GIGABYTE BRIX Review; A Mini Powerhouse?
From notebooks to homebrew gaming PC’s and set top boxes, form factors are rapidly shrinking in an effort to keep pace with our increasingly space-constrained lifestyles. Today’s high efficiency processors and storage solutions play a huge role in achieving that goal and we’ve already seen some incredible combinations of performance an low power consumption.
Make no mistake about it; I love covering all the high end components one can cram into a compact PC or a thin gaming notebook. However, the vast majority of buyers are looking for more value-driven products to meet their basic computing needs. Instead of high end processing, those needs revolve around more basic tasks like homework, family photo / video editing, YouTube browsing and maybe even some light gaming. Ironically, what makes these mini systems so great for a multitude of tasks also leads to them being a great option for home media servers. For those scenarios and more, Gigabyte’s BRIX lineup offers an interesting, compact and relatively affordable solution.
While the BRIX ecosystem may not be new, Intel’s seventh generation Core processors –also known as Kaby Lake- has supposedly breathed new life into these small form factor PCs. Gaining some recognition wouldn’t be a bad thing either since, like many other mini-PCs, the BRIX lineup has been struggling to gain recognition outside of the office and education fields.
When looking at the raw specifications of the new BRIX, it isn’t hard to see why Gigabyte has faced some challenges shifting them in the mainstream retail market. In barebones form without an accompanying storage drive or memory this little guy goes for $500 USD. Now granted, with a low voltage i5-7500U processor and Wireless AC networking its baseline component choices aren’t anything to scoff at but adding the necessary components (let’s say $200 for a basic SSD and memory) and a Windows 10 activation (another $120) will push pricing very close to $1000. Add in a mouse, keyboard and monitor and suddenly the price for that low cost compact PC expands to full desktop-level proportions.
At this point in time you may be wondering: “Why in the world would anyone want to buy one of these?!”. First and foremost is the convenience factor but part of that is eliminated with the barebones nature of the product I’m testing here. Most folks are daunted by the aspect of manipulating PC components and the prospect of installing Windows and even after more than a decade of experience, I can sympathize with those preconceptions. To allay those concerns Gigabyte will happily sell you a BRIX with a 128GB M.2 SSD 16GB of memory and Windows pre-installed but actually finding one of those SKU’s is insanely challenging right now.
Even with the convenience factor somewhat eliminated by the need to add your own components to this particular BRIX, its footprint will likely draw a lot of people in. Being smaller than a hardcover book means it can fit into pretty much any space with a minimum of hassle and the brushed aluminum finish should blend in seamlessly with any environment. With the included VESA mount it can even be installed behind a monitor.
Differences between the last year’s Skylake BRIX and this new Kaby Lake-based version aren’t all that apparent on first glance but they are nonetheless noteworthy. The dual front panel USB 3.0 ports have been replaced with USB 3.1 and USB 3.1 Type-C connectors (though bandwidth remains identical since neither is of the newer Gen2 spec) and the dedicated microphone jack is now gone.
The older BRIX also had additional side-mounted USB 3.0, ports and an SD card reader, all of which have been removed from this latest iteration. While the USB ports themselves have migrated to the rear I/O panel, the card reader has been completely nixed.
Personally I like the movement of those USB ports to the back since it avoids the unsightly look of peripheral cables sprouting from the side of an otherwise clean little PC. Other than that, not many things have changed here; there’s Kensington lock, a power input port while video output is handled by a mini DisplayPort 1.2 (a mini to full-size adapter isn’t included) and HDMI 2.0. Finally there’s those two aforementioned USB 3.0 ports and a standard RJ45 connector. If wireless connectivity is your thing, then Gigabyte has you covered there as well since the BRIX has a built-in WiFi / Bluetooth module.
For those of you who may be daunted by the perspective of adding memory and a storage drive to the BRIX barebones system, Gigabyte has done their best to make things hassle-free. The first step is to simply remove the four screws embedded within the unit’s rubber feet and then use the recessed nub to pull off the bottom plate.
After that, it’s simply a process of sliding and then clipping in the two DDR4L modules of your choice along with mounting and plugging in the 2.5” drive. If you want something a bit more compact, the BRIX also has an open 2280 sized PCI-E M.2 slot which you can see in the upper right hand corner in the picture above. This could be an excellent option if some additional storage is needed since the OS can be installed onto the high speed M.2 drive while the 2.5” caddy can house a secondary high capacity HDD. It also points towards a change from the SKylake BRIX which didn’t support PCI-E NVMe storage.
One of the major benefits of the BRIX over other mini systems I’ve used is how accessible the components are. Granted, the processor and its heatsink are located below the motherboard but the memory, M.2 slot and other components are right there at your fingertips. I’m not a huge fan of the move away from a braided power / data cable for the 2.5” drive since the new flat cable tends to kink far too much but other than that minor complaint, everything here is well executed.
What isn’t quite as well thought-out is the first time setup process after you boot the system for the first time. It flatly refused to recognize any 2.5” drive I had installed! A successful POST was only achieved by enabling CSM support and modifying the boot options to Legacy format. Supposedly this will be fixed with a yet-to-be-released BIOS update but I can’t begin to explain how unacceptable this is for a system that’s supposed to be novice-friendly.
With that tidbit off my back it’s time to get into a bit of performance testing between the new and old BRIX. For that, I used 16GB of Corsair’s ValueSelect DDR4L memory and a Kingston HyperX 480GB SSD. Will this updated version really achieve the higher performance and lower power consumption that Intel promises from Kaby Lake? Let’s find out.
- System Benchmarks: Cinebench
- System Benchmarks: PCMark 8 / WPrime
- Productivity Benchmarks: 7-Zip / Corona
- Productivity Benchmarks: GIMP / Handbrake
- Productivity Benchmarks: POV Ray / WinRAR
- Gaming Performance (Synthetic)
- Gaming Performance (DOTA 2 & DOOM)
- Gaming Performance (Overwatch 2 & Trine 2)
- Power Consumption / Temperatures & Acoustics
- Conclusion; Challenges but Kaby Lake Shines Through