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Ion As An HTPC

Zotac's Ion Board On Windows 7: Nvidia Re-Arms Intel’s Atom
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This is perhaps the most viable application of Nvidia’s Ion platform. As such, I saw it fit to test under Windows Vista and the release candidate of Windows 7.

We’ll start with Windows 7, since that’s the unchartered territory many software vendors are still trying to conquer. Bear in mind that the operating system is still in pre-production and that hardware/software vendors still have a lot of work to do before their products are officially ready to support this upcoming OS.

I tested with two different DVD decoding apps: CyberLink’s PowerDVD 9 Ultra and ArcSoft’s TotalMedia Theater 3 Platinum. Video quality looked fine on both (and the pair recognized and properly enabled Nvidia’s PureVideo HD technology). Audio was a different story, though.

At first, PowerDVD wanted to pass PCM audio decoded by the software to the lab's brand new Onkyo TX-SR507; it wouldn’t send the undecoded Dolby Digital/DTS signal. Unfortunately, even while 5.1-channel HDMI was enabled in Windows, the software was only outputting two channels of sound. TotalMedia Theater 3 did the same thing, but it had a significant advantage in that it worked much more smoothly with the Windows 7 Media Center interface.

Thinking that there might be an issue with Ion and multi-channel output, we loaded a drive with Vista and tried both decoding apps one more time. Under TotalMedia Theater 3, we were successfully able to get DTS and Dolby Digital pass-through, but the same configuration just wouldn’t work under PowerDVD 9. The video playback was sporadic—almost as if PureVideo HD wasn’t being properly utilized—and there was no sound output at all.

Nvidia followed up with an updated HDMI driver update for Windows 7. The update let us successfully pass DD/DTS through to both decoding apps, but as of this writing, PowerDVD 9 still won't handle the decode and send multi-channel linear PCM to the receiver (even though we confirmed support by running the test in Windows' audio control panel).

Ion’s Home Theater Strengths

Reasonable CPU utilization watching Resident EvilReasonable CPU utilization watching Resident Evil

Despite the software troubles we had under Windows 7 and Vista, we still see a lot of potential in this tiny platform—almost all of which is derived from its Nvidia IGP core logic. The combination of PureVideo HD 3 and 7.1-channel LPCM output through HDMI enable an almost-perfect A/V solution, providing the audio support can be straightened out through updated drivers. 

We didn’t measure CPU utilization with any VC-1-based movies (the main improvements from VP2 to VP3 was in VC-1 bitstream decoding), but we did test with several H.264 titles and saw utilization in the range of 25-35% (Live Free or Die Hard, 28 Mb/s, for instance, was fairly steady at 25%). That’s a true testament to the work Nvidia’s chipset is offloading from the host processor.

As a result, in our best-case configuration of Windows Vista and ArcSoft’s TotalMedia Theater 3, we were able to enjoy smooth high-def video playback and DTS audio from this silent, tiny platform.

Ion’s Home Theater Weaknesses

Clearly there is still software work to be done. With that said, it’s hard to fault IHVs and ISVs for coming up short in a release candidate operating system. Instead, we’ll focus on our experiences in Vista.

Once you’re watching your movie, Ion’s performance is great, and that’s because Nvidia is doing the heavy lifting. But getting to that point still feels like slogging through molasses. Launching Media Center, loading the decoding engine, reading optical media—actually using the system becomes frustrating for enthusiasts accustomed to more desktop-oriented processors.

Set to 1280x720, the screen resolution was \Set to 1280x720, the screen resolution was "too large" for this native 720p display.

Here’s another wrinkle: because neither PowerDVD nor TrueMedia Theater are certified by the AACS LA for use with Ion, you can’t bitstream TrueHD or DTS-HD over HDMI to your AVR. The workaround, of course, is having your decoder software do the job and output multi-channel LPCM. But as I’ve already mentioned, we weren’t able to get PowerDVD to output more than two channels of PCM audio in Windows 7 (or anything at all under Vista). Hopefully this will get worked out soon.

With the screen manually adjusted to fit, PowerDVD refused to start.With the screen manually adjusted to fit, PowerDVD refused to start.

Finally, we had some resolution issues with the Zotac board in a home theater environment. Regardless of whether it was connected to our lab’s DLP directly or through an HDMI 1.3a repeater (using Onkyo’s TX-SR507), it’d default to 1176x664. Manually setting it to 1280x720 resulted in the picture overshooting both axes.

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