Lately, fruity companies as well as semiconductor analysts all talked about the "Post PC" era and yet once more banged the "PC is Dead" drum. For a market growing at least 17-19% a year, this is just typical "load of" we have to hear about.
Sapphire Edge HD – Mini PC based on Intel Atom N510 CPU and nVidia ION 2 GPU
However, there is just one truth out there – technology improves and gadgets get smaller. The one area that this axiom has passed over for the most part is the desktop PC. Performance has consistently improved, however the overall size of desktops has remained fairly constant.
Sapphire would like to change that with the introduction of the Sapphire Mini PC Edge-HD. As you might have guessed, the Edge is a small PC, in this case very small, and the HD addendum to the end of the name is there to highlight this little PC’s High Definition display capabilities. Sapphire has also placed the Edge on a pretty strict power diet with claims that the PC tops out a 22W under load, an almost unbelievable feat in today’s era of quadruple-digit PSU wattage ratings and video cards consuming somewhere in the 250W range.
Sapphire is quite proud of their diminutive offering, touting the Edge as the "smallest PC in the world" and calls it "one of the Greenest PC solutions available". Pretty strong claims for such a pint-sized product, but what else would we expect from PR and Marketing right? We plan to put the Edge through its paces and see how well it lives up to those claims, and also answer a few other questions, such as does anyone really need a PC this small?
Sapphire Edge HD: Packaging comes with everything that you might need for connecting the computer with peripherals. We find the USB-DVD swap highly desirable, as the time of optical media is slowly coming to an end.
First things first, let’s take a look at the packaging. The outer box is standard computer industry fare, full color imagery along with a boatload of product/technology logos. Upon opening the outer box it is quickly evident that Sapphire did their homework when it comes to the interior packaging. You remove a small cardboard sleeve filled with foam to find the Edge itself, nestled inside its antistatic bag in a custom cut soft foam block. Below the Edge and its protective foam we find the power brick, various connectors, USB Key, manual and system stand.
The Edge does not have an internal power supply; instead it receives its power from a laptop-style power brick. In the case of our review sample, our Edge arrived with a European plug which turned out to be a simple issue to rectify as I merely used the American plug from my own laptop’s power brick and we were in business – these days, practically all the power supplies are all rated 100-240V, and plugging a different connector is all that you need. Gone are the days of loud bangs, thankfully. The remaining two connectors in the accessory compartment are video connectors; an HDMI to DVI adapter as well as an HDMI cable.
The manual is little more than a quick start guide, or as it’s printed on the manual in Engrish, "Quickly Install Guide". The included Sapphire-branded USB key contains necessary system drivers should you choose to install a Windows variant on the mini PC.
Small size is great and all but exactly what features are packed into this small package? First off, the unit ships with FreeDOS, so if you are looking for a Windows experience, you will need to bring your own. Just like laptops on many emerging markets are shipped with FreeDOS in order to nullify the price of Windows license, Sapphire produced a Mini PC without paying a license to Microsoft. Honestly, at least the company didn’t had to put that large Microsoft OEM sticker containing the key on smooth sides of the case. It is interesting to see that still to this date, the companies don’t dare to put more advanced free operating systems such as Linux. Then again, drivers are always the dark shadow trailing the word "linux."
When it comes to connectivity, the Edge’s offerings are far from "mini". Somehow Sapphire has managed to pack an impressive number of connectors/ports into this tiny frame. There are four USB 2.0 Ports (two are concealed on the front bezel behind a pop-out panel, with the other two located on the rear panel. The two USB ports on the rear of the unit are mounted side by side as opposed to the front panels vertically aligned USB ports. You will need to keep in mind that the spacing is so tight on the rear of the unit that only slim line USB plugs will fit if you are trying to populate both USB ports, which I assume you will as this little rig only has four of them. Also taking up residence on the rear panel are a VGA port, HDMI port, RJ-45 LAN port, audio-in, line-out and power connector. In addition to standard 10/100/1000Mbps Ethernet the edge also features 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi.
The full rundown of the Edge’s specs are as follows:
- Intel® Atom? D510 CPU 1.66GHz
- 2GB DDR2-800
- 250GB SATA 2.5” Hard Drive
- 512 MB NVIDIA ION 2
- 10/100/1000 Mbps Built-in Ethernet
- 802.11b/g/n Built-in Wireless Network
- I / O: VGA (D-Sub), HDMI, RJ-45 Gigabit LAN, 4x USB 2.0, Audio-in, Line-out
- 65W Power Supply (19v x 3.42A)
- 19.3 x 14.8 x 2.2 cm (L / W / H)
- 530 g net weight
- Pre-installed Free DOS Operating System
The first thing I noticed about the Edge was its size, or should I say lack thereof? The thing is tiny, were not talking nano-level but certainly the smallest fully functional PC I have come across. To give you an idea as to the size of this mini-PC, it is smaller than my four port NETGEAR Wi-Fi router.
From an aesthetics standpoint the Edge is pleasing to the eye, with sleek lines and soft appearance courtesy of the rubber-like skin on its exterior. This "rubber" finish looks and feels high-end and is highly resistant to fingerprint smudging while also offering an additional layer of physical protection to the system. The system looks very streamlined and dare I say svelte. The power button/light and HDD activity light are located on the left side of the Edge in a position that is easy to reach yet unlikely to be accidently bumped/activated.
How does Sapphire pack a fully featured PC into such a small package? The answer is Atom. The Edge utilizes Intel’s Atom D510 processor running at 1.66GHz, yet what may be even more interesting is that to offer HD content support Sapphire chose to go with nVidia’s ION 2 graphics. This may not seem like much but it is an interesting move when you consider that Sapphire is self-admittedly AMD’s "World’s No.1 GPU Manufacturer". As this is branded as the Edge-HD, ION 2 was really the only option Sapphire had if they truly wanted to deliver HD content at playable rates. From another side, it might be that engineers needed a stable platform to develop their Fusion-based product and at that point in time, they simply could not find much more stable low-power combination than Atom + ION.
Normally this is the part of the article where I tell you what tests we are going to run and why, but things are going to go a little differently this time. I am choosing to forgo the standard benchmarks in favor of a usage-based review. There are multiple reasons for this approach. First, we do not currently have any other Atom/ION based systems in house for comparison purposes, which would leave us comparing the performance of the Edge-HD against standard desktops, an unfair fight for sure. This would result in the Edge-HD "losing" almost every single benchmark (with the exception of power draw) and our performance graphs visually indicating a disproportionately underperforming system.
Secondly, the Edge-HD is more of a lifestyle product, it can fill numerous usage positions/scenarios but the fact of the matter is that Edge-HD (nor much of the underlying technology) is not designed to be a workhorse or high-performance option. The success of a product in this segment is seldom determined by performance numbers in computational or graphical benchmarks. Instead, success can often be better determined in lowest total power draw, ability to fit minimalist or flexible form factors and so on.
So how exactly do we gauge the performance of the system without running benchmarks? The main goal here will be to judge the perceived performance of the system in typical usage scenarios. To be blunt, most Atom based machines are seen as little more than Internet & Email appliances with some productivity ability tossed in with MS Office and the like. NVIDIA’s ION and ION 2 planned to add entertainment to the platforms repertoire. With those two options combined it appears as if the Edge-HD is attempting to conquer multiple segments, with the exception of gaming? unless you count Angry Birds.
The Sapphire Edge-HD is not a catchall system; instead it lends itself better to certain usage scenarios. Power users looking to do large amounts of video encoding/trans-coding or gamers looking to fire up their latest high-res first person shooter titles need to look elsewhere as the Edge is simply not up to those tasks. The reality however is that the Edge lays no claim to being capable of these tasks in the first place. It may be true that compact, low wattage PC system like the edge is aimed a small segment of the market, but in all fairness I argue that a $500+ video card is aimed at an even smaller market.
In order to test the actual abilities of this system we developed two popular usage scenarios that basically break down into work and entertainment roles.
Usage Scenario One: The Office
Usage scenario one envisions the Sapphire Edge-HD in the average office or classroom. The Edge’s small foot print could prove quite useful for smaller offices or energy conscious school districts. In order to best emulate this usage scenario the Edge-HD was used in a primarily office-driven role. Internet and email activities were performed with ease including multiple websites being viewed concurrently, as well as having multiple Office applications running. Internet access was provided solely by the integrated wireless adapter.
The ability to switch between an office application such as Excel or PowerPoint and then quickly perform email tasks in Outlook was a breeze. Websites with higher levels of Flash/Multimedia content worked seamlessly, including YouTube. Firing up Hulu did pose some issues as video would begin to stutter at points; however the stuttering video was also experienced with a standard desktop and could have been caused by a less than ideal internet connection.
Heavy multi-taskers such as those constantly making use of incredibly large Excel files or complex databases will be disappointed as such large file manipulations could quickly outpace the Edge’s hardware specs.
With that being said, the Edge would make for a perfect fit to most small office/ home office scenarios as well as public education K-12 setup. The Sapphire Edge-HD is indeed a competent multi-tasker making the system a highly attractive option for a low-cost, small footprint office solution.
Usage Scenario Two: The Home Theater
With a name like Sapphire Edge-HD, it seems to be the last two letters that stand out the most. The small footprint of the Edge makes it an enticing option for a small home theater setup and the onboard Wi-Fi implies that file streaming without the need to run Ethernet cabling could be the feature that makes this unit somewhat of a plug and play home theater system.
In order to test the media functionality of this diminutive system we looked to video performance. The system was connected to a 47" 1080p LG TV via the onboard HDMI connection. Video was played utilizing an external DVD drive and for comparison purposes the DVD was also ripped to the Edge’s internal hard drive. Video playback was achieved using VLC’s Media Player.
As expected the performance between the external DVD and internal HDD scenes was transparent. Each session appeared identical and the resulting video playbacks were smooth and stutter free.
Next, full HD 1080p video files were moved to the hard drive and video playback was scrutinized to determine whether or not the Sapphire Edge-HD truly earns the much abused High Definition suffix. The Edge didn’t miss a beat, the picture was sharp and clear and performance was stutter free.
Video streaming was tested with Hulu as well as Netflix. The Hulu test instigated the same random stuttery performance we experienced in the Usage One scenario and again the culprit appeared to be the internet connection as opposed to the hardware itself. YouTube play was clear and smooth with only a few hiccups here and there due to video playback outpacing the video download speed. Not starting the video immediately and letting it cache for 10-12 seconds resolved the issue.
The Netflix experience couldn’t be more different. A movie was chosen at random from the "Watch Instantly" option. Throughout the test video playback was smooth and stutter free. Not once during the two-plus hour long movie did I feel that I was sacrificing any quality, instead I was genuinely surprised at how well the system was able to stream the movie and provide a DVD-like viewing experience.
Overall the multimedia capabilities of the tiny PC proved to be more than adequate and provided an enjoyable viewing experience. Combining the playback experience with the east of setup and incredibly small footprint of the system make the Edge-HD a great option for a small home theater system. Creating an internet-enabled home theater system doesn’t get much easier than the Sapphire Edge-HD.
Temperature and Noise
A common consideration when looking at computer systems is noise and heat output, after all if you are like most of us, you are going to have to live with this thing operating a few feet from you on a daily basis. As we are more concerned with the real-world attributes of a systems temperature and acoustic characteristics; that is what we test for. Temperature is easy enough to discern and in order to create a level playing field we run the system through our own in house temperature test designed to simulate normal usage.
With a system as small and compact as the Edge, it would not be uncommon for the device to become hot to the touch after hours of usage. This, however, was not the case. As the temperature test ran the system through its paces the system remained room-temperature to the touch. Holding a hand above the top vents of the system did confirm that the system was expelling warm air from its increased workload, yet the surface of the system never registered a discernable temperature increase.
When it comes to the noise level or sound output of a graphics card we feel it is important to remain practical. Granted we could use a dB meter and a quiet room to measure the exact noise level of the card but that setting would be atypical of the average usage scenario for a desktop card. Secondly the dB scale is not an easy indicator to relate to as each increase is in order of magnitude and not easily comparable. How much more annoying is a graphics card with a sound level of 82dB versus one with 80dB? It’s hard to tell. Therefore we feel it makes more sense to break down the sounds levels into four categories akin to real world experience, and these "measurements" are taken in a standard office/room environment with standard ambient noises such as HVAC present.
- Unnoticeable: At this level the sound of the system is not perceptible. Either completely silent or only perceptible when your ear is place directly next to the system itself
- Noticeable: At this level the sound of the system is perceptible, generally as a low hum. The noise at this level is unobtrusive and generally blends in with other ambient office/household noises. The noise from the system can be heard but you have to listen for it to really hear it.
- Clearly Noticeable: At this level the noise output from the system is clearly evident. The computer system is discernable as the source of the noise and tends to be of higher magnitude than the ambient noise around it.
- Annoying: This moniker pretty much describes itself. At this level the sound of the system is distracting. The computer system is clearly discernable as the source of noise and during gameplay/media enjoyment speaker and/or headphone volume must be increased to overcome the noise of the system
The Sapphire Edge-HD fell into what would be considered the lower spectrum of the Noticeable category. There is some perceptible noise but you have to listen for it to hear it. Any media audio such as watching a video or listening to music completely masks the audio signature of the Edge-HD making this system an equally perfect fit for a home theater environment or quiet office.
Extremes are controversial; it seems to be a fact of life. Whenever anything steps too far outside the bounds of accepted standards or common practice it generally faces much greater scrutiny than those that choose to play within the boundaries. The Sapphire Edge-HD definitely represents the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to desktop miniaturization.
The Sapphire Edge-HD represents what is quite possibly the smallest PC form factor on the market today. Sapphire manages to achieve this feat while still providing desktop-quality performance, which is important as size is only part of the equation. The important thing to note here is that the Edge’s small size is not absolute in the sense that the Edge is not truly a standalone product (a la iPad, etc.) instead it is part of an ecosystem. In order to function as a PC, the Edge still requires a monitor as well as a keyboard and mouse at minimum. When viewing the product in this light it is easy to see that its tiny form factor is a bonus, however the additional peripherals required will still necessitate a standard desktop computing environment. In order to underscore this truth one only has to look to the fact that simply adding an external optical drive (not required per se, but beneficial) effectively doubles the size of the PC part of this ecosystem.
From an engineering standpoint the Edge is truly a marvel. Sapphire has managed to stuff this little box with all of the regular desktop goodies we have come to expect with the bonus of built-in Wi-Fi and HDMI output. While some may say that Edge is not truly a desktop PC, I agree only in the sense that a laptop is not a true desktop PC either, yet it can offer desktop level performance and productivity.