Review: Multimedia Player replacement?
This article is available in German.
It's been quite a while since our last Ion review, which was an Acer Revo. Meanwhile development didn't stand still and ASRock released a bunch of Ion Desktops. The latest ASRock incarnation features a dual-core Atom 330, 2GB of DDR2 memory, a 320GB 2.5" hard drive and in our case a Blu-ray reader which can also burn CDs and DVDs.
Let's see what this box can do.
It is rather small with 197x70x186mm and comes either in glossy white or glossy black. While the look is quite appealing, beware of finger prints.
The backside hosts all the connections you might need. Six USB 2.0 ports, one Gb LAN port, VGA and HDMI, optical out, 5.1 audio out and eSATA/USB 2.0 combo gives you plenty of connection options. If your monitor does not feature an HDMI input, ASRock put an HDMI to DVI converter inside the box.
Looking at it as a replacement for any multimedia player we see one design flaw. The USB ports are located only on the back side. When such a box is installed, it would have been wise to put at least one USB 2.0 port and the eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port on the front, so you would have been able to plug your external hard drives in without any hassle.
Inside the box you find a 65W notebook power adapter, an additional SATA connector for a second hard drive and a remote control.
Opening the case reveals it's really crowded in there. On top you see the optical drive which comes in two flavours, either a DVD burner or the more expensive DVD-burner with Blu-ray reader.
Removing the drive bay you see the hard drive beneath the optical drive. We are not sure, if it's wise to mount a hard drive head over, ASRock could adapt the mechanism to fit the HDD in a normal position.
Without the drive bay, we get a good look on the board. During our photo-shot in bad light conditions we did not remove the board entirely, because you need to remove the backplate. As you can see, there are two massive aluminium heatsinks inside. The most disappointing is a 3cm mini-fan mounted to the Atom heatsink.
While Acer with its Revo used a netbook board, ASRock went the desktop way. The VRM is pretty conservative which means, it does not really save energy. Again, if this box comes at €150 nobody would care, but with a price about €300 for the DVD edition and €395 for the BD edition we expected more.
While we got an engineering sample, ASRock provided us with a new 3cm fan. The new fan is a YS-Tech fan, and will still not silent, but it's less high-pitched compared to the original one. When running as a home entertainment system, the noise is not audible while you enjoy 5.1 or even 7.1 sound. Because the box is not very cheap we had hoped ASRock go the extra mile and fit in something with a heatpipe and an air duct. The 5cm fan on the backpanel is oversized too, but in the ultra silent and silent modes ok.
Of course we checked the basics of the machine, and as CPUz and GPUz reports, all is within the norm.
As you can imagine, installing Windows XP and Windows 7 was a strain and took quite long. Surprisingly booting both systems was done within 35 seconds, not bad for such a lame CPU. While we worked the original small fan truly annoyed us, so we had no choice but to remove it. Before disassembling the case we noticed the bottom of the case where the board is mounted gets very warm which is not good either, because the heat can't dissipate. After removing the fan we put the case on the side which does help to keep the board cooler. Besides that, we reduced the settings of the FSB to 100 to underclock the Atom 330 CPU to 1.20GHz. Reduction of the VCore is limited to 0.1V, but it helps. The new "speed" is still sufficient to run all basic applications such as browsers and media players without noticeable delay. The new fan did help and the box was not as annoying anymore, but it was still not silent.
The strong side of Nvidia's Ion is the ability to accelerate HD content decoding. To achieve that you need a player capable of using DXVA during playback. If you think the Windows Media Player is the choice to go, you are wrong. Microsoft is not able to do so with containers they don't like such as .MKV and even under Windows 7 WMV decoding was not as fast as it could be.
Of course we used Media Player Classics with DVXA support. It can internally accelerate decoding of H264 and VC-1. The later only when the frames are progressive, interlaced material is not common and so not yet supported. In Windows 7 we used the 64-bit flavour but our impression is, XP is the faster way to go, even when you disable all the eye-candy Windows 7 is providing.
Normal .AVI files encoded with either DivX or XviD are no problem whatsoever. All decoding is done by the CPU.
720p works even better, because Ion accelerates decoding.
With 1080p content it gets more interesting. Under Windows XP the Windows Media Player is hopeless. While the Task Manager shows about 50% usage, the movie is stuttering.
Media Player Classic on the other hand, had no problems to provide a proper HD experience.
Under Windows 7 the Windows Media Player did better, but we don't think it is, because Ion helped. We think the 64bit code did accelerate the decoding a lot. The original source is a WMV file.
Now the same file inside a MKV-container but decoding still with Windows Media Player.
The Media Player Classic x64 did not struggle, regardless of container. The first is the WMV-file:
The same file in a MKV-container:
ASRock provides an OEM version of Cyberlink so you may watch a BluRay disc. It does just work.
We are sorry not to bore you with useless 3DMark numbers, except 2003 which we used for full power consumption. Neither the Ion nor the Atom are designed to give you a gaming experience and we have better things to do than waste time with that. If you happen to use games which were state of the art in 2003 or before, you can play them. As we have shown decoding HD content is the strong suite of the Ion as long as you have a player to do so. We had no problems with XP or Windows 7. Kudos to the Media Player Classic developers which managed to support DXVA for XP and decoding mostly faster as a 64-bit Windows 7.
Power-Consumption was a bit off from what we originally expected, but a dual-core running mostly under 30W in normal operation is not a bad thing. Under load Ion does contribute about 15W. All LEDs, IR and WLAN were disabled to reduce energy consumption as much as possible. Due to the normal board design in contrast to the Revo power-consumption is higher. Downclocking the Ion and the Atom resulted in 5W reduction and a very quiet system.
The ASRock Ion330HT box is a two edged sword. While we were impressed with the HD support of the Ion and the quite delay-free operation under Windows, we have some issues with the box itself. The 3cm fan is a bad idea, because it's not possible to remove the noise completely, as it has to spin at a considerable speed to generate any airflow. In Europe we like noiseless computers, especially if they don't feature superior performance. A better cooling system is the wish for the next revision of the box. Also to have left out USB 2.0 ports and/or SATA connectors on the front is bad choice.
The box is not a bargain. You can buy it for about €220,- as a barebone, or cash out €80,- more to get it with a DVD burner, 320GB hard drive and 2GB memory. The top model we tested here comes with a Blu-ray reader and DVD burner combo drive for about €395,- which is the best offer, considering the optical drive costs €150,- alone.
Removing the 3cm fan and downclocking the Atom and the Ion made the experience quite nice, but we think ASRock should consider noise before they design a desktop. ASRock did send us a BIOS which can reduce the Ion to 300/800MHz, which should be released in a week or two. The lower speeds are still good for HD-content but will decrease the heat and enables any user to remove the 3cm fan. You can also reduce the speed of the back-fan to ultra-silent and the box gets really quiet.
All in all, we like the box despite these flaws and if you are searching for a second machine to save some energy without the need to run your quad-core/SLI machine all the time, this is the computer for you to do basic stuff and watch HD-content.