I called it an ugly looking reference machine. So NVIDIA came back and painted it white. It worked for Apple after all, right?

Perhaps eight years ago.

As much as I can appreciate beauty, what truly matters here is what’s on the inside and that’s what NVIDIA gave me the opportunity to do over this past week. If you haven’t already seen it, what I’m talking about is NVIDIA’s Ion reference platform. In a nutshell it’s Intel’s Atom processor paired with NVIDIA’s GeForce 9400M chipset.

I first brought you news of Ion in the middle of December 2008. It was delivered in the ugly box mentioned above. It seemed cool, it worked, but I only spent a few hours with it and wasn’t able to benchmark it.

Our next encounter was at CES. NVIDIA called me up to its hotel room and offered the opportunity to benchmark an overly spec’d Ion box against a standard netbook boasting a much lighter config. That didn’t work out so well.

This time NVIDIA shipped me a system, now in white. And I could do whatever I wanted with it.

It doesn’t take a visionary to see why Ion would be great. Take a standard Atom system and give it a modern chipset with better graphics and you’ve got Ion. Performance goes up, everyone’s happy. Of course it’s nice to be able to quantify the performance advantage which is what I’ll be doing today, but for all intents and purposes we’ve known that Ion is a good thing.

The Need for Ion

Currently most Atom based desktops and notebooks use Intel’s 945G chipset. That’s the chipset before G45 and G35 - heck, even before G965 - released back in 2005. It features Intel’s GMA 950 graphics core, hardly high performance even by Intel’s standards. It’s a two chip solution built on a 130nm process and uses ICH7 for all south bridge/IO functions.

The problem with 945G is that it’s old, it’s slow, and it takes up a lot of space. The aging 945G only supports DDR2-667 and generally only gets a single channel of memory on most netbooks/notebooks/desktops. The chipset’s performance isn’t terrible but it’s a bit bandwidth constrained. The combination of the Atom CPU, 945 GMCH, and ICH7 chips takes up quite a bit of motherboard real estate. While that’s acceptable on a desktop motherboard, it is a bit cramped in a netbook.

Standard ATX motherboard (left) vs. Ion pico-ITX motherboard (right)

Intel offers a more compact alternative in the form of the US15 chipset, but that doesn’t really address the graphics performance issue.

The Ion motherboard

NVIDIA’s Ion comes in as an alternative two-chip solution. The GeForce 9400M is a single chip, the other chip is the Atom, and the two make up Ion. You get a modern memory controller as well, supporting both DDR2 and DDR3 memory (up to DDR3-1066). Graphics performance is better than Intel and you get full HD video decode support.

The Cost of Ion

I point-blank asked NVIDIA what is required for an OEM to develop an Ion based system. NVIDIA responded by saying that the only thing necessary is that the OEM purchase a GeForce 9400M chipset; there are no required platforms or anything like that. The Ion reference PC is nothing more than a reference, and it doesn’t need to be followed.

There are a few dozen Ion reference platforms out in the hands of OEMs and decision makers in the industry. NVIDIA expects Ion to add between $50 and $100 to the cost of a typical Atom machine.

Availability is still slated for sometime in 2009, with some systems slated to arrive this summer.

The Test

Unlike the CES Ion comparison, I leveled the playing field. NVIDIA sent a fully configured Ion reference box with 2GB of DDR3-1066 and a dual-core Intel Atom 330 running at 1.6GHz.

I purchased an Intel 945GCLF2 from Newegg for less than $60 (open box). This is a mini-ITX 945G motherboard with a single DDR2 slot and an on-board Atom 330. I installed a 2GB DIMM in the board and created a comparable machine to the Ion reference platform.

I used an Intel X25-M SSD so you can compare the non-gaming numbers from this review to other CPUs in our benchmark database.

In the gaming tests I used a GeForce 9300 motherboard and paired it up with a Celeron 430 to show what a faster CPU could get you with the same graphics used on an Ion platform. I tested with both single and dual channel DDR2-800 memory configurations here, and overclocked the 9300 to the 9400's GPU speeds.

Blu-ray Playback: The Big Feature
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  • Roy2001 - Tuesday, February 17, 2009 - link

    With single chip solution, it costs less than 945G. nVidia should chanrge less for Ion chip.

    Or it would have no chance, Intel is going to integrate chipset in CPU, it already did, but for MID now.
  • Roy2001 - Sunday, February 15, 2009 - link

    Only a few HTPC lover would buy it. Whoelse? Those who want to play games with Atom? No, you can barely play under 800x600 with lowest quality and barely 30fps. So, who will buy it?
  • Aeridyne - Friday, February 13, 2009 - link

    I just had a great idea for one, would work just fine on the regular 945 systems too... plug in 2 usb controllers for a really mobile little machine to play roms on, mini arcade... i think i just gave myself a reason to buy one :)
  • araczynski - Monday, February 9, 2009 - link

    what's the point of adding all that gpu decoding if it only works to be good 99% of the time? and still releasing it as a finished product?

    like putting sexy tires on a car and saying, every few days they'll go flat on you, but that's ok.

    oh, and try to keep your opinions of what looks ugly and what doesn't to yourself anand, your ego is getting up there with tom's and too many others. stick with the numbers and facts.
  • Penti - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    I don't feel to excited about the Atom any more. 9400M is overrated, mainly because of Apple, a Conroe-L would be so much better too. Atom will never cut it for multimedia. Even the AMD Neo is a bit weak but at least it's powerful enough for Vista Business. Atom is a nice chip for embedded computing but I don't care for it any where else. Netbooks is fun but I don't care much for XP Home or linpus/xandros (I would just install a distro my self) and Netbooks with hard drives or a bit bigger SSDs aren't cheap. So they don't feel like the right device for me.
  • nubie - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    Is the Celeron 430 really a 1MB level 2 cache?

    I have two and they are most certainly 512mb cache.

    (I can't tell if you are using the mobile Celeron 430 or not.)

    Yet another reason the D201GLY2 motherboard should never have been killed.

    I would rather see a 2Ghz Core2 Solo and the 9400m paired up on a mini-itx board.

    Actually a Pentium Dual Core 2.2-2.4Ghz with 2 or 3 MB level 2 cache sounds perfect. And it may even be affordable if the 9300 Itx board comes out.

    The real problem is the case, we need better slimmer cases with heatpipe cooling (no moving parts). Lian Li needs to get on it and make a Mini-itx case.

    (I understand that this is smaller than mini-itx, but I don't care, mini-itx is a better standard for general purpose machines, the Ion project is for netbooks and appliances, not enthusiasts.)
  • sprockkets - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    There are fanless cases, you just need to know where to look.


    Gen ITX news: www.mini-ITX.com

  • nubie - Saturday, February 7, 2009 - link

    I have been building ITX systems for 6 years, I am well aware of the cases available.

    Re-read what I said:

    The real problem is the case, we need better slimmer cases with heatpipe cooling (no moving parts). Lian Li needs to get on it and make a Mini-itx case.

    As I said, the current crop of cases is too bulky and stupid looking with not enough cooling.

    If you allowed the unit to be only as tall as the rear panel I/O and used a good heatpipe to one side of the motherboard PCB, with room for either an expansion card to the other side with a 90° header you could get a 9800GT and a 3.2Ghz dual core into a case a little bigger than a Eeepc 904, with a heck of a lot more power.

    If you want to tell me there are sexy mini-itx cases save your breath, I haven't seen one half as compelling as this: http://sportcompactpc.com/web/default.aspx">http://sportcompactpc.com/web/default.aspx

    That case can hold a full ATX board with a dual-slot pci-e card, a full hard drive (or two), and isn't all that much bigger than most ITX cases.

    I have some requirements:

    Slim (as mentioned, only 2-3cm more than the rear panel header opening)

    No moving parts (no fans)

    Heatpipe cooling (for the video card too.)

    Room for an 9800GT (or the new 9600GT with the reduced power requirements).

    If I had a couple thousand to spend I would assuredly design my own and start prototyping it on some of the services that make custom cases. (sorry, cant' find it now, but they offer a free CAD program so you can design your case)

    My problems with current cases?

    CD Drives block heatsinks and make the case too big, put them under the motherboard in an additional expansion, so you can remove it if you don't need it.

    Cases are too deep, front to back I haven't seen one that is the same size as a standard VCR/DVD player (AKA they won't fit around my TV in the entertainment cabinet). Fix this by making the motherboard abut the front of the case with a small gap of 1-2cm and then make the front panel modular so that the RAM slots/Headers are still usable.

    Lack of good cooling solutions. Not one case has a good heatsink that comes with it. What use is a small PC if you need a freaking 1U fan that screams at 13,000RPM? Or you are forced to use a (shudder) Atom CPU?

    Lack of proper space for add-on card. The only case I know of with proper add-on card space is the Morex Cubid series, unfortunately they are obscenely deep and look like a DirecTV box.
  • sikahr - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    You see, Pineview is first Intel CPU with integrated GPU, available first quarter 2010, and after that there will be no "simple" atoms without graphics. Result, bye bye Ion.

    Nvidia is out of chipset business very soon.
  • Slappi - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    You are a nutjob.

    AMD is going bust as we speak.

    INTC's chip combo will be weak.

    NVDA has 1.3 billion dollars.

    NVDA is making money.

    You are a moron.

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