Not all that long ago VIA introduced a new form factor called Mini-ITX. It was a great idea; a small yet powerful board layout that allowed a decent amount of flexibility. Unfortunately VIA did not have the marketing muscle to get wide acceptance and the idea fell into obscurity. It was not until Intel launched the Atom CPU that we saw a return of the Mini-ITX. The form factor pioneered by VIA was ideal for the small Intel CPUs. We started to see products based on the Atom using the Mini-ITX and Mini-DTX form factors.
However, that was not the end of the Mini-ITX. People began to find out (to their surprise and delight) that the Mini-ITX form factor is also a great platform for the P55 and H5x chipsets. This is due to the reduced power demands from the chipset and the fact that the CPU contains the PCIe lanes for the GPU. Now we are seeing products in this form factor for much more powerful CPUs.
We have one of these tiny boards based on the H55 chipset from GIGABYTE in our lab for some testing. This board retails for only $104.99 from NewEgg.com, but still manages to pack in some great features. Let's get on with the testing.
The Box and What's Inside
Package and Contents
As you might imagine the box the H55N-USB arrived in was very small. Although I knew the board was going to be tiny, for some reason I still expected a much bigger box. It was very odd to see this miniature box with all of the same marketing information jammed onto the front and back of the box. It was almost comical...
But if the outside of the box was funny, what was inside was certainly not. The H55N-USB3 fit snugly down inside the box. There was a layer of media on top and all of the peripheral connectivity pieces were underneath.
One thing I found funny was the included PATA cable, as there is no PATA port. There is really no need to have this cluttering up the box.
This warning label is to remind everyone that you have to have a Clarkdale based CPU to get use of the video out components of the board.
This will be one of the shortest walk-arounds we have done. The board is simply tiny; on its longest side it is only 6.5 Inches. The designers had to stuff all of the workings of an H55 Motherboard (VRMs, Chokes, and Caps etc) onto this tiny little piece of real estate.
Looking at the board we are quickly reminded that it is not a traditional layout. For starters the SATA ports are the top of the board with the front panel header. The CPU and the chipset seem to have been flip-flopped.
This flip-flop has placed the CPU very close to the single PCIe slot on the board. This negates the use of many oversized heatsinks. But there is more to the CPU placement issue than we see on the surface. We took a look at the underside of the board and found that there are components VERY close to the mounting holes. This is due to the very small size of the board (these are needed components that have to go somewhere). Their placement means that many coolers will simply not work. Our normal Cooler Master Hyper 212+ would not work at all. We had to count on a Thermalright 1156 cooler but even that extended out over the PCIe slot.
On the extreme side some coolers can even block both the RAM and the PCIe slots. Choose your cooler carefully when you start thinking about getting this board.
Looking at the top of the board we find the things we would normally find at the bottom of the board. The H55 Express chipset, the SATA ports, the USB and front panel headers... it is all very odd.
The front panel audio header is very cramped, but this is to make room for the power regulation for the board. We also can see the NEC USB 3.0 controller in this shot.
The I/O ports are fairly mundane. You find the typical VGA out that would exist on any other H55 board, as well as Audio, USB and PS/2 ports. The USB 3.0 ports are probably the only thing that is a little out of the usual. As more boards popup with these, they will be less so.
GIGABYTE has packed quite a bit into a very small space. It will be interesting to see how it performs with everything loaded up.
BIOS and Overclocking
Despite its small size the H55N-USB3 has a very complete BIOS. When you get into the BIOS you are greeted by the now familiar M.I.T pages. GIGABYTE has developed these pages to make sure that you get the most information on each page.
Now this is a laudable goal, but it does cause some moving around to find things when you are overclocking. For reference there is a single page with all of the current CPU information on it. It is nice to be able to view it, but it is not of much use when you are trying to get the CPU going.
To get into the meat of the clock settings, your first stop should be the Advanced Frequency Settings page. Here on a single page you can find most of the options you need to adjust the BCLK, ratio, GPU clock, etc. You can also change some of the core CPU features like HyperThreading and Turbo mode by drilling down into the ADV CPU core Features menu.
Other pages cover the memory settings and basic voltage controls.
The rest of the pages deal with the usual peripherals that are attached to the system.
For our overclocking tests with the H55N-USB3 we used the EasyTune 6 software and ran the QuickBoost. This got us to a great starting point to push things further. However, no matter what we did we were not able to get much higher than a 162MHz BCLK (QuickBoost ran us up to 160MHz). We ended up with a stable clock of 162x25 (4.212GHz). This is somewhat behind our lab record for this CPU.
You can see the validation for the Core i5 661 and the H55N-USB3 here.
As all overclocking results are dependent on the hardware you use, your results may vary. Results of our overclocking tests are included in the performance section with the stock scores.
The EasyTune software is nice, but it can be a little complex for the first time overclocker.
when you open the utility it takes you to the Tuner; here you have three basic options for a quick OC to get things rolling. You can choose to switch out of that to get more control over the clock you are looking to get.
On the easy page you can change the BLCK only while on the Advanced page you get considerably more room to play.
There is more to see in EasyTune 6. The first tab gives you the same read out that CPUz would. These tie in with the memory information on the memory tab.
You can also change the options for GB's smart fans. There is also a fairly nice hardware monitor.
Important Editor Note: Our maximum overclocking result is the best result we managed in our limited time of testing the motherboard. Due to time constraints we weren't able to tweak the motherboard to the absolute maximum and find the highest possible FSB, as this could take days to find properly. We do however spend at least a few hours overclocking every motherboard to try and find the highest possible overclock in that time frame. You may or may not be able to overclock higher if you spend more time tweaking or as new BIOS updates are released. "Burn-in" time might also come into play if you believe in that.
Test System Setup and Comments
We would like to thank the following companies for supplying and supporting us with our test system hardware and equipment ASROCK, AMD, Kingston and Cooler Master and Sceptre.
As we have mentioned more than once already, the H55N-USB3 is a small board. As such, it was a bit of a pain to work with. Installation of normal items like the cooler, RAM and even the HD5870 GPU were a little more difficult because of the cramped space. Once we had things installed they worked without problems.
The new Driver installation program is a pretty big improvement. When you install the board level drivers it asks you if you want to install the utilities as well. This saves a good deal of time looking for things if you want a quick setup (which we did).
One of the items that were installed was Smart6. This is a handy little application that gives you quick access to some excellent features.
Some of these are very self-explanatory; others need a little more detail.
The Smart Quick Boot allows you to speed up the time it takes to boot the system into Windows. You have options to shorten the BIOS post of the OS load. We did not test these out during our testing but they look very intriguing
The Smart Recorder and TimeLock are both parental control type features that we found to be very well thought out. With Smart Recorder you can record when the system is on or off and what files are accessed. You cannot track e-mails or messenger conversations but it is still a start.
Smart TimeLock allows you to specify what times the system can be accessed, and to limit the amount of time spent on the system during those periods. So you could allow a 4 hour window, but only allow one hour of time. It is a nice utility for a parent that wants to limit the amount of time spent at the computer. To use either of these you will need to setup a password first (to keep the kids out).
The last of the items is the Smart Recover; this is not much more than a backup system that allows you to go back in time and restore the system to a previous point. It is much like the system restore found in windows already.
Synthetic Tests - Part I
With any system you will want to see a combination of synthetic testing and real-world. Synthetics give you a static, easily repeatable testing method that can be compared across multiple platforms. For our synthetic tests we use Everest Ultimate, Sisoft Sandra, FutureMark's 3DMark Vantage and PCMark Vantage, Cinebench as well as HyperPi. Each of these covers a different aspect of performance or a different angle of a certain type of performance.
Memory is a big part of current system performance. In most systems slow or flaky memory performance will impact almost every type of application you run. To test memory we use a combination of Sisoft Sandra, Everest and HyperPi 0.99.
Version and / or Patch Used: 2010c 1626
Developer Homepage: http://www.sisoftware.net
Product Homepage: http://www.sisoftware.net
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The memory performance on the diminutive H55N was about what you would get from other H55 bases systems and also about what you would expect from AMD's 8xx chipsets. The size of the H55N-USb3 has not hurt it here.
Version and / or Patch Used: 5.30.1983
Developer Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com
Product Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com
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Everest Ultimate is a suite of tests and utilities that can be used for system diagnostics and testing. For our purposes here we use their memory bandwidth test and see what the theoretical performance is.
Everest tells the same tale. The memory performance showing from both Sandra and Everest could be good news for the rest of our testing.
Version and / or Patch Used: 0.99
Developer Homepage: www.virgilioborges.com.br
Product Homepage: www.virgilioborges.com.br
Download It Here
HyperPi is a front end for SuperPi that allows for multiple concurrent instances of SuperPi to be run on each core recognized by the system. It is very dependent on CPU to memory to HDD speed. The faster these components, the faster it is able to figure out the number Pi to the selected length.
For our testing we use the 32M run. This means that each of the four physical and four logical cores for the i7 and the four physical cores of the i5 is trying to calculate the number Pi out to 32 million decimal places. Each "run" is a comparative to ensure accuracy and any stability or performance issues in the loop mentioned above will cause errors in calculation.
The GIGABYTE H55N-USB3 gives a great showing here. We see performance that out performs some of the other boards even though they are overclocked.
Synthetic Tests - Part II
Disk Drive Controller
The system drive controller is an important part of system performance. In most modern boards your drive controller will run off of the PCI-e bus. The PCI-e bus performance can be affected by poor trace layout as well as many other design choices that show up on different boards.
For testing we use Sisoft's Sandra and Everest.
Wow; now we see the reason for the HyperPi performance. With the combination of great memory speed and great HDD performance we can hope to see some excellent results in the rest of our testing.
Everest confirms our Sandra findings. This showing could impact future tests like AutoGK, PCMark Vantage and Lightwave unless the CPU ends up being the bottleneck.
Synthetic Tests - Part III
Here is where we dig out the FutureMark tests.
Version and / or Patch Used: 18.104.22.168
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/
Product Homepage: www.futuremark.com
Buy It Here
For overall system performance we use PCMark Vantage. This is run in both x86 and x64 mode to give the best indication of performance.
Well, we thought that things were going to be great across the board. Unfortunately in our first test we see the H55N-USB3 lagging a little behind the competition. It honestly looks like this is the fault of the GPU, as once we dropped in the HD5870 the system took back off and passed the others in the group.
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0.1
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/
Product Homepage: www.futuremark.com
Buy It Here
For synthetic gaming tests we used the industry standard and overlockers bragging tool 3DMark Vantage. This is a test that strives to mimic the impact modern games have on a system. Futuremark went a long way to change from the early days of graphics driven tests to a broader approach including physics, AI and more advanced graphics simulations.
3DMark Vantage uses the DX10 API in addition to having support for PhysX. As we are no longer using an NVIDIA GPU for testing (at least until we can get a GTX 4xx card) you will only see the CPU based PhysX results in the scores. For testing we use the Performance test run.
The results here are not surprising. The leaders here are boards that had the AMD Phenom II X6 in them and the HD5870. Still, the H55N-USB3 does excellent for the CPU we used.
Cinebench R11.5 x64
Version and / or Patch Used: R11.5 x64
Developer Homepage: http://www.maxon.net/
Product Homepage: www.maxon.net
Download It Here
Cinebench is a synthetic rendering tool developed by Maxon. Maxon is the same company that developed Cinema4D, another industry leading 3D Animation application. Cinebench R11.5 tests your systems ability to render across a single and multiple CPU cores. It also tests your systems ability to process OpenGL information.
Again the results here are not surprising. The Core i5 661 is not really a CPU meant for complex rendering, but it is still a little sad to see if so far behind.
Real-World Tests - Part I
Real-world testing allows us to see how well a product will perform when used in the same manner as it would be in your house or office. It is an important side to performance testing as it can uncover hidden glitches in the way a product performs.
This is especially true when testing a mainboard; there are so many components of a board that have to interact that any problems between parts can cause a failure of the whole.
For real-world testing we use some common applications and functions. We test with LightWave 3D for rendering performance, AutoGK for transcoding from DVD to AVI and two games for gaming testing.
Rendering of 3D Animation is a system intensive endeavor. You need a good CPU, memory and HDD speed to get good rendering times. For our testing we use LightWave 3D. This software from Newtek is an industry standard and has several pre-loaded scenes for us to use.
Version and / or Patch Used: 9.6
Developer Homepage: http://www.newtek.com
Product Homepage: http://www.newtek.com/lightwave/
Buy It Here
Again we see the H55N-USB3 does well for a 4 thread Intel CPU (when stacked up against the six core Phenom II 1090T). Then again, it is doubtful that anyone would be using the Core i5 661 for Lightwave 4k rendering.
Version and / or Patch Used: 2.55
Developer Homepage: http://www.autogk.me.uk/
Product Homepage: http://www.autogk.me.uk/
Download It Here
AutoGK stands for Auto Gordian Knot; it is a suite of transcoding tools that are compiled into an easy to install and use utility. It allows you to transcode non-protected DVDs and other media to Xvid or Divx format. For our testing purposes we use a non-DRM restricted movie that is roughly 2 hours in length. This is transcoded to a single Xvid AVI at 100% quality.
The H55N-USB3 did outstanding for our AutoGK testing. It was well ahead of most of the pack at stock speeds and then came in right behind the leader (which was using a six core CPU) when overclocked.
Real-World Tests - Part II
Here we have our real gaming tests. Each of the games we chose use multiple cores and GPUs. They are able to stress the system through use of good AI. Both have decent positional audio that adds impact to the sound subsystem of the board. We ran each game through the level or parts listed and recorded frames per second using FRAPS. This brings the whole game into play.
As most IGPs are not meant for high-end gaming we have swapped out one of our First Person Shooters for a more mainstream game. We have also adjusted down the testing resolution from 1920x1200 to 1280x960. In order to keep full measure of the board we return to 1920x1200 when we test the board with our HD 5870.
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0
Timedemo or Level Used: Ten Minutes of Game Play in Sunset Valley
Developer Homepage: http://www.ea.com/
Product Homepage: http://www.thesims3.com/
The SIMS 3 is the third complete edition of this popular game. In it you create a personality for use in a virtual world. The town we chose was Sunset Valley, we created a basic character and off we went. We performed as many actions as we were able to in order to give the board and GPU as much to think about as we could. The settings we used are shown below.
The SIMS 3 testing has returned us back to reality. With the HD GMA the game was not playable. While you could easily drop in a discrete GPU and things would be okay, it is still disappointing to see this level of performance.
Far Cry 2
Version and / or Patch Used: V1.00
Timedemo or Level Used: Clearing the Safe house through to the Rescue
Developer Homepage: http://www.ubi.com
Product Homepage: http://farcry.us.ubi.com
Far Cry 2 is a large sandbox style game. There are no levels here so as you move about the island you are on you do not have to wait for the "loading" sign to go away. It is mission driven so each mission is what you would normally think of as the next "level".
In the game you take the role of a mercenary who has been sent to kill the Jackal. Unfortunately, your malaria kicks in and you end up being found by him. Long story short, you become the errand boy for a local militia leader and run all over the island doing his bidding. The settings we used for testing are shown below.
Another disappointing showing from the HD GMA. This is not the fault of the board directly but will still affect your ability to play games.
As usual, we have shown that the HD GMA is not meant for high end gaming. This is not the fault of the board as the GPU is bolted onto the CPU is the culprit. The H55N-USB3 can game fairly well once you drop in a better GPU.
Power Usage and Heat Tests
We are now able to find out what kind of power is being used by our test system and the associated graphics cards installed. Keep in mind; this tests the complete system (minus LCD monitor, which is plugged directly into an AC wall socket).
Looks like the small size of the H55N-USB3 helps it to draw less power. Even while overclocked it draws much less than the full-sized boards since there is less to power on this board.
As a new measure, we are now monitoring the heat generation from the key components on the motherboard; this being the Northbridge, Southbridge (if it contains one) as well as the Mosfets around the CPU. The results are recorded at idle and load during the power consumption tests.
Here, the small size of the H55N-USB3 works against it. The small area means smaller cooling on the chipset. There is also much less chance of getting air around the chipset.
What to think of the GIGABYTE H55N-USB3? It is small; very tiny to be honest. Still, this is also a very capable board. We were extremely impressed with the performance of the board even given the consumer level CPU in it.
Even with the performance we noted there were some issues. The size of the board is a problem all on its own. Unless you plan on water-cooling (which still may be an issue) or are willing to use the stock round cooler that comes with the lower end Intel CPUs you could find yourself in trouble with both RAM and discrete GPUs.
On the other side, the H55N-USB3 is $104.99 from NewEgg.com and performs like boards that cost much more. It really is a toss-up on what to think about this product. I think overall that I like the H55N-USB3. I like it for the novelty of its size, the anomaly of its impressive performance, and the reasonable cost. I can see this finding its way into one of the new Mini-ITX cases with a full sized PSU, Faster CPU (like a Core i5 750) and a beefy GPU strapped on. Hmmmm, maybe that is something we should think about; but that is for another article. For now, we can and will highly recommend the GIGABYTE H55N-USB3.