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Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi: Good Things Come in Small Packages

The GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi is not just Zotac’s flagship product, it is THE flagship product for mini-ITX. This is the board that small form factor enthusiasts have been waiting for — a mini-ITX motherboard with full support for Core 2 processors (including high TDP quad cores), good quality integrated graphics, a PCIe 16X expansion slot, and wireless connectivity. On paper, the board has no rival.

May 14, 2009 by Lawrence Lee

Product Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi
Intel LGA775 Mini-ITX Motherboard
Manufacturer Zotac
Street Price US$140

Zotac is a Hong Kong based manufacturer specializing in graphics cards and
motherboards. It is perhaps most known for mini-ITX motherboards, a
niche that it has been trying to fill with vigor, mostly by undercutting
the competition. The AMD based GeForce
8200-ITX WiFi
for example, is significantly cheaper than competitive
products from rival Jetway. On the Intel side, Zotac offer a slew of affordable
GeForce 7 based mini-ITX boards that are tempting low budget alternatives to
Intel offerings such as the DG45FC.


The box.

The Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi is far from a cut-down, budget product designed
to grab low-end market share. It is not just their flagship product,
it is probably the flagship product for the mini-ITX market as a whole. This is
the board that small form factor enthusiasts have been waiting for — a
mini-ITX motherboard with full support for Core 2 processors (including high
TDP quad cores), good quality integrated graphics, a full-size PCI Express expansion
slot, and wireless connectivity. On paper, the board has no rivals.


Box contents.

 

Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi: Specifications
(from the
product data sheet
)

About our only quibble is that there are only two SATA ports; the Intel DG45FC provides four.

PHYSICAL DETAILS & LAYOUT

A board’s layout is important in several regards. The positioning of components
can dictate compatibility with other products (third party heatsinks mainly)
and also ease of installation. Poorly placed power connectors can also disrupt
airflow and make the system more thermally challenging.


The GeForce 9300-ITX has a black PCB with orange slots, conforming to
Zotac’s Halloween motif. The board is equipped with two DDR2 memory slots,
two SATA ports, and a full-sized PCI Express 16x slot. There are two fan
headers, a 3-pin header close to the 24-pin ATX power connector, and a
4-pin PWM header near the back pane.

 


The CPU socket is a bit cramped but luckily the capacitors in that area
are of the short, solid-state variety. The chipset heatsink protrudes
38 mm up from the PCB surface and has plenty of surface area due to the
way the fins have been cut up to resemble a bed of needles.

 


The back panel offers a veritable smorgasbord of connectivity. Available
ports include HDMI, DVI, S/PDIF, and eSATA. The only notable omission
is FireWire.

 


The board also ships with a WiFi module (VIA chipset) and antenna. The
module screws into the back of the PCB, just below the audio ports.

 


Board with CPU, Alpine 7 Pro, memory and WiFi installed. The WiFi module
takes up very little space topside and connects to the board via a USB
header.

BIOS

For enthusiasts, the options available within the BIOS can make
a good board, a great one. The ability to manipulate frequencies, voltages,
and fan control settings vary depending on the hardware and the amount of
trust placed in the user’s hands by the manufacturer. On mini-ITX boards,
the options are usually very limited.


“Frequency/Voltage Control.”

The board’s BIOS allows for limited voltage options. There is
no undervolting offered at all, though the CPU and RAM can be overvolted by
0.20V and 0.30V respectively.


“FSB & Memory Config.”

Like previous Zotac boards, frequencies are displayed in their
effective speeds, rather than base frequencies. The FSB can be set to anything
between 400 and 2500 MHz. Memory frequency has two different modes: Linked
or Unlinked (to the CPU frequency). Linked mode allows you to choose memory/CPU
ratios of 5:4, 3:2, and 1:1. Unlinked lets you to choose any memory speed
you like, though the actual speed used varies in increments of between 5 and
18 MHz.


“MCP Hardware Monitor.”

The MCP Hardware Monitor offers some simple fan control options.
If “CPU SmartFan Control” is disabled, the “CPU Fan Control”
option becomes available, allowing you to enter a number between 0 (minimum)
and 15 (maximum) to set a static CPU fan speed. The same option is available
for the system fan header, though we weren’t able to get it to work.

When “CPU Fan Control” is enabled, you can select
a sampling period for temperatures and fan speed, as well as setting a “Passive
Temperature” though no setting would make the board turn the CPU fan
off completely as the word ‘passive’ suggests.

BIOS Summary
Setting
Options
CPU FSB
400 to 2500 MHz
(100 to 625 MHz base frequency)
CPU Voltage
Default to +0.30V in 0.02V increments
Linked Memory Clock – Memory Ratio 5:4, 3:2, Sync
Unlinked Memory Clock – Memory Frequency
400 to 1400 MHz in varying increments
(200 to 700 MHz base frequency)
Memory Timing Control
Basic
Memory Voltage
1.90V (default), 2.00V, 2.10V
Northbridge Voltage
1.10V (default), 1.15V, 1.20V, 1.25V
Integrated Graphics
Core Clock
300 to 1000 MHz (default 450 MHz)
Shader Clock
1000 to 2000 MHz (default 1200 MHz)
Frame Buffer Size
16MB, 32MB, 64MB, 128MB, 256MB, 512MB
Fan Control
Sampling Period 1 sec, 2 sec, 4 sec, 8 sec
Passive Temperature
50°, 55°, 60°, 65°
SmartFan Control Enabled or Disabled
CPU Fan Control (Manual) 0 to 15
MCP Fan Control (Manual)
0 to 15

Compared to other mini-ITX boards, the GeForce 9300-ITX BIOS actually
offers quite a lot, though the lack of undervolting is very disappointing.
Another thing we noticed missing from the BIOS was Wake-On USB, without which
one cannot bring the system out of Standby/Sleep mode using a USB device such
as a wireless mouse, keyboard, or remote. This may be problematic for those
who wish to use the board as a base for a HTPC to be operated from the comfort
of a livingroom couch.

TEST METHODOLOGY

Test Setup:

Measurement and Analysis Tools

  • CPU-Z
    to monitor CPU frequency and voltage.
  • Prime95
    processor stress software.
  • FurMark
    stability test to stress the integrated GPU.
  • Cyberlink
    PowerDVD
    to play H.264/VC-1/Blu-ray video.
  • SpeedFan
    to monitor temperature and fan speeds.
  • 3DMark05
    as a 3D benchmark.
  • 3DMark06
    as a 3D benchmark.
  • Seasonic
    Power Angel
    AC power meter, used to measure the power consumption
    of the system.
  • Custom-built, four-channel variable DC power supply, used to regulate
    the CPU fan speed.

Our main test procedure is designed to determine the overall system power
consumption at various states. To stress
Intel Core 2 CPUs we use Prime95 (large FFTs setting) to maximize heat and power
consumption. For AMD X2 and Phenom CPUs we use CPUBurn K7 as it seems to tax
AMD processors more. To stress the IGP, we use FurMark, an OpenGL benchmarking
and stability testing utility.

We also test the platform’s proficiency at playing back high definition videos.
Standard Blu-ray movies can be encoded in three different codecs by design:
MPEG-2, H.264/AVC and VC-1. MPEG-2 has been around for a number of years and
is not demanding on modern system resources. H.264 and VC-1 encoded videos on
the other hand, due to the amount of complexity in their compression schemes,
are extremely stressful and will not play smoothly (or at all) on slower PCs,
especially with antiquated video subsystems.

Our main video test suite features a variety of 1080p H.264/VC-1 encoded clips.
The clips are played with PowerDVD and a CPU usage graph is created by the Windows
Task Manger for analysis to determine the approximate mean CPU usage. High CPU
usage is indicative of poor video decoding ability on the part of the integrated
graphics subsystem. If the video (and/or audio) skips or freezes, we conclude
the board’s IGP (in conjunction with the processor) is adequate to decompress
the clip properly.

Intel Enhanced Speed Step was enabled (unless otherwise noted). The following features/services
were disabled during testing to prevent spikes in CPU/HDD usage that are typical
of fresh Vista installations:

  • Windows Sidebar
  • Indexing
  • Superfetch

Video Test Suite


1080p | 24fps | ~10mbps
H.264:
Rush Hour 3 Trailer 2c
is a H.264 encoded clip inside an Apple
Quicktime container.

 


1080p | 24fps | ~8mbps
WMV-HD:
Coral Reef Adventure Trailer
is encoded in VC-1 using the
WMV3 codec commonly recognized by the “WMV-HD” moniker.

 


1080p | 24fps | ~19mbps
VC-1: Drag Race is a recording of a scene from
network television re-encoded with TMPGEnc using the WVC1 codec, a
more demanding VC-1 codec.

 


1080p | 24fps | ~33mbps
Blu-ray: Disturbia is a short section of the
Blu-ray version of Disturbia, the motion picture, played directly
off a Blu-ray disc. It is encoded with H.264/AVC.

TEST RESULTS

Our test system is fairly basic, featuring a Core 2 E7200, a 65W TDP mid-level dual
core processor cooled by an Arctic Cooling Alpine 7 Pro connected
to a variable DC fan controller so the fan’s power draw does not come into play.
The rest of the system consists of a single stick of Corsair memory, an Asus
Blu-ray drive, a 5400RPM notebook hard drive and an OEM Seasonic 400W power
supply. The operating system used is Vista Home Premium SP1 (32-bit).

Test Results: E7200 @ 2.53 GHz, EIST
Test State
Mean
CPU
Peak
CPU
System Power
Off
N/A
2W
Sleep (S3)
N/A
3W
Idle
N/A
35W
Rush Hour
(H.264)
7%
14%
40W
Coral Reef
(WMV-HD)
34%
44%
44W
Drag Race
(VC-1)
56%
68%
51W
Disturbia
(Blu-ray H.264)
32%
47%
49W
CPU Load
N/A
64W
CPU + GPU
Load
N/A
65W

The GeForce 9300-ITX’s power consumption was fairly moderate during testing,
idling at 35W and maxing out at 65W with both the CPU and GPU being stressed.
Oddly the addition of a GPU load to the CPU load barely made a difference in
power draw. Video playback was flawless as one would expect with a powerful
IGP and a Core 2 Duo processor.

System Power Consumption Comparison
Test State
Intel
DG45FC
GeForce 9300-ITX
Asus
P5N7A-VM
Idle
35W
35W
41W
Rush Hour
(H.264)
~42W
~40W
~45W
Coral Reef
(WMV-HD)
~43W
~44W
~49W
Drag Race
(VC-1)
~47W
~51W
~53W
CPU Load
64W
64W
67W
CPU + GPU Load
65W
65W
68W

The Zotac 9300-ITX was more or less on par with Intel’s G45-powered mini-ITX
board, the DG45FC in
terms of power consumption. There was some slight variation during video playback,
but otherwise the two were very similar, both idling at 35W and topping out
at 65W when the CPU and GPU were put under stress. Compared to the Asus
P5N7A-VM
, a microATX board using the same GeForce 9300 chipset, Zotac’s
board is slightly more efficient, with a 6W improvement when idle, and 3W on
load.

WiFi

We used the board’s WiFi module to download 100 MB or so of Vista updates and
it gave us a consistent 4 bars of signal strength throughout at a distance of
about 25 feet from our lab’s wireless 802.11g router. We did not notice any
disconnections or other abnormalities during the brief time we tested the wireless
functionality. The module’s power consumption was also very low, adding only
2W to the system’s idle power consumption. By comparison, the unit that came
with Zotac’s GeForce 8200-ITX WiFi
increased power draw by 5~6W. This is even more frugal when you consider that
we’ve seen USB 802.11g adapters burning up 10~15W.

Fan Control

Fan control is perhaps the board’s most disappointing “feature” as
it really doesn’t work.. We connected a Scythe 92mm PWM fan to the board’s CPU
fan header and turned off the actual CPU fan while stressing the system with
Prime95. Core temperature skyrocketed, but the fan speed would not change. It
just continued spinning according to the last manual speed that was entered,
even though Smart Fan control was enabled, and the manual setting was greyed
out.

Manual control resulted in a speed of 180 RPM at the 0 setting and 2520 RPM
at the 15 (maximum) setting. Also, the board can only control PWM fans, and
only if it is connected to the CPU fan header. The secondary fan header could
not be controlled, despite the BIOS having settings for it.


SpeedFan main screen.

SpeedFan does not yet support the board either. It could not detect any fan
speeds nor enact any type of fan control.

Cooling

Lower cost boards ship with simple heatsinks on the northbridge and southbridge
while those targeted at enthusiasts typically have large heatpipe coolers and
heatsinks on the voltage regulation modules near the CPU socket. A well-cooled
motherboard can deliver better power efficiency and stability.

Heatsink Temperatures
Measuring Point
Temperature
GPU (internal
sensor reading)
78°C
Chipset Heatsink
62°C
VRMs
40 to 50°C
Measured with a spot thermometer after 15 minutes
of full CPU + GPU load. CPU fan reduced to 5V.

After fifteen minutes of full CPU and GPU load, the hefty chipset heatsink
measured only 62°C, a modest number. The MOSFETs near the CPU
socket were very cool, registering between 40 and 50°C. This was due to
their close proximity to the down-blowing heatsink, even though its fan was
set to 5V. The internal GPU sensor reported a maximum temperature of 78°C.
Assuming it has the same tolerance as a discrete GPU, this too, is acceptable.

3D Performance

To get a rough estimate of how well each board’s integrated graphics plays
games, we ran 3DMark05/06. As synthetic benchmarks they have limited value,
but they give a rough idea of how well an IGP performs.

3D Performance: Futuremark Comparison
Motherboard
Graphics
3DMark05
3DMark06
Zotac GeForce 8200-ITX
GF8200
1623
869
Asus M3N78 Pro
GF8300
1669
902
Asus P5Q-EM
X4500HD
1708
1092
MSI KA760GM
HD 3000
2289
1049
Gigabyte MA78GM-2SH
HD 3200
2293
1116
Gigabyte MA790GP-DS4H
HD 3300 (Sideport)
3377
1668
Gigabyte MA78GM-2SH
HD 3450
(Discrete)
3405
1716
Asus P5N7A-VM
GF9300
3497
1776
Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX
GF9300
3522
1797
All results with 2GB of system RAM and 256MB of
VRAM assigned for IGP’s (128MB Sideport + 128MB UMA for boards with Sideport
memory). AMD systems in green (X2 4850E), Intel systems in blue (E7200).

The board’s scores in 3DMark05 and 3DMark06 squeak past another GF9300 board and an AMD 790 board to the highest we’ve
recorded for an IGP. GeForce 9300 is a good rival for AMD’s HD 3300 IGP
with Sideport memory. It’s 3DMark scores are also almost twice as high as the
P5Q-EM, which is
powered by the same chipset found in the Intel DG45FC. If budget gaming is desired, clearly the GeForce 9300-ITX is the superior solution. Intel still has
much work ahead to compete with AMD or nVidia in this regard.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The GeForce 9300-ITX easily dethrones Intel’s DG45FC
as the reference standard for LGA775 mini-ITX boards. Intel X4500HD graphics
cannot even come close to competing with GeForce 9300. In addition, Intel’s
board lacks support for 95W CPUs, so those who wish to use a quad core chip
have to spend an extra $100 for one of Intel’s 65W models. The DG45FC is
slightly more power efficient when playing video, but expending a couple of
extra watts is well worth it for all the extra functionality the GeForce 9300-ITX
brings to the table.

While more formidable than the competition, the GeForce
9300-ITX has its share of flaws, most of which are centered around the BIOS.
The BIOS does not permit undervolting, and is missing the Wake-on USB feature
which is key for many HTPC users. The menu layout is also awkward, with frequencies
displayed unconventionally in effective rather than base speed and voltages
on a different screen. This isn’t a serious problem, but it shows a lack of
polish. The BIOS is second-rate compared to the functional and clean layout found on Asus or Gigabyte
boards. Additionally, the BIOS’ “SmartFan Control” didn’t work and
the board is not yet supported by SpeedFan. The best we could manage was to
set a single PWM fan to a static speed setting.

Despite its shortcomings, the Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi brings many attractive
features missing from the majority of consumer-oriented mini-ITX boards on the market. With the
exception of GeForce 9400, GeForce 9300 is the fastest onboard graphics money
can buy, good enough for less demanding games and of course it plays HD video
including Blu-ray without a hiccup. A standard 16x PCI Express slot gives users
the option of upgrading to a high performance discrete graphics card. The WiFi
adapter is just icing on the cake for a board already loaded with a feature
list that includes HDMI, S/PDIF, and eSATA. The $140 price-tag is very reasonable
when you consider the Intel DG45FC now retails for only $20 less. If you use
that as a point of comparison, the $20 difference delivers a ridiculous amount
of value.

Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi
PROS

* Full CPU support
* Feature-rich
* WiFi ready
* Low power consumption
* Reasonable price

CONS

* No undervolting
* No Wake-on USB
* Poor fan control
* Only 2 SATA ports

Our thanks to Zotac
for the motherboard sample.

SPCR Editor’s Choice Award

* * *

Articles of Related Interest
Asus
M4A78T-E AM3 motherboard

MSI KA760GM: 780G Minus the HD
790GX Showdown: Gigabyte vs. MSI
Zotac GeForce 8200-ITX WiFi: A Compact
AM2 Solution

Asus P5N7A-VM: Geforce 9300
IGP

Intel DG45FC: Loaded LGA775 Mini-ITX
Board

* * *

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