With the rising popularity of the Intel Atom in cheap laptops, a number of brands have cottoned on to this and have begun to offer Net-Top Computers. Low power desktop computers that satisfy the large market of users that require systems for web browsing, word processing, organisational needs and general media playback. Examples of these include the Asus EEE Box, which have flown off the shelves with their paltry £200 pricetags. As time moved on3, a number of motherboards began to trickle into the DIY retail market with Intel Atom CPU's embedded into them. So here's our question for the day. Do embedded Mini ITX solutions have the guts to satisfy todays average PC user? Today we'll be putting one of today's Atom ITX options to the test. The Zotac ION 330 ITX Motherboard.
Zotac is very much the new kid on the block compared to most other manufacturers such as Asus and Gigabyte. Initially, just an Add In Board (AIB) partner of nVidia based graphics cards, they have diversified and begun to add motherboards to their portfolio. Zotac's motherboard range mainly consists of entry level and media centre based solutions but they offer a wide range for both Intel and AMD users in Mini ITX and Micro ATX form factor. Certain motherboards in particular such as the GeForce 9300-ITX motherboard, a Mini ITX LGA775 motherboard featuring a full size PCI-Express 16x slot was very well received by reviewers and end users alike so it'd be interesting to see what we make of this comparably elaborate looking product.
Though some of you might be wondering why we're reviewing something that's in essence an entry level solution? There must be something special about it surely? Well yes, there is. This is the first Intel Atom Mini ITX motherboard to hit the market with the much more capable nForce 7 MCP, featuring Direct X 10 GeForce 9400M graphics. It doesn't end there as Zotac have managed to fit 3 x SATA ports, integrated WiFi by Mini PCI-E, full size 240pin DDR2 DIMMs, 6 x USB ports, e-SATA, three different video inputs (DVI, HDMI and D-Sub) and even an embedded power supply solution with a passive 90W transformer brick. What's more is that the motherboard is shipped with the dual core version of the Intel Atom 1.60GHz CPU.
Intel Atom Embedded Dual Core CPU @ 1.60GHz Hyperthreading Technology 2 x DDR2-667/800 DIMMs 1 x Mini PCI-E (Occupied) MCP7A Chipset GeForce 9400M Based “ION” Graphics (DX10, 256mb Shared, 1.10GHz Shader, 16 Stream Processors) 10/100/1000 Gigabit LAN 3 x SATA 3.0GB/s 1 x eSata 3.0GB/s 6 x USB 2.0 External 4 x USB 2.0 Internal 1 x HDMI (HDCP w/ 7.1 Digital Audio) 1 x DVI 1 x Analog VGA 802.11n Wireless 90W Power Supply Unit Aluminium Heatsink and 80mm Fan.
It all sounds rather impressive so let's move on to the next page where we unleash the mini beast....
Zotac ION N330 WiFi ITX Motherboard Page: 2
Packaging and Initial Impressions
The Zotac ION ITX package arrived in a fairly simple but well decorated box with a general orange and black theme. A similar theme is continued as I opened the box finding it's contents. The size of the box along with internal packaging held all of the contents in a very secure fashion and as a result everything inside was in pristine condition.
As shown, the included accessory list is fairly comprehensive and contains everything that you need to get started. A multilingual manual, Driver CD, 90W Power Brick (Made by Delta Electronics), Wireless Antennae, I/O Shield, 80mm fan, 3 SATA cables and 3 SATA power leads fed from a molex header on the motherboard.
Here we have the ION motherboard in the flesh. I'd just like to point out that it's power supply is no larger than a standard laptop's charger so this should help you put the true size of the motherboard into perspective! This feature rich motherboard has been very intelligently put together, allowing so much to fit on a PCB area of just 17cm x 17cm. I particularly liked the easy access to the vertically mounted CMOS battery as well as the Mini PCI-E slot, both of which are placed to the left hand side.
Also observe that the nForce 7 MCP and Intel Atom CPU is cooled by the same Heatsink cooling unit. Upon removing the cooler, the chipset and CPU is now visible, the chipset to the left and the double die Dual Core CPU to the right. It's absolutely phenominal how small the Atom CPU's package footprint is. An adhesive thermal pad was fitted to the base of the cooler for the CPU, while thermal paste was used for the chipset. Not too much nor too little and the spread of it shows that the contact with the cooler is very good.
All in all, the Zotac ION ITX seems to have the right formula for a successful product but of course we cannot make such an assumption until we make a computer out of it and put it through it's paces! So here's the test setup:
Zotac ION 330 Motherboard 2GB Patriot PC2-6400C4 RAM 120GB Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 SATA HDD LG DVD+/-RW SATA Optical Drive Antec Fusion 430 mATX Case Included 90W PSU Panasonic TH42PZ80B 42” 1080p HDTV Onkyo TX-SR606 AV Receiver
Physically, in terms of putting together the ITX system, the process was completely uneventful mostly due to the fact that there's very little to install in the first place! The motherboard booted first time and we proceeded to install Windows Vista Home Premium with an overall build time of just under 45 minutes. The installation of drivers were trouble free and the system was fully functional after a single system restart.
A simple system like this wouldn't really need much more than the ability to change boot priority, date and time surely? Zotac doesn't think so. The BIOS also seems to cater to the tweaker as well, offering the ability to use sets of RAM that require more than the JEDEC 1.8V spec as well as FSB overclocking and NB/FSB Strap. Music to my ears if I may say so and I'll return to the matter of overclocking towards the end of the review.
The BIOS’ layout is rather generic and common to a lot of other motherboards and hence it shouldn’t take any additional effort to get used to it. No abnormal behaviour was observed while applying settings such as a blank screen or CMOS Checksum Error. All in all, a very comprehensive BIOS for a motherboard of this type.
Zotac ION N330 WiFi ITX Motherboard Page: 3
High Definition and Gaming Performance
One of the Zotac ION board's major selling points is it's nVidia based integrated graphics, which at least on paper is far superior to Intel's offering. First, we'll take a look at how well the GeForce 9400M handles 1080p High Definition media.
Measuring the 9400's ability in this part of the test is recorded in terms of CPU Utilisation, where less is better. I was left very impressed by an average usage of 22-25%. It should also be noted that the 7.1 sound device functioned perfectly via HDMI and the quality was excellent.
Next is a short session of Battlefield 2, a game released in 2005. At the time of release it was a very demanding game. Let's see how today's embedded CPU solutions cope with the game.
The image quality wasn't exactly amazing particularly without any Anti Aliasing or Anisotrophic Filtering applied but the general fluidity of game play was respectable. As you can see from the minimum framerates achieved, the game play did feel a little choppy at times. I'd also like to point out that while in our testing the frame rates topped out at a rather frisky 72fps, these were exceptional peaks and the lower average figure shows that performance was skewed to the lower half of the 18fps to 72fps range.
Call of Duty 4, a more recent release was a little too demanding for the little ION platform despite playing in a lower resolution with no Anti Aliasing or Anisotrophic Filterising. That being said, the GeForce 9400 based graphics prevented the game from being a complete slide show, which I’m sure would have happened if we were dealing with an Atom platform paired with the Intel 945GC’s integrated graphics.
FarCry 2 didn’t fare particularly well and to be frank it was to be expected. Such games simply cannot run well on this platform.
The results may not seem all that impressive upon initial impression but when one considers that it's coming from a CPU that consumes as much as an energy saver lamp and an integrated graphics module, it must be admitted that the motherboard performed admirably well.
We set aside a fairly large number of Synthetic Benchmarks to evaluate various aspects of the Zotac ION.
Clear proof that this platform is definitely not for games though 1396 marks is definitely not abysmal for what it is. I however would suspect that the Intel Atom CPU is actually bottlenecking the ability of the GeForce 9400M. More on that later.
Cinebench R10 64bit
This is a highly CPU intensive application that renders a picture, times how long it took and then provides a corresponding score. It goes without saying but we knew from the beginning that this application probably wouldn't bode well with the Atom but considered it a worthwhile application to use regardless.
We were right. It performed rather poorly when compared to fully fledged CPU's. It wasn't so bad when used in Multi Core mode however and with the help of Hyperthreading Technology, there was a speedup of 2.77x when compared to the same test in Single Core mode. The Zotac ION is unlikely to ever have to see this sort of abuse at the homes it'll most likely go to.
SiSoft Sandra – CPU Performance - Processor Arithmetic Test
The Processor Arithmetic test had been chosen as a means of understanding the capability of the Atom Dual Core processor. Using SiSoft Sandra's CPU figures, we also had a means of comparing the CPU to others.
The results are far from appauling. Our results show the Atom Dual Core performing in a similar ballpark to Intel's 1.0-1.2GHz Core 2 Duo Mobile processors. Perfect for home use and as found in our previous testing, it's still adequate for reliable media playback.
SiSoft Sandra – Chipset Performance – Memory Bandwith Test
The nForce 7 MCP chipset offers support for RAM up to DDR2-800 frequencies in Dual Channel mode. This test should indicate whether such memory can be well harnessed on the ION 330 ITX.
The results indicated above are considerably lower than the expected ballpark figures with a traditional desktop setup with the same DDR2-800 RAM. The figures presented are nearer the bandwith figures expected from DDR2-400 / 533 sets. While, circa 2.5GB/sec is not exactly going to hinder the performance of a system built around the Atom platform, it still raised an eyebrow.
Sisoft Sandra – Wireless Performance Test
This test revealed fairly mediocre performance from the inbuild Atheros Wireless Adapter when compared to other equipment. I should note however that until executing this benchmark I had not even noticed the exceptionally high latency and low data transfer rate.
SiSoft Sandra – Hard Disk Performance
The results achieved were exactly as expected for this particular Hard Disk Drive. From this we did not observe any weaknesses in the motherboard’s SATA performance.
Zotac ION N330 WiFi ITX Motherboard Page: 4
So how well does that single aluminium heatsink cool two different components? We used OCCT's Linpack test, which stresses the CPU for an hour to verify stability and find a maximum temperature.
The testing environment had an acceptable ambient temperature of 25c. With the included 80mm fan mounted on the heatsink, temperatures remained very cool at just 45c loaded throughout the hour. Temperatures without the fan however were less encouraging as temperatures reached in excess of 70c before we aborted the test. While our testing simulates a form of load that exerts a lot more stress on the CPU than real world applications, using the fan is probably a good idea. For a small fan that operated at around 3000rpm, it emitted very little motor noise, at least allowing for a relatively quiet machine even under full load.
Power Supply Testing
How well does the included 90W Power Supply Unit cope with the Dual Core Atom CPU, the nVidia chipset and two SATA devices? Using a Multimeter, we monitored the +12V and +5V rails under idle and extensive load for any signs of weakness. The +3.3V rail couldn't be monitored.
Our Power Supply Testing was based upon a 1hr run of the OCCT Linpack test followed by three loops of the 3DMark06 synthetic benchmark. The +12V rail remained true to 12.18V (+/- 0.005V) throughout Idle and Load testing and the +5V rail dipped slightly by 0.03V (+/-0.005V) during transitions from Idle to Load, which is still well within specification. There was no obvious sign of voltage rippling or general instability. In terms of heat output, the external power brick does become quite warm but obviously not so hot that it could be considered a hazard. The general assumption here is that Delta Electronic’s 90W Passive Power Supply has no trouble handling a typical Mini ITX system.
This may seem like a pointless exercise for some, but given that Zotac themselves have implemented overclocking options in BIOS and temperatures combined with the fan are very low, could an overclock help the lowly Intel Atom 330 CPU overcome it’s shortfalls? How far could it go?
Our testing took the Atom CPU to a healthy 2.00GHz with an FSB of 667MHz, a 25% gain. To see how much of a difference this little overclock made, we thought it’d be an idea to run 3DMark06, Battlefield 2, Far Cry 2, CoD 4 and Cinebench R10 once more.
In 3DMark06, not only did the CPU score rise by roughly 25%, the SM2.0 and SM3.0 Graphics scores also rose, hinting that the Intel Atom does indeed hold back nVidia's integrated GPU. From a games perspective, Battlefield 2’s minimum frame rate pushed it’s way above the 20 threshold and the average nearing 40fps making the general game play feel slightly more fluid. The gains from FarCry 2 and Call of Duty 4 however were very marginal and did not improve overall game play at all.
Cinebench R10 saw excellent gains with a very promising multi core speedup thanks to Hyperthreading Technology. All in all, small but very respectable improvements in performance and if you really do feel like overclocking your new Zotac ION, then we’d say it might just be worth the try!
Zotac ION N330 WiFi ITX Motherboard Page: 5
Are you impressed? I certainly am, but before you all run off to buy one from your nearest PC Hardware Retailer I do have some reservations.
First of all, price. The Zotac ION ITX series starts at £120 for the single core version and around £170 for the dual core version. Now, the single core version in my opinion doesn't have the grunt to really give nVidia's GeForce 9400M GPU justice and if you were to pick the single core Atom, you'd be better off spending much less on another ITX board that comes with the Intel GMA graphics and 945GC chipset instead. This leaves the £170 Atom 330 the only one in the range to consider. In a way, the price isn't so bad because you get a CPU, Motherboard, Graphics Module and Power Supply consolidated into a single solution, but what would the same buy you in the world of Micro ATX or even full size ATX? At £170, we're in the territory of CPU's such as the AMD Athlon 64 X2 7850 2.80GHz or Intel Pentium Dual Core E5200, a motherboard of choice, an ATI Radeon HD 4550 / GeForce 9500GT graphics card and just enough left over for an 80PLUS certified 400W Power Supply Unit. Such a solution would outperform the Zotac ION ITX considerably in the right applications. My second reservation lies with upgradability. Typically there aren't as many hardware releases on the Mini ITX form factor and when you're dealing with a product like this which involves so many components on a single motherboard, a future upgrade could cost a lot of money. Motherboards that include power supply units are few and far between and so it's likely that a future motherboard upgrade would require a separate power supply as well.
In all fairness to Zotac however, my reservations are little to do with their splendid product as both are problems that are common to the Mini ITX form factor as a whole. Mini ITX motherboards do not sell in the same sorts of quantities that regular boards do and so they're also produced in smaller quantities too. This does not bode well for the concept of economies of scale and as a result the pricing is quite high for what it is. Upgradability on the other hand may not be a problem as those who intend on using computers that use such parts would surely not consider touching the innards of their computer at all. It would merely be a cheap tool that'll be used for a couple of years before being thrown out. I am however beginning to sit on the fence here and so a conclusion must be made.
There's no getting around the fact that even with some very capable embedded CPU's and Graphics chipsets, Mini ITX will always cater to a niche market. Mainly those who put a value on having a very compact computer and at least the Zotac ION 330 ITX can offer levels of performance that are actually very close to that of a desktop computer. For what the overall package offers, Zotac have offered much better value for money compared to other solutions on the market and on that note, I can quite confidently say that this is the best Intel Atom Motherboard on the market today. Very well done Zotac for offering yet another fabulous Mini ITX motherboard!
− Performance better than competition
− Feature rich
− Included Power Supply works a treat
− Option to overclock
− Excellent High Definition Performance
− A more “heavy duty” cooler may have allowed for passive use.
− The ION 330 would be a far better buy nearer the £125-150 mark.
Thanks to Zotac for sending the ION 330 ITX in for review. Discuss this review in our forums.