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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  • tonjohn - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    I would buy one right now if it were out.

    I was looking at buying an Eee Box ("> but this looks like a much better solution.
  • autoboy - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    We all knew this was possible. Why is everyone so surprised? The Asus EEE box has an ATI 3450 but nobody wet their pants over it. Asus has a netbook with the 9300M chipset but it is not selling that well. The 9400M is a great chipset, but it is simply filling a void that Intel left open by not allowing their G45 chipset to be used with the Atom.

    Nobody is going to be playing many games on this thing. Maybe WoW but that is about it. The Atom is pretty slow guys. I have one. It works, but it isn't very fast. You definitely can tell that you are using a slow machine.

    And why is everyone so excited about using this as a front end for a media center? VMC does not have softsled so you can't use it as an extender. MythTV can't play Blu-ray videos. I suppose you could rip them. Myth just now got some video acceleration. Boxee and XBMC don't use video acceleration at all so you lose the advantage of the 9400M. That leaves a few niche DVR applications and SageTV (which you can argue is also niche) where this thing would be useful as a HTPC client. A sageTV extender or popcorn hour are much more useful IMO than this.

    As a low power desktop replacement it just doesn't do it for me. I would never consider using an Atom as a main machine, and it has been proven that a cheap Pentium Dual core and a G31 chipset are actually just as low power and 4-5 times faster than an Atom. Adding a 9400M won't change that. If all you want is a torrent box you can get routers that do that for you.

    Ok, so the picture of it playing Dark Knight is cool. But I'm not going to dirty my pants over it.

  • MadMan007 - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    I think it's because people like the direction things are going even if the details aren't worked out yet. I'd to see this in the future with a dual core Atom and could see using that as a low power tiny basic desktop. The software/hardware chicken and egg is always going to be there, someone just has to blink first and in this case NV has blinked and created reference hardware. Reply
  • mm2587 - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    I think that little black box looks just perfect. Not fancy at all, but incredibly functional. These would make the perfect carputer. Reply
  • sidewinderx2 - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    The Asus N10J netbook already pairs an Atom with a 9300M GS. Reply
  • Roland00Address - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    The ASUS uses the Discrete version of the 9300m. (Nvidia has both a 9300 integrated chipset as well as a discrete chip in the GS variant and the G variant.) The discrete mobile is different from the integrated mobile which is different from the desktop version

    The 9300M GS is a 16-shader chip
    256MB of DDR2 memory at effective 800MHz
    GPU core running at 580MHz
    shaders clocked at 1.4GHz">

    The 9300 integrated variant is using 16 shader chip
    GPU core running at 450MHZ
    Shaders clocked at 1.2GHZ

    The 9400 integrated variant is using 16 shader chip
    GPU core running at 580Mhz
    Shaders clocked at 1.4 GHZ
    But it is using the faster DDR3 ram, how much memory it is paired up (steals from the rest of ram) with is dependent on the OEM.


    That said the netbook you refer to is using the single core n270

    n270 2.5w TDP 1.6 GHZ, 1/2 MB Cache, 533 FSB (C States aka its different idling modes C0, C1, C2, C3, C4)
    n230 4w TDP 1.6 GHZ, 1/2 MB Cache, 533 FSB (C States C0, C1) Pretty much the same chip but does idle as well as has a higher TDP
    n330 8w TDP 1.6 GHZ, 1 MB Cache, 533 FSB (C States C0, C1) Same thing as the N230 but there is two chips on the same die.

    Now to put this in comparison the new Core 2 Duo P series has a TDP of 25w. The n330 won't get as good as battery life as the n270 or the n230 but cost wise the n330 is very similar to the n270, this is a few months out of date but according to the article the n330 is $43 dollars per chip for a 1000 chip tray vs $44 dollars for the n270 for a 1000 chip tray">

    Eventually intel will also release a dual core netbook version and they are currently working on moving the atom to the new 32nm process
  • uibo - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    DDR3 SO-DIMM ??? is the performance advantage for IGP-s really that big? Reply
  • praeses - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    You can either think of it as a performance benefit or power savings.

    In either case its a benefit. For single channel configurations, I think its pretty much a given that they would have to go with DDR3 at a decent clockrate to avoid bottlenecking the IGP significantly.
  • MadMan007 - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    That's an impressive little basis for an integrated box. If it were cheap enough I'd pick one up just to have a tiny low power web browsing box and wouldn't even turn on my main PC half the time.

    Things it needs though: 1) more than one internal SATA connection, HD+optical at a minimum needs two. No USB for optical please. That kind of dashes the hopes of some that have posted here except it does have eSATA ports...are they functional? 2) Although Atom is 'sufficient' I'd like to see a true (not HT) dual core variant. VIA Nano would be nice atm, or just wait until it's available with a dual core Atom.
  • UNHchabo - Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - link

    This was a reference design, made to get the creative juices flowing at Asus, Dell, HP, etc. They could put more SATA ports, component instead of or in addition to HDMI, etc. Reply

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