Next-generation Nvidia Ion takes flight

That Acer netbook launch was already a pretty strong hint, but feel free to be surprised anyway. Nvidia has officially announced its next-generation Ion graphics processor, promising both better performance and, thanks to Optimus switchable graphics technology, better battery life for Atom-based systems.

Although it bears the same name as the original Ion, the new product is fundamentally different. That's because, rather than being a re-badged version of the MCP79 (a.k.a. GeForce 9400) integrated graphics chipset, the next-gen Ion is essentially a re-badged version of the 40-nm GT218 discrete graphics processor. You may have seen the GT218 before in bargain-bin GeForce 210, and more recently GeForce 310, graphics cards on the desktop.

So, whereas the first-gen Ion replaced the north bridge and south bridge of Intel's first-gen Atom platform, the next-gen Ion adds a chip to the second-gen Atom processor and I/O hub tag team. Confused? The diagram below should help elucidate things:

Let's talk specifications. In its highest-end iteration, the next-gen Ion GPU features 16 stream processors and up to 512MB of dedicated DDR3 graphics memory. Since giving a GPU its own pool of RAM tends to be quicker than having it fight over resources with the CPU, Ion Mk. II is faster than its predecessor as a result—by 50% in 3DMark06 and by 100% in 3DMark Vantage, Nvidia claims. (Those numbers assume you're running a dual-core Atom nettop with 2GB of RAM, by the way.)

We might not see 16-core, next-gen Ions in that many systems, though, because Nvidia has devised an eight-core variant aimed specifically at 10" netbooks—you know, the kind that are all over the market these days.

Either way, the next-gen Ion shouldn't consume too much power, because it supports Nvidia's Optimus switchable graphics tech. If you've read our coverage of the technology, you'll know Optimus only powers on the discrete GPU when it's needed, like when the user launches a graphically demanding application or a video that can be accelerated. If you're at Starbucks surfing on your brand new netbook, therefore, the next-gen Ion might only come on when you're playing a YouTube video—or perhaps not at all, if you're not running the Flash 10.1 beta.

Nvidia promises more than 30 next-gen Ion systems will be out by this summer. Some have already been announced, like the Acer Aspire One 532G and Asus Eee PC 1201PN on the netbook side; the Asus Eee Top 2010PNT and Lenovo C200 on the all-in-one side; and the Asus Eee Box 1501P and Zotac Zbox in the nettop corner. You'll find photos of some of those systems in the image gallery below. That gallery also includes a shot of an Ion discrete graphics card; we found it on Nvidia's FTP without much of an explanation. With a PCIe x1 connector and a low-profile form factor, though, the card could make a nice complement to some existing nettops.

Original Ion netbooks weren't always very competitively priced, so we asked Nvidia's David Ragones what we can expect in terms of value. Ragones replied that next-gen Ion netbooks will be "at or below" the level of their predecessors on the pricing ladder. That might mean next-gen Ion netbooks priced close to consumer ultraportables like the $450 Acer Aspire AS1410. Still, Nvidia believes those CULV laptops will deliver a poorer media experience than Ion netbooks (after all, they only have Intel GMA 4500 integrated graphics), and the company seems to think media-savvy users will be prepared to pay a premium for a netbook with better graphics, even if they could be getting more CPU horsepower for the money.

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