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

Author: Ryan Shrout
Subject: Mobile
Manufacturer: NVIDIA
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Inside the ION

Last month I posted a quick two-page article on the NVIDIA ION platform as it was presented to us at CES in January that included some reference photos and benchmarks provided by NVIDIA's PR team.  Obviously this was not the kind of look at the technology we were really interested in so I was excited to hear that NVIDIA would be sending along a reference system last week.  After a three-day delay courtesy of old-man-Winter, I finally was able to spend some time with the ION platform and gather my thoughts. 

The heart of the ION platform (or at least one of them) lies in the GeForce 9400M chipset and graphics core.  This single chip product includes a DX10-ready 16 shader processor GPU design as well as a DDR2 and DDR3 memory controller, PCI Express 2.0 support, six SATA channels, HD audio output, Gigabit Ethernet and more.  This chipset first showed up as a mobile part for the release of Apple's MacBook products but was also launched in a desktop form for Core 2 processors.  For the ION platform NVIDIA has adapted the chipset to support the Intel Atom processor thus making it an option for even smaller and less expensive products. 
Inside this small box lies the ION platform reference system; the sample we actually received was a in case painted white but is still the same identical hardware and design as seen above.  Again, this is just a reference design and will more than likely never see the light of day as a product in this form; it was simply built to show off the capabilities of the hardware.
The dimensions of the reference ION platform NVIDIA provided are 5.6-in x 4.3-in x 1.5-in.

Inside the "case" if you can call it that are two PCB boards - one that we consider the actual motherboard (above) and a daughter card used to expand the connectivity options for the PC.  The motherboard above includes the Intel Atom processor on the right (ours included a dual-core HyperThreaded Atom 330 CPU) and the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M chipset in the center.  You'll no doubt notice the chipset is significantly larger than the Atom processor - it uses more transistors and is built on a larger process technology (65nm vs 45nm). 

There is a single SATA connection seen here as well to the left of the 9400M chip.

The board includes an HDMI and DVI digital output connection as well as a single USB port and Gigabit Ethernet port. 

The back of the motherboard holds the single SO-DIMM slot that supports DDR3 memory up to 1333 MHz and a connection to attach the daughterboard seen below.

The daughterboard (aka pico-ITX carrier card) holds mostly connectors and not a lot of logic - the only standard chip is the HD audio codec used. 

From left to right we have: power and HDD access lights, power and reset buttons, eSATA ports, USB 2.0 ports, optical audio output, more USB ports, 8-channel analog audio output. 

The bottom of the daughterboard includes a connection for 2.5-in standard SATA hard drive.  The reference platform that NVIDIA provided included a 200GB Seagate Momentus 7200.2 drive though I have been doing some testig with an 80GB Intel X25-M SSD as well!  The single black connection along the top here is where the AC adaptor, the same type used by notebook computers, attaches and powers the system. 

So while the chassis design was not really impressive, it does a good job of getting the most possible features into as small a space as possible; obviously the goal of the reference design from NVIDIA.  They have packed a lot of processing power into a tiny box. 

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