The NVIDIA ION platform and Intel Atom processors are getting increasingly popular. Vendors are rushing to launch new motherboards, nettops or netbooks based on the "Ionized Atom". The reason for such popularity is simple: ION is presently the only option for a supercompact, relatively inexpensive, and potentially noiseless HTPC or an entry-level gaming computer.
This time we laid our hands on a motherboard from ASUS -- AT3N7A-I with the preinstalled Intel Atom 330 and an active cooling system.
ASUS AT3N7A-I boasts of a wide range of interfaces, including HDMI, eSATA, 3 x SATA-II (300 MB/s), 10 x USB, as well as a classic PCI slot, which was not available in the ION-based motherboards from Zotac. Besides, this motherboard features an integrated Bluetooth module with an antenna on the rear panel, so you don't have to spend another $10 for an external adapter. There is a label on the box that claims that the AT3N7A-I is ready for Microsoft Windows 7, but it's only a marketing trick -- the other motherboards with NVIDIA ION are no less ready for the new operating system.
Out of doubt, the highlight of ION is its hardware decoder for FullHD video in MPEG-4 AVC (H.264), VC-1, and MPEG-2 formats. What concerns games, this solution from NVIDIA should also be much faster than the ancient Intel GMA950. However, its performance will be limited by Atom (even if it has two cores). But let's not put the cart before the horse -- it's too early to jump to test results.
The preinstalled Intel Atom 330 consists of two Atom 230 cores on a single substrate. Each core operates at 1.6 GHz and supports Hyper-Threading. That is an operating system detects four processors -- two real cores plus two virtual ones.
The cooling system is definitely the weakest point of this motherboard. A 40x40 fan generates unpleasant noise, which attracts attention even in an office with a high noise background. The problem can be solved by replacing the cooling system with a high-Q passive heatsink or by replacing the stock fan with something bigger and less noisy -- it depends on a PC enclosure.
You cannot just stop the stock fan: the motherboard will get overheated after 10-15 minutes of heavy load even in an open testbed. It will take even less time in a tight mini-ITX enclosure without case fans. Previously tested Zotac motherboards offer definitely better cooling systems than the ASUS AT3N7A-I. They can also work in the passive mode. In case of a tight PC enclosure, they can accommodate a much quieter fan that comes with the bundle.
We don't have much to say about the bundle of the ASUS AT3N7A-I: IO shield, SATA cables, and a CD with drivers. Its BIOS also sticks to the best traditions of minimalism. What concerns handy peculiarities, we can mention only the options to choose a boot device and disable Hyper-Threading. None of the fans allows speed control.
This motherboard has the standard power supply design EATX (24 pins) + ATX12V (4 pins), which has a positive effect on the price of this product, but it's not very convenient for assemblage out of a PC enclosure.
NVIDIA ION gives the following features to the ASUS AT3N7A-I:
- Support for two DDR2-800 memory modules (up to 4GB)
- Integrated graphics based on GeForce 9300 (D-Sub and HDMI)
- 1 x PCI
- 10 x USB 2.0 (8 ports on the rear panel and an on-board header for 2 additional ports)
- 3 x SATA300 plus one eSATA port on the rear panel
- PS/2 keyboard connector
Besides, the motherboard offers the following extra features:
- Integrated audio, based on the 8-channel VIA VT1708S HDA codec, front line inputs and outputs, digital S/PDIF-Out: optical (Toslink) and coaxial.
- Gigabit Ethernet based on Realtek RTL8112L (PCIEx1).
- Bluetooth 2.1 controller, 10-meter radius, no EDR support.
The integrated audio quality was tested in the 16-bit/44kHz mode with the RightMark Audio Analyzer 6.0.5 and Terratec DMX 6fire sound card. The final grade was Very good. The digital S/PDIF-Out supports both popular sampling rates: 44.1kHz and 48kHz.
The motherboard is equipped with one of the latest LAN controllers, but its real performance leaves much to be desired. According to the MikroTik's B-Test, the average data transfer rate was only 25 MB/s up and 30 MB/s down. This is sufficient for streaming nearly any video content, but a sterling Gigabit controller is definitely preferable for large data transfers.
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