The choice of games that can be tested on both platforms is fairly restrictive due to their power and performance limitations—you can forget about trying to run Crysis, for example. We chose a “casual” game that’s representative of the kind of game netbook or nettop purchasers might want to run--one that Nvidia picked to show off the merits of its chipset at CES: Spore.
The first lesson here is that the Atom is really short on headroom. Even when we lowered the resolution and the level of detail, it was hard to reach an average of 25 fps. The fact that increasing the resolution for a given level of graphics detail hardly made a difference shows that the CPU is where the bottleneck is.
The second lesson was that the GeForce 9400M was the only chip that was able to achieve playable frame rates, up to low-detail at a resolution of 1280x1024. For a game like Spore, 25 frames per second is sufficient.
Finally, compared to the Intel platform, the Ion showed an average gain of 73% at 800x600, 160% at 1024x768, and 145% at 1280x1024. Such differences prove that even an Atom is powerful enough to be limited by the 945GC chipset’s integrated GPU.
Call of Duty 4
The second game Nvidia says is a good demonstration of the Ion’s capabilities is Call of Duty 4, better known as “CoD4” to its fans. Our 945GC motherboard stubbornly refused to launch CoD4, despite repeated attempts and reinstallations. Oddly, we were expecting an error pointing to an incompatibility of the graphics card, but it was the motherboard’s sound circuitry that seemed to be the problem—even when we disabled it in the BIOS. Whatever the reason, we can only confirm Nvidia’s predictions: CoD4 will not run on an Intel 945GC/Atom motherboard.
On the Ion, CoD4 fired up with no problem. But the frame rates we achieved were nothing to write home about. At the lowest resolution that’s available in the game settings--640x480--with all the detail cursors set to the minimum, Ion couldn’t quite reach the threshold of 25 fps. Fortunately, it wasn’t all that far from that level, and for an uncompetitive player (somebody who’d play the game on a nettop or netbook and not mind getting blasted at regular intervals) it might be good enough. You might even be able to move up to 800x600 or activate 2x AA without losing too much fluidity.