Nvidia's Ion: Lending Atom Some Wings

Games: Spore And Call of Duty


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

CoD4 isn’t at home on a 945GC motherboard

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.

  • 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.