Nvidia aims at top Netbooks, Windows 7

Company is aiming its Ion graphics chipset at both top PC makers and Windows 7 Netbooks.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
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.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

Nvidia is working with top-10 PC makers to bring its graphics chips for the first time to Netbooks, according to an executive at the company. And an important part of this push is getting its silicon working with Windows 7, a more Netbook-friendly operating system than Vista.

Nvidia Ion
Nvidia is targeting Ion at Netbooks (bottom) and at larger notebooks (top) Nvidia

This week, Nvidia released Windows 7 beta drivers for the "Ion" Netbook silicon that it's handing over to customers. In conjunction, Nvidia demonstrated in Taiwan this week applications running on Windows 7. Nvidia also announced that its Ion platform has been certified on Windows Vista.

The Ion chipset is based on Nvidia's GeForce 9400M graphics chipset, which currently handles graphics tasks in Apple's MacBook line.

The goal is to replace the Intel silicon that supports the Atom processor and make a Netbook perform more like a typical laptop. Currently, Netbooks from companies such as Acer, Asus, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell use the Atom with an accompanying Intel chipset.

"Why would you buy a small notebook and not expect it to do what a PC can do?" Dan Vivoli, Nvidia senior vice president, said in a phone interview Thursday.

Intel, in fact, took a small step in that direction this month. The chipmaker upped the ante by shipping a new Atom N280 processor and chipset that for first time on an Intel-based Atom system can run 720p high-definition video. Graphics silicon that can handle 720p video is considered a minimum requirement for larger mainstream laptops.

Nvidia, as the world's largest graphics chip supplier, believes, not surprisingly, that minimal graphics is not good enough.

"I remember back in 1998 when Intel came out with their 740 (graphics chip), there was this worry that no one would want to buy anything more than that," Vivoli said. "Of course, that didn't happen."

Dan Vivoli, senior vice president of marketing at Nvidia
Dan Vivoli, senior vice president of marketing at Nvidia Nvidia

The 740 eventually faded as graphics chips from 3dfx, ATI Technologies, and Nvidia bested it in the marketplace.

All companies tend to exaggerate the prospects of a new product--and Nvidia is no exception. But there seems to be more at stake than usual because getting Nvidia graphics into small devices--where its graphics have historically been almost completely absent--is imperative for its growth.

"In all the years I've been here I've never seen a product generate more excitement than Ion. At Microsoft, at Apple. Everybody we expose it to says we had no idea you could get this kind of experience on a platform this small and this inexpensive," Vivoli said.

"Big names that you would know are working on Ion designs," Vivoli said. "These are top-5 and top-10 companies," Vivoli said. He expects products by midyear.

In Nvidia's fourth-quarter earnings conference call on Tuesday, CEO Jen-Hsun Huang was more circumspect. Though he claimed that Nvidia had Ion notebook projects happening all over the world, "a lot of this depends on the success of our customers and these platforms. There's still a lot execution between now and then. And lots of unknowns," he said.

Also, on the same call, a financial analyst brought up the point that Netbook makers are not marketing the devices for 3D gaming and added that 3D graphics is not a feature that consumers care a lot about on a Netbook. Huang countered that anything people want to do on a typical laptop, they want to do on a Netbook.