Is Small the Next Big Thing for AMD?

By Frank Ohlhorst  |  Print this article Print


Desktop-as-a-Service Designed for Any Cloud ? Nutanix Frame

AMD is banking on its DTX design spec to bring small and quiet desktops to a desk near you.

In the past, a big honking beige box was the sign of processing power, and of course that box would have to be equipped with cooling fans that could drown out a jet liner and create a tornadolike vortex under the user's desk. Luckily, the PC industry has come to its senses and is now focusing on restoring desktop real estate, while bringing peace and quiet into the office arena.

Advanced Micro Devices is looking to accelerate the adoption of small and quiet systems (and sell processors along the way) with its DTX design spec. Channel Labs took a look at a reference DTX system from AMD to see if the hype matches reality.

First off, DTX is all about efficiencies: efficiency in size, manufacturing, performance, power usage and cost. AMD has aimed at balancing those unique elements to build the next-generation desktop.

Interestingly, those elements were usually at odds with one another. For example, high performance usually means high heat and high power usage, and small size usually means increased costs and decreased performance. AMD has overcome many of those issues by designing DTX motherboards to use low-power CPUs with a TDP (Thermal Design Power) rating of 65 watts or less. That reduces power needs and heat generated, enabling builders to use smaller power supplies and quieter fans.

Unlike other small-form-factor motherboards, such as the Mini-ITX, DTX is designed to be backward-compatible with the ATX standard used by most motherboard manufacturers. DTX can use the same power supplies, cases and other components that ATX systems now use, which should ease adoption of the new motherboard specification. Although, there would really be no advantage to put a DTX motherboard into an ATX size case, some manufacturers might just do that to reduce the number of motherboards they have to stock and to leverage lower-cost manufacturing technologies.

The basic DTX design consists of a main board that measures 7.87 by 9.6 inches, which is a bit smaller than the 9.6-by-9.6-inch design used by the Micro-ATX standard. The Mini-ITX, meanwhile, comes in at 6.7 by 6.7 inches, but it is not compatible with ATX power supplies and cases, which relegates it to niche markets.

One important aspect of the smaller DTX footprint (as compared to ATX) will be higher yields—motherboard manufacturers will be able to build four motherboards per planar (PCB blank) instead of two. That should help reduce manufacturing costs and make the standard even more attractive to manufacturers.

AMD's DTX sample unit sports an AM2 reference design motherboard and is powered by AMD's 690G chip set (available on other motherboards now). The mounted CPU is the currently available at 45 watts—Athlon 64 X2 BE-2350. With a 1G of RAM and Windows Vista Home Premium Edition, the unit surely won't win any speed contests, but it does offer adequate performance and proves to be a good starting point for evaluating what a DTX system may have to offer.

Interestingly, DTX dispenses with traditional keyboard and mouse connectors, which means USB-based equivalents are required. On the upside, the unit offers USB ports on the front of the chassis as well as the back, which should make routing cables that much easier. For a very neat installation, solution providers will want to go the wireless route with keyboards and other peripherals. The front of the unit also offers audio and mic jacks as well as a card reader. A slim-line optical drive is also accessible from the front of the system. The rear of the unit offers a standard three-prong power connector (on the power supply), four USB ports, audio connectors, a VGA connector, a Gigabit Ethernet port and a DVI connector. IEEE 1394 (Firewire) would be a welcome addition to the system.

Opening the system up is a simple matter of loosening two thumbscrews, which are permanently attached to the case backplane, and then sliding the cover off the case. Technicians will find all major components easy to access and usually will not require any tools to service the system. The reference board uses integrated video, offers two memory slots (667MHz DDR2 memory) and can support a PCI Express card, along with a standard PCI card.

The evaluation unit fully leverages AMD's cool and quiet technology; at idle, the system only draws 41 watts, while power usage jumped to 75 watts during intensive benchmarking, which illustrates how well AMD's power-saving technology works. Cooling fan exhaust temperatures were less than 100 degrees, regardless of system load. And noise from the fans was barely audible. AMD claims that production systems will be even quieter by using improved ducting.

Benchmarking the system with PassMark's Performance Test 6.1 netted an overall result of 408.1, a decent score considering the anticipated low cost of the system and the use of on-board graphics. For comparison, an older AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+-based system, when tested, consumed 105 watts when idle, but power usage jumped to 171 watts during benchmarking. PassMark's Performance Test 6.1 netted an overall result of 412, thanks in part to the use of a Radeon X800 XL discrete graphics card. Although not an "apples to apples" comparison, the performance tests do highlight some of the differences in power usage and performance of systems with different types of graphics subsystems.

Although the system provided by AMD will not be a production unit, it proved to be a worthwhile look at what system builders can expect from the new DTX platform. Several motherboard manufacturers have shown interest in delivering DTX spec motherboards for both AMD and Intel processors, and if the lower manufacturing costs hold true, system builders can expect to see DTX overtaking the market.

Frank Ohlhorst Frank J. Ohlhorst is the Executive Technology Editor for eWeek Channel Insider and brings with him over 20 years of experience in the Information Technology field.He began his career as a network administrator and applications program in the private sector for two years before joining a computer consulting firm as a programmer analyst. In 1988 Frank founded a computer consulting company, which specialized in network design, implementation, and support, along with custom accounting applications developed in a variety of programming languages.In 1991, Frank took a position with the United States Department of Energy as a Network Manager for multiple DOE Area Offices with locations at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPL), Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), FermiLAB and the Ames Area Office (AMESAO). Frank's duties included managing the site networks, associated staff and the inter-network links between the area offices. He also served at the Computer Security Officer (CSO) for multiple DOE sites. Frank joined CMP Technology's Channel group in 1999 as a Technical Editor assigned to the CRN Test Center, within a year, Frank became the Senior Technical Editor, and was responsible for designing product testing methodologies, assigning product reviews, roundups and bakeoffs to the CRN Test Center staff.In 2003, Frank was named Technology Editor of CRN. In that capacity, he ensured that CRN maintained a clearer focus on technology and increased the integration of the Test Center's review content into both CRN's print and web properties. He also contributed to Netseminar's, hosted sessions at CMP's Xchange Channel trade shows and helped to develop new methods of content delivery, Such as CRN-TV.In September of 2004, Frank became the Director of the CRN Test Center and was charged with increasing the Test Center's contributions to CMP's Channel Web online presence and CMP's latest monthly publication, Digital Connect, a magazine geared towards the home integrator. He also continued to contribute to CMP's Netseminar series, Xchange events, industry conferences and CRN-TV.In January of 2007, CMP Launched CRNtech, a monthly publication focused on technology for the channel, with a mailed audience of 70,000 qualified readers. Frank was instrumental in the development and design of CRNTech and was the editorial director of the publication as well as its primary contributor. He also maintained the edit calendar, and hosted quarterly CRNTech Live events.In June 2007, Frank was named Senior Technology Analyst and became responsible for the technical focus and edit calendars of all the Channel Group's publications, including CRN, CRNTech, and VARBusiness, along with the Channel Group's specialized publications Solutions Inc., Government VAR, TechBuilder and various custom publications. Frank joined Ziff Davis Enterprise in September of 2007 and focuses on creating editorial content geared towards the purveyors of Information Technology products and services. Frank writes comparative reviews, channel analysis pieces and participates in many of Ziff Davis Enterprise's tradeshows and webinars. He has received several awards for his writing and editing, including back to back best review of the year awards, and a president's award for CRN-TV. Frank speaks at many industry conferences, is a contributor to several IT Books, holds several records for online hits and has several industry certifications, including Novell's CNE, Microsoft's MCP.Frank can be reached at frank.ohlhorst@ziffdavisenterprise.com

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