Acer Revo R3600 and other dual core Atom 330 NVidia Ion nettops

The new Acer AspireRevo R3600 (Acer AspireRevo R3610-U9012) that combines a dual core Atom 330 processor with the Nvidia Ion platform was introduced at the IFA consumer electronics fair in Berlin in September. It is just one of several interesting new nettops coming out now that will offer significantly more processing power, especially for video decoding, while still using little electricity.

Low cost, low power Atom CPUs in small desktop cases (nettops) such as the Asus EeeBox 202 first became popular about a year ago, following in the footsteps of their mobile cousins, netbooks such as the Asus Eee PC range. The latest generation of machines are adding new features and more performance, which will expand the market for low end machines.

Other machines with similar specs to the AspireRevo (dual core Atom 330, NVIDIA Ion chip set and 2 to 4 GB of RAM) include the Asus EeeBox EB1012, the ASUS EeeBox EB1501, the ASRock Ion 330 / Valore ION 330 and the Zotac MAG HD-ND01. In addition, people are building their own low power Atom 330 NVIDIA ION desktops based on mini ITX motherboards such as the ZOTAC ION ITX A Series or the ASUS AT3N7A Atom 330 motherboard and small cases such as the M350.

So what makes this latest bunch of machines so interesting?

First, they use the dual core version of the Atom, the 330 which will speed up multi-tasking as well as single applications that are multi-threaded (click here for a table comparing performance of the N330 to other CPUs).

Second, they abandon the rather pedestrian Intel 945GC chip set (which is basically a four year old design by now) and replaced it with the NVidia GeForce 9400 chip set (Intel Atom + NVidia 9400 = NVidia Ion). The new chip set not only supports DirectX 10 for Windows Vista and Windows 7 but also hardware decoding of digital video. This dramatically reduces the CPU load in software video players that take advantage of it, so that even a humble Atom CPU can keep up with high definition 1080p video streams.

Video performance may have been less of an issue on small netbooks with tiny 1024×600 pixel screens and lacking optical drives, but nettops and other desktops are more likely to use 20 inch screens and bigger that lend themselves well to watching video clips and movies.

Still, NVidia Ion is not a perfect solution for video yet. Amongst others, high definition Adobe Flash videos currently may still have problems because Adobe does not yet take advantage of decoding hardware even if present. For now, only Core 2 and other faster CPUs can cope with all video formats with all software, but Adobe has announced support for hardware decoding for Flash video before the end of the year, at least for the Windows version of Adobe.

NVidia Ion is also much more energy efficient than the Intel 945 GC Express chipset that was used in some earlier Atom nettops. While the Mobile 945 chipset used with single core Atom N270 netbooks (945GSE) is reasonably efficient, the desktop version of the 945 chip set used with the single core Atom N230 and dual core Atom 330 burns more than 20 Watt, over 5 times as much as the modest 4 Watt of the Atom 230 itself and 2 1/2 times as much as the 8 W of the 330. In fact the 945GCE is so inefficient that the cooling fan on the first Intel Atom desktop board had to be mounted on the 945 chip, not the N230 CPU which could be cooled with a passive heat sink alone. Less power than a conventional desktop means not only a lower electricity bill and a smaller carbon footprint, it also means less fan noise and heat.

A dual core Atom with the Ion chip set will actually consume less power than a single core N230 with the 945GC chip set (see GeForce 9400M Versus 945GC – Review Tom’s Hardware : Nvidia’s Ion: Lending Atom Some Wings for a full comparison of the two chip sets).

Another major benefit of the NVidia chipset is that it supports up to 4 GB of RAM while the 945GC and 945GSE are limited to 2 GB even though the Atom was capable of more. This limitation didn’t get much attention before because most Atom machines were shipped with Windows XP, which Microsoft did not allow to be bundled with machines that had more than a single GB of RAM, even though most of these machines could be upgraded to 2 GB by the user. However, if you add a 2 GB DIMM to a 945GSE board that already has 512 MB installed and one free slot, you will still only have 2 GB available, not 2.5 GB. The Ion removes this artificial barrier. Also, Ion boards typically have two DIMM slots while many 945 boards have only one. More memory is welcome because it often means less disk swapping, with a direct boost to performance. Ion offers better memory bandwidth too, which does help when both the CPU and the video chip have to share access to the main memory.

Most Ion boards have 3 internal SATA connectors and also one eSATA connector, while 945GC boards tend to have only two SATA and no eSATA ports. Having an eSATA port is great for using an external drive such as a Blue-Ray disk player or a an external hard disk subsystem such as the Guardian MAXimus external RAID-1 solution to provide robust Network Attached Storage (NAS) via a network-connected Ion machine. Ion nettops also tend to offer HDMI (a digital video link to digital TVs and monitors) and S/PDIF (digital multi-channel audio). Most have 6 or 8 USB ports and draft-N WiFi (802.11b/g/n). On top of that both 945GC and Ion support Gigabit Ethernet.

I’ve been checking online retailers for actual availability of the dual core Ion machines, but things have been moving slowly. I wonder if manufacturers have been holding back until after the Windows 7 release date on Oct 22, to avoid upgrade hassles. Who knows? For example, stocks the ASRock ION 330 NVIDIA ION (which comes without any operating system) and the single core AspireRevo AR1600-U910H (which comes with XP), but any of the 2 GB or 4 GB dual core machines that for now are supposed to ship with Windows Vista, are not available yet. Likewise, Amazon sells a 2 GB single core version of the AspireRevo with Linux or a 1 GB single core version with XP, but no dual core version of it at all yet. Whatever the reason, for now you still have to be patient.

Hopefully more machines will gradually start hitting the stores by November and I certainly expect them in volume before Christmas. With a dual core CPU and the superior NVidia chip set, these carbon-saving small desktop machines are becoming viable for many new purposes, whether running Windows XP, Windows 7 or Linux.

Memory upgrades for Lenovo S10e, Aspire M5201, eMachines T6212

Last month my Gateway GT4014j suddenly died and I replaced it with an Acer Aspire M5201, which came with 2 GB of memory installed. That was less than the 3 GB I had in the Gateway and it affected some very memory hungry apps I use. So three weeks later I did a memory upgrade – a series of upgrades to be more precise. I bought two sets of memory upgrades and upgraded three machines.

In my experience, most computers don’t become obsolete because of CPU clock speeds that are too slow but because either there is too little main memory (RAM) for newer, more demanding (i.e. more bloated) applications or because the machine runs out of disk space. The latter used to be more of a problem than it is now, because of the availability of external USB drives, but lack of RAM is still a problem.

Giving your computer enough memory usually is the best way to give it a performance boost because insufficient memory will result in disk swapping. Without enough memory your applications will spend more time waiting for data to get swapped to and from disk, which slows even the fastest CPU down to a crawl such that even a medium or low end CPU with sufficient RAM could run circles around it.

When Vista came out, many manufacturers still sold 512 MB configurations with Vista Home Basic, while advertising mainly the processor speed. Buyers would have been far better off picking a somewhat slower CPU but equipped with a whole GB of RAM. The same is basically still true today for 1 GB machines (usually with Vista Home Premium) vs. 2 GB machines: More main memory almost always beats more Gigahertz!

Back to my Aspire M5201: It has four DIMM sockets (2 banks) for up to 8 GB of memory (2GBx4), but unless you run a 64-bit operating system such as a 64-bit Linux, Vista 64-bit or (from 22 Oct 2009) Windows 7 64-bit, you can’t actually make use of more than 4 GB. Therefore I opted to go as far as 4 GB only for two 1 GB DDR2 PC2-6400 DIMMs from Crucial Technology (CT12864AA800, from They were 1,980 yen each (about US$22) including sales tax.

I also ordered one 2 GB DDR2 PC2-5300 SODIMM (CT25664AC667) for 3,800 yen (about US$42) for a Lenovo IdeaPad S10e. The S10e is a typical Atom N270 netbook with 1 GB of RAM. One 512 MB SODIMM base memory is soldered in while the other can be replaced with either a 1 GB or 2 GB SODIMM. You end up with 1.5 GB or with 2 GB (not 2.5 GB because the 945 GSE chip set is not capable of addressing more than 2 GB of total memory). The Intel Atom itself supports up to 4 GB, which is why nettops with the NVIDIA Ion chip set such as the Acer Revo 3600 can handle up to 4 GB of RAM. The memory upgrade went very smoothly, especially the netbook. The Acer Aspire M5201 (AMD 780G chip set) now shows 3.75 GB of RAM in Windows while the Lenovo shows 1.99 GB.

Encouraged by that I removed the 1.5 GB of DDR DIMMs from my 2005-vintage eMachines T6212 and transplanted the 3 GB of DDR DIMMs (1 GB x 2 and 512 MB x 2) from the dead Gateway GT4014j to it. DDR memory was superseded by DDR2 3 years ago, but now that old machine that originally came with 512 MB shows 2.75 GB of memory in Windows.

If you’re not sure what memory is right for your machine or how much memory you can fit, Crucial have a convenient Memory Finder application that will figure it out for you.

IE7, IE8 and .exe files on network drive: “The publisher could not be verified…”

I recently upgraded a Windows XP machine from Internet Explorer 6 to IE 8. Since then I’ve been getting warnings whenever I wanted to run any .EXE file that doesn’t use code signing off a network drive.

My main browser on that machine is FireFox, but that doesn’t matter. The warning that comes up is the following:

The publisher could not be verified. Are you sure you want to run this software?

Apparently the same behaviour was already introduced when upgrading to IE 7. It may also happen with Service Pack 3 (SP3) for XP. Unlike for the similar query that happens for executable files downloaded off the Internet, there is no option to turn off the warning for a specific .EXE file.

There is however a way to allow all unsigned EXEs to run off a given network drive or network server without the warning. Here is what you do:

Open the Control Panel, select Internet Options, click the Security tab, select Local intranet, click Sites and the Advanced button. Add any server (e.g. \\myserver) by entering the name and clicking Add. The resources will be added as file://myserver. When you’re done click Close and OK.

This will allow all unsigned applications on the listed servers to execute without security prompt just as if they were on your local machine.

Toyota and Lexus floor mat recall (unintended acceleration problems)

Toyota Motors and and the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently announced a recall of 55,000 floor mats for various Toyota and Lexus models following an investigation into a crash of a Lexus ES 350 on 28 August 2009 that killed a 45 year old police officer and three family members. The car sped out of control and finally hit another vehicle. Suspicions center on an All-Weather floor mat that could have got entangled with the accelerator pedal.

Floor mat problems in cars are not that uncommon. My previous car was an Audi A4 and there the mats provided by the dealer (it was a second hand car) did not fit the nipples meant to match up with holes in the mats. As a result, the driver side mat always kept sliding forward under heel pressure and sometimes ended up under the pedals (luckily never over the pedals!). One day my wife and I wondered why the car suddenly had a hard time accelerating (it felt really sluggish), until I realized what had happened and pulled the thick mat back out from under the accelerator pedal, which could not be depressed properly (presumably braking would have been similarly affected, but luckily I did not have to find out).

The opposite problem of unintended acceleration tends to be far more severe than a lack of acceleration, of course. An accelerator stuck on full throttle is something that happened to me once while driving a VW Santana, back in the 1980s.

That 5 cylinder engine still used a carburetor, not fuel injection. At some point the cold start enrichment mechanism of the carburetor developed a problem. I reported this issue to the dealer before a service and asked them to fix it. I don’t know what they did about it, but the next weekend I took the car on a German autobahn and had a very unpleasant incident where it got stuck at full throttle while I was doing over 160 kph (there was no speed limit there).

I found that the car kept accelerating even if I took my foot off the pedal and reached about 180 kph. I then pushed the brake pedal as hard as I could and at least it didn’t accelerate any further and slowed down a little. I depressed the clutch pedal (the closest manual equivalent of putting it into Neutral). Without any load on the engine, the RPMs shot up to the max but were limited by the engine management. With the engine roaring at maybe 5800rpm, the car coasted on the straight road and the brakes could slow it down. Worried about the engine I then switched off the ignition, which did stop the engine but also disabled the brake servo and power steering. I quickly turned the ignition back on, but not far enough to engage the starter, just so the steering lock could not be activated by turning the steering wheel as it would with the ignition completely off. I finally brought the car to a complete stop on the hard shoulder, without brake servo assistance.

After opening the bonnet, I opened the carburetor with a screw driver from the emergency set in the back and found the butterfly valve stuck. After some prodding with my fingers, it went back to the proper position and I could resume my journey, with no further incident.

I can see that using the brake pedal, my first reaction in that situation, would not have been as effective in a 3.5 litre V6 Lexus as it was in my 2 litre VW, because the engine was far more powerful. Switching the car to Neutral, my second reaction, would have been quite effective in the Lexus though. My third reaction, switching off the engine, would have been quite impossible for the average driver in that loan car. Turning off an ignition key is one thing, but having to hold down the power button for three seconds (as in that Lexus and some other cars that use a start button instead of an ignition key) rather than just pushing it once is anything but intuitive. Yes, mobile phones and computers can be shut down that way too, but most of us grew up with cars that behaved differently from today’s computers. Actually, even when I started with computers they switched off as soon as you pushed the power button once. I can see how the driver would push the power button once to turn it off and nothing would happen. Then what?

If the driver missed his chance to shift the gear into N, he would likely run out of time in that car before hitting another vehicle in front, before he would have figured out how this is supposed to be done.

Most accidents occur due to a combination of errors. In this case it appears to have been the floor mat problem, combined with the driver missing the chance to respond effectively by shifting the gearbox to N.

Problems with stuck accelerators could have been ameliorated in the engine management by having the brake pedal override accelerator input. If for example the brake pressure was high enough for an emergency stop (the ABS has a sensor for that) then the fuel injection quantity could be limited to idling or at least significantly less than full acceleration would demand, effectively ignoring the accelerator, floor mat or no floor mat. The only side effect I can see is that it would make drag racer starts impossible.

When I explained about the recent Toyota problem to my wife, she replied that she had tried to remove the mats from our 2008 Prius for cleaning but didn’t manage to because the hooks held them in place too firmly. Even without the hooks I imagine the left foot rest in the Prius would stop the mat from moving much.

Whatever car you drive, make sure the floor mat is secured against sliding around. If you’re not sure, better get rid of it altogether. And if you should ever find yourself with a car accelerating out of control for whatever reason, remember that the N position of an auto box or clutch pedal of a manual will always disconnect the engine from the gearbox, not matter what causes the engine power to surge.