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Zotac NF610i-ITX: Compact, low cost, Core 2 solution

Zotac’s offers a low-cost mini-ITX board with removable socket-775 CPU options using the nForce 610 chipset. Is it suitable for the DIY system builder? The answer depends on your objectives.

September 1, 2008 by Lawrence Lee

Product Zotac NF610i-ITX
Intel LGA775 mini-ITX Motherboard
Manufacturer Zotac
Street Price US$80

While Zotac may sound like the name of an alien from a cheesy sci-fi movie,
it is actually one of nVidia’s newest board partners. Their graphics cards and
motherboards have been popping up recently in North America but like many brands,
they get lost in the big shuffle. To really get attention, you have to differentiate
yourselves from the competition. On paper, most of Zotac’s products are a bit
pedestrian.

The Zotac NF610i-ITX is a notable exception in that it is one of the few mini-ITX
motherboards available that can utilize the power of a standard desktop processor.
It has an LGA 775 socket and it is compatible with most Intel Core 2 processors,
making it one of the few viable choices for a powerful, mini-ITX PC. Most mini-ITX
motherboards utilize a built-in, low-power, slower processor that is soldered
directly to the board and cannot be removed.

The board uses nVidia’s most basic chipset for Intel processors, consisting
of the nForce 610i MCP and Geforce 7050 GPU. The choices available for a LGA775
motherboard with nVidia integrated graphics are poor — a quick visit to
their motherboard
product page
shows that they offer only one line: the Geforce 7 series.
On the AMD side, there is Geforce 6, 7, 8100, 8200, and 8300 to choose from.
This seems like an egregious oversight when you consider just how weak Intel
IGPs have been in the past. Of course the current nVidia-Intel relationship
is contentious, so there may be other reasons behind this mysterious absence.

So is Geforce 7050 good enough? Does this board rise up from the relative obscurity
of Zotac’s line? Let’s find out.


The usual retail box, with an orange and black motif suitable for halloween
candy.

 


To complement the board’s compact size, the accessories are kept to a
minimum.

 

Zotac NF610i-ITX: Specifications (from the
product web page
)
Processor Support
– Intel Core 2 Duo
– Intel Core 2 Quad
– Intel Core 2 Extreme
– Intel Pentium
– LGA775 Socket
– Up to 1333 MHz FSB
Chipset – NVIDIA GeForce 7050
– NVIDIA® nForce 610i
BIOS – Phoenix (Award) PnP Flash
ROM BIOS
Memory – DDR2 533/667
– 2 DIMM slots up to 4GB memory
I/O Onboard – One Channels Parallel
ATA133 Connector (Support up to 2 Devices)
– Two Serial ATA 3.0Gbps Ports
– One HD Audio 5.1 Port (Line-in, Line-out, MIC-in)
– One PS/2 Mouse Port
– One PS/2 Keyboard Port
– One Serial Port (pin header)
– Four USB Ports on Back Panel, Four USB Ports on Pin Header
– One RJ45 Port
LAN – Onboard 10/100Mb/s
USB – Integrated in chipset,
USB 2.0 x 8

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 airflow
and make the system more thermally challenging.


Layout.

When it comes to mini-ITX motherboards it’s tough to criticize any layout choices.
With so little room to work with, fitting all the standard ports is an achievement
in itself. There aren’t that many tricks to maximize space — the CMOS battery
placed vertically is the only obvious measure. There are two fan headers, one
4-pin PWM header near the back panel and one standard 3-pin header below the
BATA ports.


Viewed from the side.

There is a limited amount of hardware you can add to any mini-ITX board. There
are only two memory slots, a single expansion slot (PCI-E 1x), two SATA ports
and one IDE controller.


Chipset heatsink.

The chipset heatsink is one of the smallest we’ve seen. Its fins are thick,
broad and there aren’t that many of them. We’ve noticed that other motherboards
using the same chipset have much larger coolers, so it’s surprising and worrisome
to see this.


Back panel connectors.

Connectivity via the back panel is very limited with only the bare minimum
of ports available. The board can drive only a single VGA display — the complete
lack of digital outputs is disappointing.

BIOS

BIOS options on mini-ITX boards are typically incredibly spartan.
The presence of an IGP and the extremely limited cooling associated with the
platform makes manufacturers nervous about allowing users the ability to customize
their clock/voltage settings.


FSB & Memory Config

For frequency manipulation, Zotac provides a strange set of
options. To change the CPU clock speed, you enter the desired quad-pumped
FSB rather than a base CPU frequency. Any memory speed can be entered but
it will round up or down to the closest viable frequency based on a set of
dividers invisible to the user.

Notable Available BIOS Adjustments
Setting
Options
CPU FSB 400Mhz to 2500Mhz
Memory Frequency 400Mhz to 1400Mhz
Memory Timings Basic
Video Memory Size 16MB, 32MB, 64MB, 128MB, 256MB

CPU voltage cannot be changed, so any underclocking or overclocking
must be done at stock voltage. This severely limits the benefit of underclocking,
and with the tiny chipset heatsink, overclocking may be downright dangerous.
Memory timings can be adjusted, but only the major settings are available.
Probably the most troubling thing we saw in the BIOS was the lack of S3 standby
(suspend-to-RAM). Without it, when the system is in Sleep/Standby all of the
components continue to receive power except for the hard disks.


When the CPU reaches 60°C a tiger emerges and fans the system with
its paws.

The PC Health menu reports the voltages and fan speeds and offers
a rudimentary fan control mechanism. Its Smart Fan feature will come into
effect based on the chosen “Tiger Temperature.” A tolerance of between
1°C and 5°C can be selected.

TEST METHODOLOGY

Test Setup:

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), and to
test the integrated graphics’ proficiency at playing back high definition videos.
Standard HD-DVD and Blu Ray discs 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.

We use a variety of H.264/VC-1 clips encoded for playback on the PC. The clips
are played with PowerDVD 7 and a CPU usage graph is created by the Windows Task
Manger for analysis to determine the approximate mean and peak 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.

SpeedStep was enabled the following features/services were disabled during
testing to prevent spikes in CPU/HDD usage that are typical of fresh Vista installations:

  • User Access Control
  • Microsoft Defender
  • Windows Sidebar
  • Indexing
  • ReadyBoost
  • Superfetch
  • Windows Search
  • Security Center
  • Aero interface

Video Test Suite


1080p | 24fps | ~10mbps
H.264:
Rush Hour 3 Trailer 1
is encoded in H.264 with Apple Quicktime.

 


1080p | 24fps | ~7.5mbps
WMV3:
Coral Reef Adventure trailer
is encoded in VC-1 using the
WMV3 codec (commonly recognized by the moniker, “HD WMV”).

 


720p | 60fps | ~12mbps
WVC1: Microsoft Flight Simulator X trailer
is encoded in VC-1. It is encoded using the Windows Media Video 9
Advanced Profile (aka WVC1) codec — a much more demanding implementation
of VC-1.

 


1920×1080 | 24fps | ~19mbps
WVC1: Drag Race is a recording of a scene from
network television re-encoded with TMPGEnc using the WVC1 codec. It
is the most demanding clip in our test suite.

TEST RESULTS

Our test system is basic, featuring a notebook hard drive and Blu-ray drive.
The CPU is a Core 2 Duo E6400, an older processor with modest power requirements
(65W). It is cooled by an Arctic Cooling Alpine 7 Pro CPU cooler connected to
a variable DC fan controller (so the fan’s power draw does not come into play).

Test Results: Zotac NF610i-ITX
Test State
CPU Usage
System Power (AC)
Mean
Peak
SS-400ET
SS-SFD300
Off
N/A
2W
2W
Sleep (S1)
N/A
48W
44W
Idle
1%
2%
50W
45W
Rush Hour
33%
54%
~61W
~57W
Coral Reef
28%
40%
~58W
~55W
Flight Sim.
46%
60%
~70W
~65W
Drag Race
55%
67%
~65W
~62W
Prime95
100%
102W
95W
Prime95 + ATITool
100%
103W
97W

As board can utilize the same processors as an equivalent mATX board, we thought
it fitting to test the system with both the ATX power supply we typically use
for mATX motherboards (Seasonic SS-400ET), as well as a SFX power supply (Seasonic
SS-300SFD), one that might be more likely to be used in a mini-ITX case. Both
are 80 Plus units, though the SFD300 is obviously more efficient at lower power
levels. With the SFD300, the system consumed 3-5W less with light load, and
5-6W less with heavy load. The lack of power saved using Sleep mode was striking
— suspend-to-RAM makes Vista’s Sleep mode all but worthless.

Video playback was excellent on the NF610i-ITX. As we have seen in the past,
nVidia GPUs are no slouches, and despite the fact that the board is powered
by the rather dated Geforce 7050 chip, it passed our playback suite with no
problems. CPU usage remained relatively low throughout and no anomalies presented
themselves during playback.

Zotac NF610i-ITX vs. Asus P5E-VM HDMI (SS-400ET)
Test State
Zotac NF610i-ITX
Asus P5E-VM HDMI
Mean CPU Usage
System Power
Mean CPU Usage
System Power
Off
N/A
2W
N/A
3W
Sleep
N/A
48W
N/A
4W
Idle
1%
50W
1%
56W
Rush Hour
33%
~61W
36%
~65W
Coral Reef
28%
~58W
29%
~64W
Flight Sim.
46%
~70W
47%
~71W
Drag Race
55%
~65W
54%
~69W
Prime95
100%
102W
100%
96W
Prime95 + ATITool
100%
103W
100%
97W

Compared head to head with the Intel G35 powered Asus P5E-VM HDMI, video playback
efficiency was very similar — CPU usage was almost identical. Power efficiency
however was better with light load — the Zotac board registered a full 6W
less when idle, and bested its opponent in varying degrees during video playback.
When pushed to full load however, the results flipped in favor of the P5E-VM.

Zotac NF610i-ITX vs. Albatron KI690-AM2 (SS-300SFD)
Test State
Zotac NF610i-ITX
Albatron KI690-AM2
Mean CPU Usage
System Power
Mean CPU Usage
System Power
Off
N/A
2W
N/A
2W
Sleep
N/A
44W
N/A
4W
Idle
1%
45W
1%
32W
Rush Hour
33%
~57W
35%
~53W
Coral Reef
28%
~55W
50%
~57W
Flight Sim.
46%
~65W
88%
~68W
CPU Load*
100%
95W
100%
85W
*Prime95 was used for the NF610i-ITX and CPUBurn K7 was
used for the KI690-AM2 (CPUBurn generates higher power consumption on K8
systems)

For a mini-ITX comparison, there was really only one board that has passed
through our labs we could pit the Zotac against — the Albatron KI690-AM2.
It’s not a completely fair fight as our testing procedure is somewhat different
now than it was then (most notably, we use PowerDVD instead of WMP to play back
video). Also, the Albatron board was paired with a X2 3800+, a much slower processor
than we normally use — generally a Core 2 Duo performs roughly equivalent
to a X2 clocked 500-600Mhz higher.

Despite being at a disadvantage, the KI690-AM2 continues to impress us, even
though a year has passed since we reviewed it. The Zotac board uses a lot more
power when idle, though makes up for it somewhat with good efficiency playing
HD video. Getting the power consumption down on a Core 2 system to AM2 levels,
no matter what form factor, seems daunting.

FAN CONTROL

When it comes to customizable control, SpeedFan is our application of choice.
If properly supported, it can be configured to raise/lower multiple fan speeds
to designated limits when any specified temperature threshold is breached.

SpeedFan on this board provided little functionality. Since Zotac and nVidia
do not provide any monitoring utilities, we did our best to guess exactly which
readings should be given credence and which could be ignored. First off, the
fan speed readings gave us a big donut across the board — it simply can’t
read the speed from either fan header. From loading the CPU, we determined that
temperature label CPU was most likely the CPU temperature. Temp1 stayed at 40°C
throughout testing, so feel free to ignore it.

The CPU fan header (C_FAN1) can be used to control PWM fans (not 3-pin DC fans)
in SpeedFan. To do so, change PWM 2 mode to “Manual PWM Control” in
the Advanced options. Once this is done, the Speed02 control allowed us to throttle
a Scythe 92mm PWM fan from approximately 200 to 2580 RPM.

The automatic BIOS-based fan control was very primitive. When the trigger temperature
and tolerance were set to 50°C and 5°C respectively, our PWM fan jumped
from 200 to 1700 RPM (measured using an tachometer) right on the dot when the
CPU temperature hit 50°C. The speed rose quickly until it reached the maximum
2580 RPM at 55°C. From this we can conclude the “tolerance” is
actually the range in which the fan increases and frankly 5°C isn’t very
much. The fan speed change is very abrupt spanned over 5°C.

COOLING

To test the cooling on the board, we lowered the CPU cooling fan’s voltage
to 7V to reduce the amount of top-down airflow the nearby components received.
We then stressed the system with Prime95 and ATITool and whipped our our handy
IR thermometer to check the results. After about 20 minutes of load, the chipset
heatsink was a balmy 65°C and the nearby MOSFETs at the rear of the board
were in the 70°C range. When the CPU fan was further slowed to 5V, the temperature
increased to 77°C and 75°C respectively for the chipset heatsink and
VRMs. The amount of airflow from the CPU fan greatly influenced the chipset
heatsink temperature due to its close proximity. Throughout testing, the chipset
cooler was too hot to touch for more than a fraction of a second.

3D PERFORMANCE

To get a rough estimate of how well the NF610i-ITX’s onboard video plays games,
we ran 3DMark05/06. As a synthetic benchmark, it has limited value, but it should
give you a good idea of how well it performs.

3D Performance: Futuremark Comparison
Test
NF610i-ITX
(GF7050)
P5E-VM
(GMA X3500)
M3N78 Pro
(GF8300*)
MA78GM-2SH
(HD3200*)
3DMark05
900
1263
1669
2293
3DMark06
328
676
902
1116
All results with 2GB of system RAM and 256MB of VRAM
assigned.
*AM2 systems were equipped with a X2 4850e (2.5GHz) processor.

If there’s any situation in which the Geforce 7050 IGP seems dated, its here.
With measly scores of 900 and 328 respectively with 3DMark05/06, the board falls
far short of the latest AMD offerings, as well as Intel’s year-old GMA X3500
IGP.

FINAL THOUGHTS

While it is outclassed in 3D performance by Intel’s GMA X3500 and AMD’s HD3200
and Geforce 8300 IGPs, Geforce 7050 is surprisingly strong for HD playback and
efficiency. Unfortunately it is limited by the choice of video outputs —
VGA only. Without DVI or HDMI, it makes less than ideal HTPC/media center. In
addition, the chipset lacks a dual channel memory controller — something
they’re not keen on advertising. While this won’t result in a huge performance
difference, it is something to be considered. The IGP/chipset is also cooled
by a very small heatsink which may cause problems down the road.

Power consumption, which is a result of the efficiency of the chipset as well
as the power regulation implemented by the manufacturer, was good, besting the
Asus P5E-VM HDMI by an average of 5W during light load. The tables turned when
high load was applied, but generally a system is rarely at such a state and
spends most of its time idle. The lack of suspend-to-RAM is downright criminal,
however, and a heavy blow for some users. Standby/Sleep is an effective yet
convenient way to reduce power consumption — suspending the system costs
only an extra watt on most systems compared to shutting the system down completely
and allows for very short wait to return to full functionality. Without suspend-to-RAM
however, this feature is basically useless.

Ultimately, the Zotac NF610i-ITX is a marriage of convenience, the joining
of the mini-ITX platform to a basic, low-priced nVidia chipset. The result is
an affordable, compact platform that has the potential to be as powerful as
a system many times its size. Being able to use some of the fastest desktop
chips available gives the NF610i-ITX an undeniable edge for those looking for
sheer computing power and a small physical footprint. Its underlying strengths
however, are undermined by a series of faults and omitted features that are
neither minor or inconsequential. For a specialized commercial or industrial
application, it might be fine, but for a home user, it fails to meet basic requirements.
The best thing we can say is that the price is very modest for removable CPU
mini-ITX board. The good thing for Zotac is that they’ve also released an alternate
version of this product using the nForce 630i chipset, and it offers both VGA
and DVI outputs. That model strikes us as being a substantially better option
for the DIY buyer.

PROS

* Core 2 Duo/Quad compatibility
* Low power consumption
* Efficient HD playback
* Affordable pricing

CONS

* Limited BIOS options (namely the inability to undervolt)
* Cannot suspend-to-RAM
* Small chipset heatsink
* Lack of connectivity (DVI, HDMI, S/PDIF)
* No dual channel memory controller

Our thanks to Zotac
for the NF610i-ITX sample.

* * *

Articles of Related Interest

Asus P5E3 Premium: A Mean, Green
Motherboard?

Intel D201GLY2 Mini-ITX mainboard
AMD 780G: Best Ever Integrated
Mainstream Chipset?

Asus P5E-VM HDMI: A microATX
C2D board for gamers?

Albatron KI690-AM2: A Mini-ITX Powerhouse
AOpen i945GTt-VFA
VIA EPIA EN12000E m-ITX board

* * *

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