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NVIDIA’s ION Platform: Hands-On Impressions

Date: January 23, 2009
Author(s): Greg King

There’s been a fair amount of attention hovering around NVIDIA’s ION this month, and for good reason. It’s small, offers decent performance, and can deliver huge peripheral connectivity. We were able to spend some time with the ION earlier this month, putting it through various tests, such as gaming, HD playback and even Photoshop. Read on for all of our experiences.



Introduction

The ION from NVIDIA, first seen two weeks ago at CES in Las Vegas, has been garnering its fair share of coverage since we posted our first look at the pico-ITX platform last week. While at the NVIDIA booth, we were actually allowed to sit down, or rather stand up, with the ION platform and run our own benchmark runs to see if it jived with the numbers handed out by NVIDIA in their press kit.

Before we get to deep in our analysis, let’s take a look at the different pieces of ION and where NVIDIA is trying to position themselves with the platform.

For this platform, NVIDIA has enlisted Intel’s tried-and-true Atom processor. Consuming under 10W of power and built using the 45nm process, the Atom’s have been one of the driving forces behind the emergence of the netbook phenomenon over the past year or so. As sales of the lower-power, ultra-portable netbooks continue to climb further and further into the stratosphere, each and every one (aside from a few VIA powered books) leverage the new Intel silicon to great effect.

At the other end of the ION, we have the NVIDIA-developed GPU. Using the GeForce 9400M, the same chip powering Apple’s MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, NVIDIA has taken this mighty mobile GPU and stuck it on the same board as the Intel Atom. Clocked at 580 MHz with 16 Shader (or CUDA) processors, the 9400M is capable of true 1080p HD playback.

We witnessed such playback first hand at CES as the guys in green had an ION setup streaming 1080p content at right around 40 Mbps (which is equivalent to top-end Blu-ray movies). With this silicon, NVIDIA can off-load many everyday tasks from the Atom and onto the 9400M.

Using their GPU to transcode video, accelerate Photoshop and run Vista’s Aero, NVIDIA now has a machine that can literally fit in the palm of your hand, and while none of us expect to see this platform popping up at the next AsylumLAN, it’s even powerful enough to churn through Call of Duty 4 with playable frame rates at 1024×768. Not bad for a machine that’s not much larger than the mouse used to interact with the display it renders!

What We Worked With

Housed in a black aluminum chassis and armed with a Dual-Core, Hyper-Threading Atom 330, NVIDIA wasted no time in showing us just was the reference ION system was capable of doing. Handing Rob and I both press sheets full of information pertaining to the day’s demonstrations, they quickly started showing off what the ION could do compared to an Acer netbook.

As we mentioned in our “Best of CES 2009” article, the comparison between the ION and the netbook wasn’t too fair overall. We were shown a streaming HD clip of the Vegas strip at night running on both machines, and while the netbook produced what can only be called a slide show, the ION kind of shrugged its shoulders and asked for more punishment.

To be fair to NVIDIA, their intent throughout the demonstration was not to show up the netbook, but rather to show just how powerful a netbook can be using the ION platform. In that context, a netbook could suddenly become a viable replacement for a notebook power user on the go.

Before we go on, the ION on display consisted of the following specs:

The box that we saw was dressed to the nines. NVIDIA wanted to show off the many I/O options that their OEM partners can use to meet the needs of a particular market. The demo machine had VGA, DVI, HDMI, Ethernet, six USB 2.0, 2 eSATA, optical audio and 7.1 surround sound audio. This is quite a bit of ports for such a small device, to say the least.

This flexibility will allow system builders to pick and choose which options they want to offer on their ION based devices which in turn, should allow them to keep a few SKU’s prices in check when these machines start to hit the market sometime later this year. NVIDIA also mentioned during our meeting, that if a manufacturer wanted to scale peripheral functionality way down, the device could become almost half the size of what it is in the image.

As we mentioned earlier, the first thing we were shown was a short look of an aerial trip down the Vegas strip. The MPEG4 AVC kept a pretty consistent 40Mbps average. More interesting was the CPU usage throughout this demo. While the 1080p content was being displayed, the CPU usage bounced between 8 and 18 percent and averaged out around 13 percent. This was a good way to showcase the power of the NVIDIA 9400M and makes a great case for anyone looking for a space-conscious HTPC.

We know that it can run high-definition movies, but what else? On the next page, I’ll take a look at the few gaming examples were we shown during our meeting, and also discuss other potential the ION holds.

Gaming on ION, Final Thoughts

While the gaming performance on the ION wasn’t earth-shattering, what was exhibited was adequate enough to actually play current games at decent frame rates. As mentioned earlier, I don’t expect these devices to end up on a gamer’s desk anytime soon, but it does give us a great example of what could be possible on future netbooks.

On display for us to play was Call of Duty 4 and Spore. Both games are popular in their own right with CoD4 being far and away my favorite FPS of last year. Using 2GB of DDR3 memory and a SATA II 7200 RPM drive, CoD4 loaded quickly and in no time, Rob instinctively entered the console command to kick off our benchmarking level for this particular game, Bog.

It was interesting to see Rob instinctively run the same route every time, shooting at the same places at the exact same time with each pass. You can tell he does this every day of his life when benching either CPUs or GPUs. Throughout the entire run, he ran FRAPS in the background to capture the results. At the end of the run, he came out with a playable 28 FPS. Again, not earth-shattering by any means, but considering that it is on a tiny pico-ITX machine, the results were impressive.

Up next was Spore. We didn’t run a FRAPS capture on this game but with medium to low settings across the board (1024×768), the game ran smoothly and without issue. I’m not a huge fan of the game but like any Will Wright creation, there are PLENTY of those out there that love it and being able to rotate around the 3D environment as smooth as we were was refreshing.

We were also allowed to run through a few rounds of 3DMark ’06. Our results were on par with what NVIDIA was reporting and we ended up with an average score of just over 1500. Not bad for such a small device.

To emphasize the ION as a platform that everyone can use, NVIDIA then let us fire up Adobe Photoshop CS4 to show off the GPU acceleration that the MacBook Pro and Air guys have been enjoying for a while now. We were able to open up a very large photograph and using the zoom function, we could move into and away from the picture relatively smoothly.

Admittedly, it was a choppy experience but it wasn’t unusable, and again, this shows the power of the 9400M. Having used a MacBook Pro on occasion, I do know that the effects could be smoother on notebooks/PCs with discrete graphics cards, but having the ability to run off an integrated GPU in the ION at all is impressive. In addition to the zoom, we could also use the 9400M to aid in the smooth rotation of the image at any angle we desired to set it at.

The use of Photoshop on the ION will not interest many of you. It might not interest ANY of you, but for those on the go, this allows image manipulation on the go in a small, portable and convenient netbook.

Final Thoughts

We have mentioned the use of ION in netbooks quite a few times throughout this article but this is not the sole focus on NVIDIA. To be perfectly clear, NVIDIA isn’t going to make a product at all, at least for us consumers. What they are doing is providing the technology to OEM builders to do with what they want.

I would love to see notebooks with netbook characteristics, but featuring a large screen. A 13″ notebook using this technology would allow a full-sized keyboard to be used and could be made extremely thin. With the ION being no larger than it is, a manufacturer could take that design and use the rest of the open space in the notebook’s chassis to route cooling.

With that much area to dissipate heat, we could see a super thin notebook with a CD drive for a reasonable price. Car audio is another place that this could be implemented. Interactive touch screen navigation could really benefit from the power that the ION holds.

In all honesty, the ION could be used in countless applications. Tiny HTPCs, netbooks, notebooks, nettops, the before mentioned car navigation units… the list goes on and on.

One thing that we were unable to test was battery life of devices using the ION platform. The only box there was a wired unit so as of now, we cannot report on the power advantages of using an ION-based product. While we won’t be seeing any products based on the ION really soon, we have seen where it’s headed and if it can live up to its potential, then the sky’s the limit.

A lot of that is out of NVIDIA’s hands, however. Much of it depends on their partners and where they choose to take it. We left our meeting with NVIDIA excited for the future of small form-factor computing. My primary issue with netbooks has been their power and performance, and ION addresses this and I can only hope it’s implemented well in the future.

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