Nvidia Ion – first test review

Intel’s low-power Atom CPU proves that, for most everyday tasks, you don’t need a fast multi-core processor like a Core i7 or even a Core 2 Duo – you just need a little patience.

But patience won’t cut it when it comes to graphics: for games and videos to be enjoyable they need to run smoothly and at full speed, and, sadly, standard Atom systems lack the power to deliver that. So while current netbooks and nettops are fine for office and internet tasks, they’re all but useless for entertainment.

That’s not wholly the fault of the processor: a big part of the problem is the ageing Intel 945 chipset that accompanies it. In most packages it includes a weedy GMA 950 IGP that lacks video acceleration and doesn’t support DirectX 10 at all. The most powerful Atoms – the Z500 series, intended for MIDs and nettops – get the more powerful GMA 500, but as we saw with the Dell Inspiron Mini 12, even that struggles with full-screen video.

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Enter Nvidia, with the cleverly-named Ion platform. In physics an ion is a charged atom, and Nvidia’s Ion is an Intel Atom system that’s been powered-up with a GeForce 9400M in place of the 945 chipset.

Though the 9400M is new to the Atom, it’s an established chipset that’s already found in full-spec notebooks such as the Dell Studio XPS 13 and the Apple MacBook.

And it’s a more compact architecture than the Intel 945, which means Ion systems can be even smaller than traditional Atom devices – our test unit had a similar volume to a VHS cassette. Yet despite its diminutive design, Nvidia claims the 9400M delivers ten times the graphical power of the GMA 950.

Visual impact

In practical terms, that means Ion brings true high-definition video to the Atom platform. The GeForce 9400M includes a hardware video decoder designed for Blu-ray content, and while we found 1080p movies slightly stuttery, our test system proved able to play full-screen 720p video without a hiccup – impressively, drawing just 24W as it did so. Immediately, that makes Ion an appealing step up from the standard Atom.

The 9400M also brings full support for DirectX 10, and Nvidia is keen to play up Ion’s gaming potential, citing games like Call of Duty 4 and Spore as examples of supported software.

But don’t expect console-type graphical effects: the 9400M’s 16 stream processors give it only half the horsepower of the 9600M found in more grown-up systems such as the Dell XPS One 24 or MacBook Pro. And neither part comes close to the graphical power of a high-end discrete card.

What’s more, many modern games tax the CPU as much as the GPU, and here of course Nvidia’s chipset is of no help: in our 2D benchmarks our sample Ion system achieved an overall score of 0.31, a bog-standard result for a single-core Atom system.

Benchmark results

So we were unsurprised to see the Ion platform struggle in our 3D benchmarks. In our low detail Crysis test it managed only a juddery 16fps; and in the low-detail Call of Juarez benchmark it averaged a dismal 10.4fps.

Though our test system took the form of a tiny box, Nvidia expects manufacturers to produce Ion-based systems of all shapes and sizes, from lightweight notebooks to home media PCs and all-in-one desktops.

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