NVIDIA's Ion Platform: Hands on at CES 2009by Anand Lal Shimpi on January 13, 2009 12:00 AM EST
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Remember NVIDIA’s Ion platform, the neat little box we previewed last month? Ion combines Intel’s Atom processor with NVIDIA’s GeForce 9400M instead of the existing Intel chipsets.
NVIDIA invited me to benchmark Ion at CES. A cab ride down to the MGM in Vegas and soon I was escorted up to NVIDIA’s Ion room. Not big on partying, the Ion platform kept a neat, clean and alcohol-free room (the same can’t be said for its bigger GeForce brothers). Sitting on the table were two machines: an Acer Aspire netbook and an Ion reference platform similar to the one I looked at last month.
NVIDIA allowed me to benchmark the two systems in a handful of tests, unfortunately the deck was stacked in NVIDIA’s favor. The Ion reference platform had a dual core Atom 330, while the Acer Aspire had a single-core Atom N270. They ran at the same clock speed, NVIDIA’s platform just had twice the cores.
1.60GHz, 2 cores, 4 threads (2 per core) - it's the dual-core Atom 330. Unfortunately the Acer netbook only had a single core
Things got more unfair on the memory side. NVIDIA’s platform had 2GB of DDR3, while the Acer Aspire had 1GB of DDR2. The difference in memory technology was unavoidable, 945G doesn’t support DDR3, but the difference in memory size could’ve been avoided.
One core (2 threads) and a 5400RPM drive in the Acer netbook
Then there were differences in drives. The Acer netbook used a 5400RPM Western Digital drive, while the NVIDIA Ion reference platform had a 7200RPM Seagate drive in it. Simple things like launching Spore took less than half the time on the Ion system because of this difference.
The Ion platform had a more aggressive configuration
While I believe that the NVIDIA PR present wasn’t involved in the unacceptably different setups, someone was, and it made it so I couldn’t compare the two platforms. I could provide you with performance results here, or even usage impressions, but it wouldn’t be fair. I’ll wait until I have hardware in house before making a scientific comparison between the Intel and NVIDIA versions of the Atom platform.
3DMark 06 at 800x600, default settings, on the Ion platform with an Atom 330 and 2GB of DDR3
Obviously NVIDIA’s Ion will play games a bit better, or at least at higher quality settings. For example, you could run Spore on both the Atom + 945G setup and NVIDIA’s Ion at 800 x 600. The frame rates were comparable, but you had to run at Low quality for the 945G setup while you could run Medium on Ion.
Fundamentally I’m not sure I’d really see much of a benefit to Ion in a netbook. The biggest advantage is going to be full hardware H.264/VC-1/MPEG-2 decode acceleration, which you can also get from Poulsbo. The improvement in gaming performance will be there, but I’m not convinced that you’d want to game on a netbook in the first place. They are cramped and the integrated trackpads usually suck; you could always carry around an extra mouse, but that’d defeat some of the portability of a tiny netbook.
Call of Duty 4 won't run on the 945G equipped Acer netbook. NVIDIA's Ion fixes this, I'm just not sure you'd want to play CoD4 on it in the first place.
Now in a Mac mini-esque device, home file server, mini HTPC or larger netbook/notebook the Ion platform starts to make more sense. In the end I prefer having more options than fewer, so bring on Ion based designs and let’s see if/where they make sense.