Computex 2008 has come and gone, and with it a whole slew of product announcements and press releases with all manner of companies touting their contribution toward the “next big thing” in the world of computing. Although we at Logic Supply are more interested in the next small thing, there was still plenty for us to be excited about. High on our list was the expanded support for Intel’s new low-power Atom processor among third-party mainboard manufacturers.

Intel D945GCLFJ&W J945ITX01Jetway JNC91
ProcessorAtom 230Atom 230Atom 230
FSB533 MHz533 MHz1333 MHz*
Chipset945GC + ICH7945GC + ICH7945GC + ICH7
GraphicsGMA 950GMA 950GMA 950
MemoryDDR2 533/400DDR2 533/400DDR2
Memory Socket1 DDR2 (2GB max)2 DDR21 DDR2 (2GB max)
Expansion Slot(s)1 PCI1 PCI1 PCI
ATA connector2 SATA, 1 IDE1 eSATA, 2 SATA, 1 IDE2 SATA, 1 IDE
Audio6-channel HD Audio6-channel HD Audio, S/PDIF (Coaxial/Optical)6-channel HD Audio, S/PDIF (Coaxial/Optical)
USB ports648
LAN10/10010/100/1000dual 10/100/1000
Parallel/COM1/10/01/1
Video I/OVGAVGA + DVIVGA
CPU coolingPassivePassivePassive
NorthbridgeActivePassivePassive
Foxconn 45CTEFoxconn 45CTP
Gigabyte GA-GC230D
ProcessorAtom Dual-CoreAtom Dual-CoreAtom 230
FSB533/800 MHz533/800 MHz533 MHz
Chipset945GC + ICH7945GC + ICH7945GC + ICH7
GraphicsGMA 950GMA 950GMA 950
MemoryDDR2 667/533DDR2 667/533DDR2 533/400
Memory Socket1 DDR2 (1GB max)1 DDR2 (1GB max)1 DDR2 (1GB max)
Expansion Slot(s)1 CF, 1 PCI Express x11 PCI1 PCI
ATA connector1 SATA2 SATA2 SATA, 1 IDE
Audio6-channel HD Audio6-channel HD Audio6-channel HD Audio
USB ports886
LAN10/10010/10010/100
Parallel/COM0/00/01/1
Video I/OVGAVGAVGA
CPU coolingPassivePassivePassive
NorthbridgePassivePassiveActive**

* This figure was given by Jetway’s own catalog on all of their Atom boards; however, a 1333MHz FSB is simply not possible with any current Atom processors, so I am unsure as to the actual specifications. Odds are good that with a Silverthorne Atom processor on board, the FSB speed will be 533MHz.

** I have seen two different images of this board; one with a passive northbridge cooler and one with an active cooler. I do not know which one will be the final version.

While Intel’s Atom-based D945GCLF “Little Falls” mainboard has been out and about for a few weeks now (and specifications have been circulating on blogs for longer) it is good to see additional third-party support for the new Atom in a Mini-ITX form factor. Intel’s Little Falls reference design is a fairly full-featured and extremely low-cost platform, featuring all of the necessary I/O and peripheral support required in a modern computer. That said, variety is the spice of life, and the additional choice with regards to features, connectivity, and cost is always welcome when tailoring a system to your needs.

The Intel Little Falls reference design is the prototype by which all following Atom-based Mini-ITX mainboards will be judged. When compared to the new offerings at Computex, the Little Falls is decidedly middle-of-the road, lacking some specialized features but not missing anything important: 10/100 LAN, COM and parallel ports, 2 SATA connectors, a PCI expansion slot, and a single DDR2 DIMM socket capable of supporting 2GB of memory; all relatively standard features for a Mini-ITX mainboard.

Intel D945GCLF Little Falls

In fact, the most notable feature of the Little Falls is the decidedly odd cooling solution Intel has placed on it. The Atom CPU sports a tiny finned aluminum heat sink that wouldn’t look out of place on a low-power northbridge, while the 945GC northbridge sports the unwieldy fan-and-cooler assembly that used to grace the CPU of the old “Little Valley” mainboard. This strange arrangement has resulted in slightly higher than normal CPU temperatures (although still well within acceptable limits) and a lot of headaches in terms of case compatibility, as the tall centrally located northbridge cooler interferes with all manner of 2.5” and optical drives, necessitating the development of a lower-profile replacement that we hope to stock soon. Despite these quibbles, however, the Little Falls remains a solid low-cost solution for all manner of embedded and consumer-based applications.

In contrast to the middle-of-the-road Little Falls, the proposed specifications for J&W’s J945ITX01 are a bit more extravagant. This board seems to be directed more at the home theater/media PC market, sporting advanced S/PDIF audio connectors (both optical and coaxial), an extra DDR2 DIMM memory slot, and a DVI connector that can more easily interface with larger LCD and plasma-screen televisions. The DVI connector seems to have come at the price of parallel and COM port connectors, so it lacks somewhat in terms of industrial connectivity compared to other offerings. It also supports Gigabit LAN and an eSATA port, allowing data to be rapidly accessed or streamed from external storage solutions. The J945ITX01 also appears to use a completely fanless thermal solution with passive coolers on both CPU and northbridge. This might require a well-ventilated case for effective heat management, but as we have yet to actually see one of these in real life, we have no way of knowing whether or not core temperatures will be an issue.

Gigabyte is another major board manufacturer who was very quick to jump on the Atom bandwagon. Their GA-GC230D is essentially a standard Little Falls with the trademark blue PCB and gold-colored heat sinks. They do use a lower-profile cooling system than the reference Little Falls board, but based on the specifications they have released so far, they would probably have to undercut Intel price-wise (no small feat with the Little Falls at $80) in order to counteract Intel’s brand name advantage.

Jetway’s JNC91 is very similar to Intel’s stock Little Falls design, adding a pair of Gigabit LAN ports and some additional rear USB connectivity to the standard suite of I/O connectors on the back of the Little Falls. However, the unique JNC92 (also Atom-based) is much more interesting for many of our applications. While only supporting a single onboard Gigabit LAN port compared to the JNC91’s two, the JNC92 adds Jetway’s proprietary 120-pin adapter, allowing access to Jetway’s line of daughterboards. This allows the addition of up to three more LAN ports, four COM ports, a DVI connector, or even a combination PCMCIA and CompactFlash card reader. This versatility, efficiency, and low power consumption combined with Jetway’s lower prices may prove very popular in a slew of Mini-ITX applications.

Intel_Foxconn_Atom

Foxconn showcased a pair of very stripped-down Atom-based boards at Computex. The 45CTP and 45CTE are both based on the Diamondville dual-core Atom design, which uses a faster 800MHz FSB and DDR2 677/533 memory than the single-core Atom designs, which are based on the Silverthorne core and run at a 533MHz FSB with DDR2 533/400 memory. The new Foxconn Atom-based mainboards also only support 1GB of memory when compared to the 2GB that the Little Falls supports. Both boards were somewhat lacking in connectivity, with no parallel or COM ports or IDE connectors. The 45CTE has only a single SATA port, but adds a built-in CompactFlash adapter and a single PCI Express x1 connector in place of the usual PCI slot. As a result, however, the board is slightly wider than usual and may have issues fitting in smaller case designs. With only the dual-core Diamondville processors to set them apart, these more limited designs seem targeted at more specialized applications where the limited I/O and specialized connections may prove to be more useful.

With so many mainboard launches by so many established manufacturers, it seems obvious that Intel’s Atom CPU has had a successful launch into the Mini-ITX market. The variety of boards available at so early a time is promising to say the least.