16 Sep 2023 - by 'Maurits van der Schee'
The fairly new N100 processor was mainly available in mini PC's and firewall devices, but now we have ASRock that offers it as "N100DC-ITX" on an ITX sized motherboard. I'm using it to rebuild a PC in my living room that I designed to be powerful and silent and always on. My previous build was an ASRock J5040-ITX motherboard in an Inter-Tech ITX-601 HTPC case with 32 GB of RAM a 1 TB SSD. It used 8 watt at idle and I wrote a post about it. No reason for real complaints as I've used the machine daily, but certain websites (and sometimes VSCode) started to feel a bit slow. I wanted a little better performance and the N100 should be able to deliver and hopefully it will not consume much more power.
It is a very affordable board considering you can power it with a 20 euro external power supply and has a CPU and cooler included for only 140 euro. Add an ITX case, some RAM and a drive and you'll build a nice fanless budget PC around 300 euro. Great features are it's full size DDR4 support, 2 SATA ports and it's NVMe slot (PCIe 3.0 x4). The board has 6 physical USB ports on it's I/O shield and supports 6 USB ports on front panel connections. It also supports M2 WiFi, but be careful as you must use a CNVio2 (Key E) card, such as the (recommended) Intel AX211 (which performs really well).
The only other N100 ITX motherboard option I'm aware of at the time of writing is the Asus PRIME N100I-D D4, but that has a 16GB SO-DIMM RAM limit (according to Asus), which is too low for me. It has NVMe drive support and has also 1 SATA3 port, so apart from the RAM limit everything looks good. Strange enough early announcements of the board claimed it would support 32GB RAM, but now Asus says it doesn't. So honestly, I wouldn't take the risk. Note that this is also not a DC board, so it requires you to buy an additional PicoPSU to run it in a small case. For now I'll prefer the ASRock board.
The materials used in this build are:
91 Antec ISK 110 Case (includes 90W power brick) 140 ASRock N100DC-ITX motherboard with CPU 82 Patriot Viper Steel DDR4 1 x 32GB 3200MHz RAM 95 Crucial P3 Plus 2TB M.2 PCIe Gen4 NVMe SSD 15 Noctua NF-P12 1300 RPM Redux, 4-pins PWM, 120mm Fan 21 Intel® Wi-Fi 6E AX211, Key E M2, CNVio2 11 2 x IPEX (MHF2) Cable + 8dBi WiFi Antenna 14 Be quiet! MC1 M2 SSD cooler --- + 469 Total
Note that even without trying to save costs, I still managed to stay under 500 euro total costs on this build. I had an "Antec ISK 110 Vesa" laying around from a previous upgrade with 2 x USB 3 and 2 x USB 2 on the front, but this case is hard to find now. As an alternative I do recommend the "Chieftec IX-03B" with a 120mm x 15mm slim fan, which looks nicer as it is a smaller case, but is lacking front panel USB connections.
Well.. depends on your definition of silent I guess. The motherboard is fan-less and it supports connected fans that only power up above a certain motherboard or CPU temperature. The "Noctua NF-P12 Redux" is a very quiet fan that I only spin up to 25% (of 1300 RPM) when the motherboard goes above 50 degrees Celsius. I configured the fan curve to spin the fan 10% faster for every 10 degrees the motherboard heats up. You can play with these (visual) fan curves in the BIOS, which is very nice. I can assure you that most of the time the fan will be off and when it is on, you won't hear it. It may not even be needed, but I believe that a little airflow has a positive effect on the life-time of the components. So yes, the build is very quiet and no it's not fan-less.
No, it's not as efficient as my previous build. It uses about 12 watt idle, which is a lot more (measured on the wall socket). This was somewhat disappointing, but it triggered me to try out the suspend (to RAM, S3) option. When suspended it uses only 2 watt, which is very nice (in combination with auto-suspend after half an hour). Also waking up from suspend was very fast (1-2 seconds). The only problem was that initially after waking up from suspend the video failed to work (no signal). I found out that this was a bug that was solved in a recent Linux kernel. After updating my Linux kernel to the latest version (using the mainline tool) suspend was working flawless.
So I like computers to be cheap, small and quiet. After today I can say I also achieved "relatively fast" as this machine isn't noticeably slower than my 5700G in everyday tasks (surfing, office work, programming). If you are looking for a living room PC that it relatively small and quiet I can recommend this build. It was a joy to build and it is a joy to work with. The PC is heavily used every day, so I feel the money is well spent. I hope I inspired you with this write-up and enjoy upgrading and tinkering!