NVIDIA's Ion 'Cannon' Lock and Loaded!


The Ion Platform

The Ion Platform

After we stopped admiring the small form factor of the Ion reference system, it's time to take a long hard look at its internals. Naturally, the engineering sample NVIDIA provided came with an Intel Atom since NVIDIA's ambition is to use the Ion paired with the Atom processor. However, it's a slightly different model from the single-core N270 that's commonly found in the market. As you can see below, it's the more powerful, dual-core variant (330) meant for desktops, though clocked similarly at 1.6GHz. Maximum TDP is also higher with this model at 8W compared to 2.5W for the N270.

The main difference in this market segment however is in the chipset. The Intel Atom has often been paired with an Intel 945GM chipset variant that has an integrated GPU via Intel's GMA 950. While generally decent for the applications and situations that this chipset is used in, HD video playback (1080p for instance) and 3D gaming is beyond its limits. This is where NVIDIA steps in with its GeForce 9400 mGPU chipset. After securing Apple as a major customer for the GeForce 9400 mGPU chipset in its MacBook range, NVIDIA is now extending this to the Atom arena, which once you think about, is a rather logical move.

Hence, you'll find the same 16 stream processors that NVIDIA and Apple were touting together for the latest MacBooks, CUDA-capable ones too as NVIDIA would like to stress. Not surprisingly, we found Elemental Technologies' Badaboom Media Converter (which is a CUDA application) pre-installed in the Ion system. Taking it for a test run, the transcoding software worked like a charm, taking full advantage of the 16 stream processors and roughly two minutes of time to convert a 1080p video clip to a format suitable for the iPhone. We can't imagine the time needed for that task if we had to rely on the Atom processor solely.

As we found using GPU-Z, the processor cores are running at 450MHz and shaders at 1.1GHz, which is similar to the core clock on the GeForce 9300 mGPU desktop board that we reviewed recently (but the shaders were running at 1.2GHz). This should still put it in the same ballpark as the desktop 9300 mGPU performance-wise, if you take away the CPU from the equation. Exploring the BIOS, we found that the unit came with options for 256 or 512MB of frame buffer, though there was no option to overclock or tweak the core/shader clocks.

Back to the Ion reference system that we received, it came with many ports and connectors, the better to show off its versatility. All three common video outputs are found, from the newer HDMI to the old and tried analog VGA. The two eSATA ports are also nice additions to have, making the Ion a complete platform indeed, especially with the Realtek HD audio CODEC onboard and its support for optical S/PDIF output.

The only shortcoming that we saw from the small form factor NVIDIA system was that its lack of a built-in wireless networking adapter, though we bet that the actual implementation from manufacturers adopting the platform will incorporate that increasingly important feature. Finally, the 200GB 7200RPM notebook hard drive that was included and its support for DDR3-1066 memory puts it in good stead as a very competitive system, especially once we pit it against what's in the market currently.

Our review unit came with Windows Vista installed and while that operating system tended to bog down less equipped PCs, the 2GB of memory, a slightly better grade CPU and the speedy hard drive meant that the experience was better than any other Atom-based system we had ever tested. There was hardly a peep of noise from the Ion prototype during operation and the heat too was manageable. While we could not measure the chipset temperature, relying on GPU-Z's sensor report showed that the integrated GPU varied between 47 degrees Celsius at idle to 56 degrees at peak. Mind you that these are internal temperatures, while the entire unit was just only warm to touch in our 22 degrees Celsius air-conditioned lab environment.