Nvidia Ups The Atom Ante With Latest Ion GPU

Nvidia, headquartered in Santa Clara, Calif., gave U.S. media a sneak peak of the new Ion chip and some products built around it in February. The new GPU marks Nvidia's transition from 65-nanometer process technology to 40nm, resulting in a die that's 40 percent smaller than the first generation of Ion chips, according to David Ragones, director of product marketing for ION/GeForce at Nvidia.

The latest Ion is a discrete graphics product that is optimized for netbooks and ultra-small desktops based on Intel's latest Atom N450 central processors and NM10 chipset, a hardware platform known by the code name Pinetrail. That's a change from the first generation of Ion chips, which served as an integrated GPU substitute for Intel's own integrated graphics hardware on Atom-based systems.

But the Atom N450, available since January, features a System-on-Chip (SoC) design that includes an integrated graphics core. Given that constraint, Nvidia would seem to have had no choice but to repurpose Ion as a discrete graphics product.

With its hand forced, Nvidia nevertheless may find greater success in the marketplace for its latest Ion chip. Following the mid-2009 release of PCs based on its first-generation Ion chips, Nvidia complained bitterly about Intel's alleged price maneuvers to discourage computer makers from pairing Atom CPUs with Ion instead of the chip giant's own integrated graphics products.

Sponsored post

As a discrete product, Ion is likely to prove less threatening to Intel, which could translate to more design wins for Nvidia. Intel, which late last year put its Larrabee discrete graphics project on hold indefinitely, doesn't appear to have a near-term plan for developing products that could challenge Nvidia and its main competitor in the discrete graphics market, Advanced Micro Devices.

Another new development for Nvidia is that it can now package Ion in discrete graphic cards. The company had a pair of Ion cards on hand at the February media pre-briefing in San Francisco, while also showcasing some netbooks, ultra-small desktops and all-in-on PCs using the new GPU from Asus, Acer, Lenovo and Zotak. More than 30 Ion-based systems will be shipping by the summer of 2010, according to Nvidia.

Meanwhile, the 40nm die shrink combined with Nvidia's new Optimus switchable graphics technology means that the new Ion chips can deliver up to 10 hours of battery life in Pinetrail netbooks, according to Ragones. That means there is essentially no drop-off in battery life when compared to Intel's own benchmark of Ion-less Pinetrail netbooks -- though the major, and somewhat ridiculous caveat is that to get the full 10 hours of battery life, Ion has to be switched off the whole time.

Other benefits from the new Ion GPUs include accelerated media gains over the previous generation, such as four times faster video enhancement speed and seven times faster video conversion, Ragones said. Nvidia is positioning Ion for "media-savvy" consumers who want measurably better graphics performance from Atom-based PCs and are willing to pay a bit more for it.