If you’re in a tinkering mood, VIA’s Artigo A1100 offers a modular, media-slinging PC in a tiny shell.
We generally don’t review do-it-yourself kits here at PCWorld. Our reviews process is comprehensive, and weighing competing machines requires taking the entire package into account. Kits such as the VIA Artigo A1100 throw a wrench into the works. This bare-bones package offers a bit of VIA silicon tucked into a Pico-ITX chassis and a power supply, leaving it up to enterprising users to cobble together a proper PC.
Chances are you aren’t especially familiar with VIA Technologies. In a market dominated by juggernauts Intel and AMD, VIA places a distant third. While Intel and AMD make products that cover a wide range of markets, VIA has historically stuck to the embedded-devices market, selling the chipsets that run in-store displays and the like.
The Artigo A1100 is powered by a 1.2GHz VIA Nano processor, a single-core x86 chip without too much muscle. VIA’s Chrome9 integrated graphics offer hardware-accelerated video decoding (I’ll get to performance results in a bit). You can buy the A1100 kit directly from VIA for $243 (as of August 6, 2010), though shopping around can net you a unit for about $200. Measuring a tiny 5.7 by 3.9 by 2.0 inches, the little tyke will disappear wherever you decide to put it.
On the A1100’s face you’ll find a pair of USB ports, audio and microphone jacks, and a USB-mini port. On the rear are a pair of USB ports, a gigabit ethernet port, a VGA port, and an HDMI port. Optional add-ons include an SD Card reader ($25) and an 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi module ($45).
You’ll need to supply the operating system, a 2.5-inch hard drive, and laptop RAM. A 320GB 2.5-inch hard drive can be had for as little as $50. The A1100 will support a single stick of DDR2 notebook RAM; you can find 2GB for about $45. Finally, tack on an operating system (in our case, Windows XP), and in the end you’re looking at spending close to $500 for an A1100 with all of the trimmings.
Caveats abound. Once you’ve purchased the components, you’ll need to crack the Artigo open to install them. Initially you’ll have seven screws to remove, and all are rather small. Once you’ve made it inside, you’ll find still more screws to contend with, and very little room to maneuver. Installation isn’t difficult, as evinced in VIA’s demonstration videos, but the compact space is still something to consider.
The case is small and light, but feels solid. Alas, it doesn’t do much to dampen sound–the hard drive and case fan are clearly audible while the unit is powered up. You could mitigate the noise by opting for a solid-state drive, but that’ll bump up your cost of entry. The aesthetic appeal is subject to taste: The unit is plain and boxy, but also kind of cute (as improbably small things often are).
Equipped with a 320GB hard drive and 2GB of DDR2-800 memory, the A1100 achieved a WorldBench 6 score of 35–a pretty poor score, but right in line with the marks of Intel Atom-equipped compact PCs that we’ve reviewed. The Acer AspireRevo, for instance, earned a score of 37, while the Asus EeeBox 1501 received a mark of 38. That leaves all three compact systems on a par with what you can expect out of Atom-equipped netbooks.
Though the A1100 ultimately scored a bit lower than the Acer and Asus, it remained fairly competitive. It completed the Microsoft Office productivity portion of our WorldBench 6 test 15 percent faster than the EeeBox 1501, and 17 percent faster than the AspireRevo. Its results on our Windows Media Encoder test were less impressive: The AspireRevo was 12 percent faster, while the EeeBox 1501 was 14 percent faster. These content-creation results aren’t too surprising, though, given the capabilities of nVidia’s Ion integrated graphics.
High-definition media playback is surprisingly good on the A1100–if you temper your expectations. When saddled with 720p media in our tests, the A1100 shone: Playback was smooth, and audio processing was equally crisp.
Once we switched to 1080p material, the results were relatively smooth, but the flaws begin to show. During complex scenes the audio and video would occasionally stutter–nothing too dramatic, but notable enough to dampen the experience. Though nVidia’s Ion platform is the reigning champ in media, Intel’s integrated graphics offerings generally fare worse–the A1100’s decent showing is a mark in VIA’s favor.
Power utilization was also noteworthy: At its peak, the Artigo A1100 pulled in 18.6 watts, dipping down to 12.4 when idle–about the same power draw as a smaller CFL bulb.
Since it’s a do-it-yourself kit, the Artigo A1100 isn’t suited for the average consumer. Generally you can pick up a fully equipped Acer AspireRevo or Dell Inspiron Zino HD for about the same total price.
That being said, you can cut costs on the A1100 tremendously if you skip the optional extras and choose a Linux distribution as your operating system. If you’re especially keen on rolling up your sleeves, cannibalizing a defunct laptop could net you the RAM and hard drive you need to set up a tiny, inexpensive, HD-media streaming hub.
If you’re interested in a fun side project, VIA’s Artigo A1100 has enough muscle to perform as a fairly capable media machine, as well as to tackle light productivity tasks. Investing a bit more cash into the project will net you a more capable unit, but at that point you’ll be edging into the realm of more robust, capable systems that are arguably a better buy.
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