Nvidia's Ion: Lending Atom Some Wings

So, What About Intel?

The Intel D945GCLF uses a more classic designThe Intel D945GCLF uses a more classic design

In order to evaluate the wisdom of matching a chipset like the 9400M with a processor as… well, “mobile” as the Atom, we compared it with the only competing platform on the market: the Intel reference platform.

To accomplish this, we dug out our D945GCLF motherboard. It is also compact, being a mini-ITX format board. But next to the Ion, it starts looking huge. Its design is much more classic—there’s no daughterboard connected via PCI Express, and everything is on the same PCB. What’s “everything”? An Atom 230 processor (the same as in the Ion), an Intel 945GC chipset, the ICH7 southbridge, and a few ports and extension slots.

VGA, serial, parallel, and PS/2 ports... Welcome to the past!VGA, serial, parallel, and PS/2 ports... Welcome to the past!

One of the interesting differences between the platforms is their cooling systems. There’s a minuscule passive heatsink on the CPU, but a there’s a large heatsink (with a fan) on the chipset. This is the first sign that something’s not quite right with the chipset, but we’ll come back to that later.

Next to these three main ICs is a standard DDR2 DIMM slot (maximum 2 GB), but also two internal SATA ports, one IDE connector, one PCI slot, a parallel port, a serial port (yep, you heard right), a VGA port, two PS/2 ports, three analog audio jacks, a 100 Mbps Ethernet port, and four USB 2.0 ports. There are also connectors on the card for two additional USB ports.

So the Intel reference board is no slouch. But its connectivity shows the age of its supporting core logic—instead of eSATA and HDMI, you get VGA and serial connectivity.

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  • rootheday
    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.
  • matthieu lamelot
    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.
  • randomizer
    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.
  • mitch074
    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.
  • randomizer
    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...
  • amnotanoobie
    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.
  • Anonymous
    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
  • nukemaster
    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.
  • liemfukliang
    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. :)
  • Tekkamanraiden
    I'd like to be able to buy one of those little reference systems. It would make a nice little HTPC.
  • gwolfman
    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
  • gwolfman
    Nice touch, :thumbsup:
  • PrangeWay
    Quick question on audio playback during BR playback, 7.1 Dolby/DTS HD?
  • scJohn
    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?
  • trevorvdw
    Atom with Wings .. where do they keep those at the grocery store?
  • bounty
    330, BR/DVD burner, large HDD and a good tuner would be sweet. And 100Mb? come on, I want a server/htpc
  • bounty
    Actually make that dual GIG nic's. Or at least 100 and 1GB so I can do some content filtering too.
  • TheEvolution
    But the box looks ugly.....
  • danimal_the_animal
    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...
  • Anonymous
    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