Culture

Nvidia jumps into handheld market

The company begins a push to become as powerful in graphics chips for handheld devices as it is in the desktop market. It also unveils a chipset to support AMD's new Athlon 64.

TAIPEI, Taiwan--Nvidia began a push Tuesday to become as powerful in graphics chips for handheld devices as it is in the desktop market.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company introduced a new brand name--GoForce--for the product line, which it picked up through its August acquisition of MediaQ. The company also unveiled the flagship product in the family, the GoForce 2150, geared to make cell phones and handheld computers better at taking digital pictures and playing games.

Also at a press conference at the Computex trade show here, Nvidia unveiled the new nForce 3 chipset to support Advanced Micro Devices' new Athlon 64 processor, to be formally introduced Tuesday. And it moved to elevate and unify its various software efforts under the new brand name ForceWare.

The initiatives underscore Nvidia's attempts to expand beyond its core business, graphics processors for personal computers. The graphics chip heavyweight was hurt earlier this year by delays of its latest graphics system, though its revenue grew modestly in its most recent quarter because of shipments of Microsoft's Xbox, which use Nvidia graphics chips.

The GoForce 2150 has very different requirements from desktop graphics systems. The processor can store and encode pictures as large as 1.3 megapixels, outperforms the Nintendo Game Boy Advance graphics by a factor of 25, consumes little battery power, and supports 70 different display interfaces to ensure it can be used in a wide variety of devices, said Phil Carmack, vice president of handheld products at Nvidia. It can process eleven 1.3-megapixel photos per second, he said.

Competitors include Nvidia archrival ATI, established chipmakers such as STMicroelectronics, Texas Instruments and Intel, and specialists such as BitBoys and Imagination Technologies.

Nvidia Chief Executive Jen-Hsun Huang had no shortage of bold claims about how the new line will change the company he helped to found 10 years ago. "I believe the result of our efforts could result in Nvidia 2.0," he said, with the potential to sell hundreds of millions of new chips as customers seek cell phones with better video, audio and game abilities.

"Everyone who has a cell phone wishes they had a better one," Huang said. "Next year is going to be the year of the feature phone."

Nvidia said it has "many" customers for the GoForce 2150, though the company declined to say who is on the list besides Mitac, which is using the chip in its Mio 8390 phone. Earlier MediaQ customers include Mitsubishi, Siemens, Palm, Sharp, Philips Electronics, Dell and Sony.

"By the end of the year, there will be cell phones shipping in volume that have the GoForce 2150 in it," Carmack said.

The addition of the new nForce3 chipset isn't as much of a departure for Nvidia, whose products have supported earlier AMD processors. But the chipset is an important voice of support for AMD, which with the Athlon 64 and Opteron chips for the first time is taking a major step away from Intel's x86 chip family.

Nvidia is making three chipsets: the nForce3 for desktop computers, the nForce Go for mobile computers and the nForce Professional for single- and dual-processor workstations. "Don't be surprised if the workstation product begins to show up in servers," added Drew Henry, general manager of Nvidia's media and communications processor group.

Chipset maker Silicon Integrated Systems also announced new Athlon 64 chipsets at Computex this week. As do that company's products, Nvidia's chipsets will support the server-oriented Opteron as well as the desktop-oriented Athlon 64.

Nvidia executives declined to comment whether the company had eventual plans to build chipsets to support Intel processors.

In software, Nvidia will bring the new ForceWare brand to several software products. That includes the drivers that control the graphics cards, management utilities to control the graphics cards and chipset features, and multimedia software for watching or storing video or listening to music.

The system management tools have several features, said Ujesh Desai, director of software product management, including firewalls to keep network intruders out, RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disk) technology for joining hard drives to achieve data protection or faster access speeds, power management software to make laptops more efficient, and overclocking software to boost computer chips faster than their rated speeds.