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Nvidia's Ion: Lending Atom Some Wings

”Winning” would be a good word to describe how we feel about the Ion platform Nvidia has put together. They’ve come up with the ideal complement to the Intel Atom processor—putting the two together results in a system that’s extremely compact, very affordable, and impressively flexible. In the space taken up by a carton of cigarettes, they’ve put a complete PC (except for the external power brick) capable of handling the vast majority of the tasks we want today’s computers to perform. This includes Web browsing and office applications, of course, but also occasional games—even recent, demanding titles—and even HD video playback.

From this point of view, Ion is not very far from being the ideal home theater PC—one that can finally find a home in most living rooms without being an eyesore because of its size, and without being a nuisance because of its noise level. And remember, our judgment is based on a reference platform, with all the rough edges still on it, and with no particular visual-design effort behind it. You can easily imagine what an inspired manufacturer could do with these basic components. Indeed, the rumors we’ve heard that Apple may be planning to use Ion as the foundation of the next Mac minis or Apple TVs are very interesting. Let’s hope that many other manufacturers are thinking along those lines, and that they will launch innovative products too.

Let’s hope. Because Ion’s future is not as rosy as we may have made it sound. That’s not because of any technological shortcomings, but rather because of the position Nvidia is in, where Intel is concerned. By launching Ion, Nvidia has just stirred up the tranquil waters of the placid pond Intel has planned for itself this year. The netbook wave in 2008 was really more of a tidal wave, and it filled Intel’s pockets, since they were the exclusive supplier of the components. Even during an economic crisis, 2009 is looking like another good year for netbooks and nettops, and Intel won’t want to let anyone else have a piece of this very large pie.

According to certain persistent rumors—which Intel is denying—Intel is trying to put a lock on the market by refusing to sell Atom processors independently of its 945GC (or GSE) chipsets (Ed.: although, to be fair, Intel insisted to us at CES that it'd absolutely sell Atom by itself). So, for each Ion computer built, the manufacturers would have to pay for an Intel chipset they wouldn’t use. That additional expense might be enough to dissuade manufacturers from getting on the Ion bandwagon, especially in the netbook market, where every dollar counts.

And that’s not all. Intel also plans to renew its basic Atom platform, dumping the weak 945 chipset and replacing it with the GN40, derived from the G45. With its 45 nm fabrication process and resulting low power consumption, HD video decoding capabilities, better 3D performance and more, this new platform could pull the rug out from under the Ion platform.

Well, it’s time for us to put away our crystal ball. Only the future will tell whether the Ion will be the Atom’s best friend.

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  • -6 Hide
    rootheday , February 6, 2009 5:22 AM
    Let's be clear - the Ion reference platform is for a nettop - not a netbook. Its based on the dual core Atom 330. I doubt very much that Ion with a single code Atom 230 or N270 would have enough horsepower to do the BD decryption required for BD playback.
  • 2 Hide
    matthieu lamelot , February 6, 2009 6:01 AM
    Please, let me be clear : the platform reviewed was equipped with an Atom 230, not a 330, as is perfectly obvious from the pictures (one single die on the CPU package).
    And, yes, it's powerful enough (thanks to the 9400M) to smoothly playback a BD like Casino Royale (including the HDCP decryption). CPU utilization rose to around 67 % during that test.
    And even though the Ion ref platform is kind of a nettop (and we tested it with that in mind, comparing it to Intel's nettop platform), it could also fit in a netbook since 9400M TDP is very close to that of Intel 945GSE chipset that is found in most netbooks today : 12 W compared to 9,3 W. Nvidia and its partners would just need to drop 9400M's frequency a bit.
  • 0 Hide
    randomizer , February 6, 2009 6:36 AM
    Matthieu, I'm not sure who makes the onboard sound, but if it's Realtek you need to have Stereo Mix enabled for CoD 4 to run. Also, I found that I couldn't start CoD4 (with what appears to be the same error even though I can't really understand it) without plugging in speakers. Yes, speakers. Although any output device might have sufficed.
  • 0 Hide
    mitch074 , February 6, 2009 7:07 AM
    Realtek codecs are quite common (thus I concur with randomizer); some are quite advanced in that they do automatic detection of what kind of hardware is connected to what pin (through best guess from device impedance, considering the low dB noise those codecs output they are some precise piece of ingineering), allowing autodetection of the sound setup (they will detect if you replace a microphone with a set of speakers, and switch configuration from stereo+microphone to 4.0 audio, for example; that requires driver support though).
    If CoD4 requires sound (some games are funny this way) and no hardware is plugged in, then the sound card may report a status CoD4 wasn't expecting, and refuse to run.
  • 0 Hide
    randomizer , February 6, 2009 7:09 AM
    Well you'd think that they would have patched the game so that it doesn't have problems with needing Stereo Mix and output devices by now. What if my speakers are dead? That's just poor...
  • 1 Hide
    amnotanoobie , February 6, 2009 7:39 AM
    I immediately looked at the benchmark images, instead of reading the accompanying text around it, and I thought "WTH is AMD (green bar) doing on the nVidia ION platform." I thought I was linked to another page of another review.
  • -9 Hide
    Anonymous , February 6, 2009 7:53 AM
    hei man pls ...for now nvidia platform has some advantages but with DX11 you will not need gpu any more for now it's ok for future this platform will be nothing but dust
  • 0 Hide
    nukemaster , February 6, 2009 10:20 AM
    You may not need a GPU, but a GPU is still far faster then the cpu at running games.

    Good review its about time Atom got a little help.
  • -4 Hide
    liemfukliang , February 6, 2009 11:13 AM
    I wont buy atom until it can run PCMark Vantage, 3DMark Vantage. I don't mean it has to be high score, I just one it is finish the test and not error. :) 
  • 0 Hide
    Tekkamanraiden , February 6, 2009 11:16 AM
    I'd like to be able to buy one of those little reference systems. It would make a nice little HTPC.
  • 0 Hide
    gwolfman , February 6, 2009 1:20 PM
    amnotanoobieI immediately looked at the benchmark images, instead of reading the accompanying text around it, and I thought "WTH is AMD (green bar) doing on the nVidia ION platform." I thought I was linked to another page of another review.

    LOL, I caught that too. "AMD green" == nVidia Ion. lol too funny
  • 1 Hide
    gwolfman , February 6, 2009 1:27 PM
    Nice touch, :thumbsup:
  • 0 Hide
    PrangeWay , February 6, 2009 2:09 PM
    Quick question on audio playback during BR playback, 7.1 Dolby/DTS HD?
  • 0 Hide
    scJohn , February 6, 2009 4:10 PM
    Looking at the Setup page, it was not clear what kind of drive you used for the BR playback. Was it an internal or external drive?
  • 0 Hide
    trevorvdw , February 6, 2009 4:58 PM
    Atom with Wings .. where do they keep those at the grocery store?
  • 0 Hide
    bounty , February 6, 2009 5:04 PM
    330, BR/DVD burner, large HDD and a good tuner would be sweet. And 100Mb? come on, I want a server/htpc
  • 0 Hide
    bounty , February 6, 2009 5:07 PM
    Actually make that dual GIG nic's. Or at least 100 and 1GB so I can do some content filtering too.
  • 0 Hide
    TheEvolution , February 6, 2009 10:54 PM
    But the box looks ugly.....
  • 0 Hide
    danimal_the_animal , February 6, 2009 11:41 PM
    other sites report WAAAAY better results, but they seem to have gotten the dual core atom motherboards....also i heard you can over clock the atom to 1.9ghz sweet for a dual core!
    I want one of these to replace my mythTV box in the front room....just waiting for mythtv ver. 0.22 and VDPAU to come out.

    right now i have a asus pn5-em using the onboard video to playback all HDTV content as well ans blueray rips....was using an e2180 clocked at 2.66ghz untill i ran into a problem with stargate and also step into liquid where the audio was out of sync...actually the videocard could not keep up....i had to give my mythbox a swift kick in the ass with a q6600 running at stock everything runs perfect....but heck isnt the q6600 a 95watt CPU or is it rated higher...either way i could CERTAINLY use this ION but in a dual core version....with VDPAU all video would be taken care of by the videocard and a dual core atom would make perfect sense for what i am doing!

    c'mon Nvidia...RELEASE this little box! i really need it for a mythTV front end...
  • -1 Hide
    Anonymous , February 7, 2009 7:53 AM
    FYI, the provided Ion sample's formfactor is NOT the Pico-ITX!

    It is instead the updated formfactor, the Pico-ITXe. The revision includes the SUMIT connections that are the mystery connections.
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