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Appeared on: Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Inno3D ION

1. Features, retail package

Nvidia's ION platform has become very popular product among users offering a good 3D and Video performance while it remains affordably priced. ION's graphics processors turn up the visuals on compact, low-power PCs with performance up to 10X faster than similar systems. When combined with a low-power CPU like Intel's Atom, ION graphics processors transform traditional under-performing PC designs into a premium experience.

- Key Benefits

Today we have in our labs the Inno3D ION-based solution. Being part of the 'iChiLL' series of products, it offers improved features and specifications compared to Nvidia's reference design for the platform.

The Inno3D ION is packaged into a large box despite the relatively compact size of the main device, indicating that this product comes fully loaded. We found the product sold online for about €140 (including VAT), which is somewhat more than what you would spend for other ION-based solutions. However, as we will see later on, the Inno3D ION comes fully-featured and it is addressed to a specific target group.

Many components are found into the box:

Besides the ION mainboard, the package includes SATA cables, a CD-ROM with drivers, a printer manual, a back plate, a Wifi antenna, a CPU cooler, a mini ac/dc adapter and a power cable.

- Specifications


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2. The mainboard

The Inno3D ION motherboard has the typical dimensions of the miniATX category. As you can see in the picture below, a big passive heatsink covers the ION chipset in order to keep it cool. Nvidia's ION platform produces some extra heat as it is widely known.

The I/O panel offers 6x USB ports, 1x e-SATA port, 1x PS/2 keyboard port, 2 Digital S/PDIF outputs (1 optical, 1 coaxial), HDMI-DVI/D-VGA outputs, 1x GBit LAN solution, HD Audio Port (Line-in, Line-out, Mic-in), 1x WiFi antenna connector and 1x DC power jack.

Not much to say about the e bottom side of the board as you can see below:

The motherboard can accept up to 8GB/667/800MHz of memory, installed to the dual 240 pin DDR2 DIMM slots - enough to cover all your daily needs. A power jack is also available on the motherboard and allows you to power power up your SATA devices. And yes, this motherboard comes with a built-in power supply unit as we will see later:.

On the other side there are three SATA 2 connectors on board as well as a mini PCI-e WiFi module with a pre-installed cable for an external antenna, which is bundled with the Inno3D ION product. The Wifi module has been designed by AzureWave AR5891 (Atheros AR928x) and conforms to the 802.11b/g/n specifications. Keep in mind that you can also Wifi 802.11n by using another external antenna.

As we mentioned earlier, the Inno3D ION 'iChiLL edition' is different than a standard ION platform. As you can see in the two pictures below, the standard ION mainboard lacks a 24pin power adapter, an external PCI slot, it has a single SATA slot and a two smaller heatsinks:


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3. Getting started

To start using the Inno3D ION iChiLL motherboard you only need to install the memory modules. Due to the motherboard's size and design, it would be convenient to install the motherboard into a low-profile mini-ATX case, which does not offer any space for a power supply. Have a look here to see what we mean. Unfortunately, the only case we had in our labs was the Thermaltake Element Q , which is big enough to fit even two ION motherboards inside :)

Installing the motherboard is pretty simple. As you can see in the picture below, there is lot of free space left since the cases' PSU does not need to be installed at all:

In a few minutes you will be able to connect all the front panel/USB headers, the SATA connectors for the HDD and optical drives and of course the included CPU fan, which is almost silent:

Here is a top view of the motherboard with all the cables connected and everything installed. Our box is ready to roll..


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4. BIOS settings

After powering up the system we entered the BIOS settings. The environment looks like what we have seen in Asus motherboards, but actually the BIOS is based on the 'AMIBIOS,' built 8.00.15 , 05/08/09.

As you can see the motherboard is using an Intel Atom 330 @ 1.60GHz with 533MHz FSB:

Many configuration options are available under the 'Advanced' tab:

The 'Chipset' tab provides more details about the temperature of the CPU ands also offer some options to tweak our system:

Below you can see the NorthBridge/MCP79 chipset configuration options:

Here are the 'Performance Options' where you can adjust the system clock, memory timings etc.:

The System clock mode can be either synced or un-synced, a feature that gives us even more options for overclocking:

The hardware monitor is useful for checking if our system's operation condition:

- Windows installation

For our tests we used the Windows 7 Ultimate x64 Edition OS. The installation process finished without any problems and after a while we were able to boot into Windows and start tweaking our system. The first thing you must do is to visit www.nvidia.com, download the latest drivers for your ION platform (Graphic drivers, chipset, HDMI Audio) and install them. It would also be a good idea to get the latest Flash 10.1 software, which will allow full HD Flash video playback with GPU acceleration, a 'must' for your ION system. Downloading the Wifi drivers is not needed since Windows 7 will recognize the WiFi without any problems. In case you still need to get more tweaking at the Wifi part you may visit this or this web pages. While this may take a while to finish, it just worth the extra time.


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5. Tests - CPU, Memory, WiFi

For our tests, we manually set the memory timings at 4-4-4-8-2T though BIOS and also set the onboard VGA graphics card's settings to 'Auto'. All the other options were left to default.

You may also overclock your ION product by changing the FSB from 533MHz to 667MHz, gaining a 400MHz boost for the CPU (1.6->2.0GHz). That should also increase the performance, at least in theory.

For these tests we used the latest Sisoft Sandra software.

Below are all the components we used for this review:

First of all, the CPU-Z utility gives us more information about the Intel Atom processor of our system. As you can see the installed Intel Atom 330 has two cores, supports Hyperthreading and it is clocked at 1.60GHz:

For the first test we used the the built-in measuring tests of Windows 7 Ultimate x64 Edition. We got a 3.7 score for the processor, while graphics got a 4.5 for desktop and a 5.3 for gaming!

As we were expecting, the Intel Atom 330 processor @ 1.60GHz is faster than the single Atom CPUs and closely follows the performance of the Intel C2D U7600 ULV 1.20GHz processor:

- Memory Bandwidth

The Inno3D ION iChiLL Edition platform can run memory at 800MHz with CL4, depending on the memory modules you have installed. Of course we would like to see 1T supported as well but in our case we simply couldn't make the system work. The system gave a 2656MB/sec performance for the memory, which is not very high..

- Wifi Module

The Atheros mini PCI-e module seems to have very good performance as the Sisoft Sandra software showed - at least for a B/G enabled Wifi card:


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6. Tests - Graphics

The Inno3D ION iChiLL Edition motherboard has a 65nm GeForce 9300 processor onboard The GPU features 4 ROPs, 16 unified Shaders and up to 256MB of shared DDR2 memory. The GPU clock runs at 450MHz, the memory at 800MHz and the Shaders at 1100MHz.

As we can see there is support for DirectX 10/SM 4.0 and CUDA as well. For our tests we used the latest Nvidia Forceware 195.62 WHQL drivers for the Windows 7 x64 operating system:

The GPU's temperature is rather high at 52 degrees Celsius:

Some quick tests with Sisoft Sandra software showed that the Nvidia ION with 256MB DDR2 onboard is faster than the integrated 8400GS series:

Compared with other graphic cards, the embedded ION GPU seems to perform better than an ATI 3300 and GeForce 8400/8500 solution, according to Sisoft Sandra . However, ION's performance cannot be compared with what you will get from a dedicated graphics card, like the 9400/9500GT series.

Let's see how the Inno3D ION performs in real gaming. As you can see selecting the proper resolution and medium-low visual quality settings will allow you to play the StreetFighter IV game decently:

StreetFighter IV Benchmark
(medium quality settings-noAA-noAF)
1.60GHz CPU
33.33 FPS
20.27 FPS


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7. Tests - Video playback

Most of you may be considering buying the Inno3D ION iChiLL Edition motherboard in order to set up an HTPC system. So let's see how this platform performs with video playback, specially with the latest video formats/codecs and of course, at full HD resolution. Before using the device, it is advised to get the latest drivers of all the included components.

For testing video playback we used the latest K-Lite Codec with Media Player HomeCinema that enables hardware acceleration for almost any kind of content, powered by the Nvidia CUDA technology. The main idea is to off-load all the cpu usage to the GPU. Here are the results:

- DivXHD Playback

The cpu usage reached the ~30% which seems very good although our expectations were higher here. Probably this content cannot be hardware-accelerated.

- 720p MKV playback

Probably one of the most popular content format right now for TV-Shows, documentaries and of course movies. An MKV files at 1280x720 encoded with H264 technology will give you very high image quality at a small file size.

We play backed many video files using the Media player classic software. The CPU usage maxed at no more than 10%, which is impressive indeed:

- 1080p MKV playback

Passing to even higher resolution and encoding rates, we are ready to test the full HD resolution files such as those you will enjoy when watching a Blu-Ray movie. Playback was not a problem for our system. The CPU utilization merely reached the 13%.

Moving to more demanding scenarios, we decoded some 1080p Youtube video clips with the latest Adobe Flash 10.1 beta installed. The results are still very good, with the CPU load to reach the ~12%

or with another clip the 18%. In both cases the playback was very smooth without any sound/video interruptions:



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8. Conclusion

The Inno3D ION iChiLL Edition motherboard packs a ton of features in small dimensions making it very appealing to users. The Nvidia ION platform is based on an Intel Atom 330 CPU plus a GeForce 9300 GPU that enables true High Definition Video playback, which is something that not many other mini-atx solutions can achieve. Moreover, some extra features of the Inno3D ION iChiLL Edition such as the pre-installed Wifi mini PCI-e card with external antennas for better reception and the external power brick that replaces the need for a power supply make the device even more attractive.

So what users can do to best enjoy this wonderful product? Probably buy a small mini-ATX case without a pre-installed power supply, get a fast SSD and probably a 2.5" Blu-ray drive to make the package complete. For extreme users, there is a possibility to overclock the system up to 2.0GHz, although we feel that additional cooling would be required in that case, providing that the system's temperature was rising up quickly with the bulked fan installed.

We feel that this product give users many possibilities to invest and build a powerful HTPC or simply a noiseless and compact system for their office. The Intel Atom 330 processor won't put wings to your system but will serve office and light gaming needs. The fully-featured package would cost you ~€140. This is more than what you may need to spend for a standard ION solution (without Wifi and external power supply). However, we think that this fine product worth this extra spending.


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