No Native Hardware H.264 Decoding: Long Live Ion

The integrated GMA 3150 graphics hasn’t been used by Intel before, it’s a 45nm shrink of the GMA 3100. It’s technically a DX9 GPU running at 400MHz, however as you’ll soon see - you can’t really play any games on this platform. The GPU only offers hardware acceleration for MPEG-2 video, H.264 and VC-1 aren’t accelerated.

Max output resolution is also limited. The best you can get over a digital connection (HDMI/DVI) is 1366 x 768, over analog VGA you can do 2048 x 1536 (only 1400 x 1050 on the N450). It’s a curious coincidence, Poulsbo also had a 1366 x 768 digital output limitation.


Dual-core Atom "Pineview", the left half are the two CPU cores, the right portion is GPU + memory interface

And now we see why Intel skimped on the GPU abilities: nearly half the die is used for graphics.


Single-core Atom "Pineview"

On the single core part, more than half the die is the GPU/memory controller. At 32nm this won’t be a problem, but today at 45nm it is what it is - we get a mediocre GPU.

The NM10 Express Chipset

Pine Trail is all about integration. Pulling the memory controller and GPU on-die let board makers either build smaller, simpler or more feature rich motherboards. In fact, one of the benefits of integration is that all Atom motherboards can now be built using 4 layer PCBs. Previously, only the desktop Atom boards could be built on 4 layer PCBs, now netbook boards can be just as cost effective.


The old ICH7 (left) vs. the new NM10 (right) - pictures are to scale, the NM10 is really that much smaller

With the memory controller and GPU on-die, the “chipset” in Pine Trail has been reduced to a single chip external to the CPU. It’s called the NM10 Express Chipset and it connects to the new Atom CPU via a 2.5GB/s DMI link.

Intel’s NM10 supports 8 USB 2.0 ports, two SATA ports, HD audio, 2 x 32-bit PCI slots and 4 PCIe lanes. The NM10 is derived from existing ICH technologies, but bundled in a smaller package for use in small form factor motherboards.

Intel lists one interesting “optional ingredient” that can be connected to the NM10 chipset: a third party HD video decoder.

The FTC hasn’t won it’s case yet so most manufacturers still prefer to support Intel and would rather pair Pine Trail with a Broadcom H.264 decoder than go for something like Ion. It’s Intel’s concession to those who demand high definition video acceleration. Honestly, I would’ve preferred to see something that could do it natively instead of relying on a 3rd party solution. I suspect that the 3rd generation of Atom will solve this; at 32nm there’s more than enough transistor budget to integrate a GMA4500 series core, which would finally bring Atom up to feature parity with NVIDIA’s Ion chipset...just two years later

What About Ion 2?

Pine Trail uses Intel’s DMI to connect Pineview and the NM10 chipset. NVIDIA doesn’t have Intel’s blessing to sell chipsets that use DMI, so NVIDIA can’t produce something that takes the place of the NM10 chip.

NM10, however, has an integrated PCIe controller. It’s possible that NVIDIA’s next-generation Ion will simply connect via PCIe to the NM10 chip.

Index Meet the Board
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  • Ghandalf - Monday, December 21, 2009 - link

    Hi,

    good article!
    What power-supply did you use for your tests? The idle consumption of the new d510 looks too high for me!
    Reply
  • blackbrrd - Monday, December 21, 2009 - link

    This really doesn't look very impressive, looks like we have to wait for 32nm to make the GPU usable as noted in the article... Reply
  • Ghandalf - Monday, December 21, 2009 - link

    Hi,

    good article!
    What power-supply did you use for your tests? The idle consumption of the new d510 looks too high for me!
    Reply
  • dgz - Monday, December 21, 2009 - link

    I am tired of Intel forcing crap products on consumers, while touting the great benefits. Clearly there is no benefit for the consumers. Not to a single one as the IGP is barely enough for Minesweeper.

    Although I am very disappointed with nVidia these days, their offerings are much better on the mobile segments - both phones and nettops.
    Reply
  • zdzichu - Monday, December 21, 2009 - link

    Best feature of this platform is getting back to known, supported GPU. Intel damaged its reputation with Paulsbo, now there a chance to get back to supported graphics chipset, with proper Open Source drivers. Reply
  • ET - Monday, December 21, 2009 - link

    The difference in numbers (950 vs. 3100) made me hope there'd be some improvement in the graphics, but it was my fault for not having done enough research. Turns out they're basically the same. I forgot it was the X3100 that had DX10 graphics, not the 3100 (how nice of Intel to use such clear naming convention).

    Still, in other respects this seems like an okay upgrade. A little better performance and lower power. I wonder if it will make the GMA 500 solutions go away.
    Reply
  • AmdInside - Monday, December 21, 2009 - link

    I'm a bit disappointed myself in Pinetrail platform. To me, it seems more or less a way to bring costs down for Intel while masking it as a performance bump to consumers. Unfortunately, my perfect netbook is an Atom dual core with an ION chipset on a 10" screen but it does not exist. There are 12" versions but then, it somewhat defeats the purpose of the netbook (portability and battery life). I wish a 10" version would come out. It would be the perfect companion video player. I could watch Hulu in bed, take to the gym and watch movies while on the treadmill, have it beside my main PC to stream sports programs while working, play hidef movies on my hard drive to a large HDTV, etc.. Hopefully someone will create a 10" Ion notebook in the near future. Reply
  • bnolsen - Saturday, December 26, 2009 - link

    I don't know about playing movies to hidef but I watch hulu all the time with my current netbook, on linux even. I also watch 720p encoded content, but scaled to fullscreen.

    Go buy the lenevo for $194 and try it.
    Reply
  • AznBoi36 - Monday, December 21, 2009 - link

    I agree with all your points, which is why I have not yet jumped on the Atom bandwagon. Reply
  • dagamer34 - Monday, December 21, 2009 - link

    It's pretty sad to see that Intel is muscling nVidia out of this market, when it's clear that a better product exists, and now we're getting a "new" product with worse performance across the board. Because if Flash isn't being hardware-accelerated, then that means that they CPU is doing more work, and whatever gains Pine Trail might have (i'm not convinced they're even worth writing an article over), it's negated by the exponential improvement in which Ion brings to the table.

    At first, I thought nVidia's CEO was blowing a bunch of hot air about Intel playing hardball, but it's pretty obvious that something is wrong with this picture here. If Microsoft got smacked down for bundling in 1998, I don't see how bundling the CPU and GPU into one chip and then locking other hardware vendors out with expensive contracts is any different. And what's worse, apparently the laws this time around allow the Federal government to not just look at Intel's past actions, but their effect on the future as well.
    Reply

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