Nvidia's Ion promises more competent Atom-based PCs

— 5:45 PM on January 12, 2009

Nvidia would like very much to become a chipset supplier for systems based on Intel's Atom processor, and it was showing the world what it has in mind for the Atom at CES last week. As we've previously reported, the firm has paired up its GeForce 9400M chipset—yes, the same one used in the new MacBooks—with the Atom processor to form what it's calling the Ion platform.

Drew Henry, GM of Nvidia's MCP business, gave us a quick tour of the Ion platform reference design on the show floor. The picture below shows the Pico-ITX-sized motherboard, which houses a pair of flip-chip-style packages. The larger chip is the GeForce 9400M, which combines a north bridge (with memory controller), a south bridge, and GeForce DirectX 10-class graphics into one piece of silicon. To its right, the smaller chip is an Atom CPU. The board measures only 3" by 4", and Henry pointed out that Nvidia chose this form factor because its size is roughly the same as a 2.5" mobile hard drive.

Thanks to the GeForce 9400M, the Ion board has a near embarrassment of riches, including a dual-link DVI output, a Gigabit Ethernet port, SATA 3 Gbps, and high-def 7.1-channel LCPM audio. A single SO-DIMM slot on the underside of the board will accept a 1066MHz DDR3 memory module. The integrated GeForce GPU brings not just better graphics but HD video decode assist, a crucial feature since the Atom isn't always up to the task of decoding compressed HD video in real time.

The little box pictured above is an Ion platform test mule, a complete computer with 2GB of memory, a 2.5" SATA hard drive, and a dual-core Atom 330 processor. Nvidia is seeding partners with boxes like this one, intended to illustrate the Ion platform's suitability for everything from low-cost desktop and netbooks to home theater PCs.

We got the chance to spend a little bit of quality time with one of these boxes to see what it could do. Our tour started with a quick look at Call of Duty 4. Nvidia had turned down the graphical detail options in order to help the game run well at a 1024x768 display resolution. Certain sections of the map we tried were a little slow, but the game was generally playable, with our FRAPS frame-rate counter typically ranging between 24 and 40 FPS. By contrast, the Acer Aspire One that Nvidia had on hand as a sacrificial lamb comparison system gave us this response when asked to run CoD4:

So yeah, no contest there.

3DMark06 was more obliging, willing to run on both systems at its stock settings. The Aspire One was limited to its 1024x600 display resolution, at which it produced a score of 121 3DMarks. The Ion box, at 1024x768, scored 1515 3DMarks. This may not be shocking news to those of us familiar with both Intel and Nvidia integrated graphics solutions, but it does help underscore the reality.

From there, we moved on to HD video playback. We've seen single-core Atoms struggle with decoding 720p MPEG4 videos, but the Ion made HD video look easy, playing back a 1080p clip encoded as a 40 Mbps MPEG4/AVC file with no visible dropped frames or hiccups. In Task Manager, CPU utilization on the dual-core Atom processor ranged as high as about 14%. Now, that info should come with the caveat that we don't entirely trust Task Manger to understand the true utilization of a CPU core with dual hardware threads like the Atom. And we've not tested a dual-core Atom without the assistance of Nvidia PureVideo as a reference point. But we're confident of the Ion platform's ability to handle HD video quite competently, with excellent image quality.

Of course, no conversation with Nvidia these days would be complete without a mention of CUDA, its push into non-traditional applications for GPUs. Since our time was limited, we decided not to try out the Badaboom GPU-based video transcoder and instead chose to focus on Adobe's new GPU-accelerated version of Photoshop. Sure enough, for certain functions, using Photoshop on the Ion proved to be faster than doing so on even a fairly beefy desktop system without GPU acceleration. We were able to rotate, zoom, and pan across a large (~4-6 megapixel) image fairly smoothly in real time on a 1920x1200 display—not quite as well as with a big, discrete GPU, of course, but still pretty snappily.

Clearly, Nvidia's GeForce 9400M has the potential to endow compact, inexpensive Atom-based systems with new levels of competency. The question now is whether that will really happen. Henry told us he'd like to see Ion-based desktops on the market by spring, with netbooks to follow by summertime, and he expressed confidence that end users would readily embrace such products. The potential wrench in the works, from Nvidia's point of view, seems to be Intel. Will Intel place roadblocks on the Ion's path?

The push for Ion dovetails nicely with Nvidia's larger corporate message of late, which has focused on the importance of the GPU as a citizen equal in stature to the CPU in a PC's overall selection of components. In fact, the Ion very much illustrates this point, offering an improved user experience by pairing up a minimalist CPU with a relatively fast integrated GPU.

Of course, Nvidia's corporate direction of late has also been about tweaking Intel.

The Atom's unexpectedly broad success inside of netbooks and other low-cost systems must be somewhat vexing for Intel, since sales of this low-cost processor could threaten its more profitable Centrino business. In fact, Intel representatives underscored the firm's commitment to its original vision for Atom when we spoke with them at CES: the Atom's computing power, in terms of MIPS and FLOPS, is not slated to increase. Instead, Intel intends to move Atom into lower power envelopes and smaller form factors as chip production advances allow.

So can Nvidia succeed in persuading PC makers to adopt the Ion platform over any potential objections—and competition—from Intel? That, my friends, is a thorny issue indeed. Stay tuned for an update on that question later.

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