Nvidia’s Ion promises more competent Atom-based PCs

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 1024×768 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 1024×600 display resolution, at which it produced a score of 121 3DMarks. The Ion box, at 1024×768, 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 1920×1200 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.

Comments closed
    • Traz
    • 11 years ago

    So that’s what pure awesome looks like…

    • Meadows
    • 11 years ago

    NVidia’s Ion is what you get when you take an atom and boost its charge.
    Graphics are over nine thousand as well. Superb.

      • tay
      • 11 years ago

      lol GIMME GIMME!! as britney says

    • albundy
    • 11 years ago

    how about NV enter in competition with the PSP. This tech should prove worthy.

    • WaltC
    • 11 years ago

    /[

    • ssway
    • 11 years ago

    Swap out the Atom and put in a C2Duo and I think we have the next Mac Mini.

    • Ruiner
    • 11 years ago

    Why in the world is Intel still saddling the 330 with a relatively ancient chipset?

    • odizzido
    • 11 years ago

    I really hope there will be a netbook that can do 1080p + have good battery life. This possibly gives hope.

      • eitje
      • 11 years ago

      the LCDs need 1080 lines of vertical resolution before that can happen.

        • SonicSilicon
        • 11 years ago

        Most portable computers can handle a higher resolution on an external display than that of their internal. I believe that’s what odizzido was implying.

        • KeillRandor
        • 11 years ago

        no kidding – how do you cram a 1920×1080 screen into something that size? (Though I’d be the first person to congratulate anyone who can manage it!).

    • Voldenuit
    • 11 years ago

    Hardly a fair comparison. The Acer Aspire One was a single core Atom 270 while the Ion unit was a dual core 330. Also, the Acer had half the ram of the Ion.

    The Acer was also using the old 945G chipset – Poulsbo should be able to offload HD playback just like the 9400M.

    I’m not denying that the Ion is a much more powerful chipset than the 945G or even Poulsbo, but nv really went out of their way to stack the deck in their favor there. Sneaky so-and-sos.

    • Kurotetsu
    • 11 years ago

    Nvidia is really kicking ass with their ‘ONE CHIP TO RULE THEM ALL’ approach. It really saves a lot of space and allows them to pull off neat stuff like this in such a small form factor. Zotac’s 9300-ITX is another great example.

      • eitje
      • 11 years ago

      the strategy is not a sure win, though, as VIA tried several years ago with a single chip approach. it didn’t make the splash VIA was expecting, I think.

        • SonicSilicon
        • 11 years ago

        VIA has stated time and again that they market to the embedded segment and not the consumer. The Ion simply means they won’t even have a chance with consumer OEMs and may possibly lose some part of enterprise utilization.

        • Flying Fox
        • 11 years ago

        VIA CPUs were too anemic to make a difference. In the case of the Zotac mini-ITX works with a decent C2D. In the case of the Ion it is working with a product with market share+momentum, the Atom.

        And the time may be ripe as well for this ultra-small form factor. I am not sure about netbooks, but for HTPC and other home use (the new kitchen computer?), if they don’t charge too high premium vs a regular desktop PC, they may be successful. I know I would be interested if they put this into a 2″ form factor like today’s BD/DVD players. This will make a really nice HTPC component on the TV rack.

    • wesley96
    • 11 years ago

    Man, I need to get my hands on one of these…

    • provoko
    • 11 years ago

    This is so awesome! When will it be available? I want to order it right now!

    • cRock
    • 11 years ago

    Cool spy shots of the new Mac Mini you got there.

      • Flying Fox
      • 11 years ago

      Mac Mini’s should stay with C2D’s, not Atom’s. May be this can be a new thing called Mac Micro?

        • grantmeaname
        • 11 years ago

        iMacpod Nano. I asked adi.

    • tfp
    • 11 years ago

    any info on chipset power usage?

    • eitje
    • 11 years ago

    i’m so very glad to see that other people are beginning to understand that low power CPUs, paired with reasonable GPUs, can give great results! this CES makes me feel so vindicated!

    • jdaven
    • 11 years ago

    “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.”

    Only Intel wants people to think that the CPU matters and nothing else. The Intel integrated GPU is the crappiest hardware on the market except maybe for SIS chipsets and even then I’m not sure. A good GPU should be in every PC for snappy video, photo browsing and entry level gaming. ONLY and I stress only again, nVidia and AMD (ATI) have GPUs that meet this criteria.

      • tocatl
      • 11 years ago

      Nah, the SIS IGP in one of my old pc at least had 1024×768 support, the intel IGP in my friends pc from the same time of my old pc had only 800×600 support…

      • MadManOriginal
      • 11 years ago

      Don’t worry Intel will change its tune once Larabee is out and if it’s competitive.

      • srg86
      • 11 years ago

      For my uses, the CPU is vastly more important than the GPU

    • albundy
    • 11 years ago

    dammm that NV chip is 4 times the size of the atom! wow!

      • jdaven
      • 11 years ago

      Yeah and the Intel chip is 4 times slower than the slowest Celeron. Less transistors, less performance.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 11 years ago

    Mmm…yummy pico-ITX with a decent chipset when heavyier lifting is required. I could really go for one of these in a tiny form factor rather than a mini-ITX system or a netbook-at-home type of deal.

      • SomeOtherGeek
      • 11 years ago

      Exactly my thoughts as well.

    • PRIME1
    • 11 years ago

    Cram one of those under the dash of my Jeep.

      • SomeOtherGeek
      • 11 years ago

      Or tape it on the back of a 22 monitor. Pretty awesome, indeed!

    • acejj26
    • 11 years ago

    I think the big draw to a system like this is in the corporate world. Small, decent performing computers that use very little energy. Plus, I’d imagine they would be very cheap.

      • Tamale
      • 11 years ago

      especially if it runs linux well and you use google apps… think how cheap a whole office could run on a setup like that.. especially now that monitors cost around $100 for even decent-sized ones?

    • Rakhmaninov3
    • 11 years ago

    Wow, I’m impressed. This could make a pretty damn “powerful” netbook, as netbooks go.

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