Acer has taken nVidia's new Ion platform to create the Aspire Revo, a small cheap computer that can actually play high-definition video. Question is, how well?

Intel has missed the boat when it comes to graphics processing technology. The chip giant does make integrated processors for graphics, but they are cheap, cheerful and simple affairs, too underpowered for many modern applications.

Which explains why nVidia has stepped up to the plate to give the ambling Intel Atom a little more pizzazz. The Aspire Revo R3600 from Acer is one of a select breed of new Ion nettops that combine the Atom processor with a usable nVidia 3D graphics processor.

While an Atom has just about enough power to allow simple web browsing and word processing, much of today's multimedia computing relies on a modicum or more of graphics manipulation. Take Windows Vista, for example, which needs a capable graphics processing unit (GPU) just to render its Aero window translucency.

Then there's the subject of video playback on a PC, which requires either a fast CPU (which the Intel Atom is patently not); or instead to pass the decoding job on to the GPU.

It wa at the beginning of this year that nVidia showed off its Ion platform, which essentially unites the Intel Atom processor designed for netbooks, with the nVidia GeForce 9400M, an integrated graphics processor for mobile applications. The 9400M was first seen in Apple's new MacBook notebook line-up last autumn, proving itself to be a low-power draw unit capable of playing some 3D games.

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Acer has taken on nVidia's Ion idea, and built a compact nettop based around a nattily lop-sided parallelogram. It can either lie flat or sit upright on the desk. There's a wide scattering of sockets and ports around its ligtweight plastic shell. We have DC power in, HDMI digital and VGA analogue graphics ports, four USB and gigabit ethernet, all on the back.

Then there's an eSATA port, card reader, with audio-in and -out jacks on the front, and - assuming you have the unit set upright - the top edge has a perforated vent for the cooling fan, plus another USB port.

More idiosyncratic is the Acer Aspire Revo R3600's top-front corner. Pointing rakishly forward, it's home to the unit's awkward-to-press on/off power switch and an inexplicably rubber-stoppered USB port.

Inside, the Acer Aspire Revo R3600 takes a 160GB notebook hard drive and 2GB of DDR2 RAM. Wireless connectivity is also possible, thanks to an Atheros 802.11 card that can work on b, g and draft-n networks.

Our sample came with Windows Vista Home Premium, and while it was more usable than on any nettbook that's ever been misbenightedly sold with Microsoft's sloth OS, we still found the overall experience just a bit too slow for comfortable use.

Another version of the Acer Aspire Revo R3600 is advertised with Linux instead of Windows, differing in its use of 8GB SSD instead of hard disk, half as much RAM, and a price of just £169.

NEXT PAGE: Video and graphics issues, and overall system benchmark results >>

The nVidia 9400M allowed our sample's Windows Vista Aero Glass interface to be switched on, and the nVidia chip also steps in to play some video files. The major caveat here is the ‘some'; those files must first be playable through Microsoft's DirectX Video Acceleration (DXVA), which typically means using Windows Media Player.

If you use VLC or QuickTime to play your films and video clips, for example, you're very much limited to what the Acer Aspire Revo R3600 can play without stuttering. More exactly, we're talking small, standard-definition video only - and even then, don't try multi-tasking with other operations at the same time.

There are some other solutions for accessing DXVA though. We tried Mplayer and CoreAVC, both vaunted as DXVA-capable; both without success. The last option that's said to allow video playback through the GPU is CyberLink PowerDVD 9.

This worked splendidly on the Acer Aspire Revo R3600, playing a variety of standard- and high-definition video files fluidly and without a single dropped frame. And since most of the work was now being covered by the nVidia GPU, the processor ticked along unstressed at below 20%, even while playing 1080p HD video.

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To test 3D gaming graphics performance, we used our usual FEAR game benchmark. The Acer Aspire Revo R3600 acheived 10fps at Max quality settings; far better than an Intel integrated graphics solution but a lower score than from other systems we've tested that use the nVidia 9400M. An Apple Mac mini sporting the same GPU, for example, can hit 14fps here. Dropping our expectations a little, we had to reduce quality all the way to Low before we found a playable framerate of 27fps.

It's possible that aside from the sedate single-core Atom processor, the nVidia graphics processor in the Acer Aspire Revo R3600 is being hampered by having to tap into slower DDR2 800MHz system RAM, where the Apple systems we've tested use faster DDR3 memory.

In WorldBench 6 benchmarking of the Acer Revo, we measured 34 points. Compare this to the 35 point average for netbooks (admittedly running the slimmer Windows XP), and it's apparent that the Revo is still no racehorse.

Acer Aspire Revo R3600

Acer envisions the Aspire Revo being fixed to the back of an LCD monitor

We were dismayed by the Acer Aspire Revo R3600's somewhat tubulent cooling fan. On our sample this was on all the time, at a steady high speed. If the Acer Aspire Revo R3600 had better game-playing credibility, we might forgive this as it could be drowned out by the noise of an action game; otherwise we considered the Acer Aspire Revo R3600 just too noisy for close-by desk placement.

Aside from small size and low cost, another attraction for nettop computing is low power consumption. In the lab we found the Acer Aspire Revo R3600 drew around 20W when idle, rising to 29W when under load.

NEXT PAGE: Our expert verdict >>

Acer Aspire Revo R3600: Specs

  • 1.6GHz Intel Atom 230
  • Microsoft Vista Home Premium 32-bit SP1
  • 160GB 2.5in 5400rpm SATA hard disk
  • 2GB (2x1GB) DDR2 RAM
  • nVidia GeForce 9400M with 256MB shared RAM
  • HDMI, VGA
  • 6 x USB 2.0
  • gigabit ethernet
  • 802.11b/g/draft-n
  • eSATA
  • multi-format card reader
  • mic in, headphone out
  • power consumption 20W (idle), 29W (load)
  • 192x192x30mm
  • 844g
  • 1.6GHz Intel Atom 230
  • Microsoft Vista Home Premium 32-bit SP1
  • 160GB 2.5in 5400rpm SATA hard disk
  • 2GB (2x1GB) DDR2 RAM
  • nVidia GeForce 9400M with 256MB shared RAM
  • HDMI, VGA
  • 6 x USB 2.0
  • gigabit ethernet
  • 802.11b/g/draft-n
  • eSATA
  • multi-format card reader
  • mic in, headphone out
  • power consumption 20W (idle), 29W (load)
  • 192x192x30mm
  • 844g

OUR VERDICT

Acer’s Aspire Revo is promising as a low-cost nettop, with better graphics performance than any conventional netbook, but it misses the mark as a quiet-running desktop companion that can comfortably play modern 3D games. You’ll also have to be careful how you play video if you want it played smoothly. We found a great solution in CyberLink PowerDVD 9, so be prepared to add the cost of this to the Revo if you need smooth and stress-free video playback.

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