Nvidia's Haas on being two places at once: Intel and ARM

Nvidia can be seen as being in the mobile sweet spot. It offers graphics chips for higher-end PCs and its Tegra 3 chip for high-performance tablets.

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
5 min read
Nvidia's mobile chief, Rene Haas. Nvidia straddles both the Windows-Intel market and the smartphone and tablet-centric ARM device market.
Nvidia's mobile chief, Rene Haas. Nvidia straddles both the Windows-Intel market and the smartphone and tablet-centric ARM device market. Nvidia

Nvidia mobile chief Rene Haas laid out in an interview with CNET some of the device choices Windows 8 shoppers may face this fall. Inside some, Nvidia snuggles up next to Intel. In others, Nvidia and Intel are worlds apart.

Nvidia is in a unique position because it offers chips that land in devices in two giant markets: Windows-Intel and ARM--the latter's chip designs power virtually every smartphone and tablet on the planet.

For Windows-Intel, Nvidia's mobile focus is laptops. There, Nvidia will supply its latest power-efficient graphics processing units (GPUs), the 640M and 620M--formally announced today as part of the new 600M series. Those graphics chips are aimed at ultrabooks based on Intel's upcoming Ivy Bridge chip, due to be announced within the next month or so. Ultrabooks with Nvidia chips would be a departure from current ultrabooks and Apple's MacBook Air because those use only Intel graphics chips.

And for ARM-based smartphones and tablets, Nvidia has its popular Tegra chips--most recently exemplified by its quad-core Tegra 3.

Q: Your new GPUs have been highlighted in laptops already. How did that happen?
Haas: Acer wanted to get ahead of the market. The [15-inch] ultrabook they actually showed uses the [Nvidia] 640M but with [Intel's] Sandy Bridge. But the vast majority of designs you're going to see with 600M are going to be on Ivy Bridge. And you're going to see lots and lots of ultrabooks on Ivy Bridge using 600M. HP, Dell, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, Lenovo, Acer, Asus -- all are going to use the 600M, and there will be a significant number of them building Ivy Bridge...ultrabooks.

What kind of ultrabooks will use Nvidia chips? Am I correct in presuming these will be larger 14- or 15-inch class ultrabooks?
Haas: The height that Intel specifies is 21 millimeters (about 0.8 inches) for 14-inch and above. The Acer [15-inch] unit is 20 millimeters, so it meets the spec. Will there be 14-inch units? Yes. Will there be 13-inch units? We're working with folks to go off and do that.

Any thoughts on the ultrabook category so far?
Haas: The 13.3-inch category has always been a bit of a boutique category for notebooks. And if you start to add a price point that's around a thousand dollars, well, you can start to buy products from the guy in Cupertino in that price range. It's a tricky value proposition in terms of a Windows-based system. But what I think ultrabooks have done is illuminated the fact that the laptop is getting thinner. The thicker laptops [above one-inch thick] will be less the norm.

And what does Windows 8 bring?
Haas: Going forward, Windows 8 adds another dimension [to thin laptops]. With Windows 8 you add touch and the Windows on ARM category--which we know really well--that introduces the possibility to build these kinds of designs without a fan that has much better battery life than Ivy Bridge [chips]. So, the ultrabook is sort of the tip of the spear of what's going to change in the next couple of years. And when Windows comes around, all devices are going to begin to move toward this kind of form factor. Because Windows 8 has a lot features built into it for connected standby -- a feature known as always on, always connected -- then you press a button and it resumes instantly. That's the Windows 8 experience on tablets but Windows 8 wants to take that experience to the PC too.

How will Nvidia-equipped Ivy Bridge laptops set themselves apart from Intel's improved Ivy Bridge graphics?
Haas: We have a nice little jump in performance for our GPUs too. Our jump is large if not larger for a certain class of devices. The jump that Intel had between Arrandale [original Intel Core i series chips, aka "Nehalem"] and Sandy Bridge was much larger than what they're getting between Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge. And we shipped more GPUs on Sandy Bridge than ever. So, we're not expecting the performance jump on Ivy Bridge to have a negative impact.

And the future?
Haas: 2013 is a really interesting year. And the Tegra roadmap gets really interesting. I think people who want to build very thin 13.3-inch devices without a fan are going to have some good choices. You could argue, do [manufacturers] really need to spend money on a Haswell [Intel's next generation chip after Ivy Bridge] or could they do something that's based on Tegra? Then Intel has to decide if they want to respond and allow [their Atom chip] to go into these kinds of designs. So, you're going to have very thin systems that don't have fans that have tremendous battery life that are very different than the systems you see today. At really good price points.

Is Apple the template for the future of laptops?
Haas: If you think about Apple's business -- their clamshell [laptop] business for a moment. When they introduced the Mac Air, one of the questions was, is the Mac Air going to cannibalize major parts of their business? What MacBook Air did is sort of hollow out the MacBook. So, MacBook Pro still exists, which is the high-end category where people still want [discrete] GPUs. Mac Air, of course, exists. Very small form factor. Very good battery life, very thin. But what got hollowed out is that middle product, the thicker MacBook. So, if I translate that forward to the PC. I can see a world with Tegra-based systems that are very real thin-and-light devices and [on the other hand] more of the power-based systems that have [Intel's] Haswell with [Nvidia] GPUs. I think the middle category, these $499 cheap and ugly machines -- battery life is not so great, the chassis is not so sexy -- I think that category is potentially under siege.

How are things going with your chip manufacturing partner TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company) and the new 28-nanometer process?
Haas: Like any new process, there are issues, there are bugs. Today's snapshot is that we actually feel pretty good where we are with 28-nanometer supply. Acer is shipping right now with the 640M in their ultrabook. They actually had some pretty aggressive production goals and targets. So, we're shipping in volume to them. And we're in production to multiple [device makers].

In closing, Haas brought up the Asus Transformer Prime -- which uses a quad-core Tegra chip -- as a good example of a hybrid device that elegantly straddles the tablet and laptop markets and is a good touchstone for designs to come.