Introducing NVIDIA’s Ion Platform

The combination of two is called the Ion platform and the reference design fits into a pico-ITX form factor:

A Pico-ITX motherboard measures 10 cm x 7.2 cm (3.94” x 2.83”), by comparison a standard ATX motherboard measures 30.5 cm x 24.4 cm (12” x 9.6”). If you’re bad at visualizing dimensions, perhaps this picture will help:

An ATX motherboard (left) vs. a Pico ITX Ion board (right)

The reference motherboard is very simple; you’ve got an Intel Atom CPU and a GeForce 9400M next to each other, a single SATA connector and a DDR3 SO-DIMM slot on the other side of the board. And this little thing is powerful enough to play HD video (8 - 25Mbps H.264):

Click to Enlarge

That's 27% CPU utilization on an Intel Atom processor when playing back a 18Mbps 1080p H.264 scene

Note that this is the very same 9400M that’s in the new Apple notebooks, not a watered down version, the clocks, features and performance are the same (although presumably OEMs could choose to underclock the graphics core for particularly power/heat sensitive applications).

NVIDIA even built an ugly looking reference machine to show you what was possible with Ion:

It's the Ion reference design, OEMs will build prettier looking devices

That’s an entire PC, along with a 2.5” HDD, it ran Windows Vista just fine and had no problems playing HD video. It can even play games although we didn’t get a chance to see any run on it.

It's that small

Ion on top of a Mac mini

Ion vs. Mac mini once more

NVIDIA claims that a netbook running with the Ion platform should have the same battery life as one running on the conventional Atom + 945G setup.

NVIDIA wasn’t able to leave us with an Ion system to test before today’s announcement, but we have seen it operational - it works and it’s tiny. NVIDIA’s vision for Ion extends far beyond netbooks and cheap PCs, systems based on Ion could easily be powerful HTPC front ends connecting to networked storage.

Let me also point out that since this is the same 9400M chipset we’ve reviewed, Ion has full support for 8-channel LPCM over HDMI. That’s even more capable than most ATX HTPCs. If you tossed a 500GB 2.5” HDD in one of these things, you could carry your HTPC with you. That’s probably a silly usage model but it highlights the power and versatility of this platform. Ion is cool.

Index Final Words


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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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