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NVIDIA ION Platform Review: Death (and Life) of the Netbook

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Manufacturer: NVIDIA
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I felt a great disturbance in Force...

...like a million Intel chipsets suddenly cried out and then were suddenly silenced. 

After having played with NVIDIA's ION platform for the past week in-house, I can honestly say that any company not at least seriously considering adopting an ION platform design has no desire to be on the forefront of PC technology.  I don't want to ruin the ending right out of the gate, but it shouldn't be a news flash: the Intel 945G chipset just cannot compare to modern GPU-based chipsets like the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M.  The ION platform, essentially the 9400M chipset coupled with an Intel Atom processor, easily becomes the best super-small-form-factor solution for netbooks, mini-PCs and even modest HTPCs. 

And though many of our readers will hate to hear it, but Apple called it on this one; they took Intel's chipset technology out of the MacBook line of products in October and will do the same for the iMac in the near future.  Replacing Intel's product was the very same 9400M chipset from NVIDIA that is included in the ION platform we will be evaluating today so if you have or have used a new MacBook or MacBook Pro you already have some experiences with half of this launch.  What you don't have is the comparisons to existing Atom platforms - how slow they actually are - and how complacent we all seem to have become.

NVIDIA ION Platform - goals for a company on the outs

NVIDIA calls the ION platform the "world's smallest fully-capable PC" and while that title is obviously a matter of opinion, in this kind of market that's a good claim to be aiming for.  By fully-capable NVIDIA is referring to features like DX10 gaming support, HD video decode acceleration, 7.1 channel HD audio support, Vista Premium support, 2560x1600 resolution support and of course NVIDIA-exclusive technologies like CUDA and PhysX are thrown in the mix as well. 

It may come as a surprise to some but in its current form the Intel Atom processor, the backbone of the majority of netbook platforms of the day, is somewhat crippled in the technology that can be paired with it.  Intel actually went as far as to restrict what kinds of configurations a manufacturer could design into a system using the Atom processor as way to help segment the market between the Atom CPU and Celeron/Core 2 lines of processors.  Nearly all current Atom-processor based systems use the Intel 945G chipset with integrated graphics and an older ICH south bridge product.  Most are only allowed to have a single DIMM slot and actually do NOT include any kind of PCI Express interface connections.  This keeps innovation and differentiation at a minimum but vendors have accepted it mainly because the market has been growing so quickly.

NVIDIA is attempting to shake up the market but pushing its way in with the ION platform.  The ION Platform is essentially an Intel Atom processor paired with the GeForce 9400M chipset that integrates graphics, memory controller and south bridge features into a single chip.  As I mentioned above, it is essentially the exact same product we saw in the new MacBook releases and in a desktop form for small-form-factor PCs. 



NVIDIA's reference design for the ION Platform

The benefits the GeForce 9400M chipset offers over the 945G chipset are enormous: MUCH better gaming performance and support, GPU off-loaded HD video decode acceleration, GPU-based encoding support, single chip design, faster DDR3 memory support and more.  There is always a trade-off of sorts though and in this case it comes in the form of power consumption - though NVIDIA's numbers are GOOD the 945G chipset still uses quite a bit less power overall. 

ION Platform Potential Placements

NVIDIA knows that enthusiasts and gamers are not going to be using an ION-based system for their gaming machine but the configuration we are testing today definitely could find a strong use in other markets including standard and mini-notebooks, small-form factor desktops and modest HTPCs and even all-in-one integrated designs. 

NVIDIA, much like Sony in this regard, will not be using the term "netbook" in any of its ION platform marketing.  (And it makes sense considering some recent comments from NVIDIA's CEO.)  Instead the ION platform will be used in "mini-notebooks" - whatever, it's all semantics at that point in my book. 

As you'll see on the following page the main components of the ION platform are very small and could easily fit in a system the size of an ASUS Eee PC or MSI Wind and might even be an option for something as sleek as the Sony VAIO P.  Maybe even more exciting is that the ION platform is powerful enough to find its way into larger systems - think a 15" screen with full 1080p support while still maintaining a low price with the use of Intel's Atom CPU. 

In the desktop world the ION platform would be an obvious choice or a SFF PC or modestly-powerful HTPC.  Remember when the Shuttle SFF boxes were the highlight of super-geeks' "small-computing" move?  Well the reference design that NVIDIA sent use for testing is even more impressive in the space department and could easily be found in future SFF designs; maybe even a refreshed Mac Mini or Apple TV product...?  Obviously then this same hardware design can be used for all-in-one designs from Dell or even...Apple? 

Just as Intel eventually caved in and realized that the world of netbooks and super-small-form-factor PCs was a growing trend they couldn't ignore, NVIDIA knows that to stay afloat in the coming months and years in our world economy getting a foot in the door with the world of tiny PCs is crucial.  The GeForce 9400M chipset and the ION platform is the companies best chance at survival, and maybe even growth, for 2009 and the immediate future.

One critical note here is that as of today, there are NO available systems or notebooks that use the ION platform as we are testing it here today.  While I have been told of at least two direct implementations of the ION design (one desktop and one netbook), they won't be available until near summer time; what NVIDIA is hoping to do by seeding tech journos with products today is getting users interested and craving the products that will eventually see the light of store shelves. 

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