ECS HDC-I Motherboard Review
By Rafael Coelho on August 18, 2011
Today we are reviewing the ECS HDC-I Mini-ITX motherboard, which comes with an AMD E-350 CPU soldered, two USB 3.0 ports, Wi-Fi and more features. Check it out!
The E-350 is a dual core CPU with embedded graphics. Actually, AMD calls it an APU (Accelerated Processing Unit). In our articles and reviews, we will still be calling these products “CPUs.” AMD first announced that they would be creating a CPU with an integrated graphics chip in 2006, and gave the name “Fusion” to this idea. Intel, however, copied this idea and released CPUs with integrated video controllers in the beginning of 2010, within its Core i series.
While the A-series are CPU-aimed on the mainstream desktop computer market (you can read our review of the A8-3850 CPU here), the E-series is aimed at low-power computers. This platform is called internally “Brazos,” while this family of CPUs has the call-sign “Zacate.” The CPU cores are code-named “Bobcat.” There is also an “Ontario” series (C-series) which has an even lower TDP (and lower clocks).
Keep in mind that, even though they are a competitor for Intel Atom processors, the Bobcat cores don’t have much in common with them. While Atom uses an in-order execution engine (as well as “Jurassic” CPUs like the original Pentium), the AMD Bobcat uses out-of-order instruction execution, which allows it to be faster, even at the same clock speed.
The E-350 CPU has a 1.6 GHz clock, two cores, a 40 nm manufacturing process, and a TDP of only 18 W. The 512 KB per core L2 cache runs at half the core clock in order to save power. The GPU embedded into this chip is called Radeon HD 6310, with 80 cores running at 500 MHz. It is compatible with DirectX 11 and supports UVD3 (Unified Video Decoder 3), which improves 2D video performance by hardware-based video decoding.
The memory controller is, of course, integrated into the chip. It supports DDR3 memory up to 1,066 MHz, in single channel configuration. As a companion, the E-350 must be paired with an “FCH” (Fusion Controller Hub, code-named “Hudson”) which makes the role of a south bridge chip, controlling SATA-600, USB, Ethernet and Audio ports.
The E-350 has eight PCI Express x1 lanes, but four of them are by the south bridge, leaving room for implementation of a PCI Express x4 slot on the motherboard.
The HDC-I is a Mini-ITX motherboard based on the AMD E-350 CPU. It uses the AMD “Hudson” south bridge.
In Figure 1, you see the HDC-I, which uses the Mini-ITX form factor, meaning that it measures 6.7 x 6.7 inches (170 x 170 mm).
As with any Mini-ITX board, the HDC-I has only one conventional (i.e., rear) slot. ECS chose to include a PCI Express x16 slot (which works only at x4 speed), so you can install a graphics card. Keep in mind that you can also install a PCI Express x1 card into any PCI Express x16, x8, or x4 slot.
The motherboard has a mini PCI Express slot, where you will install the wireless adapter that comes with the motherboard.
The AMD E-350 has an embedded memory controller, supporting DDR3 memories up to 1,066 MHz.
The ECS HDC-I has two DIMM sockets for standard DDR3 memory modules, supporting up to 8 GB. There is no dual channel technology, so the memory is always accessed in 64-bit mode.
The chip paired with the E-350 CPU is called by the manufacturer “FCH” (Fusion Controller Hub), and the model used on the HDC-I is the A50M. This chip supports six SATA-600 ports (no RAID support), and the board comes with four SATA-600 ports and one eSATA-600 port.
This motherboard has 10 USB 2.0 ports, six soldered on the rear panel and four available through two headers located on the motherboard. It also has two USB 3.0 ports, available on the motherboard rear panel, controlled by an ASMedia ASM1042 chip.
This motherboard doesn’t have FireWire ports, nor does it have IDE, floppy, legacy parallel or serial ports.
The ECS HDC-I supports 7.1 audio format. On this motherboard, the audio is generated by the chipset using a VIA VT1708B codec. The specifications of this chip include 100 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the analog outputs, 95 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the analog inputs, up to 192 kHz sampling rate for both inputs and outputs, and 24-bit resolution. These specifications are good for the mainstream user, but if you are looking into working professionally with audio editing, you should look for a motherboard that provides an SNR of at least 97 dB for the analog input.
This motherboard has one Gigabit Ethernet port, controlled by an Atheros AR8151 chip.
In Figure 6, you can see the motherboard rear panel, with six USB 2.0 ports, HDMI port, VGA and DVI video outputs, one eSATA-600 port, a Gigabit Ethernet port, two USB 3.0 ports (blue connectors), Bluetooth adapter, and audio connectors. There is no PS/2 port for mouse or keyboard.
The Wi-Fi adapter that comes with the motherboard is an AzureWave AW-NE139, compatible with the IEEE 801.11b/g/n standards.
Figure 8 reveals the accessories that come with the ECS HDC-I: manual, drivers and utilities DVD, SATA cables, case rear frame, and the Wi-Fi adapter with antenna mounting accessories.
Since the AMD E-350 has no socket, it comes soldered on the motherboard. Figure 9 reveals the low profile cooler that cools down the CPU and the chipset.
Figure 10 reveals the E-350 CPU (at the right) and the chipset (at the left) with the cooler removed.
The two-phase voltage regulator is enough for this low-consumption CPU. All the capacitors are solid and all the coils are ferrite ones, which is great.
The main specifications for the ECS HDC-I motherboard include:
* Researched at Newegg.com on the day we published this review.
We ran some tests comparing the performance of the ECS HDC-I with other motherboards with similar characteristics: the Zotac Fusion350-A-E (which brings the same AMD E-350) CPU and the Intel D525MW (which comes with an Intel Atom D525 soldered). We also included in this test a Core i3-540 CPU, in order to discover if the performance of those embedded motherboards can be comparable to a mainstream system with CPU-integrated video.
During our benchmarking sessions, we used the configuration listed below. Between our benchmarking sessions, we kept that same hard disk, but of course the motherboard and CPU were different. The memory used was not always the same since two of the motherboards tested use DIMM modules, while the other two use SODIMM modules, but all the tests were made with the same memory specs.
We adopted a 3% error margin. Thus, differences below 3% cannot be considered relevant. In other words, products with a performance difference below 3% should be considered as having similar performance.
The new PCMark 7 performs a series of tests and gives scores in the following categories: An overall score called PCMark; a Productivity score, which is the system performance when using applications such as web browsing and home office applications; a Creativity score, which is the system performance when viewing, editing, converting, and storing photos and videos; an Entertainment score, which is the system performance when recording, viewing, streaming, and converting TV shows and movies, as well as importing, organizing, and browsing music, and gaming; and a Computation score, which indicates the processing performance of the system. Let’s analyze the results.
The AMD E-350 CPU from the ECS HDC-I was faster than the Atom D525 (which is by now the fastest Atom CPU, with two cores running at 1.8 GHz) in all the tests made by PCMark 7, being almost 100% faster in the PCMark and Creativity scores, 45% faster on the Productivity score, 19% faster on the Entertainment score, and 41% faster on the Computation score.
Comparing it to the Core i3-540 CPU, it does not look bad at all, even when contrasting the low-consumption, low-cost, E-350 CPU to a value/mainstream CPU, being 28% slower on the PCMark score, 40% slower on the Productivity score, 37% slower on the Entertainment score, 20% slower on the Creativity score, and 60% slower on the Computation score. It shows that, while the E-350 has far less “brute force” CPU power, its integrated GPU is stronger than the i3-540, resulting in almost the same multimedia performance.
There is no way to analyze the performance of the ECS HDC-I motherboard alone. Since the AMD E-350 CPU comes soldered on the motherboard, we have to analyze the whole system.
We concluded that the ECS HDC-I motherboard is a great choice for multimedia and entertainment PCs, as well as for Home Theater PCs (HTPCs). It brings a powerful (of course, considering its cost and power consumption) CPU for general web surfing, multimedia watching and entertainment purposes. It may not have the brute force processing power of mainstream CPUs just because of its low clock of 1.6 GHz, around half the clock found on most mainstream processors.
This little board is also full of useful and updated technologies, like the USB 3.0 ports and the Bluetooth interface, as well as the SATA-600 ports and the included Wi-Fi card, which helps the product to have a still better cost/performance ratio.
So, if you are looking for a motherboard/CPU to build an inexpensive, quiet and low-consumption small form factor (SFF) computer or for an HTPC, the ECS HDC-I is a great choice, thus receiving our Silver Award.