by Ilya Gavrichenkov
05/01/2009 | 11:25 AM
The market of inexpensive compact computer systems that belong to the netbook and nettop class has been growing tremendously lately. There are several reasons for that. We certainly have to mention the worldwide economic crisis; no need for high-performance systems if we are talking not about the first computer, but about the second or third one; the users’ desire to replace their narrow-purpose computers with more universal systems. However, we are not going to talk about reasons really, but about an important consequence – the desire of companies that have any sort of connection to computer industry to enter this new market and strengthen their positions in it.
The largest graphics processor manufacturer, Nvidia, is also no exception. As you know, they design and manufacture not only GPUs, but also system core logic sets, including integrated solutions. Nvidia chipset business doesn’t go through its best times these days. AMD and Intel have been promoting platform approach to system building very aggressively and thus have almost ousted Nvidia from the desktop segment. As for the mobile solutions with integrated graphics, their future may also be not so rosy: if processors with built-in GPU come to the market, Nvidia solutions will become not so interesting anymore, to say the least of it. So, it is quite logical that Nvidia considers joining the netbook-nettop race as a possible solution to the difficult situation they may find themselves in one day. Therefore, we were ready to one day see a solution like that introduced by the “green” team.
There were all sorts of rumors circulating around. Some people even claimed that the California developer was working on their own energy-efficient x86 processor. However, so far they have only announced a new concept known as ION. If you have been following the news, you probably know that the idea of this initiative implies expanding the functionality of existing Intel Atom based platforms. They do it by using an advanced core logic set for these platforms, namely, Nvidia’s GeForce 9400M G, which is analogous to their own mainstream mobile chipset. This is definitely a very progressive idea, because the default chipsets for Atom-systems - Intel 945GC and Intel 945GSE - were not only never optimized for this particular application, but are already quite outdated. This actually explains why most of currently selling Intel Atom based netbooks and nettops can only cope with a limited number of simple tasks like web-surfing or online messaging. Many resource-consuming applications are beyond their competence because their processor and graphics subsystem are not powerful enough. Improving at least one of these two key components can give netbooks and nettops concept new life expanding their typical application field quite noticeably.
In other words, Nvidia ION looks very promising in theory already. And if it materializes in widely spread and affordable solutions, then Nvidia will definitely inspire the arrival of new solutions with more attractive price-to-performance ratio that will win the company a significant share of the rapidly growing market. Taking into account how promising Nvidia ION platform is, we decided to go beyond theoretical speculations and managed to get our hands on a system prototype built from available components. This is how our lab received a miniature PC representing new generation of netbooks and nettops. If everything goes as planned, then in the middle of this year we will see the first mass production units from pretty well-known brands, such as Acer and Lenovo. So, let’s see what our good old buddy Intel Atom is capable of together with a new companion – Nvidia GeForce 9400.
Although Intel Atom processors are currently employed with a pretty wide range of Intel chipsets, we will compare Nvidia solution first of all against Intel 945GC. It is currently is the fastest Intel core logic set for Atom CPUs recommended by Intel for use in nettop platforms. No wonder that most mainboards for nettop computers use this particular chipset (for example Intel D945GCLF and D945GCLF2 mainboards we have already discussed before). As for netbooks, Intel recommends a slightly different solution: 945GSE. However, there are truly minor differences between the two of them – the integrated graphics cores of Intel 945GC and Intel 945GSE work at different frequencies.
We would like to start our story of Nvidia ION with the acknowledging fact that even though Nvidia tries real hard to present its platform as a new solution for netbooks and nettops, it fact things are much more commonplace. In fact all the company did was declare compatibility of the integrated GeForce 9400 with Intel Atom processors. It is actually not that big of an innovation, keeping in mind that Atom supports an ordinary FSB bus similar to that of CPUs on NetBurst or Core microarchitecture. The actual GeForce 9400 chipset is not that new anyway. It is very widely spread in the market of classical notebooks and mini-computers. For example, it is very popular by Apple and is widely used in MacBook laptops as well as Mac Mini and iMac systems. However, Intel chipsets for Atom processors seem to be much older, which explains their relatively modest characteristics.
Therefore, there is nothing wrong about Nvidia GeForce 9400 having become a solution for Intel Atom. Its functionality is quite sufficient for netbooks and nettops even without any additional controllers.
Namely, GeForce 9400 offers a pretty decent number of USB 2.0 and Serial ATA-300 ports. It also supports PCI Express and PCI devices thus being almost completely identical to Intel 945GC. However, Nvidia solution also boasts a few unique functional features making GeForce 9400 superior to Intel chipsets even graphics core aside. For example, Nvidia chipset has a built-in Gigabit network controller, while Intel solution supports only 100Mbit network.
However, GeForce 9400’s major trump is undoubtedly the graphics core that is way superior to Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 integrated into 945GC and 945GSE chipsets used widely with Intel Atom processor. While the best contemporary nettops and netbooks can do is work with Aero-interface of the Vista operating system, GeForce 9400 can offer the users a true DirectX 10 compatible graphics processor with 16 unified shaders and 4 rasterization units. Compare for yourselves: GMA950 is compatible only with DirectX 9 and has only four pixel and one vertex shader. The operational frequencies are also different. Intel graphics core works at 400MHz at best, while Nvidia GPU uses 450MHz frequency and 1.1GHz shader frequency. In other words, GeForce 9400 boasts tremendous advantage over Intel chipset when it comes to 3D specifications already.
However, this is not all. Nvidia solution supports all major display interfaces including HDMI. The old Intel 945GC doesn’t have anything like that. The chipsets also differ dramatically by maximum supported resolutions. GeForce 9400 can work with up to 2560x1600 monitor resolutions (you need to use Dual-link DVI connector in this case). The maximum resolution supported by Intel GMA950 is only 2048x1536.
We can’t disregard one more important feature of Nvidia GeForce 9400: this chipset’s GPU has PureVideo HD engine providing hardware acceleration for video decoding in H.264, VC-1 and MPEG-2 formats. It helps unload the CPU during high definition video playback, so that you can watch HD movies even on systems with weak CPUs like Intel Atom. Let me remind you that the chipsets Intel offers for their Atom processors do not boast any special functions for video decoding acceleration, so they cannot be used for HD video playback.
Unlike Intel 945GC and Intel 945GSE, Nvidia chipset supports not only single- and dual-channel DDR2 SDRAM, but also DDR3 SDRAM. This feature may come in very handy first of all in netbooks, because DDR3 is more energy-efficient solution. Moreover, DDR3 memory features higher bandwidth, which may be very useful in 3D modes, since GeForce 9400 graphics core uses part of the system memory for its needs and its speed is directly connected with the graphics core performance.
Nvidia GeForce 9400 chipset has a few other advantages that may not be so evident at first glance. It consists of only one chip, which allows designing very small Atom mainboards, for example, in Nano-ITX or even Pico-ITX form-factor. This way, Nvidia core logic set may inspire creation of even smaller netbooks and nettops than Intel chipsets.
There is only one thing that upset us in GeForce 9400. Although it is manufactured with a relatively modern 65nm process, it is pretty power-hungry because of the complex integrated graphics core. It may reach 12W. And it is even more than Intel 945GSE and ICH7M consume together (9W), even though they are made with 90nm technology. As a result, the new Nvidia chipset will not be able to resolve the battery life issue for most netbooks. At the same time, 12W power consumption of GeForce 9400 is not too bad for nettops, because Intel 945GC targeted for this type of systems may consume up to 22W of power.
Summing up everything we have already said at this point we have every reason to state that Nvidia core logic set offers much more impressive characteristics than the standard Intel platform. However, will all these advantages pay off in Intel Atom platforms – is still a question to be answered. This Intel CPU has lower computational capacity than other widespread x86 processors, therefore the benefit of combining it with a high-performance chipset is still rather questionable. It is quite possible that the performance of Nvidia ION and similar systems may be restricted by the CPU, which will not let other system components show their real best. WE are going to perform several tests that will help us clarify this matter, but before that, let’s take a closer look at the first prototype of an Intel Atom and Nvidia GeForce 9400 based system that arrived into our testlab.
There is nothing impressive about the design of this system. It is a plain painted rectangular metal box with a bunch of connectors on the sides and a shaped vent hole at the top. However, no one expected a prototype to be too sophisticated anyway. The main goal of this box is to demonstrate the hardware potential of the platform that is why the only parameter of this system case that should matter to us is its size.
And it is a truly compact solution, its overall volume doesn’t exceed half a liter. However, Nvidia ION uses an external power supply unit, but even despite that the system is astonishingly small. Nvidia engineers managed to make this innovative nettop system so tiny due to a Pico-ITX mainboard measuring only 72 x 100 mm.
This mainboard features a full set of basic components necessary for proper system operation. There is Intel Atom CPU and a single-chip Nvidia GeForce 9400 chipset soldered to one side of the PCB. The reverse side carries a DDR3 SO-DIMM slot for system RAM.
All external devices connectors are laid out on the front of the PCB. There is also an internal Serial ATA port and a number of external connectors including DVI and HDMI ports, USB port and RJ-45 gigabit network connector.
In fact, these features are already enough for a fully-functional system, but Nvidia engineers decided to expand the supported interfaces range and for that they bundled this board with an additional daughter card. It can be installed into a special connector on the back side of the PCB and carries additional Serial ATA, USB 2.0 and eSATA ports together with analogue and digital audio connectors. There are also a few LEDs, Power On button and a power supply connector there.
Overall, Nvidia ION reference design offers a pretty sufficient number of interfaces, including the following:
Note that the daughter card is a little larger than the actual mainboard because it carries so many different ports and connectors. It is the size of this card that determines the size of the system case, which turns out a little larger than you would imagine a case should be for a Pico-ITX mainboard.
The mainboard and daughter card are sandwiched together inside the system case, one above the other. The 2.5-inch hard disk drive is mounted right beneath them.
There is a single heatsink with a fan on top. It cools the chipset and the CPU.
The cooling system is a little larger than we would normally see on Intel Atom mainboards based on Intel 945GC. However, it is not because of the higher heat dissipation of the GeForce 9400 chipset, but because of smaller case size used for Nvidia ION platform.
We decided to compare the prototype of the above described nettop computer on GeForce 9400 chipset with the “canonical” platform including Intel Atom CPU and Intel 945GC chipset. Therefore, we took Intel D945GCLF mainboard based on this core logic set that has the same exact Atom 230 CPU on it as the ION from Nvidia.
The table below contains the complete specifications of both tested platforms:
As we see, both platforms selected for our today’s test session use the same CPU, have the same amount of memory and come with identical hard disk drives. In other words, all performance differences we will observe will originate from the differences in their core logic sets. So, let’s get started.
We decided to start our performance tests with Windows Experience Index – performance score given to platforms by the operating system. This index looked as follows for Nvidia ION platform discussed today:
According to the operating system, the CPU is the bottleneck of the ION platform. In fact, this is exactly what we have already said. GeForce 9400 chipset offers a high-performance graphics core and pretty fast memory subsystem, but it can’t do much about the CPU that is evidently not designed for tasks requiring high computational capacity. Frankly speaking, it would make more sense to have the ION platform equipped with a more powerful Atom 330, but Nvidia thought otherwise. Nevertheless, the ION system and chipset specs would allow it, so mass production solutions on GeForce 9400 chipset have every chance to get a faster processor at their disposal.
For the sake of comparison I have to say that standard Intel platform on 945GC chipset scores lower in Windows Vista, but its results are better-balanced.
However, don’t take Windows Experience Index too seriously. Let’s move on to the results demonstrated by both Intel Atom platforms in more illustrative tests.
The results obtained in PCMark Vantage are pretty illustrative. In patterns with heavy GPU utilization GeForce 9400 based system demonstrates way better performance. Among them are, of course, Gaming and Memories patterns, where the GPU is also involved into digital image processing. In all other tests we do not see that big of a performance difference: ION platform wins in TV&Movies and Music multimedia patterns, while more typical nettop application involving office and networking tasks runs better on an all-Intel system.
To estimate the graphics subsystems performance, we resorted to Futuremark 3DMark06 benchmark. Of course, it is evident that GeForce 9400 will be beyond any competition here. However, we are mostly interested in absolute rather than relative values:
GeForce 9400 results look very impressive especially against the background of GMA950. In fact, 1200 points in 3DMark06 is a very low score that makes us question the system’s ability to run even the simplest 3D games. However, Nvidia marketing people tried to convince us that Nvidia ION was quite fit for gaming, so we had to see how it would perform in real 3D. Especially, since not only the GPU, but also the Atom 230 processor could become the main bottlenecks here.
You don’t need any tests to understand that there are very few games that can possibly run on nettops and netbooks. For example, you have to forget about all popular titles discussed in media over the past year or two. Therefore, we decided to check how the good old Quake 4 game that came out back in 2005 would run on our “atomic” platforms.
Nothing comforting here. Even with medium image quality settings, you can hardly play Quake 4 on a GeForce 9400 based system. And keeping in mind that resolution change barely affects the fps rate, we suspect the slow processor to be the main bottleneck here and not the weak graphics subsystem.
However, first-person 3D shooters are not the only type of games out there, so we decided to try a few other games on our tested platforms for the sake of experiment. So, we launched a popular network arcade called Trackmania Nations Forever that is not very resource-consuming:
And again nothing to celebrate. The performance is too low for comfortable gaming and the problem is again in the Atom processor, as we can see from the results of the Intel 945GC based system. Although it features considerably weaker graphics, its results are not that much lower than those of the competitor. Well, it looks like Atom-based systems and Nvidia ION in particular are not cut for gaming at all.
However, before we eliminate the possibility of comfortable gaming completely, we decided to give ION the last chance and tested it in World of Warcraft – one of the most popular online RPG. The peculiarity of World of Warcraft is that its gaming engine is extremely lenient to system hardware resources. And nevertheless…
We see exact same picture. Everything hit against the slow CPU, which once again proves how ill-balanced the Nvidia platform is. Although GeForce 9400 graphics core can do just fine in all games we have tried, Intel Atom 230 processor won’t let us see a satisfactory result. However, real WoW fans will still be able to enjoy their favorite game, since high fsp rate is not so important in this title and 20-25 fps may be quite enough for undemanding players.
After a not very positive gaming experience, we decided to focus on the typical nettop work (in Intel’s terms) – web-surfing and web-page loading. Here we used two tests. The first one was Futuremark Peacekeeper. It measured the browser performance during web-page rendering. The second test was Powerflasher Powerbench and it measured the performance of applications designed in Adobe Flash 10.
Although Nvidia ION demonstrated higher results than an all-Intel nettop, we won’t declare the superiority of the former. The obtained results are very close, which indicates almost identical performance during Internet-surfing. High-performance graphics core integrated into GeForce 9400 doesn’t step in during web-page loading as well as during Flash-playback.
High definition video playback is a very acute and widespread task that home computer systems often have to deal with. However, when Intel positioned their Atom based nettop solutions as compact home systems they thought differently. They consider primary application for this type of systems to be primarily limited to internet applications. Unfortunately, Atom CPUs are not powerful enough to cope with HD video playback. We have checked it ourselves: even a dual-core Atom 330 couldn’t playback video content in 1080p without any setbacks. However, Atom CPUs could cope with video playback in 720p, although it will hardly comfort nettop owners.
Atom-based systems with GeForce 9400 chipset inside may turn things around. This core logic set, unlike Intel 945GC and Intel 945GSE, supports special hardware PureVideo HD engine that does some decoding during playback of HD movies recorded in H.264, VC-1 and MPEG-2 formats.
From the consumer software standpoint, for proper work of PureVideo HD engine the video player should support DXVA, DirectX Video Acceleration. Among the players that currently support this feature are Corel WinDVD and Cyberlink PowerDVD, free Media Player Classic Home Cinema, MediaPortal, KMPlayer and GOM Player, and the MPEG-2 decoder integrated into Windows Vista. Sometimes you may need to configure your player accordingly to ensure that DXVA works properly. For example, you have to enable the EVR rendering mode in MPC-HC. No additional drivers are needed, besides the regular Nvidia graphics card driver.
To check out ION’s performance during video content playback we tried watching a few different movies encoded in different formats in 1080p resolution. In this case we decided not to compare ION vs. an Intel 945GC based system, because Intel platform is simply unable to decode HD video fast enough.
The GeForce 9400 based platform, on the contrary, performed pretty well. We used software video players supporting PureVideo HD technology and didn’t notice any problems while watching the movies.
However, do not think that Nvidia ION will be able to play any HD video content that easily. Unfortunately, the list of “good” formats is limited to H.264, VC-1 and MPEG-2 only. A video recorded with any other codec will inevitably have problems during playback. For example, here is what we see during Coral Reef Adventure movie in WMV3 format:
The CPU utilization is about 60% and some frames drop out in especially complex scenes. The screenshot above shows frame rate of only 17 fps instead of required 24.
Moreover, our tests showed that PureVideo HD engine integrated into GeForce 9400 may sometimes fail HD video decoding, even if the movie is recorded in a formally supported format. The screenshot below shows exactly this: during an H.264 movie playback fps rate drops below the necessary minimum.
Note that despite dropped frames during video playback, CPU utilization remains quite low and doesn’t exceed 30-40%.
The secret of this pretty intensive movie is high bitrate reaching 106Mbps resulting from the ripples on the water surface. However, these Nvidia ION problems are hardly serious. Video with a bitrate like that is a truly artificial example. Contemporary Blu-ray media at 1x speed have maximum 36Mbps bitrate, and the platform we tested today has no playback problems in this case.
Since we mentioned Blu-ray. We also tested Nvidia ION platform with an external BD/HD-DVD drive - LG Super Multi Blue with USB interface. We experienced no problems here. ION played the entire “Casino Royale” movie without a single issue. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any Blu-ray disks with the latest BD-J technology support at our disposal.
During our test session videos were played either from ION’s own hard drive or from an external 2.5” Samsung S2 Portable device powered via a USB port. We didn’t detect any problems of any kind in both cases.
So, the results of our test session indicate that unlike games, Nvidia ION is pretty fit for high definition video playback. Not very high performance of Intel Atom processor doesn’t hinder the integrated PureVideo HD engine.
Energy-efficiency is one of the primary advantages of nettop systems compared with a fully-functional desktop PC. Intel Atom processor developed specifically for these systems is an excellent example of how Intel cares about energy-efficiency. I would like to remind you that maximum calculated power consumption of a single-core Atom 230 is only 4W. That is why we expect nettop chipsets to consume little power, about the same as the CPU.
We checked the power consumption of a complete Nvidia ION platform during most typical tasks and compared the results against similar readings taken off a nettop system based on Intel 945GC. We measured the power consumption of complete systems without the monitor. It is important to keep in mind that since tested platforms used different power supply units with different efficiency factors, a certain measuring error in the results obtained for different platforms may need to be taken into consideration. Hopefully it will not affect our conclusions:
The test results show that the power consumption of nettop platforms from Intel and Nvidia is practically the same. Both systems demonstrated similar results under all types of load. However, I would like to stress that ION platform offers better performance-per-watt when graphics core is on. The performance of the GPU integrated into GeForce 9400 is much higher than that of Intel GMA950 video accelerator. But nevertheless, both platforms boast comparable performance in 3D modes.
Unfortunately, if we talk about netbooks and not nettops, then the parity between Nvidia ION and Intel 945GC should actually be regarded as Nvidia’s defeat. The thing is that Intel 945GSE netbook chipset is very different from 945GC in electrical parameters. While the maximum calculated power consumption for the Intel nettop chipset is 25.5W, Intel 945GSE paired with an ICH7 South Bridge consume only 9.3W. So, if you consider Nvidia ION as a possibility for a mobile platform, it will be totally defeated by an alternative solution on Intel components.
However, as an excuse Nvidia refers to almost identical power consumption between GeForce 9400 and Intel 945GSE in idle mode. As a result, the battery life of the mobile systems based on these two chipsets will be barely different. However, contemporary netbooks can’t boast very impressive battery life anyway, so even its slightest decrease will cause fair frustration.
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.