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Zotac's Ion Board On Windows 7: Nvidia Re-Arms Intel’s Atom

We’ve seen Ion positioned several different ways: as a strong contender in the HTPC space, as a mainstream gaming solution, and as a lightweight desktop workstation. In preparation for this story, I actually used the platform in all three environments, switching back and forth from Windows Vista to Windows 7 release candidate as needed to test features and responsiveness.

The Zotac motherboard’s most promising destination is in the HTPC space, where its tiny size, equally modest power consumption, and long feature list are almost everything a couch commando could want. From the PureVideo HD acceleration to the support for multi-channel LPCM output, you have almost everything you need for lots of high-def entertainment. As the platform stands right now, we were able to get Dolby Digital and DTS pass-through over HDMI, but were still missing lossless 5.1 LPCM support. We’re most excited about using a box like this with Windows 7 and its integrated Media Center.

Gaming really needs to be an afterthought here. Though the IGP is capable of cutting through a number of popular mainstream games at 1024x768 and low detail settings, a sub-$100 graphics card will go a long way to enabling a much more satisfying experience. Of course, in order to go that route you’d also need a platform with a PCI Express x16 slot. Hold on a second, we’re getting there.

As a third or fourth household desktop, Ion does have potential. Boot times are lengthy and virus scans take a while, but so long as you’re browsing the Web, checking email, and word processing on the little system, you’re less likely to notice that it takes longer for apps to open or patches to install. A full complement of modern I/O like USB 2.0, Gigabit Ethernet, and integrated 802.11n wireless means you won’t be missing any of the plugs or ports found on more powerful workstations.

A Mini-ITX Alternative Emerges

We compared Zotac’s mini-ITX Ion board to a micro-ATX 780G platform, which delivered a lot more performance due to its desktop-class hardware, but took up a lot more room in the process. Now, we know micro-ATX and mini-ITX are in entirely different leagues, and we know there are enthusiasts out there who simply must cram their tech toys into the smallest enclosure possible.

It’s almost ironic, then, that the favored alternative to this mini-ITX Atom board also comes from Zotac. The company’s GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi employs the same chipset and includes a very similar feature set, yet it boasts an LGA-775 interface able to take Core 2-class CPUs.

At $140 for the board alone, you’re going to spend more with the CPU and PSU factored in, but if you want a real mini-ITX-based HTPC or desktop workstation with teeth, this is the route we’d go.

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