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Nvidia targets Netbooks, Intel with 9400M chip

Graphics chipmaker is targeting its GeForce 9400m chip at Netbooks, competing against Intel silicon. But does Intel have the market in the bag, in terms of maintaining lower prices?

With Apple under its belt, Nvidia is taking aim at Netbooks.

On Wednesday, Nvidia is launching its GeForce 9400M "Ion" graphics chipset for Netbooks and small desktop designs. And the Santa Clara, Calif., company is hoping for another coup like the one it staged at Apple, where Nvidia bumped Intel silicon out of the Apple MacBook because of underperforming graphics.

The goal this time is to replace the Intel silicon that supports the Atom processor. Currently, Netbooks from companies such as Acer, Asus, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell use the Atom and accompanying Intel silicon called a chipset.

Nvidia has always stayed well ahead of Intel on the graphics performance curve. "Nvidia does have superior graphics, and it's a double annoyance for Intel," said Jon Peddie of Jon Peddie Research, a firm that tracks the graphics chip market.

"First, because Nvidia is in competition with (Intel), and second, because it will allow Netbook makers to build larger-screen Netbooks, which will encroach into the thin-and-light segment, and potentially cannibalize Intel's bigger mobile CPUs," he said.

In short, Nvidia wants to bring full-fledged PC features to the Netbook. "What we want to bring to the Atom-based platform is true visual computing," David Ragones, product line manager at Nvidia, said in an interview last week. "For example, high-definition video where Blu-ray (Disc video) processing now happens on the GPU (graphics processing unit), not the CPU (central processing unit), where you get a much more smooth experience."

(Nvidia had originally intended to enter the Netbook market with Via Technologies--an announcement made in April--but it later dropped the idea.)

Nvidia's GeForce 9400M-based Ion platform proposes to bring higher-end features such as DVI video, HDMI, and SATA to the Netbook.
Nvidia's GeForce 9400M-based Ion platform proposes to bring higher-end features such as DVI video, HDMI, and SATA to the Netbook. Nvidia

"Some of the restrictions Intel has put in place around Atom platforms really zero (in) on deficiencies that the underlying chipset has--the (Intel) 945 chipset," Ragones said. "For example, you cannot pair a GPU with these platforms because of the limitations of PCI Express bandwidth," he said.

PCI, or Peripheral Component Interconnect, is a data path used in all PCs today. Netbooks today have a relatively low-performance version of this technology.

Nvidia's Ragones also said Netbooks are limited artificially to displays of 10 or fewer diagonal inches. This sentiment echoes recent statements from Advanced Micro Devices, which is expected to announce its Yukon platform at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Yukon will likely target a new class of low-cost ultraportable laptops that have screen sizes larger than Intel-based Netbooks.

Nvidia doesn't stop there. Ragones claims that its one-chip design is more space-efficient than Intel's two-piece chipset.

He also said the GeForce 9400M silicon would offer more robust support for Windows Vista and the upcoming Windows 7 operating system.

The price premium over a standard Netbook will not be large, Nvidia claims. Probably no more than $50.

Intel would not comment on the Nvidia 9400M. However, the company's success with the Atom processor--which powers virtually all Netbooks today--has put a bull's-eye on it and the platform. In addition to Nvidia and AMD, companies such as Qualcomm and Freescale Semiconductor are now targeting the Netbook space. And, of course, all are claiming that they can outdo Intel.

From the beginning, Intel has maintained the view that Netbooks are not notebooks and don't require the high-octane graphics found in higher-end laptops. Netbooks are relatively low-performance designs and consequently inexpensive (typically under $500) precisely because they are targeted at less-demanding users looking simply for e-mail, Web-browsing, and word-processing capabilities.

Step up from this, and a Netbook isn't a Netbook anymore, but rather an inexpensive notebook, according to Intel statements in the past. And inexpensive notebooks are plentiful--such as this Dell Inspiron listed at Best Buy for $499.

According to Peddie, in competing against rivals in the Netbook space, "Intel's weapon will be price; their IGP (integrated graphics processor) will be about half the price of Nvidia's."