Seriously now, who doesn't love NVIDIA's Ion? For all of Intel's efforts in propagating a cost effective platform for developing countries as well as an affordable sidekick in the developed nations, one can't deny that the Intel Atom based netbook was limited in multimedia aspects until NVIDIA paired it with their platform chip, thus the birth of NVIDIA's original Ion platform roughly a year ago.
Just last week, NVIDIA had announced what it calls the Next Generation NVIDIA Ion architecture and it's about time too (also commonly referred to as the Ion 2). If you haven't noticed yet, Intel has refreshed their desktop and notebook platforms where their new architecture integrates most of the traditional Northbridge functionality and the graphics engine right on the CPU package itself. This can be seen from the latest Clarkdale desktop processors (Core i5 and Core i3 series) and the notebook equivalent Arrandale processors.
Intel's netbook and nettop platforms too have begun this same transition in January with the Pine Trail platform which consists of the Pineview Atom processor (now with memory and graphics controllers integrated) and an I/O chip codenamed Tiger Point. However as we've found from our testing, it's status quo in the performance department, so it could probably do with some third-party intervention.
The problem with this new-age processing architecture is that it now orphans all other independent chipset designs since almost all the important chipset functionality is now directly on the CPU. Where then would NVIDIA's Next Generation Ion have a place? The answer is:- discrete graphics.
As the block diagram clearly shows, the old Ion platform which was formerly a combination of the Atom processor and NVIDIA GeForce 9300 mGPU chipset is giving way to the Next Generation Ion that exists only as a marketing name when combining a Pineview Atom processor and the newer NVIDIA mobile GPU.
As revealed by NVIDIA, the GPU is manufactured using a 40nm process technology which follows that of the NVIDIA mobile GPUs that first debuted mid last year and are still in use today. It has similar clock speeds as the old GPU in the original Ion platform and also comes in 8 or 16 shader processors variants for small 10-inch netbooks and larger 12-inch or nettop machines respectively. The video processing engine is as good as any of NVIDIA's GPUs as it uses the VP4 variant and supports DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort output options with HDCP. Putting these specs together, you might realize that the GPU is actually a variant of the GeForce 210 that's adapted for the new Ion 'platform'.
Most notable of the new GPU is the support of NVIDIA's Optimus technology for on-the-fly switching between discrete and IGP graphics based on profile and load based usage. This is to keep power profile as low as possible by shutting down the NVIDIA graphics engine when not required but be available when required in more multimedia centric tasks such as viewing Flash-based videos or other forms of Full HD video content, light gaming or even take advantage of the CUDA enabled software such as vReveal and Badaboom for cleaning up videos and transcoding them. A tall order for a conventional netbook but not one equipped with NVIDIA's Ion.
Interestingly, the new Ion graphics processor is designed to work off a PCIe x1 interface with the Intel Atom platform. That's quite a departure from the PCIe x16 or even the x4 interface you would come to expect for a GPU interconnection. Though the x1 interface seems constrained, NVIDIA assured us that the connection is fast enough and the GPU has been optimized for this. This shouldn't be an issue seeing the GPU is the most entry-level grade that certainly doesn't require a full or even half the bandwidth of the PEG interface. Furthermore, the new Ion graphics processor will have 256MB or 512MB of dedicated DDR3 frame buffer (using a 32-bit or 64-bit memory bus to the GPU), so that should alleviate any processing bottlenecks of the PCIe interconnection.
Performance-wise, NVIDIA expects the Next Generation Ion to best the first generation Ion platform by up to two times as seen by the relative positioning graphs below by NVIDIA. However, note that the Atom processor itself has improved specifications and 3DMark does rely upon CPU power to calculate results, thus the actual performance impact of the new Ion GPU is probably less. What it does bring new to the table is a slightly more refined video processor, NVIDIA Optimus technology and DirectX 10.1 support. While we much prefer DX11 support by now, these are mere specs and actual usability is another topic altogether.
Our only grudge is with the naming terminology of the new 'Ion platform'. It's quite obviously just a discrete GPU to aid the new Atom processor. While they will not admit, the fact is that NVIDIA has spent a good deal of marketing on this brand to just shelf it aside for GeForce. As such they've carried on marketing the Ion brand name to signify the added acceleration benefits one gets on this platform with the bog-standard Intel Atom processor class of products.
The identity crisis doesn't just stop there - even the name of the new Ion platform is called Next Generation NVIDIA Ion (hence our repetitive mention of this string of words in this article). There's no numerical number to quickly signify a particular product has the newer class of Ion, but rest assured most tech sites including us would probably call it the Ion 2 to be accurate. Also if you recall, the new Ion comes in 8 or 16 shader core editions and these also not differentiated. Our guess is that the jump in experience isn't so great after all; so as long as a user sees an Ion name slapped on the product, one would generally get the same experiential level, be it the old or new Ion platform, which is quite likely the case having understood the technical aspects. Fine for the general user group these products are targetted for, but it's a chore for us techies.