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 the following performance evaluations we've pitted NVIDIA's Ion reference PC against a myriad of systems based on either Intel Atom processor designs or in one case, VIA's Nano reference platform and the VIA Nano L2100 processor.  The performance numbers we've provided along side the NVIDIA Ion platform's performance are presented for a frame of reference more than anything else, since it was nearly impossible to provide identically configured test systems.  As such these test metrics should not be considered an "apples to apples" comparison, but rather a general correlation of how the Ion platform will perform versus similar, low power platforms in its peer group.

HotHardware's Test Systems
Covering the bases
NVIDIA Ion Reference PC
Atom 330, 1.6GHz, FSB 533MHz
Atom 230, 1.6GHz, FSB 533MHz
2GB DDR3-1066
GeForce 9400M, 16 graphics cores

On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio
160GB Seagate Hard Drive
5400 RPM SATA

Windows Vista Premium
Asus Eee PC 1000H
Intel Atom N270 - 1.6 GHz
1x2GB DDR2-533
Intel
945GME
On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio
80 Seagate GB Hard Drive 5400 RPM SATA

Windows XP SP3
ASUS N10Jc
Intel Atom N270 - 1.6 GHz
1x2GB DDR2-533

Intel 945GME
GeForce 9300M
On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio
160GB Hard Drive
5,400 RPM SATA

Windows XP SP3
Lenovo IdeaPad S10
Intel Atom N270 - 1.6 GHz
1x2GB DDR2-533

Intel 945GME
GeForce 9300M
On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio
160GB Hard Drive
5,400 RPM SATA

Windows XP SP3


For PCMark Vantage and Cinebench Tests:
  • Intel BOXD945GCLF Motherboard and Intel Atom 230 @ 1.6GHz.- 2GB DDR2-800, 74GB WD Raptor HD
  • VIA Epia-SN Nano reference motherboard and Nano L2100 @ 1.8GH - 2GB DDR2-800, 74GB WD Raptor HD

Since to us, NVIDIA's tiny little Ion box simply begged to be setup as a Home Theater PC, we decided to dive right into HD Digital Video testing.  We corralled both H.264 encoded 1080p QuickTime clips, as well as 1080p Windows Media clips and fired them up to check system resource utilization, system responsiveness and general fluidity.

NVIDIA Ion Video Playback Performance
HD Video Playback

Below we've tested the system with two different media players, Cyberlink's Power DVD8 and Windows Media Player.  The version of Power DVD 8 that was tested was specifically provided by Cyberlink as a press beta build optimized to take advantage of NVIDIA PureVideo HD technology that is found in the GeForce 9400 GPU.  In this case, NVIDIA's PureVideo engine almost completely offloads the host processor (the Atom CPU) for all video decode workloads.

Conversely, in our Windows Media Player tests, the system is going to be reliant on more standard DirectX video acceleration on the PureVideo engine, which won't be utilizing the technology to its fullest potential.  Let's have a look at the results.


 
Ion HD Video Playback - PowerDVD 8 (right) and Windows Media Player (left)

On the left side shot, our 1080p Dark Knight trailer clip runs silky smooth exhibiting only about 20% CPU utilization on what could essentially be considered an Atom 230 single core processor with Intel HyperThreading enabled.  We've actually disabled one of the physical cores in the Atom chip via a setting in Windows Vista and thus only two processing threads are shown in the Windows Task Manager Performance Monitor.  Regardless, the results are quite impressive for the Ion system, with low CPU utilization and beautifully smooth performance. 

In the right hand shot, we have the system setup the same way, only now we're playing back a 1080p Windows Media clip with a standard Windows Media Player installation in Vista.  As you can see, Performance Monitor has spiked up to 60% processor resource utilization here.  However, we're happy to note that even under this rather heavy workload, Ion platform didn't drop a frame and playback was perfectly smooth.  That said, as Ion-based products come to market, the key for system builders will be to bundle various media player software with properly optimized NVIDIA PureVideo CODEC packages.

Finally, we'll wrap up this test section with a live demo of the NVIDIA Ion reference PC platform doing what it does best apparently, in a typical HTPC (Home Theater PC) environment.  Let's have a look...

We hope that wasn't too much of a spoiler for you.  Benchmark numbers are next...

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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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