NVIDIA Next-Generation ION 2 Preview - Discrete GPU + Optimus
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ION 2 = ION + Optimus
NVIDIA ION: We hardly knew you...
The NVIDIA ION is one of those products that just makes me scratch my head. In a lot of ways, it changed what we thought about super-small-form-factor computers like netbooks and nettops by introducing a discrete GPU into a world of computing previous lacking it. The first few iterations of netbooks were exciting as they were new but users soon found that the amount of computing that they could actually accomplish on them was relatively small.
By integrating the ION chipset instead of Intel's own integrated chipset netbook vendors were able to create much more robust PCs in this low-cost market. However, there were (and still are) some serious caveats to this. First, what exactly did adding ION to the system improve performance on? While you can say that HD media and gaming are the answer I feel these are over valued since none of the low-cost netbook or nettop machines integrate Blu-ray drives or have the CPU horsepower to play any level of moderate gaming. And how many people are interested in playing on a 10-in screen? The gaming argument makes a bit more sense for nettops or all-in-one systems but I still find it to be a stretch.
The most popular answer today would be Flash acceleration: now with a netbook/nettop with ION technology you can stream HD-quality video over Flash without frames dropping or stuttering and get a much better experience than with the Intel-only solution. I have tested this in many instances with ION-powered machines and it makes watching Hulu on the go a terrific use for these systems. However, few if any netbooks have a 720p screen so unless you are connecting the box to an external display getting "HD quality" is kind of overkill. Also, keep in mind that the Flash version that supports GPU acceleration is still in beta and that only the truly hardcore users that monitor sites like PC Perspective are seeing the benefit of it. Users that pick up an ASUS 1201N at a local store are not getting the same experience out of the box.
As I wrote in our Pine Trail preview, Intel didn't help things when it introduced the new CPU technology as the graphics and video performance issues remained but now NVIDIA's ION chipset was no longer a valid solution. The integration of the memory controller and Intel GMA on the die of the CPU pushed NVIDIA out of the market as they were essentially without a license to produce an alternative. The answer that NVIDIA has come up with is being announced today.
ION 2 No More
The first iteration of ION was in fact a chipset: it included a memory
controller, input and output controllers (like SATA, USB) and was
directly connected to the display outputs on the netbook or nettop
computer. It communicated with the processor via a standard front-side
bus used by that generation of Atom and the story was just like any
other chipset we have seen in our 10 years of reporting on PCs.
UPDATE (3/2/10): After some more discussion with NVIDIA this morning it turns out that the performance of ION 2 should in fact be better than that of the original ION chipset. While the previous iteration was a 65nm DX10 product the next-generation ION technology is a 40nm DX10.1 GPU that is "similar" to the GeForce 210/310 products available elsewhere. So, even though the GPU shares the same number of shader cores as the previous iteration, with an improved architecture the performance should go up.
Is that somewhat disappointing considering the changes in GPU performance elsewhere? Absolutely. But it doesn't really surprise me: the GPU was overpowered in netbooks and nettops in nearly all cases as it was bottlenecked by the slow Intel Atom processor. As we have seen in our own testing Pine Trail does not really change CPU performance at all so increasing the horsepower on the GPU would only mean more power draw and less battery life for the mobile world. NVIDIA decided that it would simply keep the same performance and wait for Intel to push the level of play of its CPUs up for netbooks. (The jury is still out on HOW LONG this will take though...)
So what will make users interested in ION 2 or "next-generation ION"? The answer is Optimus.
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