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.
CineBench R15 64-bit
The latest benchmark from MAXON, Cinebench R15 makes use of all your system’s processing power to render a photorealistic 3D scene using various different algorithms to stress all available processor cores. The test scene contains approximately 2,000 objects containing more than 300,000 total polygons and uses sharp and blurred reflections, area lights and shadows, procedural shaders, antialiasing, and much more. This particular benchmarking can measure systems with up to 64 processor threads. The result is given in points (pts). The higher the number, the faster your processor.
Cinebench is the first benchmark in this suite and it effectively shows the improvements which have been built into the Kaby Lake architecture. While both of these processors are in the same “class” the i7-7500U is the obvious winner.
PCMark 8 is the latest iteration of Futuremark’s system benchmark franchise. It generates an overall score based upon system performance with all components being stressed in one way or another. The result is posted as a generalized score.
wPrime is a leading multithreaded benchmark for x86 processors that tests your processor performance by calculating square roots with a recursive call of Newton’s method for estimating functions, with f(x)=x2-k, where k is the number we’re squaring, until Sgn(f(x)/f'(x)) does not equal that of the previous iteration, starting with an estimation of k/2. It then uses an iterative calling of the estimation method a set amount of times to increase the accuracy of the results. It then confirms that n(k)2=k to ensure the calculation was correct. It repeats this for all numbers from 1 to the requested maximum. This is a highly multi-threaded workload. Below are the scores for the 1024M benchmark while the 32M score focuses on single threaded performance.
As we go on through additional results, Kaby Lake continues to show its benefits. The only area where it doesn’t walk all over its predecessor is PCMark since that test relies on the performance of other components (storage, memory, etc.) as well.
At face value, 7-Zip is a simple compression/decompresion tool like popular applications like WinZip and WinRAR but it also has numerous additional functions that can allow encryption, decryption and other options. For this test, we use the standard built-in benchmark which focuses on raw multi-threaded throughput.
3ds MAX Corona Renderer
Autodesk’s 3ds MAX is currently one of the most-used 3D modeling, animation and rendering programs on the market, providing a creative platform for architects to industrial designers alike. Unfortunately its rendering algorithms leave much to be desired and third party rendering add-ons are quite popular. One of the newest ones is called Corona.
In this test we take a custom 3D scene of a room with global illumination enabled and render it out in 720P using Corona’s built-in renderer.
Real world testing puts the i7-7500U ahead, especially in rendering where it shaved a good 10% off Corona’s times. Now I wouldn’t recommend the BRIX for rendering but in a pinch it can get the job done….you’ll just have to be very patient.
While it may be open source, GIMP is actually one of the most popular free photo editors available right now. It uses both SYSTEM and GPU acceleration for certain tasks. In this test we use an 8K image and use a script to run eight different filters in succession. This is considered a lightly threaded workload since the memory, SYSTEM and storage drive can all play a role in performance.
Video conversion from one format to another is a stressful task for any processor and speed is paramount. Handbrake is one of the more popular transcoders on the market since it is free, has a long feature list, supports GPU acceleration and has an easy-to-understand interface. In this test we take a 6GB 4K MP4 and convert it to a 1080P MKV file with a H.264 container format. GPU acceleration has been both disabled and enabled. The results posted indicate how long it took for the conversion to complete.
At this juncture it is very important to remember that much of Kaby Lake’s performance improvements were pilloried by desktop users for not being a drastic improvement over Skylake. The low voltage iterations meanwhile show why this refreshed architecture is so important: due to its lower operating temperatures and power needs, the silicon is able to consistently reach higher frequencies. As a result we are seeing numbers like the ones above.
POV Ray 3.7
POV Ray is a complex yet simple to use freeware ray tracing program which has the ability to efficiently use multiple SYSTEM cores in order to speed up rendering output. For this test, we use its built-in benchmark feature which renders a high definition scene. The rendering time to completion is logged and then listed below.
WinRAR is one of those free tools that everyone seems to use. Its compression and decompression algorithms are fully multi-core aware which allows for a significant speedup when processing files. In this test we compress a 3GB folder of various files and add a 256-bit encryption key. Once again the number listed is the time to completion.
The BRIX isn’t a good option for anyone dealing with high level workflows but once again we are seeing that i7-7500U boast significant improvements over its predecessor. Some of these are due to architecture-level revisions while others are simply a byproduct of higher frequencies.
3DMark Cloud Gate (DX11)
3DMark’s Cloud Gate benchmark is targeted towards entry-level PC’s and as such, it presents tests that are lighter in nature but still represent some of today’s most popular gaming scenarios.
3DMark Sky Diver (DX11)
When compared against Cloud Gate, Sky Diver steps things up a notch with different tests and a slightly higher resolution. It is meant to tax mid-tier systems.
The BRIX with its low voltage CPU was never created to offer a superlative gaming experience. While the Kaby Lake processor uses the exact same integrated GPU design as Skylake, frequencies and internal efficiencies have been improved so its results are higher.
DOTA 2 (DX11)
Other than some very low-level but puopular games like DOTA, you won’t be able to use the BRIX as a primary gaming system. Nonetheless, if you want to play some casual titles on an HDTV, it should deliver adequate framerates provided in-game settings are turned way down.
Trine 2 (DX11)
Not much to see here folks. Neither of these games is hard on any system and the BRIX can indeed offer somewhat playable framerates but don’t expect any miracles.
The power consumption on these small form factor systems is meant to be minimal at most. In order to test the system’s power needs, it is plugged into a calibrated meter and the wattage is then logged every 10 seconds for 15 minutes. The averages are then displayed at load and idle.
The idle scenario is taken at the Windows 10 desktop while load is taken during a 30 minute video conversion with Quick Sync enabled.
Even though it offers higher performance metrics, the newer BRIX actually consumes quite a bit less power than its predecessor. Now remember, other than the processor these are two identically-equipped systems so this really does point towards the huge strides Intel has made with their Kaby Lake architecture.
What you see below are the baseline idle dB(A) results attained for each system. The decibel meter we use has been calibrated and is placed at seated ear-level exactly 16” away from the system in a position that’s typical for a user.
The idle scenario is taken at the Windows 10 desktop while load is taken during a 30 minute video conversion with Quick Sync enabled.
Both systems are extremely quiet, though fan speeds do tend to ramp up when they’re being used for more intensive tasks. Will this level of noise be perceptible? Yes, but it easily blends into the background.
As with the other benchmarks in order to figure out peak temperatures we used two scenarios. The idle scenario is taken at the Windows 10 desktop while load is taken during a 30 minute video conversion with Quick Sync enabled.
While the newer BRIX is able to remain at a lower temperature than its predecessor, that’s not really saying much. 88°C is far too close to the processor’s throttle point for my liking. These are temperatures we’re used to seeing from a thin and light notebook rather than an SFF PC with vertical space to use for more effective cooling methods.
As for the thermal imaging shots, there really isn’t much to see since the semi-metal finish on the chassis helps dissipate heat. With that being said Gigabyte may have to look at their internal design since these shots do show that a lot of heat is remaining within the confines of the BRIX case.
Conclusion; Challenges but Kaby Lake Shines Through
There are two different aspects of this particular review: one of which showed how the BRIX performs in baseline applications and the other which highlights what kind of performance Intel was able to bake into Kaby Lake. The latter of those is likely the most impressive since in a true apples to apples comparison, the i7-7500U showed noticeable improvements over its direct predecessor, the i7-6500U. As for the BRIX, well let’s get to that before diving into the capabilities of Kaby Lake’s low voltage lineup.
Some may consider Gigabyte’s BRIX lineup to be one of the most faithful recreations of Intel’s NUC initiative. These mini-me desktops are compact, quiet and extremely capable but a certain amount of expectation management is necessary as well. It isn’t going to blow your socks off or -due to the integrated Intel graphics- allow you to play anything but the most basic game. However, as a basic media box, or simple PC for a student it succeeds in leaps and bounds.
Think of the BRIX as an ultra compact desktop with the performance of a high end thin and light notebook. And therein lies the problem. Due to the price it is only normal that we focus on what the BRIX can’t do rather than what it does well. If it came fully equipped with Windows, memory and an integrated storage drive for $599 I could see there being widespread acceptance. Instead, this version of the BRIX barely remains under a grand once all of the necessary components are added. Any perceived value is lost at that point. For $850 you could grab a notebook like Dell’s Inspiron 7000 Gaming or Acer’s VX15 and get a much more versatile solution which also packs a dedicated GTX 1050 GPU.
With the advent of compute sticks and basic Android-based set top boxes for streaming media consumption it is becoming increasingly hard to see the benefits in these relatively expensive small form factor PCs. They occupy a grey area for retail-focused clients but could prove to be beneficial in an office environment. I’d even argue that for home users something like NVIDIA’s SHIELD could accomplish 95% of what the BRIX can for a fraction of the cost.
Moving past the BRIX brings us to the Skylake versus Kaby Lake comparison. While many readers of our desktop-focused Kaby Lake 7700K review failed to see the benefits of Intel’s refreshed microarchitecture, the notebook / SFF PC segment allows it to shine. The i7-7500U’s lower TDP leads to higher continual clock speeds while slight revisions in its caching hierarchy and Turbo Boost Max algorithms push performance even further afield. All of this has been accomplished while reducing the overall power consumption footprint. The notebook market stands the most to gain since this combination will lead to improved battery life as well.
Another thing that can’t be overlooked is Kaby Lake’s updated video engine now has native support support for 4K HEVC encoding/decoding at 10-bit depths and also decoding of VP9 video streams. Whereas Skylake simply accelerated HEVC 1080P content, the move to hardware acceleration for 4K is a game changer for anyone who wants to use their small PC’s for seamless UHD Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and other online video services.
So there you have it; the BRIX does indeed highlight the best of what Kaby Lake has to offer but I struggled to find usage scenarios where a notebook or low cost Android-based system couldn’t take over the majority of its duties. Now if Gigabyte decided to take a page from the notebook market and add a dedicated GTX 1050 to the BRIX, then we’d certainly sit up and take notice.