Netbooks powered by Nvidia's Ion platform are nowhere in sight, but that hasn't stopped reviewers from taking it for a spin. These first reviews aren't based on real-world systems-we won't see those until mid-2009 at the earliest. Instead Nvidia has been providing reviewers with a home-baked small-form- factor desktop to demonstrate the capabilities of the platform.
Nearly all current netbooks use the 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 processor paired with the Intel 945GSE chipset, which includes Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics and a south bridge, the Intel Controller Hub 7-M. Ion uses the same Atom processor, but replaces the two-chip Intel chipset with a single chip, the GeForce 9400M, which has more powerful graphics, a memory controller and south bridge. This is the same chipset used in the latest Apple MacBook among other laptops. Aside from better graphics, the 9400M also supports DDR3 memory, which is faster and operates at a lower voltage, though for now it's probably too expensive for netbooks.
Nvidia is pushing Ion for both netbooks and SFF desktops. Because the test system is a desktop, it has a different processor, the Atom 330, which runs at the same speed but has two processing cores. (To make the playing field even when testing against netbooks, some reviewers turned off one core for the testing.) The Ion desktop also had 2GB of memory, while most netbooks have only 1GB. Even if the comparison isn't quite apples-to-apples, it's close enough to give you a good idea of what Nvidia will bring to the table.
It's no surprise that the GeForce 9400M is better at 3D gaming than Intel integrated graphics. But it offers other advantages including support for higher-resolution displays, high-definition video playback and enhanced audio. It also has the chops to run Windows Vista with the full Aero interface. By contrast, most netbooks still use Windows XP, because they can't run Vista at all-let alone the Aero GUI. This is somewhat academic since by the time Ion-based netbooks hit shelves, OEMs will be shifting to Windows 7 anyway. What Ion won't help with, however, are the everyday productivity tasks that depend heavily on the CPU. Intel has been very clear that netbooks can't match the functionality of a notebook, though a dual-core version of N270 sure wouldn't hurt.
Reviews of the Ion reference system back all of this up. There's no doubt it is more capable for gaming and entertainment, but it still is no replacement for a notebook PC. There's also a question about battery life of Ion netbooks. Nvidia says Ion only uses 12% more power than Atom with the 945GSE, but test systems seemed to use significantly more, though it's fair to assume the final netbooks will probably be better optimized than these early reference SFF desktops. Still I don't expect to see a lot of Ion netbooks with 3-cell batteries.
Of course, Intel isn't standing still. This week Intel began shipping the Atom N280, which runs at a slightly higher frequency (1.66GHz) and has a faster bus. Several sites have reported that the N280 will eventually be paired with a new chipset that supports 720p video playback--but not full 1080p like Nvidia's Ion. The first N280-based system available for pre-order, the Asus Eee PC 1000HE, still uses the current 945GSE chipset, though on Laptop Magazine's tests, it still did fairly well on 720p video.
Nvidia Ion reviews: