Nvidia has announced an interesting chipset and platform option for the Intel Atom processor with the platform going under the name of Ion. It uses the Nvidia MCP79 chipset, which is also known as the Geforce 9400M.
This is the same chipset used with Intel's Core 2 processors on larger desktop boards and it offers the same functionality. However, what makes the Ion platform really stand out isn't the chipset, despite its much more advanced feature set compared to Intel's 945-series of chipsets which are used together with the Atom processor, but rather the fact that Nvidia has gone for a Pico ITX form factor.
It seems like the work Nvidia was doing for that short spat of VIA support seems to have opened up Nvidia's eyes to really compact desktop systems. The demo system uses a Pico ITX motherboard which holds the CPU and chipset as well as a DDR3 SO-DIMM slot, a DVI port, an HDMI port, a D-sub connector, a single USB port, an Ethernet port and a single SATA connector.
The Pico ITX board measures 100x72mm, but it needs to be attached to what Nvidia calls a carrier card to offer a full set of connectivity options; and this increases the overall system size to about 140x110mm, which is still very small. The carrier card consists of the power regulation circuitry and power input and it is also home to an additional six USB 2.0 ports, two eSATA connectors, six analog audio jacks, an optical S/PDIF out and the power button in case of the demo unit.
At the bottom of the carrier card you'll also find a SATA power and data connector, as this is where a 2.5-inch hard drive is mounted, although an SSD drive would, of course, also work. The only downside is that the CPU and chipset are cooled by a small heatsink with an equally small fan and we have a feeling that the fan could get quite noisy. Hopefully this is something that can be solved with a larger passive cooling solution. It's important to remember that the MCP79 runs hotter than the 945 chipset and in comparison the whole platform draws about 6W more power than the Intel solution which, in turn, will create more heat.
The platform offers full 1080p hardware video decoding and as such the CPU usage is fairly low, even considering the modest performance of an Atom processor. There's no denying that this is an elegant solution from Nvidia, despite the oddness of having so many ports of both sides of the tiny reference box, but there wouldn't be any other way of adding so much functionality to such a small system.
However, there's one big problem with it all, as despite as good as it all looks, Intel has yet to approve of Nvidia's plans and as Intel is currently only selling Atom processors bundled with its own chipsets, this could prove to be a very costly platform if the manufacturers would have to purchase the whole package from Intel, only to discard the 945 chipset in favor of Nvidia's MCP79. Until Intel is willing to sell Atom processors on its own, Ion is unlikely to ever become widely accepted as an alternative to the 945 chipset currently used.
USB, eSATA and Audio connectors
HDMI, DVI, D-sub, USB, Ethernet and power connectors
Notice that only the part that the heatsink is attached to is the actual Pico ITX board with the CPU and chipset on it.