I doubt anyone will deny that Nvidia ION platform bringing GeForce 9400 chipset into nettops and netbooks provides better functionality than a classical Intel Atom + Intel 945G chipset combination. Nvidia solution with an integrated performance GPU has the whole bunch of advantages. In some cases this GPU can accelerate not only 3D graphics, but also HD video playback, which expands the possible application field for nettops and netbooks.
However, GeForce 9400 can’t fix all bottlenecks of the super energy-efficient systems: the performance of Intel Atom processor that goes into them is way too low for many tasks. Therefore, although the GPU in the Nvidia ION platform is powerful enough for quite a few 3D games, ION cannot be regarded even as an entry level gaming system. The gaming performance of this system hits against the slow CPU that is why there is no way to get any acceptable framerate even in 3D games with simple graphics.
But Nvidia ION performs pretty well during HD video content playback. PureVideo HD engine built into GeForce 9400 takes over lion’s share of the load during video decoding. As a result, this Atom based system can playback movies in H.264, VC-1 and MPEG-2 formats even in 1080p resolution without any problems.
It appears that using a chipset with high-performance graphics core in an Atom based system provides one noticeable advantage: these systems may work as media players and HTPCs. This advantage alone may be more than enough to make nettops like that very interesting. In other words, it makes a lot of practical sense to use GeForce 9400 in small energy-efficient systems: this chipset will make nettops something bigger than a simple consumer device for internet-surfing.
At the same time, we can’t call Nvidia ION a good netbook platform. Although it may be put together in miniature system cases, it is not very practical to use it in mainstream ultra-mobile systems. Mobile Intel chipsets boast lower power consumption and their inability to playback HD video will hardly be an issue for netbooks equipped with low-resolution displays. Therefore, ION may only find its way into few elite netbooks like SONY VAIO P series that come with high-resolution displays.
But even in the nettop market for which ION seems to be a good fit, Nvidia may face some serious problems. The thing is that Intel is going to refresh their “atomic” platform very soon by replacing the 945 chipset series with the next generation GN40. This core logic set will feature a more advanced graphics core that will also be able to accelerate HD video playback. And even though Intel so far claims that you will only be able to view high definition video in 1080p resolution translated through the network, GN40 may be powerful enough to handle HD movies as well. Moreover, do not forget about several manufacturers who have announced their own platforms with Intel Atom and 945 series chipsets and provided them with an additional hardware video codec. These solutions may also become serious competitors to Nvidia ION.
But even if the market favors Nvidia ION systems, Nvidia has very vague future as a supplier of nettop and netbook chipsets for Intel Atom based platforms. In the end of this year Intel is planning on switching to Atom (Pineview) processors with an integrated graphics core. And Nvidia’s right to develop and manufacture chipsets for these processors is currently a court matter. So it is quite possible that Nvidia will have to leave this market before they even settle down. However, since ION is not Nvidia’s sole engineering research and development project but an attempt to find additional application for GeForce 9400 chipset that they have had for some time already, the failure of the ION initiative will have no catastrophic consequences. Especially since the company can always readjust their solution for VIA platforms that have every chance to compete successfully against Atom in the nettop segment.