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ATI, Nvidia to rev up laptop graphics

The graphics chipmakers announce mobile versions of their latest processors that include some out-of-the-ordinary features.

Graphics chipmakers ATI Technologies and Nvidia announced on Thursday new notebook products that include some out-of-the-ordinary features.

The announcements at the CeBit trade show in Hannover, Germany, come after last week's touting of new desktop chips from both companies.

ATI, the market leader for mobile graphics chips, will offer two new products based on its Radeon 9000 series of desktop chips--the Mobility Radeon 9200 for mainstream laptops and the Mobility Radeon 9600 for performance systems. The chipmaker also announced the Mobility Radeon 7000, an integrated chipset that combines a graphics processor with a chipset for controlling basic PC functions.

Along with faster processing and support for enhanced graphics tricks included in DirectX 9--a version of Microsoft's PC graphics library--the new ATI chips include some novel features.

Overdrive, a package of hardware and software improvements in the 9200 and 9600, allows those chips to run at higher-than-rated speeds if conditions permit. It is essentially an automated version of overclocking, said Trupty Vora, a product marketing engineer at ATI. Thermal sensors in the chips monitor the temperature inside the laptop and throttle down the chip speed if things get too hot.

The upcoming Radeons also use Flexfit, a new packaging design that allows notebook makers to use the same motherboard with different graphics processors. The design is a cost-saver for notebook makers and should ultimately allow laptop owners to upgrade graphics cards, a first in mobile computing, said Vora.

"Somebody could go out and upgrade their graphics card, the same way they would on a desktop PC," he said.

The Mobility Radeon 9600 is expected to appear in laptops from major manufacturers starting in May, followed shortly by the 9200 and 7000.

Meanwhile, Nvidia announced two mobile chips based on the GeForce FX, the oft-delayed desktop chip still making its way to retailers.

The GeForce FX Go 5600 and 5200 include all the DirectX 9 features from the desktop GeForce FX, plus advanced power-management technology and a host of new multimedia features for displaying DVD and streaming video, said Tim Lau, senior product manager for Nvidia. For example, new systems on the chip analyze a video that's being displayed and enhance the presentation for the right balance of image detail and motion sensitivity.

Lau said the recent emergence of laptops running Microsoft's new Windows Media Center operating system is another sign of the growing importance of entertainment for laptop buyers.

"With Media Center, video is going to be a major component of that whole strategy," Lau said. "We're definitely focusing a lot of effort on video, because that's going to be a major part of driving (laptops) into the consumer space."

Dean McCarron, an analyst for Mercury Research, said Nvidia had made solid gains since entering the market for mobile graphics processors a few years ago. The company now has a market share of about 25 percent. The most important factor has been Nvidia's decision to offer a range of mobile chips for different segments of the laptop market, McCarron noted.

"It's a very fractured market," he said. "The consumer, versus corporate buyers, have very different concerns. And when you look at the divisions among different product lines--thin-and-light models, desktop replacements--there are very different decisions being made...If you can only offer high-end chips, which was Nvidia's position when it entered the mobile space--that really limits your potential market."