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.

Understanding Atom: Three Models for the Same CPU
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  • ameatypie - Thursday, January 22, 2009 - link

    I can agree with the Call of Duty 4 bit... terrible game.
  • phusg - Monday, January 19, 2009 - link

    Yes nVidia I want a netbook that will playback all HD video and can output it over HDMI! Get one on the market, the Asus N10J desperately needs some competition...
  • insaneramblings - Friday, January 16, 2009 - link

    Whenever testing a new platform, particularly small form factors, I'd really like to know the media it can handle. Is this suitable for Standard Definition (SD) playback only? Can it handle BluRay? How about MKV high-definition and AC3? Can it be used as a media extender?

    To my mind telling us how this thing handles COD is a waste. Verifying that it can be plugged into a TV to serve all kinds of media would be very useful.
  • nubie - Sunday, January 18, 2009 - link

    "NVIDIA allowed me to benchmark the two systems in a handful of tests"

    I am going to go out on a limb and assume that nVidia didn't let them test it with BluRay.
  • bohhad - Wednesday, January 14, 2009 - link

    was that little black box in his hand at the start of the article a mini pc of some kind? sign me up, and a usb dvd drive and a usb tv tuner and call it a dvr
  • strikeback03 - Wednesday, January 14, 2009 - link">

    The box is basically a technology demonstrator for the CPU/GPU combo.

    Would the GPU be able to help with the use of a USB TV tuner? I'm guessing a single-core Atom couldn't handle the load alone, maybe a dual-core version could.
  • mindless1 - Wednesday, January 14, 2009 - link

    Don't the typical USB TV tuners already convert it to MPEG, to resolve the matter of bandwidth if for no other reason? In that case it should handle it fine with the IGP assisting.
  • strikeback03 - Thursday, January 15, 2009 - link

    I know the one I bought on Black Friday called for at least a 1.86GHz Pentium M, I haven't yet tried it on my laptop to see if it will actually run smoothly and how much CPU is needed.
  • tonjohn - Tuesday, January 13, 2009 - link

    I'm DYING to have one of these.

    I'm looking for an energy efficient, small footprint computer with HDMI output and this looks like a dream come true.

    Is there any idea as to when products based on ION might be hitting the market?
  • ET - Tuesday, January 13, 2009 - link

    I've played games on my Fujitsu P1510D, which is probably about as powerful as current netbooks. It wasn't fun, I can tell you, but when you're abroad and that's all you're carrying, it's better than nothing. And I always carry a wireless notebook mouse with my, too.

    In fact, one of the reasons I haven't upgraded my P1510D is that it's hard to get something comparable with good graphics. Hopefully with NVIDIA's help it'd be possible soon.

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