Nettops with a Dual-Core Atom und ION-Graphics in Review

By Tobias Winkler 01/30/2010

Desktop Computer in Miniature.

Nvidia has hit a home run with its Ion chip set and supplies the Atom category with evidently more drive. Not only the pure performance gain, but also the consequently extended application field connected with the chip set, plays a significant role here. A Geforce 9400, CUDA, HDMI, eSATA, and dual-core Atom are judicious arguments found in current nettops. How the new generation manages and what they can be used for can be read in the following review.

In opposition to netbooks, the desktop alternatives are having a hard time and have been eking out a rather shadowy existence until now. That what often is sufficient for mobile use is unthinkable for the majority as a permanent home office PC replacement. The picture may now change after the first nettops, equipped with an Atom N270 or Atom 230 and an Intel GMA 950, slowly are being replaced by more modern models.

The devices used in the review all have the same basic configuration with a dual-core Atom 330, Nvidia Ion graphics and Ion chip set. The starter alternatives are equipped with a 2 GB RAM and a 160 GB hard disk. We used Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit for all alternatives in the test, which Zotac doesn't include in the scope of delivery, though. Therefore, the candidates vary especially in design, included supplies and ultimately the price. While we tested the Acer Revo 3610 models in their individual serial configuration, we went a step further with Zotac's MAG HD and replaced the standard hard disk with a faster Seagate with 7200 rpm and increased the RAM to 4 GB. This gives a small impression if upgrading by yourself is worth it and which performance boost you can reckon with.

One configuration component, which many users still see as vital is the optical drive, that both of our prototypes don't have. However, there are already models from other manufacturers in a similar size and configuration, such as the Asus Eee Box 1501, which have a slot-in DVD burner.

Test Circumference

We tested the nettops with the usual benchmarks known from our notebook test procedures and also spontaneously executed a few practical tests in the video and gaming field. Apart from that, the entire review, including image editing, has been performed equally on Acer's Revo (320GB) and Zotac's MAG (series), which led to our impressions in the word processing and image editing field.

Nettops in an accelerated test
Nettops in an accelerated test

Technical Data

Device Acer Revo 3610 (92.NVEYZ.DIN) Acer Revo 3610 (92.NVEYZ.DUN) Zotac MAG HD (Serial) Zotac MAG HD (NBC)
CPU + Graphic Atom 330 / Nvidia Ion Atom 330 / Nvidia Ion Atom 330 / Nvidia Ion Atom 330 / Nvidia Ion
RAM 2x 1GB DDR2 2x 2GB DDR2 2x 1GB DDR2 2x 2GB DDR2
Hard Disk Hitachi HTS543216L9A300 Hitachi HTS545032B9A Samsung HM160HI Seagate ST9320423AS
Capacity, Cache, RPM 160GB, 8MB, 5400 320GB, 8MB, 5400 160GB, 8MB, 5400 320GB, 16MB, 7200
Interfaces 6x USB/ 1x eSata/ Cardreader 6x USB/ 1x eSata/ Cardreader 6x USB/ 1x eSata/ Cardreader 6x USB/ 1x eSata/ Cardreader
Display VGA/ HDMI VGA/ HDMI VGA/ HDMI VGA/ HDMI
Size 180 (w) x 180 (d) x 30 (h) mm 180 (w) x 180 (d) x 30 (h) mm 189 (w) x 186 (d) x 38 (h) mm 189 (w) x 186 (d) x 38 (h) mm
LAN/ W-LAN Gigabit-LAN, W-LAN b/g Gigabit-LAN, W-LAN b/g Gigabit-LAN, W-LAN b/g/n Gigabit-LAN, W-LAN b/g/n
Miscellaneous Keyboard, Mouse, Speakers, VESA mounting Keyboard, Mouse, Speakers, VESA mounting VESA mounting VESA mounting
Audio in/out, SPDIF in/out, SPDIF in/out, SPDIF in/out, SPDIF
Operating System/ Software Windows 7 HP 64bit, MS Works Windows 7 HP 64bit, MS Works n/a n/a
Price (Street) ca. 300,- euro ca. 350,- euro ca. 250,- euro ca. 250,- euro + components

Case

The cases of both prototypes belong to the so-called 1-liter class and can accordingly provide very small dimensions. Every manufacturer tries to find its own style in terms of looks, also to be able to distinguish itself a bit from the competition.

Plastic is used as the case material and is applied to the big lateral surfaces in a high-gloss finish. Whilst Zotac's black finish is very prone to fingerprints, this effect is kept within limits on the slightly glittery dark blue of Acer's Revo. Acer can also reserve a few slight advantages in terms of material use and case stiffness and makes the more qualitative impression on the whole. Nettops can be placed, as you prefer, upright, laid down or on the rear of a display with Vesa drillings. A stand and a Vesa mounting are included for both models in the scope of delivery. If the latter fits on the already existent display should be checked beforehand (starts at 24"). Both candidates prove to have a stable stance and doesn't show any risk of tipping at usual use.

Acer Revo front connections
Acer Revo front connections
Acer Revo rear connections
Acer Revo rear connections
Acer Revo USB on top
Acer Revo USB on top
Zotac MAG rear connections
Zotac MAG rear connections
Zotac MAG front connections
Zotac MAG front connections

Connectivity

Both manufactures have almost an equal number and variety of interfaces. 6x USB, 1x eSATA, VGA, HDMI, cardreader, audio in/out, SPDIF and a gigabit LAN socket. The WLAN configuration differs, as the Zotac also includes the n-standard. Revo owners have to be satisfied with the g-standard. The connections are found on the narrow top ends and have a good accessibility for most requirements. Both models have two easily reachable USB ports and the cardreader is on the front. Acer has also placed the eSATA interface beside the audio sockets on the front; Zotac has placed this, like the S/PDIF, on the back.

The ports' velocimetry turned out very positive and is on a good level with 30 MB/s USB, 75 MB/s eSATA, and 18 – 19 MB/s cardreader. Contrarily, the Zotac's analog VGA connection wasn't as impressive as it already delivered a slightly unfocused image in a resolution of 1280x1024 and therefore should be only used in urgent situations. Both Acers' VGA ports supplied a very clean signal at the same resolution in opposition, so there's nothing standing in the way of using older displays without a digital interface.

Tangled cables are only kept within limits to an extent
Tangled cables are only kept within limits to an extent
Fast accessible USB ports
Fast accessible USB ports
Oversized sticks obstruct the neighboring USB port
Oversized sticks obstruct the neighboring USB port
Circumferential supplies by the Acer
Circumferential supplies by the Acer

Performance

Nvidia's Ion chip set doesn't only promise more performance but also has a significantly extended application range with the new interfaces. As you could only trust a nettop to cope with simple office tasks, browser and emails at most, you can now consider a use as a media center, video converter, HD player or PC replacement.

A 64 bit capable Intel Atom 330 CPU, which works with two computing cores, a L2 cache of 1 MB, 533 MHz FSB, and a clock rate of 1.6 GHz, is used in both models as the processor. As in most other Atom CPUs, the Atom 330 also has hyperthreading and can theoretically manage 4 threads at the same time. It's even rather modest with a TDP of 8 watts and saves money. In opposition to the mobile Atom colleagues, the desktop alternative runs with a constant 1.6 GHz and therefore can't reduce the clock rate in idle mode.

The Nvidia Ion chip set permits a RAM use of up to 4 GB. We found standardly 2x1GB DDR2 SO-DIMMs in each of the starter models of our prototypes.

The elegantly integrated power button needs a bit of pressure
The elegantly integrated power button needs a bit of pressure
The numerous stickers on the case turn the Revo into an advertisement pillar
The numerous stickers on the case turn the Revo into an advertisement pillar
Stable stand
Stable stand
A hidden USB port also on the Zotac
A hidden USB port also on the Zotac

Measurement Results

Device Acer Revo 3610 (92.NVEYZ.DIN) Acer Revo 3610 (92.NVEYZ.DUN) Zotac MAG HD (Serial) Zotac MAG HD (NBC)
CPU + Graphics Atom 330 / Nvidia Ion Atom 330 / Nvidia Ion Atom 330 / Nvidia Ion Atom 330 / Nvidia Ion
RAM 2x 1GB DDR2 2x 2GB DDR2 2x 1GB DDR2 2x 2GB DDR2
Hard Disk Hitachi HTS543216L9A300 (160GB) Hitachi HTS545032B9A (320GB) Samsung HM160HI (160GB) Seagate ST9320423AS (320GB)
Interfaces USB/eSata/ SDHC/ VGA 30,2/ 75,6/ 19,2/ good -/-/-/ good 30,6/ 76,2/ 20,0/ still sufficient 30,6/ 76,2/ 20,0/ still sufficient
Benchmarks        
Dhrystone/ Whetstone 8041/ 6600 -/-/- 8027/ 6599 8027/ 6593
WPrime 32/ 1024 61/ 1921 -/-/- 61/ 1921 61/ 1921
Cinebench R10 Single/ Multi/ OpenGL 661/1885(2,85x)/1137 -/-/- 643/1880(2,92x)/1112 -/-/1090
SuperPi 1M/ 2M/ 32M 96/ 212/ 4719 -/-/- -/-/- -/-/-
PCMark Vantage 1832 1969 2014 2170
3D Mark `06 1280x1024/ CPU 1400/ 823 -/-/- 1404/ 815 1429/ 830
3D Mark Vantage 1280x1024/ GPU/ CPU 406/ 325/ 1650 -/-/- 421/ 337/ 1666 417/ 334/ 1654
HD Tune reading (MB/s) max./ min./ average 58,7/ 27,3/ 45,1 79,1/ 14,9/ 59,9 65,5 /22,6 / 52,4 103,2/ 34,2/ 78,7
Badaboom CUDA DVD>iPhone (426x320) 28,5 fps -/-/- 28,8 fps 29,1 fps
CPU-Z CPU
CPU-Z CPU
CPU-Z Cache
CPU-Z Cache
CPU-Z Mainboard
CPU-Z Mainboard
CPU-Z RAM
CPU-Z RAM
CPU-Z SPD
CPU-Z SPD
CPU-Z Graphics
CPU-Z Graphics

The benchmark results turn out very positive in comparison to single-core Atom configurations with Intel's GMA 950 graphics. The system can only add little (ca. 10-20%) in single-core tasks but as soon as several cores are addressed by the software or tasks have to managed simultaneously the advantage increases by 100%. The SuperPi 32M test that only demands one processing core is just as sobering with 4719 points. However, when all cores with additional hyperthreading are used, as in the wPrime 1024 test, the system outruns all Atom competitors with 1921 points. The increase of graphic performance is even more impressive, where we could establish a threefold to quadruple performance gain in comparison to the standard graphics, Intel GMA 950, depending on the benchmark.

We achieved 616 (single) and 1885 (multi) points in Cinebench R10 and 1137 points in OpenGL Shading. The multi-core effect is about 2.9 times faster in comparison to the single-core option. In PCMark Vantage, which especially rates the system performance in the office field, we received 1832 – 2170 depending on the configuration, 1400 points in 3DMark06 and 406 points in 3DMark Vantage. This isn't enough for the latest games, but World of Warcraft (1024x768, medium, 49 fps) and Sims 3 (1024x768, medium, 22 fps) could be played quite smoothly if you can live without the one or other quality setting.

We checked the systems for possible latencies that could turn up at the interfaces with the DPC Latency Checker tool. These could lead to synchronization problems when external devices are used. Whilst Acer's Revo passed the test with flying colors right away, the Zotac's WLAN module could be quickly revealed as the cause for two spikes. The test ran through in an absolutely green field after its deactivation.

Zotacs Nettop with possible latencies
Zotacs Nettop with possible latencies
Zotac doesn't have any problems without WLAN
Zotac doesn't have any problems without WLAN
Acer's Revo passes the test right away
Acer's Revo passes the test right away

A more leisurely hard disk from Hitachi, which can't be called up-to-date with a reading rate of 45 MB/s, is used as the mass memory in the "smaller" Acer. Zotac's Samsung hard disk works a bit faster with an average of 52.4 MB/s. A further increase, as expected, could be accomplished with the 320 GB hard disk from Hitachi in the second Acer Revo with almost 60 MB/s. The top position is occupied by the fast rotating Seagate in the upgraded Zotac with an average of 78 MB/s. SSDs could provide further velocity advantages, but in our opinion, they wouldn't be economically reasonable in this case, though.

HD Tune Hitachi
HD Tune Hitachi
HD Tune Seagate
HD Tune Seagate
HD Tune Samsung
HD Tune Samsung
HD Tune Hitachi 320GB
HD Tune Hitachi 320GB

Video

The Atom-Ion duo has enough power to play FullHD movies smoothly in the video field. We tested several 1080p trailers and our up-converted to FullHD movie, Seven, on the Media Player Classic and couldn't establish any disruptions. The processor capacity was around 20%.

Purchase videos from the iTunes store, such as Shooter (853x354) that can't benefit from GPU acceleration for iTunes related reasons, also ran smoothly but demanded around 55% of the CPU's capacity.

We checked the GPU assisted video converting made possible by the CUDA engine once again with the program, Badaboom.  We again selected the iPhone format (426x320) as the output size for comparison reasons, the movie "Seven" also served again as movie basis. The Ion in the nettop could extract a few fps more of performance in comparison to the previously tested netbook Samsung N510 (23.9 fps) with 28.5 fps. However, we are still pretty far behind a MacMini with a Geforce 9400 and 2x1GB DDR3 and its achieved 39 fps.

FullHD runs smoothly with MPC and GPU support
FullHD runs smoothly with MPC and GPU support
Badaboom uses the GPU for converting
Badaboom uses the GPU for converting
A higher CPU capacity in players without graphic support
A higher CPU capacity in players without graphic support

Upgrading

Before you upgrade, you should inform yourself about what effect the planned measure will exactly have on your warranty. A possible warranty loss should always be considered in a decision.

In order to access the Zotac's interior, screws have to be removed, clips pushed out of their mount and interlocked joints pressed out. The case's thin plastic proves to be unbeneficial here as it can quickly suffer.  Additionally, we weren't able to flush fit the illuminated side at assembly. Therefore, a small gap, as well as other opening traces remained. It's sufficient to open the more uncomplicated bottom for accessing the RAM. In order to exchange the hard disk, you also have to remove the upper side (left side) because the hard disk is screwed to the mainboard's back. There are also numerous cables that are fastened to the case inside and require a careful approach.

In view of our experience, such an extension isn't recommendable. The surcharge for a similar configuration with a 4 GB RAM and a 320 GB hard disk is reasonable and also bids a smart overall conception, as in the case of Acer's Revo.

The RAM can be accessed over the bottom side
The RAM can be accessed over the bottom side
Before prying the clips open, three screws have to be removed from the bottom tray
Before prying the clips open, three screws have to be removed from the bottom tray
Opening the upper side led to a visible gap after exchanging the hard disk
Opening the upper side led to a visible gap after exchanging the hard disk
The outer shell is kept in place by countless clips
The outer shell is kept in place by countless clips

Power Input / Emissions

Device Acer Revo 3610 (160GB) Acer Revo 3610 (320GB) Zotac MAG Serial Zotac MAG (NBC)
Idle (Watt) 18,8 19,2 19,9 21,7
Boot (Watt) 22-26 22-26 22-24 24-29
Badaboom, CB R10 Multi, (incl. Samsung SE-T084) 31,1 31,3 31,8 34,9
WPrime 23,4 23,4 23,8 25,2
Volume (subjective) very quiet very quiet still quiet very audible
Temperature Hard Disk (HD Tune) 45°C (Hitachi)   42°C (Samsung) 47°C (Seagate)

Power Consumption / Emissions

The Atom 330 CPU has to do without the usual energy savings functions, like for instance Speedstep. The processor therefore has a constant rate of 1.6 GHz. The TDP of 8 watts is impressive anyway and contributes to the system's total power consumption. Although notebook technology is mainly used here, the power consumption isn't comparable to similarly equipped netbooks like the Asus 1201N, despite missing display.

Acer's Revo 3610 drains between 22-26 watts from the mains while booting and then it retracts to 18.8 watts in idle mode, without load, after finishing the desktop setup. Surfing, word processing and other simple office tasks demand around 22 watts. Movie presentations from the hard disk increase the whole thing to 24-25 watts. We could elicit a maximum of 31.1 watts (incl. an external hard disk) from the mite by running the Cinebench R10 Multi-Core Render Test, Pi calculations and Badaboom Video Converting simultaneously. Zotac consistently needed almost 1 watt more in the serial configuration and 1 watt additionally in the upgraded version.

Whilst the pure power consumption in desktop mode only considers absolute energy savings fans, the result of that might just interest a larger user group. Thus we established quite varying hard disk temperatures (HD Tune rates), which contribute to the total case temperature and therefore influence the fan's characteristics. Acer seems to have found a quite good solution because the fan rotates quite slowly, quietly and very unobtrusively with 2500 rpm. Zotac's answer rotates faster with 300 rpm, not quite as silently and also a bit more high frequent. The upgraded alternative with the Seagate hard disk basically turns up a notch and then is also very audible. Zotac has various setting options in the BIOS to reduce the fan velocity but you then have to reckon with a considerable surpassing of the 60°C margin. Damages due to the temperature could be a long-term result. Acer is under the Zodac's temperature by about 2-3 °C in this regard according to the BIOS temperature information.

Verdict

The tested nettops could handle many basic routine tasks sufficiently fast using Nvidia's Ion chip set with relatively efficient graphics and connectivity, in combination with Intel's dual-core Atom 330. The biggest advantage of the mites is, however, the compact size, which allows a multifarious and inconspicuous placement. The noise emissions are also very low in comparison to "normal" desktops, but lose a bit of their advantage because nettops are usually found more often on the table than under it.

Whilst Zotac supplies a cheap basic package without an operating system and supplies with the MAG HD, Acer offers an almost all-inclusive package for immediate use.

Acer's advantages are the good manufacturing quality, the very quiet operating noise and the complete configuration. A small drop of bitterness is the slower WLAN and, depending on the model, the higher price.

Zotac's solution is very low-priced and also has somewhat better performance rates. Unfortunately, you have to accept small drawbacks in material quality, the fan noise and the unfeasible VGA connection.

Upgrading these miniature devices can only be recommended to venturesome and experienced tinkerers and even then, the advantages aren't obvious in all application fields.

> Notebook / Laptop Reviews and News > Reviews > Archive of our own reviews > Nettops with ION-Graphics in Review
Author: Tobias Winkler, 2010-02- 2 (Update: 2012-05-26)