Retiring the Atom: Replacing the Intel D945GCLF


Drawing up a list of criteria, and researching possible candidates, for a hardware purchase is an increasingly time-consuming process. Especially if the device in question is to be running Linux. Increasingly, reviewers trot out page after page of arbitrary statistics for things most of us will never attempt — instead of answering the important questions. Whilst it is pleasing to know that a reviewer has successfully installed the device to a point where it can be demonstrated in this way, sometimes it would be more useful to know exactly how this was done.

Take for example the subject of this article, the search for a replacement for an Intel D945GCLF motherboard that was struggling to fulfil some of the (possibly inappropriate) tasks thrust upon it.

The list of criteria wasn’t particularly onerous, but it was fairly specific:

  1. Mini-ITX form factor to utilize existing case
  2. Low-power to utilize existing 120W power-supply
  3. Faster processor than the Atom 230 it was to replace
  4. Gigabit Ethernet onboard (or a PCIe expansion slot to house one)
  5. At least 3 SATAII ports onboard (for 2 existing drives and a new addition)
  6. IDE onboard (or an appropriate expansion option) for an existing disk
  7. Support for at least 4GB RAM
  8. More capable graphics performance than the Intel GMA950 it was to replace
  9. Works with Linux

Of this list the only point that could really be considered optional was number 6 — for convenience an IDE connector would be very useful, but an additional SATAII port would suffice (albeit with the additional cost of a replacement disk).

Unlike a year or two ago, there are a number of Mini-ITX motherboards on the market today to choose from, and even the luxury of a choice of manufacturers and multiple chipsets. Despite this it became apparent fairly quickly that the actual number of choices, given the above criteria, was slim.

The Mini-ITX boards seemed to fall into five main categories:

  1. Intel Atom 230/270/330 based with Intel chipset (most usually 945GC or 945GSE)
  2. Intel Atom 230/330 based with NVIDIA ION chipset
  3. Intel Pine Trail (D410/510 based) with NM10 Express chipset
  4. VIA EPIA based
  5. Desktop Processor/Chipset in a smaller footprint

Of these, some could be discounted fairly quickly:

The first offered little gain over the current board — a dual-core 330 processor would be an improvement, gigabit Ethernet was available, but the package was always let down by limited storage connectivity (particularly SATAII) and poor graphics performance.

The fourth option, VIA EPIA systems, fell from grace a couple of years ago with the arrival of Intel Atom systems. Lacking in CPU performance in all but the very newest models and with graphics equally as poor as the Intel GMA950 systems, this option was starting to look unfavourable. Problems and lack of support with earlier VIA chipsets under Linux also contributed to ruling this one out.

Power requirements for the fifth option, even when designed with energy frugality in mind, always seemed to drift too high and heat dissipation presented a much greater problem. Additional costs for a non-embedded processor often took the overall price way above the remaining competitors.

After the initial considerations this left two options: NVIDIA ION with the first generation Atom processors or the newly-released Intel Pine Trail platform with the refreshed models.

As the Pine Trail platform had been only recently released, options in this category were limited to a single chipset and only a handful of manufacturers. Configurations varied little from board to board; budget offerings featured the D410 single-core processor, often with only 10/100 Ethernet, and the meagre offerings provided by the NM10 Express chipset (just two SATAII ports and no IDE). More expensive versions were often little better, the D510 dual-core processor and gigabit Ethernet let down by the poor storage offerings of the cut-down chipset. Would the performance of the newer processor and updated graphics subsystem (GMA3150) be enough to offset this?

In a word: NO.

In a sentence: With CPU performance no more improved than the 3.75% offered by the clock speed bump (1.66GHz versus 1.6GHz) and barely improved graphics still soundly beaten by ION, the initial Pine Trail offerings are a big disappointment.

Short of waiting for a third-party chipset to appear for Pine Trail, as ION had for the original Atom, the only possible replacement at the current time for the Intel D945GCLF was option 2: An NVIDIA ION based board with an Atom 330 processor.

Only one category, but a large number of choices.

The manufacturers seem to be allowed a little more freedom with final component choices on these boards. Some of the components featured within this category are:

  • Onboard IDE controller
  • PCI, PCI-Express and mini PCI-Express expansion slots
  • VGA, Single- and Dual-link DVI, HDMI and Component Video outputs
  • Up to four onboard SATAII ports
  • Optical and Co-axial S/PDIF outputs

It became clear fairly quickly that, in order to secure the components required, the onboard IDE controller would need to be sacrificed. By selecting a board with a PCI expansion slot an appropriate controller could be added without too much trouble.

After weighing up all the pros and cons, the final decision was an Asus AT3N7A-I board. Getting it working with Linux will follow in another article.

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