Slowly but surely we are seeing a trend towards smaller form factor PC’s. Like uphill molasses, the mainstream market is slowly shifting away from the beige ATX tower as the stereotypical PC. Users are becoming accustomed to the powerful features of their compact smart phones, tablets and notebooks. While the overall PC market continues to struggle, small form factors are a continuing area of innovation. Products like the Intel NUC, increasing numbers of mITX sized motherboards, SFF power supplies and even GPUs point towards a shift in the market.
Mini PC’s like the ECS Liva X we have on hand for a review today are part of this trend towards a smaller PC footprint. It looks to be one of the PC market segments that has serious growth potential with many of the major PC manufacturers now offering products in the category.
The ECS Liva X is a second generation ultra compact form factor PC, following in the footsteps of the original Liva. It is designed to be a no frills unit with a focus on low power use, size minimization and affordability. This last criteria means there is no OS supplied. At least this gives the user some choice. Not everyone likes paying for Windows 8 when they wish to use Windows 7 or Linux.
A Closer Look
Upon opening the packaging we are presented with the Liva X unit itself, plus a power brick, VESA mount, installation guide, user guide and a driver disk. Our unit came with UK, US and EU plug adapters. We’ll assume that units destined for specific regions will be equipped with the appropriate adapter.
Moving onto the front of the unit, we really get a sense of the tiny size of the Liva X when using the USB ports as a reference. Speaking of USB ports, we see three in total, one of the 3.0 and two of the 2.0 variety. In a typical usage scenario, at least one of the USB 2.0 ports will be taken by a keyboard and/or mouse. This leaves the USB 3.0 port free for something like a high speed external storage device. Perhaps one more port would be useful, to allow a common setup like a keyboard, mouse & printer leaving the 3.0 port free for a flash drive or external hard drive. To be fair, a cheap USB 3.0 hub will provide all the connectivity you will ever need. On the left is the power button and activity LED.
Moving around to the other side of the unit, you’ll see the DC power connector, HDMI port, Gigabit network port (provided by a Realtek 8111G controller), a combo line in/line out 3.5mm port and a VGA port. Some may wonder why we have a VGA port on a 2015 device, but we have no problem with this given its possible usage scenarios, such as connecting to a projector, use in emerging markets or in a digital signage display where VGA is still very common. The 3.5mm port is capable of line out and mic in, but requires an optional adapter to do this.
Moving on to the bottom of the unit, we see four rubberized feet with integrated Phillips head screws. Unscrewing these removes the baseplate of the unit. This allows access to the inside of the unit and access to the optional mSATA SSD slot. This will be critical if the user wishes to install Windows 7 since it cannot be installed on the standard eMMC storage.
Once the baseplate is removed, we see the large heatsink cooling the CPU and two memory chips. The heatsink is attached via the four already removed baseplate screws, and is itself removed by the finger indentations. The heatsink is quite solid and weighty.
Once the heatsink is removed, we have access to the main board itself. It is necessary to remove the entire mainboard to gain access to the mSATA slot on the other side of the PCB. To do this, the two VGA screws need to be removed. Overall, access to the unit is very simple, requiring the removal of just six screws to disassemble the entire unit.
Once the main board is removed, flipping it over shows us the mSATA slot on the left. As mentioned this is critical for a user wishing to install Windows 7.
Now that we have access to the whole unit, lets take a look at what makes the ECS Liva X tick.
Our review sample came with a 22nm Intel Celeron N2808 SoC. This is a dual core dual thread processor based on the Silvermont architecture. With a standard clock speed of 1.58Ghz and a turbo speed of 2.25 & 1mb of L2 cache, we won’t be seeing any world records in terms of performance. The key feature is the rated TDP of just 4.5w. We could probably stop the review right here and say that the ability to run a full Windows 8.1 installation on a CPU of this TDP at under $200 USD is nothing short of outstanding.
Our sample came with 2Gb of DDR3 memory running at 1333Mhz and 32Gb of eMMC storage. While this is easily enough for a typical Linux installation, our Windows 8.1 installation with a few additional programs took up almost all of the 32Gb.
The Liva X includes a mini PCIe wifi card. Though capable of 802.11n speeds on paper, it is a pretty basic little card as we saw in our performance testing. We don’t have any problem with this as its there to do a job on a budget, not set speed records.
Other key controllers are the Realtek ALC283 dual channel chip taking care of the audio along with the RTL8111G handling network duties. Thankfully this is a Gigabit controller.
VESA mounting will be a key consideration for many applications. In the case of a digital kiosk or sign, the unit can be placed out of sight and out of mind, or effectively turn a monitor into an all in one PC.
Incorporating a fancy UEFI interface would add unnecessary complexity and cost to the Liva X, so we have a simple older style American Megatrends BIOS layout. Overall, the options are fairly limited as you would expect on a system such as this. Forget about overclocking or bios profiles or anything like that.
Here is the advanced tab. There isn’t too much to configure here.
This is perhaps the most important menu. You’ll need to visit here to configure your OS installation. These days its not too hard to configure a USB flash drive to install an OS so you’d need to change the boot sequence.
We installed Windows 8.1. Installation was painless, though since we didn’t have a USB DVD drive on hand to install drivers, we visited the ECS website rather than use the bundled DVD. Yes, you could extract them from the disk on another PC, but why not include a small flash drive or even a drive partition with the drivers there?
Rather than spend too much time on benchmarks, we focused on a particularly appealing usage scenario where we used the Liva X as the front end for a Synology DS415+ NAS. HTPC use will certainly be a common placement for the Liva X. Many of the more advanced TV’s are equipped with a processor and features negating the need for a dedicated HTPC these days, but no TV is able to run Windows and all the apps that can run on it.
We connected the Liva X to the NAS via a LAN cable, and then used the HDMI output to connect to the TV. Something like Google Chromecast could also do this, but it no match for a fully functional PC in the living room. We are able to access all the features of our Synology NAS which opens up a whole other level of applications. If the user has a HDMI switching amplifier or receiver, then the Liva X in tandem with a capable NAS is perfectly able to act as the center of a multimedia center. Excellent!
As we see below, playing a X.264 1080p blu ray rip didn’t even make the CPU kick into top speed.
We’ll start off with a WiFi transfer. A throughput of 5.9-6Mb is pretty average but good enough for most scenarios. Remember we aren’t dealing with a top spec expensive PC here. If wireless speed is important, then something like a USB 3.0 AC dongle or switching out the mini PCIe card will be required at additional expense.
Transfers via the Gigabit LAN port fared much better, with a consistent transfer speed of 73-75 MB/s meaning the LAN connection is the obviously preferable networking solution.
We ran a check of the eMMC speed using ATTO Disk benchmark and found write speeds topped out at around the 75MB/s point. This matches right up with the LAN transfer speed we saw above indicating this is the limit of the onboard storage.
Speaking of temperatures, We aren’t quite sure of our software readings as they varied quite a lot between programs such as Realtemp and HWinfo etc. After running LinX for 20 minutes. The unit itself was barely lukewarm to the touch. We’re completely comfortable in saying that the Liva X will not encounter any temperature related issues whatsoever.
Systems like the ECS Liva X excel by virtue of their simplicity. You aren’t buying it for a shopping list of specifications, extreme gaming or content creation, you’re buying it because it does the basics with no fuss yet delivers most of what most people use a PC for. Internet surfing, email, office apps, media consumption and app style gaming are all tasks the ECS Liva X does well. With a price in the range of $200 USD, consider its low power use, compact size, zero noise and we think the ECS Liva X is a steal.
If you have a specific task such as digital signage, media playback, an office machine, as a NAS front end, a digital kiosk, video surveillance, or as a basic Internet machine for grandma and grandpa, then the ECS Liva X can serve these purposes and serve them very well.
When dealing with a tiny form factor PC at a entry level price, there will always be compromises. These really fade into nothing when considering the purpose of the Liva X. ECS have made an affordable,capable and appealing mini PC that is certainly improved over the original Liva. We hope we’ll be seeing more of this type of PC. In the coming years, maybe the market can relegate the bland beige ATX box to the annals of history.
Low Power Consumption
Decent enough performance
Could use an extra few percent of CPU performance
Inclusion of a driver DVD is a bit pointless