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Ion-based Linux nettop soars in review

Jun 11, 2009 — by Eric Brown — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 52 views

Berkeley, Calif.-based system integrator ZaReason is selling what appears to be the first Linux-based nettop equipped with both an Intel Atom 230 and Nvidia's Ion companion chip. The HD-capable Ion Breeze 3770 significantly outperforms a system running Intel's 82945GC graphics chipset, according to a Phoronix review.

Zotac Ionitx
(Click for details)

Starting at $400, the 10.4 x 9.0 x 4.4-inch Ion Breeze 3770 is equipped with Zotac's “Ionitx” Mini-ITX motherboard (pictured at right), which we covered last month. The board provides an Atom 230 CPU, but matches it with the new Nvidia Ion GeForce 9400M GPU instead of the Intel chipset that's typically employed. (See farther below for background on the Ion platform.)

The Ion Breeze 3770 system backs up its 1.6GHz Atom 230 CPU and Nvidia Ion northbridge/southbridge with 1GB of DDR2 800MHz, with an option to upgrade to 2GB or 3GB. A 250GB hard disk drive (HDD) is standard, with options to move up to as much as 1GB, and even more storage is available via the eSATA port and eight USB 2.0 ports.

The nettop also provides VGA, DVI, and HDMI video ports, a gigabit Ethernet port, and audio and PS/2 connections, says ZaReason. A variety of Ubuntu 9.04 Linux distros, detailed in the table below, are available pre-installed.

Ion Breeze 3770
(Click to enlarge)

Specifications listed for the Ion Breeze 3770 include:

  • CPU — Intel Atom 230 (1.6GHz) with 512KB cache, FSB 533MHz
  • Chipset — Nvidia Ion Geforce 9400M GPU
  • Memory — 1GB DDR2 800MHz, upgradeable to 2GB or 3GB
  • Storage — 250GB HDD; optional 500GB or 1GB drives
  • Storage expansion — 1 x eSATA port
  • Optical storage — optional CD/DVD-ROM or CD/DVD-RW drives
  • Networking — 1 x gigabit Ethernet port (RJ45)
  • USB — 8 x USB 2.0 ports
  • Video ports:
    • 1 x DVI Port
    • 1 x VGA Port
    • 1 x HDMI Port
  • Other I/O — Audio I/O jacks; 1 x PS/2 port
  • Dimensions — 10.4 x 9.0 x 4.4 inches
  • Power consumption — as low as 22 Watts
  • Operating system — Linux (Ubuntu 9.04; Kubuntu 9.04; Edubuntu 9.04; Ubuntu Studio 9.04)

Zotac's Ionitx offers VGA, DVI, and HDMI video outputs

Resembling a miniature cityscape, the 6.7 by 6.7-inch Zotac Ionitx Mini-ITX mobo (above) used in the ZaReason nettop is crammed with ports. Connectivity is said to include VGA, DVI, and HDMI video outputs, optical and coaxial S/PDIF audio outputs, six USB ports, an RJ45 gigabit Ethernet connector, a PS/2 keyboard port, analog audio I/O, and a WiFi antenna connector. Meantime, ports or pin headers on top of the board provide an additional four USB ports, a serial port, three SATA ports, and one eSATA port, Zotac says.

According to Zotac, the Ionitx's two 240-pin SODIMM slots allow it to accept up to 4GB of DDR2 RAM. Meanwhile, the company adds, an onboard Mini PCIe expansion slot on board is designed to accept an optional Atheros wireless LAN module.


Intel's single-core Atom 230 and dual-core Atom 330 are both clocked at 1.6GHz and intended for the low-cost, small-footprint “nettop” PCs. These are typically combined with the Intel's 82945GC northbridge and 82801GB southbridge, which weren't designed with HD video playback in mind. To get around this, at least one manufacturer — Habey, with its BIS-6550HD — has added a supplemental HD decoder chip to an Atom-based PC.

Nvidia announced its Ion platform last December, which uses an Atom CPU, but jettisons the rest of Intel's chipset in favor of a single northbridge/southbridge companion chip (pictured at right) that includes a GeForce 9400 GPU. Nvidia says Ion-based products can have DDR3 memory interfaces with frontside bus speeds of up to 1066MHz. Graphically, they support DirectX 10, offer resolutions up to 2560 x 1600 pixels, provide 1080p HD video playback, and deliver HDMI, VGA, DisplayPort, and dual-link DVI video outputs, the company says.

Test results

According to a “first-look” review of the Ion Breeze 3770 by Phoronix, which benchmarked Nvidia's Ion graphics vs. a system running the standard Intel 82945GC northbridge and 82801GB (ICH7) southbridge, the Ion chipset rules. Based on its well-known Phoronix Test Suite, the benchmarks showed that the Ion performed “dramatically better than the Intel 945 graphics found on most netbooks, nettops, and other Intel Atom devices,” according to the review. The ZaReason system was matched up against a Jetway NC92 motherboard that similarly ran Ubuntu Linux on an 1.6GHz Intel Atom 230, but instead used the standard Intel 945 chipset.

Video playback was said to be “substantially better,” enabling smooth 1080p H.264 playback, says the review. The Ion always outplayed the Intel chipset on gaming tests, “and in some times it was many times faster,” said the review. Phoronix concluded that the only advantage to Intel's chipset was its open source driver support compared to Nvidia's proprietary-only drivers. While the first installment focused only on benchmarks, a complete review of the Ion Breeze 3770 is promised in the future.


The Ion Breeze 3770 appears to be available now, starting at $400. More information may be found here.

The Phoronix benchmark review of the system may be found here.

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