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Nvidia Raises Bar On Netbook Graphics With Ion

Graphics chip maker pairs its GeForce 9400 motherboard GPU with Intel's Atom CPU to deliver surprisingly strong visual computing on a very small platform.

ChannelWeb saw Ion in action last Thursday at Nvidia's headquarters. The platform consists of an Atom-based motherboard paired with Nvidia's GeForce 9400 onboard graphics processor, full CUDA support and a frankly ridiculous amount of I/O.

Nvidia's team demoed Ion in an ultra-small desktop reference design -- called a "nettop" by some -- but the platform is also built for mobile PCs. The little desktop we saw fit in the palm of one hand and was a mess of ports -- not the sleekest-looking device, but handy for showing off all the graphics support and acceleration Nvidia has built into Ion.

Granted, Nvidia ran the demo so as to make its product look good, but from our seat the results of head-to-head competition between the Ion nettop and a standard Atom-based netbook with Intel's GMA 950 integrated graphics were pretty spectacular.

The Nvidia box fired up Call Of Duty 4 without a hitch, whereas the Intel netbook struggled to even boot the visually rich PC game. Video playback was also far better on the Ion system, thanks to full-spec 1080p HD video support and Badaboom, the GPU-tapping video transcoding accelerator from Elemental Technologies.

Nvidia, which already has its GeForce 9400 GPUs in the latest line of Apple MacBooks, told us it expects Ion-based netbooks would be priced at about $50 more than current GMA 950-based systems. For the extra cash, users would get 16 graphics processing cores delivering 52 Gflops of processing power -- a pretty compelling story from our perspective.

ChannelWeb has been fairly bearish on netbooks, despite all the hype around these products. That's because we're hearing from OEMs, resellers and retailers about very high numbers of netbooks being returned by buyers, particularly in North American markets. An Nvidia spokesperson told us retail returns of current netbooks are in the 30 percent range in North America -- we've heard as high as 35 percent.

The reason for the returns, sources say, is that users in mature markets may like the price and promise of netbooks, but are disappointed with their shortcomings when they get them back home. A big disappointment factor centers on graphics shortcomings -- users today, particularly commuters and business travelers, want quality media playback on their primary computing devices.

As a result, netbook makers have in some cases amended their earlier, wild-eyed promotions of the new category. Hewlett-Packard, for example, now specifically markets its HP Mini-Note PCs as a complementary computing device and not a primary one.

Nvidia's Ion doesn't fix some of the issues people have with netbooks. Uncomfortably small keyboards and tiny screens will remain a deal-breaker for some customers. Nor does Nvidia's platform raise the bar on netbooks and nettops to make them enthusiast-class systems.

But from our perspective, Ion does make the future look a whole lot brighter for these categories. It also could put some pressure on Intel to possibly step up the timetable for its own highly anticipated visual computing product, Larrabee, which isn't due out until 2010.

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