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The Ion reference platform
While it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to picture what the GeForce 9400 might look like in an Atom-based system, Nvidia has come up with an Ion reference platform that demonstrates the concept. Behold:


Although not an actual or even proposed retail product, the Ion demo box makes the most of what the platform has to offer. The system is enclosed in a small, metal box measuring 5.6" wide, 4.3" deep, and 1.5" tall (142 x 110 x 39 mm). So yeah, it's tiny. And the remarkable thing is that most of the space is taken up by an expansion port array generous enough to make some desktop motherboards jealous.

At one end of the Ion reference box are six USB ports, dual eSATA ports, six analog audio jacks, and a TOS-Link S/PDIF audio output. The case's venting isn't that extensive, either, suggesting that the GeForce 9400 doesn't require aggressive cooling even in such a small form factor.


Around the other side of the box are VGA, DVI, and HDMI video outputs alongside single Ethernet and USB ports. Here we also find the power plug, which hooks up to the same sort of diminutive AC adapter you'll find shipping with most Atom-based systems.


Flipping the Ion box over provides access to a 2.5" hard drive bay. Removing the hard drive also lets you get at the system's single DDR3 SO-DIMM slot. Despite the chipset's support for dual memory channels, Nvidia stuck with a single channel for this reference platform. There's nothing stopping system designers from pairing the GeForce 9400 with dual banks of memory, though.


Lifting the Ion platform's skirt reveals not one, but two motherboards lurking beneath its stark white exterior. From here, we also get a good look at the system's sole cooling element—a largish heatsink cooled by a tiny and very quiet fan. Given the Atom's modest power draw and the fact that we've already seen the GeForce 9400 deployed with only passive cooling on desktop motherboards, I suspect it wouldn't be difficult to build an Ion-based system that relies entirely on passive cooling, especially if the case were used to provide additional surface area.


With the excess stripped away, we get a better look at the Ion system's two component parts: the Ion motherboard and its I/O daughterboard. The Ion board measures a scant 2.95" x 3.93" (75 mm x 100 mm), which is about the footprint of a deck of cards and not-so-coincidentally also the measurements of the Pico-ITX form factor. This board houses a dual-core Atom 330 processor running at 1.6GHz, a GeForce 9400 motherboard GPU, and a limited port payload that includes USB, SATA, DVI, HDMI, and Ethernet jacks—all the essentials. For those who hunger for more connectivity, the I/O daughterboard fills out the rest of the port cluster and includes a Realtek audio codec to handle analog output not piped through HDMI.


Turning the Ion stack on its head gives us a good look at the bottom of this mother/daughter duo. There isn't much to see here apart from the SO-DIMM slot mounted under the motherboard. The underside of the motherboard also plays host to another small PCB that houses a VGA output. The RAMDAC for this analog video output is actually located on the Ion motherboard, but there apparently wasn't room for the port itself.