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Zotac's IONITX-A Mini-ITX board

The Ion platform arrives for the DIY crowd

Manufacturer Zotac
Price (MSRP) $179
Availability Soon

Intel's Atom processor has become wildly popular in little more than a year. Once aimed at so-called mobile internet devices, the Atom took a bit of a detour, fueling the explosion of netbooks before creeping into small-form-factor desktops and even network-attached storage solutions. All the while, it's been tied to an antiquated 945G-series chipset and thoroughly underpowered GMA 950 graphics.

Certainly, you've heard this story before. The Atom possesses just enough horsepower to offer "fast enough" performance with basic 2D desktop tasks. However, it can't handle HD video playback on its own, and the perhaps inappropriately named Graphics Media Accelerator 950 offers little assistance in that department. The GMA 950 is also woefully ill-equipped to handle games, with basic compatibility a potentially more glaring issue than the GPU's anemic performance.

Had the Atom stuck to MIDs, its platform's shortcomings might have been less apparent. But now that netbooks are competing with full-fledged notebooks and nettops are looking increasingly tempting for low-power home theater PC applications, the 945G is really starting to hold the Atom back.

Nvidia proposed a solution to this problem a few months ago with the introduction of its Ion reference design. The Ion platform is essentially just a GeForce 9400 chipset—the same silicon found in the MacBook Air and Micro-ATX GeForce 9400 desktop motherboards—paired with an Atom processor. This chipset brings Intel's pint-sized CPU a modern integrated graphics component with HD video playback acceleration and native HDMI output. The Ion combo also carries cutting-edge core logic components, including Serial ATA RAID and Gigabit Ethernet.

We quite liked the Ion formula when we reviewed the reference system, but Nvidia didn't have any design wins to talk about at the time. And so we waited. Just a few months later, Acer unveiled an intriguing Ion-based nettop dubbed the AspireRevo. Pre-built systems aren't much fun for enthusiasts, but there's hope for folks looking to roll their own Ion-based systems. Today Zotac takes the wraps off its IONITX-A: an Ion implementation that comes on a standard Mini-ITX motherboard.

The IONITX-A features a dual-core Atom N330 processor running at 1.6GHz. Since Hyper-Threading grants this config four hardware threads, the N330 should be much faster than a single-core Atom CPU with multitasking or with sufficiently multithreaded applications. Such talk of multithreading may conjure images of computationally intensive applications, but in this case, think more about improved competency. The dual-core N330 just feels a little smoother with basic desktop tasks. It's still in "just fast enough" territory, but with a smidgen of extra smoothness and fewer hitches when multitasking.

Zotac mates the N330's dual CPU cores with a pair of DDR2 memory channels. The IONITX accepts standard desktop memory modules, and you can pack in up to 2GB per channel for a maximum of 4GB of system memory.

These DIMM slots are tied to a memory controller residing in the GeForce 9400 chipset—silicon, which Nvidia has now taken to calling the MCP7A-ION. This chip features a DirectX 10-class graphics processor with a 450MHz core and 16 shader PhysX CUDA processors running at 1100MHz. More importantly, the IGP includes a PureVideo HD decoding block capable of accelerating HD video and Blu-ray playback. The MCP7A-ION also offers HDMI output capabilities, complete with HDCP support and 8-channel audio.

Of course, the MCP7A is more than just an integrated graphics processor. It has six integrated Serial ATA RAID ports, four of which are used by the Zotac board, which has three internal SATA ports and one eSATA connector. The MCP7A provides the board's Gigabit Ethernet connectivity and the PCI Express lanes for its Mini PCIe slot, as well. Zotac wisely fills this expansion slot with an 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi card from AzureWave, giving the IONITX plenty of wireless networking options.

The Ion MCP shares a large, passive heatsink with the board's Atom CPU. This cooler only stands about an inch and a half tall (36 mm, to be exact), so the IONITX should be easy to slip into smaller enclosures. Zotac cautions that extremely cramped cases might not offer enough airflow for passive cooling, though. A low-profile 60 mm fan is included just in case, but we didn't need it on our open test bench, which offers little in the way of ambient airflow.

Obviously, the prospect of a passively-cooled Ion-based system is tantalizing. The IONITX-A makes such a configuration even more likely by including a fanless 90W power supply that looks not unlike what one might find bundled with an Atom-based netbook or nettop.

The brick-style PSU plugs directly into a DC connector in the IONITX's port cluster. Power for additional devices is provided by a three-headed SATA power connector that plugs into an onboard Molex plug.

You'll find the rest of the IONITX's ports in the rear cluster, which is positively stacked for a board of this size. Video outputs are available in VGA, DVI, and HDMI flavors, and the board is capable of feeding its DVI and HDMI outputs simultaneously. If you'd rather not run audio over HDMI, the IONITX has dual S/PDIF outputs in addition to a trio of analog audio jacks. These audio ports are serviced by a Realtek ALC662 codec that's only a 6-channel solution; you'll need to run audio over HDMI to get 8-channel output.

The only thing really missing from the IONITX's port cluster is a PS/2 mouse port that might've come in handy for those using older KVM switches. There's really no need to run a PS/2 mouse otherwise, especially when the IONITX has plenty of USB ports: six at the rear, with onboard headers for four more.