When Intel launched the Atom they were late getting to the game, but they knew that they had entered a market that was going to be big. ASUS also saw this as a gold mine; they embarked on a push to utilize this new CPU to their best advantage. The EeePC was born along with what was to become the netbook. We then saw this market branch out to other areas with the nettop, the mini HTPC and more.
Of course, as more people jumped into the game using Intel's building blocks, other companies like VIA (who started the form factor the nettop would be built on and built some of the first CPUs and chipsets for it) and NVIDIA wanted a larger piece of the pie. NVIDIA refashioned one of their older IGP flaunting chipsets, the MCP7A and renamed it ION. This move gave them a readymade solution to Intel's existing (and underpowered) chipset available for the Atom CPU.
We have played around with a couple of ION based systems, but have not been able to give one a full review (well, I have not been able to). Now we are able to change that. Today we have the ASUS AT3IONT-I Deluxe MiniMax Home Entertainment System. This board features a dual core Atom 330 (complete with Hyper Threading), the NVIDIA ION MCP, support for DDR3 (up to 1066MHz), built in WiFi and its own power supply. It is quite a nice package for only $189.99 from NewEgg.com. So let's break open the box and see exactly what this will give us.
The Box and What's Inside
Package and Contents
The box the MiniMax system ships in is fairly large and bulky. I was a little surprised until I realized that there was not only the motherboard (with Atom CPU), but also a remote, an IR receiver and a power supply. The front of the box did not give any indication of this, but I found out that while the box was attractive, it was also very simple in its design and layout.
After looking at the front and not having a good idea of what was inside, the back did give me a little more information to go on. The back has an image of the board with some of the accessories (like the remote and IR receiver). We also get a basic listing of the features available on the AT3IONT-I Deluxe.
Once we opened up the box we found the full extent of the goodies. We were a little surprised (pleasantly, though) to find that the AT3IONT-I Deluxe comes with its own power supply. This adds quite a bit of value to what already is shaping up to be a very nice package.
The AT3IONT-I Deluxe is small by design and necessity. In its principal role as an entertainment system (Home Theatre PC), the thought is to keep things small so that your enclosure choices can fit into a typical home.
Looking at the top down view, we can see the familiar lines of the Mini-ITX layout. The most dominant feature is the large heatsink that serves the dual purpose of cooling the Atom 330 CPU and the MCP7A (ION) chipset.
Looking at the image below, we find that the Atom 330 is another CPU like the older Pentium D. There are two physical CPU dies on the packaging. This style of Atom has been replaced by more traditional multi-core designs. In fact, the Atom 330 is listed as End of Life by Intel. That should not be a deterrent, though; there are plenty in the channel to replace one if needed.
Along the upper edge of this massive piece of blue anodised aluminium we find three fan headers. ASUS has also left a 9-pin serial port on the board for some reason. Also visible in this shot is the WiFi Antenna port and power port for the included power supply.
At the bottoms of the heatsink we find the four SATA II ports, the Wireless N mini-PCIe card and a single PCIe x16 slot (in case the built-in 9400M IGP is not enough for you).
Along the right edge of the AT3IONT-I we find two slots for RAM. These support up to 1066MHz DDR3.You can see where the original ATX power connector was supposed to be. Above this along the same side we find a single 4-pin Molex connector. This is for peripheral attachments. Included with the system was a single cable that plugs in here and allows you to attach three SATA devices. This is a little odd as there are four SATA ports on the board. Looks like you are going to lose out on at least one of them. There is also no option for any Molex or 4-Pin Floppy power connectors. This will remove the ability to use many multi-card readers.
On the I/O side of things, we have some good options for such a small board. You get a Wireless N antenna port, a VGA port, a HDMI port, 4 USB 2.0 ports and some great options for audio. You have TOSLINK optical, 1/8-inch stereo plugs and even dual RCA plugs (stereo only). Oh, and that little blue thing is the Bluetooth antenna for the board (yes, it comes with Bluetooth, too).
BIOS and Overclocking
As this is an ASUS motherboard, you know there are going to be options for tinkering with performance. I expected a few items; maybe some RAM tweaks and a GPU clock, but I was not expecting a fairly full JumperFree Configuration page.
Looking at the Advanced CPU settings page, we find some of the more common settings that you would find on more advanced desktop systems. You are missing things like Virtualization and C-States, but as the CPU embedded onto the board does not support these things, there is no reason to have this in the BIOS.
In the JumperFree Configuration page we find that ASUS has made sure there are some overclocking options for you. They are not the typical ones that you would find in their higher-end boards, but they are still there.
To overclock the Atom all you have to do is find the speed you want and hit Enter. We had fun tying this out and found that as long as you leave things set to auto, you can get some rather good clocks from this board and CPU combo.
To make sure you have enough memory available for graphics, you can set this in the MCP7A chipset configuration page. .
There are more options available to you in other areas of the BIOS, including ASUS' Q-Fan settings. If you hook up a few fans to the AT3IONT-I then you can also set up profiles to control the operation of the fans.
As we mentioned above, we found that the AT3IONT-I Deluxe has overclocking options. These allow you to set a final clock speed for the CPU very easily. We cranked it up to its maximum of 2.1 GHz to see what we could get. The board did allow us to post and get into Windows, but it failed during our first test. We backed the clock down by 100MHz and tried again. It turned out that 2 GHz was the sweet spot; the board took care of the voltages needed and we pushed forward from there.
You can see the validation for the Atom 330 on the AT3IONT-I here.
As all overclocking results are dependent on the hardware you use, your results may vary. Results of our overclocking tests are included in the performance section with the stock scores.
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 Comments
We would like to thank the following companies for supplying and supporting us with our test system hardware and equipment: Intel, ASUS, AMD, Corsair, and Sceptre.
The setup of the AT3IONT-I Deluxe was very easy, as you might imagine. There is really not much to setup. You drop in the RAM, HDD and DVD and you are off and running. After the installation of the OS (we used Windows 7 x64 Ultimate) the drivers and utilities installation was pretty much the same as any ASUS motherboard. You drop the DVD in and the auto-run goes off and gives you the install-all option.
As the AT3IONT is a MiniMax Entertainment system, it includes ASUS' Home Theater Gate software. This is much like the Windows Media Center.
There are multiple options that allow you to configure the way Home Theater Gate operates. There is one thing that you cannot do; for some reason the software will not let you map to a network share. You have to already have the drive mapped before the software will see it.
ASUS has also included a security software called ASUS VideoSecurity (big shocker). However, before you get excited about it, this will not link up to any IP cameras you may already have. At least we could not get it to do so. It seems that it will only work if you have the cameras attached directly to the system.
Synthetic Tests - Part I
With any system you will want to see a combination of synthetic testing and real-world. Synthetics give you a static, easily repeatable testing method that can be compared across multiple platforms. For our synthetic tests we use Everest Ultimate, Sisoft Sandra, FutureMark's 3DMark Vantage and PCMark Vantage, Cinebench as well as HyperPi. Each of these covers a different aspect of performance or a different angle of a certain type of performance.
With the ASUS AT3IONT-I we did not include some of the more complex testing. We removed the LightWave and Cinebench tests. We left in most of the other tests and added a few to get some specific details on how the ASUS AT3IONT-I performs.
Memory is a big part of current system performance. In most systems slow or flakey memory performance will impact almost every type of application you run. To test memory we use a combination of Sisoft Sandra, Everest and HyperPi 0.99.
Version and / or Patch Used: 2010c 1626
Developer Homepage: http://www.sisoftware.net
Product Homepage: http://www.sisoftware.net
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Interesting, the AT3IONT-I at stock speeds does not have the speed that the DDR2 based ZOTAC does when both are clocked at around the same speed (1066MHz). It is not until we pushed the memory up past 1600 MHz that we saw much better performance.
Version and / or Patch Used: 5.30.1983
Developer Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com
Product Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com
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Everest Ultimate is a suite of tests and utilities that can be used for system diagnostics and testing. For our purposes here we use their memory bandwidth test and see what the theoretical performance is.
The numbers here tell us the same story that we saw with Sandra.
Version and / or Patch Used: 0.99
Developer Homepage: www.virgilioborges.com.br
Product Homepage: www.virgilioborges.com.br
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HyperPi is a front end for SuperPi that allows for multiple concurrent instances of SuperPi to be run on each core recognized by the system. It is very dependent on CPU to memory to HDD speed. The faster these components, the faster it is able to figure out the number Pi to the selected length.
For our testing we use the 32M run. This means that each of the four physical and four logical cores for the i7 and the four physical cores of the i5 is trying to calculate the number Pi out to 32 million decimal places. Each "run" is a comparative to ensure accuracy and any stability or performance issues in the loop mentioned above will cause errors in calculation.
Again we see the ION based AT3IONT-I running behind. Of course, the ZOTAC had a much newer CPU onboard, but I still would have expected better results than this.
Synthetic Tests - Part II
Disk Drive Controller
The system drive controller is an important part of system performance. In most modern boards your drive controller will run off of the PCI-e bus. The PCI-e bus performance can be affected by poor trace layout as well as many other design choices that show up on different boards.
For testing we use Sisoft's Sandra and Everest.
Now we see the reason for the poor HyperPi numbers. The HDD controller on the ION is not as fast as the one on the ZOTAC Pineview D based board. With an almost 20MB/s difference in HDD performance and slightly lower memory performance, the ION drops behind. Now, although this is disappointing, it is unlikely that you would need the type of computational power used in HyperPi with the AT3IONT-I Deluxe.
Everest shows us some additional information about how the HDD performs on the AT3IONT-I. We see that while the read numbers are generally not too bad (Random read is actually pretty good), the linear read score is very low.
Synthetic Tests - Part III
Here is where we dig out the FutureMark tests.
Version and / or Patch Used: 184.108.40.206
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/
Product Homepage: www.futuremark.com
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For overall system performance we use PCMark Vantage. This is run in both x86 and x64 mode to give the best indication of performance. However, with the AT3IONT-I we wanted to look at some specifics. These extra tests included the Productivity Suite and the TV and Movie Suite. We wanted to see how well the AT3IONT-I was able to handle those tasks.
Finally we see something that shows the ION has an upper hand. With the ZOTAC we were not able to complete the entire PCMark x64 suite. For some reason the x64 suite of tests would error out; and that was that. With the MCP7A (ION) based board we were not only able to run the x64 suite, but we see some numbers that are much higher than we saw with the ZOTAC.
The productivity suite is important to our testing as it shows the ability of the Atom based AT3IONT-I to operate as a productivity device. This is important as people generally do not want a fully blown computer that just does movies and TV; at least not yet. So the AT3IONT-I Deluxe will also need to maintain its ability to operate software like Word, Excel and even Power Point for a little while.
Even at stock speeds the DDR3 touting AT3ION does great at productivity. It easily outperforms the newer Atom D510 CPU in our productivity testing.
TV and Movies Suite
This suite of tests measures how well your system can handle transcoding and video playback from different sources.
The ION shows off again with much better scores for the Movies and TV suite. It looks like you should be able to use this for entertainment and some office work. We are fairly sure that the much more powerful 9400M was a lot to do with the numbers we are seeing here.
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0.1
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/
Product Homepage: www.futuremark.com
Buy It Here
For synthetic gaming tests we used the industry standard and overlockers bragging tool 3DMark Vantage. This is a test that strives to mimic the impact modern games have on a system. Futuremark went a long way to change from the early days of graphics driven tests to a broader approach including physics, AI and more advanced graphics simulations.
3DMark Vantage uses the DX10 API in addition to having support for PhysX. As we are no longer using an NVIDIA GPU for testing (at least until we can get a GTX 4xx card) you will only see the CPU based PhysX results in the scores. For testing we use the Performance test run.
Unlike the Atom D510 based ZOTAC NM10-DTX, the AT3IONT-I Deluxe was able to run 3DMark Vantage. Interestingly, the performance numbers here are about equal to what we see with the 890GX and the Clarkdale HD GMA. Certainly this is food for thought.
Real-World Tests - Part I
Real-world testing allows us to see how well a product will perform when used in the same manner as it would be in your house or office. It is an important side to performance testing as it can uncover hidden glitches in the way a product performs.
It is especially true when testing a mainboard; there are so many components of a board that have to interact that any problems between parts can cause a failure of the whole.
As we mentioned above we did remove our LightWave 3D testing from this run. The application and in particular our test is simply too much for the Atom as that CPU was never intended to rending high resolution 3D graphics.
Version and / or Patch Used: 2.55
Developer Homepage: http://www.autogk.me.uk/
Product Homepage: http://www.autogk.me.uk/
Download It Here
AutoGK stands for Auto Gordian Knot; it is a suite of transcoding tools that are compiled into an easy to install and use utility. It allows you to transcode non-protected DVDs and other media to Xvid or Divx format. For our testing purposes we use a non-DRM restricted movie that is roughly 2 hours in length. This is transcoded to a single Xvid AVI at 100% quality.
The performance we see here (especially at stock speed) is all about the RAM and HDD performance we saw earlier. With the slower RAM and HDD AutoGK is going to have a hard time getting things done. Of course, by pushing the RAM and CPU to higher speeds we can recover some of that and knock a considerable amount of time off. In fact, we managed to shave 30 minutes off of the time it took to transcode our 2-hour movie.
Real-World Tests Part II
Here we have our real gaming tests. Each of the games we chose use multiple cores and GPUs. They are able to stress the system through use of good AI. Both have decent positional audio that adds impact to the sound subsystem of the board. We ran each game through the level or parts listed and recorded frames per second using FRAPS. This brings the whole game into play.
*** A word on gaming as a motherboard test ***
Despite the fact that most games are very GPU limited, we are still noticing HDD and even audio creating issues in gaming performance. Because of this you may see differences in the number of frames rendered per second between different boards. Usually the difference is very small, but occasionally because of bad tracing, poor memory or HDD performance, this difference is significant. The issues are often more prevalent in older versions of DirectX, but can still pop up in DX10 and 11.
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0
Timedemo or Level Used: Cell level until you evolve and leave the oceans
Developer Homepage: http://www.ea.com
Product Homepage: http://www.spore.com
Anyone remember Spore from EA? It was one of the most pirated games of 2008. It achieved this status because of a now infamous DRM scheme that locked out paying consumers from playing the game after 2-3 installs of the software. The problem was that many consumers got locked out on the first run. But all that aside, the game was a very fun one that put you into a burgeoning world as a new creature. You had to find food to grow and survive. At stages in the game you were able to evolve into a more capable creature after acquiring more DNA and finding new "features".
When NVIDIA launched the ION they claimed that it had much better gaming performance than the Intel based solution. The evidence of this is right here. We see average frame rates that are 8 FPS higher than the HD GMA. In fact, it made Spore almost playable; granted it still looked terrible without all of the extra textures and eye candy, but you would be able to play it without stuttering and lags.
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0
Timedemo or Level Used: Testing rooms 4-7
Developer Homepage: http://www.valvesoftware.com
Product Homepage: http://www.valvesoftware.com/games/portal.html
Portal is a game based on Valve's Game Engine and also set in another part of the same world occupied by Gordon Freeman and Black Mesa. In this game you play a test subject that has been awoken from a sleep chamber to run a series of tests. During this you are shepherded by GLaDOS (Genetic Life Disk Operating System). It does not take long for you to realize that GLaDOS might not be your friend and that things have gone horribly wrong for Aperture Science Labs (a competitor for Black Mesa).
Portal was playable at 22-24 FPS with only a few lags during play (most notably when you open up a new portal). This was even with 2x MSAA enabled. Turning this off will net you another 6-8 FPS in the long run, which it more than enough to game. The 1280x800 resolution was good and covers many of the existing 17-inch monitors available.
Although still not a real gaming system, the ION based AT3IONT-I Deluxe can play some simple games at lower resolution. This could make it good for playing older games or for online gaming (Shockwave and Flash games). If you want more out of it you will need to pick up a low end discrete GPU.
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).
Interestingly the AT3IONT-I Deluxe does quite well on power consumption. At idle we see if draw only 23 Watts from the wall even when overclocked. Under load our power usage is still quite low with the max draw topping out at 39 Watts.
As a new measure, we are now monitoring the heat generation from the key components on the motherboard; 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.
Heat is another matter altogether. The large heatsink on the board still lets the MCP7A get quite hot. Our average temperatures were around 40c; this was on an open bench with no air flow. It is possible that inside a smaller case with good air flow that your temps here will drop significantly. If not, you may need to tack on a fan for more active cooling.
The ASUS AT3IONT-I Deluxe with its "dual core" Atom 330, DDR3 support, MCP7A (ION) and provided power supply it a nice little package. I found it to be a very capable board while the extras (like the remote and Home Theater Gate software) added to the value of the entire package.
It is true that you are not getting a powerhouse here, but then again it is not aimed at the HPC (High Performance Computing) market, the enthusiast market (unless it is the enthusiast's HTPC market) or the gamer's market. It is meant to fill a space at the lower user area and also at the mid-range HTPC space. In these two areas it does remarkably well. We even see it performing better than the much newer Atom D510 despite having an end of life Atom 330 (just shows you that EOL does not always mean obsolete). Plus with the way ASUS has tuned this board, you can push it quite far even for daily use. We found that our 2GHz overclock was stable for 24/7 operation with minimal extra cooling.
I can seriously envision this sitting in a small case with good air flow and running happily in an office, kitchen or play room; providing media services without breaking a sweat. Considering the $189.99 price tag from NewEgg.com there really is no reason not to pick the ASUS MiniMax Home Entertainment Center, complete with the AT3IONT-I Deluxe. I know that the one we have here will be finding a home in my office very soon.
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