NVIDIA ION platform review | preview
Posted by Hilbert Hagedoorn on: 02/02/2009 02:00 PM [ 0 comment(s) ]
NVDIA Ion is potentially a very promising platform. It will break away from a lot of restrictions currently found in Intel's chipset solutions for Atom based netbooks and mini-PCs. But granted, based on the Atom platform, there will always remain to be one big restriction aka bottleneck, overall Atom CPU performance. Let's say you want to purchase a mini-pc based on ION and use it as a small Home Theater PC, certainly it has much potential. You'll love the full HD capability, and coupled with a dual core atom, this really could be the HTPC dream machine in terms of value for money.
But allow me to look at ION from that HTPC perspective for a minute.
Here's the thing, anything not capable of being accelerated by the GPU will always be dealt with by the CPU. And that's a problem for Atom processors. They just do not pack enough punch.
Example: enormously popular these days for example is x.264 (not to confuse with h.264 itself). It is also known under Matroska MKV and this is the kind of movie playback where you'd run intro restrictions as they are not supported (accelerated) over the graphics processor. It's really no different for high bitrate high-definition XVID and DIVX content either. Atom would not be able to handle it in 1080P or often even 720P, so immediately you'd run into restrictions if the media-file is not DXVA or bit-stream GPU accelerated. On an Atom platform this is your biggest problem.
From that perspective we feel that NVIDIA has a challenge it needs to address. The GPU can certainly deal with x.264 file formats. But NVIDIA places its focus in supporting file formats like DVD, WMV (HD) and Blu-Ray (VC1/h.264) only.
What we all really want and need is simple: to click on a movie and watch it in media player, and regardless of what format it is to have that movie accelerated over the GPU. It's as simple as that. Some sort of codec like the initial PureVideo you could purchase, and then accelerate, post process and playback the content in MediaPlayer, Media Center, similar to Popcorn hour .. for example. I certainly would like to see native GPU support for far more than just a DVD or Blu-ray movies.
The irony is an example like this: if you click here for a second and look at the 120 USD Western Digital TV HD Media Receiver, you'll notice that such devices all handle such formats straight out of the box.
So if NVIDIA could get native x.264 support going on their GPUs, for products like these we'd all be running top the stores.
Make no mistake though; for those not interested in x.264, and stick to Blu-ray or DVD movies, then ION might be the best thing since sliced bread. Low power usage, modern features and fully capable of high quality SD and Full HD playback as long as it comes from a DVD, WMV-HD or Blu-ray disc, it is just mighty impressive.
Of course there's more about ION to address than just high-definition playback. The infrastructure as a whole based on the chipset allows for a much faster experience compared to what Intel has to offer. Pop in an SSD and notice that you'll have a full fetched SATA2 interface at full speed. Do not forget, Gigabit Ethernet, DDR2/DDR3 memory, Optical multi-channel sound. ION is good stuff for netbooks for sure as it delivers an instant overall performance increase thanks to the chipset alone. I do have a secret wish for that memory to be dual-channel by the way.
Games then. Ahh, difficult. What can you expect from something this diminutive ? .. well, more than the average embedded GPU solutions. That's a fact. However, we've tried playing Call of Duty 4 on this ION. And it's reasonably playable at a monitor resolution of 1024x768, but certainly not with highest graphics setting. Average at best is what it is with AA disabled. Compared however, the graphics chip that is currently used with Atom, the Intel 9xx series, is no match for the GeForce 9400M. But Ion was not built to be a gamers platform and although possible, the experience is far from optimal.
All this is even more impressive when you stumble into the technical specifications of this device. The small ION prototype was already big enough to provide us with six USB 2.0 ports, two eSATA ports, an Optical SPDIF and a 7.1-channel LPCM sound. And that's next to all the display connectors.
CUDA - if you stumble into any employee of NVIDIA there's no way around the fact that they'll remind you of CUDA at least three times. Being a series 9 GPU, utilizing the GPU for other things than gaming and movie playback. And though as silly as it is on this platform, it could even drive PhysX on a very basic level. More importantly, it'll accelerate Adobe's new GPU-accelerated version of Photoshop. You could (as demonstrated) transcode movies over the GPU with the help of the Badaboom GPU-based video transcoder, or run Folding@home, it's the plethora of additional functionality that NVIDIA recently started to offer with the help of their GPUs.
And there's that word again .. help, as in assisting. Assisting the CPU with an embedded GPU and fast chipset. That's a huge step forward in this segment of the market, inexpensive Atom based mini-PC's and netbooks, with a completely new level of features and performance embedded in it. As to why Intel is still saddling it's Atom processors with a relatively ancient chipset .. we have no clue, perhaps Intel wants people to think that the CPU matters and nothing else.
NVIDIA will call it the worlds smallest, most affordable, fully capable mini PC. We'd like to say it's the stuff needed to make a pretty darn all right netbook, as far as netbooks go of course. Yeah, impressive.
A preview on NVIDIA ION. What NVIDIA has done with the ION is to create a platform that combines a GeForce 9400M chipset with an Intel Atom processor, all placed on a Pico-ITX PCB. The advantage here is by using such a chipset the environment (PC) will instantly gain modern features and the sheer influence of a GeForce graphics processor meaning you can playback 1080P movies on for example a Netbook or mini-PC.