March 18, 2010

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Better netbooks afoot
ION makes a positive charge
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com.

Don’t buy that netbook!

Not this month, at least. Wait until April. That’s when new machines based on nVidia’s Next Generation ION graphics are scheduled to start hitting the market.

Netbooks, I’m sure you know, are those petite, demurely-powered laptops mostly based on Intel’s Atom processor. Intel prefers to make the entire motherboard for those processors itself, but nVidia got into the game in 2009 with the first generation ION, which gave those humble netbooks the ability to output High Definition video and play some games at a quality setting somewhat higher than “laughable.”

The Atom has a graphics processor integrated right onto it, but it’s nowhere near as powerful as even the first ION chipset. It also uses less power — an advantage not to be taken lightly in products that spend most of their time unplugged. nVidia wasn’t about to burden users with an electricity-hogging unit when a more frugal unit was already included, so they found a way to use both.

ION 2 — as everyone but nVidia calls it — actually switches between the basic graphics core on the Atom and its own more powerful chip whenever the application calls for it. Scrolling through a bunch of text-based Web pages or writing an e-mail? Low power. Logging in to World of Warcraft? High power.

nVidia calls the switching technology Optimus, and it was developed for full-size notebook PCs. Powerful graphics cards can suck up power and generate lots of heat, so turning them off when they’re not needed makes a big difference.

You still won’t get as good performance from an ION 2 netbook as you would from a desktop with the biggest, baddest graphics card available, but more and more people are using more graphics-intensive applications all the time. nVidia claims ION 2 can deliver a tenfold improvement over integrated graphics and can “accelerate popular video and photo apps, boosting performance of editing and converting videos, face tagging photos, and much more.”

Yep, they’re talking about Facebook and YouTube there. Even some Flash-based ads on Web sites can hobble a browser if they’re too visually complex, or if there are dozens of them surrounding the content you actually want to read.

ION 2 has already been benchmarked by Netbooknews.com, and it actually slightly underperformed its predecessor. nVidia was quick to point out that pre-release hardware isn’t exactly the best testbed for intricate technology.

Where ION 2 could really shine is in home theater systems. Instead of an expensive, power-hungry PC with all those loud fans shoved into your entertainment center, a slim nettop (the desktop version of a netbook) can stream HD video from the Web or subscription services with ease. When it’s sitting idle, it uses almost no power at all. Hook up a USB hard drive with all your legally-ripped Blu-Rays on it and watch a week-long Star Trek marathon without ever getting up to change a disc. There will even be models with built-in HD monitors! Plug and play, man!

Will there be a price premium? Yeah, probably. While good netbooks can be had for between $200 and $300 today, a better feature set might push them up into the range of low-end notebooks. If you don’t care about high quality video or games, though, prices on non-ION netbooks should, logically, be pushed down a smidge. And that’s a great reason to wait a month.