Nvidia's Ion 2 brings HD video to netbooks

Nvidia's Ion 2 graphics platform will allow netbooks to play 1080p video

Nvidia is launching the Ion 2 graphics platform, which could potentially turn netbooks into full-fledged multimedia boxes that can play back high-definition video.

Netbooks are typically designed to do mundane tasks like surf the Internet or run productivity applications, but Ion 2 adds the capability to play Blu-ray movies or view 1080p video, said David Ragones, director of marketing at Nvidia.

The demand for netbooks with strong multimedia features will grow as more high-definition content reaches the Web and other forms of media, Ragones said.

The Ion 2 graphics platform couples a GeForce graphics processor with Intel's latest Atom processors, which were released in December. Atom chips already integrate graphics processors capable of playing a maximum of 720p video, but Nvidia's platform will provide the option to play full 1080p high-definition video, the company said. Nvidia is mostly known for its graphics chips, though it makes chips for cell phones and chipsets.

During a press briefing in New York, Nvidia demonstrated a netbook with the Ion 2 platform that played a high-definition movie smoothly, while images on a standard netbook either hung or lagged while playing the same movie. Ion 2 netbooks will also play back HD video from video sites like YouTube and Hulu, Ragones said.

The new platform is also a major upgrade over the original Ion platform launched last year. The new generation of Ion chips provides double the performance of its previous generation, depending on the number of cores in the graphics chip. Nvidia will sell two versions of the Ion graphics processor, one with eight processing cores for netbooks with up to 10-inch screens, and one with 16 cores for low-cost desktops and netbooks with screens up to 12 inches.

The Ion platform last year triggered a tense exchange of words between Nvidia and Intel on the usage of netbooks. Intel maintained that low-cost netbooks were designed for basic activities like Web surfing and word processing, while Nvidia said that the devices could be repurposed at slightly higher prices with powerful graphics to support high-definition content. Intel partly argued that high-definition multimedia could sap a lot of netbook battery life because of the processing power required.

Nvidia has made an attempt to address netbook battery concerns by making Ion 2 more power-efficient. The platform supports new technology called Optimus, where specific tasks can be seamlessly switched between the Ion GPU and the battery-saving integrated Atom graphics chip to improve multimedia performance.

Generic netbooks provide about 10 hours of battery life when productivity applications are used, but netbook battery life could fall when the data-intensive graphics tasks kick in, Ragones said. Optimus technology allows the Ion graphics processor to kick in only when tasks are assigned to it. For example, Optimus technology will be able to off-load specific multimedia tasks, like processing YouTube video, to the graphics processor, Ragones said.

The company has also shrunk the graphics processor in size to make it more power-efficient. The chip is made using the latest 40-nanometer manufacturing technology. The graphics processor also is faster as it cuts down on the bottlenecks of connecting with the Atom CPU by using the faster PCI-Express interconnect technology. The previous generation connected through the frontside bus, which presented bandwidth issues.

The Ion platform will work with Intel's N450 processor for netbooks, and D410 and D510 processors for low-cost desktops, Nvidia said. Most of the Ion 2-based netbooks may come with the premium version of Windows, as opposed to the limited Windows Starter version that normally ships with netbooks, Ragones said.

Nvidia said it has more than 30 design wins, and companies like Asustek Computer, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo will release netbooks or low-cost desktops based on Ion 2, the company said. Those PC makers already offer netbooks based on the existing Ion platform. Acer two weeks ago announced the Aspire One 532G laptop based on the platform.

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