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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  • cosmotic - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    PureVideo is more than a trademark... Its an application which interfaces with the nVidia driver to accelerate decoding. A program cannot simply offload to the GPU. Each card implements decode acceleration differently and applications must use some API that the driver exposes. Research would indicate that VLC is NOT hardware accelerated on Windows or MacOSX.
  • djc208 - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    nVidia offered two different items under the Purevideo name. One is the Purevideo software which was their for sale MPEG2 decoder for DVDs and similar content. It is just a codec designed to allow other programs to play back MPEG content. It does support certain hardware acceleration features but does not do anything other than MPEG2.

    The newer PureVideo HD is the name given the hardware decoding engine built into most 8xxx series and all newer graphics cards for handling H.264 decoding. It requires a software codec to implement it on the hardware, hence the use of Cyberlink in the tests. The GPU driver won't automatically shift H.264 decoding to the GPU.

    My understanding was that nVidia supported little of the VC-1 decoding on-chip. It's ATI that offers support for both in hardware.
  • xaris106 - Thursday, February 5, 2009 - link

    To be able to get hardware acceleration you need a DXVA enabled decoder.(assuming windows platform)
    The Cyberlink decoder uses this and you can use the decoder with any player you want (that can be configured with external decoders)
    I use the Cybelink decoder with Media player classic.

    Another decoder that has DXVA support is the internal decoder of media player classic home cinema, so you dont need to buy powerdvd for the decoder.

    see http://mpc-hc.sourceforge.net/DXVASupport.html
  • npp - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    Well, I can see a very nice and proper application for that kind of platform, it's exactly the thing I would buy right now - a tiny "file server" where I can easily pile up my music, and various backups as well.

    Zotac was very close to the point, with a mini-ITX board at CES, loaded with the GeForce 9300 chipset and all kinds of other goodies. However, it had a major problem, in my opinion - it just needed a "stand-alone" CPU, wich leads to the nasty problem with cooling. I have some sleek mini-ITX cases in mind, but they would never allow something bigger that a low-profile heatsink to fit in.

    In the same time, the lowest TDP offering from Intel for s775 right now is a 35W Celeron 420, which may make things difficult on the cooling side.

    So a mini-ITX board built around an Atom 330 could be a very decent solution. If you wonder why I haven't bought one of Intel's offering by now - well, I would like at least Aero enabled on my machine :) (ok, GMA950 can handle it to some extent, but it's not a smooth experience). Beyond that, none of the "essential" boards with embedded Atoms feature PCIe slot, which is something I would hope for on a Ion board.

  • sprockkets - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    Just go to the mini ITX case section at newegg.com. They have a bunch of cases that can handle those higher power processors.

    I'm testing the Winsys case, works great, and not too tight. Has a 200w power supply, but could be a bit higher quality. The Foxconn case is nice, has a FSP power supply, but is a bit cramped with the optical drive, and ppl say it has a loud fan in it.

    For that matter, a 2.5ghz dual core 45nm Pentium takes so little energy anyhow. My SG31G2 with that proc takes 75 watts at full load, with a 750GB WD Green drive.

    And, the heatsink that comes with that processor is fairly low profile, and will fit fine in the Foxconn or Winsys case. It will kinda fit in those Apex cases if you deal with the power supply a bit.
  • mrsmegz - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    What kind of Sleek ITX cases you have in mind. I find that the case selection is really the pitfall of the ITX market now. Would be nice if Lian-Li made some no BS case and Antec Came out w/ something nice bu affordable.
  • npp - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    You may want to take a look at caseking.de, I saw some really nice offerings from Silverstone there. There are a couple of models that come with built-in low power PSUs (must be some variation of the picoPSU), like that nice La Scala SST-LC19B-R or the real gem I would eagerly buy, the SST-ML02B-R Milo. The prices aren't exactly bargain, but given the high quality and niche status of such cases I find the ~170E level relatively acceptable. The only problem is the realy low height of those models which makes component selection a nightmare.
  • Casper42 - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    What would be nice is to see Case MFGs make some cases dedicated to Mini ITX file servers.

    Take something that looks like a NAS box with 4 drive bays and just stick a Mini ITX mount in the very bottom. Compared to 4 x 3.5" SATA drives, the Mini ITX board would be quite small.

    the caveat here is you would need a way to run 4 drives. But the Ion reference has 1 SATA and 2eSATA, and you could always add a JMicron type chip as well seeing as now nVidia says no limitations on bundles, so it shouldnt be that hard.
  • Casper42 - Thursday, February 5, 2009 - link

    Hehe, ask and you shall receive!


    QNAP has introduced an Atom Powered NAS device.
  • mrsmegz - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    This thing is screaming for a Boxee install on it. Since its open source, would be an awesome way to make a linux install w/ all drivers on disk ready to go for such a machine like this that could offer everything. Also looks like Nvidia will have a little competition from intel since the N280 is coming out later this year along with the GN40 chipset that will replace the craptastic 945G.

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