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Nvidia's Ion: Lending Atom Some Wings

Nvidia's Ion: Lending Atom Some Wings
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Nvidia’s GeForce 9400 launch garnered the company a lot of publicity. After all, the chipset provided exactly what the market had been waiting for:

  • It’s compatible with Intel processors; with all due respect to AMD fans, up until Phenom II launched, these offered the best performance and lowest power consumption.
  • It’s built around modern graphics circuitry that’s as powerful as an entry-level GeForce add-in, and can decode HD video.
  • It does all of this with relatively low power consumption and a small footprint.

The GeForce 9400, and its mobile version, the 9400M, offer a lot more than Intel’s mobile chipsets. That’s particularly true in the area of graphics performance, be it for entry-level desktop PCs, multi-use computers, “home cinema” boxes, or laptops/notebooks. Apple, by the way, made its position clear, going so far as to totally abandon Intel’s integrated chipsets in its MacBook line of notebooks.

But beyond standard desktops and notebooks, Nvidia is aiming at the netbook and nettop market—a lucrative one in tight economic times like these. To go after that market, Nvidia developed its Ion platform. Unveiled a few weeks ago, the Ion reference platform consists of a case containing a pico-ITX motherboard with an Nvidia 9400M chipset and the de rigueur Intel Atom processor. 

Does Atom + 9400M add up to the best compromise between sufficient performance, flexibility, and lower energy consumption? Is the classic Intel platform really outmoded? To find out, we tested the very first Ion platform we could get our hands on, and compared it to the first Intel Atom board: the D945GCLF.

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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 ...so 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
    Quote:
    ConclusIon
    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
    OK,
    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 speed....now 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. http://www.samtec.com/search/sumit.aspx
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