Asus P2-M3A3200 HTPC Review

Zertz - 2008-10-14 20:28:30 in Prebuilts
Category: Prebuilts
Reviewed by: Zertz   
Reviewed on: November 6, 2008
Price: $189.99

Introduction:

Home Theater Personal Computers, or HTPC for short, are one of the newest device to appear in our living rooms. They can be used as a DVR, digital video recorder, or simply as an upgradeable and feature packed multimedia player. With today's huge hard drives and high speed networks, buying and downloading, or streaming movies directly from your couch is no longer a utopia. Also, with software like Windows Media Player combined with hardware video decoding and a high definition television, movie playback has never been so easy, smooth, and gorgeous. Until recently, that was pretty much limited to enthusiasts, but that is about to change. All that is now easily said and done by nearly anyone with minimal knowledge and with prices being constantly driven down, it is almost ready for the mainstream market.

Asus, one of the world's largest consumer computer hardware manufacturer, which also makes their own, custom designs, has recently started designing and bringing to market HTPC's based on both AMD and Intel platforms. The one I am looking at today is their latest offering based on an the AMD 780G chipset the P2-M3A3200. With a very reasonable price tag, good looks, and an impressive feature list, this one might just be what it takes to bring more computers into our living rooms.

 

Closer look:

This case comes into a dull but solid box which is all that really counts. Inside the box, the case isn't protected by any kind of foam beside the bag it is wrapped in, it's just aqueezed between cardboard bended around the top and bottom parts of the case to keep it from moving. The box is pretty heavy, which is usually sign that a solid case is hiding in there, although let's not forget this one already comes with a power supply and motherboard which does add some weight to the package. Nevertheless, the case is quite small so, keeping proportions in mind and the Asus name behind it, I expect it to be a well built unit.

 

 

With the case out of packaging, the few accessories are finally revealed. Only the bare minimum is included: a power cable, manual, disk, SATA cable, molex to SATA power adapter, and a few screws. Also included is a base to lightly raise the case above ground, similar to those you can buy for consoles. Nothing too fancy and definitely not as much stuff as you would find in a normal desktop case. The small case comes with a small bundle. Which kind of makes sense, no?

 

Let's move on and see how Asus' HTPC looks.

Closer Look:

Panels are made out of aluminum and painted matte black which doesn't look bad, but isn't great either. One side has a single air intake for the processor while the other side gets Asus' logo etched into the bottom back portion of the panel. Also, the sticker on the component side feels really out of place, especially that everything on it is printed in what is most likely Taiwanese. It's not a killer, but sticking it inside or at least on the back would be a good way to streamline the silhouette.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The front side of the case looks decent with the right half having a leather textured plastic and the other half featuring a glossy finish, but that's pretty much where it ends. The main three buttons, power reset and eject, are well placed - vertically and right where you want them. Unfortunately, they are hard to press and have a cheap plastic feel to them. There is also an interesting array of inputs, including two USB ports, a FireWire port, microphone input, and sound output. Above those, two memory card slots are found, one of them supporting Sony's Memory Stick and MS Pro along with SD and MMC while the top most one is dedicated to CompactFlash cards. Those are hidden behind one of those push to open plastic doors which I am not too fond of since they always end up breaking and don't even work so well out of the box.

 

 

 

Now on to the back side of the case is where all the power supply and primary outputs are found. Notice how the power supply occupies nearly half the total height. While I am at at it, be very careful before plugging it in the first time, my sample had the voltage selection switch set to 230V. Standing on top of the others are the six audio outputs, for a total of eight channels. While most of the time they are awkward to connect properly, those ones all clearly labeled and easily accessed which greatly helps during initial setup. Right below are two legacy mouse and keyboard connectors, four USB ports, a lone Ethernet port, and an optical SPDIF. The other half features the video outputs which includes a VGA port a warmly welcomed HDMI connector as well. A serial port is found at the bottom, trying not to catch attention and be forgotten for good. Finally, those who will opt for the optional video card, Radeon HD3450, will get a DVI output and another VGA port.

 

 

 

It is now time to tear it apart and have a look inside.

Closer Look:

It is clear just by a glance that hardware is crowded inside this small case. Not only that, but it is quite bit shorter than a mid tower, it's also about half the width and not nearly as tall. Even though it's small, the same basic components have to fit, so custom board designs are very often used. For this one, Asus came up with a very oddly shaped motherboard, somewhat like a tilted "L". As you can see, there is not much space to spare in there, if at all. Taking the processor's heatsink off without removing the drive cage proved to be quite an accomplishment. Fortunately, it's not something that's usually done often on that type of enclosure. Not that there is much to route, but Asus tie wrapped their cables making for a neat wiring job so none are hanging all over the place. The other side doesn't really have anything in particular to show off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Closing in up and personal, one will quickly notice the regular capacitors used by Asus, which isn't such a bad thing really since this board won't and can't be overclocked and even those will outlast the board's useful life span. In the northeastern corner stands the northbridge's little aluminum heatsink, which is tightly held in place by flexible metal hooks, while also making it easy to remove. Rotating the camera upwards reveals the PCI-Express riser card, which sits in a full length slot, but only gives access to two 1x slots. Thanks to a well thought design, full height, but short and thin, cards can be installed, such as the optional HD3450 offered by Asus, will fit. Of course, one could decide to install any sort of low profile add-in card such as a wireless network adapter.

 

 

On the higher portion of the board, a single PATA along with two SATA connectors are to be found. However, only one or two, at most, of those three will ever be used due to space constraints. In fact, the case can only welcome a single hard disk drive and an optical drive. Speaking of which, they are housed into a removable cage, a nice feature in such a tiny case. Unfortunately, they do not provide any sort of noise canceling accessories like rubber grommets - both drives are screwed on bare metal which obviously don't attenuate any sort of vibration coming from a spinning drive. Also, make sure you got some spare screws laying around because there's a grand total of four (!) included. The processor's socket, compatible with both AM2 and AM2+, is in the lower right part of the case with the dual channel memory slots directly below.

 

 

Read on for a more detailed look under the hood.

Closer Look:

With the drive cage removed, the southbridge, which was hidden behind, shows up bare naked, proving it's very low power consumption. This one, SB700, isn't quite the latest from AMD, only beaten by the high performance SB750. It's still an appropriate choice for such a board aimed at a market where performance isn't the main goal and it has plenty enough features to get the job well done. As you can see, it is a small chip - much smaller than a Canadian penny. The 780G northbridge, found hiding under a heatsink with a rather thick and sticky thermal paste, as you can still see from the picture. This little guy is quite impressive, it's barely larger than it's southern cousin, but it packs the fastest integrated graphic processing unit available on the market. At least until the latest nVidia chipset is benchmarked.

 ;

 

 

 

 

 

 

Under the processor's heatsink, Asus applied thermal paste very similar to what both AMD and Intel use on their own. However, it is slightly larger so cooling performance should be improved lightly or may be quieter. It is a pretty thick one and most likely gets the job done fine enough, although I replaced it with Arctic Cooling MX-2 paste. The heatsink itself has a copper core, but it's mostly made out of aluminum. Moving to the power supply, this one is a 200W unit made by Delta Electronics which rates it's efficiency at a mere 68%, hopefully it will be able to cope with the load done by our benchmark suite. The 12V rail gets just ten amps while the 3.3 and 5V are severely overkill, being able to supply, respectively, 14 and 21 amps.

 

 

Let's now take a look at the manufacturer's specifications.

Specifications:

CPU AMD CPU
Phenom Processor
Athlon 64 X2 Processor
Athlon 64 Processor
Sempron Processor
Socket AM2+/AM2
System Bus up to 5200 MT/s (AM2+)
2000 MT/s (AM2)
1600 MT/s (AM2)
Chipset North Bridge: AMD RS780G
South Bridge: AMD SB700
Memory 2 x DIMM
Dual DDR2 800/667/533
Support max. 4GB
Expansion Slots 2 x PCI-e x 1
Note:
1 x PCI-e x 16, 1 x PCI-e x 1 (Optional: with VGA card)
Graphics Integrated ATI Radeonâ„¢ HD3200 Graphics
Max. resolution: 2048 x 1536
Support Microsoft DirectX 10
OnBoard VGA / max share MEM 256M
IDE 1 x ATA 100
S-ATA 2 x SATA II
LAN 1 x 10/100/1000 Mbps
LAN Chip Realtek RTL8111C
Audio Realtek ALC883
Azalia 8 Channel
Dimension (mm) W x H x D 91mm (W) x 275mm (H) x 357mm (D)
Drive Bays 1 x 3.5" Internal
1 x 5.25"
Front Panel 2 x USB2.0
1 x Microphone
1 x Headphone
1 x 4-in-1 Card Reader (MS, MS Pro, MMC, SD)
1 x IEEE 1394 (4pin)
1x CF Card Reader
Rear Panel 4 x USB 2.0
1 x Line-in/Line-out/Mic-in
1 x PS/2 Keyboard
1 x PS/2 Mouse
1 x RJ45 LAN
1 x Back Surround LR/Side Surround LR/Center LFE
1 x S/PDIF-out (Optical)
1 x D-sub
1 x HDMI
1 x Serial Port
Power Supply Peak 200W (PFC)
O/S Support Windows Vista
Windows XP
Manageability PXE
RPL
WOL by PME
WOR by PME
WOR by Ring
Noise Level Idle mode: 31dB
Accessory CPU Cooler
Optional Functions VGA Card (HD3450)
Key Features AMD Cool & Quiet
ASUS AI manager
ASUS CrashFree BIOS3
ASUS Ez Flash
ASUS My Logo2
ASUS Q-Fan
AntiVirus Solution

 

Features:

All information courtesy of Asus @http://usa.asus.com/products.aspx?l1=1&l2=3&l3=483&l4=0&model=2562&modelmenu=1

Testing:

Finally, the time has come to see what this bundle from Asus is capable of and, to achieve that, it will be taken through a series of both synthetic and real life scientific and gaming benchmarks. The board and its integrated graphics will be compared to another AMD board, but this one based on the nForce 570 Ultra chipset - the Asus M2N-E. Scientific applications will be done on stock integrated graphics for the 780G board while game benchmarks will be completed on both stock and overclocked integrated graphics with the HD4850 on the other system in order to compare a modern IGP solution to the a higher end discrete graphic card. Beside the overclocked IGP, everything will be run at stock settings. However, before going through the myriad of benchmarks, I will start by comparing the temperatures between this Asus case and a mid-tower from Antec, the Sonata III, which is marketed to be a silent case.


Testing System

Comparison system:

 

Overclocking:

 

Overclocked settings:

This board offers no processor overclocking options at all, so I was forced to leave the processor to stock settings, but the IGP can be overclocked through the BIOS, the AMD Overdrive tool or even RivaTuner. All three gave not only similar, but identical results. It clocked up to a healthy 695 MHz which is quite impressive considering the stock speed is just 500 MHz. Although the 780G chip could boot and perform a few benchmarks at a higher clock, anything above 695 MHz made one game or another crash. However, it got relatively warm, so active cooling is absolutely necessary to keep temperatures manageable especially if running at this speed for extended periods. This is something that should not be forgotten if you were to overclock it since running hardware too hot will damage it over time and sooner than later.

Benchmarks:

 

1. Apophysis
2. WinRAR
3. SpecviewPerf 10
4. PCMark Vantage
5. Sandra XII Professional
6. ScienceMark 2.02 Final
7. Cinebench 10
8. HD Tune 2.54

1. Crysis
2. Knights of the Sea
3. Bioshock
4. Call of Duty 4
5. World in Conflict
6. Call of Juarez
7. Company of Heroes Opposing Fronts
8. 3DMark 06 Professional

Testing:

In this part of testing, the Asus case will be ran through a series of temperature tests to see how high they rise during an idle state and while the computer is under full load conditions. Temperatures from the CPU, video card, hard drive and chipset will be monitored and collected. For idle state, the computer will simply be left untouched for 30 minutes making sure nothing is active, beside the Windows operating system, and then temperature readings will be taken. After, in order to simulate load state, Prime 95, HDTune and 3DMark Vantage will be run at the same time for an hour to ensure the hardware will still be fine in a worst conditions scenario. To gather the temperatures, the latest version of EVEREST will be used since it provides accurate readings of every important part. Cooling for the cases will consist of stock cooling that came with the cases, with no additional fans installed and the processor heatsink will be the stock AMD cooler. The Asus case will be compared to the Antec Sonata III to get an idea of where it stands amongst other mainstream cases on the market.

Comparison Case: Antec Sonata III

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Asus' very small case did surprisingly well in these tests. It's only major loss was in hard drive temperature, probably due to the fact that in the Antec case there is much more open air space between the drive and other components. In Asus' case, the drive stands right above the southbridge and sits tight under the optical drive, nothing to help power dissipation. However, temperature levels are very acceptable so there's nothing to worry about.

Testing: Apophysis, WinRar

To get things stated I will begin with Apophysis. This program is used primarily to render and generate fractal flame images. We will run this benchmark with the following settings:

The measurement used is time to render, in minutes, to complete.

 

 

 

 

 

WinRAR is a tool to archive and compress large files to a manageable size. We will use 10MB, 100MB, and 500MB files, as well as test the time needed to compress these files. Time will be measured in seconds.

RAR:

 

ZIP:

 


The nForce board was able to edge out the 780G by a small amount, well within the margin of error.

Testing: Specview 10 & PCMark Vantage

Specview 10 is a benchmark designed to test OpenGL performance. I will be using the multi-threaded tests to measure the performance when run in this mode. The tests used for comparison are listed below. The default multi-threaded tests were chosen to be able to compare across platforms. In these tests, higher scores equate to better performance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

PCMark Vantage is used to measure complete system performance. We will be running a series of tests to gauge performance of each individual board to see which board, if any, rises above the others.


The 780G board can hardly keep the pace in Specview's tests and is beaten by quite a margin in PCMark Vantage.

Testing: Sandra XII Professional

SiSoft's Sandra is a diagnostic utility and synthetic benchmarking program. Sandra allows you to view your hardware at a higher level to be more helpful. For this benchmark, I will be running a broad spectrum of tests to gauge the performance of the key areas of the motherboards.

Processor Arithmetic

 

 

 

 

 

Multi-Core Efficiency

 

Memory Bandwidth

 

Cache and Memory

 

Physical Disks

 

Power Management Efficiency


Processor dependent tests are very tight, but the nForce chipset takes the lead when it comes to memory bandwidth.

Testing: Sciencemark, CineBench 10, HD Tune

Sciencemark tests real world performance instead of using synthetic benchmarks. For this test we ran the benchmark suite and will use the overall score for comparison.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cinebench is useful for testing your system, CPU and OpenGL capabilities using the software program CINEMA 4D. We will be using the default tests for this benchmark.

 

HD Tune measures disk performance to make comparisons between drives or disk controllers.

 

 

Once again, results are tight here, both boards end up with very similar scores.

Testing:

Crysis is a new addition to the gaming benchmark suite used at OverclockersClub.com. This game is one of the most anticipated and system intensive games in the market right now. The Crysis single player demo includes a GPU benchmark to test the performance of the video card installed in the system.

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Obviously, the HD4850 destroys the weak integrated graphic processor and, as you can see, overclocking didn't do much to help. Crysis is only barely playable at the lowest possible settings.

Testing:

PT Boats: Knights of the Sea is a new DX10 title that features its own proprietary graphics engine currently in development. The game is a combination of real-time strategy and simulation. You have the ability to control the entire crew or just a single member. Play as the German, Russian or Allied navies, and prove your mettle on the open seas.

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This benchmark is tough on graphic cards and the 780G IGP simply cannot deliver smooth frame rates here.

 

Testing:

Bioshock is one of the newest games on the market. It is a demanding game that will make your hardware scream for mercy. This first-person shooter allows for an infinite number of weapons and modifications to provide a unique experience each time it is played.

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This one is also playable at minimum settings, but venturing above that is out of question, except for the discrete solution.

 

Testing:

Call of Duty 4 : Modern Warfare is the successor to the Call of Duty crown. This iteration of the game is fought in many of the world's hot spots with modern armaments and firepower. You can play as either a US Marine or British SAS trooper. Since this game does not feature an in-game test, I will run through a section of the game and measure average FPS using Fraps 2.9.3.

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the discrete easily flies through this game, the IGP is only playable at the lowest tested resolution.

 

Testing:

World In Conflict is a newly released DX10, real-time strategy game that simulates the all-out war the world hopes never comes. The difference in this RTS game is that it is not the typical "generate wealth and build" type of game. Instead, you advance by conquering your foe.

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hopefully, 780G users like this game because it's one the rare few to offer pretty good gameplay. It is, however, easily beat by the HD4850.

 

Testing:

Call of Juarez is a DX10, first-person shooter set in the Wild West of the late 1800's. The game is inspired, in part, by the movies of the Wild West genre of the seventies and eighties. The game can be played as both single player and multiplayer. The game focuses on realistic graphics and gameplay designed to take advantage of the latest video cards on the market.

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even at minimum settings, the integrated graphics struggle to reach even 10 FPS, while the discrete card flies through it.

 

Testing:

Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts is the latest chapter in the Company of Heroes series. The scene is WWII. The mission is Operation Market Garden, the first allied attempt to break into the Third Reich. Play as the British or Germans. This real-time strategy game is brought to us by Relic Entertainment.

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a game 780G users will enjoy, it plays very well up to 1280x1024 and it still delivers a decent gaming experience up to 1680x1050 with the settings reduced.

Testing:

3DMark06 is one of the benchmarks that always comes up when a bragging contest is begun. 3DMark06 presents a severe test for many of today's hardware components. Let's see how this setup fares. The settings we will use are listed below.

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this famous benchmark, the overclocked chip manages to score roughly a hundred points higher over all three resolutions. Not much, but every little bit counts down there.

 

Testing:

Extras:

Obviously, when it comes to gaming, the 780G chipset, although it does perform much better than previous integrated graphics chipsets, is quite a failure. However, that's not the market AMD was targeting when they were designing this chip. What they we're really aiming for is the low-end segment as well as HTPC's like this one from Asus. With movies and series being released in high resolutions such as 720p or even 1080p, it's important to have capable hardware to have stutter-less and smooth video playback, which is exactly what this chipset does. As you may know, it can do hardware video decoding, so it takes the load off the processor, which really struggle when it's time to play high definition content.

In order to test this, I haven chosen a random 1080p movie and since they all have to show the same amount of pixels, they all put the same load on the computer. I went with the extended edition of the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and opened Windows' task manager to monitor processor usage. Finally, VLC media player was used since it is my software of choice for video playback. This one can play nearly every format without a hitch, it's light weight, it's free and it's open. What else is there to ask for? I picked up random scenes within the movie in order to showcase processor usage.

 

 

 

 

The Asus board was able to keep the flimsy 2.2GHz Athlon X2 under very little stress. Processor usage constantly hovered between 30 and 40%, always keeping a smooth and flawless movie experience going while enjoying the highest image quality currently available. The only situation in which it struggled, as you can see from the spikes in the first screen shot, is when I would force the movie to another scene using the slider. This operation took just a few seconds, three or four, before everything went back under control. With such a light load, the heatsink's fan never kicked up so noise was kept at minimal levels.

It is now time to wrap this up.

Conclusion

Without a doubt, as the testing revealed, the Asks P2-M3A3200 case and motherboard bundle wasn't meant for heavy processor work and gaming. The board completed scientific benchmarks on par with the other motherboard, but gaming performance was abysmal at best. Although the board doesn't offer any kind of processor overclocking, the BIOS let's you change the integrated graphic frequency which I was able to increase by 195MHz or nearly 30%. Quite an impressive feat for such a small and low power chip and it also performs miles better than previous and current generation alternatives from the competitors. This allowed a few games, Call of Duty, World in Conflict and Company of Heroes namely, to be playable at low quality and resolution settings. A few others offered somewhat decent framerates, even Crysis, for casual gamers not into sky high performance and graphics. Of course the discrete Radeon HD4850 performed much better, but with a low clocked processor, which the processors going into that sort of computers are due to thermal limitations, I was running into heavy processor limitations. Also, the added noise and heat is definitely something you want to avoid in HTPC's and, therefore, this really isn't a viable solution.

Where the platform really shines is when it does exactly what it was actually built for and that is the lower end market as well as home entertainment personal computers. In fact, it was able to gracefully play full high definition movies without a hitch. Although the case can only sport a single hard disk drive, which may seem like an issue for some, with the newest drives capable of storing a healthy 1.5 terabytes of data this shouldn't appear as a problem for the vast majority. Some might be worried by the small 200W power supply, but it proved to be up to task even under a fully loaded processor rated at 89W with an overclocked chipset.

While the electronics are very capable of doing more than a fine job, some of the hardware is rather deceiving. First, it would have been nice to have more than four screws included. I realize most of us have many spare ones laying around, but that may not be the case, no pun intended, for potential mainstream buyers. Especially that you need at least twice that amount to assemble everything properly. Second, the front panel, fully made out of plastic is comprised of too many parts that are bound to break. Fortunately, it will look fine in your living room as long as you don't start manipulating it. To brighten things up a bit, even though the case doesn't have any noise dampening features, it was able to keep noise levels down so it was not disturbing at all to have it running while watching a movie.

Overall, this unit from Asus is quite a good deal. The case, motherboard and power supply will take about $200 off your wallet and roughly 200 more for a processor, hard disk and optical drive. Of course, should you choose to go for a Blu-ray drive, this figure will rise quite a bit, but every good thing has a price. In the end, what's really nice is that it's possible to customize to your budget and liking. Some might like the vertical stand while others would prefer if it laid down horizontally, but that's really a matter of how your place is set up. Finally, Asus' designed and built a nice unit, but some work has to be done as far as build quality goes.

 

Pros:

 

Cons: