Nvidia bids to dislodge Intel as rivalry gets ugly

The chipmakers have never been on good terms, but with the emergence of the Netbook, the rivalry may turn bitter. When it comes to computer chipsets, it is getting nasty.

Intel and Nvidia are entering into a new, nasty phase of competition. What's at stake? Only the future of the personal computer.

Although the Santa Clara, Calif., neighbors (located only a couple of miles from each other) have never really been on speaking terms, the rivalry is intensifying with the emergence of the Netbook--small, lightweight laptops priced below $500.

The competitive backdrop is still the same--Intel's longstanding (and very successful) vision of a CPU-centric universe versus Nvidia's creed that graphics processing matters more and more in a multimedia-intensive world.

The challenge for Nvidia is that as laptops downsize into Netbooks, a graphics vacuum has been created. And Nvidia abhors a graphics vacuum.

Nvidia's vision of the Netbook core
Nvidia's vision of the Netbook core Nvidia

Inside almost every Acer, Asus, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell Netbook beats an Intel silicon core. Intel accounts for both central processing unit (CPU) and graphics processing unit (GPU)--the latter in the form of the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950.

Nvidia wants in. It maintains that Intel-only Netbooks choke on high-quality multimedia content and, as a result, consumers will demand better graphics hardware as the Netbook increases in size to 10-inch diagonal screen sizes and beyond. (The Netbook began as a tiny 8- or 9-inch form factor, but it has been moving to 10-inch and even a 12-inch screens, in the case of Dell's Inspiron Mini 12 Netbook.)

This is where it gets complicated. Intel has fairly strict parameters for the Netbook. It would rather not see Atom-based systems with 12-inch screens or extra silicon (read: horsepower) that kicks thermals (read: power consumption) into laptop territory. Need I explain why? (Cannibalization.) Netbooks should not aspire to be notebooks because the Atom processor is not nearly as capable as a Core 2 Duo, according to Intel.

At a recent demonstration, Nvidia claimed that 1080p video is smoother with a GeForce 9400M graphics assist to the Atom processor (screen on left shows lower CPU utilization).
At a recent demonstration, Nvidia claimed that 1080p video is smoother with a GeForce 9400M graphics assist to the Atom processor (screen on left shows lower CPU utilization). Brooke Crothers

Nvidia, on the other hand, sees the silicon and screen size as an artificial restriction. It believes that Atom is a fairly capable processor that simply lacks a capable graphics engine.

And here's where it gets nasty: chipsets. Apple serves as a perfect example of why it may get rough-and-tumble, and what's at stake. In the newest MacBooks, Nvidia not only seized graphics turf from Intel, but it also took the chipset socket. Intel was relegated to supplying only the processor. That's analogous to Nvidia snagging a piece of prime Manhattan real estate right from under Intel's nose. While Intel holds on to Times Square, Nvidia walks off with Rockefeller Center.

To put it charitably, Intel doesn't like to lose socket space. But that is exactly what Nvidia is aiming for with Netbooks.

Will Nvidia be able to convince Netbook makers like Acer and Asus to make the switch, in the face of Intel's very persuasive bundling offers? (The word "persuasive" may not be strong enough.) These vendors may not be as open-minded as Apple, which has always prided itself on a feisty independence (i.e., no one takes center stage but Apple, and no Intel stickers).

Nvidia's GeForce 9400M may appear initially (perhaps circa the Computex convention in June) in Netbooks from smaller vendors. Larger suppliers may wait to see if turbo-charged graphics are the Netbook wave of the future--or not.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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