Nvidia's Ion: Lending Atom Some Wings

GeForce 9400M Versus 945GC

A Three Year Age Difference

One chip to rule them allOne chip to rule them all

We already described the characteristics of the GeForce 9400/9300 chipset when we first tested it—see Move Over G45: Nvidia's GeForce 9300 Arrives. The GeForce 9400M is an almost identical product, featuring the same GeForce 9-series core with its 16 stream processors. The biggest difference we can find between the desktop 9400 and its mobile version is simply the clock frequencies of the core and shaders: 580 MHz /1,400 MHz for the 9400, and 450 MHz/1,100 MHz for the 9400M.

Aside from the slower clock speed, which is necessary in order to keep power consumption low, the features we liked on the 9400 are still there: DDR2-800 or DDR3-1333 memory compatibility, support for all Intel processors with 1066 MHz FSB maximum (so far there are no mobile Intel CPUs with a faster FSB), support for dual-link DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort interfaces, Gigabit Ethernet, an HD Azalia audio codec, a maximum of 12 USB 2.0 ports, and 3 Gbps SATA ports. As for peripheral interfaces, the mobile GeForce manages one PCI Express x16 slot, four PCIe x1 slots, and five PCI slots. The GeForce uses a 65 nm fabrication process, and has a total die surface of 1225 mm2 (35 x 35 mm). Nvidia rates its TDP at 12 W.

The 945GC chipset is part of the large “Lakeport” family of Intel chipsets, which has no fewer than seven members. If you count their “mobile” cousins from the Calistoga family, there are a total of 13 memebers. That’s a lot of core logic, but the differences between each model are subtle. All you need to know is that the 945GC is the chipset Intel sells coupled with its Atom desktop processors (the 230 and 330). For its netbook mobile Atom processor (N270), on the other hand, Intel requires that its 945GSE chipset be used.

GeForce: Smaller, With Better Performance

Top to bottom: the Atom, the 945GC northbridge, and the ICH7. Note the size compared to the DIMM slot.Top to bottom: the Atom, the 945GC northbridge, and the ICH7. Note the size compared to the DIMM slot.

These chipsets are far from being brand new. The first representatives of the Lakeport family hit the market in Spring 2005 (early 2006 for the Calistogas). One of the consequences of their advanced age is that the 945GC uses a 90 nm fabrication process. The 945GC is also not a single-chip product like the GeForce 9400M. The 82945GC northbridge has to be attached to a 82801GB southbridge, also known as ICH7.

The consequences of this are twofold. First, the 945GC + ICH7 combination eats up a lot of real estate: the northbridge measures 34 x 34 mm, and the southbridge 31 x 31 mm. Add a few square millimeters of space between the two ICs and you end up with twice the surface area taken up on the PCB when compared with the GeForce 9400.

Here, the GeForce 9400M and the Atom CPU. That’s a lot of space saved!Here, the GeForce 9400M and the Atom CPU. That’s a lot of space saved!

The second impact of the older design is that total power consumption is high. According to Intel, the 945GC’s TDP is 22.2 W, and the Atom 230 + 945GC + ICH7 platform has a TDP of 29.5 W. The GeForce 9400M claims a TDP of only 12 W. The Atom itself consumes 4 W, putting the Ion at 16 W total—just above half the TDP of the Intel platform.

Finally, let’s look at performance. The 945GC’s integrated graphics core is the well known (and not necessarily for good reasons) GMA950. It’s DirectX 9- and Shader Model 2.0-compatible, clocked at 400 MHz, and armed with four pixel shaders, one vertex shader, and four ROPs. In other words, it’s from the pre-DirectX 10 unified shader era. It uses part of the main memory as video memory. On the D945GCLF, the inclusion of a single DIMM slot reduces bandwidth to approximately 5 GB/s. By comparison, the GeForce 9400M, with its DDR3-1066 slot, has 8.3 GB/s of bandwidth.

Theoretically, out of the starting gate, the GeForce 9400M has an enormous advantage over its only current competitor. But will that theoretical lead hold up in practice? Isn’t so much graphics power for a CPU as weak as the Atom casting pearls before swine? And is the Nvidia chipset good at anything besides graphics?

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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.
  • 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...
  • 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
  • danimal_the_animal

    isnt this the same sample everyone else got to test??? just that Tomshardware happend to get one with a single core rather than the dual core 330 that everyone else was getting?

    I wonder if they sent Toms hardware a single core sample just to rule out the need for a dual core....since everyone else got that version.

    what would be cool is if you could stack two boards together making it a quad or even more (scalable power) although i know the board probably only supports a single CPU....a board with two dual core CPU's on it sounds reasonable to me though!!!

    nice small quiet and efficient server.

    does the Atom have VM support?
  • roberotto
    Why be surprised about the serial port on the intel board? There is so much application for this aged port that nobody plan move to usb, and there's no gain for this. The parallel port is a blessing. For those who disagreed, the current notebook that I am writing has an proprietary adapter with two serial ports, two parallels (male + female), and has some others special ports. The side part is that it is relatively new (T7250/Centrino Duo/2gb ddr2), not a museum peace at all.
    The first time that I see this Intel platform, the only two things that comes in mind was industrial/house automation and thin clients.No need for six audio ports or so many sata connection in this usage. Nothing about games or hd video playback. One of the most used industrial touch panel runs on a Windows CE environment. I mind with this, we can improve the operator GUI and program in a more friendly ambient.
    But the nVidia counterpart is a awesome platform, but don't fits industrial port needs. And I agreed: it's perfect for the new Mac Mini.
  • cletus_slackjawd
    Good article, I should read again before posting but I won't.
    I'm not really sure what the intended market is for these. They are cool beans because small is cute and low power is always good but no mass storage in this form factor so rule out HTPC, still too weak for gaming. I suppose they would make for neat little machines for kiddos, or tinkerers like the enthusiast community here. Someone is going to overclock 'em with water cooling to attempt to run crysis! But seriously, what's the cost on these? I just built an MSI Wind desktop for a coworker who doesn't need to game, it's pretty awesome. I think adding graphics horsepower in this category is like a DVD player w/built in coffee maker. Just doesn't make much sense. Convince me otherwise. Oh, again good article seriously, and I'm glad Nvidia is competing in this segment with Intel. Performance and value will improve now.
  • Uncle Meat
    "Despite its proprietary physical format, this port is surely a PCI Express."

    It is surely not. The controllers for everything on the daughterboard are in the chipset.