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NVIDIA Next-Gen ION Preview, Optimus Enabled
Date: Mar 02, 2010
Author: Joel Hruska
NVIDIA Next-Generation ION 2

Ever since NVIDIA's original ION chipset proved it was possible to pair Intel's low-power Atom processor to a relatively powerful graphics core and attain acceptable multimedia performance, the market has been curious as to what NVIDIA's Ion 2 Next-Generation Ion product might offer. This has also been a topic of some discussion between Intel, NVIDIA, and the FTC. Because Intel's next-generation Atom platform is a system-on-chip (SoC), NVIDIA had to adjust its own plans for NG-Ion.


That's Ion on the left, NG-Ion on the right. Parse the diagram and you'll soon realize that NG-Ion is a discrete GPU, unlike its predecessor. Specifically, it looks to be a low-power, netbook friendly version of the GeForce 210M (although not all NG-Ion chips will have 16 cores). Like the 210M it's produced on a 40nm process (down from Ion's 55nm) and clockspeeds are rumored to be higher than the original model as well. Most significantly, NG-Ion packs a dedicated 512MB frame buffer where the original chip had to share main memory bandwidth with the Atom processor.

A 64-bit link to a 512MB frame buffer at 800MHz (that last is a guess) doesn't sound like much, but it'll give the NG Ion GPU 6.4GBps of memory bandwidth compared to the 3GBps available to a standard Pinetrail system. NVIDIA claims these improvements boost NG-Ion's performance up to 100 percent above its predecessor.

Oddly, NVIDIA doesn't specify if we'll see NG-Ion paired up with Intel's Atom Z550 or the N470. At 2GHz (Z550) and 1.83GHz (N470), these are the two fastest Atom processor's Intel has released. Given the diminutive processor's similarly diminutive performance the faster speed bins would seem to be quite desirable pairings for NG-Ion.

So far we have the NG-Ion GPU—a faster Ion manufactured on a more advanced process with a sizable frame buffer, DX10.1 support, and one more thing—a sexy new power-saving feature named Optimus.
Optimus, Conclusion


Intel's decision to put Pinetrail's graphics chip within the SoC left NVIDIA with a quandry; OEMs generally aren't thrilled with the idea of buying a part they don't actually use. Optimus solves the problem and cuts Ion's power consumption in a single stroke. If you want the full details on Optimus you should read our coverage—it's quite a nifty bit of hardware and software engineering—but the upshot is that it's a much improved version of the integrated / discrete GPU switching we saw built into the original GeForce 9400M and the AMD 780G chipsets.

This time around, the switch from integrated to discrete and back again is seamless and completely transparent to the end user. There's no need to swap profiles or select a different video card; when Optimus detects that the discrete GPU's horsepower is needed, it flips it on.

The impact on battery life, according to NVIDIA, looks something like this:

It's hard to argue with results like that, provided they hold up in testing. One caveat, however, is that Optimus technology is limited to Windows 7—there's no way to backport it to Windows XP, Vista, although we're told there's no reason OSX can't support it. That's fine with NVIDIA, as they'd just as soon you were running Windows 7 Home Premium anyway.

Nettops galore:  Asus Ebox, the EeeTop, and Lenovo's C200

And, of course, netbooks:  Acer's Aspire One 532G and the Asus Eee 1201PN

Discrete Cards Are Coming Too.

In our experience, the difference between using an Ion-based nettop / netbook and an Intel integrated solution can't be expressed just in terms of benchmark performance. Put the two solutions head-to-head and Ion comes out a little sharper, a little faster, color reproduction a little more accurate, and all of this comes before you consider the difference in feature sets. Historically, NVIDIA has always dragged Intel out behind the woodshed for a solid drubbing in terms of graphics performance and features, and NG-Ion is only going to exacerbate the difference.

As for Optimus, it's a substantial feather in the company's hat. Battery life is a high priority these days at all price points; the ability to switch flawlessly back and forth between graphics processors could give Team Green a leg up over AMD in the mobile space. NVIDIA expects a wide range of new designs (it claims over 30 by the summer), with NG-Ion making an appearance in netbooks, nettops, all-in-one PCs, and small-form-factor motherboards.

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