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

Conclusion

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.

Chris Angelini
Chris Angelini is an Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware US. He edits hardware reviews and covers high-profile CPU and GPU launches.
  • SpadeM
    Granted, we could have done significantly better in the power department had we been a little choosier with our CPU. The Athlon X2 7850 was attractive due to its $69 price tag, 2.8 GHz clock speed, and unlocked multiplier, but its Kuma core is still rated at 95 W. You can dip down to the $60 Athlon X2 5050e (running at 2.8 GHz as well) and cut your maximum TDP down to 45W for $10 less.

    If you knew you could have done better with a 45W not a 95W processor .. what gives? The supplier didn't have it in stock or why go for the obvious power monster?

    On a different note, I'm looking forward to the transcoding article.
    Reply
  • one-shot
    Everyone down-rates the first post which is posted by the author of the article. I'm not sure if anyone has noticed that yet because I see every author's first post down-rated many times.
    Reply
  • teeth_03
    I thought the ION platform used the Geforce 9400 and not the 9300?
    Reply
  • sublifer
    Here’s the short of it. When it comes to running multiple apps at the same time, compressing/decompressing large archives, and yes, even trasncoding
    Just wanted to help: transcoding
    Reply
  • wyvern287
    Does anyone know if this system can play Hulu videos?
    Reply
  • hellwig
    I almost wish you hadn't even tried playing games on it, but I suppose you needed some sort of comparison for the performance of the ION chipset.

    How many people will use this as a satellite PC in their homes, and what ever happened to Windows Home Server? I would think you let your central PC/server handle the computing and just use this guy as a remote terminal to stream media to.
    Reply
  • I'm looking for a low power system like this... my old father leaves his p4 system on ALL the time, and wonder why his electric bill is so high :-\
    Reply
  • siliconchampion
    I love that they mentioned the GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi board at the end of the review. I used that board with an e7400, 4GB corsair, a low profile 9800 GT, a 320GB 7200RPM 2.5 inch drive, and an Antec 380 watt PSU. The reason I love it so much is three-fold.

    First, I put all of the above mentioned components and put them into the case from the original Xbox (while maintaning totally stock appearances except for the back.

    Second, the board boots lightning fast, and is a pleasure to work with.

    Third, before we put the 9800GT into the build, using the same 9300 chipset as the Ion platform, we were running HL2 on max settings at 1680x1050 resolution (except with only 2x AA) and getting 35-45 FPS. We also played Halo 2 on medium settings and that played very well also. Obviously, after the 9800 was added, the computer flies. That just goes to show you that the Atom really is what is holding back the capabilities of the 9300 chipset.

    All of this was accomplished with about $500, so it is a good budget computer that is inside of an Xbox. My i7 system has nothing on the "coolness" factor of this computer.
    Reply
  • cangelini
    teeth_03I thought the ION platform used the Geforce 9400 and not the 9300?
    The difference between 9300 and 9400 is clock speed. This one is slower than the 9300, even.
    Reply
  • cangelini
    subliferJust wanted to help: transcoding
    Thanks sub: fixed!
    Reply