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AMD’s E-350 powered Gigabyte E350N-USB3 Rev 1.0 Mini-ITX Motherboard

Better late than never, eh AMD?

I’ve been waiting to get a hold of a media sample so that I can say this: Ladies and gentlemen, here comes the 18W E-Series APU, codenamed “Zacate”.

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Gigabyte sends me a board with AMD E-350 APU (Accelerated Processing Unit) with Hudson FCH (Fusion Controller Hub). New board with new platform and new hopes. Gigabyte India takes it as a personal pride calling this board as “mini-itx” form factor. Hit for AMD and Gigabyte? Let’s see if she can pur like a tiger!


About AMD’s Zacate APU

Just a quick run about these new platform from AMD to the best of my knowledge as I am still waiting for any relevant information I can get from AMD India (yet).

Its been a very long time since AMD were able to get their own product to pair against Intel’s Atom series (Let’s not forget VIA and Nvidia’s counterpart) and they planned pretty nicely for starters. AMD started with Brazos platform with an intention to have a mini and low energy consumption solution with a good amount of onboard solutions. Before we go anywhere further, you need to know about the core. Both C and E series APU come with “Bobcat” architecture on the core. Bobcat was made so that be used in small computing uses like netbooks, tablets and certain notebooks/desktop systems- anything between Generic and home theatre systems. When you say portable, one of the words that come in your mind is “battery life” and AMD is set on patching that up for you and keeping up with current and near-future computing demands without (hopefully) breaking your pocket.

Under Brazos platform, there are 2 series of processors: 18w E-Series APU (Codename: Zacate) and 9w C-Series APU (Codenamed: Ontario). Each series come with 2 (at the time of writing this article) APU processors each.

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The reason why its called APU is simply because the energy efficient processors is armed with graphics core with 80-stream Processors, making it fast solution for day-to-day application that relies on graphics core. Applications like Internet explorer 9 and Office 2010 will take full advantage. Microsoft implemented full hardware acceleration that utilises and displays advanced graphics and effects. On top of it, Java and newer (and advanced) flash games will require such hardware. Farmville anyone?(Bad joke, I know)

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AMD E-350 Dual core processor

There’s also Silverlight 3 to consider, but if you’re seeing the big picture, the software list is epic. There are also certain debates (one of them being why Microsoft cannot use windows XP’s driver to utilize full hardware acceleration when Firefox 4 can) that we’ll leave it to the software guys.

To take advantage of full hardware acceleration, you will require at least a bare-minimum system that can keep up. On top of this, you can playback 720/1080p videos and overall low power consumption. Its like having a 2nd Gen Nvidia ION with red paint on it (If the good folks at AMD read this, sorry about that).

Not enough? Brazos platform also comes with a chip specifically for Add-on peripherals (called Hudson fusion controller hub). Hudson FCH supports upto 6x SATA 6Gb/s 14x USB 2.0 support and PCIe x4 support with 2.5 GT/s interface speed. No point in having a HD playback without HD audio, so AMD’s Brazos got you covered.

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AMD Hudson FCH

Many would argue if there’s any use for 80-stream graphics processing because the computing core is somewhat comparable to Atom, you need to know that its supposed to meet today and near-future’s requirements and keeping the power consumption low, hopefully being implemented in a lot of computing devices- especially portable systems.

Why motherboard? Think about it- low power consumption unit- ideal for Home theatre systems and/or a 24 hour downloader/NAS Box.

Can you use it for general computing? You “can” do certain multitasking, but expect certain stutters and slow ups in certain scenarios- like a very badly coded websites or multiple tags with lot of flash applications running in them. If you’re running 720p/1080p and putting series of data in a zip folder (yes, a test was done for this), then expect a lot of stuttering. Remember, till now the explanation should give you an idea of how Brazos works and what are its primary uses. Doing all this with low consumption in mind, it is not an easy job.

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Another upside I can think of? Dual display with DVI+HDMI. This way, we can keep in mind that newer AMD chipsets will support dual display via digital outputs unlike AMD 7xx and AMD 8xx series.

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You will see a graph on the lower right of the screen. Media player classic i.e. embedded with Direct X video acceleration inorder to decrease the load on the CPU. According to the resource meter, the CPU consumption is 20%.

I ran 2 tests: 1080p and 720p MKV formats, each running a folder compression that contains randomly sized pictures and zip archive in 26 sub folders with a total size of 2.63GB.

In both cases,  there was stuttering during compression and a significant amount of resources was utilised.

Other than that, I ran IE8 WITH 5 tabs opened to different sites with the usual flash advertisements. Zacate did have stuttering for few seconds till the page was loaded.


Specs, packaging and contents:

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Note: Gigabyte recently released F2 beta bios (at the time of writing this review) that support 3TB+ Drive.

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The E350N-USB3 comes with the usual Gigabyte’s offerings, although SATA 3.0 and DX11 is via native support.

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I liked Gigabyte for their internal packaging even on low end motherboards, but absence of an anti-static bag and no foam sheet on the bottom is not really expected. It could be because this is a review sample. But if this is the packaging on retails packs, I would request Gigabyte to least have a foam base.

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The bundle I received was pretty straight forward: an AMD Fusion Utility disk, User’s manual with a multilingual installation guidebook, Dolby sticker and a single SATA 6Gb/s cable with an I/O plate.

Layout and Initial impressions:

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So far, very handful of companies are into Mini-ITX designs, Zotac being one of them. This still isn’t a mainstream platform, but baby steps makes it perfect(?).
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Looks all good: 4x USB 2.0 ports with 2x USB 3.0, Keyboard/Mouse PS/2 connector, optical S/PDIF connector, VGA/DVI/HDMI connector and 6 audio connectors.

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Some say mini-itx is ideal for HTPC/NAS, but you have to keep in mind that there are limitations. Keeping the slots count aside you end up cramp the entire circuit design and non native controller chips like the Renesas’ USB 3.0, Realtek’s Audio/Ethernet controller have to keep in mind that there are limitations. Keeping the slots count aside you end up cramp the entire circuit design and non native controller chips like the Renesas’ USB 3.0, Realtek’s audio and Ethernet controller, I/O controllers and then the usual front panel headers, USB headers, fan headers and the SATA ports for the hard drive- then Gigabyte’s usual 2x 16 Mbit flash for bios backup . While its nice to have a USB 3.0 support, many would not appreciate with 4 SATA 6Gb/s ports (one gone for your DVD Writer or a Blu-ray combo).  Recently I went to Gigabyte’s product profile page and that’s when I found that their BETA version of EFI that supports 3TB+ drives. While there is no “official” chipset support, Gigabyte and such manufacturers doing the best to implement it. Whether they will work the way it should irrespective of the drive and its capacity that will be available from here onwards (and the near future) is a tale for another day.

Moving on, for an HTPC/NAS setup one wouldn’t use a low/mid end GPU so its highly likely that one would not use the PCIE x16 slot that’s on x4 mode. What would have been more beneficial is the implementation of PCIE x1, this way you access to multiple currently available add-on cards, like upgrading to a better sound card. Re prioritize necessities is important in such form factors if a product is targeted for users with certain needs, I personally feel that PCIE x1 makes more sense. I also feel that 2x Mbit bios chips is pretty much redundant. Not really sure if 2oz copper was also needed as this consumes a lot of power and honestly the overclock bump is negligible. Cutting down the redundancy helps to become more cost effective and gets a lot of chance to be sold in good numbers.

This is more of an , but keep in mind that using an angled SATA cable will block either the SATA ports below the connected port or the PCIE slot.

USB 3.0 is a 1up for sure, same goes for Gigabit lan. Debug card helps just in case if anything happens. There’s no PCI slot, so the possibility of using a DEBUG/diagnostic card goes out the window incase something goes wrong. Helpful for technicians/power users, but for others it wouldn’t be required.

USB 2.0 headers come with a On/off support for recharging portable Apple devices, something that’s been standard for Gigabyte for a pretty long time. S/PDIF Out/CMOS clear headers are present, so its all nicely planned.

This board is made with 4 layers of PCB.

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The APU and the FCH is cooled with a single heatsink with a 40mm fan in the middle with a 3 pin fan header. the heatsinks doesn’t have any heatpipes (and would even require one). Turning it around where is where its something bit interesting. Thermal paste is applied for the chipsets, but the top of that plate can be opened up and you will see thermal paste applied between heatspreader and the rest of the heatsink

Bios and Overclocking:

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If you are reading up on my previous reviews, I always questioned the removal of PS/2 ports. Just as a brush-up, the reason I questioned it because there are lot of businesses out there (small and large) disable USB ports on BIOS because it gives access to people transferring data on an external storage devices. Removing the PS/2 port ends up forcing buyers to use USB port with the risk of USB storage to freely transfer data.

This is the first board I’ve seen so far with a workaround. Under integrated peripherals, there’s an option called “USB Storage Function” that determines whether or not you want the system to detect storage devices- both flash drives and USB hard drives. I’ve tried using using Seagate GoFlex USB 2.0 and 3.0 (review on the works) with Corsair 4GB flash drive and an mini SD card connected on an unbranded card reader- and it worked. Gigabyte RnD team takes every feedback seriously- and here’s the result.

Here’s one more: For some reason when the CPU’s host clock and CPU frequency was set manually, the windows boot slows down. Many have made a similar indication about this weird slow boot, especially on 880GM-UD2H Rev 1.3, where the issue is resolved after disabling HPET. The issue is happening on this board as well.

Overclocking difference is pretty negligible.

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There’s no Auto-overclocking option on this board and the max I was able to do was 1.76 GHz which was stable on AIDA64, but became instable once I ran Cinebench 11.5. Pushing @ 1.85GHz more led to more CPU voltage that was stable enough for 10 minutes.

Test setup and Benchmarks

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3D Mark 06
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3D Mark Vantage
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Cinebench 11.5
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Call of Juarez
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S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat (DX 10 Mode)
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S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat (DX11 Mode)
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x264 Encoding Test (Run 3)
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AIDA 64: CPU Photo Worxx and CPU Queen

Photoworxx benchmark focuses on the integer arithmetic and multiplication execution of the CPU and memory whereas CPU Queen focuses on branch prediction capabilities and misprediction penalties of the CPU.

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Customs PC Benchmark 2007

Overview

The Custom PC Benchmarks Suite is an essential tool that has been designed to performance test your PC’s real-world performance and accurately measure gains from overclocking. In order to get the most from these benchmarks we suggest you read through this concise manual.

All of the applications used in the Benchmarks Suite are freely available open source programs, which means that the performance improvements you see in our benchmarks should be reflected in these and other similar applications.

As the individual tests within the Benchmarks Suite 2007 analyse different aspects of your PC’s performance, the benchmark results can help to identify poor performing components and therefore help you to better plan future upgrades.

This version of the Benchmarks Suite 2007 is identical to that used by the editorial staff at Custom PC, the leading enthusiast magazine in the UK. This means that the results you obtain from your PC are directly comparable to those you see in the magazine and on the website at www.custompc.co.uk. This allows you to judge which components reviewed in the magazine will boost the performance of your PC.

By running the Custom PC Benchmarks Suite 2007 and obtaining a performance result for your PC, you’ll also have the opportunity to take part in our online Benchmarks Leader board, which ranks PCs in order of performance. If you think your PC is fast then submit your PC’s scores to the Benchmarks Leader board and find out for sure!

The Benchmarks Suite 2007 is comprised of three tests:
Image Editing
The Image Editing test uses GIMP, which is a highly respected, open source image editing application. The test consists of opening a series of high-resolution photos and then applying a number of filters (including adding a CPC watermark) before saving each image as a separate file. In the final part of the test, a number of smaller images are stitched together to create a large, panoramic image. This test requires a plenty of memory and a fast hard disk drive, in addition to a powerful processor in order to apply the filters.

H.264 Video Encoding
The H.264 Video Encoding test uses handbrake, which is essentially x264 with the added ability to read DVDs. We use this to upscale and encode a DVD source to an HD H.264 MPEG4 file, with AAC audio. H.264 encoding is an extremely processor-intensive task and this test takes advantage of multi-core CPUs.

Multitasking
Running multiple applications at the same time is tough test of real-world system performance, which is why our final test is a multitasking benchmark. In this test we play the HD movie file used in the H.264 Video Encoding test in the foreground while simultaneously compressing a selection of large and small files using 7-Zip. This test obviously benefits from multi-core CPUs, but fast memory and a quick hard disk drive also helps.

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Conclusion
By now its clear that AMD emphasized on GPU rather than CPU keeping low power consumption in min, which makes sense for HTPC/certain Light load applications. Since its a very low consuming solution, you would also use it for your downloading needs as well. But when it comes to CPU depended applications (encoding, compressing), its low end.

As far as Gigabyte E350N-USB3 Board is concerned, the board has lot of overclocking option on bios but the overall performance boost after a slight bump is just not worth it. Overclocking is the last thing anyone would think of on this motherboard, unless some1 made a board out there that can overclock nicely (for what its worth) in this platform. All the fan headers (including the CPU fan) are 3 pin, so you loose variable speed control (that explains absence of fan control options on the Bios).

U.S.U.K.India
$149.99£124.99Rs. 8,900/-

Does this board really need 2oz copper and Dual Bios?

Before I go about talking about this, remember Gigabyte GA-G31M-ES2L?
A lot of people loved this board because of the value it offered and this was when Gigabyte’s 2oz copper implementation was pretty much in most boards they had. Why? For what the board is/was worth, it came with Solid caps and good enough VRM. Rev 2.3 comes with dual Bios and USB 3x power and On/off technology so its giving even more value and you can do some decent enough overclocks. Almost all moderate overclockers with everyday’s need ditched the idea of grabbing a P43/45 chipset board and when for this because it did the job. This is pretty much what Gigabyte is/was good at.

This is what all Tier 1 manufacturers do- give incredible value for money+ features provided its useful. What I like about Gigabyte is that they know which thermal paste and thermal pads they need to use for what type of chipsets. What I also like about Gigabyte is that out of nowhere they make this board with good enough layout and good enough expandability options and value that it satisfies most of the users- G31M-ES2L, 880GMA-UD2H, 890GPA-UD3H (2 out of 3 that I’ve reviewed)

What I don’t like about for sometime, Gigabyte is that at times they overdo it, making it bit more expensive. If something is made primarily to be a low cost solution, it should either have low cost solution or some useful feature that people will use for everyday use. Chuck out certain implementations on the board and put an onboard wifi support if possible? That’s something that will grab some attention. PCIE x1 would have been made more sense over PCIE x16, especially on a mini-itx board with a potential to be an HTPC setup.

Another thing which I do not like is that when Gigabyte has bestselling hardware in India and if its sold out, it takes lot of time to re-stock. 880GMA-UD2H wasn’t available in India in the first place. A lot of people bought 880GM-UD2H (880G+ SB710) mistaking it for a 880GMA-UD2H’s (supposedly) first version of 880GMA UD2H (this is because of Gigabyte’s model numbers. For example- X58-UD3R and then came X58A-UD3R). Gigabyte boards come with a lot of model numbers and now significant difference in features amongst Rev versions. Too many options+ confusions is as bad as too less options: a very wise friend said it once.

Even if this board is in your list, it wouldn’t really be on the top of the list.


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One comment

  1. its now that i understood why you mention the rev numbers. the difference in rev versions under 890gpa ud3h is significant that I wish gigabyte takes my 2.0 rev and give the latest one with 3TB+ support and am3+ no extra charge or else i will have to find a way to damage the board without voiding the warranty once the newer rev is available. Phase counts is different in X58a-UD5 newer and older rev but you dont get newer rev versions very easily here. thats why i like evga and abit (sadly it isnt there). Gigabyte and asus have ateast 3-5 models with the same chipset each having 2-4 rev versions. if asus' service was decent enough, i would have picked that up as they give am3+ support via bios update……

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