Mini desktops are a growing market, but so far it’s a market that Intel has had the run of. The company’s own “Next Unit of Computing” (NUC) and efforts like Gigabyte’s Brix Pro are diminutive but much more capable than the wimpy “nettops” of yesteryear.
Now it’s time for AMD to get in on the fun. The company sent us two Gigabyte mini PCs that are roughly the same size as the Intel versions, but these machines use AMD A8 chips instead of Intel ones. While the smaller, cheaper GB-BXA8-5545 (which we’ll be reviewing in full in a separate piece) is basically just an AMD version of the NUC, the Brix Gaming (yes, that’s the device’s full name) is something else altogether. The race-car-red machine combines AMD’s CPU with a true dedicated AMD GPU, promising a level of graphics performance that we haven’t yet seen in a mini desktop.
Unfortunately, this is one of those times when reality doesn’t quite match expectations. The Brix Gaming does have a much faster GPU than any mini PC we’ve seen, but it has to make a few too many compromises to get there.
If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all
The Brix Gaming next to the Intel-powered Brix Pro (right).
The smaller AMD Brix box compared to the Brix Gaming.
The Brix Pro has the same ports you’ll find in most mini PCs.
The Brix Gaming is relatively tiny, but it comes with a honking power brick.
The Brix Gaming is on the chunkier end of the mini PC spectrum—it’s imperceptibly shorter and about half an inch wider than the GB-BXA8-5545. The two of them are in the same ballpark, though, and both use the same chunky external power brick. The Brix Gaming is constructed primarily of red and black plastic, with black metal mesh used on the sides and back to improve airflow.
The port layout is identical to just about every mini PC we’ve seen this year. It has two USB 3.0 ports on the front and two more on the back, plus gigabit Ethernet, a mini-DisplayPort, an HDMI port, and a Kensington lock slot. A standard headphone jack on the front of the system rounds it all out.
The Brix Gaming’s GPU should be sufficient for 4K video output and playback, even if it’s not sufficient to play games as these resolutions. The HDMI port should support up to 1080p at a refresh rate of 60Hz, 3840×2160 at 30Hz, and 4096×2160 at 24Hz. The DisplayPort can drive a display up to 2560×1600 at 60Hz or 3840×2160 at 30Hz. Using DisplayPort MST, you can also drive two 1920×2160 displays at 60Hz.
Journey to the center of the Brix
What really makes the Brix Gaming unique among mini PCs is what’s inside the box.
Most mini-desktops really have more in common with laptops than with desktops. By necessity, they’re small, simple, and tightly integrated. The RAM, Wi-Fi, and mSATA slots are all kept on the bottom of the unit so that you can access them when you open the system up. A processor in a ball-grid array (BGA) package is mounted to the other side of the board—you couldn’t upgrade it if you wanted to, so there’s no point in making it user-accessible—and a heatsink and CPU fan strapped to the top of the CPU blow heat out the back. This is how the NUC was put together, it was how the Brix Pro was put together, and it’s how the smaller of our two AMD Brix boxes is put together.
The Brix Gaming is different. When Gigabyte says it includes a dedicated graphics card, it doesn’t just mean there’s a dedicated chip sitting next to some dedicated graphics RAM (like what you’d find in most laptops). There’s an entirely separate board in there, joined to the standard mini-desktop mainboard by a tiny stub of a board. The bottom of the main system board and the top of the graphics daughterboard are both covered by large copper heatsinks, and twin system fans push the heat out of the left side of the unit. Take special care not to block this side of the PC, or you’ll end up with heat problems very quickly.
The two boards are connected together using the Mobile PCI Express Module (MXM) interface, a relatively rare interconnect used in some all-in-ones, chunky gaming laptops, and places where the promise of upgradeability is important. I say the promise of upgradeability because between these cards’ scarcity and the fact that your particular connector or BIOS may not even be compatible with whatever you try to replace it with, they probably don’t actually get upgraded all that often. The idea was to provide a mobile equivalent to regular desktop PCI Express cards; in reality the demand for such a feature has been too low for it to really matter.
GPU-Z reports that the GPU is connected via eight PCI Express 2.0 lanes. Sixteen lanes is the norm for most desktop graphics cards, but the speed of the interface is unlikely to be a bottleneck—even the fastest graphics cards available don’t benefit much from extra PCI Express bandwidth, whether it’s provided using more lanes or the faster PCI Express 3.0 spec.
Aside from the unique graphics card setup, opening and working on the Brix Gaming is much like working on any mini PC. You’ll need to bring your own RAM, SSD, and operating system license—we’ve budgeted out about $70 for 8GB of RAM across two 4GB sticks, $75 for a Crucial M500 mSATA SSD, and $100 for an OEM license of Windows 8.1. Your component choices and final system cost may vary, but as specced, our system would cost about $815 after you add those selections to the $570 you’ll pay for the base system.
Like the Brix Pro, the Brix Gaming also has a bracket and connector for a standard 2.5-inch laptop drive. You can use this as your primary drive or you can use it as extra storage alongside an integrated SSD, but AMD has no equivalent to Intel’s Smart Response Technology. This means you can’t combine the two into one logical drive that uses the SSD as a cache to improve responsiveness while using a standard HDD as a large, cheap storage pool.
Noise, heat, and power draw
The Brix Gaming makes a good first impression because it has an eye-catching color combination and design. Then you turn it on.
Those two system fans we saw earlier? They’re always clearly audible, even when the computer is idling. Start to stress the system and they’ll really take off. Considered in context, the fan noise is probably tolerable—this box is way more likely to be sitting in your entertainment system surrounded by speakers than it is to be on your desk opening Excel spreadsheets—but it’s far and away the loudest of the mini desktops we’ve laid ears on so far. It’s always whirring.
A Gigabyte representative told us that the company would be working on fine-tuning the “fan curve,” the rate at which the fan speed goes up or down based on the box’s internal temperature. The latest BIOS update has already made some adjustments, and more are apparently in the works. However, this will just affect how quickly the fan spins up when the computer is under load—Gigabyte can’t do much about fan noise at idle.
The dedicated GPU also ratchets up the power consumption, at least when it’s active. While using the integrated graphics, AMD’s CPU still consumes more power than Intel’s—this is where Intel’s manufacturing advantage helps out. Haswell chips were designed to have low idle power consumption, and it helps that Intel’s chips are built on a 22nm process instead of the 32nm process used by AMD here.
Peak power consumption isn’t all that far from what we saw in the Intel-based Brix Pro, but AMD’s idle power consumption can’t approach what Intel’s Haswell chips enable. You can see why Intel CPUs are all but universal in mid-to-high-end laptops. If the NUC’s power consumption is a little closer to that of a dedicated set-top box like a Fire TV or Roku, the Brix Gaming’s power draw is a bit more like a game console.
It’s also clear here that while Intel’s quad-core CPU is much more powerful than AMD’s, it takes much more power to get all that extra work done. This will even out over time for many tasks, though—Intel’s CPU will take less time to get the work done than AMD’s, meaning it can return to a low-power idle mode more quickly.