Logo   Banner   TopRight
TopUnder
Transparent
NVIDIA Ion Reference PC Platform Deep Dive
Transparent
Date: Feb 03, 2009
Section:Systems
Author: Dave Altavilla
Transparent
Introduction and Specifications

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.
Transparent
A Closer Look At Ion
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.

Transparent
Test Systems, HD Video and Demo Video
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...

Transparent
High Level Synthetics - SANDRA
NVIDIA Accelerates the Search For a Cure


We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA XII, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2009 test suite with NVIDIA's Ion reference PC platform (CPU Arithmetic, CPU Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, and the Disk Storage tests).  All of the scores reported below were taken with the Atom processor running at its default clock speed of 1.6GHz, with 2GB of DDR3-1066 system memory.

 Preliminary Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2009
 Synthetic Benchmarks

We also set the Atom processor to either one or two cores enabled, essentially providing metrics for both Atom 230 and Atom 330 configurations.










In three of the four tests above, NVIDIA's Ion reference PC platform falls in line with competing Atom-based solutions that were powered by 1.6GHz N270 notebook variants of the Atom chip, though the Ion platform does show a very slight edge in spots.  In the storage test, the 200GB Seagate Momentus 2.5" hard drive NVIDIA built our Ion test system with, is showing a slight edge as well.  Conversely, on the memory bandwidth side of the equation, the Ion's DDR3 configuration we tested, with its higher CAS 8 latency settings, is coming up a tad short versus some of the DDR2 and Intel 945 Express-based Atom netbooks in our test group.
 
Transparent
PCMark Vantage vs Atom and Nano
NVIDIA Accelerates the Search For a Cure

We then ran the NVIDIA Ion platform through Futuremark’s latest system performance metric built specifically for Windows Vista, PCMark Vantage. PCMark Vantage sets up a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity.  Most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, so the tests can exploit the additional resources offered by a dual or quad-core CPU.  Here we're comparing the Ion platform to both an Intel Atom reference platform on an Intel D945GCLF motherboard and the VIA Nano reference platform as well.
 

Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Simulated Application Performance

Unfortunately, when we set the Ion platform to run both cores of the Atom 330 processor for four threads of total processing resources, the system eventually crash out of the test.  We're still digging into the reason for this and in fact it may well be software related.  Regardless, as a result, we only have performance with the Ion platform using an Atom 230 setup, which offers two processing threads via Intel's HyperThreading technology on a single physical core.




Here the Ion platform shows itself to be a bit more balanced in terms of performance, but it does fall short in a couple of tests that are more heavily weighted by hard disk throughput.  Recall from our test system specs that the Intel Atom and VIA Nano refernce platforms were setup with a standard desktop hard drive, versus the 2.5" notebook drive in the Ion box.  Where Ion excels is pretty obvious however, that being the gaming test and overall PCMark score which is a combination of a number of tests from the Vantage suite.  NVIDIA's GeForce 9400 GPU core in the chipset offers significantly more multimedia punch versus either of the two competitive products, roughly 2X the performance in the gaming test.

Transparent
Cinebench Software Rendering
NVIDIA Accelerates the Search For a Cure

Cinebench R10 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D from Maxon. Cinema 4D is a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others.  It's very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput.

Cinebench R10
3D Rendering

This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The rate at which each test system was able to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below.





We decided to include our Cinebench numbers here though frankly the test is more of a processor benchmark than anything else.  That said, obviously NVIDIA's GeForce 9400M chipset is enabling the Atom CPU to do its thing and with NVIDIA's memory controller in the mix as well, so the test is still worth a quick look.  Here the Ion drops in neck and neck with Intel's own 945 Express chipset and when we enabled the second Atom core in the Atom 330 CPU that came in the Ion reference PC, the score jumped to almost twice the performance.  We ran the multithreaded version of the Cinebench test and unfortunately VIA's Nano is a single core, single threaded processor, so it couldn't run the test.

Transparent
Gaming: Left 4 Dead and ET: Quake Wars
NVIDIA Accelerates the Search For a Cure

Gaming on the NVIDIA Ion reference PC proved to be a bit of a mixed bag.  To be honest, we didn't really expect to be able to thrash it out at high resolution with an integrated graphics solution.  Though admittedly, with an NVIDIA core GPU under the hood, the GeForce 9400 should provide some level of game play, whereas a competing Intel solution would be a non-starter.  What was surprising however, was that it wasn't a graphics limitation necessarily but a CPU limitation that was holding back some upside performance.

Left 4 Dead
DirectX Gaming Performance


Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead is a co-operative, survival horror, first-person shooter that was developed by Turtle Rock Studios, which was purchased by Valve part-way into development. Like Half Life 2, the game uses the Source engine, however, the visuals in L4D are far superior to anything seen in the Half Life universe to date. The game pits four Survivors of an apocalyptic pandemic against hordes of aggressive zombies. We tested the game at resolutions of 1280x720 and 800x600 with gaming quality settings set to medium or high, depending on the feature.




The Ion platform shows that gaming at 720p, even with a dual core Atom 330, is very much CPU-bound.  Notice the frame rate drop in the Atom 230 scores versus the Atom 330 scores, which are a lot more significant than the variance we see in dropping from 1280x720 to 800x600 resolution.  It's painfully obvious in the Atom 230 scores where the numbers are pretty much flat across the two resolutions.  In short, and as you'll see in the next gaming test, Ion needs at least a low power Core 2 dual core under the hood, if you really want to game a bit more on the platform - which can of course be done since all Intel socket 775 processors are supported by NVIDIA's GeForce 9400 chip.

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
OpenGL Gaming Performance


Enemy Territory:
Quake Wars

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is Based on an enhanced version of id's Doom 3 engine and viewed by many as Battlefield 2 meets the Strogg, and then some.  In fact, we'd venture to say that id took EA's team-based warfare genre up a notch or two.  ET: Quake Wars also marks the introduction of John Carmack's "Megatexture" technology that employs large environment and terrain textures that cover vast areas of maps without the need to repeat and tile many smaller textures.  The beauty of megatexture technology is that each unit only takes up a maximum of 8MB of frame buffer memory.  Add to that HDR-like bloom lighting and leading edge shadowing effects and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars looks great, plays well and works high end graphics cards vigorously. 




Enemy Territory Quake Wars testing underscored this CPU-bound scenario even further, with virtually no difference in performance when scaling resolutions one way or the other.  However, with another Atom core at the helm, we did get a bit more headroom.  The ET:Quake Wars engine isn't optimized as well for multi-core processors, so adding additional threads only buys you so much.  It's raw CPU core throughput and system bandwidth that is needed here and then perhaps we could see the limits of the GeForce 9400 GPU under these test conditions.

Transparent
Power Consumption
NVIDIA Accelerates the Search For a Cure

Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing with NVIDIA's Ion platform, we monitored how much power our test systems were consuming using a power meter. Our goal was to give you an idea as to how much power a few of our systems consumed while idling and under a heavy workload, versus the Ion platform.

Total System Power Consumption
Tested at the Outlet

Please keep in mind that we were testing total system power consumption at the outlet here, not just the power being drawn by the motherboards or processors alone.  For this test, we loaded up both Cinebench and our 1080p Dark Night video clip to stress the CPU and GPU cores in the Ion system.  Then we fired up ET: Quake Wars to compare notes between multimedia power consumption and gaming power consumption.


1080p HD Video Playback and Cinebench Multitasking
Full CPU Load 



As it turned out, the peak load power numbers you see here for the Ion system are indicative of power consumption under a gaming workload, versus our simultaneous video playback and Cinebench test.  Though the multimedia test taxed the Atom processor completely with Cinebench, video playback only exercised the PureVideo engine of the GeForce 9400 GPU and not all available stream processor core resources. During a gaming session peak power consumption was realized and in general was about 1 - 2 Watts higher than when the system was stressed in our multimedia test.  Incidentally, the Ion system was able to play back our Dark Night test clip without dropping a frame of skipping a beat, though its Atom CPU was pegged at 100% utilization by the Cinbench render test running in the foreground.

Finally, versus the other Atom-based products we tested, the Ion system did consume more power both at idle and under loaded conditions, but that was to be expected with the beefy GeForce 9400M drawing a bit more with its more capable GPU and video engine core.

Transparent
Performance Summary and Conclusion
NVIDIA Accelerates the Search For a Cure


Performance Summary: The NVIDIA Ion Small Form Factor reference PC platform proved itself to be a powerful multimedia machine with top-notch HD video playback capability and even a bit of light duty gaming performance available as well.  In standard desktop and productivity applications, the machine was about on par with similarly equipped Intel Atom-based products.  However, when tasked under multimedia workloads, the Ion offered best-of-class performance.  In our demo video we also were able to prove out the machine's capabilities over an HDMI output, where the Ion showed excellent desktop image quality and great HD audio and video reproduction over our THX certified amplifier and through a 50" plasma TV.


 
 

Here at HotHardware.com we're tasked with fairly evaluating a product or perhaps an unreleased forthcoming product, based not only on what we feel is going to be end user out-of-the-box experience and performance, but also on how we feel the product will measure up to other products in its class and for the target market and applications a product has been designed for.  It's with that in mind that we've come away decisively impressed based on our experience with the NVIDIA Ion reference platform.  One of the major shortcomings we've found with products like the Asus Eee Box and the Dell Studio Hybrid small form factor PC is that, while they're sleek, low power designs, they're lacking in the specialized video processing and 3D engines that can be found in a truly capable IGP-enabled (Integrated Graphics Processor) chipset.  It's quite possible that the NVIDIA Ion reference platform can offer a much more healthy alternative to the small form factor PC desktop and Home Theater PC markets, versus what's on the market today based on current Intel chipsets. 

In fact, for the HTPC crowd, there's little question NVIDIA's Ion PC represents a breakout product, one where discrete graphics and their associated power consumption, heat and noise, can be dismissed for a fully integrated platform capable of all the tasks at hand.  Wrap up Ion in some prettier skins, add a wireless keyboard and mouse, maybe a multi-function remote, and we think there may be more than a few NVIDIA sales engineers that will be looking at design wins over the next few quarters. 

We'll bring this preview to a close and offer that, while we can't give any awards to a product that you simply can't buy yet as we have tested it here today, the long and short of Ion, for us is, we want one - preferably sooner than later.  Would we give it and Editors Choice if this was a retail SKU from one of the major OEMs?  You betcha.  We'll be waiting in anticipation to see Ion in retail-ready form in the months ahead.


  
  • Great HMDI output performance
  • Flawless HD video playback
  • Entry level gaming capable
  • Tiny, low power goodness
  • Audible fansink
  • Even dual core Atom seems pokey at times




Content Property of HotHardware.com