review nvidias ion platform

Nvidia’s Ion platform

Although Intel’s wildly popular Atom processor was originally conceived for mobile Internet devices with an eye toward eventually trickling into smartphones, it quickly caught on with netbooks and has since carved out a sizable chunk of the mobile landscape. The concept of cheap, fast-enough computing soon migrated from portables to the desktop, where it spawned a new class of delightfully small nettop systems. With Atom now available with two physical cores and an economic downturn causing many to tighten their budgets, the nettop looks to have a promising future, especially in cheap, media-centric PCs.

Except for one problem: while the Atom has just enough horsepower to deal with common, everyday tasks, the platform it’s available on is an outdated throwback. Intel pairs Atom with its 945G-series chipsets, which first saw life way back in 2005. The 945 series isn’t horribly lacking in the peripherals department, and its performance is acceptable given the Atom’s modest aspirations on that front. But the chipset’s Graphics Media Accelerator 950 is several generations behind the curve. The GMA 950’s game compatibility is flaky, and its performance dismal. Even worse, it’s unable to accelerate high-definition video playback. That might not be the sort of thing you need in a netbook with a limited 1024×600 display resolution, but a desktop or home theater PC plugged into a real monitor or high-definition TV is an entirely different story.

The Atom’s antiquated chipset is clearly limiting the processor’s appeal for some devices, but help has arrived from Nvidia in the form of the Ion reference design. More a new application than fresh silicon, the Ion platform pairs the Atom with the very same GeForce 9400 integrated graphics chipset you’ll find on motherboards designed for Core 2 processors—except instead of arriving on a Micro ATX or Mini-ITX form factor, the Ion reference platform is about the size of a deck of cards.

On its specifications alone, the Ion platform looks to be capable of significantly broadening the Atom’s horizons. But there are limitations to what this graphics and core logic package can do given the processor’s inherent limitations. Read on to see how Nvidia’s first Ion design pans out in the real world.

Atom gets a brand new ride
If you aren’t already familiar with Nvidia’s GeForce 9400 chipset, I suggest looking over our detailed review of the GeForce 9300. The 9300 was launched last fall on motherboards with LGA775 sockets, and it’s essentially the same chip that you’ll find in the Ion platform. In fact, the GeForce 9400 really is the platform. To understand the Ion reference design, then, we must first explore its GeForce.

As far as motherboard GPUs go, the GeForce 9400 is Nvidia’s newest and its best. On the desktop, where it runs with Core 2 processors, the 9400 easily trounces Intel’s latest G45 Express integrated graphics chipset. With an Atom onboard, however, the GeForce only has to compete with the lowly 945G chipset series—designs whose roots are four years old. In the world of over-used tech site car metaphors, that’s like lining up the latest BMW 1-series against a four-year-old Toyota Echo. Not that we’d stoop to such lazy and repetitive clichés.

As its name implies, the GeForce’s integrated graphics core really is the star of the chipset. This is an honest-to-goodness GeForce 9-series GPU, complete with full support for DirectX 10, Shader Model 4.0, and of course, the slow trickle of CUDA-aware applications that leverage GPU power for general-purpose processing. The GeForce 9400 has 16 shader CUDA processors running at 1.1GHz, and they’re paired with four ROPs and a 450MHz graphics core. Those clock speeds are comparable to those of the GeForce 9300 for LGA775 processors, which also runs its core at 450MHz but clocks its shaders at 1.2GHz. Don’t ask me why a lower shader clock earns the Ion platform’s GeForce an extra hundred points.

On the desktop, the GeForce 9300 doesn’t have the grunt to match the performance of even a $50 discrete graphics card, so it’s not the best gaming value around. But Intel doesn’t let its partners build Atom platforms with PCI Express x16 slots, so discrete graphics upgrades are out of the question. That pits the GeForce 9400 solely against the antiquated GMA 950.

And, as we’ve noted, the GMA 950 cannot accelerate high-definition video decoding. The Atom doesn’t have the horsepower to handle HD decoding on its own, not even with a second core. However, the GeForce 9400 is equipped with a PureVideo HD decode engine that offloads large portions of the decode process for H.264, MPEG2, and VC-1 content. PureVideo HD leaves the number crunching associated with copy protection up to the CPU, but Nvidia claims the Atom is up to the task and that even a single-core Ion system should be able to play back Blu-ray movies smoothly.

Blu-ray playback may have limited utility for netbooks that typically don’t come with optical drives or run enough pixels to display even 720p content at full resolution, but it’s a must-have feature for a modern home theater PC. So is support for HDMI output, which the GeForce 9400 provides alongside VGA, DVI, and even DisplayPort video outs. And for those of you with fancy home theater receivers, the 9400 is also capable of passing multi-channel, uncompressed LPCM audio over HDMI.

The GeForce 9400’s gravy train of goodness doesn’t end at graphics, either. As one might expect from Nvidia’s most recent motherboard GPU, the 9400 also has all the trappings of a cutting-edge core logic chipset. Take the memory controller, for example; it’s a dual-channel design that works with either DDR2 or DDR3 memory. The Atom is hardly hungry for memory bandwidth, but Nvidia still hasn’t held back any of the chipset’s capabilities. That’s why you’ll find a whopping 20 second-generation PCI Express lanes lurking under the hood.

Perhaps more important than its ability to hook into PCI Express graphics cards and peripherals is the GeForce 9400’s generous array of integrated peripherals. The chipset serves up six Serial ATA RAID ports, 12 USB ports, and even a Gigabit Ethernet port. That’s probably more ports than most folks are going to need in a netbook or pint-sized desktop, but it certainly gives system designers plenty of options. At they won’t have to farm out Gigabit Ethernet to a third-party peripheral chip.

Of course, the GeForce 9400 itself is not a small chip. You could fit several Atom cores within the confines of its die area. However, it’s not as power-hungry as one might expect. Nvidia says the 9400’s idle power consumption is just three watts—only one more than the 945GM/ICH7 chipset combo found in most Atom-based systems.

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.

Life on Ion
Even with only a single core, the Atom is largely fast enough for basic everyday tasks like word processing, web browsing, instant messaging, and the like. However, video playback is challenging and 3D games are a complete write-off. The Ion platform should have a big impact on both fronts, but is it enough to really expand the Atom’s capabilities?

We’ll start with video playback, where the GeForce 9400’s video decode engine should make up for the Atom’s lack of processing horsepower. Since most Atom-based netbooks and even nettops only come with single-core processors, we disabled one of the Ion platform’s cores for these tests.

First, the easy stuff. Even standard-definition content pegs my Atom-based Eee PC’s processor utilization above 60%, but on the Ion rig, the very same clip pegs the CPU at about 30%. Although I’ve yet to encounter a video that didn’t play back smoothly on my Eee PC, I have heard that some SD clips are too demanding for an Atom at stock speeds. Those videos shouldn’t be a problem for the Ion platform.

Of course, the real challenge with video these days is decoding high-definition content. An Ion-based system needs to be able to play back HD video smoothly, including Blu-ray discs, with little fuss if it’s to be suitable for pint-sized home theater PCs. And it can, for the most part.

PureVideo HD makes Blu-ray playback possible

We tested HD and Blu-ray playback with PowerDVD running at 1920×1080 over HDMI, and we found that most content played back smoothly with between 25 and 80% CPU utilization on our simulated single-core Atom. The 1080p trailer for The Dark Knight was buttery smooth, as were high-bitrate Blu-ray titles 28 Days Later and Click. These two movies did consume more CPU cycles than the Batman trailer, but that’s to be expected given the additional processing necessary to handle Blu-ray DRM, which isn’t crunched by the PureVideo decode engine.

28 Days Later and Click are encoded with H.264 and MPEG2 codecs, respectively, so what about Blu-ray’s third format, VC-1? We use Nature’s Journey to test VC-1 performance, and on the Ion platform, playback was surprisingly choppy, pegging our single-core Atom config’s CPU utilization at 100%. Nvidia says it optimized PureVideo HD for 1080p content, and that Nature’s Journey playback is choppy because it’s actually a 1080i movie—a format the company claims is a shrinking niche. According to Nvidia, the problem here isn’t processing horsepower, but memory bandwidth. A dual-channel Ion setup, the company says, should play back Nature’s Journey smoothly.

We’ve seen Nature’s Journey exhibit comparatively higher CPU utilization than other Blu-ray movies on a Core 2-equipeed GeForce 9300 system, so the title clearly presents a considerable challenge. Enabling the Ion rig’s second Atom core did lower CPU utilization considerably, and while playback was smoother, it wasn’t as silky as the other movies.

Call of Duty looks right, but doesn’t play particularly well

Gaming is another area where the Ion platform’s GeForce graphics can vault it ahead of Intel’s GMA competition, but here our expectations were measured from the beginning. We recently reviewed an Atom-based netbook from Asus that sports a discrete GeForce 9300M graphics processor that’s quite similar to the GeForce 9400, and we found that the system’s processor was largely the limiting factor when it came to games. The Ion platform, as it turns out, is no different.

Nvidia is quick to point out that the GeForce 9400 wasn’t designed for hard-core gamers, which of course makes sense. But I would consider myself more of a casual gamer these days, and I still want to be able to play relatively recent titles. Half-Life 2, Quake Wars, and Call of Duty 4 are hardly new games, but none ran acceptably with the Ion platform configured with a single-core Atom CPU. I had to drop down to low resolutions and in-game detail settings just to get the games to run smoothly, and they didn’t for long. Half-Life 2 and Call of Duty in particular would oscillate between smoothness and stutter depending on how much was going on in a given scene. Quake Wars, on the other hand, was pretty choppy throughout. Switching our Atom over to dual-core mode smoothed out Call of Duty just enough for the game to be playable, but it didn’t improve performance in Half-Life 2 or Quake Wars to the point where I’d consider either tolerable.

Now before anyone chimes in that those games are far too hard-core for mainstream audiences, keep in mind that Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead, Call of Duty: World at War, and all sorts of World of Warcraft derivatives filled out much of the best-selling PC games list last week. Spore and The Sims also made the list, and those will likely run better on an Ion box than your average first-person shooter. The problem is that those games will also run much better on a full-blown PC with a proper processor.

I suppose we should keep in mind that the GeForce 9400 only has to go up against a GMA 950 that won’t even load most of the aforementioned games. In that respect, the Ion platform is far and away the most competent gaming solution available for the Atom processor. You’ll just have to dig through the bargain bin for years-old titles or stick with simple games that don’t demand too much from the CPU.

There’s only so much the Ion platform can do to make up for an over-matched Atom processor in games, but its GeForce graphics chip can shoulder some of the load associated with more general-purpose computing tasks through CUDA and OpenCL. Apps that make use of the GPU for general-purpose computing are few and far between at the moment, but given the Atom’s relative weakness, there’s more room for improvement than you’ll find on a standard desktop PC. Don’t expect miracles, though. While the GeForce’s CUDA processors can currently accelerate [email protected], a few Photoshop features, and some video encoding tasks, they don’t turn the Ion platform into a high-performance system.

One thing is abundantly clear about Nvidia’s Ion reference design: it’s much, much better than the 945G-series chipset and GMA 950 graphics that Intel typically pairs with the Atom processor. But that’s sort of like saying Jessica Alba is hotter than Susan Sarandon. The real question is whether the Ion platform actually makes for a more capable system without spoiling the Atom processor’s existing appeal. And the answer is yes.

Nvidia maintains that Ion-based systems shouldn’t cost significantly more than those based on Intel’s current Atom platform. Considering that the GeForce 9400 chipset has significantly more going on under the hood, its value proposition looks pretty solid. The chipset’s power draw is reasonable, too, even if it’s a little higher than the Intel alternative. Our reference system drew just 25W from a wall socket while playing back Blu-ray movies, which is very impressive indeed.

So what of the Ion platform’s ability to extend Atom’s capabilities into new territory? Gaming is one area where there’s certainly room for improvement, if only because the GMA 950’s limited compatibility and atrocious performance set the bar so low. However, an Atom processor, even with two cores, is still ill-equipped to handle recent and even slightly older games. Sure, you’ll be able to find “casual” titles that run with acceptable performance on an Ion box, but don’t expect every game off the shelf to run smoothly, even at low resolutions and in-game detail levels—the graphics chip isn’t the bottleneck. At least with a GeForce ensuring broad compatibility, you’ll be able to dive into the bargain bin for older titles that demand less from the CPU.

We already knew the Atom didn’t have much game, so for us the Ion platform’s real potential has always rested on its multimedia prowess. The chipset’s ability to feed both video and multi-channel LPCM audio over an HDMI output is perfect for home theater PC applications, and support for DisplayPort output ensures future compatibility with new monitors. Nvidia’s PureVideo HD decoding engine is also a small wonder, allowing for the smooth playback of most Blu-ray movies in systems with even a single-core Atom CPU. However, PureVideo’s prowess isn’t universal; there seems to be a definite issue with 1080i content encoded with the VC-1 codec, which admittedly makes up a small slice of the high-definition video market. If I were building a nettop tasked with HD playback, I’d want it to have dual memory channels and a dual-core Atom, just to be on the safe side. But I’m paranoid like that.

What’s particularly compelling about Nvidia’s Ion reference system is that, despite its few shortcomings, it’s still far more capable than Intel’s existing Atom platform. An Ion-based system might not play back every single Blu-ray title perfectly or run every game at acceptable frame rates, but you can’t do either on a 945G-based Atom box, ever. So if you’ve already settled on an Atom-based rig, you definitely want one with a GeForce 9400 chipset.

Except you can’t buy Ion-based systems just yet. In fact, we haven’t heard of any in development. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the platform pop up in the next Mac mini refresh, but we shouldn’t have to wait for Cupertino to catch on. The market deserves a better Atom platform, and Ion is it.

0 responses to “Nvidia’s Ion platform

  1. I’d like to know what happened to the chipset they had everyone preview back when Atom launched. You know, the one with the PowerVR IGP.

    On the topic of Arm-based PDAs, I used to play prBoom (Doom port) with TImidity software wavetable on my Zaurus SL-5500. 🙂 That had a 206 Mhz Strongarm CPU and 64MB RAM. I did dabble with videos on it once too, but didn’t really see the point. Storage was too limited back then.

  2. My Intel XScale PXA255 based NEC Mobile Pro 900C could barely play 320×[email protected] videos even when overclocked–but it consumed <4W at full load. The Atom N270 is easily 4 times as fast as the PXA255, but the whole platform requires a lot more power. Netbooks should have come with a more efficient chipset.

  3. There are ARM-based netbooks and tablets, though most are by Chinese companies for Chinese / Asian customers. Yes, ARM chips are typically in smaller devices, but when getting Linux onto any sized one is typically a hassle due to the system hardware, it’s a negative as it generally is an incomplete experience for not much reason other than dumb marketing.

  4. You are in everything smaller. That’s where Atom is supposed to go eventually.

    The fact is that the Celeron M ULV (5W) that was in the Eee900 is as fast as the 4W Atom 1.6 GHz.

    I used to have a Linux-based Sharp Zaurus PDA that was StrongArm based (206 MHz pre-XScale). That was one flexible little device but it needed more CPU power. It was a lot nicer than the “smart phones”, with its large LCD. And being Linux-based really meant the sky was the limit and people were porting everything you can imagine.

  5. It gets destroyed by a Pentium M in encoding apps that are among the heaviest optimized for SIMD. I just don’t think there’s anything redeeming about Atom beyond its power usage….

  6. Um, I beg to differ. 😉

    Kudos for the Jessica Alba reference.

    I’m looking forward to the next generations of nettops ushered in by this guy!

  7. That has been available for a long time: undervolted Sempron LE-1250 + 780G <30W and much faster than Atom + ION.

    AMD also sells the same chip for laptops as the 15W TDP Athlon 2650e 1.1V. My LE-1250 only needs 0.78V at 1.6GHz. You can undervolt/underclock the Sempron on any motherboard w/ C’n’Q software like CrystalCPUID.

  8. x87 unit in the Atom is slow–just like P4 it needs SSE code and HT to perform, which means newer software. It is much slower running older software.

  9. Well, it’s not that much of a difference really. Tualatin is pretty snappy. It is limited though by its bus and RAM as you say. It’s much better than Atom when it comes down to computationally-heavy tasks. A dual core Atom would probably make up the difference, assuming you can use the other core for the task.

    I put a 1.6 GHz Atom at around the speed of a 900 MHz Celeron M from first hand experience with a EeePC 900 and a Acer Aspire One. Played some DOSBOX on both, some Windows retro gaming, and web browsing. The Atom definitely wasn’t showing much, if any, improvement.

    I have a friend who picked up a dual core Atom ITX board for a NAS setup he wanted to try. He’s not all that pleased with the speed…. He’s putting various OSs on it to see how well they work, trying to get the most out of it.

  10. I have a question I have yet to see an answer to:

    With Quake Live coming, which uses an updated Quake 3 engine, how does this badboy run Quake3? I think it’s semi-pertinent, and if I could have a 25w Q3/QL box, I’d be quite happy. Even just the 9300/9400 would be a good starting point.

    Also, I am anxious to find out if the 9300/9400 are capable of running SC2 well…only time will tell, but from the rumors I’ve seen, it will be like Warcraft 3 was at the time, so not very demanding compared to contemporary hardware.

  11. Yeah, the Pentium M is very similar to the Core Solo (the Pentium has the faster 2MB L2 cache) and both are much faster than a Tualatin (512kB L2 + a very slow bus).

  12. Well, a review right here on TR had a 2.0GHz Pentium M just blowing Atom 1.6GHz away. 25% clock rate difference, with a performance difference more than 100% sometimes.

    §[<<]§ This thing's a dual core though. Receive side scaling might combine with that to be helpful for gigabit transfers. dunno.

  13. No, I think Atom is faster clock-for-clock than a Tualatin. It may be mainly HT and the faster FSB helping out. It is just a little slower clock-for-clock than a Core Solo.

  14. My Tualatin 1400 with Intel 1000GT adapter can’t do more than about 20% network throughput. That’s 90% CPU utilization about. Atom would probably do that or less.

    Granted, the FSB and memory bandwidth are a lot better and the adapter would be on PCIe most likely, but Atom is definitely slower than a 1400 MHz Tualatin.

    You could probably go shoebox with a Core 2 Duo based unit too. Or a Core Duo / Core Solo / Pentium M something or nother. Atom is so not fast that you’ll notice it….

  15. What appeals to me is the idea of a shoebox with eight TB worth of data storage running in a four TB raid 1 array and taking up just a tiny spot on a shelf somewhere making little to no noise.

    I enjoy sharing my collections at lan parties, but don’t enjoy hauling my Full ATX server around.

    I’m sure if it can handle video playback it can handle file transfers at full gigabit speed, a emule client, and remote desktop.

  16. Yeah, those extreme niches sound like great applications. I don’t know that any of them would need a Geforece 9400 and the addition $50-100 (see Anandtech) cost that it carries for those scenarios.

  17. Linux would have Lin-rot of the average person actually knew how to use the OS, knew how to install (worthless) programs, and actually had a Linux OS installed in the first place.

    It would also be a bigger target of people that cause problems if it was used by a lot more people.

  18. Now why is “Win Rott” unavoidable?
    Don’t use Win, don’t install stuff.
    Use a slim Linux with a nice GUI, all the programs needed: Wordprocessor, E-mail, Browser, Database, Adobe what ever, …
    In most cases 1GB RAM will be more than nessary.
    My mom would never come up with anything this machine could not do.

  19. no, i was being sarcastic. They do power consumption of every desktop everything but can’t be bothered when at least part of the draw is low-power consumption at a low price.

  20. With MS limiting XP to be on a netbook that does not have DX10, this doesn’t seem to be aimed for that market unless will go right to Win 7 (September?).

  21. Maybe people shouldn’t load shit on their PCs and if they do no processor will be fast enough.

    P3s were top of the line for a number of years and did perfectly well, I’m not sure newer programs are really adding much value. They mostly look better.

  22. You (and CompUSA) may be right, or the things I mentioned in my earlier post (# 30) could ruin the party.

    Go check out Anand’s comments on Ion – his sentiments seem to closely match mine, which, again, are that Ion is fine for netbooks but I would not want it elsewhere.

  23. I have to say I agree with this sentiment. When I first saw the demo units I thought ‘damn, I could use one of those!’ Would love to have IEEE 1394 thrown in for good measure but I’m pretty sure this won’t be happening.

  24. Does anybody else think they should market the product the way it is? With its white box and everything.

    I can think of a lot of uses for these box so please Nvidia and partners, please design a product that looks just like that please 🙂

  25. The Studio Hybrid is the ‘nettop’ of that line though and it’s still stuck with Intel graphics, at least atm. It’s really just a MODT box with LV and ULV chips those boards just all happen to have Intel graphics atm. It’s very possible Dell or someone else will make one with Intel graphics. Otherwise mini-ITX is your friend, there’s only one choice afaik but the Zotac GF9400 s775 board is a starting point, just no LV or ULV CPUs.

  26. Atom’s performance is near a high end P3 or low end P4 right? With HT or Dualcore+HT would make it more responsive. There are a number of people in the consumer market and even the business market that really don’t need much more power then that.

  27. Micro-ATX cases and boards are too large including the Shuttle breadboxes. The Dell Studio line has some interesting choices, but the integrated graphics are the crappy Intel ones.

    Edit: My bad. I just noticed that the Dell Studio line has an item featuring Ati graphics for $600.

  28. As swaaye noted, the current generation is just a proof-of-concept and the development costs were carried elsewhere. Netbooks became the testbed for Atom purely by accident and coincidence — keep in mind the original Eee was a sales success using a detuned Celeron, before Atom came into the netbook market.

    IMO Intel is simply throwing the silicon out to pasture for cheap just to see what it does. The fact that “good enough” computing and high mobility was good enough to take a non-trivial fraction out of the notebook market apparently caught them off-guard, but in any case they’re rolling with it because the brand recognition will be extremely valuable in future products as the device miniaturizes further.

    Remember how many product generations it took Intel to finally dump the Pentium name from their new products? If they can do that again with Atom, it won’t matter what AMD comes up with. Joe Average user is going to ask for an Atom, and unlike Centrino, this one might actually stick.

  29. I am not sure what we are talking about anymore. While I have not “driven” the Atom, I would guess that it is overwhelmingly the case that people buy CPUs (or computers with CPUs in them) without ever having really “driven” them before (and 5 minutes of point and click at Best Buy does not count). So I am not really sure where this is going.

    I am simply disappointed in the notion of the Atom CPU in a full fledged computer. But I do like it for the netbook.

  30. Atom is meant to get smaller and become something else than what it is used for now. It’s probably an attempt to compete with all those MIPS and Arm chips out there. Its x86 hugeness makes it impossible to do that at 45nm apparently.

    I also believe that Atom is based on a Larabee core. So it shared some R&D there, making it not necessarily a big deal to create.

  31. What I don’t understand is why Intel didn’t make ultra low voltage Core 2s with 512k L2 cache to further drop their price and power draw, and also allow them to be used with any normal, and more efficient, chipset.

    If a 1,400 MHz dual core with 3MB L2 cache can be 10 watts, without costing a squillion dollars, and the single core Atom with 512k L2 is 4 watts…what is the deal?!?

    The Atom just doesn’t make much sense to me. CPUs are fast and efficient enough now to be both low power and general purpose. I see no reason why we should have “netbooks” with specific, under performing, parts.

    I think the Atom is a gimmick that Intel was hoping to ride off of for a while, with AMD unable to enter that market, but of course, that’s not the case. Look at Intel, the moment AMD says they’re making new mobile platforms, saying they’re reconsidering Atom. It’s going to look just plain stupid once the low power Athlon 64s with Radeon 3000s and modern chipsets are more prevalent.

  32. Yeah, it might be worth it to get this setup in a low power mATX setup instead. It’s too bad mobile chips aren’t as prevalent now as they were with the original A64 parts.

  33. What’s the idle desktop power draw?

    A large Atom board with a full complement of SATA ports and PCIe slots could make a decent low power draw home server. The graphics would be wasted in that case but the additional SATA ports would be its advantage. Of course who is going to make a large Atom board? Maybe Zotac will get smart like they did with their mini-ITX s775 boards only in the opposite direction.

  34. You cannot have a 16x slot with the Atom, as part of Intel’s requirements. USB tuners are an option, but wouldn’t be as slick or reliable as having a riser with a 1x slot.

  35. Intel has the 45nm Celeron M 722 which is a 5.5W 1.2GHz part. It is the same size package as the Atom N270 but not the same pin-out. As far as price the cheaper 10W Celeron M 723 version is $161.

  36. Susan Sarandon is way more attractive than Jessica Alba.

    Also, I can’t find power consumption mentioned anywhere in the article. At first, I thought derFunk was just being sarcastic, but then someone else talked about it like it was mentioned somewhere. I guess I’m just blind.

    Finally, was there was some restriction on running Fraps to get the exact framerates or something? I would have liked to have compared some of the results to what I got with the Nano + 9400GT: §[<<]§

  37. The only machine, from Apple, that has the ULV is in the Macbook Air. Even then, the ULV draws more than an Atom, but still far less than other parts.

    Pricing the ULV too low will eat into Atom builds.

  38. That looks cool. It would be nice to have full blu-ray support on something small and passively cooled. If somebody makes a board with that, DTS connect onboard, and a small PCI express slot for a tuner that would be pretty nice. The whole system could be powered by a small, cheap power brick and be about the size of the small/slim DVD players available now.

  39. I’m way out of the gaming loop, but how many of those games were designed with an eye towards the PS3 / Xbox 360?

    Those games are more likely to take better advantage of the atom’s second core.

    Of course, the GeForce here would then be completely underpowered… swings and roundabouts.

  40. No need to fast-forward 8 years!! Consider the nVidia “Tegra” ARM-based platform. Expect cell-phones with this core some time late this year or early next year. Except Apple, who for some crazy reason seem to have decided to (re-) invent their own graphics silicon for their next iPhone iteration…..

  41. What specs are you looking for? For $120 I picked up a dual-core CPU on Newegg with 2GB of RAM and onboard video.

  42. A more reasonable would be saying a 1.8l 4-cylinder was unbearably slow without having driven it. I would fall under that vote. Before my wife’s car, I would have said that I’d never be happy with a 4-cylinder car. However, I now know better, as it is perfectly adequate for every-day driving and traveling and pretty much everything else. It might not be as fun as my v6, but it is completely functional.

  43. I never drove a Ferrari but I know it is fast. I think Atom is a very niche product and I think “net-tops” are a mistake. Reasonably low wattage can still be had with a much higher performing part. In a netbook, Atom is justifiable, and in some embedded applications and low intensity applications. I do not find it attractive anywhere else.

  44. #30…Love the term WIN ROT…that’s hilarious.

    Hopefully users would be disciplined enough with their Atoms to not load them down with share/free/crapware.

    How about MAC MICRO? I want 50 cent everytime somone uses it!

  45. Have you ever used a dual-core Atom? (neither have I) That said, any IT department that lets users install iTunes on the computer isn’t doing themselves any favors.

  46. I am unable to find an HTPC all-in-one system as good as my $1K laptop. I guess I’m expecting not to have to pay so much for something without the integrated monitor and not so compact.

  47. No way. The thing would bog down in no time. The interesting thing is that the Atom has not even been on the market long enough for “Win Rot” (a term I take issue with but that I use here since people are familiar with it) to take effect. Once these Atom systems get loaded down with crapware and media players and 20 unnecessary processes running at startup and someone trying to listen to iTunes and type a document at the same time all while a broken flash add is pwning the system in the background, people are going to be asking themselves how they could ever have been so fecking stupid as to pay for a circa 2000 CPU in the year 2009. Dunno, I could be wrong.

  48. Wow, not bad at all. I may just buy one of these to replace my mother’s P4 Celeron. She’ll love the savings in space.

  49. This would be great for most business PC’s. Throw in a 2gb memory stick and a dual-core Atom, and for $200 it’d be all you’d need.

  50. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see the platform pop up in the next Mac mini refresh, but we shouldn’t have to wait for Cupertino to catch on.”

    Take that back !

    The Atom in a Mini would just add salt to the wound ! I mean, if Apple would sell such a mini for 200 – 300$, then yes, it would be acceptable but we all know that would never happen.

    The Mini needs a proper C2D refresh not the sad excuse of a CPU that is the Atom.


  51. This niche has always been filled for me with old PCs. I use my laptop (1.73M) as HTPC, and I also have an old Shuttle XPC with a 2.4ghz P4 and 9500 Pro AIW card. Granted I don’t have a significant home theater. I don’t see myself actually buying a new part to fill this need.

    It’s kinda nifty. The form factor is cool, but not enough to make a sale for me. If it was, I’d be a Mac user.

  52. Not sure what the deal is, but something in the article is crashing my browser here at work. I suspect it’s one of the Flash based ads.

  53. Could you please test HD playback with 9400M more carefully? Mkv, ts and other packages; with PowerDVD 7.3, which opens files from hdd.. Than what is with 1080p @ 24fps and bitsream audio? Thank you!

  54. That doesn’t make any sense. Clearly the Atom processor is the weak link here, not NVidia’s platform. I’ve never been that sold on the Atom processor at all. Beyond the most basic of computing, it struggles. I can’t see the market for this kind of x86 processor expanding..pushing the power envelope ever lower for modern processors like the Core2 or Athlon X2 seems more advantageous than struggling with the limitations of a simpler in-order-execution type of design. And no matter how low power the CPU is, at a certain point it becomes unimportant. Intel’s current Atom platforms prove this. WTF is the point of a 4 watt CPU when the rest of the system is already going to consume 10 times that because of the core logic, display, hard disk, etc. At that point you might as well get a real CPU…

  55. So, just a reply to several comments so far. This is not designed to go in a netbook I wouldn’t think. This seems much more of a nettop type platform. It can do exactly what it was tested doing pretty well. Yes, why would you ever put this in a netbook indeed, thats not what its suited for.

    Now, its not available, but I wonder if its possible to get ones hand on one of the engineering samples. :)…

  56. Interesting design..

    One flaw, that they could have addressed is the power draw. They are not targeting games. therefore they could have reduced the clocks and voltages on the platform.

    Removed unnecessary PCIe lanes, maybe down to 4 or 8 (max). removed the dual channel memory controller, and remove one of the memory controllers.

    If they could deliver similar performance such as playback at 1/2 the power that it currently uses, it would be a win. But right now it is just over powered for a processor that is used for low powered devices.

    Granted still better then Intels solution, but if they really wanted a win with many manufacturers, they should concentrate on power (where intel has not – chipset wise).

    But then Intel now has the possibilty to supply Atom with other chipsets, as there must be lower powered chipsets.

    This platform is geared towards power usage and performance second. i just hope someone (the chipset manufacturers) will notice that.

  57. Impressive but I was surprised that it’s power consumption was so high, I thought that was the main complaint of the 945 chipset not the graphics (the GPU section I couldn’t care less about).

  58. I agree with many of the posts I am reading here and have to wonder, what is the point or where is this going?

    If I put a PC in my living room and hooked it up to the TV, I would want it to be able to handle some recent games.

    If I want a low power computer for always-on services, I am not going to care much about its GPU power.

    I can see the point of owning a netbook, but I wouldn’t use it for gaming.

    Beyond the netbook applications I am not sure I would choose to go with anything less powerful than a low wattage Athlon X2 or Pentium Dual Core.

    So that means, to me at least, that this is essentially about gaming on netbooks, and that sounds just plain unappealing to me.

    Having said all of that, if I was ever to buy a netbook, I would choose one with the Ion in it rather than one with the 945G in it, given that they were priced nearly the same.

  59. Although it’s nice to see better graphics and video decode and what not, I fail to see how this will benefit the netbook much. When looking at the current crop of netbooks, the one thing really holding back the netbook from being truly astounding is Intels chipset, not so much for graphics (seriously, who’s going to game on a netbook?) but power draw. I’d love to see Nvidia focus on getting a chipset with lower power requirements. Since netbooks don’t have an optical drive and most have hdd’s too small for a lot of HD content, I really don’t mind sacrificing video decode. Besides, SD content should be plenty fine when watching on a bus/between classes.

  60. Sorry nVidia, your Ion platform makes no sense. I’ll be trading my Eee PC 1000HA for a GN40 equipped netbook–that will actually have /[

  61. You don’t get the point, this can actually function as a micro-desktop-PC or a tiny HTPC, where it actually gets proper screen sizes hooked up, and that’s where the video performance and low power consumption matters and pays off.

  62. I don’t see the point. It still doesn’t do games at even the lowest resolutions and settings, and there isn’t much screen resolution or storage space to use netbooks for HD media anyway. Other than the HD acceleration it doesn’t seem to offer much.

    This isn’t exactly making me regret my netbook purchase. NVIDIA can keep their chipsets and corresponding flaky drivers.

  63. As nice as the Atom is in power draw, I’d LOVE to see the lowest clocked single or dual core Intel Core2 in one of these instead. Heck, even the ULV version that are in some notebooks would really run rings around the Atom.

    The Atom is a nice chip (for what it does), but I’d much prefer to see a lower clocked, ULV version of the Core2 notebook chips in this and netbooks.

  64. Is there any chance of some performance numbers of the games when using dual channel memory? Or is it not possible to fit a second stick?

  65. What about a similar review for an Athlon Neo / M690 combo? Can’t you compare AMD’s Atom-competitor platform too?