Intel has been shipping its Atom processor for months now, although it has been talking about the CPU for much longer. Earlier this year I went through the architecture and unique design approach behind Intel’s first foray into a new approach to chip design since the original Centrino.

While Atom isn’t setting any performance records, it is amazingly powerful for its size and power consumption. In making Atom, Intel made sure to give it an equally impressive chipset: Poulsbo. The combination of Atom and Poulsbo unfortunately uses too much power and is too big to be used in the most attractive of devices: smart phones, relegating them to MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices). MIDs aren’t terribly successful, mostly because they are bulky, plagued by terrible UIs and too expensive for what they are. In a couple of years Atom will surely find its way into smart phones thanks to Intel’s push for integration, but thanks to the Netbook segment Atom hasn’t gone unappreciated.

Largely pioneered by the efforts of ASUS and obsession with the letter E, the Netbook market is almost entirely dominated by Intel’s Atom CPU. In order to keep costs down, Netbook manufacturers have paired Atom with a desktop chipset instead of Poulsbo: the Intel 945G. Since Atom’s FSB can work in GTL+ mode, it is compatible with Pentium 4/Core 2 chipsets.

Atom is honestly fast enough for many tasks, delivering the performance of a mainstream notebook from 4 years ago. The problem is that there are some applications that are commonplace today that can’t run on Atom. HD video playback isn’t possible on Atom + 945G platforms because the CPU isn’t fast enough to decode high bitrate video (much less H.264) and the chipset doesn’t support HD video decode acceleration. 

NVIDIA saw an opportunity with Atom. Intel had a very popular CPU, that could be used in many more environments if it could only be paired with a more powerful chipset. Enter the GeForce 9400M.

This is the same GeForce 9400M that’s used in desktops and notebooks, the very same GeForce 9400M that’s in the new MacBook, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air...and NVIDIA is pairing it up with Intel’s Atom processor.

Introducing NVIDIA’s Ion Platform


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  • swizeus - Thursday, December 18, 2008 - link

    It's fine with me, i'll buy that so called ugly ones if they were to sell it.

    Anyway, the nVidia slide stating that 9400M have more processing power while drawing up same power it's a lie. ASUS netbook review which equipped with 2 video cards (GMA X4500 n 9300M) states that with GMA, battery can last up to 5 hours, while with 9300M only last for 1 hour
  • Pok3R - Thursday, December 18, 2008 - link

    Great news Anand!

    I have 3 questions (2 and a suggestion ;)

    1) We would like to see some comparison benchmarks vs 945!

    2) I'm not totally convinced how ddr3 fits here...power saving?

    3) What about Atoms 230 and 330?
    Does Ion include a "high end" version with them?

    thanks and great job!
  • philosofool - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    People pretend like predicting what's going to happen at the various mac extravaganzas is hard. It hasn't been at all since the Intel switch. If you watch what intel has rolling out, you can pretty much predict it.

    This year we will see two major hardware announcements (possibly more): "the fastest Mac ever" which will be a Core i7 based machine. And we'll see a new Mac Mini based on the piece of hardware seen here (though with an internal HD.)
  • iwodo - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    I have always been saying Dual Core Atom ( N330 or even faster version ) with be used in the next Mac Mini, Since Hyperthreading gives it 4 thread which should give it some performance boost with Grand Central in Snow Leopard.

    If Geforce 9400M could have some improvement with 55nm die shrink i suppose would be even better.

    These pair with 30GB SSD, the new Mac should be very fast in 90% of day to day desktop application.
  • BlueBlazer - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    I would like to see a faster Atom, maybe in the 2.5GHz range? Would make that quite fast for gaming as well.. Should be around 6W or so at that frequency. Reply
  • sprockkets - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    Just 5 minutes ago I bought the mini-ITX Zotac nForce 7100 board + 2ghz Pentium processor for like $100, then this comes out.

    I'm very surprised at this. The only thing VIA here is the pico-ITX form factor. I would have liked a Nano processor instead, but I can settle for a dual core Atom.
  • gochichi - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    I like the "ugly" design. It's so basic, and so crammed with high quality inputs/outputs. USB, HDMI, 2 x eSATA, it's flippin awesome.

    The article says that it includes a 2.5" hard drive inside. So you're good to go there.

    No optical drive is no problem at all. It's ironic that they kept comparing it to the Mac Mini with all the pictures, because it makes the most sense IN a Mac Mini.

    I think that SSDs will be under $50.00 soon, just like we had a taste of that from OSZ the last few weeks. 30GBs and even 60GB middle-high performane SSDs should be inexpensive enough for these machines. 30GB should be enough to set up something using with these things. An external, self-powered 2.5" 500GB hard drive would go well as a tag along.

    I'm pretty sure that USB 2.0 is enough for HD video, particularly processed stuff (as opposed to Blu-ray) but even Blu-ray drives come in external enclosures with USB connections.

    I personally own a Blu-ray player and it sincerely seems like overkill at 25GB-50GB per movie. Mkv HD movie files between 4GB and 12GB are plenty for 720P HDTVs. Frankly, I see nothing wrong with 720P movies at 4GB a pop so long as the encoding goes well. But for arguments sake let's give 12 GB per movie and 1080P. That's roughly 40 movies in a 500GB 2.5" hard drive. And since they cost about $110.00, that's $2.75 per movie of media space (not great but doable).

    I don't even primarily care about the media stuff though, it's just a really cool toy/tool. I wish it were somewhat less remedial of a CPU though, like a dual-core something.
  • pslow - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    However, its needs firewire or esata since all storage will be external if it stays that small. Yes I'm a mac guy, but try to play 720HD video over usb, it drops frames. I wouldn't get one if it only has a usb 2.0 connection. Reply
  • MadMan007 - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    You'd want storage for an OS anyway. Plus there's networking... Reply
  • rmlarsen - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    I just bought an Atom based netbook (Lenovo S10) for a family member for Christmas, and was pretty happy with the performance for simple tasks (watching SD video is certainly also doable). But with a chipset like this, the netbook world becomes A LOT more interesting, as you add decent gaming (hold back the Crysis jokes, people) and HD playback to the mix. Sign me up.

    Does anybody know how fast (if at all) the CUDA-based Badaboom video transcoder would run on the 9400M, compared to transcoding on the Atom itself? Anandtech, any chance you could try this?


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