- Package and Contents
First before we get into the specifics of the motherboard we should have a look at the package. VIA EPIA motherboards are moderately packed, but have all the requirements to get you up and running - Driver CD, user manual, two IDE cables and two SATA cables along with a rear I/O shield. The driver CD not only incorporates the Windows based drives, but also drives for the major Linux distributions - it seems VIA is taking the Linux initiative with the EPIA motherboards now.
- The Motherboard
Now we get down to the goodies of the package. The motherboard itself is based on the VIA standard Mini-ITX layout with a 6 layer PCB, totalling 17 x 17cm square. It is the smallest motherboard available to the retail market...until the Nano-ITX makes its way in, but that's a story for another time.
The motherboard layout is ultra compact with everything just about on top of each other. This design for a desktop system simply wouldn't do, due to the amount of clutter, however, VIA's thermal design of the C3 ensures that clutter doesn't matter. The ATX power connector is located at the top right of the motherboard, allowing for short power cables in the Mini-ITX enclosures. There is only a single expansion slot; a standard PCI slot is used to give an extra connectivity to the outside world. You can either put in a TV Tuner, hardware sound card or a Wireless LAN card, depending on how you want your ITX system setup.
The CPU itself is soldered directly to the PCB which means there is no chance of replacing the CPU. The CPU is based on the Socket 370 PPGA layout, so its is compatible with the older Pentium 3 motherboard bus architecture, however, there is no way to remove the CPU to place it on another motherboard - just one of the ways VIA is making the motherboards smaller and cheaper, on unnecessary sockets. 1 DDR SDRAM module is supported for modules up to 1GB in size; this is a nice improvement over the SDRAM support of the earlier models. Although this doesn't have much of an affect to the CPU, as the CPU's bus isn't able to take any advantage of the DDR architecture, it's more for convenience of being able to use DDR memory which is in abundance, as opposed to hunting down SDRAM which now costs more than DDR modules.
The motherboard comes equipped with two IDE Busmaster ports for supporting up to four IDE drives, which include CD and HDD. Most Mini-ITX setups use the 2.5" laptop form factor drives, which use the 44 pin connection; it would have been nice to see this port added instead of one of the 40 pin IDE ports, saving on the need for Laptop to 3.5" converters, in the Mini-ITX environment there is little room for extras.
On the plus side is support for Serial ATA and Toshiba and Samsung have just released their 2.5" SATA notebook hard disk drives onto the market which is where SATA on this motherboard will come in handy. SATA Notebook drives use the same power and data connection setup as desktop units, so the simple desktop SATA data and power connectors will work find here, leaving a better cable layout.
One thing that has been removed is the FDD connector. With the ever present demise of the 1.44MB floppy disks in offices these days, it's no wonder that VIA has decided to out the FDD. If you do need to use one, USB Floppy drives can be had for less than $20 USD these days which is a much better alternative anyway.
The back panel of the EPIA SP is not your ordinary ATX layout, simply because this motherboard isn't designed to ATX specifications, though it does use an ATX power supply. On the back you have two PS/2 ports (the purple is for keyboard and green for mouse, as usual). There is another interesting feature which is the Internal PS/2 headers. This is designed so you can install a Wireless keyboard and mouse transmitter within the case, which VIA is looking at implementing very soon. Next you have one 9 pin Com port for external modems or other Serial devices you may have (though they are starting to be very few and far between) however, a lot of modders out there with the technical skills are making their won IR devices that still use COM ports. Under the COM port is a standard D-SUB 15 pin display port for the onboard graphics, VIA still hasn't gone with DVI onboard yet, however, we will get into the other bit of this in a minute.