Project Osmium: The 3-year update

Roughly 3 years ago, I drafted Project Osmium, an attempt to “œmaximise performance in as small a volume as possible”. The unwritten limitations were that this system would be x86-based, and meant for desktop use (which means USB connectivity, DVI/HDMI/DisplayPort video options, etc).

And then silence, for a long time. Not without good reason though; this was a time of pretty rapid change in the small form factor computing market, and things were improving at a rapid pace. My Osmium build was getting outdated as quickly as I could update it.

2009–2010 #

At the time I wrote that Osmium draft, Intel’s Lynnfield i5/i7 processors had just been introduced. Their remarkable increase in power efficiency (over Core 2) was what inspired me to this project in the first place. I had in mind water-cooling, which was the only cooling option that would allow for flexible arrangement within such a confined space. But CoolIT and Corsair released the ECO ALC and H50 closed-loop water-cooling systems soon after, which made me rethink my bulkier, pricier open-loop setup.

Prior to Osmium, x86 on mini-ITX was still in quite a sluggish state (compared to the options we have now). VIA had been the main contender in the ITX spacde up till now, but their EPIA models and Eden CPUs simply wouldn’t cut it for my daily computing. Intel and AMD were represented in the ITX space … mainly by Atom- and Geode-based embedded products. Earlier in 2009 we started to see more products based on the Pentium M, Core Duo and Core 2 Duo processors, but these were limited to a TDP of 65W.

Early in 2010, Zotac released their first H55 mini-ITX board. Nehalem (in Lynnfield skin) had come to ITX, and would soon bring high-performance desktop computing to the ITX space. Lynnfield on mini-ITX worked really well, judging by early reviews of the board, but reported BIOS issues on the ZOTAC boards put me off for a while longer. And so the wait continued …

2010–2011 #

Not much happened on the processor side of things during this period. Intel released their Clarkdale dual-cores with integrated graphics (for the desktop; Arrandale for mobile products). At this point Intel still did not have a Nehalem quad-core with integrated graphics yet, so I kept an eye out for low-power graphics cards with decent performance. It should be noted that at this point my build plans for Osmium remained pretty much at the same size, minus the space taken up by 3 PCI slots.

I had bought a Dell Ultrasharp 2408WFP in early 2009, and by early 2010 I was already bitten by the high-resolution bug. Eyefinity’s release in late 2009 scratched that bite into an inflamed, unbearable itch. By late 2009 I had ordered a Dell Ultrasharp U2410, and barely 6 months later the 2408WFP would be replaced by another U2410. A triple-display setup loomed on the horizon; this would necessitate a Radeon graphics card, since Nvidia’s Geforce had no idea what triple-display was.

I was still on a Phenom II X4 940 in early 2010, and in March I decided to heed the voices and buy a Core i5-750, albeit still with a micro-ATX motherboard (P7H55D-M). This was housed in various cases, first a CM 690 and then an Elite 341, until I finally bought the SG04-F and had my first real small form factor desktop.

At the same time, I bought my first sound card — an ASUS Xonar DX — and a dilemma immediately arose. How would I squeeze a sound card and graphics card onto a mini-ITX board? This dilemma would hold me back from an ITX build until 2012.

2011–2012 #

Not long after I bought my i5-750, Sandy Bridge was released. Power consumption dropped even further, and integrated graphics moved onto the CPU. Suddenly, it seemed very possible to eliminate the ATX PSU, and substitute it for an SFX PSU, or a low-power DC-DC PSU with external AC adapter. I could shrink Osmium even further!

Alas, integrated graphics (HD3000) performance, although a sizable margin above Clarkdale’s, was still not quite where I hoped it would be. And was not triple-display-capable — yet.

Around the same time in late 2011, I upgraded my Xonar DX to a Xonar Essence STX. This did not help my graphics-vs-audio dilemma at all. Sure, I could have both on micro-ATX, but the rate at which things were improving in the ITX space had incensed me, and I was determined that my next build would be ITX or nothing. I could always get an external receiver and amp for audio if I really needed … similar wishful thoughts abound.

And finally we come to 2012. And Ivy Bridge’s release early this year. Which brought triple-display capability, and power consumption low enough to be run from a 120W adapter. How far we’ve come in merely 3 years!

Ironically, at this point I really wanted to push things and see how small ITX could go, and consequently my earlier itches were no longer as compelling. The triple-display itch had started to subside, and I’ll be quite happy with just a single large display (27?/30?) and a side display. The audio itch could also wait for an external amp.

2012– #

So we’re now in early September. I’d just gathered parts for an ITX-based i7-3770 build a few weeks ago, and now have a half-assembled system that is less than a third of Osmium’s original projected size (and double its estimated performance).

I am still doing some quick testing, and the results continue to teach me new things. I don’t have the kind of setup and equipment that professional reviewers have, so reliability and error margins will be higher, but the difference in results is astounding enough that I believe I can make some real conclusions.

So subscribe to the RSS feed for results, when they appear!