The netbook market has exploded since its introduction; there are over 40 million netbooks out in the wild today, which is tremendous growth for what is essentially a new class of PC. With such a large number of mobile devices, it's only natural for companies like NVIDIA to look for ways to get a slice of the netbook pie. As a graphics company, NVIDIA is quick to point out how poorly Intel's IGPs perform, and the GMA 950 paired with Atom netbooks is particularly slow. As an alternative to Atom+GMA 950, NVIDIA created the ION platform, which would provide dramatically improved graphics along with HD video decoding.

The first such implementation combined the GeForce 9400M chipset with an Atom N270/N280 for netbooks, or an Atom 330 for a nettop. A single-core Atom CPU is just barely able to handle 720p H.264 decoding on its own (with the CoreAVC codec—other less optimized codecs would still drop frames). 1080p support? Fahgeddaboutit! NVIDIA's ION nettops provided the necessary hardware to make a tiny HTPC box capable of handling Blu-ray playback, and the CPU and chipset are efficient enough that passive cooling isn't a problem.

On the netbook side, ION was a tougher sell. 1080p support is a nice bullet feature, but when most netbooks have 1024x600 LCDs, does HD support really matter? Plus, you would need an external USB Blu-ray drive to make it work. There's still gaming, and with Flash 10.1 (now at Beta 3) acceleration you can certainly make the argument that an ION netbook provides a superior user experience compared to stock Atom netbooks, but the caveats don't end there. NVIDIA stated that their chipset power requirements were "competitive" with Intel's chipset, but they appear to be taking performance into the equation. Our own numbers suggest that a good GMA 950+N280 solution is anywhere from 17% (H.264 decode) to over 35% (Internet surfing) more power efficient than the original ION—that's using the ASUS 1005HA and the HP Mini 311 as a point of reference. So you'd be stuck with less battery life but more features, with a higher price as well.

Things got quite a bit more complicated with the release of the Pine Trail platform and Pineview processors. Besides the fact that Pine Trail is even more power efficient (up to 70% more battery life relative to ION in Internet testing), Intel moved their IGP solution into the CPU package and eliminated the old FSB link. The Atom N450 links to the NM10 chipset with a proprietary DMI connection and NVIDIA doesn't make—and legally can't make—a compatible chipset, so using a non-Intel chipset with N450 simply isn't an option. The problem with Pine Trail is that HD video decoding remains difficult, unless you add a separate decoder chip, and gaming and other aspects of the user experience are still lackluster—N450 netbooks typically make do with Windows 7 Starter. Lucky for NVIDIA, they have some new technology called Optimus that makes all of this a moot point.

If you've got any math skills, you've probably already put two and two together to figure out what NVIDIA is announcing today. The Next Generation ION (NG-ION) platform consists of a Pineview netbook with a discrete graphics chip from NVIDIA, with Optimus allowing the GPU to switch on/off as needed. Note that there is no Optimus technology for nettop solutions, which will simply use an NVIDIA discrete GPU all the time. On a nettop that's always plugged in, NG-ION might use ~3W more power at idle, but that's not enough to worry about. There's also a benefit to just keeping things simple by using a standard discrete GPU.

Simplifying NG-ION like we just did is great for the layman, but there are plenty of other technical aspects to discuss that make things a bit more interesting. We don't have hardware for testing, so all we can pass along are NVDIA's performance information, but they make sense as we'll see in a moment. We'll also discuss some of the implementation specific details, expected availability, etc.

Getting Technical with Next Generation ION
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  • synaesthetic - Friday, March 5, 2010 - link

    I thought the major difference nvidia pushed for ION2 was that it would be available on non-Atom platforms (like maybe Intel CULV)...

    I guess not. Unimpressive.
  • wicko - Wednesday, March 3, 2010 - link

    I have yet to see the Ion platform really take off here in Canada. At least in netbooks anyway. Most of them come with Intel's GMA series, the only one I've seen with an Ion is an Asus Eee (and an Ion LE in an HP netbook).

    I'd be more excited if I could buy the actual product :(
  • CZroe - Wednesday, March 3, 2010 - link

    I don't know why this article speaks as if it will soon be available when it has already been available. For example, many already own the Acer Aspire one 532G. Just look at the forums.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, March 3, 2010 - link

    I'm not sure where people are buying the 532G... I can find the 532H all over the place, but not the 532G. Can you link me to a thread? Because I don't see any on the main pages; just an Engadget blog.
  • anandtech02148 - Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - link

    nvidia going up against microsoft& intel ,except for the zuneHd
    they hold the netbook standard,its wintel all over again.
    maybe apple should use that $40billions &buyout nvidia,
    it make senses sinced apple is building their own Soc.
  • Penti - Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - link

    A good Broadcom Crystal HD alternative then, just as I thought a GPU connected on the PCI-E bus. Copy Engine is of course new tech that weren't around when I speculated, but if it's just gonna be used for DXVA then it's pretty moot in the netbook space. In the HTPC space there's other chips that can be used any way as you won't need the copy engine there. But certainly a nice addition making 1080p HDMI possible.
  • darkhawkff - Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - link

    Being an HP 311 owner, who is extremely happy with the little machine, I fail to really see any value added to both the new Ion, as well as the new Atom CPU's. Granted, the old Ion wasn't exactly a powerhouse, but for what it was it was great. Given the simple fact that (atleast on my HP 311) I was able to attain 2.2 GHz stable overclocks on the Atom N280 processor, it made it possible to (reasonably) play semi-recent games even on it. Testing has shown that at the >2.0 GHz range, the GPU becomes the bottleneck, not the CPU (check out for results). I even use it to play WoW on while I watch a movie or TV. Would I be able to do a 10 man or 25 man raid on it? No, but for questing and doing 5 mans it works quite well. Add in the fact that all the HP 311's hardware (outside of Wireless Lan) is supported by OSX, making it the perfect Mini Mac, how can you really go wrong?

    Nvidia is just trying to continue to stay in the Netbook market, and I can't blame them. But I really see very little value added compared to current offerings. Yes, the video card is probably a little bit better, but will a GT210 really be that much better than even a 9400 at this point? I would wager no.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - link

    My own testing suggests that CULV at 1.3GHz is still a bottleneck for G210M, which is around 60% faster than 9400M because of the dedicated RAM and higher clocks. I doubt that even Atom at 2.2GHz is going to make the NG-ION the bottleneck. As for the original ION, it probably had as much of a bottleneck from the shared memory bandwidth. (Also: few people would recommend running the HP Mini 311 at 2.2GHz; 2.0GHz is where I'd draw the line, and an extra 10% in CPU clock with a much greater risk of system damage is pretty extreme.)

    So take ION, get rid of battery life limitations, and make it 50 to 100% faster. Yes, the new ION is clearly better than the old version in quite a few ways. Is it universally better? No, because Optimus has a few minor drawbacks: Win7 required--but we would all run that regardless, right?--and there's simplicity in not having to transfer data between GPU RAM and system RAM.

    Finally, comparing an overclocked HP Mini 311 to what you would get from a stock NG-ION is setting up a straw man. Of course an overclocked ION/Atom are going to be faster (or at least equal), but you'll also be able to overclock NG-ION. We'll see how it all works out when we get actual hardware.
  • jimhsu - Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - link

    Assuming I read your post right, I also agree that the Atom remains the bottleneck .. ION and ION 2 remain fundamentally CPU limited. Is there anything other than cost preventing the complete abandonment of Atom and replacement with CULV?
  • jimhsu - Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - link

    I commented on that mostly because I've personally used netbooks with Atom and find the performance completely unacceptable, even comparing with 5 year old desktops. When "simple" tasks like launching Word or Firefox become CPU limited operations (CPU pegged at 100%), it brings back unpleasant memories from the last decade. Resuming from sleep takes half a minute for the computer to be usable again. Etc, etc.

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