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Zotac IONITX-A: An ION / dual-core Atom Mini-ITX Board

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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.

Zotac IONITX-A: An ION Powered Mini-ITX Board

June 15, 2009 by Lawrence Lee

Product Zotac IONITX-A
Mini-ITX Motherboard
Manufacturer Zotac
MSRP US$180~190

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 Intel pairs Atom with the outdated 945G chipset, which features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.


The different IONITX SKUs.

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.


The box.


Box contents.

Zotac IONITX-A-U: Specifications
(from the
product data sheet
)

PHYSICAL DETAILS & LAYOUT


The landscape of the IONITX is dominated by the massive aluminum heatsink
sitting atop both the processor and chipset. It stands 36 mm tall (measured
from the PCB) and has plenty of surface area. A slim 60mm optional fan
for the heatsink is included in the package. Hopefully, we won’t need
to use it.


The board sports two DDR2 memory slots, two fan headers (one 4-pin PWM
and one 3-pin), and three SATA ports. A male molex connector near the
top of the board provides power for three SATA devices via an included
adapter. Take note: This is an output, not an input.


The heatsink is attached to the back of the board with four spring-loaded
screws.


The back panel is packed with the same outputs one would find on a premium
motherboard with onboard graphics. HDMI, DVI, S/PDIF (both coaxial and
optical) are represented as well as eSATA.

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.


"Chipset Configuration."

We were surprised to find chipset and memory voltage options,
though they can only be increased by small amounts.


"Performance Options."

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.


"MCP Hardware Monitor."

The Hardware Monitor section is bare, displaying only the chipset
temperature and two fan speeds. There are no fan control options in the BIOS.

BIOS Summary
Setting
Options
CPU FSB
400 to 2500 MHz
(100 to 625 MHz base frequency)
Chipset Voltage
2.0V, 2.1V
Memory Voltage 1.05V, 1.10V
Memory Timing Control
Basic
FSB Memory Ratio
1:1, 5:4, 3:2
Integrated Graphics
Video Memory
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.

TEST METHODOLOGY

Test Setup:


The IONITX utilizes the Intel Atom N330 processor, the dual core version
of the 1.6GHz N270.

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 (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:

  • 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 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).

Test Results
Test State
Mean
CPU
Peak
CPU
System Power
Idle
N/A
22W
Rush Hour
(H.264)
12%
16%
24W
Coral Reef
(WMV-HD)
35%
45%
25W
Drag Race
(VC-1)
23%
40%
22W
Disturbia
(Blu-ray H.264)
26%
40%
28W
CPU Load
N/A
27W
CPU + GPU
Load
N/A
34W
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
Test State
Zotac IONITX
HFX Micro S13
Idle
N/A
22W
N/A
25W
Rush Hour
(H.264)
12%
24W
65%
33W
Coral Reef
(WMV-HD)
35%
25W
31%
31W
CPU Load
N/A
27W
N/A
33W
CPU + GPU Load
N/A
34W
N/A
39W
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
problem.


Display options at 1920 x 1200 resolution with 128MB or 256MB assigned
video memory: 16-bit color and no Aero option.


Display options at 1920 x 1080 resolution with 128MB or 256MB assigned
video memory. 32-bit color and Aero option.

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.

Cooling

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.


SpeedFan main screen.

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.

Fan Control

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.


SpeedFan main screen.

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.

Overclocking

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.


Overclocked.

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 very low, adding only
1W to the system’s idle power when it was enabled and connected
to the wireless network.

3D Performance

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
Motherboard
Graphics
3DMark05
3DMark06
Intel D945GCLF2
GMA950
265
N/A
Zotac GeForce 8200-ITX
GF8200
1623
869
Asus M3N78 Pro
GF8300
1669
902
Asus P5Q-EM
X4500HD
1708
1092
Gigabyte MA78GM-2SH
HD 3200
2293
1116
Zotac IONITX
ION
2798
1397
Gigabyte MA790GP-DS4H
HD 3300 (Sideport)
3377
1668
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 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
score.

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.

FINAL THOUGHTS

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
home.

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.

Zotac IONITX-A
PROS

* Very energy efficient
* Many features incld. 802.11n & eSATA
* Passive heatsink
* Fanless power supply included
* Blu-ray ready
* Can overclock
* Well-priced

CONS

* No fan control
* No Wake-on USB
* Some issues with the IGP

Our thanks to Zotac
for the IONITX sample.

* * *

Articles of Related Interest
Asus
M4A78-HTPC/RC: A Complete HTPC Solution?

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

Asus M4A78T-E AM3 motherboard
Zotac GeForce 8200-ITX WiFi: A Compact
AM2 Solution

Apex MI-008: A Cheap Quiet mini-ITX Case?
mCubed HFX Micro S13 system: Atom
330, Silenced

* * *

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