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Gaming is where things are going to get interesting. While the ASRock Core 100HT-BD’s CPU is something which these Atom-equipped nettops can't compete with, graphics potential is another story entirely. Nvidia’s Ion 2 graphics processor is just as good as Intel’s HD graphics by many accounts, and Nvidia does have a software drive considered to be more reliable and refined. Intel’s solution is definitely getting better, with that said.
We’ll begin with the gaming benchmark included in PCMark Vantage:
PCMark suggests that the Intel i3-330M/Intel HD graphics combo is twice as powerful as the Atom D500 series/Ion 2 combo. This is probably optimistic, so let’s try an actual game that a nettop can be expected to play.
We use Lord Of The Rings Online for this test, a massively multiplayer online game that recently became free to play. The title sports an attractive graphics engine that can look quite good at high settings, but can be tweaked to work smoothly on low-end hardware by lowering the graphics settings. As such, it represents performance in the realm of games like World of Warcraft, which is a notably higher standard than casual titles like Flash-based games.
The Ion 2 nettops fare slightly better than ASRock's Core 100HT-BD at 1280x720 (720p) and blow it out of the water at 1920x1080 (1080p). Clearly, Nvidia's chipset has its strengths.
Admittedly, there are some details we need to keep in mind here. The settings we’re using for this title are attractive, but still far from the maximum (at low detail). However, animation smoothness and draw distance are set to medium, distant imposters and blob shadows are enabled, and texture detail is cranked to high with 8x anisotropic filtering (AF) enabled. The texture detail and filtering really help this game look attractive, despite the other low settings, and with 512 MB of dedicated video RAM onboard, the Ion 2 nettops can handle this texture detail without a lot of performance penalty. The point is that when you’re gaming with a nettop, you need to have a good idea of what graphic options your machine can handle in order to make things look as good as possible without killing performance. If you know what you’re doing, the results can be quite impressive.
We're using the newest Intel driver (Win7Vista_64_151711.exe) for this test, but should note that the previous Intel driver suffered massive graphical corruption issues with this game. This shows us that Intel is at least making an honest effort in the graphics driver department.
While the Ion 2-equipped machines perform much better at 1920x1080, performance remains below the ideal 30 frames per second (FPS) minimum. Most MMOs are not twitch-oriented games though, and RPGs like Lord of the Rings Online can be played acceptably at this frame rate. Ideally, you’d want to play games on a 1280x720 monitor with these PCs to stay at a low native resolution. But if you have a larger monitor, you will find that the higher resolution can be playable and look great if you adjust the settings appropriately.
We also see that the Ion 2 nettops sometimes drop the video signal when initializing this game over an HDMI output. Switching to DVI or VGA would eliminate this problem, but this puzzling issue remains noteworthy.