Normally we do not remove the heat sinks on our testing samples, but with this product, we just had to. The heatsink assembly is held on with six plastic push pins. With it removed we get to see the CPU and chipset, and here is a first, the chipset is larger than the CPU! The little green chip is the C7 and the big chip is the CPU, clearly VIA has put a lot of work into its design of the C7 and it shows. The single chip CX700M2 is a great design - saving space on Mini-ITX is the aim and a single chip reduced the PCB real estate needed to make a motherboard.
Mini-ITX has its own port factor, and it changes from motherboard to motherboard as each motherboard gives a total different port layout. VIA must be applauded for its port layout with only one complaint - no HDMI port. HDMI is now the back bone of the Digital Home revolution, and with a motherboard like the EPIA-EX being aimed at the Digital Home segment, we would have expected to see one, unfortunately it is not included. However, with the LVDS port on the motherboard, it may be possible to have an add on to support this. Video is handles by a DVI port, so if you are running a LCD TV with DVI input you can connect it directly. If you not so lucky to be running a new HDTV, there are three more connection standards - S-Video port, RCA and component.
Analogue audio output is handled by the red and white RCA ports that are also used for the RCA video out system, so no matter what, if you want sound these ports are used. Digital Audio is available though either a RCA SPDIF port or a Toslink SPDIF port. Overall it is an extremely HTPC ready layout, just missing out on the HDMI connector.
The EPIA-EX comes with only one single expansion slot - PCI. Being the age of PCI Express, we would have preferred to see a PCIe X1 or above rather than PCI. PCI is now starting to age, and with PCI Express now gaining acceptance with TV tuners, sound cards, wireless networking and more, it makes much more sense to have this interface now.
For the added extras VIA packs onto the motherboard we have a Digital Video Encoder with Macro Vision, Firewire controller chip and HD Audio codec making it truly HTPC ready.
During our testing we wanted to see just how good this motherboard could be for a HTPC setup, specifically for recording TV to your PC - Core 2 Duo and Athlon 64 X2 are a great for this as they can handle encoding on the fly, but what about our C7, which has less power than the others?
We used two different TV tuners cards - first was the Hauppauge MCE ready TV tuner card with hardware MPEG encoding capabilities and 16MB onboard RAM. This was used to encode a live TV stream; CPU usage and general playback were tested to see what happened.
To try the other end we went with a USB based TV tuner which has no hardware encoding capabilities at all (just capture) it was up to the CPU to encode to MEPG2 for us. More on this later in our benchmark!