Top critical review
23 people found this helpful
User Tweaking Required
on June 4, 2012
update: I strongly recommend paying a couple of hundred bucks extra for a system with I3+Intel HD3000/4000 graphics that will simply work. I've now run into enough Flash files that choke the Q180 (but not my older laptop) to realize that, specs not withstanding, there are many files/streams on hulu etc. which do not properly take advantage of hardware acceleration, even if Flash itself does. For a compotent HTPC, you really need to have a processor that can handle the decoding in software when necessary for those odd files. E.g., I've seen some episodes that have significant problems where other episodes don't; no problems with the same episodes on the laptop. 720p Netflix remains marginal, with occasional desyncing issues although these haven't been more than once or twice per movie. Thanks to Lenovo's restocking fee, I won't be returning it. But if I had it to do over again, definitely an Asrock or Mac Mini.
Note: I purchased the 4gb memory + blueray player version, but the comments below apply equally as long as you bump the memory (and maybe even without it).
Some of the problems people (like me) first have with this computer are due to Lenovo's outdated drivers. Lenovo's support page drivers are also outdated as of the time of writing (they're dated Oct. 2011). To get this machine working as smoothly as possible, I needed to follow clues from several forums and do the following:
1) update Realtek ethernet driver and Intel chipset driver from those two web sites directly (Realtek HD Audio driver also had an update). Windows doesn't find these automatically.
2) Disable many of the AMD video effects, especially Mosquito Noise Reduction. and dynamic contrast adjustment (go into Catalyst control center > Video Settings).
3) Possibly change the Windows theme to something that sounds less flashy, like Windows Classic or Windows 7 Basic. The Arrow and Glass special effects are big system hogs. However, some other Atom + Ion users report that disabling Arrow breaks Flash acceleration.
4) Uninstall McAffrey, replacing it perhaps with Microsoft Security Essentials or NOD32, both of which run lighter.
5) You might want to try adjusting the minimum processor power to 100% under Advanced power plan settings if you still have slow-down issues.
I had major networking issues and sleep problems (computer's and mine) until updating those drivers. I really don't expect to have to troubleshoot a computer right out of the box just to get the ethernet connection and such to work. [update: turns out the ethernet connection itself is just not well-made. Regardless of the cable being used, nudging the connector--or oftehn the computer itself--causes the cable to back away a millimeter or two, severring contact. At least on my unit]
The oft-noted choppy Netflix HD playback issue has been common to all processors short of a Mac Mini because of Silverlight + Netflix uneven hardware acceleration support. The Q180 can do graphics well, thanks to the AMD discrete GPU, as long as the Atom processor doesn't have to handle it. Silverlight 5 (Dec. 2011) adds hardware acceleration, but it isn't clear to me if this AMD GPU is supported yet. It's a toss up right now whether Netflix and Microsoft will make Atom processors with discrete graphics work or just wait until the last Nettop and netbook devices go extinct, which appears will be soon as more I5 etc. platforms are put into these smaller cases (e.g., Lenovo's M92p "Tiny").
Netflix HD within Windows Media Center and flash in Chrome or Firefox have been smoother than the horror stories I've read. There are certainly occasional issues that you won't have with a normal processor, but it's watchable. Maybe profound choppiness at the beginning of a flash video, which largely then clears up; or a 2-minute desync issue 45 minutes into a movie that fixes itself after a couple of minutes. I've also seen a bit of jerkiness on DVD playback once or twice when the computer starts doing something in the background.
Wireless performance is very limited, as one might expect inasmuch as laptops have that nice big monitor bezel for stringing a much longer antenna. Placed on top of a desk 15 feet from the Wireless-n router, I got a respectable 63mbps. But 45 feet away in the living room on a shelf beneath the TV, that became 13mbps, unusable for HD streaming. I therefore use a stand-alone network bridge to provide wireless at 5GHz at 83mbps over the same distance. Powerline adapters also work well if they work in your house (they don't in mine).
The Q180 Works smoothly with my HDHomeRUn. 24-bit Digital optical also sounds very nice: good enough to where I am not worrying about USB audio, although I have that as an option through my external DAC. Overall, the system runs about the same as the 5-year-old 2GHz Intel Core II Duo system it replaces, which was an AOpen mini-PC with roughly the same form factor. So the replacement is sort of "ho hum" for me: I'm doing it to cut down (way down) on power consumption and to be able to leave the PC on/sleeping all the time. If i had never owned a mini system, I'd be pretty happy about this model or the Acer 70p, its main competitor. Reports indicate that going to 4GB memory makes a significant difference, though.
Reports also indicate that installing an SSD snaps things up as well, despite the processor being the real limiting benchmark (Atom 2700=3.8 on Windows Experience Index whereas other onboard components are 5.9-6.2). SSD performance will be "only" 250MB/s, however, because the controller is SATA2
Minor points: Sound from the HDMI is not duplicated through the optical jack (because this isn't the way Windows does things: they're separate sound devices). There's a slight high-pitched electrical noise from my system during sleep. About what you'd hear through headphones from noisy unshielded PC innards. The fan runs pretty much constantly at an "I'm here" level if you're in a quiet room, but certainly you won't hear it from more than a couple of feet away and it's a non-issue when playing media. Effectively, you just won't hear this computer unless you put your ear close to it. The buttons on the computer and BD player are hard to press, IMO. The optional BD player is bolted onto the main unit with magnets--not easy to separate at all, so call it permanently fused. There's a nice enclosed connector that snaps onto the back to connect these two devices via USB. I like this approach: you get a perfectly matched external optical drive that fits in the same footprint, is bus-powered, and can be replaced/upgraded/ditched. However, with this plus the hand-held keyboard/mouse dongle plugged in, you're down to two USB ports in the back. Finally, I really wish one of the USB 3.0 ports was on the back for external drive attachment, but I suppose I can put it back there at 2.0 speed and bring it over to the front for large transfers or backups. The optical drive option, USB 3, and comparatively easy hard drive upgradability are what this unit has over the Mac Mini, to the extent it has anything over the mini.
Atom processors will always be an underwhelming experience: that's not a problem with the processor, but a tradeoff. Low low power consumption and low processing power, hopefully in a balance that creates a good value. What seems to be happening in the market, however, is that the user experience can't keep this arithmetic in mind--using an Atom processor just feels sluggish when you actually have to launch programs, etc. So the value is good on paper but I think these nettops haven't satisfied customers on the gutt level, Ubuntu not withstanding. And, power efficiency improvements in the I3/I5/I7 platform are quickly rendering the Atom idea irrelevant for non-embedded uses. The Q180 actually runs pretty well as a basic machine. But unlike a Mac mini, it won't give you that "I just bought an upgrade" feel.
Surveying the market: Looking forward to early 2013, this unit, is perhaps best for small size, running cool, and sipping very little power. You will have issues with Web streaming noted above, though, even at 720p or Flash SD at times. Brazos-platform and Brazos 2 nettops like the Acer 70p and upcoming Asrock mini might do a slightly but maybe not earth-shakingly better job (I have no direct experience and am going on benchmarks). Mac Minis require expensive extra software for live TV (as will Windows 8, for which WMC will be an inexpensive "app" add-on), and you apparently have to entirely disassemble the Mac--including the logic board--to get at the hard drive. Then there's Asrock: their CoreHT 252b (no longer available), 231b, and upcoming Vision HT 321b are the perfect HTPCs with everything you could dream of wanting. Once you add significantly more dough for Windows plus blueray playback software, they're an expensive option. Worth it though, if you really need a PC. I don't see any I3/I5 options with optical drives coming up that will be in the price range of the Q180, but without optical drives the Zotak ID-82 and of course Mac mini are great. FoxCon has also started marketting equivalent boxes. In short, if there's a nitch where the Q180 remains the best option, it's a mighty narrow one. Can't beat it for cuteness, anyway, and it's good if streaming and desktop applications aren't your main goal.