Nvidia Netbooks: Windows now, Android later

Nvidia's Tegra chip will appear in Windows devices at Computex and phone companies will be in tow. Nvidia is also aiming at Google's Android operating environment for future Netbooks.

Nvidia has its own grand scheme for Netbooks, the tiny laptops that have gained wide acceptance running on software and hardware from Microsoft and Intel, respectively.

Michael Rayfield, general manager of Nvidia's mobile business unit
Michael Rayfield, general manager of Nvidia's mobile business unit Nvidia

At the giant Computex conference starting Tuesday in Taiwan, Nvidia will be showing hardware running on its Tegra processor and Windows CE, the version of Windows used most prominently to date in business-use handheld computers. And, down the road, Nvidia has high hopes for devices based on Google's Android.

Tegra is a system-on-a-chip that integrates a processor based on a design from U.K.-based ARM and Nvidia's GeForce graphics silicon, among other functions. The goal is to bring robust PC-like graphics to small devices such as Netbooks and handheld devices--the latter also referred to as mobile Internet devices.

In a break from Computex tradition, Nvidia will have phone companies in tow. "We're bringing the carriers in. I've got 100 people showing up from carriers at Computex," Michael Rayfield, general manager of Nvidia's mobile business unit, said in a phone interview Friday.

Tegra will be shown at the trade show in devices that manufacturers "are about ready to release into production," Rayfield said.

"The Internet is all about (Adobe) flash and HD (high-definition) now so we've built a platform that can do that," he said. "There are two operating systems we support. Microsoft Windows CE and, as it becomes more interesting for large screens, (Google) Android," Rayfield said.

"We do Android for smartphones and we're working to do hardware acceleration on Android as it goes to larger displays," Rayfield said. In February at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Nvidia announced that it is working with Google and the Open Handset Alliance to get its Tegra processor into phones based on Google's Android operating system.

Android will likely appear commercially in larger devices, such as Netbooks, by the middle of next year, Rayfield said. "Android, as it stands now, does not do hardware acceleration," he said, referring to graphics-based acceleration of video and other multimedia applications. "We've already got 720p acceleration on Android internally," he said. 720p is a lower-resolution standard for high-definition video.

Rayfield continued. "Android has got a roar ahead of it but I think it's three of four quarters from a large-screen device. And the market wants something interesting before that."

And what about the popular Netbooks running on Intel's Atom processor and Microsoft Windows XP (and later Windows 7)? Nvidia already has a platform for that called Ion that uses its 9400M graphics silicon made popular in Apple MacBooks.

So, for its tiny Tegra chip, Windows CE is the most viable operating system before Android arrives, according to Rayfield.

Unlike Netbooks and mobile Internet devices based on Windows and Intel processors, Nvidia's Tegra chip will not appear--at least not initially--in devices from PC makers like Hewlett-Packard, Dell, or Acer but from telecommunications companies, according to Rayfield.

"I believe these devices will be delivered by the (telecommunications) carriers," he said. And what do these kinds of customers want? "What they want to do is IM (instant messaging), they want to do lightweight productivity, they want to watch video, and they want to do it for days. And we will enable it."

Nvidia's Tegra-based circuit board integrates all the functionality needed for a Netbook or other small device
Nvidia's Tegra-based circuit board integrates all the functionality needed for a Netbook or other small device Nvidia

Carriers will decide what software the devices will have. "What will happen is that carriers will decide: I want Skype, I want YouTube, I want Firefox, I want this mail client," he said.

Rayfield continued. "The ODMs (original design manufacturers) will sell directly to the carriers. The OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are getting cut out of the deal. The carriers want to brand it themselves. They would prefer not to show a large OEM (e.g., PC maker) name, they would prefer to show T-Mobile or Vodafone or whoever the carrier might be," he said.

Large name-brand device markers will follow, however. "The OEMs will be fast followers. Once this thing gets big, a couple of million devices shipped, they'll go to the ODMs and they'll say, hey, let me do this."

And the price? "ODMs are building devices they'll sell for $99, they're Wi-Fi-based devices, they've that got WVGA displays. As you get to larger displays and larger displays and larger keyboards, it ranges between $100 and $200," Rayfield said. WVGA displays are typically the resolution (800x480) that is necessary to show most Web sites in full page-width.

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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