The Tata Nano was officially launched last week. India's newest econobox has four wheels, four seats, 33 horsepower, and a two-cylinder engine with less displacement than a Big Gulp. The Nano is the most basic of automobiles, but it only costs about two grand, which is frankly astonishing for a brand-new car. I can't help but draw a comparison to Intel's Atom platform, because as a tech journalist and Top Gear addict, I am inescapably bound to lavish you with automotive analogies.
Intel designed the Atom for mobile Internet devices, but it really caught fire with netbooks and went on to spawn a growing collection of pint-sized desktop systems that inexpensively handle basic computing tasks. The trouble is, the small-form-factor PCs birthed by the Atom's popularity are hardly exciting platforms for enthusiasts. For our own systems, we tend to want a little better than simply adequate performance and basic functionality.
Nvidia's Ion platform looks like a promising upgrade for the Atom processor, which gets paired with a potent GeForce 9300 integrated graphics chipset. The Ion is less Tata Nano and more Mini Cooper S or Fiat 500 Abarth. It's still small and practical, but with a lot more polish, a more generous feature set, and additional power under the hood.
Unfortunately, the Ion concept's real-world performance is ultimately hampered by the Atom's general lack of grunt. We've seen an Ion-based system have problems smoothly playing back at least one Blu-ray movie, and the platform's CPU resources are still too limited for speedy media encoding and gaming with the latest titles. The Ion platform is also stuck in a limbo of sorts; Nvidia has produced a solid reference design, but there are currently no shipping products based on it.
As luck would have it, the GeForce 9300 chipset is available on a new Mini-ITX motherboard from Zotac. The so-called GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi lives within the same form factor constraints as most Atom boards, but it swaps the anemic processor for a standard LGA775 socket and throws in a gen-two PCI Express x16 slot for good measure. What we have here, then, is a something with the potential to be entirely more powerful than a mere hot econobox. With this, you could build the PC equivalent of a hot rod if you like, all while retaining the cute, compact form factor of a Honda Fit. Now that is an exciting enthusiast platform.
The whole point behind the GeForce 9300-ITX is its Mini-ITX form factor, which measures roughly seven inches square. Those dimensions allow the board to squeeze into smaller enclosures than Micro ATX offerings, whose footprints are more than twice as large.
Unlike most Mini-ITX boards, the 9300-ITX hasn't sacrificed performance potential to squeeze within the smaller form factor. The board sports an LGA775 socket with support for not only inexpensive dual-core chips, but also high-performance quad-core models. In fact, the only Core 2 processors not supported by the 9300-ITX are Extreme Edition chips that call for a 1600MHz front-side bus, since the GeForce 9300 only goes up to a 1333MHz FSB.
We should point out that the LGA775 socket doesn't have much of an upgrade path looking forward. But then there isn't one for soldered-on Atom CPUs, either. At least with LGA775, there are a wide range of attractive engine options to suit just about every need and budget.
As you might expect, a few concessions have been made in the face of form factor constraints. The 9300-ITX's socket area, for example, is pretty tightly packed. You can squeeze in a stock cooler without a problem, but larger aftermarket models that fan out from the socket may interfere with the DIMM slots and the tall chipset heatsink. At least the chipset cooler is a silent, passive design.
There isn't room on the 9300-ITX for more than two DIMM slots, but you can still take the board up to 8GB of memory with the two provided. Each DIMM slot gets its own memory channel, too, so you'll want to run modules in pairs for optimal performance.
With the Core 2 line perhaps Intel's last not to feature an integrated memory controller, the DIMM slots hook into a memory controller aboard Nvidia's GeForce 9300 chipset. This is essentially the same core logic package that you'll find in the Ion platform, GeForce 9300-based Micro ATX boards, and a whole bunch of recent Macs, including the latest mini. If you're not familiar with the GeForce 9300, I suggest reading our initial review of the chipset. Today we'll be focusing on Zotac's Mini-ITX approach to Nvidia's freshest MCP, so we'll just be covering the basics on the chipset itself.
But what a chipset. The GeForce 9300 packs a DirectX 10-class GPU with 16 so-called CUDA processors running at 1.2GHz with a 450MHz graphics core. Those generous pixel-pushing resources deliver the best gaming performance we've seen from any integrated graphics chipset, and Nvidia throws in a PureVideo HD video decode engine that delivers silky-smooth Blu-ray playback with even a budget CPU.
The GeForce 9300's integrated GPU may be able to handle the latest games at low resolutions and detail levels, but serious or even regular gamers are better off with discrete graphics cards that offer substantially better performance and the ability to crank up the eye candy. For those folks, the 9300-ITX sports a second-gen PCI Express x16 slot that had no problems hosting a GeForce GTX 280 for several hours of stress testing. The board also has a couple of Serial ATA RAID ports, although given the lack of IDE connectivity, most folks will probably use the second port for an optical drive rather than a second hard drive.
From here, we have a good view of the 9300-ITX's Wi-Fi riser, which delivers 802.11b/g networking via an, er, VIA VT6656 wireless controller. Zotac throws an antenna into the box, too. The Wi-Fi card does eat an onboard USB header, but that still leaves two free headers for a total of four extra ports, in addition to the six in the rear cluster.
Despite its diminutive proportions, the GeForce 9300-ITX has a more complete selection of ports than most full-sized motherboards. You don't get Firewire, but video output is offered in VGA, DVI, and HDMI flavors. The board can also pass uncompressed 8-channel LPCM audio through the HDMI port. If you don't have a receiver or home theater setup that can handle HDMI audio, you can always use one of two digital S/PDIF outputs or the trio of analog jacks.
The discrete audio ports are backed by a 6-channel Realtek ALC662 codec that looks a little pedestrian in light of the board's fancy HDMI audio output capabilities. I'd prefer to see the ALC889A instead, if only because it supports real-time Dolby Digital Live and DTS encoding, which would allow multi-channel game audio to be passed over HDMI. The ALC662's multi-channel digital output capacity is limited to passing along the sort of pre-encoded audio tracks that come with movies.
A Gigabit Ethernet jack and External Serial ATA port round out the rear, and both are fed by the GeForce 9300 chipset. Zotac also kicks in a PS/2 keyboard port for all those IBM Model M fans out there, but you'll have to run a USB mouse.