by Mike Chin

Silent PC Review’s first “official” review: The EPIA-5000, one of the
all-integrated Mini-ITX motherboards in the recently launched small and quiet
Eden platform by VIA.

Most visitors to Silent PC Review know that we manage to report a steady trickle of news relevant to silent computing. Alas, it’s not often that we have big news about big initiatives from big players in the PC industry. It is sad to say, but PC noise seems to rank lower than the color of a printed circuit board for most PC companies. At least, this is the way it looks in the US or Canada, save a few minor exceptions such as Compaq’s new 28-dBA Evo D500 Ultra-slim Desktop line and the new iMac, which has a cooling fan but is still supposed to be quieter than the usual beige box computer.

In other places in the world, there appears to be more interest and development
in this arena. Europe is the place of origin of ISO 7779, the current accepted
standard for PC noise testing. It is also the home of some small but innovative
quiet PC pioneers such as Captech,
Signum-Data, QuietPC.com
and Noise Control. The
higher awareness about noise may have to do with the enlightened environmentalism
shown by many European governments and perhaps the limited working and living
spaces in European cities.

Certainly, limited space also appears to be a big factor in Japanese corporate
concern about PC size and noise. In a recent
C/NET report
about new, all-in-one, compact PC from NEC based on a notebook
CPU from Transmeta, John Spooner wrote:

Because of space constraints in Japanese offices, which place workers
into much closer proximity than in typical North American offices, many Japanese
companies seek out all-in-one-style compact desktops or ultra-portable notebooks.
The fad toward smaller machines is slowly catching on in the United States
as well; many analysts attribute growing notebook sales to the rise in smaller
yet more powerful machines.

Interestingly, both the Compaq and iMac models mentioned previously are also
small form factor PCs. Is this a trend? Certainly looks like the start of something. VIA is betting
on it.

Eden 1500 – VIA press photo

The Taiwanese maker of chipsets, the C3 CPU, and multimedia / communications
chips introduced the Mini-ITX form factor last November. In December, they followed
up with the release of the Eden Embedded System Platform, combining an ultra
low power processor with highly integrated North Bridge and South Bridge chipset
options. In early April, VIA announced availability of its EPIA Mini-ITX mainboard.
Their press
release
quoted Richard Brown, Director of International Marketing:

“The response since we introduced the Mini-ITX reference design in
November 2001 has been phenomenal; our customers have been pushing us to start
production as early as possible.
Unlike previous ultra-compact platforms
for small footprint designs, the EPIA mainboard is based on industry standard
x86 components, which has obvious cost benefits and makes integration and
design of devices so much easier for System Integrators and OEMs.”

A tiny quiet platform based on standard components sounds very interesting,
very friendly. Let’s have a close look at this new EPIA Mini-ITX motherboard
so kindly provided by VIA, shall we?

TINY FORM FACTOR: 17 x 17cm

The VIA EPIA Mini-ITX motherboard is available with a choice of two embedded
processors. The EPIA-800 features a 800 MHz C3 (Ezra core) with an operating
core voltage of 1.35V. VIA says it is suitable for compact systems running more
multimedia applications. The EPIA-5000
Mini-ITX
is equipped with the Eden ESP 5000, essentially a 533 MHz Samuel
2 core C3 running at 1.2V, which VIA says is suitable for fanless systems with
low heat and ultra-low power requirements.

Measuring just 6.75″(17 cm) square and under 1 lb. (400 grams), the EPIA-5000
sample we received is something of a marvel in integrated computer miniaturization.

The photo below compares the EPIA-5000 to an AMD Athlon socket-A motherboard
(ATX) with the additional peripherals for the same functionality: video, network
and sound cards, plus CPU, heatsink and fan. All these are part and parcel of
this little board, which features an embedded CPU and heatsink that does not
require a cooling fan.

That’s right: no cooling fan. The embedded C3 variant CPU with a small permanently
attached heatsink does not require a fan.

This is not to suggest that the performance of the EPIA-5000 is on par with
the AMD-based motherboard on the right, but to show its diminutive size and
full integration of features. Simply add memory, drives and a power supply in
a case and you have a system ready to accept any OS of your choice.

Suggested retail price for the EPIA with the VIA Eden ESP processor is US$99 and the C3 EBGA version is US$109. These prices will naturally vary depending on quantity.

VIA EPIA MAINBOARD SPECIFICATIONS
Standardized Embedded Solutions for Total Mainboard Connectivity

Form Factor – Mini-ITX
– 170mm x 170mm
– Micro ATX Chassis Compliant
Processor – VIA Eden? ESP 5000 processor
– 100/133MHz Front Side Bus
– low power consumption
– Optional Fanless
– VIA C3? E-Series processor (EBGA package)
– 100/133MHz Front Side Bus
– 128K L1 and 64K L2 cache
Chipset – VIA Apollo PLE133
– VT8601A North Bridge
– Featuring integrated AGP 2X graphics
– VIA VT8231 South Bridge
TV-Out – Integrated Macro Vision 7.01
– High quality scaling and filtering
– S-Video or Composite video output
– Supports NTSC/PAL TV formats
Main Memory – Two 168-pin DIMM memory sockets
– PC100/133 SDRAM support
LAN – VIA 10/100 Ethernet LAN onboard
Graphics – Integrated AGP2X with 2D/3D Graphics Acceleration
– Motion Compensation for DVD playback
– VIP port for video overlay function
Audio – VIA VT1612A AC’97 onboard
– 3 Audio Jacks – Line-Out, Line-In and Microphone-In
– Sound Blaster, Sound Blaster Pro Compatible
– Digital I/O compatible with consumer mode S/PDIF
Expansion Slots – ATA/100/66/33 Support
– 1 PCI slots
Onboard IDE – ATA/100/66 (supports up to 4 devices)
I/O Ports – 3 Audio Jacks – Line-out, Mic-in and Line-in
– Four USB ports (two USB ports located at rear side)
– 1 EPP/ECP parallel port
– 1 16C550 compatible serial port
– 2 External PS/2 Compatible Keyboard /Mouse ports
– 2 TV output ports (S-Video or optional RCA TV out)
– 1 S/PDIF out (optional and multiplex with RCA TV out)
– 1 RJ-45 LAN port
– 1 PCI slot (Note: support for two PCI devices)
Power Supply – ATX Power Supply Compliant

EPIA Architecture

INTENDED APPLICATIONS?

VIA answers the question in its Mini-ITX Mainboard Specification White Paper:

The new VIA Eden Embedded System Platform is spurring the further development
of the emerging new generation of quiet running, low profile small factor
designs that are being adopted for a myriad of connected information and entertainment
systems ? ranging from home entertainment devices such as Set Top Boxes,
Game Consoles, Personal Video Recorders and Broadband Gateways to commercial
applications such as Thin Clients, LCD Web Based Terminals, POS Terminals,
and Network Attached Servers.

These new designs not only leverage the fundamental strengths of the x86
platform ? namely, its software resources, its Internet compatibility,
its rapid product innovation cycles, its massive economies of scale and its
open architecture. They also extend the capabilities of the PC and the Internet
by allowing people to connect to information and entertainment in an easier,
more convenient, and more affordable way.

Compact, stylish, reliable, fanless, and energy efficient, these new devices
are already beginning appearing in homes, workplaces, and public places such
as airports and coffee shops, and are set to further proliferate as more compelling
digital multimedia applications and services are developed and delivered over
the Internet, home and corporate networks through fixed and wired broadband
technologies such as cable modems, ADSL, 802.11a, and satellite.

In terms of physical compatibility, the new motherboard can be installed in FlexATX, MicroATX or new Mini-ITX case as shown here (a Morex). A back panel customized for the Mini-ITX motherboard is included for use with FlexATX and MicroATX cases. Some Mini-ITX cases appear to borrow from mobile notebook design: the main noise and heat producing part of the power supply is contained in a small external transformer box that eliminates the ubiquitous noisy power supply fan. Unfortunately, at time of writing in mid-May, none of the Mini-ITX case manufacturers recommended by VIA had any production samples for Silent PC Review to examine.

Rather than install the EPIA-5000 in one of the mid-tower ATX cases in the test lab,
it was hooked up open on the test bench with a 256 meg stick of PC133 SDRAM,
a Zalman
300W PSU
(complete overkill), a Seagate Barracuda IV 20G hard drive, and
a CD-ROM drive. A 19″ monitor, standard keyboard and mouse completed the
system. I noticed there was no floppy drive socket.

Windows XP Pro installation went smoothly. When all was done, a basic installation
of Microsoft Office 2000, Motherboard Monitor 5 and SiSoft Sandra 2002 was performed.
Unfortunately, temperature monitoring is not supported on either MBM5 or SiSoft
Sandra 2002. The BIOS PC Health Status area also does not show temperatures.

My faithful Veriteq
Spectrum 1000
data logger was brought into service again for simple CPU
heatsink temperature monitoring. Some SiSoft Sandra 2002 benchmarks were also
recorded, and the system was used for general web work and some MS Office tasks.
A modified AC cable was used to measure the current draw of the system.

Naturally, the motherboard and CPU contributed no noise at all to the system.
The same could not be said about the Zalman PSU, the hard drive or the CD drive.

TEST RESULTS

With web browsing, e-mail, MS Word, creating web content with Macromedia Dreamweaver
4 and Photoshop, and a few other typical applications, the EPIA-5000 system
was perfectly up to the task. I noticed no great slowdown or hesitation compared
with my reference Intel P4-2 GHz or AMD XP1700+ systems, except when dealing
with large image files in Photoshop. Big number-crunching tasks, electronic
publishing for print or 3-D games would be better handled by a system with better
raw computing power. No attempt was made to run long burn-in type programs or
play any games.

Power Consumption

The total power drawn by the system was derived by obtaining the current draw
of the Zalman power supply, then multiplying the current by the AC voltage (120
VAC) to obtain the wattage. The same was done with the Zalman powering two other
systems, one a VIA C3-933 on a Chaintech 6VJD2 motherboard, the other an AMD
XP+1700 on an ABIT KT7A-R motherboard. Both of these systems were equipped with
a 256 meg stick of PC133 SDRAM, a GeForce2 MX AGP video, sound card and network
card, along with CD drive and a Seagate Barracuda IV 20G hard drive.

Load
VIA EPIA-5000
C3-933 / Chaintech
XP1700+ / ABIT
Minimum Idle
31W
41W
82W
Maximum Steady
39W
52W
98W
Maximum Peak
41W
55W
110W

The results speak for themselves.

Temperature

As mentioned above, there appeared to be no support for any internal CPU tempererature
diode. There is also virtually no gap between bottom of the heatsink and the
CPU casing. So… I wedged a Veriteq temperature sensor in the fins of the CPU
heatsink and set the logger to record every 10 seconds while I surfed the web
then ran some benchmarks. The room temperature was 24° C. After about 2
hours, the graph showed these maximum and minimum temperatures:

Load
EPIA-5000 Heatsink
Idle / low load
36° C
Maximum
42° C

The actual casing temperature would probably be somewhat higher
than these numbers — my guess is ~10° C higher, which gives us an approximate
maximum of ~50° C. VIA specifies 70° C as the maximum casing temperature
for the C3, so it appears perfectly safe. There was never any instability in
the system.

Ambient temperature inside a small case is bound to be much higher
than on my test bench. Perhaps as high as 40° C? That would put the maximum
CPU casing temperature close to the recommended limit of 70° C, but until I
actually install the EPIA-5000 in a Mini-ITX case, this is all conjecture. Hopefully,
there will soon be an postscript to this review detailing performance in a Mini-ITX
case.

SiSoft Screenshots

The math CPU and memory performance benchmarks are patently unfair
for the EPIA 5000. As you can see in the screenshot above, the CPU is a 533
MHz VIA Samuel 2 with an estimated PR of 640. Still, I include them for the
sake of completeness.

It is not sizzling performance by today’s standards, but the system still responds
many times faster than I can possibly type.

With the Mini-ITX platform in rapid development at VIA, it’s difficult to say
exactly what is available when, but it appears that a C3-800MHz on a faster
PN133T chipset (especially for video) Eden platform may be available in the
near future. Please check the VIA website for the latest details. NOTE: VIA
says Jetway
and Biostar are
also committed to producing Mini-ITX motherboards, although I was unable to
find any reference to this on their respective web sites.

CONCLUSIONS

The EPIA-5000 integrated motherboard is a bold new product well suited for
its role as an inexpensive, quiet, small computing appliance. The potential
applications for this little machine are limited only by the imagination. In a Mini-ITX box with external power supply, it has the capacity to fit almost
anywhere, going quietly where no desktop PC has gone before. It is the only
real challenge to Transmeta‘s
Crusoe processor, which appears to be available only to OEMs. In our view, the fact that VIA’s offering is almost a complete
system on a single board makes the EPIA-5000 and the EDEN platform undeniably
attractive for system integrators, OEMs and – with their availability on the retail market – just about anyone wishing to build
a small, quiet PC.

* * * * *

Much thanks and appreciation to VIA for providing us the review sample and for their assistance with relevant information.

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