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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  • chizow - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    Certainly getting ahead of myself a bit, but I wouldn't be shocked if Nvidia starts moving in this direction with a low-cost, decent performing fixed hardware PC gaming platform. All you'd need is slightly faster CPU and GPU, throw in a cheap GPU for dedicated PhysX.

    The ability to web-surf and play Blu-Ray back on a small platform is certainly interesting though. I agree they'll need to improve the aesthetics a bit on the housing, but for $200-300, the same price as a stand-alone Blu-Ray player, the Ion would certainly be a compelling option.

    I think some of the road blocks would be the Blu-Ray drive itself, whether you could actually play Blu-Ray media. Relying on streaming or ripped copies would make the tech much less appealing. Also, how about outputs? Is the Ion able to output 8ch LPCM or lossless bitstreams like DTS-HD or TrueHD? Anyways, looks interesting for sure and certainly a nice alternative to Intel's gimpy Atom chipset/platform.
  • JimmiG - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    To be honest, I don't think a more powerful GPU would have changed the way I use my Aspire One netbook.

    There's no need to be able to watch blu-ray movies, because lower resolution DivX etc. looks just as good on the 8.9” screen, and you can store a lot more of it locally (the system obviously lacks an optical drive).

    As for games, I might have installed a couple of games just for fun to see how awful they run. But I would quickly grow bored with them. Why play games at the lowest settings at 800x600 on a tiny screen using a mini-keyboard and at best a flimsy laptop mouse, when I've got a 22” monitor hooked up to a quad-core machine with 4850 graphics in the other room? If I was serious about playing games on the move, I would have skipped my desktop system altogether and bought a gaming notebook.

    It might be somewhat useful as a HTPC. The usefulness of the EeeBox in such a setting was severely limited by the poor graphics performance. On the other hand, you could just as easily get a small, stylish u-ATX case and build something around a cheap Athlon X2 or low-end Core2 Duo/Pentium Dual Core. With a PCI-E x16 slot, you could even install a decent videocard (4830) and not only use the system to play HD video, but also play the latest games on the living room TV. The system would only be slightly larger and hardly louder, but the cost would be about the same and you'd get a much more flexible system,
  • cosmotic - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    How about older games with potentially playable frame rates like Quake3, Warcraft3, and maybe even UT2004?
  • cosmotic - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    I think you are confusing CODECs with compression algorithms. The CODEC you are using in these tests is Cyberlink's h.264 CODEC which is a) tightly coupled to Cyberlink's super-crappy player, and b) (and im guessing here) only available in Cyberlink's super-crappy player. This isn't unexpected considering basically every other hardware accelerated decoder works the same way. However, I really wish that hardware decoder manufactueres would realize that it would be worlds more useful to users for their chips to ship with Generic DirectShow h.264 CODECs which could be used in ANY DirectShow based program.

    Please Anand, tell me I'm wrong and that the Cyberlink Player is actually running off of a DirectShow CODEC which is available to any other application!!! (in which case, why are you using that crap software?)
  • BikeDude - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    I would like to know the same thing myself. (I am certainly no Cyberlink fan -- they have a buggy codebase mixed with terrible support)

    Also: Is the PureVideo codec payware, or will this thing come with it bundled? (I assume PureVideo HD _is_ DirectShow)
  • cosmotic - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    Last I checked, PureVideo is a player using it's own CODEC. I think it's up to the OEM to pay to include it with their cards and I dont think any of them do, or if they do, they include what amount to 'lite' versions of old versions. I'm guessing nVidia decided to forgo maintaining their own player and just let Cyberlink handle all that. Even their website says to buy PowerDVD instead of PureVideo if you're running vista.
  • QChronoD - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    So the Ion won't do decoding on the graphics chip if you are playing a random .mkv through VLC???
  • apanloco - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    That's correct. It won't.
  • sprockkets - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    I've played 720p content on a dual core atom platform with VLC, but it works only if you turn off the deblocking of h264, which kills most of what makes h264 look so nice. Forget about 1080p.
  • xRyanCat - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    PureVideo is just marketing lingo for GPU accelerated video. All cards from 6600GT and up (I have a 6600GT, but it might apply to earlier cards) can offload a certain amount of CPU load to the GPU. With a 6600GT and an Athlon 64 3200+ (@2.5GHz) a 1080p video results in about 60%-80% constant CPU usage. Without GPU acceleration even 720p videos are unplayable. And VLC supports offsetting load to the GPU on Linux and Windows platforms. I know gXine also has the same support on Linux.

    I can't see why it wouldn't work.

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