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Monday, June 6, 2011

Foxconn - NT-535

Powerful barebones net-top PC that's let down by its 3D graphics performance
After the craze for netbook computers started to die down - mostly due to the sudden rise in popularity of tablets - manufacturers struggled to find a way to use up their massive oversupply of Intel's low-powered Atom chips. The answer they came up with was the 'net-top.'

Best thought of as a netbook without the screen and battery, nettops aren't designed to replace your main desktop - but they do make a cheap, low-power secondary system you can use to, say, hook up to your TV or stereo to let you browse the web or stream music. At least, that's the sales patter for the Foxconn Nettop NT-535, a bare-bones unit that promises a lot but sometimes struggles to deliver.

Core specification
At its heart, the Foxconn Nettop NT-535 is compact motherboard with an Intel Atom D525 processor embedded. Unlike earlier models, the D525 is a dual-core processor clocked at a reasonably impressive 1.8GHz, and includes Intel's HyperThreading technology to run four simultaneous threads across its two physical processing cores.

That's the good news. The bad news is that, unlike some more expensive net-tops on the market, with the NT-535 Foxconn has chosen to implement the Atom's embedded graphics, the Intel GMA 3150. While this is adequate for 2D tasks, it's really not up to 3D gaming - as our testing rapidly discovered.
Memory and storage are both left up to the buyer, with a single DDR3 800MHz SODIMM slot to fill and room for a 2.5in SATA hard drive. If you need removable storage, there's an integrated card reader which is compatible with MemoryStick, SD, and MMC cards - but a lack of optical drive is something to consider when you're wanting to install an operating system.

Foxconn has been relatively generous with the ports on the NT-535, with the aforementioned card reader, two USB 2.0 ports, and audio input and output ports located at the front, while the rear includes a wired Ethernet port, a digital audio output, VGA and HDMI video outputs, and a further four USB 2.0 ports. Sadly, there's no USB 3.0 support - and eSATA is also missing from the list.

As well as the wired gigabit Ethernet port, there's 802.11b/g/n WiFi included as standard, with a dipole antenna that can be used in a variety of alignments - handy, when you consider the impressive versatility of the box.

The choice is yours
Nobody should think of buying a net-top for power - it's really a case of buying the smallest device that will still function as a computer. To appeal to a buyer's desire for flexibility, Foxconn includes three mounting options as standard on the NT-535.

By default, the unit sits flat on a surface, using either non-slip rubber feet or a set of disappointingly weak magnets. Included in the box is a stand to sit the unit upright as an alternative, although its wide base means a surprisingly large footprint.

The best option, however, is to use the included VESA bracket, which allows the NT-535 to be attached directly to the back of a monitor or HDTV using four screws - creating a remarkably cheap alternative to a 'smart TV' or all-in-one system.

There's one thing to be aware of when positioning the box, however: the design of a nettop does cheat slightly to get the size down to a minimum, by equipping it with a small laptop-style external power supply.

To take the NT-535 through its paces, we inserted a 2GB SODIMM and a 96GB SSD, onto which we installed the 64-bit edition of Windows 7 - but we did encounter a couple of minor niggles.
First was the cheap plastic casing of the device, the top of which is secured by four small screws. Once we'd removed the screws, we found it difficult to get the lid off - eventually having to prise one corner up with a screwdriver in order to get the thing started.

Secondly, it's worth leaving the protective stickers on the casing until you've installed your hardware - otherwise you're more than likely to find that the shiny finish, available in black or white, gets scratched as you work.

With the hardware installed, we reassembled the unit and attached a USB DVD drive to install the operating system. While none of the hardware was supported by default, Foxconn includes a driver CD with a one-click installation process to get you going.

After a quick reboot, the system was up and running - and a sudden burst of Windows start-up music revealed a hidden feature: the NT-535 includes an in-built speaker, activated when there's no external speaker or HDMI cable attached. Whether that's a positive or a negative thing is personal opinion - but it certainly came as a bit of a surprise in the quiet of the lab.

General performance of the NT-535 is good, helped along by the dual-core processor. Internet browsing was smooth, video playback stutter-free, and 2D graphics performance nothing short of perfect.

The same can't be said of the system's 3D performance. Without the benefit of a dedicated accelerator such as Nvidia's Ion, the graphics processor integrated into the Atom architecture is woefully inadequate. Even with the settings at their minimum and the resolution turned right down, we were unable to get playable frame rates on any recent games.

Sadly, the graphics proved to be something of an issue generally: the included software somehow convinced Windows that it was running on a laptop, offering the choice of two displays - an external display and an internal display. Initially, this was set as a dual-display clone function - and it took some convincing before the system would run our single display at its native resolution.

We also installed Ubuntu 11.04 to see how well Foxconn's selection of hardware worked under Linux - and we were pleasantly surprised. All hardware worked immediately, with both wired and wireless networking springing into life with no drivers required.

The build quality of the NT-535 isn't the greatest - and the fan, while quiet, could become annoying in a living room environment - but it's a remarkably powerful machine for the price. Sadly, it is severely limited by its poor graphics performance - especially when it comes to 3D use.

BEST POINT: It's tiny, low power, and runs general-purpose software perfectly.
WORST POINT: The in-built graphics processor is woefully under-powered for 3D tasks.
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