Unless you have been under a rock you know that there has been a big boom in the HTPC market. This has been compounded by companies making simple yet affordable digital media players. The increase in interest comes from the popularity of services like Netflix, Hulu and many other online stream media sites. To use these you typically need a PC connected to your TV [although some new TVs can also use these services]. This has set the stage for small form factor very complete systems that are inexpensive yet functional. Today we are taking a look at one of these from ASUSTeK; the AT3IONT-I Deluxe motherboard. This board, as you might have guessed, comes with an nVidia ION chipset and an Intel Atom CPU. What is not apparent from the name is the Mini-ITX form factor or the included power supply. Asus has created a very complete little system that lacks very little to be a functional home theater PC. Let’s take a look at the AT3IONT-I now and see what it can bring to the living room.
The Box and Goodies
When I first saw the box for the AT3IONT-I Deluxe I was a little surprised. For such a small motherboard it is a pretty big box. The front of the box does not give us the product name but instead hails this as the MiniMax Home Entertainment Center. Along the bottom there are badges to show off what Asus feels are the main selling points of this system. One of the biggest is the included power supply; Asus refers to this as DC on board.
The back of the box finally give us the product name and also a picture of what you are getting. There is also a little more information about the feature of the board [at least a few of them].
Inside the box is a pretty good haul. You get a remote, an IR receiver, a PSU, Wi-Fi antenna along with a few more common items. Overall if you are looking to build and HTPC system this box has almost everything you need to get going. It will also allow some great choices for system cases as there is no need to have a large power supply.
The AT3IONT-I is [as we have already said] a Mini-ITX form factor motherboard. As such it has a severely limited amount of space to place components and to tune the traces. However as this is such a small device tuning the trace and making sure the BIOS is setup properly is everything. Even looking at the top down view you can see examples of quite a bit of trace tuning already. You can also see one thing that is glaringly absent. This is the 24-pin power connector; as Asus has given you an external power supply there is no need for the traditional 24-pin ATX connector on the board. However, as this board design is probably used in more than one product the place for it is still there. The AT3IONT-I has two slots for DDR3 memory. It can handle up to 1066MHz and modules of up to 2GB [4GB max memory support]. Unlike some ITX boards we have seen that can only take SO-DIMMs the AT3IONT-I can handle the regular 240 Pin DDR3 modules.
Of course the thing that draws the most attention is the rather large heatsink in the middle of the board. This covers both the Atom 330 CPU and the ION MCP. Once we removed it we saw something a bit funny. The Atom 330 is a dual core CPU with Hyper-Threading, but it is not a dual core die. Instead it is two Atom CPUs on the same packaging. However, despite this fact it is still smaller than the MCP7A-ION-B3. You can also see more examples of the type of tuning required to get this running properly [and stable].
Looking at the bottom of the board now we find the single PCIe slot. This is actually fully x16 so you have the option to drop in a very high end GPU if you want to; although, to be honest, I am not sure why you would try to do that. Also in this area are the four SATA-II ports. This is an odd configuration as there are only three power connectors on the single power cable included. You can also see the n-spec Wi-Fi adapter in the mini-PCIe port.
Here we can see the antenna wire that leads to the external antenna port. Right under that is the DC power port. This is one of the things that make the AT3IONT-I so versatile and such an intriguing product. You can also see a row of three fan headers with is interesting as the hard sell on the box would seem to indicate you do not need any fans.
Looking at the ports on the back you get an immediate impression the AT3IONT-I Deluxe is ready for use in a multimedia setup. We see six USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI and VGA port, 1/8-inch stereo ports for audio right next to a pair of RCA connectors for left and right stereo. The AT3IONT-I also has the more familiar Toslink optical out for audio alongside a built in Bluetooth transceiver. Like I said, it is loaded not for bear but for the home theater.
As you would expect from Asus the AT3IONT-I Deluxe does have more than its share of features. These range from the mundane like Stack Cool 3 which covers the heatsink and PCB design to ensure efficient heat transfer all the way up to built-in Bluetooth. Let’s take a quick look at some of the more interesting.
Home Theater Gate
This is an included piece of software that has been designed with easy visual usage. The software allows you to quickly identify icons even from a long distance. However, it is also as limited as most digital media players. It has no ability to view live TV from a TV Tuner and also has a few issues with media that is not stored locally on the system. Still it is not a bad piece of software if you are building this to operate as a media player instead of a full HTPC.
Wireless and Power Onboard
This is actually a combination of multiple features. The first is pretty simple Asus has dropped a Wireless N adapter into a mini PCIe slot and have also thrown in a Bluetooth module for good measure. The last one is [to me anyway] one of the coolest features they have thrown in. Asus has included a power brick style power supply with the AT3IONT-I Deluxe. The advantage of having this is that you are not limited to a traditional PC case. You can get something much smaller; something that resembles a piece of home audio equipment. You also get to save between $50-$100, depending on your tastes in Power Supplies.
The HD Audio on the AT3IONT-I is provided by a Realtek ACL887 audio codec that can provide 6 channels of audio [formerly known as 5.1 surround] The board also has a pair of direct stereo outputs in the form of gold plated RCA outputs. Of course you can also experience full digital audio in the form of Toslink and HDMI out [again only 6 channel].
nVidia ION Graphics
Although PhysX and CUDA are listed - the real highlight here is the full 1080p support. This is a big improvement over the 720p from some of the other Atom based products we have tinkered with [including Pine Trail]. You do have the odd issue with the HDMI hand off to certain TVs though. This manifests by the display seeming to extend beyond the confines of the display despite being set to 1920x1080. We have witnessed this on more than a few displays and is something to be aware of with any nVidia product.
Asus has packed in even more into the AT3IONT-I Deluxe, like the IR dongle, remote, crash free BIOS, Express Gate OS but for the money the four we listed above are your best bet.
BIOS and Overclocking
Although the BIOS on the AT3IONT-I Deluxe is limited Asus has made sure you still have quite a few options for performance and of course for overclocking. Dropping in to the BIOS on the Advanced [jumper free config] screen you can see that despite being an Atom CPU you can still kick things up a bit right from a single page. In fact Asus offers a very simple overclocking feature for the Atom 330 but having a few present overclock profiles available for you. In this shot you can see the 2GHz settings loaded.
The rest of the BIOS is very slimmed down and only provides basic controls for peripherals, the ION GPU [frame buffer etc.] and also the typical USB controls.
As usual Asus still has their Q-Fan controls although I am again at a little bit of a loss here; if this is meant to be fanless and silent, why the need for the Q-fan controls? Still they are nice if you are intent on overclocking the CPU and GPU on the board as that little extra bit of cooling can mean the difference between success and failure.
Overclocking the Asus AT3IONT-I Deluxe was very easy. As we told you above there are preset clock speeds set up in the BIOS. We picked out the fastest one [2.1GHz] and started playing around. Now as we were not using any type of active cooling on the heatsink our 2.1GHz efforts did not succeed, but dropping it by 100MHz did. We were able to run all of our tests at 2GHz with no active cooling and no issues. This is not bad at all for the tiny little Atom and the nVidia ION. We are fairly confident that with even a small fan on the heatsink you could get to the 2.1GHz mark and perhaps even more with a modded BIOS.
Test System and Build Comments
Processor: Intel Atom 330
Mainboard Asus AT3IONT-I Deluxe [Supplied by Asus]
Memory: 4GB Corsair CMT4GX3M2A2000C8 [Supplied by Corsair]
Hard Disk: Corsair Force F120 120GB SSD [Supplied by Corsair]
Graphics Card: nVidia ION [Supplied by nVidia] / AMD Radeon 5450 [Supplied by AMD]
Cooling: Built-in Passive Cooling
Monitor Sceptre X270W-1080P 27-Inch LCD [Supplied by Sceptre]
Operating System: Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate x64
Drivers: Forceware, Catalyst 10.7
Putting the AT3IONT-I Deluxe together was very simple. All we had to do was add memory, our SSD, and then a DVD-ROM. After that we were off and getting Windows 7 installed. The driver installation was also amazingly simple thanks to the install all software on the drivers DVD-ROM. We ran into no problems with the wireless card or any other subsystem of the board. It really was one of the simpler builds we have done.
Performance - Subsystems
Motherboard performance is not simply a measure of how fast you can overclock or indeed how many FPS it will get you in your favorite game. We feel that it is a combination of the subsystems combined with how well it handles your CPU, RAM and add-in boards. As such we cover performance of these items in our testing.
Memory performance is very important in a motherboard. This is even truer now that most CPUs have an internal memory controller. These are usually less affected by the actual speed of the memory as they are any issues in latency, skew and tracing on the board. For the most part Asus has this area firmly in hand. They typically can outperform the competition in terms of stock and overclocked memory performance. For our testing we use Sisoft Sandra and Everest Memory test.
With the Asus AT3IONT-I’s support for DDR3 we were not surprised to see the much better numbers in terms of memory performance. True it is not going to win you any awards but the difference is enough to make the ION a better platform for HD media.
Everest shows us pretty much the same thing as SiSoft Sandra. Of course we see more information so the picture is more complete.
The ability of a motherboard to pull data from your disk drive is another important aspect of system performance. With the introduction of the SSD the performance gulf between different boards with the same chipset dropped. Now when we do see a difference it is measured in 1-2 MB/s. The same thing is now showing up in SATA 3.0 and USB 3.0 testing. The reason we keep this test in place is to identify boards that have a serious issue with HDD performance. Usually these are correctable with a simple BIOS adjustment.
The HDD controller on the ION MCP was not as good as the memory controller. In fact it is significantly slower than the Intel HDD controller. This could cause some issues in terms of video buffering [for DVR performance] as well as transcoding.
It seems the issue is the linear read performance that is dragging the ION’s HDD controller down. This has an impact on the aggregate performance number shown in SANDRA. It would seem that we may still see decent transcoding times, but there is no guarantee.
Although many may argue, the audio sub-system on a motherboard is an important part of performance and overall purchaser satisfaction. If the audio system is garbage you are not going to get decent sound for gaming, video or anything. Additionally a poor audio CODEC [COmpression/DECompression] can cause performance issues as the CPU, Memory and other system components try to deal with the signals and data being sent from that part. Drivers also play an important role here.
The RealTek ACL887 is a pretty good audio CODEC. It has support for up to six channels of audio at more than acceptable levels. Of course one of the issues with using something like the ACL887 is that it uses the CPU for many of the higher audio functions. This means that if you turn on any of the post-processing you are going to have an impact on performance. When you are dealing with an Atom CPU [even with hyper-threading and dual cores] this can be a bad thing. Fortunately you should not need any post-processing to get decent sound reproduction.
Performance Testing - Overview
At BSN* we break out testing into two parts Synthetic and Real-World. Each has an important part in the overall review process. With Synthetic testing you have an easily repeatable performance measure than anyone can use against the same hardware configuration. But Synthetic testing cannot hope to provide a completely accurate picture of performance. These testing suites do not have the capacity to take multiple factors into account. On the opposite side are the real-world tests. They are duplicates of how a system [or part] will perform in actual use. However as they take into account the dynamic nature of real-world use they are hard to duplicate. As such our testing will always be an average of three runs on each test. The results shown here will be that average. We feel this combination offers the best overall picture of performance and how well the product will perform for the consumer when they get it home and installed in a system.
Performance - Applications [Synthetic]
Each of our synthetic tests cover a different aspect of system performance. Taken as a whole they provide a very broad overview of how well each board or product we have in the lab will perform for you once you get it home.
PCMark Vantage is a suite of tests that covers the most complete range of system task possible. It is true that it cannot hope to cover every possible activity but it does an excellent job of covering the majority and providing the end user with a good idea of how well a system can complete common tasks. For testing of the Atom based systems in the Mini-ITX form factor we have added two additional PCMark testing suites. One is the Productivity test while the other is the TV and Movies Suite.
In the standard PCMark Suite we again see the Asus AT3IONT-I Deluxe do quite well. This is probably due to a combination of the better memory [DDR3 vs. DDR2] and better graphics support from the ION MCP.
The Productivity suite also sees a nice boost over the much newer D510 ATOM with DDR2 support.
For TV and Movies things are much closer than we would have thought. Even with the superiority claims that nVidia always makes of the ION GPU over any Intel GPU we still see some fairly close results here.
HyperPi is an application that is capable of running multiple instances of SuperPi XS 1.3 on a system. It allows you to select the number of instances you wish to run as well as the length you want to calculate the number Pi out to [up to 32 million places]. For our testing we run one instance per core both physical and logical. On something like the Core i7 870 this is a total of eight 32M instances which puts a healthy strain on the CPU, memory and dive. It is also a good indication of how well the mainboard can handle the large amounts of data being passed back and forth. For the lower powered Atom we switched to the 16M run.
Now we see the impact of using an older Atom CPU. The Atom 330 simply cannot run calculations as fast as the D510 can. This does not bode well for transcoding performance where "number crunching" is important to fast results.
Performance – Applications [Real World]
AutoGK is our choice for transcoding testing. It is a compilation of commonly used tools for transcoding combined into an easy to use application. At its core is virtual dub for the actual transcoding but it provides much more than that. AutoGK is a good test of a system as it stresses the system drives, memory and the CPU. Although it is not fully Multi-Core compliant it does stagger the rendering load across multiple cores in turn. In our testing we take a 2 hour movie and transcode it to DivX Avi at 100% quality.
The results from our transcoding tests show that while the D510 is faster than the Atom 330 at stock speeds once you really kick the memory into high gear [at around 1333MHz] you gain much of that performance back. Of course your overclocking results will vary but it is very interesting to see the potential hidden under the hood.
Performance - Gaming
3D Mark Vantage is a DirectX 10 benchmark suite from Futuremark. This suite of tests allows you to get a broad overview of how well your system can handle the basic tasks of today’s gaming. Included in the test are Physics [using the PhysX libraries for GPU and CPU] DX10 Shader tests DX9 Shader tests as well as AI computations. Now since the majority of this is not dynamic it cannot hope to provide a completely accurate picture of gaming performance but it does a very good job despite that limitation. 3D Mark is also used a "bragging rights" test. The person with the best number wins; we are not sure what they really win, but we are assured they do actually win.
The 3DMark Vantage results are interesting. They are really not much over other GPUs in this range even with the minor boost from PhysX. It gives us an indication that while you probably could do some low end to mid-range gaming you are not looking at a power house here.
Gaming is a very real-world test. We do not use benchmarking scripts but actually play the games though a pre-planned level and record the frame rates using FRAPS. This allows up to see exactly how the CPU benefits [or hinders] performance. We have moved to a new format and will now be bringing you a game of each of the three common Direct X Levels. This should give a broader idea of CPU performance across multiple gaming APIs.
Spore from EA 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 traits to build your new life form with.
Not surprisingly the ION GPU does pretty well under the stress of gaming. Looks like Spore or any game like it would not be a problem.
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 woken from a sleep chamber to run a series of tests. During this you are shepherded by GLaDOS [Genetic Life Disk Operating System] and often encouraged to perform better so you can get your reward [a slice of cake]. It does not take long for you to realize that GLaDOS might not be your friend and that things have gone horribly wrong at Aperture Science Labs [a competitor for Black Mesa]. Portal is a great game that requires strategy, timing and a dark sense of humor.
Portal is a new game on the table here. We decided that we would see if the lower powered GPUs were able to handle games from a couple of generations back. These are still excellent games in many cases and could be perfect for some of the systems that use an integrated graphics processor. Here we find that the nVidia ION once again does quite well. I would imagine you would not have any issues with team fortress, Half-Life 2 or many other DX9 games from this era. For anything more, you should consider an additional graphics card, such as low-profile cards from AMD and nVidia.
We were more than a little surprised at the gaming performance we saw with the AT3IONT-I Deluxe. While normally we are used to seeing frame rates below 20, with the ION GPU we are getting above 20 in both cases. So while the AT3IONT-I Deluxe is not a gaming system, it is capable of offering good game play when confronted with some older titles.
Power and Heat
All systems draw power and generate heat. It is how they deal with that heat and power that concerns us. Many motherboards now have systems in place to reduce the amount of power drawn when at idle or less than 100% load.
As with many of Asus’ designs they have an excellent handle on power draw. Even looking at our overclocking tests we find that the power regulation design on the AT3IONT-I Deluxe is excellent.
Heat generation is another matter; the AT3IONT-I with its older Atom 330 and the ION MCP puts out quite a bit more heat than the D510 combined with an Intel chipset. The temperatures are well inside the thermal envelopes but we would recommend a well-ventilated case anyway.
You can grab the AT3IONT-I Deluxe for $189.99; which when you consider what you are getting is not a bad price at all. For under $200 you get a CPU and a PSU in addition to the Bluetooth module, IR receiver and other more common Asus features. Now you are not getting a massive power house in terms of computing power, but you are getting a system that is more than capable for the market it is aimed at.
Asus’ support has been improving over the last few years, but still has a little ways to go. Their website still has the occasional hic-up. In fact as I was writing this article I was unable to reach the product pages for motherboards several times. On the other side of this coin, Asus has always been very good in supporting their products with driver and BIOS updates for performance and to help resolve issues. So really Asus support is a mixed bag. On the one hand they are great with follow up drivers and BIOSes, but on the other their direct support can be frustrating.
The Asus AT3IONT-I Deluxe is an interesting product. It is clearly aimed at the entry level and home theater PC builders, but it can offer a little more than just basic multi-media performance. We even found that it could play a few older games at decent resolutions. Its power consumption is good enough that it can be run all the time in the capacity of a DVR [with scheduled programs] but you are limited by the single PCIe slot. This means that many of the peripherals you might need would have to be USB based. Still the fact that you have very little you need to add to the AT3IONT-I to get things going is an impressive item in its favor. If you are looking to build an HD HTPC, or to setup a small and lightweight desktop for moderate production work [Office etc] then this is a very good choice for you. In fact, we have plans to put this in our lab as the new HTPC system inside the new Lian Li PC-Q08B… It should be interesting to say the very least.