Who moved my socket?

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A column in PC World on the launch of nVidia’s Next-Generation Ion (or Ion2 as a lot of people call it) decries the way that the graphics processor (GPU) company has backed away from Ion being a ‘platform’ into just being an additional chip for Intel’s own Atom chipset. There isn’t a whole lot that nVidia can do about that. Welcome to the land of disappearing sockets.

While people speculate on why Intel and TSMC have so far failed to get anyone into production with an Atom system-on-chip (SoC), the one company with a real reason for licensing the processor core finds its latest creation dangling off the end of a PCI Express bus provided by Intel’s Pine Trail chipset.

When Intel launched the first generation of Atom, it was a tiny sliver of silicon that relied entirely on other chips to control a PC. Although you pretty much had to buy the Atom with its support chips from Intel, nVidia encouraged PC makers to dispense with the standard chipset and replace it with the Ion and its built-in graphics.

With Pine Trail, Intel decided to move its own GPU and main memory controller into the Atom processor itself and sell a smaller peripheral controller ‘South Bridge’ device, leaving nVidia with far less scope to have an influence on what an Atom-based PC would look like inside.

david-ragones-ion.jpg“This is really driven by what Intel is doing in their underlying architecture,” said David Ragones, director of marketing for nVidia.

However, nVidia thinks there is still scope for having a second GPU in the system, although the company has come up with a slightly bizarre way of touting its power efficiency.

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.”

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 Ion GPU can switch on and off automatically based on which applications are running. It either detects certain graphics calls or using settings in a control panel to activate the Ion when a certain program, such as a game, fires up.

But, here’s the weird bit: nVidia’s argument is that it’s power efficiency is as good as the Pine Trail. You get a full 10 hours of battery life with the Next-Generation Ion. Just as long as it’s not actually switched on and doing stuff. I can see what nVidia is trying to get at with this but it’s a bit like handing Intel the ball, pointing to the goal and then leaping out of the way. Maybe watching your motherboard sockets disappear before your eyes courtesy of silicon scaling does that to a company.

If it is switched on, nVidia’s argument is that an Atom-based system can run programs that the basic Pine Trail cannot touch. 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 claimed.

Because it doesn’t have any of chipset functions inside, although it does have its own memory controller, and is made on a 40nm process rather than a 65nm process the Ion2 works out about 40 per cent the size of its predecessor.

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.

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