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Hardware Under The Hood

Nvidia's Ion: Lending Atom Some Wings
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We removed the Ion platform from its box with a certain amount of excitement; it’s an object that inspires fascination. Being accustomed to the Mac mini, we were genuinely surprised by its compactness—we couldn’t believe such a complete platform could fit in there.

The Ion’s connectivity is impressiveThe Ion’s connectivity is impressiveMac mini, GeForce 9400M, and Ion: Made for each other Mac mini, GeForce 9400M, and Ion: Made for each other

Of course, we got out our screwdriver and took a look inside. First came the cover panel that protects the hard disk--a 200 GB Seagate Momentus 7200.2. The main entrance, though, is via the other side of the micro-case. You slide back the top cover, and then the motherboard becomes visible.

The 2.5” hard disk is mounted underneath The 2.5” hard disk is mounted underneath The Ion’s insides, with the lid offThe Ion’s insides, with the lid off

The Ion is, in fact, made up of two PCBs stacked on top of each other inside the chassis. The first is the motherboard itself. The Atom processor is mounted on it, next to the chipset. They’re both covered by a thin aluminum radiator with a 40 mm x 10 mm fan in its center. Judging from its size, we can already surmise that the cooling system will provide minimal heat dissipation.

Exploded viewExploded view

In addition to the processor and chipset, mounted on the motherboard are the necessary connectors for making this a standalone PC: Serial ATA (SATA), Gigabit Ethernet, Dual-Link DVI and USB 2.0 ports, and even an HDMI port.

The motherboard and daughterboard communicate via this portThe motherboard and daughterboard communicate via this port

What about the RAM? It goes into the back of the motherboard, in a SO-DIMM slot. To suit the occasion, Nvidia has used DDR3 memory. While still more expensive than DDR2, DDR3 is a good choice here. Its higher frequency guarantees increased bandwidth to the CPU, and more importantly to the chipset and its integrated graphics core, the main memory is used as the video frame buffer. It’s also more power-friendly, which is right on target for a platform touted for its low power consumption.

One final connector on the motherboard, which we couldn't immediately identify, serves to connect the motherboard with its daughterboard on the level below. Despite its proprietary physical format, this port is surely a PCI Express. It has to supply enough bandwidth for all possible connections to the daughterboard—and there’s a number of them: SATA (used by the internal hard disk), two eSATA, six USB, eight-channel analog audio, and digital optical. This port also supplies power to the motherboard, so the latter isn’t entirely autonomous.

In all, our Ion reference PC has no less than:

  • 2 internal SATA ports
  • 2 eSATA ports
  • 7 USB 2.0 ports
  • 6 analog audio jacks
  • 1 S/PDIF audio connector
  • 1 DVI Dual Link connector
  • 1 VGA connector
  • 1 HDMI connector
  • 1 Gigabit Ethernet connector

It’s a pleasure to see such complete connectivity on such a small PC. Let’s hope that the nettops based on the Ion platform will keep this decisive advantage of the reference design.

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