ECS’s Liva SF110-A320 bare-bones desktop ($179) is marketed as “The Best Mini PC for Light Gaming.” As a mini PC with no room for a graphics card and a business-black look, this is quite the statement. This bare-bones compact is designed to support AMD’s 35-watt Ryzen processors with integrated graphics, and such a chip paired with a capable thermal solution may give the SF110-A320 the teeth it needs to do a little light gaming. The Liva proves to be a stable, capable micro desktop when not pushed beyond its limits, but it’s actually a better fit as a peppy productivity or specialty-use mini PC.
Exterior Design: A Business-Sober Look
On the outside, the SF110-A320 is an unobtrusive black box about the size of a slim hardback book (1.3 by 8.1 by 6.9 inches). Actually, I could swear I once owned a DVD player that looked like just this.
The plain exterior won’t win any beauty contests (and it hardly syncs with the “gaming” hype), but the shell is quite sturdy and should provide solid protection for the internal hardware. The petite system should also be easy to hide out of the way; a VESA 100/75mm mounting bracket on the back makes it simple to mount the Liva on a wall or desk.
In my first minutes with the system, I gave the shell’s durability quite the test by attempting to open the case incorrectly. After removing the lone screw on the back, I spent some time trying to pry the case open with considerable force before finally realizing the top of the case slid forward, not back, before lifting off. [Editors’ Note: We made the same mistake in PC Labs trying to open this same case!] I really think ECS should provide some documentation on the topic, or at least an etched arrow or a sticker on the bottom. On the bright side, the sturdy case shows nothing more than a few minor scratches despite my misguided efforts to force it open.
You get a total of seven USB ports set around the case’s exterior: Two USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-A ports and one USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-C port reside on the front, while four USB 2.0 ports are located on the system’s rear. I have a minor beef with ECS for coloring the USB 2.0 ports on the back blue, as this is typically the color used to designate USB 3.0.
Other rear ports include a legacy serial port, an RJ-45 Ethernet jack, and VGA, HDMI, and DisplayPort outputs. Due to space limitations, ECS opted not to place any audio jacks on the back of the case, but you get headphone and mic jacks on the front, along with a small speaker.
The latter is no mere beep-code speaker, but a fully functional speaker for playing music and other audio. It’s fairly quiet, but its audio quality isn’t that bad—it’s not something you’d want to rely on for extended listening enjoyment, but it’s better than nothing and would likely come in handy if you were using this PC in conjunction with a display that lacked built-in speakers.
Interior Design: Ready for (Some) Ryzens
Inside the case is a compact motherboard with model number A320-SF110 (and if you’re wondering if that’s a typo, it’s the same as the system name, just in a different order). The motherboard has a single SATA 3.0 port and utilizes a special combo SATA/power-cable adapter to connect one 2.5-inch drive. You can see a Toshiba SATA SSD I installed in place in the image below.
A removable metal bracket fastened with four screws holds the lone 2.5-inch drive suspended above the motherboard. The bracket holds the drive securely in place without the need for screws. There are spots where you can screw the drive in to hold it fast, but realistically, the drive will stay put without them. There isn’t room in the case for the drive to slide anywhere without first removing the bracket from the case.
Beneath the 2.5-inch storage bracket resides an M.2 Key-M slot along with a M.2 Key-E slot. These can be used for mounting an M.2 solid-state drive and an M.2-form-factor Wi-Fi minicard, respectively…
There’s a WD Blue M.2 drive in the slot in the image above, which I added. (That slot can take drives up to 80mm long.) Our review sample had an Intel-based Wi-Fi module pre-installed; you can see that and its antenna wires to the left of the WD Blue SSD.
On the other side of the motherboard rests the AM4 CPU socket and two SO-DIMM DDR4 slots. Due to power and heat limitations, the board can’t support any processors with a TDP above 35 watts, with the fastest supported CPUs being the 35-watt Ryzen 5 3400GE and Ryzen 5 Pro 3400GE. (The low-wattage GE version is not to be confused with the Editors’ Choice-winning Ryzen 5 3400G we reviewed, a 65-watt chip that is down-configurable. More about that below.) RAM support is relatively unrestricted, with support for up to 64GB of DDR4 clocked at up to 2,666MHz. Again, though, you’ll need laptop-style SO-DIMMs for that.
The processor is cooled by a blower-style thermal solution that vents hot air out the back of the case. An aluminum heatsink that measures roughly 2.5 by 2.6 by 0.7 inches sits directly over the processor and makes contact with the chip’s heat spreader via a copper base plate…
The system utilizes a laptop-style ball-bearing fan that measures roughly 2.6 inches in diameter. It sits over the DDR4 modules and pushes air through the aluminum heatsink.
Testing the Liva: A Tale of Two CPUs
After getting the case open, putting the system together took all of about five minutes. I initially planned to discuss the building process in detail, but I actually can’t find much to say. Building the system is, to be sure, far easier than building a full desktop computer from the case and motherboard up; there isn’t anything particularly special apart from the use of compact rather than full-size memory modules.
The CPU fan is held on by a pair of metal pins and not by screws, so it just lifts out of place when you need to access the AM4 processor socket, which also helps to accelerate the building process. The power and reset buttons are built directly onto the motherboard as well, so except for the 2.5-inch drive’s SATA and power cable and the fan’s power cable, there aren’t even any wires to deal with.
Moving on to testing the Liva’s functionality, the system’s fired right up on first boot. The BIOS looks a tad outdated, lacking a few modern features such as support for a mouse and memory profiles. It does the job for simple setup, though more about tweakability in a moment.
I tested the ECS with two processors; I did not have access, alas, to the 3400GE chips mentioned above. Those chips are not conventional retail parts, though they are possible to find through channels such as eBay. At first I attempted to use an AMD Ryzen 5 3400G that, as mentioned, has a 65-watt TDP in default settings; that chip is down-configurable to 45 watts, which I thought might just work.
Alas, I thought wrong. The Liva’s BIOS lacks voltage controls or any other way to set the processor to the lower cTDP. The system was able to boot with the Ryzen 5 and browse the web without issue, but it crashed within seconds when I attempted to launch a benchmark program. It appears the Ryzen 5 was simply too much for the system’s 90-watt power supply or for the motherboard, as temperatures at the time were hovering around 52 degrees C, which isn’t particularly high. So take our advice about that particular G versus GE chip seriously!
At this point, I switched over to the readily available AMD Athlon 200GE for the remainder of my testing. This is a budget-priced 35-watt AM4-socket chip I reviewed some time ago, a step below the Ryzen 3 but with able integrated graphics. I also equipped the system with a dual-channel 16GB Kingston HyperX 3,200MHz memory kit with CAS latency of 20. The memory is technically above the motherboard’s specified limits, as well, but it worked without issue.
In place of XMP support, the BIOS has a “tweak” section. Don’t get too excited; this board isn’t going to see any processor overclocking to squeeze out extra performance, but it technically can do some limited overclocking on the RAM. Lack of voltage support prevented me from really seeing how far my RAM kit could go, but I was able to set it to match the XMP settings and boot into Windows without issue.
The system automatically allocated 2GB of the system RAM to the Athlon’s integrated GPU. This is probably overkill for this low-end processor, but that extra RAM may get used if you try to game with one of the faster Ryzen 5 GE-class processors. Spinning up Unigine’s Superposition benchmark, I tested the system with on the 720p low detail preset, which returned an average of 21 frames per second. I utilized CPUID’s HWMonitor software to keep track of temps during the testing process, which showed the system never exceeded 60 degrees C throughout the test. Not bad.
Conclusion: Careful CPU Selection Is Key
Having spent plenty of time thoroughly examining and testing the Liva SF110-A320, it emerges as a well-made and sturdy mini PC, but the “best mini PC for light gaming” claim seems misguided. First, it’s worth mentioning that there are a few competing products such as Lenovo’s ThinkCentre M75q and HP’s EliteDesk 705 G5 that will likely offer similar performance; these two business-centric PCs are of a similar size to the SF110-A320, and both are available pre-configured with AMD’s Ryzen 5 Pro 3400GE, the fastest 35-watt Ryzen Pro processor. I haven’t tested these solutions, but simply based on their specs, they likely offer relatively similar performance. Given that graphics performance is likely to be below that of the Vega integrated graphics in the 65-watt Ryzen 5 3400G, that’s likely not worth going far out of your way for.
At first, I couldn’t figure out why ECS capped this system with a 90-watt PSU and limited it to 35-watt CPUs. ECS informed me that there’s actually a slightly modified version of the SF110-A320 that comes with a 120-watt power supply and supports 65-watt processors on the same motherboard. The system I tested has a capable thermal solution, but it appears the system needs a little more airflow to run 65-watt CPUs. (The modified Liva also has a perforated case with air holes in the top.) If you want a mini PC with a bit more power, it’s probably best that you seek out this other version. It will also be easier to find appropriate CPUs for it.
Still, if you can source a Ryzen GE 35-watt chip and are fine with the limits of those CPUs, it’s hard to find serious fault with the Liva SF110-A320. It’s fairly priced and a capable performer for home media or kiosk applications, if not quite a gaming rig.
ECS Liva SF110-A320 Specs
|Desktop Class||Small Form Factor (SFF)|
|Processor||Bare Bones (AM4)|
|Boot Drive Type||Bare Bones (M.2 PCIe, 2.5-inch SATA)|
|Operating System||None Supplied (Bare Bones)|