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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.