Like many of the net-tops we've encountered, the ASRock doesn't come with an OS pre-installed. For many of us this isn't a big deal especially (especially as Windows 7 installs in less than 15 minutes anyway) but the target audience for this kind of machine, would, we think, want to just plug in the monitor and be surfing the internet in a few minutes.
Instead the price tag - which tops £300 - only includes the base unit, so remember you're also looking at another £60 for a copy of Windows 7 Home Premium. This brings the ASRock further into competition with budget desktop PCs. These days, for £400 you can get yourself a low end Core 2 system with 3/4GB RAM, a half terabyte hard drive and the OS pre-installed.
It's a bit of a tit-for-tat trade off though. The ASRock includes a Blu-ray DVD-RW combo drive as standard and combined with the HDMI port on the rear panel, this means it can plug straight into your HDTV. With many budget PCs lacking a discrete graphics card, chances are you won't be able to do this with a budget PC, not to mention the ASRock will be a hell of a lot better looking in your lounge than a ghastly black and silver tin box.
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We were initially disappointed with the absence of a DVI port on the ASRock. You do get an HDMI-to-DVI adapter and there's D-Sub too - indeed, our NEC MultiSync EA231WMi test TFT offered picture quality that was little, if any worse than with the HDMI/DVI connection. Using the D-Sub would create problems if you wanted to use the Blu-ray drive for movies though, as it doesn't support HDCP for movie content protection. Still, at least this means the ASRock can suppport dual displays.
The I/O panel has plenty of other ports, including powered eSATA, six USB 2, Gigabit LAN and six 3.5mm stereo audio jacks supporting up to 5.1 surround sound with and optical S/PDIF out too. The ASRock comes with two 1GB 800MHz sticks of DDR2 RAM with support for up to 4GB (although you'll need to replace these with two 2GB sticks). A 2.5in 320GB 5,400rpm Seagate Momentus hard drive is included, which mostly explains the slightly sluggish response we saw when dealing with large files.
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For those wanting more storage or even redundancy courtesy of something such as a RAID 1 setup, there's the option to install a second 2.5in hard drive. WiFi is also built in courtesy of a 802.11b/g/n card which did a good job of picking up the office's WiFi between the digital noise of mobile phones and many other laptops. There's even a remote control which provides an acceptable amount of control for video playback and photo browsing using Media Centre. It's not that flashy, but it does the job well enough.
One big issue we encountered with the ASRock was cooling. With the fan speed set to auto in the BIOS, we recorded a CPU temperature of 62°C sitting idle
at the desktop. This topped out at 75°C during 1080p playback minutes, which is a tad toasty to say the least given that the Tjunction for the Intel Atom 330 is 85.2°C. Above that temperature the CPU will start throttling - because above that temperature, Intel judges that the chip's long-term reliability could be impacted.
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We opened up the case to investigate, because it was also making such a vile, high pitched sound, and to our amazement saw a tiny 30mm fan cooling both the CPU and Ion chipset. Clearly it barely shifts any air and the noise to cooling ratio is quite simply appalling. We tried manually setting the speed to normal which was much quieter but the CPU temperature in turn topped 80°C after just a few minutes of 1080p playback. That's clearly not a solution.
In short you're left with no option but to run the fan in auto mode where it sounds like a hair dryer, while simultaneously hoping the whole thing doesn't turn into a pile of molten goo. Thankfully there's also a beefy 50mm exhaust fan which at 20mm thick, clearly shifts the majority of the air through the chassis. We disconnected the 30mm fan and increased the speed of 50mm instead. In the BIOS the CPU temperature increased by just 3°C to 65°C, rising to 71°C when sitting at the desktop. That's still very hot, but the system was nearly inaudible, so that little fan is nearly pointless given the amount of noise it makes.
Unlike many mini-ITX motherboards we've used there's just a single fan speed adjustment in the BIOS, otherwise we'd have mixed the two: decreasing the speed of the 30mm fan and increasing the 50mm to compensate, hopefully resulting in better cooling with less noise.
While the fans are inline - so air travels straight through - the CPU and chipset cooling simply isn't potent enough. We'd preferred to have seen a single large heatsink and with a bigger fan built into it. Needless to say we think adding another hard drive would be a very bad idea too, given the extra heat it would create, not to mention the fact it would itself get cooked from the heatsink fins underneath. The case itself is sturdy, well made and very compact at 195mm x 70mm x 186mm and is pretty solid so while we have reservations on the cooling, the same can't be said of the case.