March 3, 2005

Review: VIA Epia MII-12000 motherboard

Author: Jem Matzan

It's quiet, it's small, it's powerful enough for everyday desktop use and versatile enough to be a set-top media device or small home server. It takes PCMCIA cards, IDE drives, DDR memory, and a standard ATX power supply, yet it's smaller than a laptop computer. It has a built-in DVD decoder (no more DeCSS!) and with its built-in AES chip it can encrypt and decrypt data faster than the most powerful Athlon 64 system. The question isn't, "What can you do with the Epia MII-12000?" The question is, "What can't you do with the Epia MII-12000?"

Well, maybe it doesn't make such a great gaming system -- that's one thing it can't do. It probably isn't the best choice for visualization, number-crunching, or high-end video editing, either. Basically the MII-12000 is a specialized desktop replacement, but it can't do anything that you'd use a "workstation" for.

Onboard components and supported parts

The onboard video, sound, and LAN are obviously made by VIA, as VIA makes and sells this motherboard. The sound is the VT1616 6-channel AC'97 chip (the board only has three audio plugs, though, so you'll have to sacrifice the mic and line in jacks for 5.1 surround sound), the LAN is the VT6103 "Rhine" 10/100 chip, the video is VIA Unichrome AGP, the PCMCIA cardbus chip is the Ricoh 476II/485/486, and the firewire chip is the VT6307S. There is also a compact flash card slot mounted underneath the single PCMCIA socket.

The CPU is a VIA C3 EBGA (in a previous life, this was the Cyrix C3 architecture) at 1.2Ghz. VIA makes one processor faster than this one (1.3Ghz) but its availability is limited to OEMs at this time. So this is pretty much the fastest Mini-ITX motherboard you can get as of this writing. This isn't one of the fanless models, but the CPU fan is small enough that the machine doesn't make anywhere near the noise a higher-powered Intel or AMD-based machine inflicts on you.

While it may seem like overkill, you can install the Epia MII-12000 (or any other Mini-ITX motherboard) into any standard ATX or microATX chassis. Most people tend to opt for smaller chassis/power solutions ala Casetronic or Morex, among others. After all, part of the Epia's charm is its small size, so why not take advantage of it?

You can use any ATX power supply for the MII-12000, any IDE device (there are two dual-drive ATA133 IDE channels, so you can have up to four devices), and the one RAM slot will take up to a 1GB stick of PC2100 or PC2700. Technically you can use PC3200 or above if you like, but there will be no performance advantage over PC2700. The processor only has a 266Mhz frontside bus, so theoretically PC2100 (DDR266) is all you need. However, PC2700 (DDR333) is often cheaper and more easily found than PC2100, and there can be a functional performance advantage in some instances; at very least, the PC2700 will clock down to PC2100 and go merrily along, so there's no harm in using a higher frequency memory module.

The MII-12000 has a single PCI slot. A PCI video card wouldn't give you much of an advantage over the integrated AGP video, and the onboard sound and LAN are already good enough for the kind of work the processor can handle. The MII-12000 already has firewire, TV (RCA, can also be S/PDIF instead of TV if you like) and S-Video output, and integrated MPEG-2 video decoding, so there really isn't much use for the PCI slot. You could of course make this into a home server and put a wireless LAN card into that PCI slot, then stick the whole system in a closet someplace to serve your /home directory or provide music broadcasts via Icecast.

In the box

You get one I/O faceplate for the backplane, one 80-wire dual drive IDE cable, one floppy cable, and a Windows driver CD. Realistically, you'd probably want a second IDE cable, so you might need to add that to your build sheet if you're planning on basing a system on this motherboard.

But does it work with Linux?

The onboard AES chip is supported natively in the Linux kernel, but you'll have to make sure you have a module compiled for it (or that the correct module is built into your kernel). The MPEG-2 decoder only works with certain video players. It's supposed to work with recent builds of MPlayer and Xine, although when we tested with YUM RPMs of both programs, we could only get DVD playback to work properly in Xine. We tested with Fedora Core 3, which does not include Xine or Mplayer by default. Other distributions that use specialized versions of Xine and MPlayer may have different results.

Everything else worked just as nicely as Xine did: the video chip was detected by FC3 and the proper kernel and drivers loaded without trouble. The LAN chip worked without hassle; the sound "just worked," too. It's as though the board were made for GNU/Linux.

Device Integrated Mini-ITX motherboard
Manufacturer VIA
OS Support Windows 9.x/2K/XP, *BSD, GNU/Linux with a recent 2.6 kernel
Market Low-end desktop computing, media devices, small formfactor enthusiasts
Price (retail) U.S. $210-$230
Previous version MII-10000
Product Web site Click here
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