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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  • sprockkets - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    Anand reported the GN40 will be mobile only and have no SATA on it. Not the same markets.
  • SirKronan - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    I have a car that has a decent-sized LCD screen built into the front of the dashboard (review camera, climate controls, etc.) From the moment I heard about Ion I got excited. I want to build one of those things into my car. I sure hope they are released with good pricing before the summer's over, because that's what my summer project will be. Kits online abound that add an external video input into my car's LCD. With one of those kits, I want to integrate the small Ion PC into my dashboard. I will also connect bluetooth and wireless N to it. I will integrate a USB port right into the dash as well. Using a solid state disk, I'll be able to consume a minimum amount of power, but it will be connected to everything. I'll have music on it, when we park in our driveway we can wirelessly sync content from our home media server, use a bluetooth mouse on the the dashboard, a bluetooth keyboard when we're at a random hotspot to surf the web. I'm so stoked for this. It will be noticeably faster than the 945 in all tasks, and playback video flawlessly. We won't have to pack around the laptop in the car to play videos for my son anymore. And, the project won't cost an arm and a leg ... hopefully.

    Thanks, Anand. Good review.
  • Casper42 - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    And with the 3D Acceleration, you could use a mapping software that does true 3D rendering as opposed to 2D sprites.
  • SirKronan - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    Absolutely. I plan on installing a USB based GPS as well. Will be a lot bigger screen than our current Garmin.
  • chucky2 - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    I was thinking along the same lines: This will be great for the Car PC crowd that wants video in their ride.

  • Bull Dog - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    I thought black was ok, not pretty but ok.

    White on the other hand is purely hideous.
  • shmina - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    The GeForce 9400M in the MacBook is spec'd at 16SP, with a core running at 450MHz with a 1.1GHz shader clock.

    The specs you stated are for the desktop GeForce 9400 that has a 30W TDP vs. the 15W for mobile.
  • deputc26 - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    Wait 20W at idle???? My Laptop with T8100, 8600m GT and 1440x900 screen, 802.11n and bluetooth(the huge power hog) draws only 11w at idle. How is this low power??
  • 7Enigma - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    I'm interested in the explaination here as well...
  • SilentSin - Tuesday, February 3, 2009 - link

    I noticed this too. Was powerplay not fully implemented in this thing? The Atom 330 is spec'd for 8W TDP vs. 2.5W for the 230 used in the Eee Box so the difference in power usage here seems to reflect that exact bump of about 5.5W in the CPU. So that means those power consumption figures point to the NV chipset using just as much power as the dinosaur 130nm 945G chip. What gives? I know there are a metric crapton of features added by using the NV chipset, but I would still expect an overall reduction. Remember that most reviews of the Atom platform seemed to blame the 945G for the "high" power usage figures. I would have hoped a more focused mobile-oriented chipset would have done better. Maybe the problem is in the demo box? It looks as if they are using dual phase power distribution where they could probably get away with single phase for something like this, maybe that is the culprit.

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