New Driver Enables Smooth 1080p Flash Playback on NVIDIA NG-IONby Anand Lal Shimpi on June 10, 2010 10:15 AM EST
Last month I reviewed Zotac’s first Next-Generation ION nettop, the ZBOX HD-ID11. The chassis and feature set haven’t really changed much since the ION1 based ZBOXes, the only real difference is the HD-ID11 has Pine Trail and NVIDIA NG-ION inside. Unfortunately, in some cases, that’s not exactly an upgrade over the previous platform.
The original ION platform was a chipset and integrated graphics solution in a single package that stemmed off the Atom CPU. For a bunch of licensing reasons I described here, NVIDIA wasn’t allowed to build a similar chipset for the new Pine Trail Atom platform and thus had to come up with another solution. The next-generation ION now branches off Intel’s Pine Trail chipset, typically via a single PCIe 1.0 lane offering only 250MB/s of bandwidth to/from the chipset.
This results in a bandwidth bottleneck that can make bandwidth intensive GPU operations (e.g. 3D gaming) worse than the original ION. I suspect most folks don’t buy ION systems to game on them, so the bigger concern is another bandwidth intensive GPU operation: Flash video acceleration.
When you play back a GPU accelerated Flash video stream using Flash 10.1 on a Next Generation ION system the frames are sent to the GPU for decoding but then sent back to the CPU for compositing and finally copied back to the GPU’s frame buffer for display. In the Next Generation ION this happens over the meager PCIe 1.0 x1 interface. That’s thankfully bandwidth enough to decode, composite and display lower resolution Flash video, but not enough for 1080p.
Using current drivers if you try to play a 1080p YouTube HD stream on a Next Generation ION you’ll drop frames because of this bandwidth limitation. It gets worse if you decode and play the stream full screen at a 1080p desktop resolution. As I pointed out in my Next Generation ION review, even playing 480p Hulu content scaled up to 1080p dropped frames. It’s a real problem.
There is an obvious solution: do the entire process on the GPU itself, thus avoiding the copying back and forth over the PCIe x1 connection. NVIDIA told me this was possible, but it required a driver update. I now have that driver update: version 257.29.
The driver isn’t publicly available, although NVIDIA is shooting to have a public beta on June 28th with a WHQL release sometime in July.
I tested the driver with the latest Adobe Flash 10.1 beta (release candidate 7) and the NVIDIA press preview driver I mentioned above. I fired up YouTube in Chrome and picked a 1080p clip.
CPU utilization before and after the updated driver remains the same at around 15 - 20% of the Atom D510’s four threads. But this isn’t a CPU utilization problem. Using the current public driver the 1080p stream is unwatchable at full screen, the system drops a ton of frames. Using the updated driver? Smooth as butter.
It’s not all good news though. The frame rate will drop the minute you move your mouse and reveal the playback controls. That compositing still happens on the CPU. In fact anything that appears over the video kills frame rate. You can stop the playback controls from coming up by simply not moving your mouse, but a YouTube ad appearing over the video is less predictable.
Hulu continues to be a problem. Even a 360p video scaled up to 1080p will drop frames with the new driver. NVIDIA is aware of the issue and is working on it. To NVIDIA’s credit, Hulu has always posed problems for GPU acceleration ever since the Flash 10.1 betas hit.
The new driver definitely makes things better and it looks like NVIDIA is committed to improving the experience even further. But at this point, the original ION is still better for Flash video playback. If you’re using the NG-ION as a more traditional HTPC, playing files stored on your network and not streamed in a Flash movie then you’re of course fine. Read our Zotac ZBOX HD-ID11 Review for more on how the Next Generation ION performs in HTPC and other scenarios.