When we think of Mini-ITX motherboards, we usually think of VIAs EPIA range. However, as of recently Intel has introduced Atom, a very impressive low power CPU. Its power usage has plummeted and its performance per watt has increased, but compared to Nano it still can't handle the full load that a true CPU can. So until now it's been a bit of a compromise on the CPU power if you want a small form PC.
ZOTAC, one of the relatively new names here at TweakTown has come to the rescue by introducing form and functionality with their new Mini-ITX motherboard based around the nForce 610i chipset; supporting an LGA775 Core 2 series CPU.
Specifications of the ZOTAC nForce 610i-ITX
Supports Intel Core 2 Series (Extreme/Quad/Duo)
Supports Intel Pentium Dual Core Series
Supports Intel Pentium D Series
Supports Intel Pentium 4 5xx/6xx Series
Supports Intel Celeron D 3xx/4xx Series
Supports Intel 45nm Series CPU
nVidia nForce 610i Chipset
nVidia MCP76 MGPU
2 DDR2 SDRAM 240pin DIMM Sockets
64Bit Single Channel
Supports up to 4GB Total Memory (2x 2GB)
P4 Bus Architecture
1 PCI Express x1
1 Parallel ATA port supporting 2 IDE Drives
2 Serial ATA ports
1 Ethernet Port
1 PS2 Keyboard/Mouse Port
8 USB 2.0 Ports (4 rear accessible, 4 via expansion bracket)
3 Stereo Audio Ports
1 RJ45 Ethernet Ports
The Box and What's Inside
Package and Contents
First off, we are starting as normal with the package and contents. Being a Mini-ITX board, the box is extremely small, only measuring 20x20cm, so you know it's a compact solution. On the front the orange and black colour scheme for ZOTAC is very prominent with the board info as well as some support info noted. The artwork on the front is quite pleasing and makes it stand out more than some value or budget boards; a very nice design ZOTAC.
On the back of the box there is some more marketing info as well as some basic marketing on the 610i chipset that is used to power the board. There are no photos on the back, so if you want to look at the board before you buy, you're not going to be happy here. But with such a budget board, we weren't expecting to see this added extra.
Moving along; ZOTAC gives you a single user manual that is pretty thin, but does contain useful info on setting up the board, BIOS and a basic run down of the included software that is on the CD. For alternate OS users such as Red Hat, SuSE and Unbuntu, there are no drivers on the CD for you, only XP and Vista drivers.
The accessories bundle is extremely liberal, but for a Mini-ITX board there really isn't a lot to add. You get a single SATA data cable and a single IDE cable which supports two drives along with a rear I/O shield. And that's all she wrote.
Now it's onto the board itself. Being a Mini-ITX based design we should be able to rap this up pretty quick. ZOTAC has gone for a black PCB to distinguish it from other Mini-ITX boards currently on the market. While these mostly have Atom or VIA CPU support, the ZOTAC offering supports any LGA775 Core 2 series CPU, apart from the 400MHz FSB models.
The 4-pin power connector is placed behind the PS/2 ports which will make this a bit of a pain to find a case for. Most Mini-ITX cases only have a 20-pin power connector and no Aux power supply, since they are only powering VIA CPUs which are extremely energy efficient compared to the Core 2 lines. Just below the heatsink that cools the single chip 610i MCP are two SATA-II ports for storage connectors. Since its Mini-ITX, there is no extra room for the other two ports unfortunately.
The Mini-ITX board is given a 3 phase voltage regulation system in order to feed the CPU, so it's not going to be an overclocking marvel, that's for sure. The CPU area is clear of high rise components and uses solid state capacitors and ferrite core chokes to help reduce overall power consumption while increasing longevity of the power components.
Now it's onto the rear I/O ports. ZOTAC has followed standard Mini-ITX layout design rules for its rear I/O ports so that it will fit into standard Mini-ITX cases that have integrated I/O shields. We can see that he board has solder points on the board for a DVI-I port, but it's vacant. It would have been nice to see this added for a dual display option.
Lastly, it's the expansion options. Being Mini-ITX it only has a single expansion slot and rather than the older PCI slots we see on VIA Mini-ITX boards, ZOTAC has decided to include a PCIe x1 slot. Personally, I think a x16 slot would have been better for the option of upgrading to a discrete GPU.
BIOS and Overclocking
Now it's onto the BIOS. ZOTAC is using the Award 6 Modular BIOS that we are all accustomed to. The blue screen greets us and to find the overclocking options you need to visit the Frequency/Voltage control menu.
FSB (QDR): 400 - 2500 in 1MHz Increments
Mem (DDR): 400 - 1400MHz in 1MHz Increments
NB Voltage: 1.3v to 1.6v in 0.05v Increments
Unfortunately, while the frequency options are there, voltage tweaks are totally missing. Only a NB voltage option exists. There's also no CPU multiplier access, so you're stuck with the default multiplier of your CPU.
Being an NVIDIA mGPU, tweaks are needed and couldn't be made, so we could only get up to 345 MHz before the system would no longer post. We also put our QX9770 in to see if it would work at 400MHz FSB. Unfortunately the system refused to post with this CPU, so 400MHz FSB CPUs are out of the question.
Important Editor Note: Our maximum overclocking result is the best result we managed in our limited time of testing the motherboard. Due to time constraints we weren't able to tweak the motherboard to the absolute maximum and find the highest possible FSB, as this could take days to find properly. We do however spend at least a few hours overclocking every motherboard to try and find the highest possible overclock in that time frame. You may or may not be able to overclock higher if you spend more time tweaking, or as new BIOS updates are released. "Burn-in" time might also come into play if you believe in that.
Test System Setup and Memory Performance
Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 @ 3.16GHz (9.5x333MHz)
Memory: 2x 1GB DDR2-1186 Geil (Supplied by Geil)
Hard Disk: 500GB Western Digital SE16 (Supplied by Western Digital)
Graphics Card: IGP Graphics
Cooling: GIGABYTE 3D Galaxy II (Supplied by GIGABYTE)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows Vista SP1
Drivers: Intel INF 126.96.36.1998, Forceware 178.15, nForce 15.24
In today's test we will be pitting the 610i based ZOTAC board against the latest VIA Nano platform along with the G45 chipsets IGP just to see what happens.
EVEREST Ultimate Edition
Version and / or Patch Used: 2006
Developer Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com
Product Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com
Buy It Here
EVEREST Ultimate Edition is an industry leading system diagnostics and benchmarking solution for enthusiasts PC users, based on the award-winning EVEREST Technology. During system optimizations and tweaking it provides essential system and overclock information, advanced hardware monitoring and diagnostics capabilities to check the effects of the applied settings. CPU, FPU and memory benchmarks are available to measure the actual system performance and compare it to previous states or other systems.
First off, it's into the memory performance. The G45 and VIA Nano manage higher scores thanks to using dual channel memory. The 610i ZOTAC falls to the bottom of the pack.
Benchmarks - PCMark Vantage
Version and / or Patch Used: Unpatched
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/benchmarks/pcmark-vantage//
Buy It Here
PCMark Vantage is the first objective hardware performance benchmark for PCs running 32 and 64 bit versions of Microsoft Windows Vista. PCMark Vantage is perfectly suited for benchmarking any type of Microsoft Windows Vista PC from multimedia home entertainment systems and laptops to dedicated workstations and high-end gaming rigs. Regardless of whether the benchmarker is an artist or an IT Professional, PCMark Vantage shows the user where their system soars or falls flat, and how to get the most performance possible out of their hardware. PCMark Vantage is easy enough for even the most casual enthusiast to use yet supports in-depth, professional industry grade testing.
Moving into PCMark, the extra power of the Core 2 over the VIA Nano makes it win out here. However, when we go to the G45 chipset the ZOTAC falls behind due to lower memory performance.
Benchmarks - SYSmark 2007 Preview
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.04
Developer Homepage: http://www.bapco.com/
Product Homepage: http://www.bapco.com/products/sysmark2007preview/>
SYSmark 2007 Preview is the latest version of the premier performance metric that measures and compares PC performance based on real world applications.
SYSmark 2007 Preview extends the SYSmark family, which has been widely accepted by IT Managers, PC OEMs, press and analysts worldwide to support Windows Vista.
SYSmark 2007 Preview allows users to directly compare platforms based on Windows Vista to those based on Windows XP Professional and Home.
The new release also incorporates numerous new features and enhancements such as an improved GUI allowing streamlined start-up and run along with a heads-up-display (HUD) and automated error reporting.
SYSmark 2007 Preview is an application-based benchmark that reflects usage patterns of business users in the areas of Video creation, E-learning, 3D Modeling and Office Productivity. This new release includes a robust and refreshed set of applications.
SYSmark puts the ZOTAC 610i ahead of the Nano based setup. However, the G45s extra memory performance gives it the win.
Benchmarks - Adobe Premiere Elements 4.0
Adobe Premiere Elements 4.0
Version and / or Patch Used: 4.0
Developer Homepage: http://www.adobe.com
Product Homepage: http://www.adobe.com/products/premiereel/
Buy It Here
Our test with Adobe Premiere Elements 2.0 is performed with a raw two hour AVI file. It is then compressed into DivX format using the latest version codec. We measure the time it takes to encode and then record CPU usage.
Pushing into real world benchmarking, here the Nano loses out due to a lower CPU performance, despite the lower memory bandwidth of the ZOTAC 610i. With the G45 we see it knock extra performance off with its extra memory bandwidth.
Benchmarks - Media Playback
For MPEG-2 playback tests, we ran The Matrix DVD, a personal favourite of mine on each system with Hardware Acceleration enabled to check for smoothness of playback as well as CPU usage during the test. The result was with 30 minutes of playback and the CPU utilisation is the average.
MPEG-2 playback is a breeze for all three platforms thanks to hardware based MPEG2 decoding. However, it's clear the Nano has to work harder than the other two to cope.
Playback for MPEG-4 was again done with the Matrix, only encoded down to MPEG-4 DIVX 6.8 codec. 30 minutes was the time run. Smoothness of playback, audio sync and CPU usage are the keys here once again.
Here we again see all three platforms managing quite easily, thanks to hardware decoding, with the Nano sweating it out a bit more to keep things running smoothly.
HD Video Playback
This is the big one for the platforms. We downloaded a random 720p video to test out using Media Player 11. Again, quality of video playback, audio sync and CPU usage are the big things to focus on here.
Here we see that the 610i and G45 perform almost identically with the Nano falling behind as the 720p puts more strain on the system to decode.
Power Usage and Heat Tests
We are now able to find out what kind of power is being used by our test system and the associated graphics cards installed. Keep in mind; it tests the complete system (minus LCD monitor, which is plugged directly into an AC wall socket).
There are a few important notes to remember though; while our maximum power is taken in 3DMark06 at the same exact point, we have seen in particular tests the power being drawn as much as 10% more. We test at the exact same stage every time; therefore tests should be very consistent and accurate.
The other thing to remember is that our test system is bare minimum - only a 7,200RPM SATA-II single hard drive is used without CD-ROM or many cooling fans.
So while the system might draw 400 watts in our test system, placing it into your own PC with a number of other items, the draw is going to be higher.
Both platforms can't compare with the VIA Nano system. However, the 610i chipset chews more power than the G45 chipset.
As a new measure, we are now monitoring the heat generation from the key components on the motherboards, this being the Northbridge, Southbridge (if it contains one) as well as the Mosfets around the CPU. The results are recorded at idle and load during the power consumption tests.
Here we see that VIAs Nano manages a cooler system, while the 610i and the G45 are just about equal. While the 610i puts out more heat, the G45 has two chipsets to consider.
Coming to the end of our ZOTAC Mini-ITX motherboard review, we have been left with a reasonably good impression of the board. Mini-ITX boards have been in the past very plain indeed. With Atom now making its name known, Mini-ITX is on its way back up again. And while those CPUs should be left in this market, it's good to see someone taking a different approach.
Intel has come good with power efficient Core 2 processors like the E8200 and E8400 along with the E7200 chip, making this board a hell of a lot more attractive. With that said, if you're after a basic media center PC, this will do fine. However, with no digital outputs you're very limited.
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