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Zotac NVIDIA Ion Motherboard: SFF Goodness
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Date: May 12, 2009
Section:Motherboards
Author: Marco Chiappetta
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Introduction and Specifications

NVIDIA's Ion platform generated quite a buzz when news first broke of the company's plans late last year. As such, we've been keeping on top of Ion-related developments and have posted a number of stories related to Ion, beginning with our coverage of the platform at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. We followed that up with an evaluation of NVIDIA's own Ion reference system, and a few weeks back took a look at the first design win announced for the platform, the Acer Aspire Revo.

Today though, we're going to take a look Zotac's brand new Ion-based motherboard. What makes this product interesting to us is that it's the first one designed for the do-it-yourself crowd looking to assemble their own small form factor systems. The model we're going to feature here is outfitted with a dual core Atom N330 processor, integrated WiFi and HD audio, and of course the NVIDIA Ion platform processor. Zotac's Ion motherboard has a few other tricks up its virtual sleeve as well, but we're not going to give everything away right here. Read on for the full scoop and check out what has the potential to be one of the more sought after mini-ITX platforms released to date...


Zotac's Ion Motherboard

Zotac Ion Motherboard
Specifications and Features

Motherboard

Zotac IONITX-A

CPU

Intel Atom 330, soldered onboard

CPU Cores

2 (Dual-Core)

CPU FSB

533 MHz

GPU / Chipset

NVIDIA ION

GPU Engine Clock

450 MHz

Shader Clock

1100 MHz

DirectX Support

DirectX 10

Size

Mini-ITX Form Factor, 6.7in (170mm) x 6.7in (170mm)

Cooling

Passive (Quiet), Additional fan included, installation optional

Memory Type

Dual-Channel DDR2

Memory DIMM Sockets

2 x 240-pin DDR2 SDRAM

Memory Speed

667 MHz / 800 MHz

Maximum Memory Size

4 GB

Storage

3 SATA 3.0 GB/s ports, 1 e.SATA 3.0 GB/s port, SATA RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 1 MOLEX power connector (powers up to 3 SATA devices)

Display Connectors

VGA, HDMI, DVI

# of Monitors Supported

2

USB Ports

10, (6 on back panel, 4 via pin header)

Bus Connectors

1 Mini PCIe Slot

HDTV Support

720p, 1080i, 1080p

HDMI 7.1-Channel Audio

Yes

Audio

Realtek ALC662 (5.1 channel HD Audio)

Digital S/PDIF Outputs

1 Optical, 1 Coaxial

HD 5.1 Audio

1 HD Audio Port, (Line-in, Line-out, Mic-in)

Ethernet

10/100/1000 Mbps + WiFi

PS/2 Keyboard Port

Yes

WiFi Support

802.11n (Optional)

Additional Features

90W AC/DC Adapter, PureVideo HD, Blu-Ray Playback, Solid Caps


We've posted a number of articles related to NVIDIA's Ion platform here at HotHardware in the last few months. We've gone in-depth on many of the platform details in those previous articles, so we won't do the same again here. If, however, you'd like to brush up on some of the specifics, we'd recommend taking a peek at these HotHardware articles:

The Acer Aspire Revo is the most recent article, with coverage of the first design win NVIDIA announced for the Ion platform. In our NVIDIA Ion Reference PC Platform Deep Dive article, we cover the details of NVIDIA's reference ultra small form factor Ion PC, and in our GeForce 9300 / 9400 mGPU coverage, we cover all of the pertinent details regarding the NVIDIA Ion chipset itself.

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Zotac NVIDIA Ion Motherboard

As we've already mentioned, Zotac's Ion motherboard design conforms to the diminutive mini-ITX form factor. As such, the entire board measures only 6.7" x 6.7".

    

The model you see pictured here is the Zotac IONITX-A; there will be other models of this motherboard available as well that feature different processor, wireless, and PSU configurations. As you can see, the dominating feature on the board is a large, aluminum heatsink. The heatsink rests atop and 1.6GHz, dual-core Atom N330 processor and the NVIDIA Ion chipset. We should note, that despite the relative low power this platform is already known for, we found this heatsink to get fairly hot during extended use. Zotac, however, includes a fan with the board that can be mounted to the heatsink using four screws, and with the fan installed, temps go down considerably. Either way though, we didn't experience any heat-related instability whatsoever.

    

The layout of the Zotac IONITX-A is expectedly tight, considering the nature of the ultra small mini-ITX form factor. Dual, DDR2 DIMM slots run along the front edge of the board, adjacent to a mini-PCIe expansion slot, which is filled with an Atheros WiFi controller here, and a trio if SATA ports. All ports, headers, and expansion slots come by way of the NVIDIA Ion Platform processor, which also features an integrated Ion graphics core with 16 shaders, full DX10 compatibility, and HD video hardware offload, in addition to other features like Hybrid SLI and NVIDIA's CUDA technology support. The integrated Ion graphics core as it is implemented here runs at 450MHz with 1100MHz shaders.

    

Various I/O connectivity on the Zotac IONITX-'s backplane consists of a PS/2 port, 6 USB 2.0 ports, HDMI, DVI, and VGA outputs, optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, an eSATA ports, three analog audio jacks, an RJ45 LAN jack, a WiFi antenna post, and finally a DC-IN jack. The DC-IN jack is an interesting addition; one that we'll talk more about on the next page. You'll not there is no ATX power connector to be found. We should also point out that HD audio support on the board comes by way of a Realtek ALC662 5.1 channel CODEC and Ethernet support is native to the NVIDIA Ion chipset.

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Mini-ITX and Other Possibilities

The Zotac Ion motherboard ships with an interesting array of accessories in its bundle.

   

Along with the board itself, we found a trio of SATA cables, an I/O shield, a WiFi antenna, a fan, and of course a user's manual and drive disc. In addition to these items though, Zotac also includes an external power supply and an adapter cable that converts a four-pin peripheral connector to three SATA power connectors. One end of the peripheral connector plugs into the motherboard itself, which feeds the three SATA power connectors. The external PSU plugs into a jack in the board's I/O backplane, as we showed you on the previous page.

The Zotac board's inclusion of DC to DC power circuitry is interesting in that it opens up the possibilities of using other DC power sources to supply juice to the board. It also offers more flexibility to end users when shopping for a mini-ITX enclosure because a case mounted PSU is no longer necessary.


ATX Mid Tower > Mini-ITX > Apsire Revo


Speaking if mini-ITX enclosures, we thought we'd give you all some visual aids to really show just how small the form factor is. We've talked about mini-ITX many times in that past, but haven't made any direct comparisons to put things into proper perspective.

What you see pictured above is a standard ATX mid-tower standing next to a mini-ITX enclosure and the NVIDIA Ion-based Acer Aspire Revo. As you can see, the physical dimensions of the mini-ITX box are significantly smaller than the mid-tower. And the custom Revo takes things down even further. We should also mention that a plethora of other mini-ITX options are out there as well, that shrink things down even further than the mini-ITX box pictured here. Some mini-ITX enclosures make use of slim-line mobile optical drives, or do away with drive bays altogether.
 

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Test Systems and Video Performance

To assess the performance of the Zotac Ion motherboard, we pitted it against a number of various systems based on either Intel Atom processor designs--including the NVIDIA Ion Reference Platform--or in one case, VIA's Nano reference platform and the VIA Nano L2100 processor.  The performance numbers we've provided along with the Zotac board's are presented for a frame of reference more than anything else, since it was nearly impossible to provide identically configured test systems. As such, these test metrics should not be considered "apples to apples" comparisons, but rather a general correlation of how the Ion-based Zotac motherboard will perform versus similar, low power platforms in its peer group.

HotHardware's Test Systems
Covering the bases

Zotac Ion
Atom N330, 1.6GHz, FSB 533MHz
2GB DDR2-800
GeForce 9400M, 16 graphics cores

On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio
74GB WD Raptor
10K RPM SATA
GeForce Driver v185.85
Windows Vista Ultimate

NVIDIA Ion Ref. PC
Atom 230, 1.6GHz, FSB 533MHz
2GB DDR3-1066
GeForce 9400M, 16 graphics cores
On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio
160GB Seagate HD
5400 RPM SATA

Windows Vista Premium

Asus Eee PC 1000H
Intel Atom N270 - 1.6 GHz

1x2GB DDR2-533
Intel
945GME
On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio
80 Seagate GB Hard Drive 5400 RPM SATA

Windows XP SP3

Acer Asipre Revo
Atom 230, 1.6GHz, FSB 533MHz
2GB DDR2-800
GeForce 9400M, 16 graphics cores

On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio
160GB Seagate HD
5400 RPM SATA

Windows Vista Premium

Lenovo IdeaPad S10
Intel Atom N270 - 1.6 GHz

1x2GB DDR2-533

Intel 945GME
GeForce 9300M
On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio
160GB Hard Drive
5,400 RPM SATA

Windows XP SP3


For PCMark Vantage and Cinebench Tests:
  • Intel BOXD945GCLF Motherboard and Intel Atom 230 @ 1.6GHz.- 2GB DDR2-800, 74GB WD Raptor HD
  • VIA Epia-SN Nano reference motherboard and Nano L2100 @ 1.8GH - 2GB DDR2-800, 74GB WD Raptor HD
Acer Aspire Revo Video Playback Performance
HD Video Playback

Before we ran any benchmarks on the Zotac Ion motherboard, we played some video clips and Blu-Ray discs on the system to get a feel for its video performance and quality. Because the NVIDIA Ion platform's main claim to fame is its integrated graphics processor, we feel video performance is an important consideration.


Zotac Ion Video Playback - 1080p QuickTime Clip From BBC Motion



Zotac Ion Video Playback - 1080p Matroska Clip From Watchmen
 

We found the Zotac Ion motherboard's video playback performance to be very good. In the image above, an H.264-encoded 1080p clip from the BBC Motion library is playing on the system. As the image shows, even with a full 1080p QuickTime clip, CPU utilization is well below 100%. Playing back other file types and even Blu-Ray discs using an external Lite-On player were also pleasurable, but CPU utilization does spike higher during Blu-Ray playback to the point where you shouldn't do anything else with the machine, even though it's got a dual-core Atom N330 (with HT) at its heart. In addition to the QuickTime test, we also spent some time with the free MPC-HC (Media Player Classic-Home Cinema) player. We played back an H.264 encoded Matroska file of the Watchmen movie trailer. Because MPC-HC has full support for NVIDIA GPU hardware acceleration, CPU utilization is minimal, even with a full resolution 1080p clip.

 
The Zotac Ion Motherboard In Action

We also shot a bit of video of the Zotac Ion motherboard in action in a few different scenarios, to give you all a better sense of its performance in some real-world situations. In the clip above, we browse the web, stream video from Hulu and YouTube, and playback the 1080p BBC clip mentioned earlier. As you'll see, playback and system responsiveness is quite good; much better than the Acer Aspire Revo we took a look at a few weeks back. We attribute the Zotac board's stronger performance here to its more powerful--relatively speaking--dual core processor and the clean OS installation we performed when building up our test machine.

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High Level Synthetics - SANDRA

We began our benchmark testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA XII, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2009 test suite with the Zotac Ion motherboard (CPU Arithmetic, CPU Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, and the Disk Storage tests).  All of the scores reported below were taken with the board's integratead N330 Atom processor running at its default clock speed of 1.6GHz, with 2GB of DDR2-800 system memory, and HyperThreading enabled.

 Preliminary Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2009
 Synthetic Benchmarks







The Zotac Ion motherboard performed almost identically to NVIDIA's reference Ion platform in our SiSoft SANDRA tests. It did fall a bit short of the reference platform in the memory bandwidth tests, but that was to be expected--the reference platform was equipped with faster DDR3 memory, the Zotac board used DDR2. The Zotac board pulled way out in front in the storage benchmarks, but that was only because we used a desktop hard drive for these tests.

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PCMark Vantage Performance

We also ran the Zotac Ion motherboard through Futuremark‚Äôs latest system performance metric built specifically for Windows Vista, PCMark Vantage. PCMark Vantage sets up a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity.  Most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, so the tests can exploit the additional resources offered by the board's dual core Atom N330 processor and its HT feature. Here we're comparing the Zotac Ion to both an Intel Atom reference platform on an Intel D945GCLF motherboard, the NVIDIA Ion reference platform, the Aspire Revo, and the VIA Nano reference platform as well.

Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Simulated Application Performance

Thanks to its dual-core processor and the fast hard drive we used to build up the test system based on the Zotac Ion, it pulls well ahead of the other Atom based systems in our PCMark Vantage tests. If these results tell you anything, it's that the Ion platform benefits greatly from a fast storage sub-system. SSDs anyone?

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Cinebench R10

Cinebench R10 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D from Maxon. Cinema 4D is a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others.  It's very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput.

Cinebench R10
3D Rendering

This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The rate at which each test system was able to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below.

Cinbench isn't likely an application that any of you will plan to run on an Ion-based system, but we wanted to include this performance data just to give you an idea of relative CPU performance between the platforms. As you can see, the Zotac Ion board comes out on top, just barely edging out the NVIDIA Ion reference platform. The Zotac board's integrated dual core Atom N330 processor give it a significant advantage over the single core Atoms here.

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Gaming: Left 4 Dead and ET: Quake Wars

With a low-power processor and integrated graphics solution, we didn't really expect the Zotac Ion motherboard to churn through today's hot gaming titles, but with a DX10-class NVIDIA Ion GPU at its heart along with a dual core CPU, the Zotac board should be able to provide some level of game play, whereas a competing Intel-based solution may not even be able to launch the game, let alone render it properly.

Left 4 Dead
DirectX Gaming Performance


Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead is a co-operative, survival horror, first-person shooter that was developed by Turtle Rock Studios, which was purchased by Valve part-way into development. Like Half Life 2, the game uses the Source engine, however, the visuals in L4D are far superior to anything seen in the Half Life universe to date. The game pits four Survivors of an apocalyptic pandemic against hordes of aggressive zombies. We tested the game at resolutions of 1280x720 and 800x600 with gaming quality settings set to medium or high, depending on the feature.

 The Zotac Ion board blew well past the Aspire Revo here, and hung right alongside NVIDIA's reference platform. This just goes to show that Ion is held back considerably by the Atom CPU.

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
OpenGL Gaming Performance


Enemy Territory:
Quake Wars

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is Based on an enhanced version of id's Doom 3 engine and viewed by many as Battlefield 2 meets the Strogg, and then some.  In fact, we'd venture to say that id took EA's team-based warfare genre up a notch or two.  ET: Quake Wars also marks the introduction of John Carmack's "Megatexture" technology that employs large environment and terrain textures that cover vast areas of maps without the need to repeat and tile many smaller textures.  The beauty of megatexture technology is that each unit only takes up a maximum of 8MB of frame buffer memory.  Add to that HDR-like bloom lighting and leading edge shadowing effects and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars looks great, plays well and works high end graphics cards vigorously. 

Although the framerates are lower, Enemy Territory follows the same performance trend as Left 4 Dead. The Zotac Ion board finishes just behind the NVIDIA Ion reference platform, but ahead of the others. And the addition of a dual core CPU, give the Zotac board a significant advantage over the singe core equipped Aspire Revo.

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Total System Power Consumption

Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing with the Zotac Ion motherboard, we monitored how much power our test systems were consuming using a power meter. Our goal was to give you an idea as to how much power our systems consumed while idling and under a heavy workload.

Total System Power Consumption
Tested at the Outlet

Please keep in mind that we were testing total system power consumption at the outlet here, not just the power being drawn by the motherboards or processors alone.  For this test, we loaded up both Cinebench and our 1080p video clip to stress the CPU and GPU cores in the Ion system.

The Zotac Ion-based test system consumed the most power of all our test configurations while idling and under load. While the entire platform can still be considered low power by today's standards, the desktop components used to build up the Zotac system, in addition to its integrated wireless network controller, push its power consumption higher than the other systems by a few watts.

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Our Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: The Zotac Ion motherboard performed as expected in our testing. The board's benchmark scores were right in-line with NVIDIA's Atom 330-based Ion reference PC, which is to say they were significantly better than any of the single core Atom 230 based systems. The additional horsepower afforded by the dual core Atom N330 processor used on the Zotac board not only resulted in increased benchmark scores, but also allowed the system to better handle Flash video from sites like Hulu and YouTube and to perform better in the gaming benchmarks.

 

At this point, we have shown you a handful of different NVIDIA Ion based products here at HotHardware, ranging from NVIDIA's own reference system, to the Acer Aspire Revo, and now the Zotac Ion motherboard. In essence, all of these systems offer similar functionality because they are all based on the same platform. But the Zotac Ion motherboard is most appealing to us currently because it caters to the DIY crowd. Not only that, but the design of the IONITX-A model we tested in particular, offers some very interesting features, not the least of which is its DC power input. The inclusion of a completely silent power brick to power the Zotac Ion motherboard gives potential buyers more flexibility when choosing a mini-ITX enclosure and also opens up a world of potential mod possibilities. The Zotac IONITX-A would be an excellent candidate for a car computer, for example, and would require only an inexpensive DC step up voltage inverter to receive power. The IONITX-A's dual core Atom processor and other specs also make it an excellent potential candidate for low-power silent PC or small form factor Home Theater system.


Zotac's Ion Motherboard Line-Up

Zotac plans to ship their Ion-based motherboard in a number of different configurations ranging from the top of the line IONITX-A model we tested to lower end models with single core processors, and sans WiFi or PSU. We don't have pricing for the lower end models just yet, but the IONITX-A is expected to sell for roughly $179 (e-tail) to $189 (retail). That may seem steep to some of you based on the performance of the platform and the fact that Intel's Atom 330 based, Mini-ITX BOXD945GCLF2D motherboard is available for less than $80, but all things considered, you have to expect to pay more for the Zotac Ion because it simply offers more--significantly better video performance, better gaming, WiFi, dual-channel memory support and a PSU.

Expect limited availability of the Zotac Ion motherboard for the next couple of weeks with broader availability towards the end of the month. Those of you that were waiting for an Ion-based solution for the DIY market need not wait much longer.

  

  • Low Power
  • Silent
  • Highly Integrated
  • CUDA Support
  • Integrated DC/DC PSU

 

  • Somewhat Pricey
  • Ion GPU Is Limited By Atom CPU
  • Limited Availability At First

 



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