Apple and the Nvidia 'problem'

Nvidia again finds itself in the middle of an uproar over issues with an Apple notebook. But are Nvidia graphics chips really the problem? And are the issues that widespread?

Brooke Crothers
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.
4 min read

Nvidia is again at the center of a graphics tempest in the media, this time surrounding performance issues of Apple's new 17-inch MacBook Pro. Two little pesky questions haven't been answered yet, however. Are Nvidia graphics chips really the problem? And are the issues really that widespread?

Postings in an Apple discussion forum cite a smorgasbord of problems: Some cite the Nvidia GeForce 9600M, while others point to issues with fan speed. Another post points to faulty wiring and another to the main processor (i.e., Intel). But this is just one forum. Does this really indicate widespread problems?

Does the Apple MacBook Pro 17-inch unibody have chip issues?
Does the Apple MacBook Pro 17-inch unibody have chip issues? Apple

I haven't heard back from Apple. Nvidia had no comment Monday.

So, I spoke with a few people who have informed insights into potential problems. Not all would speak on the record, however. Jon Peddie of Tiburon, Calif.-based Jon Peddie Research, which tracks the graphics chip market and does testing on graphics chips, said he hasn't tested the new MacBook Pro yet. Generally speaking, however, a GPU problem of this sort would dictate a BIOS change to adjust the fan speed (one of the possible solutions proposed already). Or, if it's more serious, the graphics board would need to be replaced. (BIOS stands for basic input-output system; GPU stands for graphics processing unit; CPU stands for central processing unit.)

"If either of those conditions were true, Apple would be issuing an alert," he said. The alternative is for Apple to deal with the alleged problem on a piecemeal basis, one customer at a time, Peddie said.

The latter scenario--the status now--of course leads to a lot of speculation and attempted diagnoses among users.

I also contacted another analyst, Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at the The Linley Group. He made some obvious points but important in the context that it's not necessarily the GPU. Basically he said that if any chip exceeds the "thermal design budget," the system becomes unstable.

Other people I contacted (who wished to remain anonymous) said the issue appears to be more of a fan issue than a GPU issue. But the jury is still out. And, let's be clear, Nvidia has been faulted for past MacBook glitches. The most recent being in October. Will Nvidia be perpetually plagued by fallout from past problems? The 1994 Pentium FDIV bug was an Intel albatross for years.

I see another ancillary issue--not necessarily directly related to the MacBook Pro issue discussed above--that needs to be addressed. Here's the proposition: you want better graphics but you also want a sleek laptop like the Apple MacBook Pro. Well, if you're pushing the outside of the graphics-performance envelope, something's got to give. It's like saying: I want a car that goes from zero to 60 in under four seconds but with low emissions.

The truth is high-performance discrete GPUs and Intel CPUs--even the ones with the "m" (for "mobile") suffix--will sometimes wreak havoc when they're stressed inside enclosures only 1-inch high (i.e., many laptops). But I'm stating the obvious (I think). Anyone who has maxed out a relatively high-performance GPU or CPU in a laptop knows the real meaning of the euphemism "uncomfortably hot"--a phrase often used in discussion forums.

Overheating results in a lot of unpleasant (and sometimes seemingly unrelated) surprises, including BSOD (Blue Screen Of Death), automatic (arbitrary) shutdown, and, as in the case of the MacBook Pro, graphics artifacts.

Some people will always point their finger at Nvidia (or ATI) but I submit that some of those people experiencing problems would be the first to raise a stink if Nvidia didn't offer a high-performance laptop graphics chip to run Crysis at the frame rates and resolutions they demand. Yes, a product should work as advertised but there are limits to what a GPU (or CPU) can do inside the thermally challenged, cramped quarters of a laptop.

Not that Nvidia is absolved of any and all crimes. Far from it. As I stated above, Nvidia has had its share of problems that were its own fault. But even Intel's integrated graphics (theoretically the most power efficient) has heat gotchas of its own. Heat has been an issue in the first version of the Intel-graphics-based MacBook Air (when playing video)--which I can vouch for since I own a first-generation MBA. And I have another laptop (from a top-five PC maker) with integrated graphics that immediately heats up (and sometimes overheats) when running video.

But back to discrete GPUs. If you want desktop-level graphics in your sleek laptop, then you're going to have to take the heat and, consequently, in some cases--if you push the graphics card--instability and graphics anomalies. That doesn't make it right. It's just a fact of life.