Zotac is the first to market with a real flesh-and-blood ION motherboard, the IONITX. The version under review, the IONITX-A, is a mini-ITX board with an embedded dual-core Atom processor, Nvidia’s ION GPU (based on GeForce 9400M) and a comprehensive feature set. It promises to be an all-in-one solution for small, energy efficient computing with versatile multimedia capability including full 1080p Blu-ray playback.
June 15, 2009 by Lawrence Lee
|Product|| Zotac IONITX-A|
Intel’s Atom processor has permeated through the market, swiftly gaining dominance
in netbooks and nettops alike. Not particularly powerful, its popularity lies
in its low cost and high energy efficiency. Intel pairs Atom with the outdated 945G chipset, which features
GMA950 graphics. The 945G is actually not that energy efficient, as evinced on Intel’s own embedded-Atom boards where the CPU heatsink doesn’t have a fan but the NB heatsink does. Still, it is a cost effective choice for platforms where gaming and
high definition video playback aren’t required or expected.
Nvidia’s ION platform unshackles Atom from Intel’s antiquated chipset, joining
it with a more capable partner, GeForce 9400M. The promise is tempting: Small, energy efficient computing with versatile
multimedia capability including full 1080p Blu-ray playback. While ION netbooks and ultra-portable notebooks are only in the launch stage, ION has already
been selling on the street for a few weeks in a mini-ITX embedded Atom desktop from Zotac.
Zotac, a Hong Kong based manufacturer established only three years ago, has made a nice niche for itself
producing affordable, yet capable mini-ITX mainboards for the retail market. It is no surprise that
Zotac would be the first out with a real flesh-and-blood ION product. The IONITX
is available in four different flavors with options for single or dual core
CPUs, power from a regular ATX power supply or a built-in AC/DC 90W unit, and
a mini PCI-E WiFi card. The version we are testing is the IONITX-A-U (the ‘U’
is a regional differentiation) — it is the most complete package, selling for nearly $200.
Zotac IONITX-A-U: Specifications
product data sheet)
PHYSICAL DETAILS & LAYOUT
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.
We were surprised to find chipset and memory voltage options,
though they can only be increased by small amounts.
Incredibly, Zotac also offers access to the front side bus,
enabling users to over/underclock the Atom processor. There are also a variety
of memory speed ratios and basic memory timings that can be selected manually.
The Hardware Monitor section is bare, displaying only the chipset
temperature and two fan speeds. There are no fan control options in the BIOS.
| 400 to 2500 MHz|
(100 to 625 MHz base frequency)
|Memory Voltage||1.05V, 1.10V|
Memory Timing Control
FSB Memory Ratio
|1:1, 5:4, 3:2|
|32MB, 64MB, 128MB, 256MB, 512MB|
The BIOS provides only a few tweaks, but honestly, it’s a lot
more than we were expecting. We noticed the Wake-on-USB feature that
is missing on Zotac’s GeForce
9300 motherboard is also absent on the IONITX.
Measurement and Analysis Tools
Our main test procedure is designed to determine the overall system power
consumption at various states (measured using a Seasonic Power Angel). To stress
Intel Atom and 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 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.
Cool’n’Quiet 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:
Video Test Suite
Rush Hour 3 Trailer 2c is a H.264 encoded clip inside an Apple
Coral Reef Adventure Trailer is encoded in VC-1 using the
WMV3 codec commonly recognized by the "WMV-HD" moniker.
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.
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.
Our test configuration is fairly basic, featuring a single 1GB stick of Corsair memory,
an Asus Blu-ray drive and a Western Digital 5400 RPM notebook hard drive. The
operating system is Vista Home Premium SP1 (32-bit).
CPU + GPU
Grey boxes indicate test failure.
Despite the dual core Atom CPU and a "real" Nvidia-powered onboard
graphics, the IONITX is surprisingly power efficient, idling at only 22W AC power. Video playback increased power consumption by no more than 3W
(for Disturbia this number was higher because it had to access the Blu-ray drive).
Full CPU load on both cores elicited 27W and the addition of stressing the GPU with FurMark resulting
in 34W total AC power draw. These are very low numbers.
Video playback was smooth and effortless for the most part, but we initially
had a lot of trouble getting our video test suite to run properly. Only the
H.264 Rush Hour clip would play problem-free. When PowerDVD was upgraded to version
9, all but one of our HD clips played fine. The VC-1 Drag Race clip remained unwatchable due to a massive number
of dropped frames and out-of-sync audio. Iincreasing the amount of system
and video memory, decreasing the screen resolution, different driver versions
and software players — none of these changes allowed the clip to be played with any
degree of smoothness. CPU usage during this clip was odd, spiking and dipping
between 10% and 40% every 5-10 seconds. If the IGP simply lacked VC-1 decoding
capability, at least one of the CPU cores would have maxed out, so
the source of the problem remains a mystery.
System Power Consumption Comparison
HFX Micro S13
CPU + GPU Load
Grey boxes indicate test failure.
Compared to the mCubed HFX Micro
S13, a similar fanless system (only with Intel graphics and lacking
an optical drive), the IONITX clearly delivers better video playback performance
and power consumption. The GMA950 IGP lacks hardware acceleration for video
playback so the D945GCLF2 board in the S13 could play only H.264 video. Using
the same Atom N330 processor, the Nvidia’s ION platform seems to be more energy
efficient than Intel’s.
Vista: Aero & Color Depth
Another oddity we encountered was the inability of the system to run at 32-bit
color depth and/or Vista’s Aero GUI at 1920×1200 resolution. After some investigation
we found that the IGP needed to be assigned 512MB of memory to overcome this
With 128MB or 256MB of video memory assigned, the system would only allow 32-bit
color and the enabling of Aero at 1920 x 1080 resolution or lower. While this
may not be a significant problem for many users, we find this unusual because
every IGP we’ve tested in the last year or so, even those slower than GeForce
9300/9400, has been able to produce 32-bit color at 1920 x 1200 resolution with
only 128MB of video memory.
We also noticed that the system took a noticeably long time to boot into Vista,
at least compared to the XP install on the mCubed HFX Micro S13. Once booted
up however, the system was as responsive as any dual core system tested
in the past.
In our open air test platform, the IONITX ran passively without any difficulty.
We stressed both the CPU and GPU for half an hour and the system continued chugging
along. The hottest point on the board’s heatsink stabilized at 69°C according
to an IR thermometer in our 22°C testing room.
The internal sensors registered maximum GPU and CPU temperatures of 66°C
and 75°C respectively. Assuming the board is used in a case with decent
airflow, we would have no qualms about running it passively. A completely fanless system probably unrealistic unless the case is very well ventilated and the ambient room temperature always stays low.
Despite the fact that the IONITX has a PWM fan header, it does not provide
any sort of fan control. Fans plugged into the board run at 12V. SpeedFan also
does not support fan control on the IONITX.
The fan Zotac included with the IONITX is a bit loud and produces a lot of
bearing noise. It is very quiet at 9V or 7V, but it cannot be controlled
by the board via the BIOS or software.
An interesting twist to the IONITX is its ability to overclock its Atom processor
— something we’re sure Intel never intended. With a fan sitting on top
of the board’s heatsink (to rule out overheating as the cause of any instability
encountered), we managed to overclock the Atom N330 to 2.0 GHz. 2.1 GHz was
unstable and 2.2GHz resulted in almost instantaneous blue screen of death.
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 very low, adding only
1W to the system’s idle power when it was enabled and connected
to the wireless network.
To get an 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
Zotac GeForce 8200-ITX
Asus M3N78 Pro
HD 3300 (Sideport)
Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX
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 scored 2798 in 3DMark05 and 1397 in 3DMark06, placing it somewhere
between AMD’s HD 3200 and HD 3300 IGPs (used with a X2 4850e processor). It easily surpasses the Intel GMA950 normally paired with Atom. When we tested GMA950, it could not even produce a viable 3DMark06
At lower resolutions, the CPU plays a big part in gaming performance, so the Atom N330 would probably be the bottleneck. On a 1024×600
netbook screen, it would probably be fast enough to play some modern games smoothly,
but at standard desktop resolution, it is a whole different story.
The first incarnation of Nvidia’s highly anticipated ION platform lives up to the hype for the most part. The Zotac IONITX-A has a ton of
features and is frugal in power consumption. The built-in power
supply with 90W power brick is enough to handle almost any extra hardware connected
to the system and produces no noise. It is well-suited complement
to the CPU/GPU’s massive heatsink, which can be run fanless, though in a typical
mini-ITX case, some forced airflow from a fan is probably necessary. The board’s dual core Atom
CPU is powerful enough to smoothly handle typical PC usage, though we
suggest using Windows XP or 7 for a faster experience, especially
if boot time is important. The CPU can also be overclocked easily to 2 GHz for
a little extra boost.
We had a couple of problems with the onboard graphics. Our video test suite
would not play smoothly until PowerDVD was upgraded to the latest iteration.
Even then, the VC-1 test clip wouldn’t play smoothly no matter what was tried,
and an unusual pattern of CPU usage occurred during playback. In addition,
the board would not run at 1920 x 1200 resolution at 32-bit color or nor allow Vista’s Aero to run unless the IGP was assigned 512MB of memory. These
symptoms suggest that the ION IGP, even though it is essentially a GeForce 9400M variant,
is behaving like a new GPU — we suspect there is some driver/software
optimization left to be done. It should be noted that we have not seen any other
reports of the board failing VC-1 playback, so this particular problem may be
specific to our sample and/or test clip.
One sorely missed feature is Wake-on USB. Like the Zotac
GeForce 9300 before it, the IONITX cannot be brought out of sleep/standby
using a USB device like a wireless mouse, keyboard or remote control. It is
perhaps only strike against the IONITX as a HTPC. However, our test
configuration only drew 22W idle so leaving it on 24/7 isn’t going to single-handedly
accelerate global climate change or force you to take out second mortgage on your
The IONITX-A has a $179 MSRP and is currently listed at Amazon for $190. The
extra $100 over the Intel D945GCLF2 nets you a much more capable GPU, digital video and
audio outputs, almost every feature under the sun including eSATA and 802.11n,
and a built-in power supply. All that can be ascertained from looking at the
specification sheet; the extra power efficiency we found and the possibility of fanless
operation is what really puts the IONITX over the top. There simply
isn’t any better motherboard right now for a very small, quiet,
efficient, yet capable PC.
* Very energy efficient
* No fan control
Our thanks to Zotac
for the IONITX sample.
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Apex MI-008: A Cheap Quiet mini-ITX Case?
mCubed HFX Micro S13 system: Atom
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