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Samsung jilts Intel but where's Nvidia?

Samsung's NC20 Netbook brings Via processors back into relief. Are Nvidia chipsets out in the cold?

Samsung's NC20 Netbook shows that Via Technologies' Nano processor can keep up with the Joneses. But will Nvidia be given the chance?

CNET Reviews' Dan Ackerman reviewed the new Samsung NC20 Netbook and found it not wanting in a matchup with the Asus Eee PC 1000HE, packing Intel's latest and greatest Atom N280.

Samsung NC20 Netbook packs a Via Nano processor--not an Intel Atom
Samsung NC20 Netbook packs a Via Nano processor--not an Intel Atom. CNET Reviews

Though Nano is a necessary industry antidote to Intel's grip on the Netbook market, in the scheme of market share numbers, Via's chip is a blip at best.

I find it almost amusing when Intel lists Via as one of two competitors (Advanced Micro Devices being the other) in its Form 10-K filings. It's a fair analogy to say it's like a mom-and-pop coffee shop among a dense cluster of Starbucks stores. You may draw a few customers but 99 percent of the market is going to go to Starbucks.

Via helped pioneer the Netbook market in early 2008 by powering one of the earliest high-profile products, the Hewlett-Packard 2133 Mini-Note. In fact, Via was already supplying the inexpensive, low-power Via C7M--Nano's predecessor--in 2005 when the Atom concept was just a glimmer in Intel's eye.

The Netbook market vacuum didn't last long, however. Within months of Atom's arrival, the Via C7M was squashed by the Intel juggernaut, not to rise again. (Largely due to the fact that the C7M was slow, as one reader points out.)

The sober reality is that Via faces the same daunting challenge that Nvidia does: competing with Intel. The largest Netbook vendors--Asus and Acer--are wedded to Intel processors and chipsets, as are most of the other major players. An incremental increase in processor performance from Via won't necessarily tempt PC makers to drop Atom.

Nvidia's predicament is even more difficult because the GPU supplier can offer something that Intel can't: great graphics performance in a Netbook.

Nvidia faces a Catch 22. It needs a lot of Netbook design wins to make decent profit margins but customers won't sign up for Nvidia's Ion in the face of Intel's bundling incentives.

Alas, Nvidia's Ion seems destined only for tiny desktops for now. Nvidia has been shopping its Ion platform (Atom + Nvidia 9400M graphics) around and has had some success with top-tier PC companies looking to design diminutive desktops. But not any success to date in the Netbook space (although some smaller Asia-based Netbook makers are expected to announce Ion-based Netbooks at Computex in June).

Then there's Tegra. This Nvidia chip platform may have more success in the category of so-called "$99" Netbooks that are more akin--in the way they are offered to customers--to cell phones than laptops. These Netbooks, as depicted by Qualcomm, would be always-on and not part of the WinTel (Windows-Intel) ecosystem.

Nvidia went out of its way this week to demonstrate a concept device at CTIA in Las Vegas running Windows CE. Nvidia basically tore out the guts of an Intel-based HP Mini 1000 Netbook and replaced it with Tegra parts, according to a Nvidia spokesman Derek Perez, who attended CTIA this week.