Will MacBook chip end Intel graphics franchise?

Apple's decision to use Nividia is turning some heads and portends more design wins. But will it end Intel's market share lead in graphics?

Will Apple's decision to use Nividia chips in its new MacBooks be a catalyst for change?

With all the hoopla surrounding Apple's choice of Nvidia graphics in its new MacBooks fading, it remains to be seen if Nvidia's GeForce 9400M has legs.

Toshiba Qosmio X305-Q708 may presage other designs with Nvidia GeForce 9400M
Toshiba Qosmio X305-Q708 may presage other designs with Nvidia GeForce 9400M Toshiba

Intel has a successful integrated graphics franchise and is the leader in laptop graphics. Before I get slammed, let me be clear that I'm not talking about performance. I'm referring to market share. Many laptop suppliers--particularly in the low-cost and ultraportable segments--default to Intel graphics because it offers adequate performance, reasonable power efficiency, and it's cheap (if not free).

The question is, can Nvidia's GeForce 9400M change the industry practice of opting for Intel simply because its solution is adequate and cheap? And, is Apple signaling a sea change? The first indications are that the 9400M offers improvement over Intel's graphics , according to CNET Reviews. (Games and photo editing applications like Photoshop are two obvious areas where Nvidia will beat Intel's newest GM45 integrated graphics.)

And Apple was getting plenty of feedback apparently. Nvidia's recent statement in a conference call may be representative of what other PC makers are hearing from their customers. Apple was getting "a lot of feedback...from the Apple community" who were demanding better graphics, according to Bill Henry, director of notebook marketing at Nvidia.

Nvidia's one-chip 9400M is truly an integrated solution and thereby a direct Intel competitor. In addition to the graphics-dedicated transistors that make up about 70 percent of the die (chip) area, the 9400M chipset includes a memory controller, PCI Express, USB ports, SATA ports, high-definition audio, and legacy support. Importantly, Nvidia said it has maintained the same power envelope of Intel graphics.

But it's not clear whether this will change the dynamics of the market. Whether, for example, the largest vendors that now use Intel integrated graphics in ultraportables will opt for Nvidia as Apple did with its Air. There is a formidable list of vendors that use Intel's GM45. Hewlett-Packard (EliteBook 2530p), Dell (Latitude E4200), Sony (Vaio VGN-TT190UBX), and Toshiba (R600-S4202).

Or maybe a market shift will happen elsewhere. Toshiba has offered a glimpse of what some may do. The high-end Toshiba Qosmio X305-Q708 ($4,199) was announced last week, packing an Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9300, a 128GB solid state drive, and integrated GeForce 9400M graphics paired with two Nvidia GeForce 9800M GTS graphics chips.

The beauty of this design is that a user can switch between the power-sipping 9400M when doing undemanding tasks and the powerhouse 9800 GTS graphics when playing games.

And reports claim that new designs from HP, Dell, and Asus will use the 9400M.

But the jury's out. We'll have to wait to see what other PC makers elect to do over the coming months and whether putting Nvidia graphics in ultraportables and other laptop designs is a new imperative.

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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