updated 09:25 am EST, Wed February 11, 2009
NVIDIA Ion Launch Plans
NVIDIA at a press conference in Taiwan today provided early details of launch plans for the first systems based on its Ion platform. The company's mainboard chipset manager Drew Henry says the first system based on the architecture, which integrates the GeForce 9400M with Atom processors, will ship in spring but will be a "very small, affordable" desktop instead of a netbook or other portable. NVIDIA declines to say which company is making the system but says won't have any relation to the black, generic concept desktop used to showcase the design.
Production systems from most manufacturers will be about twice as large as the concept and fill out about 1L (33.8oz) of space, but will also be less expensive to make by using fewer layers on the circuit board. Some of these desktops will cost as little as $299, though some models will be more complete systems that include optical drives and will likely cost more.
Henry is careful to note that Ion will still be useful in netbooks and that it should still be superior to Intel's just-launched GN40 chipset, which brings the chip maker's GMA X4000 graphics to netbooks. Although Intel's platform is much faster and now capable of 720p, Ion is claimed to be five times faster in graphics performance than GN40 and should still result in the same battery life as existing portables using the older Intel 945GSE chipset. NVIDIA's new platform is capable of smoothly decoding 1080p video and can play most modern games at playable speeds.
The company has had trouble getting support from Intel as a result and has noted that Intel often tries to insist on selling its mainboards along with its processors, though in an announcement today NVIDIA has said it now has official Windows Hardware Quality Labs certification for Ion from Microsoft, giving it full support in Vista and eventually Windows 7.
While it's uncertain whether it will be involved in this early Ion launch or at all, Apple has been rumored as a strong candidate and one of the earliest to get working reference hardware with the goal of building an Ion-based Mac mini that would release as soon as March. While Apple itself has inadvertently revealed that the next Mac mini will use an NVIDIA platform, a switch to Atom processors and Ion has raised questions about performance, Apple's aversion to sub-$500 systems, and the effect such a system might have on sales of the Apple TV.