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A Look at NVIDIA’s Next Generation ION

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SKYMTL

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A Look at NVIDIA’s Next Generation ION





It seems odd that a little over a year ago we got our first look at NVIDIA’s ION; a product destined to bring acceptable video performance to a whole generation of netbooks and small form factor PCs. By utilizing the popularity of Intel’s then-new Atom processors, the ION was able to vault onto the public’s radar screen and it stayed there for the remainder of the year and into 2010. When we first saw it, the platform was still in its infancy and was being presented in a black NVIDIA-branded box that provided some very basic display outputs and graphics functionality. This reference design was then refined and expanded upon by numerous manufacturers like ASUS with their Eee PC 1201N, Zotac’s MAG All In One PC and countless others.

The whole reason behind the ION is to provide better video, graphics and functionality than the standard Intel Atom configuration can supply. It was never meant to produce the eye-popping visuals of higher-end dedicated graphics cards since the small form factor market just isn’t concerned with cutting edge performance. Rather, consumers looking for netbooks and small form factor PCs want long battery life and high efficiency coupled with acceptable performance in the functions they used most. NVIDIA thought the Atom provided everything but the latter of these and so, the ION was born to fill that perceived gap. With high definition YouTube videos, demanding Flash-based content and other applications demanding more and more of an already-overtaxed Atom, it was a welcome addition of many.


NVIDIA’s Original ION Reference Design

The original ION combined the functions of both a chipset and graphics core into an easy to implement and cost effective solution which allowed the Atom processors to appeal to a broader market. Unfortunately, while NVIDIA had a license to produce chipsets for Intel’s FSB architecture, the new Pineview-series Atom processors moved towards using the DMI interface while placing most of the I/O functions onto the CPU package. This coupled with NVIDIA’s lack of a license to produce DMI chipsets effectively killed off any chance of the first generation ION supporting the newer Atom processors. NVIDIA needed to come up with another plan. Say hello to the next step in the ION evolution.

What NVIDIA is announcing today is their next-generation ION products that are named….ION. Some of you are probably wondering why NVIDIA didn't name this ION 2 or something else to differentiate it from past generations. Basically, they didn't have to. If you are buying a Pineview-based Atom system, you will be getting a next generation ION anyways since the older one is not compatible with Intel's new DMI interface layout. There are also two distinct products in this new series: an 8-core version destined for 10” netbooks and a 16-core product that targets 12” netbooks and set-top boxes. This may not seem like anything groundbreaking but as you will see on the next pages, NVIDIA has modified these GPUs enough that they could have very well received a name other than ION.

In the following pages we will be giving you an overview of the next generation ION in preparation for an actual review which will hopefully be coming in the next few weeks. All in all, we think there’s a lot to be excited about.

 

SKYMTL

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Why ION, Why Now?

Why ION, Why Now?


Less than two years ago, the term netbook had just begun to catch on with a few who were aware they existed from some pioneering companies like ASUS and MSI. These first products didn’t exactly feature the best battery time or performance but they utilized Intel’s new Atom processor to good effect. Billed as inexpensive and “good enough” for all the basic tasks most consumers use their PCs for, it wasn’t long before large retail store chains came calling and popularity surged. Not content to sit idly by while competitors raked in the profits, other companies soon joined the netbook craze and suddenly it seemed like every company had a competing solution. It wasn’t long after that small form factor nettops (small, low power desktops) began seeing the light of day as well. However, as the netbook and nettop markets have matured, so too have people’s expectations regarding what they want these products to do.

Back at the end of 2007, resource -hogging items like HD YouTube videos were simply glimmers in the eyes of their developers but as the time ticked on, things soon changed. Basically, as technology has progressed, program developers have been able to release applications that continue to tax even the best of systems. It’s up to companies like NVIDIA, Intel and AMD to continually stay ahead of this technology curve by offering ever more advanced solutions.


One thing that NVIDIA is banking on is the apparently increasing popularity of the netbook market and the increasing demand of today’s computing experience. According to their market research figures, the globale netbook market (not including “fringe” products like nettops) is slated to go above 55 million units sold in 2012 which does sound like an impressive number. However, this is still a vastly smaller portion of the overall mobile computing market when compared to the exposure of standard notebook computers.

If we put this into context though since if we consider how long netbooks have been around versus standard notebooks, this uptake is nothing short of remarkable. With their current generation ION firmly entrenched NVIDIA is in a great position to be the default choice if consumers want something slightly above your run-of-the-mill $299 netbook. Think of it: if NVIDIA is able to sell an ION in one of every five netbooks sold by 2012, they could potentially move up to 10 million units. That’s not bad at all considering the strength of their current notebook market penetration.


So why does NVIDIA think you will want a netbook packing an ION processor? Basically, their stance has always been one which clearly states that standard netbooks serve their purpose very well but are limited in their uses. From experience, many of us know that outside of some basic computing tasks, a lower-end netbook or Atom-based SFF PC simply fails to deliver in many ways. What ION does is offer a richer multimedia experience primarily for people on the go who want functionality outside of browsing some basic websites and writing in a Word document.


The first generation ION had come into the market at what seemed to have been a perfect time; the needs of consumers were slowly moving towards high-definition standards along with interactive media and the Atom processors at that time just couldn’t give an optimal online experience. While the needs of netbook and nettop users haven’t changed much since ION was first announced, applications have become even more demanding and for this and other reasons, NVIDIA evolved their small powerhouse as well. This next generation processor will follow closely in the footsteps of the original chip but will do so while consuming less power and offering better performance in applications many of us take for granted. Is this what netbook users really want? NVIDIA sure thinks so.
 

SKYMTL

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A Look at the Next Generation ION

A Look at the Next Generation ION


Before we really get into the nitty gritty of NVIDIA’s new ION chips, it’s important to discuss where we were and the reasons why NVIDIA had to rethink their approach to adding their products to Intel’s Atom family of processors. It is a somewhat convoluted story so hang on tight.

As we discussed in the introduction, Intel’s original Diamondville family of Atom processors were based off of their older 775 series of FSB-based processors. As such, they used a two-chip solution: the 945GSE chipset handled the graphics processing, memory control functions and display output while the ICH7M was used as a controller hub for all of the I/O functions such as USB and SATA. What NVIDIA’s ION did was effectively replace the two chips with a single MCP or Media Communications Processor that combined all of the functions into one package and processed graphics on a 9400M-based core. It was well implemented but unfortunately for NVIDIA, Intel’s Pineview series of Atom processors did away with the FSB architecture and replaced the two chip solution with something totally different….


N540 Diagram Image courtesy of Intel

Instead of using separate chips, Intel has now moved the display, graphics and memory control over onto the CPU package itself which is akin to the direction they have taken with the new Clarkdale chips. Meanwhile, a scaled down controller hub called the NM10 Express Chipset takes care of all the I/O duties including the processing of some basic HD audio as well. It also supports two SATA devices, 2 x 32-bit PCI slots, eight USB 2.0 ports and 4 PCI-E 2.0 lanes. In addition to this, there are some “optional” items manufacturers can choose to add which include controllers for WiFi, LAN, WiMax and a HD Video Decoder. In an ION-based system, the HD Video Decoder would not be used as the NVIDIA GPU takes care of all decoding duties. However, Team Green does have some competition since numerous companies have decided to go with Broadcom’s CrystalHD BCM70015 HD Video Decoder instead of ION.

Unfortunately for NVIDIA, they don’t have the license to produce DMI-based chipsets so they can’t very well replace the whole NM10 as they did with the 945GSE and ICH7M from the last generation of Atom-based systems. No, they needed something else and their solution was quite simple: use the four PCI-E lanes that the NM10 includes.


Naturally, with this new design comes a move away from a chipset-type layout since NVIDIA is now treating the ION as a dedicated GPU with its own frame buffer and 1x PCI-E link to the NM10 chipset and DMI interface. Gone are the days when the ION had to share memory with the rest of the system. We can also see the ION will continue to handle high definition 720 / 1080P output to a secondary display as well as HD audio processing / output via a supported HDMI 1.3 connector. When displaying images directly onto the netbook screen, this new chip will dynamically switch between the IGP on the CPU and itself based on parameters dictated by NVIDIA’s Optimus technology to balance power consumption and performance. We’ll be talking more about this in a later section.

At its most basic, the new ION can be considered more like a standard notebook GPU rather than a controller with graphics processing capabilities thrown in.
 

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A Look at the Next Generation ION con't.

A Look at the Next Generation ION pg.2



As you can see, even though NVIDIA hasn’t called their next generation ION product by a different name, there are plenty of changes. The most obvious of these is the fact that there are now two different ION products: one uses the full 16 CUDA cores while the other makes due with eight cores. The 16 core model is destined for larger 12” netbooks in addition to nettop computers while the lower end version will be used exclusively in 10” netbooks. There are a number of reasons why this was done but the ones which NVIDIA put the most emphasis on was market segmentation and cooling. It is important to remember that the 10” netbook market very rarely needs much graphics processing horsepower and 8 CUDA cores are more than enough for basic HD decoding along with Flash acceleration. Meanwhile, with netbooks becoming slimmer and slimmer NVIDIA admits that some 10” products won’t be able to accommodate the cooling solution necessary to handle a 16 core ION.

For all intents and purposes, the core of the new ION is very similar to graphics subsystem of the outgoing one in terms of display output options and actual market focus but that’s where the similarity stops. This is because NVIDIA has taken the older 9400M graphics core and has given it a 40nm face lift which allows them to run at higher clock speeds while lowering the TDP by almost fifteen percent. However, it should be noted this TDP number does NOT include the power consumption of the ION’s memory.

Speaking of memory and clock speeds, the new IONs will use a dedicated frame buffer of up to 512MB of DDR2 or DDR3 memory operating on either a 32-bit or 64-bit interface. The exact speeds of this memory weren’t discussed but core clock speeds were and in this category, it has the older version clearly outgunned. We see here that the core clock has been increased by 85Mhz while the shaders (CUDA cores) get a good 130Mhz bump. This along with the apparent increase in the core’s rendering efficiency leads to significant performance jumps over the last generation.


As a result of discarding the I/O functions of the previous generation ION MCP along with the move to a highly efficienct 40nm manufacturing process, the die of the ION has shrunk by about 40%. Even though die size may sound like an almost trivial thing to mention, it is a huge deal for manufacturers who are constantly fighting for space within the limited confines of a netbook’s chassis.


Next Generation ION = 16 Core version

Unfortunately, actual performance numbers for this new ION were a bit hard to come by but what little NVIDIA was willing to show turned out to be interesting. From the 3DMark benchmarks above, we can see that the new ION is able to beat out the older one by 50% in a DX9 environment to nearly doubling its performance when using DX10. While we doubt this gaping difference will stay true for every scenario, it does show there is more performance in the next gen part than clock speeds alone will account for. It will be interesting to see true performance when we get a final system in our hands.

According to NVIDIA, the cut down 8-core version will have only slightly less graphics performance than the previous generation courtesy of its faster clock speeds and the ability of its cores to process data more efficiently.
 

SKYMTL

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CUDA For the Masses

CUDA For the Masses


We know it has been drilled into your heads by this point but we still have to mention the benefits of CUDA since they impact directly upon tasks many netbook users will be doing. NVIDIA’s CUDA allows the massive parallel processing horsepower of modern GPUs to be harnessed by certain programs in order to increase performance. When it was first introduced, this compute architecture didn’t find widespread adoption due to the fact that programmers needed to wrap their minds around using several parallel data paths to accelerate their applications. As time went on, more and more programs have been released which support CUDA and GPU acceleration in general. We now have the advent of OpenCL (which is supported under CUDA) as well which could very well bring about a renaissance in GPU computing by offering an open, publically available programming language to countless developers.


While the future may look bright for CUDA, its current status is anything but murky considering new supporting applications are currently being released. Many of these like [email protected] and Adobe Photoshop acceleration probably won’t appeal to the market segment netbooks are targeting but others will.

Youtube and Hulu video streaming services used to be available in only low definition formats but now have 720P and 1080P streams available. Not only do these HD movies put a serious strain on your internet connection but they will also bring an Atom-based system to its knees. NVIDIA’s ION is able to leverage the GPU acceleration option within Adobe’s Flash 10.1 player to process the video streams on the GPU which will in effect allow for smoother playback. We tested this in the past and the effect it impressive to say the least. Unfortunately, Flash-based games like the ultra popular FarmVille are not yet accelerated in Flash but according to our conversations with Adobe, they will be soon.

Through the use of several media playback programs like Cyberlink’s PowerDVD, the GPU can also be used for decoding HD video and audio from Blu-ray disks. We tested this here and once again, the results spoke for themselves. Naturally, this is dependent on whether a netbook packs the necessary Blu-ray drive and we are sure that many won’t due to the cost involved.


Outside of the usual decoding and playback options for HD material, CUDA can also fit right into the “circle of video life” that many users go through on an almost daily basis. After filming a video with your camera, you can easily use a GPU accelerated program like vReveal to clean up the image extremely quickly and then convert it with yet another accelerated application such as Badaboom before transferring it over to your portable media player. You could do all of this on the CPU but it would take much more time which would in effect use up more battery power than using the GPU.

Yes, Badaboom and vReveal have been talked about for months now but they remain some of the best examples of how developers are harnessing the power of CUDA and the GPU to increase the performance of even lower-end systems. This is simply the tip of a very large iceberg when it comes to GPUs being used for something other than graphics processing.

Below, we have an example of how vReveal can be used to remove pixilation and shakiness from a home video.

<object width="600" height="210"><param name="allowfullscreen" value="true" /><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always" /><param name="movie" value="http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=4774878&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=0&color=&fullscreen=1" /><embed src="http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=4774878&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=0&color=&fullscreen=1" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowfullscreen="true" allowscriptaccess="always" width="400" height="140"></embed></object><p>​
 

SKYMTL

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NVIDIA’s Optimus; Efficiency and Performance as One

NVIDIA’s Optimus; Efficiency and Performance as One



There has been quite a bit of talk over the last few weeks about NVIDIA’s latest technology for notebooks called Optimus. While we didn’t have the opportunity to give you the complete picture when it was first released, we are nonetheless excited about the possibilities it brings to the table for notebook and netbook users alike. It is also a technology that NVIDIA will be bringing to their next generation ION platform.

No matter what kind of mobile user you are, battery life is most likely one of your primary concerns. In the past, there always seemed to be a tradeoff between battery life and graphics performance but there were initiatives to strike a balance. We have seen some technologies which switch between discrete and IGP graphics yet they were anything but seamless; often requiring a system reboot to function properly. Meanwhile, NVIDIA’s Optimus promises to do exactly what previous lacked: a truly seamless transition between the power savings of an integrated graphics processor and the power of a dedicated GPU.


In order to do this on the ION platform, the IGP within the Pineview Atom processor acts as the display controller so in effect it handles all of the output to the netbook’s monitor. When the dedicated ION GPU isn’t needed, it shuts off and allows the more efficient on-chip IGP to take over the tasks associated with displaying images on the screen.


Once Optimus detects additional graphics performance is needed, it switches on the ION GPU. Meanwhile, the IGP still acts as the display controller to the system’s screen but if output is done through an external source via HDMI, it will b the ION that directly outputs the video signal. This is all supposed to happen seamlessly and without the user knowing it is happening behind the scenes. However, it can also be manually switched on and off if you want to fine tune control a bit more.

This dynamic load balancing between the GPU and IGP results in some (claimed) downright amazing performance to be eked out of a netbook while maintaining extremely good battery life. In their own internal testing, NVIDIA claims they have seen near-equal performance between a notepad without a dedicated GPU and one equipped with a dedicated GPU and Optimus switching capabilities. How that translates into the more efficient netbook market has yet to be seen.

We will be talking much more about Optimus in an upcoming notebook review but until then, just be aware that we merely scratched the surface here.
 

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An ION PCI-E 1x Add-In Card for your HTPC

An ION PCI-E 1x Add-In Card for your HTPC


We all know that many HTPC users usually find themselves out in the cold when it comes to finding a card that perfectly suits their needs. In the past, both NVIDIA and ATI have released successive generations of low profile cards for just this market and some have been extremely successful. NVIDIA is now trying to take things to the next level by releasing their dedicated ION GPU as a stand-alone PCI-E 1x add-in card for people with limited motherboard and enclosure space.


The layout of the reference card at least is relatively simple with the tiny PCI-E 1x connector being the most distinguishing feature. While the actively cooled heatsink may turn many people off, the small cases within the SFF market don’t provide much internal airflow to begin with so a passive cooler may be out of the question.


The top-down view shows us much of the same but it looks like the memory is positioned slightly behind the GPU core and can probably be set up in 4x64MB or 4x128MB configurations resulting in totals of 256MB or 512MB of DDR2 or DDR3. There are also additional pin-outs for an optional VGA connector if a board partner should choose to add one.


The backplate shows us a typical HDMI 1.3 and DVI configuration with a low-profile bracket. We are guessing that a full-height bracket will not be included by default since this card is destined for smaller chassis.


When it comes to actual size compared to NVIDIA smallest commercially available card –the GT 210-, the discrete ION add-in card is actually slightly shorter. This could help it fit into spaces standard PCI-E 16x cards just can’t.

Truth be told, there really isn’t much we know about this card but there are several things that can be guessed. It is possible the ION add-in card may never be picked up by board partners but we can imagine this being marketed heavily as a cost effective solution for OEMs. It should be available in both 8 and 16 core configurations with the same memory options as the netbook-bound units but what is really exciting is the potential power consumption of the ION card. It could probably maintain a maximum power consumption envelope at or below the 15W mark which would be impressive to say the least.

Could this be the perfect option for HTPC users who are concerned about power consumption? Only time will tell.
 

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Some Next-Generation ION Products

Some Next-Generation ION Products


In this section, we will be taking you on a short tour of some of the upcoming products that will be using NVIDIA’s next generation ION platform. Supposedly, there will be over 40 different netbooks and nettops available this year which all sport ION GPUs and we should begin to see these products sometime in April or May.


Acer Aspire One 532G


By far the forerunner among these products is the Acer Aspire One 523G. First shown at this year’s Mobile World Congress, it has become the de facto standard bearer for the next generation ION since it is supposed to boast a near-perfect combination of battery life and performance for a netbook. One thing that should be mention is the fact that being a 10” netbook, it uses NVIDIA’s new 8-core ION and not the more powerful 16-core product.


ASUS Eee PC 1201PN & Eee PC Box 1501P


It won’t be argued by many if we said that it was ASUS who started the whole netbook craze with their wildly popular Eee PC. So far, they have continued to be leaders in the small form factor market with successive and equally successful follow-ups to their original netbook design. The first product we will see from them with the new ION will likely be the upcoming Eee PC 1201PN which is a 12” netbook sporting a 16-core ION graphics card. Following close on this product’s heels will be several nettops like the EeePC Box 1501P.


Zotac Z-Box


Even though it didn’t get much press attention, the original ION-equipped Zotac MAG nettop was actually extremely popular among people looking for a good looking, simple, yet powerful small form factor computer. With its ability to mount onto any VESA compatible monitor, it allowed for a seamless visual computing experience. Zotac is looking to follow it up with their new Z-Box which will pack even more performance into its svelte frame when it is released later this year.
 

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Next Gen ION, Initial Impressions

Next Gen ION, Initial Impressions


So there you have it; a quick and painless overview of NVIDIA’s next generation ION. Considering the short amount of time netbooks have been available on the market, their rise to fame over the last year has been nothing short of incredible. It is more than obvious companies are clamoring for their slice of the pie with the projected unit sales possibly eclipsing the 50 million mark in less than two years. With the latest generation of Pineview-based Atom processors, it looked like NVIDIA’s slice had slipped right through their fingers and crashed to the floor. Simply put, Intel’s move towards the DMI interface effectively cut NVIDIA out of the chipset business and forced them to dream up new ways fpr ION to be used in within the lucrative Atom market. Luckily, Intel left a bit of a loophole for the boys in green with their inclusion of four PCI-E lanes on the NM10 Express chipset.

In order to take advantage of this situation NVIDIA could have taken their older ION, popped it onto a simple add-in card and called it a day. Instead, they prettied it up quite a bit by increasing its clock speeds, adding a dedicated frame buffer which is used solely by the GPU and used a highly efficient 40nm process. This all translates into (supposedly) better performance than the original ION while power consumption has been lowered by not so insignificant amounts. Much like netbooks have evolved from their original form, so too has NVIDIA’s ION.

Some of you may have been hoping for a significant increase in the rendering potential but that wasn’t meant to be considering the customers this product is aimed at. NVIDIA isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here and they don’t have to because the netbook market doesn’t need or want the higher performance which is accessible to notebook users. Rather, they are looking for something that combines efficiency and performance that is good enough for their everyday uses. With the next generation ION, NVIDIA feels they can deliver just that.


What we are most worried about is how these new IONs will be marketed towards consumers. While NVIDIA stated quite clearly that the 8 core version is for 10” netbooks, there isn’t anything stopping a manufacturer from putting that same lower-end product in a 12” netbook and calling it a day. With NVIDIA’s current naming scheme, there is no real way buyers to differentiate between one product and another not to mention other factors like 32 or 64-bit memory interfaces and frame buffer size differences. Suddenly, the specifications of these netbooks could get overly complicated. Even though us members of the media and the majority of people reading this site may be able to tell the difference, there is nothing here to help less knowledgeable buyers make the right choice when it comes to this new ION. We believe there should be clearly defined subcategories within the ION range now that there is more than one performance option. If this distinction isn’t made, NVIDIA could be making what should be a hassle-free buying experience into a lesson in frustration.

One way or another, the most important thing is for NVIDIA to ensure the ION stays priced competitively enough that netbooks which use it will still carry an appealing price. The main drawing point for these small computers is their price versus their larger notebook brethren and if adding an ION means prices start creeping towards that magical $600 mark, adoption will be very slow indeed. However, if NVIDIA can keep its market pricing equal to or less than its competitors like the Broadcom CrystalHD, things could go very well for them when it come to OEM acceptance.

Yes there are some lingering questions about this new and improved ION’s performance and overall price impact on the netbook market but they will all be answered when we get a chance to review a supporting product in the near future. Until then, we are extremely excited about what NVIDIA’s netbook product could potentially bring to the table and so should you.



 
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