Better Netbook Performance - Nvidia Ion Platform Brings Far Better Graphics to Netbooks

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Atom Finally Stops Riding Dinosaur

Intel’s Atom processor has been a cornerstone to building the netbook market. It can handle day to day computing tasks on such a small amount of power that it makes the combination of small form factor and good battery life possible. The problem is that the Atom is mated to a dinosaur of a chipset, the 945G.

It doesn’t use a lot of power (by full sized laptop standards any way), and it’s cheap, which are essential to netbook computing, but the compromises involved are very costly. Specifically, the graphics on the thing are horrid. Since you can’t really add discrete graphics to a netbook without making it bigger and more expensive, and thusly not a netbook, the whole market has been stuck with what Intel deems sufficient.

Nvidia to Intel’s Rescue (Again)

First on desktops then laptops, Nvidia has realized that the Intel platforms were crippled by their terrible integrated graphics. To the benefit of users and both companies, Nvidia supplied chipsets with usable integrated graphics. Granted, this cost Intel some sales of their lousy chipsets, but it did keep their CPUs in demand with many that would have otherwise turned to AMD.

Nvidia doesn’t bite off its nose to spite its face, and just because Intel is trying to shut them out of the integrated graphics and chipset markets simultaneously (discussed below), doesn’t mean the Green Team can’t make hay while the sun shines. Their new Ion platform pairs the Atom CPU with a chipset on a motherboard, heck, let’s call it a “mothercard,” that fits in the palm of your hand. And it opens up a market of not only more powerful netbooks, but also all kinds of home and portable computing ideas.

Ion: Small and Powerful

The tiny packaging involves a very clever piece of design on Nvidia’s part. The Ion chipset combines the northbridge, southbridge, and 9400 integrated graphics, into a single chip. The chip isn’t small: it’s actually quite a bit bigger than the Atom CPU, though some of that is attributable to manufacturing processes (65nm instead of 45nm).

Still, it is an impressive improvement in terms of size compared to three separate chips. Perhaps more impressive is the difference in performance. The Ion can play true HD Video and 7.1 surround audio without breaking a sweat. That is a whole new level of performance for netbooks, and opens the door to myriad portable and home computing devices. The increased performance comes at a price, however. Battery life on the Ion will be somewhat lower than the 945G, but likely by a reasonable margin.

What about Gaming?

When it comes to cutting edge games, even laptops have trouble. Expecting a netbook to play Crysis just isn’t reasonable. However, dedicated portable gaming (DS, PSP) has been a huge market for decades, and not making the netbook connection would be a big miss.

Game developer and MMO Channel Editor, Michael Hartman, points out that developers of games which are less taxing on hardware, such as browser-based games, are ideally positioned to move into the netbook market with games that can run on limited resources.

While the Ion does offer a bit more support for gaming eye-candy, it won’t be running anything demanding at 60 FPS. What is interesting is that by turning off one of the Atom’s cores, Ryan Shrout at PC Perspective found that Left 4 Dead, which is a very AI intensive game, was actually more limited by the Atom CPU than the Nvidia 9400 graphics.

Next Page: Ion for All Kinds of New Devices, Vista on Ion, and Ion 2 with Via Nano

Tiny High Def Is Good Once You Think about It

At first, the idea of HD video on a device that fits in the palm of your hand is kind of silly. HD and Blu-Ray are usually associated with large screens, not ones in the single-digit inch range. Even so, there are likely a good deal of people who are salivating about popping on some nice headphones and curling up with a movie at top quality, just about anywhere.

Plus, the tiny electronics don’t necessarily need to go into tiny devices. Media laptops, currently more expensive than netbooks not only because of the screen but the fact they require stepping up from the Atom to a full power CPU, could now stick with the Atom. They would use less power, be cheaper, and, with the exception of the screen’s viewable area, be smaller; all while able to provide a true HD experience without stuttering or dropping frames.

Ion Powered Apple

Small form factor, or more accurately, ultra-small form factor desktop computers, will be cheap and able to handle quite a bit of video duties. This also makes Ion a good candidate for all-in-one type monitor/computers, like many Mac devices. Apple actually seems to be pretty keen on Ion, with rumors of use in their all in ones as well as revised Mac Minis and MacBook Airs.

The PC side won’t be left out though: there are rumors of Acer (laptop giants and the first of the Laptop Big 3, the others being US based Dell and HP, to notice what Asus was up to with the Eee PC that opened the netbook floodgates) is working on an Ion Netbook called Hornet. Nvidia claims tons of OEMs are about to roll out Ion based products, while Intel says no one will. Based on Intel’s undisputed reputation as kings of FUD, and the fact that the Ion is oozing advantages, it’s a fair bet the truth is somewhat closer to Nvidia’s world view.

Ion for HTPC and More

Computer and consumer electronics integration could be in for some radical improvements. Ion will cut the budget, size, and noise, of an HTPC dramatically. We can go further than that though, think portable Blu-Ray player/tablet PC that you can use as an HTPC when you get home. Ion has built in HDMI support and Gigabit LAN, so plug those two in, grab a remote, and enjoy.

Communications companies and DVR makers could try for an end run on the HTPC though, if they can offer a cable or satellite box around the Ion that has enough functionality. That could be a real hit or miss depending on how good the user interface ends up.

Microsoft Wants in on Ion

Microsoft has announced that Ion will be Vista certified. While computing aficionados may not be that excited about using a resource hogging and expensive OS on a low-power and low-cost machine, most netbook buyers are not from that cadre. They, and even users comfortable with Linux but not with setting up a multiple OS network, will appreciate the familiarity and compatibility.

And, thoughts of Microsoft cutting prices just to stay in the netbook market against Linux, but still charging us a hundred bucks for an OEM license, aside, the fact the Ion can actually run all of that Vista bloat is a testament to what Nvidia has achieved. The price cut must be pretty big though, since the Ion platform (for desktop, making it into a netbook adds under $200) is set to cost $299.

Hopefully, the DIY fans will be able to get a vanilla model for their own hardware projects. Something this small allows you to finally squeeze a computer into just about anything. A wall mountable home automation/security control center with a touch screen and remote could run all kinds of software that usually runs on a traditional computer.

Ion Coming Soon

We should be seeing the first Ion driven systems this summer. Furthermore, Nvidia has announced Ion 2 for later in the year, which will use a Via Nano, instead of Intel Atom, CPU. It’s a logical response to the decidedly anti-Ion stance taken by Intel. Intel has actually been pretty anti-Nvidia in general as of late.

Deriding the Ion may be normal marketing, and moving integrated graphics onto the CPU in the first Westmere Nehalems has benefits other than making it harder to choose Nvidia’s integrated graphics, but trying to cut Nvidia out of the chipset market entirely is going a little far. We explain all of these conflicts in detail in a coming article.