NVIDIA Ion Reference PC Platform Deep Dive

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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.

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