William's Review of the Intel D945GCLF Mainboard with the Intel Atom Processor

I like small, cheap computers.

The above statement is something that won't come as much of a surprise to people who have read my reviews of the Mac mini in both Intel and PowerPC forms, as well as the Everex GC3500 PC (which is certainly cheap, but not small).

I also like computers that are energy efficient without having to resort to standby modes (and the unreliability that seems to go hand-in-hand with a lot of standby implementations and operating systems that support them) in order to acheive that energy efficiency.

Even with regard to small and cheap computers, I'm limited in the number of things that I can get my hands on by the amount of money I have to spare at any given time. So it's not often that I get to review one and tell you all about it, especially because "cheap" for a new computer system runs into the low hundreds of dollars.

That's not the case with the Intel D945GCLF motherboard. You see, not only is this a motherboard--it's a complete (less RAM and disk) drop-in motherboard AND processor solution that you can just pop into almost any ATX or Mini-ITX compatible case, wire it up and go. The board itself has a soldered-on Intel Atom processor running at 1.6GHz and a 945GC express chipset with integrated graphics backing it up.

It helps that this board and processor can be yours for only $69 USD, although that doesn't include delivery if you buy it online or a drive to the computer store to get one.

Now, before we get too far, I've got to admit that I'm highly skeptical of Intel's claims about the Atom processor. The Pentium 4--in particular the Socket 478 "Prescott"--has set records for the amount of heat it puts out and the amount of power it consumes. The 3.4GHz P4 Prescott in my Dell Dimension 8300 always ran hot, to the point where the system's CPU fan would get to sounding a little bit like a vacuum cleaner.

Even with the computer located on a shelf above you, it's easy to get rather bored with this.

It's even more saddening when you replace the cursed Prescott with a 2.2GHz Celeron CPU sporting a 400MHz front side bus speed and find it runs rings around the 3.4GHz/800MHz FSB Prescott.

The Intel Core microprocessors are supposed to be great improvements over the Pentium 4 family in terms of heat and power consumption. And to be fair, I suppose that they are in many ways. Still, my Macbook and Intel Mac mini both get very hot in operation--I've seen the Macbook top a processor temperature of 195 degrees Fahrenheit at 100% processor utilization. As you can imagine, the cooling fan in the machine is simply screaming along at 6200RPM.

Intel's competition, which comes primarily in the form of Taiwanese chip designer VIA, has not been sitting still. I've seen the VIA C7-D "Esther" CPU on a VIA PC3500 motherboard, and it's impressive. The VIA C7 is available in a 1.0GHz version that only requires a modest heatsink. And from personal experience, I think the 1.5GHz version of the C7 part could very well survive with its heatsink and nothing more than cooling from a case fan. Performance is good as well--the C7 CPU can run Google Earth (and it does surprisingly well at it), play DVDs and do general purpose office work without any problem. Make no mistake--it's no hot-rod gaming CPU, but it doesn't pretend to be one. It does really, really well at staying cool, consuming little power and doing most of the things that many users want to do with their computer.

Intel has taken note of this and designed the so-called "Atom" microprocessor, which contains a subset of Core processor functionality. The focus is on low power consumption and low power output.

So how did they do?

Well, let's take a look at the board itself first.

Intel D945GCLF Motherboard

The board itself measures an actual 6.75 inches by 6.75 inches, or just a bit larger around than the average Mac mini at six inches.

There's a lot of functionality crammed onto one board of that size. You get the processor, the chipset, two SATA ports, a single PATA port, a 20 pin power connector, ATX+12V power connector, a case fan plug, one PCI slot, onboard sound, onboard 10/100 LAN, a single DIMM socket, four USB 2.0 ports, case connectors for more USB 2.0 ports, and a selection of legacy ports. There's also an analog VGA connection for the integrated video.

Yes, Intel has included the trusty old collection of legacy ports--two PS/2 ports, a parallel port and a serial port round out the selection of connectors provided by this board. And while Intel has been taken to task over providing these connectors instead of some more USB ports or a DVI connector, I applaud their decision. I much prefer it when a motherboard has dedicated connections for each item that plugs into it. I don't know what it is about USB ports, but I always have a heck of a time inserting them when I'm not looking at them directly. The "legacy" ports don't give me this kind of trouble--I can almost always plug a parallel, serial or PS/2 cable in right the first time without having to look at the connector.

Oh, and then there's the Model M...so good it deserves better than a USB to PS/2 adapter. Although you can use one if you want to.

The heatsink and fan you see in the picture above is not for the CPU. It's for the 945GC Express northbridge and integrated graphics IC. The actual processor's heatsink is the smaller one.

What's In The Box?

Along with the motherboard, Intel provides a software CD, several stickers showing the layout of the board and its ports, installation instructions in the form of a quick setup poster, and a small "powered by" Intel Atom logo that you're supposed to stick to the front of your computer's case. Or rather, you're only supposed to stick the "powered by" sticker to your computer's case once you have signed a trademark usage agreement with Intel. Other uses seemingly constitute infringement, a claim that I must say I find ridiculous--how you can be misusing Intel's trademark when you apply it to a system containing their board and their parts is utterly beyond me.

I guess I'll think about it while I go and put the thing on one of my AMD based systems.

(Just kidding. Really. I don't like these kinds of stickers and never use them if I can help it.)

Getting Started

Getting started is easy enough. You only need a suitable chassis, and for something like this, I'd expect that the cheapest, nastiest case you can get is probably still more than good enough for this board. (Still, if you can get a decent case, you really should. You won't donate blood to it as often, and the power supply won't be as likely to suck the soul out of the motherboard to appease the powerline gods after some kind of power anomaly takes place.

I chose to reuse an old eMachines T2542 case that had a good power supply and was in good shape apart from a dead motherboard (that was later used to give my truck something to do in the driveway). Part of this had to do with the cheap aspect of things, while the other part could be seen as a response to my friend Scott repurposing his wife's eMachine system with a Biostar motherboard. (He did change out the stock power supply for a beast of a PC Power and Cooling unit, so he's still got that on me.)

You can click either of the pictures below to enlarge them.

Small picture of the Intel D945GCLF board in an eMachines case Small picture of the Intel D945GCLF board in an eMachines case

The first thing you notice when you put a board like this into a regular ATX mini tower case is how tiny the board looks. Seriously. It barely fills the case. There is a LOT of room left over for airflow and cabling.

The Initial Power Up

I don't think I'd be alone if I said that even an experienced computer builder feels a little apprehensive when they get ready to power their new PC for the first time. It's not an unjustified feeling--it's all too easy to let the smoke out of silicon devices and the smell lingers on for a while to remind you how dumb it was to plug that power connector in backwards and just how careful you'll be for the next five minutes or until the shock wears off.

With the board installed in the eMachine case, I hit the power button after hooking up an old IBM 8513 display. (There's that word again--"cheap"...) The computer came on, but the 8513 wasn't happy, so I had to rummage around for another monitor. Fortunately, some kind stranger had dropped off two 15" CRTs in my yard, and both of them happened to work, so I used one of those instead. The onboard video on the D945GCLF evidently starts up in an SVGA mode, and my trusty old 8513 is a VGA-only monitor. This isn't a deal breaker, but if you're planning on using this board to build a server and have only minimal expectations from your display device, it's worth knowing about.

The board came right up and tried to boot the copy of Windows XP still on the Quantum 30GB hard disk. That ended in a STOP error, although it did indicate that things were at least healthy enough to attempt a startup.

Turning things over to a copy of the Ultimate Boot CD worked a lot better and I started wiping the hard drive in preparation for a fresh installation of Windows XP.

Which brings me to another minor nit. If you're building a system as (yes, there's that word again) cheaply as you can, you'll probably use PATA drives. It seems to be an unwritten rule that anyone who works on computers will have a few thousand of these stacked around the place in varying degrees of health. As it happened, the Quantum drive that came with the eMachine when it was new still worked fine apart from a noisy bearing, so I used it and found a problem. The IDE cable provided with the motherboard just wasn't long enough to reach both the PATA CD-RW and Quantum hard disk, which I had to do because there's only one PATA channel on the Intel motherboard. I finally found an acceptable compromise with the hard drive pretzeled around and perched precariously on top of the power supply, where it sat the whole afternoon without any unfortunate incidents.

I still didn't like the way this looked and finally opted to let the CD-RW drive have the PATA channel all to itself while a Western Digital 80GB SATA hard drive was plugged in to SATA channel 0. And while the Intel D945GCLF board has two identical SATA channels, it does not have any RAID support. This isn't a big deal, nor is it something that should really be expected from a budget motherboard. However, I do see a lot of these boards being pressed into service as a low volume server or network appliance--applications that could benefit hugely from RAID. Still, there is a single PCI slot, and if you're going to do RAID, you might as well do it right with a "real" hardware based RAID solution from a company like Adaptec or 3Ware.

With the drives connected, the installation of Windows XP Professional took place. It definitely wasn't the quickest installation I've seen, but it was on a par with the time it takes most modern computers--sometimes as little as half an hour later you can be running Windows XP. The D945GCLF was done in about 45 minutes.

Driver installation went well, although I did not use the drivers on the CD that Intel provided. Instead, I chose to get fresh drivers from the Intel website. This is something I always suggest that people do when they install a new motherboard. There's no real harm in using the software CD that came with your motherboard, but let's face it: Once you install the basic set of hardware drivers, you're not likely to update them for a while, especially if you do not encounter any serious driver related problems. It doesn't hurt to just go and get the latest drivers and install those.

If you were to use the Intel drivers CD, it would run through an automated procedure that installs all of the drivers, after which it would reboot the computer.

Intel provides a world of supplemental software on the CD bundled with the D945GCLF, including such titles as Diskeeeper Home Edition and Kaspersky Anti-Virus. I don't really get much use out of these offerings, but if you do, they are there for the taking.


Once the board is up and running, you can explore the hardware in a bit more detail. The exact Atom processor used is the Intel Atom 230, which is a hyperthreaded part operating at the already mentioned 1.6GHz. What doesn't seem to be as widely advertised is the EM64T (x86-64) support:

GRC Securable showing the Atom 230 CPU's EM64T support...

If a 64-bit operating system is your thing, the Atom 230 used on the D945GCLF can step up to the challenge. It worked well enough for me to try booting an x86-64 bit Linux installation CD I happened to have sitting around.

And speaking of...

Operating Systems

I am a big believer that anyone with a computer should use the operating system they feel the most comfortable with. Whatever they like to use is fine with me. That said, I think it's fair to say that most of these boards will be running a Windows family operating system. Today that means two versions of Windows--XP or Vista.

Windows XP runs very well on the Atom CPU and D945GCLF motherboard combination. I used a number of different software packages alongside the operating system and had no problems with anything I tried. I did not, however, push things too hard. My adventures were limited to software like Mozilla Firefox, Sun Microsystems' OpenOffice.org project and iTunes. More tests will be added to this review--I want to try some "tougher" applications such as Google Earth and the VideoLAN media player.

I can't say as I've tried Windows Vista in any version on this board, but I can't say as I've had any good experiences with Vista. The best performance I've ever seen from Windows Vista came from a 2004-era Athlon XP based minitower that I slapped together for the purpose of testing Vista. That machine ran like it was made for Vista from the start. I haven't seen that kind of performance anywhere else--everywhere else it went, Vista just acted like a big fat pig chowing through computing resources at an alarming rate.

I've seen Vista running on the VIA C7-D platform, and while the overall operating speed was passable, stability (especially in the video department) was poor if the machine was pushed. These problems disappeared completely under XP and various live Linux CDs that I tried. No amount of diddling around solved the problem, so I said "the heck with it" and went XP.

Others who have reviewed this board seem to suggest using Windows XP with it over Vista, and I'd have to agree even if I haven't tried it.

How does VIA's C7-D stack up? I'd give the perception of speed to the Intel Atom processor, because it did feel snappier when just moving around the system. The VIA was no slouch--it just didn't have the same snappiness all the time. Intel does have something of an advantage here--their part is hyperthreaded while VIA's is not.

Finishing Up

There's not much left to say about the Intel D945GCLF board. It is a pleasant surprise to see that Intel has delivered a cool-running processor part that delivers much better performance than the pricing might suggest. I have never been a big fan of Intel motherboards, but this little board has done an awful lot to change my perceptions for the better. Everything I did worked well--the install went smoothly, drivers fell right into place and the applications that I've tried worked very well.

All I can say is that I would highly recommend this board. As long as you're aware that it will never be the basis for a gaming system or anything like that, it's hard to beat. People who do nothing but browse the web, play music and work with documents on their computers should have no problem using a computer build around the Atom CPU and this motherboard.

As for that eMachine case, it cleaned up nicely. (I figured that I might as well remove the "Celeron" sticker as well as some of the other superfluous marketing blah on the front.) The Celeron sticker actually came off easily--I had to whip out a butter knife and the Goo Gone for the rest...

What the eMachines case looked like before being cleaned up... ...and what it looked like after being cleaned up...

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Copyright ©2008 William R. Walsh. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce this work in its entirety with all copyright notices intact. No fee may be charged for access to this information, other than to cover any duplicating, media, or connect-time costs. Portions of this work may be used for other projects, provided credit is given for the portions of this work that you use and that such works are for non-profit distribution or information purposes.