Zotac ION ITX-F Motherboard Page: 1
Introduction
 
Chip giant Intel has rarely ceased to impress since it's striking comeback against AMD in 2006 with it's Core 2 Duo series processor. Even today, the firm still holds the performance crown with it's behemoth Core i7 monster solutions. But who says that Intel should be most recognised for it's upper end processors? After all, it is only a rather select proportion of end users that intend on buying such equipment. We are not reviewing the bang per buck Intel Pentium Dual Core processors or the Celeron Dual Core range. Today, we shall be turning the spotlight on the Intel Atom 330 Dual Core / nVidia ION Platform Pairing...again. As a matter of fact, the Atom motherboard up for review today is from the same brand and product family as the motherboard we previously reviewed as well. To understand why we agreed to have a play with this particular product, let's talk about it's constituent product family and brand.
 
Zotac is a manufacturer of motherboards and graphics cards that has seen a large rise in popularity and growth over the last few years. The year of 2009 has made Zotac very well known for Mini ITX motherboards, including the mighty GeForce 9300-ITX, which offers support for all LGA775 Core 2 Duo/Quad/Extreme processors as well as a full size PCI-Express 16x slot. We also rated the Mini ITX ION-A Motherboard very highly for it's excellent integrated graphics performance and it's highly comprehensive feature set. This brings us to the latest addition to the Mini ITX family, the ION ITX-F.
 
Specifications 
CPU Compatibility 
NameIntel® Atom™ 330 (dual-core) (1.6 GHz) Intel® HyperThreading™ technology
Front-side bus533 MHz
Memory Compatibility 
Memory Type2 x 240-pin DIMM 667/800 MHz Slots
Maximum Capacity4GB
Graphics Compatibility 
Interface1 x PCI-Express 2.0 16x
Integrated Graphics 
TypeGeForce "ION"
Ports 
USB 2.06 x Rear / 4x Front
SATA3
e-SATA1
Ethernet10/100/1000Mbps
PS/21
Video Output1 x HDMI w/ 7.1 Channel Audio, 1 x DVI, 1 x VGA
Wireless Adapter 
TypeMini PCI-Express (Internal)
Standard802.11n
 
Like it's siblings, it features the well regarded ION graphics module based on the GeForce 9400M chipset, 3 SATA II ports, HDMI/DVI/VGA, 6 external USB with scope for another 4 and an integrated 802.11n Wireless module. This particular model has lost a feature and gained one. So what's the damage? The good news is that this version of the ION ITX series sports a PCI-Express 16x port for graphics cards. The bad news however is that as a consequence it has lost it's integrated 90W passive power supply unit. This is understandable given that the previously supplied power brick would not have stood much of a chance at powering a dedicated graphics card along with the rest of the system.
 
At the heart of the ION ITX-F motherboard lies a very special processor, called the Intel Atom 330. It's speciality is certainly not a thing to do with brute power but rather power efficiency where it's performance per watt is highly competitive. It's performance is said to be adequate for it's intended purposes but inevitably struggles with anything particularly strenuous. With this in mind, I'm sure that many of you might be scratching your heads, raised an eyebrow and/.or grunted in an inquisitive manner, right? More to the point, I think what some of you could well be wondering is what a PCI-Express 16x slot is doing on an Intel Atom 1.60GHz powered motherboard. Our previous review hinted that the motherboard's integrated Atom 330 processor bottlenecks the inbuilt GeForce 9400M module, let alone anything faster. So will Zotac's latest pint size offering be a hit or just a gimmick? Let's find out.


Zotac ION ITX-F Motherboard Page: 2
Packaging & Initial Impressions
 
Much like it's sibling, the Zotac ION ITX-F arrived in a well designed box sporting the brand's black and bronze/orange colour scheme. As always, there is a full listing of the product's specifications such that it's relatively easy to tell the difference between this ION ITX board and the various derivatives of it.
 
 
The material of the box was of relatively thick cardboard, and an internal cardboard divider prevented accessories and the motherboard from moving. In case it wasn't made clear, the box is rather small and there is little in the way of wasted space.
 

The accessory list is reasonable for a motherboard such as this. Included in our sample was three SATA cables, one SATA power adapter, 80mm fan, Driver CD, Manual, WiFi Antennae and I/O Shield.
 
 
The installation of the motherboard was nigh on faultless from power on, through the installation of the operating system and onto the installation of drivers.
 
The motherboard's BIOS is a far cry from those found on DFI's overclock orientated motherboards but I think may of you will be surprised by it's offerings.
 
 
 
As a matter of fact, the ION ITX-F features very much the same BIOS as it's siblings. Do note that it is actually possible to overclock the Atom 330 Dual Core processor and that there is scope to use memory with optimal voltages of up to 2.10V. We'll take a look at overclocking on the next page...


Zotac ION ITX-F Motherboard Page: 3
Testbed
 
Intel Atom 330 Dual Core Processor (Embedded)
Zotac ION ITX F Motherboard
2GB Patriot PC2-6400 DDR2 Memory
nVidia GeForce 8800GT 512mb GDDR3
320GB Samsung F1 7200RPM SATA II HDD
LG 22x SATA DVD+/-RW
Tagan 420W ATX Power Supply Unit
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1
 
Temperatures
 
 
 
Disappointingly, we were unable to run our test sample without it's included 80mm fan. Under conditions where a nearby fan intake or power supply intake fan is present, "fanless" operation might be possible. That being said, the included fan was reasonably quiet and didn't have have a noticeable motor noise.
 
Overclocking
 
First of all, I would like to mention that it's somewhat unfair to expect huge overclocks from a small form factor, embedded CPU platform but as our name might indicate, we're going to give it a shot anyway. The process itself was relatively painless, as we steadily ramped up the Atom 330's Front Side Bus. We did reach a point (circa 2.1GHz) where the motherboard would no longer boot, however a hard power cycle was all it took to trigger a CMOS Checksum Error to place us back in BIOS. Our final stable clockspeed came to a very reasonable 2.07GHz @ 172FSB (690MHz Effective). While further voltage increases had no effect on further overclocking, we were still very impressed with the 470MHz overclock that had been achieved on a comparatively basic processor.


Zotac ION ITX-F Motherboard Page: 4
CinebenchR10
 
CinebenchR10 analyses the speed at which a processor renders a high resolution image and outputs a score accordingly. The test was carried out in singlethreaded and multithreaded mode.
 
 
While the time taken might be painfully slow for those who are used to today's high end Quad Core processors, the Atom 330 scaled very well in multithreaded mode with a speedup of 2.6x as a result of hyperthreading.
 
SiSoft Sandra
 
CPU Arithmetic
 
 
 
CPU Multimedia
 
 
Memory Bandwith
 
The indicated memory bandwith figures are slower than expected however the odds of it holding the system back is next to nothing.
 
 
Hard Disk Performance
 
The nForce 7 MCP's SATA controller performs as expected with our Samsung F1 320GB hard disk drive and is consistent with P55 and SB710 results.
 
 


Zotac ION ITX-F Motherboard Page: 5
Everest Home Edition
 
CPU Queen
 
CPU Queen is based on branch prediction and the misprediction penalties that are involved.
 
 
CPU Photoworxx
 
PhotoWorxx as the name may suggest tests processors by means of invoking functions that are common to Photo Manipulation including Fill, Flip, Crop, Rotate, Difference and Colour to B&W conversion.
 
 
CPU Zlib
 
This is an integer based benchmark that will test the CPU and Memory by means of the CPU ZLib compression library.
 
 
WinRAR
 
WinRAR's embedded Benchmark focuses on the processor's File Compression capability.
 
 
Throughout the series of CPU based synthetic benchmarks thus far, the Atom 330 Dual Core Processor has proven itself to perform considerably lower than even entry level modular CPUs from both processor camps. That being said, the scores themselves are not a complete disaster and the overclock offered large performance gains across the board.


Zotac ION ITX-F Motherboard Page: 6
PCMark Vantage
 

 
Vantage scores below 3000 are typically considered somewhat low if I were to be kind. Given such a systems purposes, it may not be of such a concern. Considerable gains were noted from the overclock.
 
Badaboom Media Encoding (CUDA)
 
This is where things get a little interesting. Badaboom is one of the first media encoding/decoding application that is designed to use nVidia's CUDA processing technology, found on all graphics cores featuring unified stream processing technology (GeForce 8 onwards). Our particular test involved a file conversion from .wmv to .mp4 with a target file size of circa 500mb.

 
We were most impressed with the speed at which the ION GPU performed the task at hand. Low CPU Utilisation of less than 25% means that it is possible to even multitask to some extent.
 
Folding@Home GPU2 (CUDA)
 
Folding@Home is a distributed computing project whereby protein folds are analysed on computers globally in order to gain further insight on illness and disease. Last year, we saw the arrival of F@H GPU processing capability with CUDA enabled graphics cards with it's GPU2 Clients.
 
 
The client does not tie any cores in the process, leaving CPU utilisation nice and low. Furthermore, our Atom CPU managed to stay out of the way, allowing for a typical "Points Per Day" score for a GeForce 8800GT. Unfortunately, we ran into some issues trying to run the client with the ION GPU and hence no results are available.
 
Video Playback
 
Youtube.com Flash Video
 
This may seem rather trivial a test but many of you would be very surprised to learn that flash based video can often run miserably slow under certain system configurations. Atom based systems were highly susceptible to this and many of the complaints of netbook users are that flash video can often kill battery life and stutter. This has since improved with the Flash 10.1 Beta Plugin, where work is now fed to the graphics card as well.
 
 
We were happy to report that both videos played without stutter. The CPU utilisation in High Definition mode is arguably high but is nowhere near causing a problem of any sort.


Zotac ION ITX-F Motherboard Page: 7
Futuremark 3DMark06
 
 
Here, we see the ION's 9400M based GPU performing admirably well with an overall score of around 1500. As far as integrated GPUs go, this is one of the better offerings out there. In case some of you haven't spotted this however, there is something rather alarming about the other sets of 3DMark06 results in that our GeForce 8800GT is miles away from it's typical score of 10000-13000. CPU bottleneck? Quite. This GPU dependant benchmark saw large performance gains by overclocking the processor to 2.07GHz.
 
Microsoft Flight Simulator X
 
Microsoft Flight Simulator X is a a notoriously demanding game, requiring plenty of poke from both GPU and CPU.
 
 
 
It's more than evident that the extent of the CPU bottleneck encompasses any GPU limitations. The game has shown the embedded processor's weakspot in a spectacular (slideshow based) manner. The game was completely unplayable at 1920x1200 resolution and hence marked as 0.
 
Call of Duty 4
 
Call of Duty 4 is of a similar age to Flight Simulator X but much unlike the latter it doesn't suffer from an inefficient engine. With this in mind we felt that CoD4 stood a fair chance of running well.
 
 
 
In our particular test conditions, this did not appear to be the case at least with the ION GPU. I'm sure that with settings lowered slightly and at a lesser resolution, it would be much more playable but what's for sure is that from a gaming perspective the integrated solution is only suitable for even older hits. The testbed however came to life once paired with an 8800GT, with considerably more fluid framerates. 
 


Zotac ION ITX-F Motherboard Page: 8
Conclusion
 
Zotac does it again. Built upon the Zotac ION ITX-A motherboard that we previously reviewed, it came to no surprise that we were going to like the ITX-F. As far as common features are concerned, we very much like the stability, overclockability and board layout. From a feature perspective, we also appreciate the implementation of an internal 802.11n Wireless Adapter and most importantly, the ION MCP/GPU. With that in mind, let's focus on the three key differences between the ITX-A/F boards. PCI-Express 16x, a £20 lower price tag and the absence of a passive power brick.
 
Let's start with that PCI-Express 16x slot. Gaming is without a doubt a weakness for the Atom platform and who would expect otherwise? The ION chipset does hold up reasonably well and is likely to play pre 2005 era games reasonably well. In our examples, Call of Duty 4 was beginning to struggle at 1280x1024 (albeit with higher detail applied) and the horrendously system intensive Flight Simulator X was near enough unplayable. There's no getting around the fact that our GeForce 8800GT was bottlenecked by the Atom like triangular wheels on an Aston Martin DB9 however that is not to say that dropping a faster graphics card into the mix will offer no performance increase, as Call of Duty 4 proves. The simple fact however is that one would be better off buying a Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX motherboard and an Intel Pentium E5xxx series processor for similar money to form the core of an ultra portable gaming desktop for around £160. I for one don't believe that gaming was the word running through Zotac's mind when they created this motherboard however. Think GPU parallel processing. During our testing, we were able to offload two different types of tasks which would otherwise command a hefty processor onto the GPU. The idea is that over time, application designers will make more use of the untapped potential inside today's graphics processing cores, but for now we'll have to sit back and wait as it could take a while...
 
Now let's talk price. We don't have a retail price for the motherboard however we have spotted a retailer that is currently selling the ION ITX-F for £159. At this price, it's difficult to consider it value for money by any stretch of the imagination. Like anything however, there is a price to pay for everything and in this case you're paying for low power consumption, noise and for it's small size. For those who want a small yet simple machine, I would personally opt for the PCI-Express'less versions which range from £90-130 depending on brand. For the wide majority that wish to have gaming based GPU performance, they're also better off looking elsewhere. However, there are a small proportion of users that take full advantage of GPU Parallel Processing applications that will no doubt appreciate such an offering. With that in mind, perhaps pairing an Atom 330 with a GeForce GTX 285 isn't all that crazy if you're a Folding@Home nut.
 
All in all, we were left feeling impressed with Zotac's latest Intel Atom based offering. If I had any reservations at all, it would be price. A number of months ago when the brand were near enough first to market with ION based Atom Desktop Motherboards, the pricing was somewhat understandable. Today however, with offerings from Asus, Point of View and Albatron at similar or lower prices, it stands to reason that perhaps some price adjustments to retain a competitive edge might be worth considering. Otherwise, well done Zotac.
 
The Good
- Feature Set
- Board Layout
- Integrated GPU Performance
- Good WiFi performance
- Aesthetics
 
The Mediocre
- Passive operating not possible
- Pricing
 
The Bad
- None
 
 
 
 
We would like to thank Zotac for sending this in for review, you can discuss this, and many others in our forums.