The name is the same, and ION still serves the same purpose--giving under-powered netbooks a jolt of performance for 3D gaming and HD video. But the new version, which Nvidia introduced at the CeBIT tradeshow earlier today, is very different.
The original ION was a chipset, which included not only a GPU but all the support circuitry including a memory controller, networking, storage and I/O. Nvidia refers to this as MCP (Media and Communications Processor). That made sense under the old Intel architecture, which consisted of a processor and a separate chipset. But Intel has since moved many of these functions, including the graphics processor and memory controller, into the processor--first with the Nehalem processor for desktop and laptops, and most recently in the Pineview processors for netbooks--pushing the Nvidia chipset out. As a result, ION is a now simply a discrete GPU with its own memory. There are two version of this GPU: one for 10-inch netbooks with eight cores and a second one targeted at 12-inch netbooks (and nettops and all-in-one desktops) with 16 cores.
In addition, ION is now manufactured using a more advanced 40nm process technology while the old ION was fabricated at 65nm. This combined removing the chipset features results in a chip that is 40 percent smaller. Because of these changes, the new GPU also draws less power--about 6 watts compared with 10 watts for previous generation. ION now supports Nvidia's recently-announced Optimus technology, which automatically switches between the Intel integrated graphics and ION, depending on the workload, to preserve battery life. Nvidia claims ION-powered netbooks will have about 10 hours of battery life.
Exactly how much of a boost you'll get from new ION GPU is still a bit unclear. Early numbers seemed underwhelming, but other test results based on the Eee PC 1201PN with the most powerful version of the GPU look more impressive. For what it's worth, Nvidia says ION results in about 10 times better graphics performance than standard Pine Trail netbooks with Intel graphics. Speaking of Pine Trail, earlier this week Intel officially announced a faster version of the Atom processor, the 1.83GHz Atom N470.
The first two netbooks based on the new version of ION, the 10-inch Acer Aspire 532G and 12-inch Asus Eee PC 1201PN, will be available in April. ION will also show up in all-in-ones from Asus and Lenovo. Several of these are on display this week at CeBIT. Nvidia says there will be more announcements and in all there will be around 30 products base on ION available by mid-2010. HP and Lenovo already offer netbooks based on the original ION, so updates could be on the way. Nvidia says ION will cost about the same as or less than the previous chipset and netbooks using the GPU will cost $349 to $399.