- Review Price: £309.35
As well as being the first to make nVidia’s 3D Vision kit available in the UK, Novatech was one of the first, after Asus, to offer a selection of Nettop systems. Here we take a look at its latest, the Ion Fusion.
Sadly, though the name might imply otherwise, Novatech’s Atom desktops are not based on nVidia’s revolutionary Ion platform, which incorporates significantly better graphics than the current alternatives. Instead, these Ions use the good old Intel D945GCLF2D motherboard, based on the less tongue-twisting 945GC Express Chipset. Coincidence or not, it’s a less than ideal situation to have a system with a name that infers one thing but delivers another. At least you all now know what you’re getting.
Aside from its dual-core Atom 330, the Ion Fusion’s basic specifications are the same as most netbooks out there, including the underpowered integrated Intel GMA 950 graphics chip. However, before we get into the performance implications of this, let’s take a look at the overall package Novatech supplies.
Even before unpacking everything you can tell it’s a compact bundle, with the box (containing monitor, peripherals and PC) taking up no more room than the average PC tower-case box. Inside, everything is well protected but easy to unpack.
Starting with the peripherals, both keyboard and mouse are cheap, generic Logitech models finished in matte black to match the monitor and PC. As per usual with bundled rodents, the reasonably comfortable optical mouse is ambidextrous. It glides along smoothly on four small Teflon feet and has two buttons that operate with a positive click, and a rubberised four-way scroll-wheel with notched feedback.
The keyboard doesn’t offer a wrist-rest, which made typing somewhat uncomfortable for me. Despite this, key feedback is good, if a tad spongy. Layout is uncomplicated, without any media shortcuts or other special keys.
As far as the monitor goes, our Ion Fusion sample came with an LG Flatron W1934S – a 19in model with a 1,440 x 900 resolution – which is as basic as it gets. In fact, the last monitor I looked at without any form of digital connectivity was the 16in Chimei CMV-633A that passed through our offices over a year ago. Of course, it’s not such a big issue since the Ion Fusion only supports VGA anyway and given the system only costs £310 with the monitor, keyboard and mouse, it’s hardly a cause for complaint.
Putting the monitor together is a straightforward matter of clicking the stand’s neck into its round base. Its styling is simplistic though not unattractive, with its fancy blue-backlit power button. Beside this are the other controls, which are easy to use, despite their rather faint labels. The menu structure is logical with a variety of presets on offer and even basic aspect ratio controls (a feature that the very cheapest monitors sometimes lack).
Image quality is average, with the usual failings of a TN panel such as poor greyscale gradation. Viewing angles are reasonable though, and text is nice and sharp. There was a slight hint of ghosting, which is very rare these days, but since the Atom CPU plus GMA 950 combo backed by 1GB of RAM is not exactly a gaming setup, it’s not much of an issue.
Though the W1934S’ standby power usage of 1W is very low, after the amazing 30W maximum of Samsung’s 23in EcoFit SyncMaster P2370 its typical usage figure of 36W seems less impressive.
So onto the actual Ion Fusion unit itself. Taking this desktop out of its box, I was instantly disappointed. With dimensions of 270 x 75 x 325mm (W x H x D), its chassis is a lot bigger than I was expecting. Since the Ion Fusion features an optical drive and dual-core processor it would have been unrealistic to hope for something the size of the Asus Eee Box, but we’re still essentially talking about a netbook in a desktop case here, and Novatech’s effort is twice the size of my two-year old desktop work PC featuring a Core 2 Duo.
At 3.65kg, it’s also heavy. Admittedly, this is mostly due to the largely metal chassis, which lends the Ion Fusion excellent build quality and durability, and means you can confidently put the monitor on top of the PC (in its horizontal position).
The front of the machine is finished in piano-black, broken by a silver strip which contains the power button. This would look fairly classy, were it not for the incongruously matte slim-line DVD-rewriter nestled in its centre.
Connectivity, meanwhile, is a bit outdated, though it will doubtless appeal to some businesses. Starting at the back, we have twin PS2 ports, parallel and serial ports, and VGA. Furthermore, we have three 3.5mm audio jacks (for outputting analogue 5.1-channel surround sound), four USB 2.0 ports and of course Ethernet.
Moving around to the Novatech’s front, to the left side (or its bottom if upright) are another two USB ports, headphone and microphone jacks, and surprisingly enough an eSATA port. I was actually rather excited about this – a rare enough addition on a nettop – until I remembered the D945GCLF2D motherboard only supports two SATA ports. Opening the Ion Fusion up (which is easily done by removing three screws), my concerns were confirmed as the cable connected to the eSATA port is just tied off. This could be construed as misleading but, in fairness to Novatech, it doesn’t list eSATA on the Ion Fusion’s spec list.
While we’re on the subject of the case’s insides, as you might have guessed there’s a lot of wasted space. At least this means most of the components are easy to get to if you want to upgrade, which you’ll probably want to do with the memory – 1GB is enough to run Windows XP SP3 but, when multitasking or running more intensive programs, 2GB will make all the difference.
There’s also a free PCI Express 1x slot, but since there’s no gap in the back of the case to accommodate an expansion card, its uses are limited. The hard drive is a 3.5in one so it’s also really easy to replace, though 160GB should be enough for most users who would be happy with an Atom’s performance to begin with.
With the Novatech Ion Fusion’s extremely efficient processor, large case, passive graphics cooling and modest 120W power supply you’d expect this machine to be very quiet, but unfortunately it isn’t; in fact it’s very noisy. So far then, two of the four major advantages of buying an Atom-based system have been negated: it’s not particularly small or quiet, leaving only power usage and price as possible incentives. But before we get onto these, let’s have a look at how the Novatech performs.
The one exception to the Ion’s otherwise netbook-like specifications (1GB RAM, 160GB HDD, GMA 950 graphics) is of course the Atom 330 processor. Though it still only runs at 1.6GHz, the 330 is the only dual-core Atom, and not only has double the cores but also double the cache of any other Atom. The question is, how much of a difference does this make compared to an equally fast standard Atom such as the N270?
Unfortunately, the simple answer is not that much for most users. For example, both the Novatech Ion Fusion and a standard N270-based (single core 1.6GHz Atom) netbook managed a multi-tasking scenario running several video streams, word editing and browsing simultaneously without any problems.
For gaming and most other applications, the rest of the hardware isn’t up to running anything that requires dual-core, leaving pure number crunching (i.e. de/encoding video/music, applying effects to images, or churning through an intense calculation in a spreadsheet) as the main scenario where the dual-core Atom has a serious impact.
To demonstrate just how much of one, we ran an MP3-encoding test, which took 15 minutes on the N270 netbook versus only seven and a half minutes for the same file on the 330. This is a reasonable performance gain, but then again, if you’re planning to do this kind of thing you’re better off getting a PC based on even a low-end Core 2 Duo or AMD Phenom processor.
However, the one area where the Atom excels is in its energy usage. Obviously the two cores use more than a single core would, but even so, under heavy load (with video files running from a USB flash drive and optical drive plus other tasks running in the background) the Ion Fusion’s power usage never went above 46W. In ‘everyday’ scenarios such as word processing or surfing the net, that figure fell to around 30W – less than what the bundled 19in LG monitor uses. This might seem like a lot compared to the 8.5W maximum of the Linutop 2, but that little box is so basic it can’t even run Windows whereas here we’re talking about a fully-fledged (if slightly underpowered) PC.
So energy usage is the only main advantage of the Novatech Ion Fusion over other SFF PCs so far, but what about price? Though Novatech’s Ion range starts at £188.99, that’s for an Atom 230 system. The one reviewed here is £309.35, which includes Windows XP.
For this kind of money, the biggest threats to Novatech’s latest Atom PC are probably good old laptops. It’s not difficult to find a 15.4in notebook with a 2GHz or faster Intel Celeron CPU, 2GB of RAM, similar 160GB hard drive and Windows Vista for around £300. This kind of configuration offers more of everything (including Wi-Fi and a card reader) and will do all the things the Ion Fusion can and possibly a little bit more too.
However, if you prefer the desktop route the Ion Fusion is more difficult to beat, but there are still other options worth considering. A compelling alternative is Asus’ Eee Box, which is available with mouse and keyboard (albeit without a monitor) for only £246.16. This gets you a similarly-performing configuration except with a single-core Atom and no optical drive, but makes up for those by being smaller, lighter, quieter and more attractive, plus it offers digital connectivity in the form of DVI, built-in Draft-N wireless and a memory-card reader. However, add in the cost of a generic 19in monitor and you’re looking at around £330, which also makes it £20 more expensive.
Furthermore, there are actual nVidia Ion nettops to be considered: Acer’s up and coming Aspire Revo for example is available to pre-order for the same price as the Eee Box, offering double the memory, Vista Premium instead of XP, six USB ports, eSATA and HDMI – and best of all, thanks to its far superior graphics card it can not only handle light gaming but also Full HD films.
Overall then, if it’s power you’re after, the average laptop will offer more, though if you’d rather have a desktop machine Novatech provides a dual-core Atom system at a reasonable price. However, that dual-core CPU isn’t worth its premium over single core in this kind of system, and in terms of value you’re better off with the alternatives above or even Novatech’s own Ion system, which is decent value at just under £190.
While its price will attract many, Novatech’s Ion Fusion system isn’t quite the bargain it purports to be. For the kind of user that might use it, its dual-core Atom 330 doesn’t offer a significant performance boost over a single-core one, while we also felt it to be too large and noisy for a low-power system.
”Addendum – 12/05/09: This review, both its contents and scores, has been amended to reflect a mistake regarding pricing in the original review. We apologise, both to our readers and to the manufacturer, for any confusion caused.”
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