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while the Atom has just enough horsepower to deal with common, everyday tasks, the platform it’s available on is an outdated throwback.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 processorsexcept 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 seriesdesigns 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 wattsonly 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 elementa 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 jacksall 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.
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 moviea 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.
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 Folding@home, 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 levelsthe 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.