When it was launched last year, Intel’s Atom processor started a whole new trend in computing with its miniature size, and an equally small power draw. The netbook market soon developed around the Atom, with relatively inexpensive systems that had extended battery life. Unfortunately, the price to be paid for these features would be in the form of graphics capability.
Current Atom based computers (netbooks, as well as their nettop counterparts) have always excelled at simple tasks like surfing websites and checking email, as well as running the occasional word processing or spreadsheet program. At its reduced speeds, that is pretty much all the CPU is capable of. Grabbing the opportunity, graphics chip manufacturer NVIDIA has launched its Ion GPU to push efficient computing to the next level.
Designed with similar specs to the GeForce 9400M card, the Ion offers from 5 to 10 times faster graphics than the Intel 945 chipset that is now found on most Atom based systems, and has sixteen cores dedicated to the task. Computer manufacturer Acer is the first to design a system around the new chip and CRN Test Center reviewers got a preview of it in the form of the AspireRevo.
The AspireRevo is a desktop system in a miniature form-factor (7.1 x 7.1 x 1.2 inches). Built with the Atom 230 processor running at 1.60 GHz and the NVIDIA Ion GPU, the computer is 1/30 the size of a standard desktop PC and consumes 1/3 of the power. At a quick glance, it has similar components and specifications to the typical netbook.
But it is by no means typical, and the biggest clue is the HDMI port in addition to the VGA connector. Still an Atom system, the computer was a little sluggish while booting into Windows, although this was Windows Vista, instead of XP - a netbook favorite. Likewise, benchmarking scores were on par with the AspireRevo receiving an 866 from Primate Labs’ benchmarking application Geekbench2 (a similarly spec’d machine without the Ion chip scored 843 running on XP).
What is remarkable though, is that using Vista’s Windows Experience testing, the Graphics score was an astonishing 5.9, the highest score possible. The computer’s overall score was still a 3.0 due to the processor.
Included with our evaluation unit were the Spore and Wall-E video games, both of which ran fine without a hitch. As amazing as this is, what really caught our attention was the LiteOn external Blu-Ray drive that was also in the box. While the drive worked fine with the standard Atom machine, it came as no surprise when we tryed to play a Blu-Ray disc and received the message “Graphic card not compatible to play BD Discs”.
What was surprising, however, was when the movie started up and played without a single stutter or hiccup on the AspireRevo (although since it was given to use as part of the evaluation, we had an inkling it would work); all the while providing full 1080p HD video and 7.1 audio.
On top of all this, under load, the system drew a minimal 24 watts. This is in comparison to our standard unit which drew 31 watts.
Based on all the tests we ran on the AspireRevo, it is clear that the Ion GPU has the capability to turn an ordinary netbook or nettop into a fully functional, energy efficient PC - albeit a little slower than the conventional systems.
Another advantage the Ion brings to the table is the fact that uses NVIDIA’s CUDA technology. While this is what makes the little chip capable of producing such incredible video, it also permits developers to tap into the GPU's processing cores for other, less graphic intensive applications. When using applications designed with CUDA, the GPU takes much of the computational load off of the CPU, allowing the Atom to perform other, system related tasks.
While no official US release date or price has been set for the AspireRevo, it is expected early this summer somewhere around the $300 range.
NVIDIA anticipates the Ion to appear in over forty new designs covering desktops, all-in-ones, and laptops throughout the rest of the year. After seeing the functionality this GPU brings to a standard Atom based system, we can’t wait to see what how other manufacturers take advantage of the additional, energy efficient power the Ion brings.