Ion goes for second round in netbooks

Chipmaker nVidia has launched its second generation of Ion graphics processors (GPUs), aimed at PCs that use the latest versions of the Intel Atom processor.

Unlike its predecessor, the Next-Generation Ion has been stripped of the motherboard functions because most of those have been integrated into the Pine Trail chipset sold by Intel. Rather than hooking into the Atom’s frontside bus, the Next-Generation Ion instead communicates with the South Bridge chip in the Pine Trail set over PCI Express.

“This is really driven by what Intel is doing in their underlying architecture,” said David Ragones, director of marketing for nVidia. “What’s changed is that Intel has moved the graphics into the CPU.”

With previous generations of device, if two GPUs were present in a PC, the user had to switch from integrated graphics to the second GPU manually before running a 3D or video-intensive program. The other major change nVidia has made is that the Ion GPU can switch on and off automatically based on which applications are running.

Ragones said: “We have a very different perspective on the market to our competition. Intel, when they talk about them, regard netbooks as being very basic devices. Our perspective is that when we pair a GPU with a CPU it becomes a better experience.”

Ragones claimed that, using the Ion GPU, an Atom-based netbook or small PC could run games and video-intensive applications such as Muvee. “Intel will tell you that you need a higher-performance CPU to run these applications. You would get a black screen with Muvee using just Pine Trail,” Ragones said.

There are two versions of the Next-Generation Ion device. One has eight processor cores, which has roughly the same performance as the previous generation. The other has 16 cores, which Ragones said offers a 50 per cent improvement in performance versus the previous generation.

Because the GPU has been separated from main memory, it needs its own bank of DDR2 or DDR3 RAM. The rendered frames are copied into the system’s main framebuffer through the Intel chipset.

Because it no longer has the motherboard control functions and it is made on a 40nm process rather than a 65nm process, the Next-Generation Ion is roughly 40 per cent the size of its predecessor.

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