Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Preview: VIA VN1000 And Nano DC Platform: An IGP With Game?

It's been a long time since we've previewed a VIA chipset. And yet, here we are with an S3-based DX10 GPU that VIA claims is ready for gaming. How does the VN1000 compare to Intel's Atom and Nvidia's ION? Is it strong enough to ward off Core i3?
It seems like AMD and Intel have always been the only two players in the CPU game, battling each other for market supremacy through price wars and technological advancement that continue to make their parts ever-denser and more power hungry. That hasn't always been the case, though. And it's actually not even the case today.
Intel took a big step in the direction of efficiency by killing its Pentium 4, but many of its newest parts still push more than 100 W under load. It seems that every time a new competitor steps out with something interesting, Intel is right behind them with its foot on the accelerator. Further limiting this game is the fact that Intel owns the x86 instruction set, and isn’t ready to issue any new licenses.
Yet there was one other company (besides AMD) with an x86 license, back from the days when IBM had the power to force Intel to sell them. VIA bought Cyrix and turned what had been a mediocre desktop CPU into a highly-successful low-energy part. A few generations worth of improvements later, and VIA is ready to re-enter the desktop market with a high-frequency dual-core version of its popular Nano processor.

With a pre-production CPU clocked at 1.80 GHz, the Nano DC (dual-core) platform that arrived in our lab is more a testament to the company's ingenuity than a representation of production-ready hardware. Yet, VIA is confident in the CPU's performance as it waits on its manufacturer to supply a die-shrunk version. Moreover, it wanted us to see what it’s doing with IGP graphics. Today’s article isn’t just proof-of-concept for a CPU, but an entire platform with a DX10.1 integrated GPU expected to lay waste to low-energy competitors.
VIA flew out from Taiwan to hand-deliver this sample to our lab and reminded us that it was still around, alive and kicking. Will that tenacity carry over into entry-level computing success? The company has had almost an entire year to polish up this platform, which was announced in December of 2009. Let's see how it fares in today's much more competitive market.

VIA’s chipset might be ready for production, but its new CPU still needs some manufacturing tweaks. Rather than make us wait for the 40 nm part that'll be included when this platform ships, the company previewed us with a functional 65 nm version of the CPU to show off its finished VN1000 northbridge. Although power figures naturally won't map over, performance should be consistent with shipping hardware expected in 2011.
The VT8591B motherboard is nothing less than a showcase of the various components that VIA offers, beginning with the DX10.1-capable Chrome 520 GPU integrated into its VN1000.

The VT8261 provides traditional southbridge functionality including four SATA 3Gb/s and 12 USB 2.0 ports. A nearby VT1211 multi I/O controller handles additional legacy needs.

A VT6308S adds IEEE-1394, while the VT6122 provides a second network port. A Vinyl VT1708S audio codec and VT6130 gigabit Ethernet PHY complete this demonstration of VIA’s product range.

VIA’s main claim here is that the Chrome 520 IGP is the most powerful integrated part in its market. That claim might be true, since Intel’s second-generation Atom isn’t supported by Nvidia’s ION integrated chipset.
Yet, because Intel’s newest Atom doesn’t require a separate northbridge (graphics and memory control have migrated into the processor itself), Nvidia’s “Next-Generation ION” add-in GPU brings the platform chip count to three--the same number as VIA.
Well, a few memory chips are also required, but discrete memory for graphics usually boosts its performance while sipping very little additional energy.

ASRock’s new ION3D-ITX motherboard carries the new hardware, complete with the old DDR2 standard that Intel chose for its latest low-energy processor. In light of the power difference, reduced cost is the only reason we can think of for Intel not to choose low-voltage DDR3.

Intel’s previous-generation dual-core Atom used two separate single-core processor dies on one integrated package. Counting those two parts as one unit and adding it to Nvidia’s first-generation ION single-component chipset, this two-component platform is simpler than VIA’s solution.

ASRock’s A330ION motherboard represents the first-generation ION platform, using Intel’s “end-of-life” Atom 330 processor.
Although most of our benchmarks here revolve around comparing the VIA platform to both Atom-based boards, we thought it'd be interest to add Intel's Core i3-530 to the mix as well, factoring in the on-package HD Graphics solution. Can VIA's northbridge-based controller compete? We dropped the entry-level Core i3 onto Intel's own DH57JG mini-ITX motherboard.

We’re big fans of visual quality, so missing details in the image above were somewhat of a shock to us. Then again, Crysis only exists as a benchmark for most users, having been abandoned by many gamers in favor of more modern first-person shooters.

None of the integrated solutions are able to play Crysis, even at 800x600 (let alone the 1280x720 target we set for “casual” gaming on a home theater display). A lack of playability diminishes the ION 2’s win.

The ION 2 stays in the lead through our highest unplayable resolution.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat also looks surprisingly bare when set to minimum graphics details. Will these low settings make it playable on low-energy graphics solutions?

These are all supposed to be DX10-class integrated GPUs, yet nothing short of disabling DX10 would have put any of these platforms into playable territory.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat also looks surprisingly bare when set to minimum graphics details. Will these low settings make it playable on low-energy graphics solutions?

These are all supposed to be DX10-class integrated GPUs, yet nothing short of disabling DX10 would have put any of these platforms into playable territory.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat also looks surprisingly bare when set to minimum graphics details. Will these low settings make it playable on low-energy graphics solutions?

These are all supposed to be DX10-class integrated GPUs, yet nothing short of disabling DX10 would have put any of these platforms into playable territory.

VIA considers its Nano DC to be suitable in traditional desktop computing roles--a task that is already being addressed by other low-power platforms. While the performance might not appeal to power users, we’ve already seen lesser hardware being used in some offices.

The 1.80 GHz Nano DC edges out Intel’s 1.80 GHz Atom in Photoshop, as presented in the ION 2 platform. While the Core i3 appears far more suitable for photo editing, our threaded filters are far more elaborate that those used by most office workers.

Nobody would intentionally run production software on a low-energy PC, yet the Nano DC does a far better job that its Atom-based rivals.

Virus scanning is probably the most strenuous task most PCs are forced to deal with, and the Nano isn’t very good at it. Then again, neither are its Atom-based rivals.

File compression is a normal office function, and it’s one that’s not well-accomplished by low-energy platforms. We imagine that many office workers will spend over a minute waiting for smaller folders to be compressed, and doing so several times a day could be a major productivity killer.

In spite of recent performance improvements, none of the low-energy platforms appears to be suitable to any task greater than light office work and perhaps media playback. Many users view media playback as the exclusive purpose of this platform type, so we cued up Chapter 2 of our “Resident Evil: Apocalypse” Blu-ray and “A Man Apart” DVD to make sure the performance was available.

H.264 hardware acceleration looked a little weak on all three low-energy platforms, and we found that disabling it had little impact on overall performance. The Nano DC significantly outpaces its rivals in DVD acceleration…if that still maters to anyone.

VIA mentioned gaming…and the ION 2 actually prevailed. To be fair, we wouldn't recommend gaming on any of these onboard graphics solutions, though. Intel's Core i3 integrated GPU appears a total embarrassment here, though it actually won in Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and tied in DiRT 2.  The two games that decimated Intel's percentages, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call Of Pripyat and Crysis, weren't even playable on the so-called winning hardware.

Encoding is where the Nano DC shines, relative to other low-energy solutions. We have yet to see how much energy is required for the desktop CPU however.

If a 1.8 GHz Atom is just a hair too slow for your office needs, the Nano DC addresses that slight performance difference.

VIA says that that the production version of its Nano DC processor will require around half the power of this pre-release sample due to a die shrink from 65 nm to 40 nm. Yet the power reduction won’t apply to any other part of the system, making accurate power estimates of the released part impossible. We might get a rough idea of how the final part could look by considering the difference between idle and full-load consumption.

A full-load, full-system reading of 73 W doesn’t appear to be too bad, given the 65 nm manufacturing process of VIA's pre-production CPU. But the rough estimate we spoke of would put the retail processor somewhere around 55 W total system consumption. That’s still far better than the Core i3 desktop CPU, but marginally worse than the 1.80 GHz Atom used in the ION 2 platform.

Since efficiency is a comparison of work-done to energy-used, we calculated the average performance difference for use in our efficiency charts.

The ION 2’s 12.7% efficiency lead will most likely be completely negated by the die shrink of VIA’s retail Nano DC. But notice that the Core i3’s superior performance gives it an efficiency advantage over low-energy platforms. Reasons not to use a desktop processor include noise, heat, and mounting space.

We have to admit that we were a little curious about VIA’s re-asserted interest in entry-level gaming from an IGP. After all, it had been a while since we'd tested anything from S3. But our skepticism proved justified when we threw a few of the games in our benchmark suite at it. As the IGP stands right now, many modern games won't hit playable frame rates, even dialed down to the lowest possible quality/detail settings. Could the Chrome IGP be a viable solution in the most entry-level games? Perhaps. There remains driver work to be done before any sort of 3D is ready for prime time, though.
The greater problem (and this is something even Intel will face with its upcoming Sandy Bridge design) is that games evolve at a rate that IGP technology simply can’t match, so that even this latest attempt comes up short. Putting this in historical perspective, the Chrome 520 IGP is probably more powerful than a TNT2, so entry-level gaming could simply be a matter of using older games.
Of course, gaming is not what low-energy platforms are designed to do, and the Nano DC does low-energy tasks like media playback and light-duty office work very well. It even outpaces Intel's Atom clock-for-clock, even when the Atom is complemented by Nvidia's Next-Generation ION platform.
Thus, what we have in the Nano DC is a high-performance, low-power platform that, like all low-power platforms, can't really compete with mainstream desktop parts, as much as VIA would probably like it to. Nevertheless, it's much more likely that the even-more-miserly production version of this platform will make a strong showing in media-oriented PCs and netbooks in the coming months.
Perhaps the real question for VIA is: when, exactly, might this platform be ready for prime time? The company announced its VN1000 chipset nearly one year ago. It's still waiting for a process shrink. And then it needs to announce design wins. This would have been a killer little platform back when it was announced (before ION 2 and before Core i3). A year later, we're still impressed with that the solution can do. Now we just need to button it up, polish the software, and make this platform available.

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