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

NVIDIA's Ion SFF platform definitely packs a lot of functionality into a very small footprint.  Pictured here below is the Ion reference motherboard, sans its I/O expansion daughter card, sitting next to a full sized desktop motherboard.  Though the desktop board, when fully configured, offers a lot more muscle with a discrete graphics card and the like, it's pretty impressive to note that the Ion board essentially offers much of the same basic functionality, in a tiny fraction of the real estate.



NVIDIA Ion relative to standard sized motherboard - Pico ITX - The Big Tiny

The NVIDIA Ion box we'll be putting through its paces in the pages ahead, is a standard reference design that is built with the intent of bringing out all of the primary functionality of the product for demonstration and testing purposes only.  It's not designed with a ton of flare as a result, however, and this small black box (ours test system actually came in pure white), with the exception of its custom cut NVIDIA logo ventilation slots, only impresses with its diminutive casing which is a little larger than a standard 3"x5" index card. 


   
Click for high res images...
 

Interestingly, as is plain to see in the above motherboard shots, Ion's GeForce 9400M MCP actually dwarfs the Intel Atom 230 processor pictured here, which is the smaller of the two large chips on the right side of the board.  We should note, however, that the Ion unit we tested was powered by a dual-core Atom 330 processor.  With 16 graphics cores, a DDR2/3 memory controller and a whole lot of control logic and I/O functionality like PCI Express links, USB and SATA, it's no wonder either.  Cooling these two chips is a single active fansink assembly that, under normal operation, frankly was a bit louder than we would have liked, clearly audible over the low hush of our 50" plasma TV in our test area.  That said, the Iittle fellow wasn't so loud that it became a distraction in any significant way.

Our Test Unit - Thumbnail Images, Click For High Res...
 

On the Ion base motherboard itself, there are dual link DVI, HDMI, USB2.0, a Gigabit Ethernet, VGA d-sub connectors and a power connector.  In reality, these are really the only I/O ports required for a fully functional system over an HDMI cable, though the I/O daughter board brings out a whole slew of expansion options on the front side of the system, including 6 USB 2.0, two eSATA , 7.1 surround sound, S/PDIF audio and the system power button.


   

With GPU-Z running on the NVIDIA Ion reference PC, we can see some of the GeForce 9400M's particulars.  Detailed here, the GeForce 9400M is outfitted with 16 shader cores, 4 ROPs, and a 64-bit memory interface.  According to GPU-Z, the GPU core operates at 200MHz when idling at the Windows desktop, and runs at a relatively cool 37ºC.

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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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