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

Introduction

We’ve done a ton of Atom-oriented content, from reviewing the processor’s merits on its own, to pitting it against Athlon and Nano, to testing it in a ready-made machine and evaluating performance under Windows Vista. When we say the CPU is an enabler in the netbook market, but sorely lacking as a solution to your desktop needs, we’re basing that judgment on almost a year’s worth of power and performance data.

Of course, we’re also grouping Intel’s accompanying 945G-series chipsets in with that opinion, since they have been, up until now, the only core logic accompanying Atom processors.

Earlier this year, we were able to take a sneak peek at the first platform with Atom support able to go up against Intel’s own anemic Atom-oriented chipsets: Nvidia’s Ion. First encountered at this year’s CES, we were impressed by just how much modern connectivity and GPU muscle the company had crammed into its proof-of-concept design. We were told to expect more Ion-related news in the months to come.

Now, almost six months later (and after the announcement of Acer’s AspireRevo nettop), we’re seeing the first mini-ITX motherboard based on the Ion concept, which means the do-it-yourselfers out there now have their own path to pursing an Ion-based platform. Will they want to, though? That’s the question we’re setting out to answer here.

Nvidia’s Ion: Stepping Out

That first Ion concept was truly stacked. It included lots of USB 2.0, analog 7.1-channel output, optical output, DVI, HDMI, Gigabit Ethernet, and SATA storage connectivity. As you already know, that box’s capabilities come from the Nvidia GeForce 9300 chipset, which the company is now calling its Ion Graphics Processor (IGP—get it?).

As a quick recap, the GeForce 9300 (or IGP as we’ll call it from here on out) is a single-chip solution that combines the functionality common to most northbridge and southbridge chipset components.

Exceptional I/O includes support for up to five PCI slots, six SATA 3 Gb/s ports, a total of 20 PCI Express 2.0 lanes across five links (1 x 16-lane and 4 x 1-lane), integrated Gigabit Ethernet, 12 USB 2.0 ports, and HD Audio.

The northbridge-y features include a dual-channel memory controller able to accommodate either DDR2-800 modules or DDR3 at speeds of up to 1,333 MHz. Nvidia claims front side bus speeds of up to 1,333 MHz, supporting Atom, Celeron, Pentium 4, and Core 2 processors. Temper your excitement about those modern memory and bus settings, though. The Atom 330 soldered onto Zotac’s board sports a 533 MHz FSB and communicates with DDR2 modules-only.

And then there’s the integrated graphics. Derived from Nvidia’s G86 GPU, the IGP sports 16 shader processors and relies on shared system memory. The graphics core runs at 450 MHz while the shaders operate at 1,100 MHz—down a bit, actually, from the GeForce 9300 we reviewed last October.

With the chipset specifics out of the way, let’s take a look at how Zotac has turned Nvidia’s IGP into a mini-ITX motherboard.

  • 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