We have been anticipating the arrival of VIA’s latest Mini-ITX mainboard, the SN18000G—a powerhouse of a platform promising a slew of high-end features that are generally seen in Intel-based boards. For instance, the SN18000G has a 1.8GHz processor with a super fast 800 MHz FSB. That is a VIA first, and not to mention, a huge leap from the standard C7 processor having only a 400 MHz FSB. Says Daniel Wu, Assistant Vice President, VIA Embedded Platform Division, “With the VIA EPIA SN-series we have listened to our customers and delivered a number of key technology firsts to the Mini-ITX form factor.”
The Key Technology Firsts
The technology firsts Wu is referring to are (and this is in reference to VIA’s Mini-ITX product line): both PCI Express x16 and Mini PCI (32-bit) slots, the Vista-certified CN896 chipset, VIA Chrome9 HC Integrated Graphics with DirectX 9 support, DDR2 667 memory support, dual SDRAM slots with up to 3.25GB recognizable memory, and 4 SATA (3.0Gb/sec.) onboard connectors. There is also an onboard Trusted Platform Module (TPM), the Infineon SLB9635TT 1.2. I had no idea what this was, and it sounded suspiciously like a Windows Vista thing. Every time I click on a site or download a file, my Windows Vista computer alerts me to the untrustworthiness of the source. I suppose this is a good feature, but I feel like I should be able to make my own decisions. But, after conducting some research, the TPM has nothing to do with Vista sorting out devious content on the Web (as far as I can tell), but it is linked to Windows Vista.
The TPM module is used as part of Vista’s BitLocker Drive Encryption. I won’t get too much into this, mainly because I don’t fully understand it and it’s not incredibly important to what I am talking about. But feel free to read more information on Wikipedia or on Microsoft’s Web site.
VIA is plugging this mainboard as a solution for digital signage and POS applications. Well, being that it does have some nice, new features that lend well to image processing programs, can this board meet the challenge? The answer is: it depends. I have no intention of being misleading by using a flaky comment such as “it depends,” but this is a VIA board, it is low-powered, and despite an 800MHz FSB, it is still a VIA C7 1.8GHz processor. So, it really does depend on the type of application and to what extent you plan to utilize the board. We also haven’t examined the SN to the fullest extent.
Here’s what makes the SN exciting: it is a low-power consumption board (the 1.8GHz processor has a TDP of 15W) with never-before-seen features on a VIA Mini-ITX platform, and it is VIA’s only Vista certified Mini-ITX mainboard.
The Performance: In Brief
The following information is somewhat preliminary, and some users might find varying results. However, this is mainly here to provide a basic idea of how this board performs.
Video: The SN18000G is limited to VGA for video output, so that might eliminate any HD video possibilities. There is an LVDS/DVI module connector, but an add-on module is required. We did run some HD content (just for kicks) at a resolution of 1280 x 720 (5Mb/sec.), but the CPU was maxing out and frames were getting dropped. This was not a desirable outcome. But in its defense, we were running a pretty demanding application and I don’t believe this board was primed for super high-end HD performance, such as running a large billboard in Times Square. We plan to revisit this board in other instances, with smaller resolutions, and we will keep you updated.
When playing AVI files, the board does exceptionally well, even with other applications running in the background. Flash-based files stream smoothly, too, but when being viewed in a Web browser (IE 7), they seem to exert more pressure on the CPU than desired, but this could be a result of IE 7 taking up massive CPU power.
Vista Support: The SN18000G is the first VIA Mini-ITX mainboard with full Vista support. It has the Vista Basic certified CN896 chipset. It has the new VIA Chrome9 HC Integrated Graphics with DirectX 9 support. So, this board does display Vista in all its Aero glory. You get the fancy Windows Flip 3D, the live taskbar thumbnails, and the cool translucent workspaces.
There is one minor setback—the VGA driver is not Vista certified, so a window pops up to scream at you. But, this doesn’t appear to create any issues. And the window can easily be closed.
All in All
The SN18000G mainboard is pretty exciting and can offer a huge range of possibilities. As I mentioned above, it could certainly be used for digital signage applications, but the type of media will need to be taken into consideration before committing this board to a project (so that is why I gave it a “it depends”). We didn’t delve too much into the board, yet, being that it just arrived. So, I am sure there will still be plenty of discovery to report as we begin to test case compatibility.
Just a side note: the board has a CF Type I slot and Mini PCI slot on the bottom. I am not sure how this will affect its compatibility in Mini-ITX chassis. We hope to get it tested in some of our enclosures. We will keep you updated.
Update (1/10/2008) : After doing some testing with this board we have found that it does not fit in most of our chassis, mainly due to the fact that it has the CF slot and Mini PCI slot on the bottom. This creates an issue with the I/O lining up with the backplane of the case. It causes some bowing, even if you place something underneath the board to prevent contact with the bottom of the enclosure. If you place something underneath one side of the board to level it, it causes it to be too high and then you need to press down to have the I/O squeeze into alignment with the case. This is not an ideal situation, especially if you are after long-term durability and performance.
This is pretty unfortunate. We are trying to work with VIA to get this modified, but I can’t guarantee that much will happen. For now, we hear that there is a case that the board will eventually fit into. But, I can’t seem to find that elusive case, and VIA is pretty close-mouthed about it.
The board has a lot of potential. But, it seems for now only those who are designing their own enclosures will benefit from it.
Update (1/21/2008): We have now determined that the SN-series mainboard is compatible with one of our Mini-ITX enclosures. The VoomPC automotive chassis is the only case that we have that is compatible with the SN mainboard.