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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  • sikahr - Thursday, February 5, 2009 - link

    It'2 not about money.
    It'2 not about weak INTC's chip combo.
    It's about platforms. AMD&Intel have whole platform to sell.
    NVidia haven't.
    Soon there will be no entry level processors from Intel&AMD without integrated GPU in CPU.

    So, to resume it:

    Nvidia is out of chipset business very soon.

    You can call me nutjob or moron, but that is how things really are.
    Look, I don't hate Nvidia, all my 3d video cards till now are Nvidia, but this is reality about future of chipsets.
  • chrnochime - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    You've just made yourself a fanboy by calling someone a moron.

    So what if they have 1.3b? Intel has tons more money and they can crush Nvidia anytime they want.

  • Hrel - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    What the hell is going on with that guy's face in the Casino Royal picture??!! It looks like his face is morphing with male genitalia???
  • yyrkoon - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    "The GeForce 9400M is a far better chipset than Intel’s 945G. It should be, it’s a good four years newer. But I do wonder if we’ve taken things a little too far here. I wonder if Ion actually has too much GPU and not enough CPU? Don’t get me wrong, I like Ion; I’d like to have it over a standard 945G platform. I’m just not sure what I’d do with it."

    I'd use it on our RE system ( renewable energy; Solar/Wind ), and worry less about how much power I am drawing while watching SD video at night. Also perfect for many other applications such as low res gaming, IRC, Photo editing with CS2/CS3, web browsing, and the list goes on and . . .

    Bottom line; Whether you're on grid, or off grid ( RE, or utility power ) you're going to use less power and worry less about either your battery bank going down too far, or paying too much for power for doing most mundane tasks.

    Right now, I use a AM2 mini ATX board with nv 6150 graphics, an AM2 1210 underclocked to 1Ghz, and undervolted to .80v, and still use ~75W with a 19" WS LCD. It'll play some modest games well @ 1024x728, it'll run CS3 well enough. However, I suspect an ION system would handle all this just as good or better while cutting another 20-30W power consumption.

    Now . . . here is to hoping that "we" will see some good ~100W 80Plus power supplies around the corner. That is, assuming OEMs give us a desktop/barebones options.
  • strikeback03 - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    As mentioned, these power numbers don't seem exactly impressive. Assuming the quoted numbers are correct, plenty of laptops can match/beat those. Plus, they already include the power supplies. Assuming your monitor draws around 30W, you could easily use that with a laptop and get 40-45W total at idle, and maybe 60 W at load. Plus, it would probably not be nearly as painful as Atom to run Photoshop on.
  • iwodo - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    Am i the only one who thinks there is something wrong with that Idle Power?

    You mentioned 1 Atom Core being disabled, is that re enabled during other benchmark?

    I cant wait to see how a 40nm Geforce 9400 will do.

    Only If Atom is 64Bit Capable. I could see new Mac Mini coming.
    Honestly I think Ion is capable of doing 95% of what i do day to day on my computer.
  • sprockkets - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    The Atom is 64-bit capable and is hyperthreading enabled. Going from a C2D to an Atom is a downgrade for the Mac Mini.

    But that won't stop Apple from putting a positive spin on that...
  • Casper42 - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    You guys crack me up.

    "We didn’t have an external Blu-ray drive so this was the best method of being able to watch a Blu-ray on the machine"

    1) Grab a SATA to eSATA converter that comes with every Gigabyte Mobo you have reviewed in the last 3 years and use that to connect a SATA BluRay Drive (I dont think they even make PATA Blu-Ray) to one of the eSATA ports on the Ion
    2) Hook up a power supply from a nearby ATX machine OR use a single drive power supply like the ones that come with the USB to SATA Adapter most good PC Techs keep in their bag (http://c1.neweggimages.com/NeweggImage/productimag...">http://c1.neweggimages.com/NeweggImage/productimag...

    Problem solved!
  • anandtech02148 - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    we're good to go for summer browsing. decent gpu is perfectly match for widescreen web browsing. sounds like a fun hobby to build one of these little toy.
  • UNCjigga - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    Any chance AMD will slip you a full-on Neo "Yukon" reference platform for comparison testing?

    Also, will the Ion chipset support VIA's Nano?

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