by Ilya Gavrichenkov
10/26/2010 | 10:14 AM
The ION platform introduced by Nvidia almost two years ago and intended to be used together with Intel Atom processors became a pretty demanded solution in the netbook and nettop market. The secret of success of this Nvidia initiative is fairly simple: ION platform helps to significantly increase the functionality of Intel Atom based systems in a very popular direction. It allows these systems to play high-definition video content. As a result, it is not an all-Intel platform but nettops and netbooks built around Intel Atom processor and Nvidia ION core logic set that can become not only Internet terminals but also fully-functional multimedia centers. Of course, it is also very important to keep in mind that the price of ION based systems is totally comparable with that of all-Intel ones.
However, Nvidia ION platform has already become pretty obsolete. While it was designed to work with Intel Atom processors from the Diamondville family it is incompatible with the newer Intel Atom CPUs from the Pineview generation. And although the old Atom processors do not suffer from any serious issues in terms of performance compared with their successors, it becomes ever more complicated to build systems around them, because Intel has discontinued their processors and stopped taking orders for them since May.
As for the new Pine Trail platform that Intel is currently promoting for the new generation Atom CPUs, unfortunately, they have completely ignored Nvidia’s success at the development stage. Netbooks and nettops built on Intel chips cannot cope with HD video playback, which limits their possible application significantly. Of course, since this feature is in high demand these days Intel came up with a solution – adding external hardware decoders into the system. However, for a number of reasons this solution doesn’t get broad acceptance among netbook and nettop makers.
Therefore, the market is in great need for an alternative platform for Atom Pineview processors that will take over the features and functionality of the retiring Nvidia ION. Of course, Nvidia couldn’t leave these market needs unnoticed and announced Pineview-compatible next generation ION platform back in February 2010. Today this new platform has found its way into actual products and we would like to introduce to you one of them based on a Pineview processor and the notorious Nvidia ION2.
Intel offered their Intel 945GC and 945GSE chipsets for us with the first generation Atom processors. the idea behind Nvidia ION platform implied that these chipsets had to be replaced with GeForce 9400 core logic set featuring a number of obvious advantages, two most important ones from the practical standpoint being much higher performance of the graphics core and hardware HD video decoding support. Replacing one chipset with another like that is easy – old Intel Atom processors from the Diamondville family use FSB system bus, which makes them compatible with any chipset designed for LGA775 form-factor.
However, Intel used a new approach to platform design in their new Atom processors from the Pineview generation. One of the major goals for launching Pineview was to increase the level of CPU integration, so that now the processor die also contains the major elements of the chipset North Bridge – graphics controller and memory controller. The Intel NM10 companion chip included into the same platform as Pineview has basically become a regular South Bridge, so in fact, there is no need for high-speed FSB bus anymore: the new Atom processors are connected to the chips via their proprietary DMI bus.
That is exactly why chipsets like Nvidia GeForce 9400 are no longer compatible with the new Intel Atom processors from the Pineview family. Moreover, there is no need for classical integrated chipsets, because the CPU has its own graphics core inside. However, in terms of performance and functionality this new graphics core is not that much different from the graphics in Intel 945GC or 945GSE. In fact, the differences include slightly higher clock frequency, which automatically means that there is no more or less acceptable 3D performance as well as hardware support for decoding of contemporary HD video formats. Therefore, it remains a very acute task to extend the GPU functionality and increase the graphics performance in the refreshed Intel platform. This is the task suitable for the new version of Nvidia ION.
Since Nvidia no longer can connect their chipset directly to the Atom processor, new generation ION platform which is also known as ION2 has very little in common with its predecessor. Since they couldn’t replace the Intel NM10 chipset with their own solution, the only way they could add their own graphics core to the new Intel Atom processor was by supplying Intel Pine Trail platform with an additional discrete graphics controller. So, while the first generation ION made Intel’s platform simpler by replacing two-chip core logic set with a single chip GeForce 9400, ION2 is an addition to Pine Trail: a new discrete graphics controller besides Intel NM10 chipset. In most cases it is GT218 chip – an integrated budget solution similar to Nvidia GeForce 210.
ION2 platform is also quite complex to implement because Intel NM10 chipset doesn’t have anything for connecting external graphics: it only supports PCI Express x1 interface version 1.0. So, GT218 graphics chip has to use this particular bus. However, Nvidia claims that ION2 platform has special optimizations in place that should minimize traffic between the CPU and the graphics controller, so the available data transfer means are more than enough.
In terms of architecture, GT218 chip doesn’t really offer any significant improvements compared with the integrated graphics employed in previous generation ION systems. Like GeForce 9400, it also has 16 shader processors and in some modifications designed for inexpensive netbooks, half of these processors may be disabled anyway. Of course, DirectX 10.1 compatibility as well as hardware video decoding acceleration are both there. However, unlike GeForce 9400, GT218 graphics processor requires its own DDR2 or DDR3 video memory connected along the 64 bit bus. The size of this memory may vary depending on a specific ION2 implementation, but may never exceed 512 MB. Proprietary video memory not only makes up for the insufficient bandwidth of the busses connecting the graphics chip with the processor, but also guarantees that ION2 platform will offer better graphics performance than its predecessor.
Overall, the graphics solution included with the ION2 platform has the following specifications:
At this point we can’t claim that ION2 platform is very popular among nettop makers these days. Despite all advantages of the additional GT218 graphics controller, they do not seem that eager to increase the complexity of the simple design of the Pine Trail platform by adding another graphics chip. However, Nvidia’s primary partners who have already offered ION based solutions, try to also be able to offer ION2 based ones. For example, we all know Zotac Mini-ITX mainboards very well, including the ones on the first generation ION platform. So, this company also offers ION2 based products. However, we are not talking about a Mini-ITX mainboard in this case, but about a practically ready-to-go nettop – ZBOX HD-ID11 barebone system that allows you to build a multimedia center around dual-core Intel Atom D510 (Pineview) processor. This barebone consists of a system case, a mainboard (with the integrated processor and a graphics chip with the video memory) and an external power supply unit. As a result, the user only needs to take care of system memory and hard drive, which should be installed into special assigned spots.
ZBOX HD-ID11 system looks just like any other ZBOX nettops: Zotac uses unified plastic cases for all their mini-systems on Atom processors. It is a relatively compact and light-weight almost parallelepiped-shaped box measuring 188x188x44 mm with sloping glossy black panels and shaped silver sides.
Overall, the quality of the case is excellent: all parts fit perfectly, there are no obvious defects. At the same time it is important to understand that the case of ZBOX HD-ID11 system that retails for about $230 is made of pretty cheap type of plastic, so it is not free from the issues typical of cheap plastic products. For example, the large top and bottom panels seem to be too soft, and the glossy finish makes them very easily soiled and scratched. As for the narrow sides, they have noticeable plastic excrescences from the stamping process.
This nettop can be set up in three different positions: horizontally, vertically or hanging off a mount. The native position is most likely the vertical one, as in this case all names of the indicators and ports will face the right way. For additional stability the system is bundled with a special stand.
In order to use ZBOX in horizontal mode, there are soft rubber feet on the “bottom” part of the case. The funny thing is that eSATA as well as USB ports are going to be upside down in this case.
There is also a third pretty popular mode for miniature systems, when it is attached to the back of the monitor using standard VESA mount. In order to attach ZBOX this way, you have to use a special mount and a set of retention screws included among its accessories.
The front panel has a Power On button, wireless network indicator and HDD activity LED, one USB 2.0 port, multi-format (MC/SD/SDHC/MS/MS Pro/xD) card-reader and two analogue audio-jacks supported by Realtek ALC888 codec.
The digital monitor connectors, HDMI and Dual-Link DVI, are at the back of the case. Note that GT218 graphics controller supports resolutions up to 2560x1600 when used with a digital interface, which is an indisputable advantage it has over the graphics core integrated into Intel Atom processors. ZBOX HD-ID11 doesn’t have any analogue video outputs. In the back next to the monitor connectors there are four USB 2.0 ports, an eSATA port, a Gigabit network connector, digital S/PDIF Out and a connector for the external notebook-type power supply.
The power supply unit itself included with ZBOX HD-ID11 is made by Delta, has constant output voltage of 19 V and should handle maximum 65 W of power. I have to point out that this power supply unit is considerably smaller and lighter than the power supply units bundled with Mini-ITX mainboards from Zotac based on the first-generation ION platform.
The remaining sides of the ZBOX HD-ID11 system offer one more USB 2.0 port, numerous vent holes and thumb-screws that hold the assembled system case together. The bottom panel also has vent holes in it.
Overall, Zotac ZBOX seems to be designed strictly for office use, but at the same time may easily suite living-room environment. Besides, this system is very easy to hide due to its small dimensions. In other words, the exterior of the new ZBOX system doesn’t really matter that much. Only a glowing blue circle on top of the case may make the small system look funky during work, but you can disable this glow in the BIOS, if you like.
The above described ZBOX HD-ID11 nettop is built around Zotac’s brand name Mini-ITX mainboard designed specifically for this nettop barebone. Although it has standard dimensions, all external ports and connectors have very unique locations, which won’t allow using this mainboard efficiently in any systems other than ZBOX. Just like any other ION2 based solution, this mainboard carries three major chips: Intel Atom processor, Intel NM10 chipset and Nvidia GT218 graphics controller. All three components are located very close to one another and are covered with a single active cooler, which consists of an aluminum heatsink and a 45 mm fan rotating at a maximum speed of 5,000 RPM.
The CPU is one of the most high-performance Intel Atom models – dual-core Atom D510 working at 1.66 GHz frequency and also supporting Hyper-Threading technology.
The graphics controller in this nettop also comes with the highest possible specs: it offers 16 shader processors and 512 MB of DDR3 video memory with 64 bit interface. The geometric and shader domains work at 535 and 1230 MHz respectively. The video memory is clocked at 790 MHz.
The third chip, Intel NM10 core logic, which is a middle man between the CPU and the graphics processor, is responsible for Serial ATA interface and external USB 2.0 and eSATA ports. Moreover, it also delivers PCI Express x1 bus used by the GPU and additional network controllers, including Realtek RTL8111 Gigabit network controller and WiFi Atheros AR9285 wireless module that also supports 802.11n standard. By the way, this module is designed as Mini PCIe card, so you can remove it or replace with some other expansion card if necessary. Even though it might be a pretty challenging task, because you will have to take the entire system apart and therefore may lose the warranty.
Zotac ships their ZBOX HD-ID11 nettop as a barebone system, so you will have to install a hard drive and system memory in it to complete the system. Once you open up the nettop, you will see the special places for these components, so there shouldn’t be any installation difficulties.
The memory is installed into a SODIMM slot that is compatible with any notebook DDR2-533/667/800 SDRAM modules. Since there is only one memory slot, the memory in ZBOX HD-ID11 system works in single-channel mode. It is determined by the specifications of the memory controller integrated into Intel Atom processor, but on the other hand it is not a very serious drawback, because the graphics controller has its own proprietary memory soldered onto the board. So in fact the only problem from having only one memory slot on the board is the size limitation: 4 GB DDR2 SODIMM memory modules are still not so widely spread, unfortunately.
Another slot is for the hard disk drive. It combines a power connector and a SATA-300 port. The hard drive is installed parallel to the mainboard PCB. There is enough room inside the system case and on the mainboard for any 2.5” mobile hard drive. For added protection there is a special retention holding the drive securely in place and preventing it from sliding out of the slot even during heavy vibrations and hits.
Once we added memory and hard drive to ZBOX HD-ID11 nettop it is fully ready to work. Now all we have to do is install the operating system and all necessary software applications.
In order to test our ZBOX HD-ID11 system extensively we did our best to find a 4 GB DDR2 SODIMM memory module. Kingston provided us with their KVR800D2S6/4G featuring desired capacity and supporting DDR2-800 mode with CAS Latency 6.
The last BIOS versions for ZBOX HD-ID11 are already compatible with 4 GB memory modules, so we didn’t have any problems.
Besides their memory, Kingston also provided us with their 128 GB V-series SNV425-S2/128GB SSD, which we also used in our tests.
The ZBOX HD-ID11 nettop we put together didn’t look very appealing in terms of price, but at least it gave us confidence that we really “squeezed all juices” out of the new Nvidia ION2 platform. Our nettop showed 3.4 Windows Experience Index, and according to Windows 7, its primary bottleneck was Intel Atom D510 processor, which is, in fact, not surprising at all.
For the purpose of comparison against ION2 platform we took several mainboards with dual-core Intel Atom processors based on ION and Pine Trail platforms. ION was represented by ZOTAC ION-ITX-A mainboard with Atom 330 CPU, and as for the “original” Pine Trail, we took a reference Intel D510MO solution with the same Intel Atom D510 processor as in our ION2 platform.
As a result, the list of the used hardware and software components used for our today’s test session, looked as follows:
I have to point out that although all three nettop platforms tested today are based on dual-core Atom processors, they differ dramatically from one another. For your convenience we put together the following table describing the primary distinguishing features of the participating platforms:
Before we get to comparative performance tests of our ION2 platform, let’s check out the changes to the power and thermal parameters of the new system brought in by the additional graphics chip. According to the official data, the calculated heat dissipation of the Nvidia G218 chip is 15 W. this is exactly the same as Intel Atom D510 dissipates together with Intel NM10 chipset. It looks like ION2 platform doesn’t seem to be that energy-efficient after all, even from purely theoretical standpoint. And despite that fact Zotac put this platform into the same exact ZBOX case that was initially developed for the original Pine Trail platform. Won’t ZBOX HD-ID11 system get overheated during work?
In order to check whether our concerns are justified, we decided to monitor the thermal performance of our ZBOX HD-ID11. The first test was performed when the processor was loaded by Prime95 25.11 in Blend mode. The system didn’t get overheated, but I can hardly call the detected thermal conditions favorable. The temperature inside the nettop exceeded 60 degrees C, as you can clearly see from the thermal readings taken off the SSD diode. Besides, the case itself was pretty warm on the outside.
If the load falls primarily on the graphics core, things get even worse. For our second test we used Furmark 1.8.2 utility and detected the temperatures beyond 70 degrees C inside the system case. By the way, the part of the case next to the CPU and GPU got so hot that I couldn’t hold my hand on it long enough. However, we cannot complain about the system stability even in these thermal conditions.
ZBOX HD-ID11 components can run even warmer than that if the CPU and GPU are both loaded with work simultaneously. But even though the thermal readings in this case are simply horrific, the system remains perfectly stable.
However, even though we didn’t detect any issues during our stress-tests, we have to say that long-term operation at such high temperatures may eventually lead to system malfunction. We are mostly concerned about the hard drive temperatures, which may rise as high as 75°C, as we have just seen. The acceptable thermal conditions for conventional 2.5” HDDs are below 60°C.
And even though the BIOS of our system offers pretty advanced options for the rotation speed adjustment of the fan cooling major chips, this feature doesn’t do much for the cooling efficiency but merely allows to change the dependence of the fan speed on the temperature. It cannot raise the fan speed beyond 5,000 RP, which is a real pity. However, the fan in ZBOX HD-ID11 starts to generate very distinct noise at maximum rotation speed, so speeding it up even more could have resulted in very uncomfortable acoustic mode.
High temperature is the result of a much more serious problem. In order to get to the bottom of this, we decided to compare the practical power consumption of ION2 and previous generation ION platforms. When we measures full system power consumption (without the monitor), we got the following results:
Strange as it might seem, but the new ION2 platform consumes just a little bit more than its predecessor in burn mode, even though it has more major chips in it. It must be the use of the latest manufacturing processes that has its positive effect on the system thermal performance. As a result, ION2 platform remains a pretty energy-efficient solution. And it means that horrible thermal conditions of our ZBOX HD-ID11 system can be explained by the use of a too small system case equipped with not very efficient cooling system.
By the way, note that the external graphics chip does have very serious effect on the overall system power consumption, even though it is manufactured with the latest 40 nm process. While the GPU is not loaded, ION2 consumes even less power than the previous generation platform. This situation changes the moment GPU’s shader processors kick in.
Nvidia engineers understood it very well, that is why they developed a special Optimus technology that allows lowering the power consumption of the ION2 platform by disabling the GT218 chip when it is not needed. The idea behind this technology is very simple: Nvidia graphics processor works only when high 3D performance is required. In all other cases, the image is displayed on the screen by the video controller integrated into Intel Atom processor.
However, unfortunately, Nvidia Optimus technology found its way only in a few ION2 netbooks with 10-inch screen. Nettops designed to work with large displays and TV sets, such as ZBOX HD-ID11, do not support it. This is because the integrated graphics core in Atom processors supports only 1366x768 maximum resolution when the monitor is connected via digital interface. As a result, the Nvidia GT218 and the graphics core inside Intel Atom processors working together within Optimus technology set very unpleasant limitations when the monitor is connected via DVI or HDMI port and make the key multimedia features of the ION2 platform quite questionable. Therefore, Optimus technology, that seems to be a pretty attribute of ION2, can in fact work the way it should only in a few netbooks with small screens.
Since one of the primary reasons for the appearance of the new ION2 platform is the refresh of the Intel Atom processor family that has moved over to the new Pineview semiconductor die, we decided to check out the performance in synthetic tests before moving on to the complex benchmarks. These tests allow us to see if ION2 boasts any advantages in terms of pure processor performance. We used SiSoft Sandra 2010 benchmarking suite:
As we see, the new Atom D510 processor turned out just a little bit faster than Atom 330 used in the previous generation ION platform. And the major reason for this advantage is obviously 66 MHz higher clock frequency. As for microarchitectural improvements, Pineview doesn’t have any, which is exactly what we see on the diagrams.
Things get more interesting in the memory subsystem test. Although the new ION2 platform uses only a single-channel memory controller, its memory subsystem bandwidth is higher than that of the previous-generation ION with a dual-channel DDR2 SDRAM controller. But there is a very logical explanation to all of this: Atom 330 based systems used 533 MHz FSB bus that created a major bottleneck on route between the CPU and the memory. Now the memory controller is inside the processor, so there is no need for any additional bus. As a result, cutting the number of memory channels in half didn’t do the system any harm. Only the practical memory latency may have become a little worse.
A slight performance improvement in the previous-generation Intel Atom processors resulted into a slight improvement in the ION2 performance in general-purpose applications. Most non-3D apps used for home and office needs do not use the graphics controller in any way, sow e can’t feel the power of the new Ion2 platform in any of them, really. Moreover, if this is your primary usage model, it makes absolutely no sense to go for Ion2 at all, because you can get the same performance from the regular Intel Pine Trail platform, with the graphics controller built into the CPU.
According to the popular 3DMark Vantage graphics test, ION2 graphics has become 1.5 times faster than it used to be in ION. In fact, this is the result of the graphics core speeding up and using its own proprietary video memory.
However, the increase in graphics core performance doesn’t mean that ION2 may be considered a decent entry-level gaming platform. Back during our ION platform tests, we concluded that Atom-based systems couldn’t become fully-functional gaming platforms, but not because of insufficient graphics performance, but because of extremely limited CPU capacity. The new Atom D510 used in ION2 platform is a little better than its predecessor in this respect. Here are the results obtained in our gaming tests:
More or less contemporary games, like Far Cry 2, work really poorly on ION2 even when the image quality settings are at the minimum.
You can get acceptable gaming experience in older shooters, such as Half Life 2, but also only at the minimum quality settings. Although we do not see any qualitative improvement in the fps rate compared with the previous-generation ION platform, the 20% performance boost is a very nice bonus.
Arcade games represented in our test session by Trackmania Nations Forever demonstrate almost 30% performance improvement on the new platform with low quality settings. In other words, ION2 platform can be called powerful enough for launching games like that. Of course, high image quality is out of the question, but you can always relax for a few minutes playing an arcade game on this system.
One of the most interesting parts of our test session was checking out the system performance in StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. And I have to admit that ION2 platform proved suitable for playing this popular strategy game. As always, we had to set all image quality settings to the minimums, but we did get pretty acceptable performance in return.
The games written using Flash technology are still a problem for ION2 platform. Contemporary Flash player versions can use the GPU power only for video decoding. However, when it comes to creating the images in Flash games, this is a sole responsibility of the CPU. As a result, it is completely impossible to play any colorful Flash games on ION2. And our performance tests in a popular multi-player 3D action Flash game called Tanki Online show it clearly.
There appear more applications using GPU capacities for performing calculations. Therefore, we decided to check how greatly the performance of applications using CUDA algorithms has improved on the new platform.
For our tests we used two programs. One of them is Badaboom video transcoding utility recommended by Nvidia as the best example of consumer software using the graphics accelerator for its calculations. The second program was a specific utility called IGHASHGPU that is used for recovering (brute-forcing) passwords from their MD5-hashes. It uses shader processors for these calculations.
Although both versions of the ION platform have the same number of shader (CUDA) processors in their graphics cores, the newest platform runs faster. The reasons behind this state of things are exactly the same as in games. GT218 core used in ION2 platform have higher frequencies of the shader domain and also has proprietary video memory that is why there is no need to share the video memory bandwidth with the system CPU.
Every time we get to test the CPU utilization during HD video playback, it makes less and less sense. Even in systems without powerful processors, such as nettops with Atom CPUs inside, video decoding may be arranged in the GPU with the help of DXVA or CUDA technologies. Therefore, the only type of systems that cannot handle HD video playback is those Intel Atom based nettops that have a very old Intel graphics accelerator without the additional decoder-chip. Those nettops that are based on the Nvidia ION platform of the previous as well as the latest generations are not among those systems: they cope with hardware HD video decoding impeccably.
In fact, if you are using the latest versions of software players supporting CUDA or DXVA, then Zotac ZBOX HD-ID11 can easily become a perfect media player. This system plays any popular HD video formats with excellent quality – without any frame loss and with low CPU utilization. By the way, ION2 is also supported by popular software mediacenters that turn a regular computer system into a home theater PC, including Boxee, XBMC, MediaPortal and others.
The same is true for the high definition video translated online via Flash-players. Contemporary Flash-player versions know how to use hardware resources of the graphics accelerators to their advantage, therefore ION and ION2 provide maximum image quality for the movies on YouTube.com and other similar sites. The CPU utilization remains very low in this case, and the image quality is simply impeccable.
In other words, while Intel Pine Trail platform still has some problems with the playback of HD video content in 1080p format, the same platform enhanced with Nvidia GT219 graphics chip, can easily pull this off.
The new generation ION platform based on Intel Atom processor from the Pineview family and discrete Nvidia GT218 graphics accelerator proved better than its predecessor. Although Nvidia didn’t manage to pair the new Atom CPU with their integrated core logic set, the configuration involving an additional graphics chip did in fact perform very well, despite all our initial concerns. Its performance was higher in all tests, while the power consumption remained just as low as that of the previous generation ION.
On the other hand, the qualitative performance gain achieved by adding a graphics processor with proprietary video memory didn’t really transform into quality. In other words, ION2 platform can execute the tasks faster than the previous generation ION, but at the same time it can’t target any completely new application fields. The primary reason for that is the fact that Nvidia cannot do anything about the ION2 processor performance, because it is the Atom that restricts the list the tasks a systems built around it can handle successfully. This is exactly why the gaming ION2 platform is totally worthless: even with low image quality settings contemporary games run really slow on it.
As a result, the best application for ION2 remains to be used as a media center – Nvidia platform has everything necessary for that purpose. However, even the first version of ION could cope with this task just fine. Moreover, even the regular Pine Trail platform without the additional graphics chip can do well as a media center, too, because you don’t need an additional graphics adapter for simple hardware support of HD video decoding. You can do perfectly fine by simply adding a hardware decoder into your system, such as the one from Broadcom, for example.
However, although the new generation ION platform has become more complex in terms of architecture, the end products based on these platforms cost about the same. Therefore, we can’t really give you any reasons to be unhappy with the new ION2. It is undoubtedly a step forward in the nettop solutions market.
As for the Zotac ZBOX HD-ID11 nettop we discussed today in our article, it is a worthy representative of the new Nvidia platform implementation in the end product. At a very affordable price point, it offers great exterior and compact size. And with simple assembly and great potential for internal and external expansion, Zotac ZBOX HD-ID11 becomes a very good nettop PC for various applications. Although the best fit for this system would be to function as a media center.
Speaking of the advantages Zotac ZBOX HD-ID11 has to offer, we can’t help mentioning a few drawbacks as well. We were a little upset that this system doesn’t use the fastest Intel Atom processor available in the today’s market. Maybe if they had integrated an Atom D525 processor into it, it could please us with higher performance numbers in more applications. Besides, the wireless adapter integrated into Zotac ZBOX HD-ID11 turned out not as sensitive as we hoped it would be. Maybe it was because Zotac engineers decided not to use any external antennas in their system. But these are minor issues compared with the fact that the internal cooling organization is far from efficient. As a result, the thermal conditions are extremely dangerous for the hard drive and can lead to its untimely failure. This is the biggest problem with Zotac ZBOX HD-ID11 system at this time.