NVIDIA Ion Reference PC Platform Deep Dive - HotHardware

NVIDIA Ion Reference PC Platform Deep Dive

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NVIDIA Accelerates the Search For a Cure

In early January, back from our roadtrip to Vegas with CES show buzz and bewilderment still fresh in our minds, we brought you an interview with Drew Henry, General Manager of NVIDIA's MCP products.  Drew gave us a first-hand glimpse at a new small form factor PC platform that NVIDIA was developing based on their recently released GeForce 9400M chipset with integrated graphics. In this new era of HTPCs, netbooks, nettops and all things tiny in general, NVIDIA's Ion reference platform for the Intel Atom processor offers the promise of an ultra low-profile, low power device that quite literally fits in the palm of your hand, and thus could be easily tucked away in various small places in a number of different usage models. 

Though the sixty-four thousand dollar question is which of NVIDIA's 3rd party partners will come to market first with an NVIDIA Ion-based product (we're hearing Q2 should be the magic time frame), NVIDIA has given us unfettered access to their tiny, low power, multimedia, all-in-one PC.  We've only had it in our test labs for a few days, but we thought we'd share with you our first impressions and a deeper dive on the performance and features of Ion, which will give you a sense of what lies ahead for the platform, as retail products are introduced to market, hopefully in the not too distant future.



NVIDIA Ion Reference Small Form Factor PC System
Specifications and Features




As you can see in the block diagram above, with the exception of things like I/O port connectors, power and passive components on the PCB, and physical layer chips for network and video connectivity, Ion is essentially a one chip solution.  Supporting Intel's processor families from Core 2 to low power Atom solutions, NVIDIA's Ion MCP offers a multitude of various subsystem functionality.  The chipset supports both DDR2 and DDR3 system memory and offers a single x16 PCI Express 2.0 link, as well as 4 x1 links and up to five standard PCI slots.  In addition, support for both dual link DVI, HDMI, Display Port and analog RGB video output is built in, along with up to 12 USB 2.0 ports, 6 SATA ports and a single Gigabit Ethernet port. 

Finally, of course the integrated graphics core of the GeForce 9400M with its 16 shader engines, offers full DX10 compatibility and full HD video hardware offload, in addition to other features like Hybrid SLI and NVIDIA's CUDA technology. To say that the GeForce 9400M is a Swiss Army knife of a chip may sound a bit cliche' but it's also very true.  If you'd like a full refresh on NVIDIA's family of GeForce 9300 and 9400 chipsets, we've covered them in depth here previously.  Once you're up to speed on the chipset, let's journey on with a closer look at NVIDIA's new Ion Small Form Factor PC.

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A soild little PC. I think it has the potential to do great things. It has so many applications from the high end user who will use the Esata to the casuial user who just needs a PC for web surfing.

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I think the HTPC aspirations of this device are entirely unfounded and unrealistic. Hear me out.

The only way to output video from this device to a TV/monitor is by playing it off the hard drive. So, you had to take that Dark Knight BD, rip the video file off it somehow (and I'm sure you had to break/circumvent some kind of copy protection to do so), then trasfer it to the Ion (since it has no external drive bay) before you could even consider playback. In addition, you can't record/playback TV since there's no cable input or any video input for that matter, which brings me to my problem with the specs.

"The chipset supports both DDR2 and DDR3 system memory and offers a single x16 PCI Express 2.0 link, as well as 4 x1 links and up to five standard PCI slots."

I'm sorry, but I couldn't help but laugh. This is a joke, right? I would assume that the 9400M is using that one PCI-e link. How, then, can it do Hybrid-SLI? 5 PCI slots? That's rich. There isn't a single on board expansion slot, nor is there room for one, let alone room for any kind of card inside that case. Vapor-ware on both counts, promised but undelivered.

I got excited that the MCP could support the entire C2D family, until I realized that the Atom has a TDP of 4W. I believe the next lowest is the single-core Conroe Celeron at 35W, and multi-core C2Ds are 60W or higher. Not gonna happen with that little HSF unless you water cool it instead.

In my humble, and completely unasked for opinion, this device needs more. CATV input, cable card slot, and an integrated HDTV tuner, and one external drive bay would make this platform absolutely killer. As it stands, I see a lot of promise with very little of the promise actually delivered.

My 2 cents. Damn but I'm ornery today.

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Jeremy:

I think the HTPC aspirations of this device are entirely unfounded and unrealistic. Hear me out.

The only way to output video from this device to a TV/monitor is by playing it off the hard drive. So, you had to take that Dark Knight BD, rip the video file off it somehow (and I'm sure you had to break/circumvent some kind of copy protection to do so), then transfer it to the Ion (since it has no external drive bay) before you could even consider playback. In addition, you can't record/playback TV since there's no cable input or any video input for that matter, which brings me to my problem with the specs.

"The chipset supports both DDR2 and DDR3 system memory and offers a single x16 PCI Express 2.0 link, as well as 4 x1 links and up to five standard PCI slots."

I'm sorry, but I couldn't help but laugh. This is a joke, right? I would assume that the 9400M is using that one PCI-e link. How, then, can it do Hybrid-SLI? 5 PCI slots? That's rich. There isn't a single on board expansion slot, nor is there room for one, let alone room for any kind of card inside that case. Vapor-ware on both counts, promised but undelivered.

I got excited that the MCP could support the entire C2D family, until I realized that the Atom has a TDP of 4W. I believe the next lowest is the single-core Conroe Celeron at 35W, and multi-core C2Ds are 60W or higher. Not gonna happen with that little HSF unless you water cool it instead.

In my humble, and completely unasked for opinion, this device needs more. CATV input, cable card slot, and an integrated HDTV tuner, and one external drive bay would make this platform absolutely killer. As it stands, I see a lot of promise with very little of the promise actually delivered.

My 2 cents. Damn but I'm ornery today.

Jeremy, my word brother, you are a bit ornery today. Smile  While I see some of your struggle with the product and at least some of your perspective here, I think you're off the mark quite a bit in spots.

I have many rebuttals here but I'll try to be brief...

First, recall that Ion reference PC is just that, a REFERENCE platform and not a real product available for sale.  It's simply a vehicle for third party OEMs to develop products on and for NVIDIA to demo the platform. Some future products from OEMs can and likely would have included optical drives, and come in different form factors as well.

To your point about having to circumvent copy protection on the Dark Knight clip - since it's just a movie trailer, that wasn't an issue.  Also, the market for digital media extenders is growing quite well, so there is obviously a need out there for devices similar in functionality to Ion, that can stream high def media from other network connected and locally connected sources.

With respect to your comments about the chipset, I think you totally missed the point of that quote you snapped in.  We weren't speaking of the Ion box here but rather the integrated functionality and capabilities of the chipset - which DOES support Hybrid SLI and 5 PCI slots, as you can see clearly in the block diagram.  Again, the Ion PC is just a demo box and isn't claimed to offer all capabilities in its tiny footprint.  Vapor-ware?  Not at all, the chipset has been out for a very long time actually:  http://hothardware.com/articles/NVIDIA-GeForce-9300-and-9400-Motherboard-GPUs/    (10/15/08)

 

With respect to Core 2 support, again, Ion was built to showcase an Atom implementation, so obviously the thermal profile, airflow and mechanicals would be a bit more challenging with a 35W Core 2 but water cooling, no need.  Think about products like the Dell Studio Hybrid:  http://hothardware.com/Articles/Dell-Studio-Hybrid-Small-Form-Factor-Desktop/   - It might not be as small as Ion but it has a Core 2 notebook chip under the hood and is still pretty tiny.

And finally, TV tuner functionality is ridiculously easy to integrate these days, as I'm sure you may know.   In short, stay tuned over the next couple of quarters.  If NVIDIA is able to pull out a couple of key design wins with Ion or the GeForce 9400 chipset, you may well get your wishlist fulfilled.

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Nice review. This is indeed a cool little platform.

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Very nice. I was waiting for a review for this little beast. I love it. Perfect for watching HD videos and surfing the web. :)

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Ausus has a new model (Eee BOX B206) using thea ATOM CPU + ATI 3450 graphics card which will do a much better job in terms of power consumption (around 20W just like the Eee PC), as well as wifi n connection (able to turn it as a wifi A/P)... looks a lot cooler that this box for the living room....

here is the related product...

http://hothardware.com/cs/forums/t/40982.aspx

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Great review. But what I really missed is: what audio does it support through HDMI? Does it support all HD formats, like DTS-HD? Or does it only support these through the analogue output?

Pascal.

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I think you should send it to me for further testing,.....

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I like the Hot Hardware logo video clip, good work.

Flying is serious business, just like the internets!

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