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Nvidia's next-gen Ion GPU for Netbooks is here

One frustrating Netbook problem was the absence of Nvidia's Ion GPU in new systems--a situation now rectified by the announcement of Nvidia's next-generation Ion.

Netbook fans have had their share of ups and downs recently--for example, getting better battery life from the new Intel Atom N450 CPUs, but being herded toward the limited Starter edition of Windows 7 at the same time. Another frustrating problem was the absence of Nvidia's Ion GPU from the latest generation of Netbooks--a situation now rectified by the announcement of Nvidia's new next-generation Ion.

We were big fans of the HD video and modest 3D-gaming capabilities of the Ion when we saw it in fall 2009 in systems such as the HP Mini 311. But changes Intel made to the Atom platform for the current N450 (and N470) CPUs locked the Ion out of newer systems, at least for a while. Until now, the only similar option has been Broadcom's Crystal HD video accelerator, which works well for HD video files, but somewhat less well for streaming Web video (even if you install the latest Flash beta player software), and it also lacks the capability to do 3D graphics.

The new Ion operates differently, as a result of Intel's decision to combine its Netbook CPU and integrated graphics into a single unit. Instead of taking over for the integrated graphics and talking directly to the CPU, the next-gen Atom communicates with Intel's new NM10 chipset, which in turn goes to the processor and then the display.

A chart illustrating how the new Nvidia Ion works with Intel's Atom N450 CPU. Nvidia

While it may offer only modest performance improvements over the original Ion (we'll know more after benchmark testing), the new version also works with Nvidia's Optimus technology, which seamlessly switches between integrated and discrete GPUs to extend battery life. That means the Ion chip can switch on when needed, but not drain the battery otherwise.

There will be two slightly different versions of the Nvidia Ion, a 8-core version for 10-inch Netbooks, and a 16-core version for 11 and 12-inch Netbooks and desktops. Officially supported CPUs are the Intel Atom D410, D510, N450 (and, we assume, the just-now-available N470).

The upcoming Asus Eee PC 1201N.

One catch it that using the new Nvidia Ion and Optimus combo requires Windows 7 Home Premium--it won't work with Win 7 Starter, which is the default for most new Netbooks. The new Ion by itself will work with any OS.

This is a potential stumbling block, as adding an Optimus-enabled Ion chip, plus the upgrade to Win 7 Home Premium, could drive up the final price of your Netbook considerably (especially as last year's Win XP Ion systems started at only $399).

The first two laptops to use the new Nvidia Ion are the 10-inch Acer Aspire One 532G and the 12-inch Asus Eee PC 1201PN. Launch desktops include the Asus EeeBox Nettop, and the ASUS EeeTop 2010PNT and the Lenovo C200 all-in-one systems.

None of these systems are available right now, but we hear they may ship in around six to eight weeks.