VIA EPIA EX - Mini-ITX at the next level

VIA is finally back in the labs with a look at their EPIA EX motherboard with C7 1.5GHz low power processor onboard!
| Jun 13, 2007 at 11:00 pm CDT
Rating: 90%Manufacturer: VIA

Introduction

IntroductionIt is really no secret that VIA has been in quite a bit of hot water but not always in a bad way either. At the beginning of the Coppermine CPU craze, VIA can be thanked for keeping us from having to use that dreaded memory that starts with "R", RAMBUS. If VIA had not pushed SDRAM to 133MHz with support on its Apollo 133 and 133A chipsets, who knows where memory technology would be today, possibly well in the hands of the RAMBUS company.Not only this, but VIA also helped see the downfall of the Intel empire when the Athlon first emerged. When the i820 chipset was exposed for what it was (a complete disaster) and AMD had free reign to start selling its CPU, as Intel's big threats of pushing up the price of i820 to companies who supported the AMD CPU fell to the ground with a giant thud. VIA's KX133 chipset, the only one apart from AMD's own buggy Irongate 750 to support the Slot A Athlon CPU, VIA was reeling in the profits for these sales, and with a solid back bone, KT133, the Socket A version managed to come to the market with a bang. DDR made its way into the Athlon realm and VIA was the first to market with its KT266 chipset to support DDR on the Athlon platform. KT266A come out to fix a few bugs as well as support the higher FSB that AMD had moved to but this is where things got sourer for VIA. Chipsets came out left and right, KT333, KT333A, KT400, KT400A all came out within the space of two years - all were very buggy and had little to gain over each other, that and the fact that nVidia has its nForce 2 out saw VIA fall quite far in the chipset market.While this might have caused quite a bit of concern, VIA was already pushing into other areas. They had purchased the S3 graphics company to produce their IGP based chipsets as well as buying out the Cyrix company, who produced some of the budget Socket 7 processors when Pentium MMX was in its day.About when AMD moved it its K8 series, VIA stopped looking to become the leader in chipset technology and focused on internal products such as its processor line, which started with the C3 and quite popular as the ultimate budget setup. Requiring very little power, the C3 saw its way into VIA's own mini-ITX setups - a 17x17cm motherboard, with everything you could want onboard. This started the portable media PC craze that spawned a huge amount of computers installed into cars across the globe. The EPIA branded motherboard has been selling like hotcakes and now we are moving into the next generation of motherboards from VIA with new chipsets and a brand new CPU designed by VIA's division at Centaur in Austin, Texas.Today we are looking at the EPIA-EX motherboard based around the CX700M2 chipset and VIA's new C7 processor.

Specifications

Specifications of the VIA EPIA-EXCPUVIA C7 1.5GHz "Esther" CoreChipsetVIA Single Chip CX700M2System Memory1 DDR2 SDRAM 240pin DIMM SocketsSupports DDR2-400/533MHz64bit Single ChannelSupports up to 2GB Total Memory Bus Frequency100MHz Internal400MHz ExternalVIA V4 BusExpansion Slots1 PCI SlotConnectivity1 Parallel ATA port supporting 2 IDE Drives2 Serial ATA ports1 VT6107 Ethernet PortRear Expansion Ports1 DVI connector1 RJ45 with USB stack 2.0 connector1 miniDIN for S-Video output1 Triple RCA jack for composite video and stereo audio outputs1 Triple RCA jack for component video output1 S/PDIF coaxial connector1 S/PDIF Toslink connector Internal Headers2 USB pin connector for 4 additional USB 2.0 ports1 1394 pin connector for 1 1394 port1 Front-panel audio header for HP-out and MIC-in1 Audio Line-in header1 LPC header1 LVDS connector to support 1-CH LVDS panel1 TV out header for SCART and D-terminal (Optional) 1 CCIR656/601 video input and SMBUS1 PS2 mouse/keyboard header2 SATA connectors2 Fan pin connectors for CPU and System fans1 ATX power connector

VIA's new CPU

VIA's C7 processorBefore we start on the motherboard, we want to give a bit more information on VIA's new combo that has come out to produce the EPIA-EX motherboard - namely the CPU and chipset.
VIA's latest CPU to enter the market is the new C7 series. Currently there are three variants - C7, C7-D and C7-M - all of which have their own targeted markets. First off the C-D is VIA's green CPU. Supposedly it is carbon free based CPU, making it more earth friendly, it only varies in its carbon free design compared to the C7.C7-M is the mobile version which is specifically targeted at notebook computers and ultra portable devices, running cooler with less core voltage needed. C7 is the desktop version, while it uses more juice then the C7-M it is by far the most energy efficient x86 CPU out.
C7 is designed from the ground up, this is VIA's first fully built design. C3 was built on the original Cyrix technology that was released for Socket 7, only slightly updated to use the Intel P6 bus. VIA C7 is a new design that houses a single full speed floating point unit which is a lot better than the previous C3 processor's half speed unit. Added to this is a full array of MMX, SSE, SSE2 and even Intel's SSE3 technology for multimedia decoding on chip. This allows the CPU to run all of the latest applications that use the Intel SSE3 instruction set, unfortunately VIA has left out AMD's 3DNow and 3DNow+ technology which would have made it a truly universal processor. C7 adds VIA's new Step Ahead technology suite. To put it down, Step Ahead is a series of branch prediction instructions and software on the CPU to predict frequently accessed data to allow quicker access to certain programs on the system, this come in handy for the digital home and office environments where prediction is a lot easier than with gaming. The C7 also gets an increased pipeline, up from 10 stages on the C3 to a 16 stage pipeline - that is two stages more than the Pentium M series had from Intel.Lastly VIA's V4 bus may sound new, and in fact it is for VIA - it is the first time they have used this bus, however V4 is simply another name for the Intel FSB used on the Pentium 4's and Pentium-M CPU. Currently the C7 uses a 100MHz quad-pumped bus (or 400MHz QDR) which is the same as what the original Pentium 4's came out with - it does give the VIA CPU a lot more bandwidth to play with over its C3 counterpart.VIA have plans to increase the bus speed to 533MHz and 800MHz with its next generation of C7. This is all made possible thanks to VIA sticking with the Silicon On Insulator 90nm CPU die, same as what AMD Athlon 64 uses for its current processors. And while AMD is going to move to 65nm process very soon, VIA is still able to get better power results out of its C7 than AMD could ever hope for on the K8 or K10 architectures.

VIA's new CX700M2 chipset

VIA's new CX700M2 chipsetNow it is down to the new baby that VIA is paring its C7 series of CPU with.
CX700M2 is the latest updated chipset to come from VIA. You will notice it is a single chip solution. Space constraints on the Mini-ITX format means that saving space is the name of the game. Previously VIA had to add a North and South bridge chip to the mix, meaning less space for other devices. While the CX700M2 is larger by design, it takes up less PCB space as there is no North to Southbridge interconnect traces needed, all devices pier off from the single Northbridge, which is by far the best design.CX700M2 has support for VIA's V4 bus which can be used at 400MHz, 533MHz or 800MHz, so its capable of supporting not only the C7 range but also older Pentium 4, Pentium-D, Celeron-D and Pentium-M processors from Intel.Memory support for the chipset is very flexible. VIA has integrated both a DDR and DDR-2 memory controller into the single chip design. DDR is on its way out now, as very few systems now even support this, AMD K8 is now DDR-2 and Intel is DDR-2 and DDR-3. VIA has support for DDR-333 or 400MHz modules or 400MHz and 533 MHz DDR-2 memory, depending on what controller is used. The chip only incorporates a single channel memory bus, so it is 64-bit. This is one of the draw backs as the CPU is able to access the memory at high speeds thanks to the V4 bus, and with the UMA nature of the graphics system, 64-bit memory channel is quite restrictive. While the channel width is small, the amount of system memory you can use is up to a total of 2GB, much better than the 1GB previous limitations on the EPIA motherboards.As mentioned, the CX700M2 has integrated graphics thanks to VIA's acquisition of S3 Graphics, who have been building IGP based chipsets for VIA now for over five years. S3's latest IGP creation, the UniChrome Pro II IGP has been selected to go on the CX700M2's die. This IGP is based on the aging AGP bus, something we would like to see disappear, as AGP is not very efficient for UMA based setups, as there is limited bandwidth to use for data and memory transfers. VIA UniChrome Pro II has a separate 128-bit data path between the North Bridge for pixel data flow and texture/command access. It also has separate 128-bit 2D and 3D graphics engines much like today's high-end graphics cards, allowing for different clock speed at 2D and 3D operations, allowing even further voltage reductions when at 2D and idle states. VIA's IGP engine operates at 200MHz (quite slow compared to ATI's 690G engine or even nVidia's GeForce 6150 engine), however these are in a totally different league, this engine is designed for maximum energy saving.While saving energy it also saves CPU time by integrating three decoder engines to the chip. MPEG2, MPEG4 and WMV9 media are all decoded on the IGP rather than the CPU, this allows for a much smoother playback of DVD and DIVX movies as well as any movies encoded using WMV9 codec's. VIA also incorporates a High Definition Digital Video path to allow High Def content to be processed outside the CPU and on the IGP, again saving more CPU time. Since the C7 is not a power house compared to the AMD K8 or Intel Core 2, it needs as much help as it can get and CX700M2's graphics engine sure helps out a lot. Another interesting feature is that VIA also adds a dedicated path for adding in a video input chip for video capture if it is required - a great feature for HTPC.VIA has simply taken the VT8237R Southbridge and placed it into the same die but with an updated audio codec system for 8 channel audio. This gives you the option of having a single IDE port and two SATA ports for mass media connectivity, four PCI slots total (the EPIA EX only has a single slot), VIA Vinyl HD audio, VIA 10/100 Ethernet as well as the traditional LPC goodies.

Motherboard and Package

Motherboard and Package
VIA's package box is extremely small, it is not much over 17cm by 17cm in size and that is because the motherboard is so small. VIA has gone green for its EPIA box work - all EPIA motherboards are shipped in the same box.
The back, that is plain Jane - no pictures, info, model number... nothing. This is how VIA keeps some of the costs down for its motherboards, a single box design for all EPIA Mini-ITX motherboards, just shove stickers on it for basic info.
For the extras in the box, there is very little - only a quick install pamphlet is included with very basic info for motherboard setup, a single IDE cable and an I/O shield. No SATA data or power converters and no extra USB expansion brackets. However this is not such a bad thing as most Mini-ITX cases have all the extra expansion ports on them, so VIA gets off the hook for this part, although a SATA data cable would have been nice, since this motherboard does support SATA.
Compared to the ATX 30x24cm design, this is a baby at 17x17cm - extremely small but packed to the brim with features. In terms of layout because of its extremely cool running nature, running cables though the system is not a problem, as it doesn't interfere with cooling, a small fan is required for the 1.5GHz CPU model but 1GHz models run fanless as they generate far less heat.VIA has done quite well though on placement of ports and expansion connectors, especially given the space constraints that Mini-ITX entails. The motherboard only requires a 20-pin power connector, reducing the size of the power connector allows it to fit at the top of the motherboard on the left hand side near the CPU. Mini-ITX cases have the PSU at the back so this means less cables being run around the motherboard. The IDE port is located at the bottom of the motherboard behind the single DDR-2 memory slot. That is right; this motherboard is DDR-2 complaint up to 533MHz. The two SATA ports sit below the heatsink that cools both the CPU and chipset.
VIA does not need much in the way of power regulation as the CPU draws a maximum of 12 watts of energy, so in total the system may draw 15 watts under extreme conditions. The CPU gets 2 phase voltage regulation, and since VIA does not support overclocking on its CPU; there is no need to worry about extra power requirements as they will not be required here.

Motherboard Continued

Motherboard Continued
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!

BIOS

BIOS
VIA's EPIA-EX motherboard uses the Award Modular BIOS we are all familiar with. It is a straight forward BIOS that looks just like any other, you may think you have overclocking options due to the Frequency/Voltage Menu but you are sadly mistaken - under it are three options for spread spectrum and PCI clock Auto Detect.
The only other option under here is for DRAM control and there are no voltages or overclocking options available, this motherboard is NOT designed for the hardcore overclocker, if you brought it for this reason you are going to be sadly disappointed.
Our sample from VIA was the EPIA EX with the 1.5GHz Esther based C7 CPU with 128K L1 and 128K L2 cache.

Benchmarks - Test System Setup and Memory Performance

EPIA Test SystemProcessor: VIA C7 1.5GHzMemory: 1x 1GB DDR2-1066 Corsair (Supplied by Corsair)Hard Disk: 500GB Seagate 7200.9 SATA-II (Supplied by Seagate)Graphics Card: IGP onboard Cooling: Onboard coolingOperating System: Microsoft Windows XP Professional SP2Drivers: VIA UniChrome Pro II IGP, VIA Hyperion and DX9cAMD Sempron Test SystemProcessor: AMD Sempron 2800+ Socket 754Motherboard: Albatron KI51PV-754 (Supplied by Albatron)Memory: 1x 1GB DDR-800 Corsair (Supplied by Corsair)Hard Disk: 500GB Seagate 7200.9 SATA-II (Supplied by Seagate)Graphics Card: Onboard IGPCooling: Gigabyte NeonK8 (Supplied by Gigabyte)Operating System: Microsoft Windows XP Professional SP2Drivers: nVidia Platform Driver 9.53, ForceWare 93.71 and DX9cToday we pitted two Mini-ITX motherboards against each other.First off the VIA EPIA EX motherboard against our car PC motherboard, the Albatron KI51PV-754 designed to use any Socket 754 based AMD K8 CPU and running a Sempron 2800+ CPU and 1GB of DDR SDRAM.While you may think this in an unfair battle, we are not testing gaming here; we are testing its HTPC and office usage capabilities.Let us get this show on the road and see if the EPIA EX can continue to impress us as we enter the all important benchmarks.EVEREST Ultimate EditionVersion and / or Patch Used: 2006Developer Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com Product Homepage: http://www.lavalys.comBuy It Here
EVEREST Ultimate Edition is an industry leading system diagnostics and benchmarking solution for enthusiasts PC users, based on the award-winning EVEREST Technology. During system optimizations and tweaking it provides essential system and overclock information, advanced hardware monitoring and diagnostics capabilities to check the effects of the applied settings. CPU, FPU and memory benchmarks are available to measure the actual system performance and compare it to previous states or other systems.
Normally we only do memory performance with Everest but it is an all round system test, we did our memory and two CPU tests to see just how well the C7 did in the synthetic side of things.Both memory tests put the Sempron right out in front due to its on die memory controller. VIA has to use the CPU bus to communicate with memory, looking at the Everest scores compared to the highest clocked C3, memory performance has doubled on the C7.CPU wise we were quite surprised at how well the C7 is able to perform, again compared to the C3 on the charts it is extremely good.

Benchmarks - PCMark

PCMarkVersion and / or Patch Used: 2005 1.2.0Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.comProduct Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/pcmark04/Buy It Here
PCMark is a multipurpose benchmark, suited for benchmarking all kinds of PCs, from laptops to workstations, as well as across multiple Windows operating systems. This easy-to-use benchmark makes professional strength benchmarking software available even to novice users. PCMark consists of a series of tests that represent common tasks in home and office programs. PCMark also covers many additional areas outside the scope of other MadOnion.com benchmarks.
Unfortunately VIA's EPIA EX motherboard with its CX700M2 does not support Pixel Shader 2.0 operations so it was unable to do a graphics test and get a final score, but we did include the CPU, Memory and HDD scores.Again AMD's Sempron is able to kill it in all three thanks to its hotter operating and less power efficient K8 architecture.

Benchmarks - Video Playback Tests

MPEG-2 Playback TestOur MPEG-2 playback tests were done using CyberLink Power DVD version 7 with Video Acceleration enabled to get the best possible video quality. Playing back a documentary on the making of a movie (not going to say which nerdy movie it is), we measured with Throttle Watch over the course of a 20 minute documentary the average CPU usage as well as describe how the playback went, for a real-world summary.
VIA's CX700M2 chipset with its hardware MPEG-2 decoder engine really lightened the CPU load, in fact its down to the same level as that of the Sempron CPU.Our thoughts were very good, the system played back without any lag, no stuttering audio or video; there were no skipped frames at all.MPEG-4 Playback TestMPEG-4 playback was done with Media Player 11. We used the same MPEG-2 video that was encoded to DivX 6.4 with our regular test bed so we could have the same 20 minutes run. Again Throttle Watch was used to measure the CPU usage over the 20 minutes and give us a percentage.
Here we got a huge surprise, CX700M2 also has an MPEG-4 decoder and it works to perfection.In fact, it kept the CPU usage down quite a long way, right up with the Sempron CPU.

Benchmarks - Video Capture Tests

Hardware Video Capture TestUsing the Hauppauge TV Tuner card we recorded a 20 minute video documentary from a VHS video. We again used Throttle Watch to record the CPU usage under this exercise.
Using the hardware based capture we had no problems with the EPIA EX setup - CPU usage we down to an acceptable level to avoid jumping when encoding, and thanks to a fast SATA HDD there was plenty of speed for the system to dump the recordings straight to the HDD without tying up the system memory too much.Software Video Capture TestThis time we ran the same VHS video though the USB based TV tuner to see what happens if you went an external TV tuner option or used a PCI based one that has no hardware encode options. Throttle Watch again was used for CPU measurements.
CPU usage went through the roof here.While the CX700M2 has DivX and MPEG-2 hardware decoding capabilities, it has no encoding abilities and it relies on the CPU to do this fully.Watching the movie without recording was fine, but when recording, the picture jumped and the audio stuttered, when played back, it was extremely jumpy and audio was well out of sync with what video was recorded. The AMD system also has some jumps but VIA's setup really suffered.

Benchmarks - HDD Performance

HD TachVersion and / or Patch Used: 3.0.1.0Developer Homepage: http://www.simplisoftware.comProduct Homepage: http://www.simplisoftware.com/Public/index.php?request=HdTach

Last updated: Apr 7, 2020 at 12:26 pm CDT

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