Hardware Review: mp3Car ToughBox 14 Mini-Box M350 Based Intel Mini ITX System
by, 01-27-2010 at 05:17 PM (4757 Views)
What is it?
The Toughbox 14 is a small yet powerful Micro-ITX computer system built and sold by the Mp3car store. The Mp3car store allows full customization of the Toughbox 14, and the price for a self-installed Toughbox 14 system starts at only $234.99.
The Toughbox 14 is the absolute easiest way to add a powerful, efficient, and genuine car PC to any automobile. It was carefully designed to be everything you could want a car PC to be right out of the box. Couple that with the fact it’s built and backed by Mp3car and you have an absolute winner.
See this product on the mp3Car Store HERE.
What’s in the box?
You decide. The base ToughBox 14 system consists of a Mini-Box 350 case, an Intel D945GSEJT motherboard with an integrated Intel Atom N270 processor, 512 MHz of DDR2 ram, and a 160GB laptop grade hard drive. Optionally, Mp3car allows expansion of the ToughBox 14 by adding a 2 port USB module, 2GHz of DDR 2 Ram, an Intel 80GB solid-state hard drive, and an internal PCI-E Intel 802.11 Wifi Card with externally mounted Wifi antenna. To further aid in the installation process Mp3car will optionally install Windows 7 Professional operating system, add a Carnetix P2140 vehicle power supply, and assemble and test the ToughBox prior to shipping. The total price for the Toughbox 14 with all included options is $979.91.
The ToughBox 14 is an absolute fantastic option for hobbyist looking for a fully-built computing solution. In its complete form its ready out-of-the-box to handle anything a car PC needs to do. The ToughBox 14 is extremely lightweight and powerful, yet quiet due to the fact that only passive cooling is used. That’s right; the Intel atom N270 processor allows this compact computer to run silently, and also allows the computer to simply sip energy.
As a whole, the ToughBox 14 is a near flawless design, which was very well thought out by mp3Car. There are little to no sacrifices. My first point of skepticism when starting to review the product is just how well would it perform with some CPU-intensive processes. I plugged the ToughBox 14 directly into a 12v home wall plug (more on this later), and installed Centrafuse 3 from Flux Media. Even on the high profile for visual effects, the ToughBox 14 had absolutely no problems handling the CPU-intensive front end. Music and Video played with no hitches or stutters, and opening navigation did not seem to stop the Atom N270 in its tracks like with some other smaller processors.
There’s no question to me that the ToughBox 14 at its best is car PC ready. But I wasn’t quite ready to say the bundle was powerful enough to handle everything. To fully push the ToughBox 14 to its limits I decided to hook up an external USB hard drive with some high-definition .h264 encoded video. My current home theater PC, an aging Dell 3Ghz P4 with an NVidia Video card just simply can’t handle playing my copy of Disney UP. The movie is simply way to processor-intense even with the 512 MHz video card in play. So I decided to try playing UP on the ToughBox 14. The Atom processor to my surprise handled the full HD video, albeit at 80-90% CPU usage. Now in my mind there is no question the ToughBox 14 is ready for not only Car PC usage, but some HTPC usage as well.
Now it was time to open up the M350 case and see what makes the ToughBox 14 tick. Removing the front panel revealed a hidden 2-port USB hub.
Being that it’s concealed when the case is fully-assembled, this 2-port extension would be perfect for a small Bluetooth dongle or 3G card. The USB hub is connected to the same board which houses the power button and corresponding blue LED. There is a jumper on the front board which allows users to disable the power button entirely, or set the motherboard to automatically turn on upon loss of power.
Removing 1 small screw on the back of the case allowed full exposure to the components inside the case.
The 2.5” Intel 80GB solid-state hard drive is suspended on top black support. The drive is directly over the north-bridge and processor heat sink, but during my testing this did not cause any problem at all. The advantages of the solid-state drive over a standard 2.5-inch laptop drive are tremendous. Solid-state drives have a better resistance to temperature changes. Also, a solid-state drive has no moving parts; this allows an improvement not only in shock protection, but also faster read/write speeds. The speed of the drive impacts the time to access data and load or resume an operating system. The operating system of choice on the ToughBox 14 full bundle is Windows 7 Professional, and Windows 7 has built-in optimizations for solid-state drives, further enhancing the capabilities of the ToughBox 14. Windows 7 also has better control of the computers hibernate/resume routine, ensuring that not only are hibernations faster, but resume have far less errors.
Upon removing the hard drive mechanism we can see the single-chip 2Ghz DDR 2 module. The Intel 945GSEJT uses a laptop memory module installed on its side for space saving. Also installed is the Intel Wireless WifiLink 4965AGN PCI-E 802.11 device. Like the Ram module, the PCI-E device sits on its side. A small gauge cable is run from the WifiLink to the externally mounted Wifi antenna which is plugged into the back of the M350 case. With the onset of wireless 3G devices it might seem redundant to carry an 802.11 device in the car, but there are two clear advantages. First, there is no monthly charge for wifi use, and wifi hotspots are becoming more and more abundant with time. The second and perhaps greater advantage is the ability to automatically sync up with your home computers upon being in range of your home wifi device. This allows music, documents, and photos to seamlessly install to your car PC without much user input.
The Intel 945GSEJT has internal connections for a single slim IDE channel, dual SATA connectors, and an analog HD Audio header. What’s missing from the motherboard is your standard 20-24pin ATX power connector. This is because the board is built to be plugged into any standard 12v 5amp power source. This greatly adds to the ease of installation because the power supply doesn’t need to be cluttering up the case. In fact, the Carnetix 2140 power supply packaged with the ToughBox 14 only takes two small sets of wires to connect to the rear of the case; the 12volt power line, and a smaller line which connects the Carnetix to the motherboard’s power switch. Having installed many car PCs and be
The remaining connectors on the rear are nicely spaced apart and allow for a clean computer installation. There’s a standard VGA connector, a DVI video connection, 3 USB ports, an Ethernet port, and a single audio out connector.
So basically, the ToughBox 14 full bundle is made from the case up to be user-friendly as a car pc. Installation in the vehicle is as straight forward as it gets. As with all vehicle power supplies, you must run wires for 12v, ACC, and GND to the wires that come with the Carnetix 2140. Then connect the two output wires from the 2140 to the appropriate inputs on the rear of the M350 case. Connect the VGA out from your monitor and touchscreen cable, and you’ve got a powerful and efficient car PC.
The only real drawbacks are not specific to the ToughBox 14, but all pre-built car PC systems in general. First, there’s limited room for external accessories with only 5 USB ports. Of course, nearly anyone is capable of installing USB hubs that will allow expansion, but there are complexities in getting a reliable USB hub in the automotive environment. The second drawback is the price when compared to a self sourced computer. You could certainly build something similar for less, but knowing that you’re getting a reliable ready-made PC tested and backed by the Mp3car store should certainly be looked at as invaluable.
• Built and tested ready for use in the automotive environment
• Customizable to individual user needs
• Performance and reliability of the Intel Atom dual-core product
• Energy efficient design
• Built specifically for car PC use
• Small form factor which allows for multiple mounting options
• Simple to use and customizable Intelligent power supply
• Limited room for expansion
• Use of more than 2 channel audio requires an additional header connection
• Cost when compared to self-built self-sourced system
The ToughBox 14 is the absolute easiest way to add a powerful, efficient, and genuine car PC to any automobile. It was carefully designed to be everything you could want a car PC to be right out of the box. Couple that with the fact it’s built and backed by Mp3car and you have an absolute winner.
See this product on the mp3Car Store HERE.