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NVIDIA Next-Generation ION 2 Preview - Discrete GPU + Optimus

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Subject: Mobile
Manufacturer: NVIDIA
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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. 


ION 2 (remember, we are calling it that though NVIDIA is calling it "next-generation ION" or something) is really nothing more than a discrete graphics solution that can work with any existing platform.  It connects to the system via the standard PCI Express bus interface and has its own dedicated frame buffer separate from the main system memory.  This change was required because Intel moved the Pine Trail Atom processors over to the DMI bus to which NVIDIA was not legally permitted to make chipsets for.  Of course NVIDIA still wanted to be a part of this massively growing market so the company took a currently existing DX10.1 GPU and rebranded it as ION to keep some continuity.
This version of ION will come in two iterations: one with 16 shader cores and another with only 8 cores.  They will both be branded as ION together but the higher performance part will be aimed at higher resolution, 12-in screen netbooks and the desktop market while you will likely find the 8-shader variant in the 10-in netbooks.  For those of you curious, yes the currently available, original version of ION (see how confusing this is NVIDIA???) did in fact have 16 shader cores indicating to us that GPU computing performance, gaming performance and video playback performance will be identical from that version of ION to this one. 


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.

NVIDIA Optimus technology gives a notebook computer (or a nettop for that matter) the ability to enable and disable the discrete graphics chip nearly instantly and without user interaction.  This means that applications that CAN utilize the power of the GPU (games, flash video, GPGPU computing programs for transcoding, etc) will be able to access that resource without forcing the user to reboot the system or close out their other programs as they would have had to do previously. 

The benefit of course is that the GPU is completely powered off when it is not needed thus saving battery life and keeping your mobile machine, well, mobile.  If you haven't read about Optimus you definitely need to get more details of the technology by reading my review or watching the video review we posted back in February. 

Again, NVIDIA claims that adding ION to a netbook means that it can be a multimedia powerhouse for things like YouTube HD, Hulu, Flash content in general and even Blu-ray if you add an external drive. 

And while converting video and content on an Atom-based netbook is something I would never have recommended otherwise, being able to access those few GPU-accelerated applications like vReveal or Badaboom while in a pinch could be handy for some users. 

I still think that PC gaming on ION is going to be a bit of a letdown for anyone reading this here, but many casual gamers will still try to play Spore, Sim 3 or even World of Warcraft on there machines. 

The differences seen here basically show how performance has changed with the additional computing power of ION 2 in relation to the original ION product. 

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