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Zotac’s Ion-Series Motherboard: Added Value

Zotac's Ion Board On Windows 7: Nvidia Re-Arms Intel’s Atom
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The board’s most endearing quality is, arguably, its size. Conforming to the mini-ITX specification means dimensions of 17 cm by 17 cm. Right off the bat, we’re thinking of this platform as a potential HTPC contender.

Naturally, a mini-ITX form factor also means limited PCB real estate for enabling features that the chipset natively supports, too. But Zotac doesn’t seem to have a problem there. Most of the board’s space is consumed by a large passive heatsink, which covers the dual-core Atom processor and IGP core logic. There’s a fan included in the retail package; however, installing it is optional. We went ahead and used the fan, since it really didn’t generate much noise.

Two 240-pin DDR2 memory slots accommodate up to 4 GB (2 x 2 GB) of RAM running at up to 800 MHz. They’re arranged in a dual-channel configuration (2 x 64-bit), so you’ll want to be sure and populate them at the same time.

There isn’t enough room for expansion via full-sized PCI or PCI Express slots, but Zotac does enable a mini-PCIe slot populated by an 802.11b/g/n wireless adapter. This’ll undoubtedly serve as a huge boon for folks who want to put diminutive Ion boxes in the kitchen, living room, or den—spots likely to be lacking Gigabit Ethernet jacks nearby.

The Ion board’s I/O panel is loaded with ports and plugs normally found on full-sized ATX platforms. Six USB 2.0 ports accommodate plenty of peripherals (there’s a PS/2 keyboard port too, just in case). You also get optical/coaxial digital audio output, along with analog line in/line out/mix in 1/8” jacks. Display outputs include standard VGA, dual-link DVI (our 30” test platform originally only ran at 1280x800, unless we had it connected to an HDTV; Nvidia subsequently sent us a BIOS to enable all of the board's available resolutions, right up to 2560x1600), and HDMI 1.3. Gigabit Ethernet and eSATA round out the feature list around back. The last connector you see is a power jack—the board (and all attached storage) is powered by a 90W power brick.

Zotac’s minimalist bundle includes a custom I/O panel, one SATA cable, the aforementioned fan, an instruction manual, and an adapter able to turn one four-pin Molex connector into three SATA power plugs.

More Than A Motherboard

Zotac’s retail price for this Ion-based board is $189—an almost insane price tag for a motherboard alone. But you don’t get just the motherboard. There’s also an Atom processor soldered on and the power brick, which keeps you from having to buy a separate power supply. All told, the combination is supposed to enable high-performance sub-$400 PCs.

Back when we first looked at Intel’s Atom processor in Shuttle’s X27 (and found it a cumbersome configuration), it was a single-core CPU running at 1.6 GHz. Granted, Hyper-Threading gave that Atom 230 CPU the ability to execute two threads in parallel, but it was still painfully slow.

The Atom 330 is yet another model from the Diamondville family, running at the exact same clock speed and sporting the same 533 MHz front side bus. The only difference is a doubling of on-package die, resulting in a dual-core CPU with Hyper-Threading able to address four threads at once. It uses the same .9-1.1625V range, and thus consumes exactly twice as much power: 8W instead of 4.

Those low-ball power figures are what lets Zotac bundle its 90W external power brick. We’ll get into the actual power figures shortly, but suffice to say, energy efficiency is going to be one of this board’s greatest selling points versus true desktop architectures re-purposed for this nettop space.

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