The Epia-N is the first of VIA’s new Nano-ITX form factor motherboards. This new form factor is a mere 12cm by 12cm, a development of VIA’s successful 17cm x 17cm Mini-ITX design. Officially launched in March 2004, VIA is only now bringing it to market, nearly two years later.
To save space the board features an integrated VIA Luke ‘CoreFusion’ unit, which is a 15mm x 15mm Eden-N processor and Northbridge combined into one unit. Our review model, running at 800MHz, is the quickest variant not requiring a fan, and there’s a 1GHz unit which involves some minor active cooling by way of a small fan attached to the heat sink.
Low heat output is thanks to the CPU design, since less power basically translates to less heat. Our review board uses only 14 watts in use. If an appropriate power supply is used, some cases will not require a fan to help cool the components, making for a silent PC apart from hard drive and/or optical drive noise. Since it’s possible to run Linux from a flash drive, it’s possible to eliminate even that noise as well.
Looking at the predecessor to this form factor, Mini-ITX, small motherboards like the Epia-N are not simply used to make small PCs but are often used as a basis for custom projects such as building a PC inside a toaster, an old games console, a model car or even an old cigar box. Just search the Web and you’ll find loads of weird and wonderful examples. So the Nano-ITX form factor is likely to yield even more of these, as well as more ‘silent PCs’, car PCs and other systems where size, low power consumption or noise could be an issue.
The board is certainly tiny. It’s just about small enough to fit inside a regular 5.25-inch drive bay, although the heat sink makes it a little too tall. As a side-effect of achieving this size, keyboard and mouse ports are supplied as leads that attach to header pins on the board. Of course it should be possible to use USB devices instead, for absolute minimalism.
Despite the small size, VIA has managed to cram a massive amount into a small space. Ports include VGA, courtesy of onboard UniChrome Pro AGP graphics, RJ45 for networking, two USB 2 ports, microphone in, line out and line in ports via an AC-97 6-channel sound processor, plus an RCA/SPDIF port and an S-Video port. Additionally, an LVDS interface is supplied on the board for notebook-style TFT displays, which may be of interest for systems integrators and in-vehicle PCs.
There’s a single DDR266/333/400 SODIMM slot (i.e. notebook memory), which can take up to 1GB, and a Mini-PCI slot on the underside. This latter could be used to add a WiFi card, but most other peripherals will need to be added via USB. There is no full-size PCI slot.
Besides the USB 2 ports that are hard-soldered onto the board, a lead is supplied to connect to header pins and provide two more ports wherever they’re needed. The board has additional header pins to provide a total of six USB ports, but no cable is supplied to utilise the last two.
Storage is added via the 40-pin (for 2.5-inch drives) or 44-pin (for 3.5-inch and 5.25-inch drives) IDE connectors, or the single SATA connector. Since there is no floppy drive connector on the board, SATA drives either need to be set to appear to Windows XP as an IDE drive in the BIOS, or a USB floppy drive will need to be used to load SATA RAID drivers during Windows XP installation. As there is only one SATA port, RAID is not possible, despite the Southbridge supporting RAID, which is a bit of a shame since a second SATA port wouldn’t have taken up much room.
To test the board we installed 512MB of DDR400 memory and added the heat sink, which covers most of the board. Two tubes of thermal grease are supplied for this, because the heat sink comes into contact with both the Luke CoreFusion CPU and the VT8237R Southbridge chip.
Rather than using a conventional ATX power connector, the Epia-N has a smaller connector and is supplied with a converter lead to which a normal ATX power supply can be connected. In future, expect to see DC-DC power boards that plug directly into this socket, enabling the use of a laptop-style AC adapter.
Installing Windows XP was no problem once we’d got over the issue of installing SATA drivers. VIA supplies a utility called FliteDeck which provides system monitoring, and with airflow around the board, temperatures hovered around 25-30 degrees Centigrade. When put under strain with reduced airflow the CPU topped 50 degrees, but the heat sink rapidly dispersed the heat. In a proper installation, a thermal pad should probably be used on the underside of the board to transfer heat to the case.
In normal use we had no issue with the board, and applications were quite responsive despite the slow clock speed of the CPU. However, start working with demanding material like video and the limitations of the processor start to show. The CPU on its own wasn’t powerful enough to handle displaying the TV stream from our Leadtek DTV Dongle, and playback of recorded MPEG 2, DivX and Quicktime files was very jerky.
The Epia-N does feature hardware decoding of MPEG 2 and MPEG 4 files, but it’s worth bearing in mind that special software is required to make use of it, and this is a little hard to come by. VIA pointed us to a Web page where two Linux packages with special hardware support are available, but Windows users must dig out an old copy of Cyberlink PowerDVD or WinDVD, which are the only current known Windows applications with codecs supporting the hardware acceleration. Basically, this means that while the Epia-N 8000E is capable of video playback (with caveats), it won’t be able to handle PVR or TV card functionality properly.
The board supports HDTV output, but the increased complexity of such media means that the Epia-N doesn’t handle playback without problems, at least in its 800Mhz guise. All in all, we’d not recommend using one of these boards for HDTV playback. For conventional MPEG 2 and MPEG 4 playback, Windows users must make do with patchy support. We’d certainly recommend looking into Linux options since support is much better, through a project called OpenChrome and a distribution called EpiOS, as well as the VIA versions of Xine and Mplayer.
Despite these issues with the MPEG acceleration, at least it’s there as a feature and support for it may grow over time. It means that it is possible to use this board to create a passively-cooled and completely silent PC that can handle video playback. Of course, this may not be an issue at all for many people who will dream up other ways to use its positive features of small size and low power consumption to good effect.