Editor's Corner: Nvidia’s Ion Revisited, 7.1 Ch. LPCM Fixed

Using Ion. I Mean Really Using It.

It’d be easy to set this platform up on an open-air test bench, marvel at its size, rattle off its specs, run a couple of benchmarks that show it to be better than Intel’s own Atom-based boards, and give it an award. There’s nothing wrong with open-air testing. There’s nothing wrong with specs, benchmarks, or awards, for that matter. But you’re not going to get the feel of this diminutive little box unless you use it.

So, with a HTPC usage model in mind and the issues first encountered in our review addressed, I built up a mini-ITX system around Zotac’s Ion offering, using Windows 7, 2 GB of DDR2 memory, an OCZ SSD, and a slim Blu-ray player that Nvidia was kind enough to send along.

Taxed, but playing back smoothlyTaxed, but playing back smoothly

Let’s start with DVD playback. This is one area where the Ion is destined to shine given its GPU-based hardware capabilities. I played through several Blu-ray titles with Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, and they were delivered smoothly. Though my modest theater room isn’t large enough for 7.1-channel sound to make sense, PowerDVD 9 had no trouble decoding the latest lossless codecs and outputting a 5.1-channel LPCM stream to my Onkyo SR507.

All in all, as a platform for playing movies, Ion handles business—though once you’re done buying storage, memory, and a chassis, I almost wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to just grab that Playstation instead. 

Hulu, high-def (480p), full-screen: too choppy to watchHulu, high-def (480p), full-screen: too choppy to watch

Next up is TV programming. I don’t watch any cable television, but I do hit Hulu on occasion when I eat dinner in front of the PC. The site employs Adobe Flash 9, which is going to need to be processed on the dual-core Atom processor. And indeed, this becomes a problem. In watching the pilot for Glee, it simply wasn’t possible to go full-screen at either low-res (320p) or high-res (480p) on my 50” Samsung running at 1280x720 (in the words of my wife, “It’s too distracting to try watching like this Let me know when you’re done playing around”). The standard browser window mode worked fine, but from 10 feet away, you’re really defeating the purpose of pulling this platform into a home theater environment.

Of course, I didn’t expect .mp3 playback to be an issue, so I tried to give the Ion setup a slightly more challenging task constrained by I/O performance instead: streaming audio wirelessly from a NAS attached to the network via Gigabit Ethernet, while indexing a folder in the background. This is something that happens almost-transparently on most desktops; however, it brought this HTPC build to a stuttering stand-still (even with an SSD).

Plays back smoothly in a window.Plays back smoothly in a window.

Purpose-Built HTPC, Perhaps

Fortunately for me, movies are all I really do in the theater room. For that purpose, Ion works. And it’s hard to argue against the board’s form factor (though, to that end, I’m still a fan of the LGA-775 mini-ITX alternative). Keep your expectations in line on this one, though. Any time you’re not taking advantage of the GeForce 9300’s GPU acceleration, you’re at the mercy of Intel’s Atom CPU. On the desktop, that’s really a recipe for frustration.

Create a new thread in the US Reviews comments forum about this subject
This thread is closed for comments
25 comments
    Your comment
  • pbrigido
    Hi
    -13
  • amnotanoobie
    So I guess with the falling prices of processors and video cards, you'd really get an Ion only if you're really just constrained with space.
    3
  • snarfies
    I'd love an Ion, but it has a design flaw - only three HD connections. I need at least four - one CF-Card for the OS, two HDs for RAID1, and one optical. As near as I can tell, the only ITX board on the market that fits my needs is the MSI IM-945GC - which is what I'm currently using for my ITX NAS.
    2
  • hixbot
    Wow, one of the first boards to deliver video and 7.1 LPCM via HDMI, and you test it with a 5.1 setup? How can you be sure you tested it's functionality, if you are using a 5.1 setup? Please elaborate.
    -1
  • hixbot
    Also, CoreAVC have released a decoder that can use CUDA to accelerate playback. From what i've heard, its much better than DXVA and has none of the format limitations. Some testing with that would be great to see. Or is Tom's opposed to open source?
    0
  • cangelini
    Hix,

    Without a 7.1 channel setup, the best option available is setting 7.1-channel output and missing the two side channels, which works. The problem previously was that Ion was only doing stereo LPCM, despite being set to 5.1/7.1 in Windows. This was a shortcoming of the DVD playback software, which, as I mentioned, has since been fixed to properly support this board's capabilities.

    Thanks for the feedback,
    Chris
    0
  • cangelini
    hixbotAlso, CoreAVC have released a decoder that can use CUDA to accelerate playback. From what i've heard, its much better than DXVA and has none of the format limitations. Some testing with that would be great to see. Or is Tom's opposed to open source?


    So it looks like the $15 version of the software supports what you're talking about. I'll look into it! Thanks for the tip,
    Chris
    0
  • hixbot
    Cheers cangelini, I enjoy your articles.
    4
  • dravis12
    Glad to read this review. I'm building a new HTPC and decided against the Ion/Atom platform in favor of a 9300/C2 Duo because I heard about the problems with Hulu and the current limitations of the Atom. Looks like I made the right choice for now but we'll see.
    4
  • Niva
    I'll be building an HTPC sometime early next year and I'm glad to have seen these articles as I had been considering an ION. Now I'm not sure what I'll get but perhaps a full low power athlon x2 setup will do it for me.
    5
  • Alien_959
    If CUDA can accelerate video with all formats included trough CoreAVC codec that excellent news. I was and still am an ATI fan, but if this works I plan my next laptop to be with nVidia chipset :).
    Only if there some ultra portable 12.1 inch with 9300 chipset somewhere.
    Also this will be grate for Atom CPU, who lack grunt for some video playback. Thumbs UP for nVidia and Core AVC for this one :)
    -1
  • Alien_959
    sorry for typing mistakes, I was writhing this on very small keyboard:)
    -3
  • neuromancer2701
    Hasn't the 9300 been out for quite awhile. Is the 9300 consider part of the ION platform? I thought ION meant 9400+Atom. Zotac specifies the 9300 on the other motherboard but doesn't list what chipset is used on the Ion boards. It just states a "NVidia ION graphics processor" I think Adobe and NVidia are working on a CUDA version of Flash, that would help Hulu's performance.
    -2
  • cangelini
    It's the same chipset as the 9300/9400, but it's actually clocked *slower* than the 9300. Same silicon, different clock rates.
    0
  • socrates047
    what a great article! awesome analysis. imo, the ION platform is simply awe-inspiring when you look at its size and what it can do with it, and its lower power requirements.

    on the other hand, is anybody else getting tired of small, attractive, yet underpowered mobile solutions?
    1
  • pbrigido
    Awsome
    1
  • mrubermonkey
    Nice article Chris, but do not be scared to put "Atom platforms are crap when it comes to the HTPC" at the beginning of the article. I do not mind a spoiler summary.
    0
  • cangelini
    mrubermonkeyNice article Chris, but do not be scared to put "Atom platforms are crap when it comes to the HTPC" at the beginning of the article. I do not mind a spoiler summary.


    Aw, come on now. I'd rather belabor the point with tests and stuff :)
    0
  • Godiwa
    cangeliniSo it looks like the $15 version of the software supports what you're talking about. I'll look into it! Thanks for the tip,Chris


    the 9300 gpu isn't listed as supported on their site though.

    Anyways I wish they would make it easier to make systems but they are so piracy scared that setting up a system for the normal use is a big hassle these days if you want something that supports the right audio/video options.

    Another thing I wonder about is that they want more and more HDMI plugs on the TV but it's more the HDMI in's on the recievers that are needed, only need 1 in on the TV from the reciever. Unless you want fancy video and cruddy sound (from internal tv speakers)
    0
  • WilliamMGeorge
    We've been qualifying the Ion platform for use in computers we build where I work, and we've seen the Hulu issue here as well. Oddly, some other Flash-based video sites are fine: many HD trailers we found, for example, played just fine in full-screen mode. It seems not to be a problem with the Ion/Atom, or with Flash player, but with the specific codec that Hulu uses. I'm not sure what it is, but they appear to have selected one that isn't aided by nVidia's onboard video processing. If Flash Player adds GPU support for that codec, or if Hulu were to use a different codec, all might be remedied. It is an unfortunate situation, but one which I have hopes might be corrected at some point.
    0