ASRock ION-330 Nettop SFF System

Jul 27 2009

Updated on 8/8: Added section on Flash Video and Windows7 Testing

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ASRock ION-330 Nettop

Today we take a closer look at the ASRock ION-330 Nettop device--a small form factor system that comes almost complete out of the box and appears to be a great match on paper to other HTPC clients. Being low powered, low cost and seemingly capable, can the ASRock ION match up to higher powered (and higher cost) systems?

Introduction and Specs

As HTPC's have really stood still for a bit, no hardware has grown in popularity as rapid as netbooks--low power small laptops featuring Intel's low-powered (and rather low-performing) Atom processor. This has been fine for these appliance devices which are predominantly used for web browsing, e-mail and other low demanding tasks. No way a system like this could ever be used as a viable home theater PC (HTPC) right? 

Originally, absolutely not, as the netbooks featured the low powered CPU and even lower powered graphics so forget about streaming much larger resolution video files, let alone any 1080p content. Nvidia saw the gap here and earlier this year released their ION branding which is just a name for a nettop system featuring an Atom processor with the Nvidia 9400M (MCP79) graphics chipset. The ASRock takes this branding and is marketing the unit as more than capable of handling HD formats and 1080p graphics--pretty impressive given an MSRP of $399 for the non-blu-ray model we're reviewing.

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 ASRock Packaging
 The unit itself

Before we get started, let's take a look at the hardware specifications included with the ASRock ION-330 system:

CPU - Intel® Atom™ 330 (Dual-Core CPU)
Chipset - NVIDIA® ION™ graphics processor
Memory - 2GB DDR2 800 MHz memory, support dual channel, maximum memory capacity 4GB*

*Due to the CPU limitation, the actual memory size may be less than 4GB for the reservation for system usage under Windows® XP / XP 64-bit / Vista™ / Vista™ 64-bit.
VGA - NVIDIA® ION™ graphics, support DX10 / Full HD 1080p (Blu-ray / HD-DVD)* playback

*Blu-ray/HD-DVD disc is supported by Blu-ray/HD-DVD drive.
HDD - 2.5” HDD 320GB
DVD - DVD Super Multi (Slim type)
I/O - 1 x HDMI (with HDMI to DVI adapter), 1 x D-Sub VGA, 6 x USB 2.0, 1 x S/PDIF (Optical)
LAN - Gigabit LAN
Sound - HD Audio 5.1 channel
System Acoustic - Below 26dB
Power Unit - 65W /19V Adapter
Dimension - 195mm (W) x 70mm (H) x 186mm (L)
Weight - 1.7Kg

Some interesting items on the system include a rather unique HDMI-to-DVI adapter I had never seen before. The other video port is your standard 15-pin VGA--a convenient inclusion given that not everyone will be using this for HTPC-purposes. The specs on the Blu-ray system are identical, only with a built-in blu-ray drive instead of the DVD multi-drive ours came with.

It's also worth noting that the system does NOT include any preinstalled operating system. Which is rather disappointing given the $400 price point, but considering Windows 7 is around the corner that's not necessarily a bad thing given you would probably want to upgrade very soon. That does not help you in your cost of either operating system, so something to consider.

If you look at the "Sound" specifications, it incorrectly states "HD Audio 5.1 Channel" for some reason. During my tests, I found the system was able to pass through up to 7.1 channels of LPCM audio via the HDMI port, similar to Intel-based boards and ATI graphics cards. Someone at ASRock should modify the specs to note as such since 7.1 is becoming increasingly common and could deter some potential buyers.

Inside the Hardware

The dimensions of this unit are acceptable--not as tiny as the AOpen mini but well smaller than any standard desktop PC. I took a couple pictures to give you some reference points as to just how small it is. It could easily be tucked behind your television or somewhere inconspicuous. There is a single bright blue LED light which is sure to annoy some users, but one which could easily be covered with some black electrical tape. In my experiences though, the blue light was not as bright as some other units so it should not be too big an issue.

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Size Compared to a quarter
...and Compared to a Dollar

The rear panel is rather plain looking, with not even a coat of black to match the rest of the chassis. Not a deal breaker, but it definitely stands out as odd given the rest of the look and feel of the overall unit. The ports are rather generous as well. Besides the HDMI and VGA ports we mentioned earlier, the unit also includes 6 USB ports, an RJ-45 gigabit port, 3 analog audio ports (maximum of 5.1 analog), a SP/DIF Optical toslink port and the power connector. A surprising--and inexcusable--omission on ASRock's part is the lack of any front-panel USB ports as well as any rear-panel eSATA ports. eSATA is now a fairly standard addition and the importance of the fron USB's is obvious as otherwise you need to reach around the back for any removable USB drives or devices.

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 A look at the rear panel of the unit
 System contents

I know you are all wondering about how much noise such a tiny unit will generate. As you can see from the picture above there is a single exhaust fan exposed from the rear. Opening the system up exposed an additional even smaller fan exhausting from the CPU heatsink. They both appear to be thermally controlled, and under default settings I could unofficially agree that the 29dB rating from ASRock seems more than fair. At no point during my testing did I observe the fans ramp up enough to be noticeable in my living room. I would love to get into an acoustic chamber to do some official measurements, but I think for the average user noise is not going to be an issue.

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 A look inside  Opening the system

Another interesting piece is with the heatsinks themselves. As you can see from the picture above, the heatsink for the GPU is more than double the size of the one for the CPU that is cooled by the fan. You can also see the two standard sized DIMMs, DDR2-800 1gb sticks from Elixir. Never heard of the company before but seemed to perform ok. It was rather unusual to see a system of this size not opt to use SODIMMs to save space and improve airflow, but from the design it looks like they are using the DIMMs to funnel airflow through front to back over both heatsinks without getting distracted.

The cables are fully custom as well, which is nice to see given the low cost of the unit since any extra cable slack would be a detriment to the system's temperature and stability. The DVD drive is a slim laptop size drive from Lite-On, a reliable brand. The hard drive included is a 320gb Seagate Momentus 5400.6 2.5" hard drive, featuring an impressive 8MB of cache.

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 Seagate Momentus Hard Drive
 Lite-On DVD Drive

 Overall the system is put together very nicely with some fairly good quality components. I am not aware of any plans ASRock has at releasing a strictly barebones system but it would be nice so the user could choose their own hard drive, RAM and dvd drive--or if they wanted a client only skip the dvd drive entirely and save some money.

Software and Power

With power bills being what they are today, people are more and more concerned with lower wattage systems. Why run a system that's 300 watts when all you are going to be doing is playing a movie? The Atom processor is known for being low powered, but how does it match up when paired with the more than capable Nvidia 9400M? Surprisingly well it turns out.

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 System at Idle  Maximum Load (4 Threads CPU & Max GPU)

I ran a number of tests on the system and used a Kill-A-Watt to measure the wattage being produced by the system during a variety of conditions. Running idle the system draws a meager 26 watts. I ran the system under full load, running Prime95 CPU torture test on all cores of the system along with Video burn-in test RTHDRIBL, and could not get the system to draw more than 38 Watts! The last test I did was playback of a DVD movie in drive, and that drew only 34 watts.

It's pretty impressive when an entire system under maximum (unrealistic) load refuses to draw more than 40 watts of power. This definitely classifies as one of the lowest powered systems I've ever worked with.

Before moving on to the actual performance I wanted to mention a bit of custom software unique to ASRock that is included with the system--Instant On technology. Rather than try to explain it myself here is how ASRock describes it:

ASRock has overcome the technical obstacles and exclusively invented a new technology that allows you to turn on your PC in just a blink of an eye! Not only it saves energy, money, it also helps system running speed. This feature is applicable to both Windows® XP and Windows® Vista™! 

Sounds pretty exciting, right? And technically this works with one catch--every time you shut down the system, in order for Instant On to work, it actually fully reboots the system and THEN shuts itself off. Every....time. That being said however, it does technically work--once the unit has actually shut itself off I was able to power up the unit in an impressive 20 seconds (in fast mode) or 37 seconds (in regular mode). It appears that both of these essentially save the system entirely into memory, as the power draws when shut off was 2 watts during fast mode, and 1 watt during regular mode. 

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 Instant Boot options

A standard boot up from cold shut down on my system took  1 minute 18 seconds. While the bootup time is impressive, it becomes much less so when you factor in the overall time--from the point you click shut down until the unit powers off took an abusive 1 minute 55 seconds, versus the normal shut down time of 19 seconds. So the question is really, are you willing to put up with a longer shut down time in order to save your time during boot up? I personally found it to be rather unnecessary. At least now you know enough to make your own decision.

HTPC Performance

Enough of the hardware details, I know you are all dying to see if the advertised 1080p performing is really a legitimate statement or not. In order to properly test the system the device was connected to a 40" LCD HDTV with a native HDMI resolution of 1080p (1920x1080 at 60hz). I prepared a multitude of files for my testing to make sure I covered all my basis. In addition to the standard stutter watching, I also monitored the Windows Task Manager for CPU and Memory usage during each. For these tests I used Windows Vista Home Premium as the operating system with Arcsoft's Total Media Theater 2 for video playback--it's not only what I am familiar with but also has received great reviews.

The first file I used for testing was a 720p trailer of the newest Star Trek movie encoded with H.264. No problems here as the system performed smoothly with CPU utilization between 20-47% while Memory hovered around 50-57%.

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 Star Trek 720p H.264 Trailer

The next test was a 1080p trailer of the Terminator Salvations movie also encoded with H.264. CPU usage remained similar to what was seen in the 720p trailer, with memory just slightly higher at around 61%.

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 Terminator 1080p H.264 Trailer

So far, so good. I decided that I could only get so tough on the system with these trailers, so it was on to some own-created compressions to see how it performs. The first test here was an MKV H.264 conversion of The Fifth Element from Blu-ray, encoded in 1080p resolution.  Pretty similar again, with CPU between 25-40% and memory around 50-60%.

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 Fifth Element MKV H.264 1080p Compression

The last compression format tested was a 1080p XVid compression of the new Watchmen blu-ray. The file was compressed with a resolution of 1080p and includes AC3 compressed audio with it. This found to be the most demanding file format to play back for the CPU, which hovered around 50-70% throughout, with memory usage at 55%. The good news about all these formats mentioned is that not a single format I threw at it experienced any sort of stuttering or hiccups or other sync/quality issues.

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 Watchmen XVid 1080p Compression

To top off my performance testing, I used a copy of The Dark Knight from blu-ray that was copied to my server in its original blu-ray format and size. I did not expect any difficulties given the above tests, and sure enough the system handled it rather easily with CPU ranging from 20-50% and memory around 50-60%, with flawless playback.

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The Dark Knight Blu-ray (VC-1)

As you can see from the tests above it was refreshing to see a system match up with the marketing promises it has made. What's more surprising is how easily this super low powered system handled all the various file formats I threw at it. No doubt due to its Nvidia 9400M's contributions, this system easily handled the files with room to grow as formats continue to change and evolve.

Flash and Windows 7 Testing

 

Thanks to some suggestions from our forum members, I decided to add some more information to my review of the unit. First up, is how performance is on playback of Flash content, such as Hulu. Our own member MSBob had heard rumors that performance was sluggish on the unit so I wanted to see for myself. Seeing the unit handle every blu-ray and high definition format I threw at it without problems, I assumed a little high quality streaming video would be no sweat.

Unfortunately, apparantly Macromedia's Flash does not play very well with the graphics of the ION chipset in Vista. I loaded Flash 10 on the system and started off with what most users in the HTPC environment would be using, Hulu Desktop application. For the purpose of this test I am going to use the Pilot episode of Warehouse 13 as my test file. Playing back content from within Hulu desktop (in full screen) proved to be unwatchable.  CPU hovered around 60-70% and Memory was around 45%, so the specs were not the issue, however the video was experiencing constant stuttering and juddering. 

To rule out the possibility that it may be a bug with the beta Hulu Desktop application, I launched the Hulu website from Internet Explorer 8.0 and played the same episode back within the browser. Performance was slightly better with CPU around 20-30% and Memory around 37%, but still experienced quite a bit of juddering--more watchable than with the Hulu Desktop application, but far from the perfect that my lowly DG45ID system could do with its Intel Graphics. At full screen, it again was unwatchable.

As a last ditch effort, fellow writer Matt Wright suggested that it is most likely an issue with Flash and a couple options to try. The first was to turn Flash's hardware acceleration to OFF. Performance was a LITTLE better, but still nowhere near perfect. The last suggestion was to try Adobe Flash Version 9.0 (instead of 10).  No luck again I'm afraid, as performance seems to have gotten even worse than it was with Version 10.

I believe the issue to be both with the Flash software as well as the Nvidia driver, so hopefully an update will be released soon to resolve. I have confidence that the issue is not hardware performance related, but keep that in mind when thinking about this unit.

Windows 7 Testing

For the purposes of this review, I installed Windows 7 Professional 64-bit onto the unit. The installation was a breeze and everything seemed fairly responsive. Performance of video playback was similar to what I found in Vista, which is what I expected and is a good thing with the exception of the Flash issues previously mentioned. My only complaint besides this was that the Media Center menu itself did exhibit a slight delay when navigating the start menu. Navigating through any submenus like Music of Movies behaved fine, so not sure why the delay on the start page was there, but something to be aware of.

 

Conclusion

 

When we started this review, the ASRock was promised to be a low powered unit with a very reasonable MSRP which can handle 1080p resolution and playback. After extensively testing this device I would have to agree with their assessment. The system's power requirements were quite low, never drawing more than 40 watts at a given time. In addition to being super low powered, the system also was able to easily handle all high resolution video formats I threw at it, including the ever so popular H.264 and XVid formats. Add to this already impressive list of features a running audible level of under 30dB and you can easily imagine this is an ideal option for a bedroom or other client HTPC. If storage or expansion is not a necessity for you, I could even see some people utilizing the system as their main server for playback.

ASRock sells the system without blu-ray drive for only $400 without an operating system, which is a fair but not ridiculously inexpensive system. Indeed, you could probably build yourself a client box for a little more than that and have more power for your buck. But what ASRock brings to the table is the overall package. The system is miniature in size, easily handles all your video playback needs and uses a minuscule amount of power. If you're looking for a system almost ready to go, I would have no problems recommending the ASRock ION-330. Wait a few weeks and purchase Windows 7 and you will have a very powerful little box for whatever your needs.

Pros:

  • Draws no more than 40 watts of power (idle of only 26 watts)
  • Easily handled 1080p video formats
  • Supports 7.1 HDMI LPCM Audio
  • Very quiet (less than 30dB)
  • Affordable MSRP of $400
  • Small form factor
  • Includes all hardware needed

Cons:

  • No Front USB Ports
  • No eSATA ports at all
  • No included Operating system
  • Maximum 5.1 analog audio
  • No support for bitstreaming HD audio formats
  • No component video

Comments

Not a bad little unit when considered for maybe a spare bedroom or kid's room, maybe.  I still think it's slightly pricey considering no Blu-ray drive is bundled.  Flash performance is disappointing, but not that surprising.

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