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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  • erple2 - Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - link

    To be fair, launching FireFox on my Ubuntu 9.10 desktop (a P4 2.53 GHz, 768MB computer with a 9800Pro gfx card) also pegs the CPU at 100%... Maybe that desktop CPU is more than 5 years old?
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - link

    The only thing preventing people from using CULV instead of Atom is cost, and as you may have guessed from my last article on the subject (CULV Roundup: Who Needs Atom?) I'm all for skipping Atom and getting CULV instead. If you need graphics, then you go with CULV+G210M with stuff like the ASUS UL series. I also find Atom to be painfully slow, but I suppose I'm more demanding of my PC than a lot of users.
  • damianrobertjones - Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - link

    According to apple the Netbook is set to fail? Then we get a graph stating that a high number of people actually use and like Netbooks?

    Should we believe the trend or listen to a guy that will sell you ANYTHING at a higher than normal price?

  • kevinqian - Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - link

    There seems to be an influx of new Core i3/i5 laptops coming in at around $500-600 mark. Granted, they are 15.6" and larger LCD. At that price, it essentially prices out CULV laptops selling at similar prices. So $400 gets you an ION netbook and $500 gets you a full blown Core i3 laptop. Did someone at Intel screw up their market segmentation?
  • Lonyo - Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - link

    How did Intel screw up market segmentation?
    NV are the ones screwing up by adding cost to what should be an inexpensive platform.
    $400 for an ION netbook isn't $400 for a netbook, and it has nothing to do with Intel. In fact, the less ION the better for them.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - link

    Atom = $300 to $400 with long battery life and low performance

    CULV = $500 to $600 with long battery life and three times the performance of Atom

    Core i3/i5 = $500 to $1000 (or more) with less than half the battery life of CULV but more than twice the performance.

    When Core i3/i5 CULV arrives, I expect it won't be significantly faster than current CULV... maybe 25% faster (at most 75% in certain scenarios)? So that's the market segmentation Intel is going for, more or less.
  • kevinqian - Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - link

    So it comes down to pick your poison at the $500-600 price point. Do you want fast performance with a larger display or slower performance and more portability. I guess if you want both (performance and portability), you gotta step up to a future MBP or Lenovo T4xxs.
  • Penti - Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - link

    Atom should mostly move back into the embedded space now. It's great for that.

    CULV is great for consumers especially ones flash gets official hw acceleration. There's no CULV that can't be accelerated, no confusion. Atom with Broadcom or ION and W7HP will cost 400-450 and the costumers must make an active choice.
  • AmdInside - Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - link

    I think the technology is just too advanced to just throw it out there for all desktops. Look at how long it has taken NVIDIA to get from their first Hybrid to Optimus. Notebooks and OEM systems are more controlled environments. I personally would not want to see it in a desktop because it would just be another feature that can fail to work properly. ATI and NVIDIA have gotten pretty good at reducing power requirements when the GPU is not doing much. I think overtime they will get even better, especially when you see how little power Tegra consumes.
  • Doormat - Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - link

    One of the rumors about the ION was Nvidia was recommending OCing the PCIe link in the netbook. An extra 10% gets 275MB/s.

    Also, the whole "no other OSes" line was really depressing.

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