Arctic’s latest home entertainment system user an AMD A10-4600M APU, bringing a powerful combination of CPU and GPU in a tiny little box. Packed with WiFi, TV Tuner, 8GB RAM, and 1TB of storage, the MC101 brings us plenty of power for our media needs and is also able to deliver decent gaming performance.
HTPC used to be about the size of a VCR machine, big and bulky. However, as with any computing device, it is getting more powerful yet its size keeps shrinking. We have already reviewed the Zotac Zbox AD02 Plus U and Sapphire Mini Edge, each about the size of a novel, so small form factor HTPCs are nothing new. While the size of these systems are impressive, they are simply not powerful enough for slightly more demanding tasks. Atom and Brazos are designed for low power consumption, as opposed to performance so for demanding tasks such as video transcoding or heavy multi-tasking will ultimately drag the system down and let you feel that you want something faster. The small form factor PC needs a better CPU and the latest AMD Trinity may just fill that role.
We received the Artic MC101, a small form factor system that is marketed as an HTPC and not a desktop replacement. Despite its small size, do not think that this system is as slow as other small form factor PC. The brain that powers the Arctic MC101 is AMD’s latest A10-4600M APU, a much more powerful CPU than Brazo or Atom. Codenamed Trinity, the latest APU maybe designed toward notebooks with its 35W TDP but it may just be what HTPC users are looking for because of the perfect combination of a good CPU and GPU performance at a low power consumption. Trinity may not deliver the best benchmark scores but it is certainly fast enough for HTPC and its integrated HD 7660G delivers the best integrated GPU performance we have seen for a mobile chip. Such a good combination allows system builders to construct a small system without the need for any additional chips. So we have high hope with the MC101.
The MC101 is shipped in a typical cardboard box where we get to see a picture of the device and its specification. In addition to the picture of the unit, we also get an overview of the ports. Inside we see the MC101 is shipped with a styrofoam cutout of the machine to provide enough cushioning so the device won’t get damaged during shipping. Upon removing the MC101, we were greeted with a warning label with different icons on what not to do to your device. We were recommended not to spill liquid on the unit, place it next to a magnet, or open the device while it was plugged in.
The accessory is packaged in a separate compartment underneath the system. Inside we find the MC101 includes: an external power adapter, a TV antenna, HDMI cable, and a Quick Start guide. The external power brick has a rating of 100~240 V, 50/60 Hz input support that has 8A on the 12V or 96W of power. The TV antenna is included because the MC101 comes with an integrated TV tuner that will work with your country’s over the air HD channels. The system will either comes with an ATSC (North American) or an DVB-T tuner depending on where you purchase the system. Given the fact that Arctic designed the MC101 to be an HTPC system, we were surprised to find out that the unit did not come with a remote control. Luckily the unit does feature IR support so you can use it with an Windows 7 Media Center remote.
The MC101 is designed with a mixture of plastic and metal. The bottom is made of plastic but the top and the sides are made with a single piece of aluminum that acts as a heatsink to help dissipate heat. As an HTPC, the MC101 has a very subdued exterior with a brushed aluminum body devoid of any LED light except a single power switch LED located on the top of the unit. The unit should blends in quite nicely into your home entertainment setup.
On top of the MC101, we get a power switch and a tiny white Arctic logo accented by a gray strip that is not overly distracting. The power switch deserves a little attention as it is not a physical button but rather a conductive sensor embedded into the LED. Swiping your finger across the metal conductor (or even just touching the metal metal sensor inside the LED) turns the unit on. If you cover the sensor for about 5 seconds, the unit will turn off. Since there is no reset button on the unit, this is the only way to reset/turn off the unit (either this or a soft reboot in Windows). Some may miss the lack of a dedicated reset button but we do not think it’s such a big deal since the utility for such a button would be minimal. We found the power sensor to be rather sensitive: a light swipe is all you need. Incidentally, contact with metal will also trigger the power switch, so be sure not to place metallic substances on the switch.
On the left side, we see an USB 3.0 port, and a combo USB 2.0/eSATA port, an auxilliary audio output port for headphone (TRRS configuration), a 4-in-1 memory card reader for SD/MMC//MS/XD and some air vents. The right side only has some ventilation openings and is devoid of any ports. The front has an IR receiver to be used with any IR device like a remote control. The rear of the unit is where we can find most of the ports that includes a TV antenna, an audio out port, a line-in jack, SPDIF audio out, a four USB 2.0 ports, a DC power jack, two USB 3.0 ports, HDMI-out port, and a Gigabit Ethernet port.
While we like the minimalism and simplistic look of the MC101, we are not a huge fan of the sharp corner of the unit. Design-wise, the metal construction on the MC101 is preferable to the plastic casing we find on the Zotac Zbox. However, it does not look as sexy as the slim and curved design from the Sapphire. Then again, the MC101 allows expansion of the RAM and hard drive, which we cannot do with the Sapphire unit. Additionally, the Arctic unit comes with a wide array of ports.
Inside the Arctic MC101
Normally, we would open the system up to take a peek at the internal hardware. Unfortunately, we were not able to do so this time per Arctic’s request. However, Arctic did provide us with detailed images of the internals so we can still take a peek at the internal design and hardware.
With the images provided, we can see the whole bottom unit is nothing more than a cover for the giant aluminum metal upper case that acts as also as a heatsink. Arctic uses its own branded cooling fan in the MC101, and a copper base with aluminum fins are directly attached to the aluminum exterior is used to cool the chipset and the APU. As the cool air enters the MC101 from the right side, it first cools the hard drives, then the RAM, and finally the APU and FCH and exits out of the unit. The heat is being directed out of the system on both the right side as well as through the metal upper body.
As mentioned, the MC101 is powered by a quad-core AMD Trinity A10-4600M clocked at 2.3GHz that is capable of Turbo to 3.2GHz. The Trinity is built with a Piledriver x86 architecture that we first encountered with the AMD Bulldozer FX-8150. As with Bulldozer, the Piledriver’s functional unit is called a “module” and each module contains two dedicated integer clusters with a shared floating point core. The A10-4600M contains two of these modules. Despite the same architectural design as Bulldozer, the Piledriver x86 architecture on the Trinity has been tweaked and fine-tuned so it is much more efficient than its predecessor. The result of this optimization is that we should expect the CPU on the Piledriver to perform at approximately 10~15% faster.
Compared to Llano, the GPU on the Piledriver has been upgraded with the VLIW4 architecture, the same that is found on the HD 6900 series GPUs. On the A10-4600M we find the HD7660G features 384 Radeon core clocked at 496 MHz and Turbo to 685 MHz. To the North of the APU is the AMD A70M FCH chipset and to the East is two dual-channel DDR3 SoDIMM slots which Arctic includes two sticks of 4GB DDR3-1866 from Team Group in our review unit. The AMD A70M Fusion Control Hub (FCH) is responsible for the two 6 Gbps SATA ports in the unit. In addition, it is also responsible for the USB 2.0 and USB 3.0, video output, and the Gigabit Ethernet.
The system includes an mSATA port located just above the DIMM slots for your SSD needs. 2.5” SSD users will have no problem as there is an empty SATA 6 Gbps ports available for additional storage. The MC101 comes with two SATA 6Gbps connectors; one of them is used with the included Western Digital Scorpio Blue 1TB drive (WD10JPVT-00A1YT0). The hard drive spins at 5400 RPM and uses a 3 Gbps interface so it is not the fastest drive on the market. If you plan to upgrade, we would highly suggest going with an SSD and use the Scorpio Blue as the storage drive.
Sitting on the upper right corner are the WiFi card and the TV tuner. We cannot get much information about the TV tuner and the WiFi card with the images provided but luckily we were able to find that that Ralink is the provider for the WiFi module that supports 802.11b/g/n. Unfortunately, we do not know much information on the TV tuner card included. Additionally, we found that the Realtek ALC892 handles the audio on the system that provides 8 channel audio and the SPDIF out.
Opening up the Arctic MC101 is actually not too difficult as you simply have to remove a few screws and you can gain access to the internal components. Arctic has informed us that upgrading and swapping in and out of components will not void your warranty provided that you do not cause any physical damage to the device. This is also a good time for us to mention that the Arctic MC101 will come with a two year warranty as opposed to the industry standard 1 year warranty on pre-built systems.
The Arctic MC101 is a “plug in and turn on” type of device where you do not need to provide anything at all. The system even comes with Windows 7 Home Premium pre-installed and is Windows 8 ready. All necessary drivers are installed and the system does not come with any bloatware like what you may find on other pre-built systems. Our review unit did not come with a recovery disk or Windows CD. This has become an industry standard for the pre-built system to ship without them as the main drive is often partitioned with a hidden recovery partition. We prefer to have a physical disk as oppose to a hidden partition.
When you shop for the MC101, you simply have to decide which TV tuner you want to include. In addition, you just have to decide if you want 4GB of RAM or 8GB. The 4GB version costs $719.00 and the 8GB costs $749.00. For $30, we highly recommend going with the 8GB version. We did a quick search on Dell’s website and saw that the Inspiron 660 that comes with Intel Core i3 2120, 6GB DDR3, 1TB drive, and 1-year warranty is retail at $518.99. The Dell system lacks the TV tuner but it comes with a DVD-RW drive. Obviously, the Dell system is also significantly larger than the MC101. Putting everything together, the pricing of the MC101 is reasonable considering its form factor which Dell system cannot match and the fact the integrated GPU on the A10-4600M is much better than the Core i3 2120 is a major plus for light casual gamers.
The only thing we wish the MC101 would have included is a Blu-ray drive, or the option to install one. As an HTPC, Bluray still has its uses and while we are fully aware the additional cost a Blu-ray drive may add to the unit, we do still prefer having a drive that is built-in directly into the system. It just helps to reduce clutters or the need to convert all of your entire movie collection from physical format to digital format.
General usage, temperature and noise
The A10-4600M that comes with the MC101 is in fact the first time we feel that a small form PC is actually powerful enough to handle most workloads without any lag. Previously, when we fired up two applications with the Atom or Brazos, systems would sometimes stutter and application loading have noticeable lag compared to a desktop system that is about 3 years old. However, with the MC101, the stuttering is nowhere to be found. The system is responsive even when we opened up multiple applications, or watching movie, browsing web, or flash content. We absolutely loved the ability to multi-task on the MC101. In fact, we would not even mind using the MC101 as our primary system for doing office work. As long as you are not going to be doing heavy workload like Photoshop, or video editing, it is fast enough even compare to more expensive systems.
Granted, both Atom and Brazos have much lower power consumption than the 35W that is on the A10-4600M but we do not mind trading off a few watts for a much, much faster and responsive system. If anything what is holding the MC101 back is not the CPU but rather the 5,400 RPM mechanical drive. Swapping it with an SSD or a faster mechanical drive would yield a more responsive system.
You may think that the higher TDP on the A10-4600M may translate into much higher power consumption but in practice, the MC101 only consumes 23W (about 5 watts higher than the Atom system we have tested and 13 watts higher than the Brazos). The load power consumption is much higher for the MC101 at 53W (tested with the system transcoding x264 movie clip) compare to the ~20W for the Atom or Brazos system. Putting things in perspective, the Intel Core i3 2100 consumes 77W idle (when paired with an ATX board) so the power consumption is not bad when we compare it to DIY HTPC or pre-built systems. We put the Core i3 2100 here as a comparison since the chip is selling at the similar price and is one of the CPUs that we think people who need a simple HTPC will consider buying.
Unfortunately for Arctic, using the low power consumption does not translate into a cool system. The MC101 gets rather hot when it is under load. Idle, the system runs warm but not too hot that you can still touch it but under load, the aluminum chassis gets so hot that you cannot leave your hand on for more than 10 seconds. This means that you really need to have good ventilation if you are considering using the system. Be sure that you do not place anything on top of the unit.
The noise-level for the MC101 is great. Under idle, the fan noise is barely audible and under load fan noise is not bothersome either. You may hear the fan whisper under load but it is not going to be loud enough to be distracting. While the Arctic BIOS offers some control over the fan setting to help balance the noise and temperature, we would still prefer the company improve on this area.
The idle temperature for the unit is about 45°C and when it is under load it gets around 60°C when running Cinebench or 65°C with Prime95. So the system temperature is still within the 100°C specification on the AMD APU. Ultimately what Arctic is striving with the MC101 is low operational noise. The company has informed us that due to the design of the chassis acting as a heatsink, it will gets heat up but it will not affect the cooling performance even if you place a book above the MC101.
We include pure CPU performance to give you an idea just how fast the A10-4600M performs as this is our first time testing the AMD Trinity. In addition, we use PCMark and 3DMark to give you an idea how the MC101 performs at common tasks and games.
The A10-4600M definitely delivers a very competitive CPU performance for a mobile chip. For the most part, the APU is almost as fast as the Core i3 2100 on the CPU front but it excels in the GPU front.
While AIDA64 is a pure synthetic benchmark that measures the processor’s raw performance. The result from AIDA64 may not always represent real world performance but we include it here to give you an overview of the performance of the the A10-4600 inside the MC101. Consider the fact that A10-4600M is 17W TDP, the performance is rather impressive, and it is able to keep up with the higher TDP CPUs like the A8-3850 (100W) and the Phenom II X4 910e (65W). The Core i3 2100 still comes ahead of the A10-4600M but keep in mind that the Intel’s offering is also 65W. One area where the A10-4600M shows impressive result is the AES benchmark thanks to the hardware-assisted encryption unit support which the older Phenom based CPUs and the Core i3 do not support. While it is unlikely that anyone would need to encrypt their HTPC system, we are glad to see that finally AMD is able to add such support on their mobile CPUs.
As the A10-4600M only comes with 2 floating point units shared by the four integer units, so we do not expect it to come on top with any of these FPU tests. At best, the A10-4600M’s float point calculation is about 85% of that from Core i3 2100.
The memory performance has been improved slightly, especially in the Write and Copy.
The A10-4600M is not too shabby, scoring 0.66 points single thread and 1.97 points in multi-thread.
X264 HD v4.0
When comes to x24 transcoding, the A10-4600M is almost as fast as the Intel Core 2 Quad, not too bad for such low power CPU.
A note with the PCMark Vantage, the desktop CPUs are tested with AMD HD 6850 GPU so do not pay much attention to the gaming result.
PCMark Vantage has the Arctic M101 scored 5747, more than double of what the Zotac ZBox or the Sapphire Edge. Not too shabby.
Looking at the individual tests, we can see that the Arctic M101 is definitely fast enough to keep up with some of the desktop CPUs. We can see that the system even edges out the A8-3850 in couple of tests (Music and Communication). The Core i3 2100 is about 30~50% faster than the A10-4600M. Again, bare in mind that we are making the comparison between a desktop CPU with a laptop CPU and a 65W vs 35W TDP. Taking it into consideration, the performance of the MC101 is certainly quite respectable.
We decided to test the PCMark 7 with with all CPU running on the integrated GPU. Since many people who are looking for an HTPC may opt to use the built-in GPU as oppose to a discrete GPU.
The Arctic M101 scored rather impressive 2080 points in the PCMark 7 test, just 91 points fewer than the Core i3 2100. Thanks to the additional cores, the A8-3850 scored 389 more points.
For lightweight work and productivity, the Core i3 2100 is clearly faster as expected since Intel is clearly the king of CPU. However, in the Creativity, the A10-4600M is faster than the Core i3 2100 (24%) and also the A8-3850 (33%). The Creativity Suite tests how a CPU handles creating photos and videos so this is one of the essential score to pay attention to given to the fact that the MC101 is targeted toward HTPC. The Entertainment is also another test that we should pay attention as it also stress how the CPU will handle tasks such as recording, viewing, and transcoding multimedia contents. Here the MC101 is faster than the Core i3 2100 by 20%. The Computation involves video transcoding which is yet another tasks that an HTPC system would do routinely. Here the MC101 is 40% faster than the Core i3 2100.
HTPCs often are not designed to play games at the highest setting but people may simply like to sit on their couch and enjoy a few hours of enemy killing and saving the world. No doubt here is where building an HTPC with the A10-4600M shines. The HD 7660D inside the A10-4600M is actually faster than the integrated HD 4000 in Ivy Bridge and about as fast as the HD 6550D in the A8-3850. Thus, the integrated GPU on the A10-4600M should be able to deliver a playable framerate at resolution up 1400 x 900 at medium or low setting. It’s not the most optimal setting, but you can enjoy a light gaming on the system without any issue.
We see the same result with the 3DMark 11 where we can see the GPU on the A10-4600M is about 27% faster than the Ivy Bridge and is very close to the last year’s Llano’s offering. This is not bad for a mobile CPU to offer the GPU performance equivalent to a desktop CPU.
When we first read the AMD A10-4600M APU, we had high hopes for AMD because for the first time we had a mobile chip that offered a good combination of CPU and GPU performnace. Budget laptops often come with only discrete GPU and as we can see the Trinity GPU delivers a good performance that is comparable to what the AMD Llano platform (desktop APU from last year) offers. While the CPU front on the Trinity is still lagging behind Intel, it is fast enough for all of the daily tasks that we do like checking email, browsing web, and watching movies/YouTube, etc. Thus, Trinity is definitely moving AMD in the right direction.
As for the Arctic MC101, this is the first time that we have come across a small system that we do not mind using as a media center system or as an office PC. Aesthetically, the Arctic MC101 looks simple while not being overly plain. It’s brushed aluminum should fit nicely with any home entertainment. We can tell that Arctic has put in great deal of thoughts when designing the MC101 as the unit comes with a good mix of ports and the included card reader and TV tuner certainly adds its appeal. We like the fact that there are also spaces inside the unit to add one additional hard drive. We also like that the system has support for mSATA, making it possible to add an SSD or additional storage. Moreover, the fact that upgrading these components won’t void your warranty certain will not hurt.
The Arctic MC101 strikes a balance of performance and compactness. The system is a powerful machine thanks to the A10-4600M APU and the generous 8GB RAM. Opening up multiple applications does not slow down our system like we experienced with the Intel Atom or the AMD Brazos. While the unit is designed mainly for HD content playback, the integrated HD 7660G GPU is actually fast enough to play games at 1360×768 resolution. The only major complaint we have with the MC101 would be its high operating surface temperature. Additionally, we would like to see future units come with a Bluray built-in or even a remote control.
All together, at $749, the Arctic MC101 certainly delivers plenty of power for HTPC at size smaller than some external enclosures. If you are looking for a small system, the MC101 is definitely worth considering
|OUR VERDICT: Arctic MC101 HTPC|
|Summary: The Arctic MC101 delivers a good performance in a very subdue exterior and compact size. If you are in the market for a small system for your home entertainment, definitely check out the the MC101. For its features and value, the Arctic MC101 earns the Bjorn3D Seal of Approval.|