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nVidia Ion boosts netbook and nettop graphics power

LaptopA picture can tell a thousand words. And if you display enough pictures every second, you get a good illusion of 2D reality. That's how we all enjoy film and TV, and it's increasingly how we find ourselves interacting with our PCs.

As computers move further from the purely textual command-line experience and toward the cuddly graphical interface, so has their graphics capability expanded. Hugely.

The desire to watch video and play games on our machines has led to the development of graphics processing units (GPUs) whose horsepower competes with that of the CPU. nVidia and ATI have spotted the possibilities of expanding the role of the GPU, creating programming interfaces that let traditional processor jobs (such as encoding video) be handled by the graphics card. General-purpose computation on GPUs may soon be standard.

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Thus far, this strategy has been aimed at the big-hitters in the standalone graphics-card market, where fire-breathing GPUs offer untapped potential. At the other end of the market, netbooks have been flying off the shelves as people look for small, cheap machines to handle basic computing tasks.

We're often told that laptops are for creation while netbooks, which are low-powered to keep their cost and size down, are for consumption. That is, you can delve into photo editing, music composition and video work on a typical dual-core processor laptop, while you choose the underpowered netbook to consume online all that you or others have created.

But that glib definition is a lot less comforting for netbook users when they realise that a lot of the media and games they might actually like to ‘consume' is off-limits; not just because they're stuck with a weedy Intel Atom, but because netbooks have lame graphics processors. The Intel Graphics Media Accelerator (GMA) series rules here, because it doesn't consume too much battery power and is easy to integrate with Atom.

So what happens if you take that Atom chip and ally it with a stronger graphics processor? You get one upset chip monopolist, in the form of Intel, and a new platform that nVidia calls Ion.

The marriage of Intel's Atom CPU and nVidia's 9400M GPU was announced months ago. We're now beginning to see the offspring, starting with the Acer Aspire Revo R3600 nettop PC. We gave the Revo a good workout, hoping to see whether the Ion platform could be the new gaming and media entertainment hub for your lounge. Because today, video is more than just a rapid succession of images - it can also be glorious HD film, assuming the hardware can keep up.

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